Every good blog / magazine / forum devoted to fantasy gaming needs to address alignment eventually, especially if it can find a way to annoy its readers in doing so. Today is the day for The Land of Nod ...
And before I go any further, this entire blog post is declared Open Game Content.
Let's assume, for the moment, that human beings, and therefore characters in an RPG, have free will. They can choose to kill the goblin children or leave them alive, steal the sacred goblet or leave it alone, etc. Adhering to a code - call it Law or Good or Lawful Good or whatever - means choosing to sacrifice your freedom to do things that might seem tactically or strategically wise, or just emotionally satisfying, in deference to a higher authority. In AD&D there was a hint of this in terms of which alignments were allowed to use poison and flaming oil. Clearly, poisoning a weapon (especially when poison usually meant save or die) was tactically a smart thing to do for adventurers. Kill your opponents more quickly, save your hit points for later battles, collect more treasure and thus collect more XP. The paladin, however, chooses not to do such a thing - just isn't cricket you know! So, the notion here is that characters who choose to obtain their XP the hard way receive "compensation" from the higher powers.
Besides the assumption of free will above, an alignment system like this one makes a couple other assumptions that probably make it anathema to many campaign worlds and play styles. Understand - I'm only proposing this as a notion of how an alignment system could be modeled, not how an alignment system should be modeled. Therefore, if you feel the need to comment something like "No, this system is wrong, alignment shouldn't be handled this way at all", save yourself the trouble - I already know.
Assumption #1 - The God/Goddess/Deities of Law created the universe. This isn't too far afield for a fantasy game - many mythologies work on this concept. First their was chaos, then there were titans/giants who gave birth to the gods who destroyed their parents and used them for spare parts while creating the universe and setting up its laws physical and spiritual. If you're working on a more temporal universe or a Lovecraftian universe, this alignment system is almost certainly not for you.
Assumption #2 - The good gods are doing their best to hold back or defeat the bad gods/demons and they reward mortals for toeing the line. This alignment system operates on the idea of XP rewards for good behavior, which means experience points don't just represent training and skill, but also the blessings of higher powers. It also means there is a universal establishment of right and wrong in the campaign, and those who submit themselves to it gain a palpable benefit. If this does not fit with your or your player's sensibilities about life or how things should operate in a campaign, then this system is probably not for you.
Virtue and Vice
Now that we have the assumptions out of the way, we get to the system. Since this is a blog for rules light, old school gaming, the system is simple and draws on an existing system in the game - XP bonuses. You can use this system alongside XP bonuses for high ability scores or have it replace the existing system as you like.
Before we get into the rewards, let's discuss virtue. This article will present virtue on quasi-Abrahamic grounds, since the Abrahamic religions were kind enough to put down things like Commandments and Cardinal Virtues and Seven Deadly Sins in writing. The point here isn't to promote one faith over another. Feel free to rewrite the commandments.
Using the medieval concept of the chain of being, I'm going to put down a few commandments for adventurers in an order based on how difficult these rules would make dungeon delving. Commandment 1 is the most difficult to keep, Commandment 10 the easiest. I am then going to write down three systems of rewarding player characters with XP bonuses based on how they interact with these commandments.
Ten Commandments for Adventurers
1. You shall not murder/kill
2. You shall not steal (even from evil temples, though feel free to destroy their idols)
3. You shall defend the innocent and helpless with your life
4. You shall donate a minimum of 10% of your acquired wealth to the poor / the temple / etc.
5. You shall not use wicked tactics in combat (i.e. poison, flaming oil)
6. You shall not lie
7. You shall share treasure equally with other adventurers
8. You shall obey legal authority anointed with legitimacy by Law
9. You do not have improper relations with tavern wenches / stable grooms / etc.
10. You shall only worship (i.e. tithe, sacrifice to, call on) Law
Note that you can interpret "Law" in the above commandments as The God of Law, Creator of the Universe or The Deities of Law, Creators of the Universe or however it makes sense in your campaign.
Reward System One - Humans are Basically Evil
System one establishes that human beings are basically wicked and incapable of following any of these rules, and therefore rewards adventurers for adhering to any of these commandments. After an adventure, the Referee should award a +3% bonus to earned XP for each commandment an adventurer obeyed, working up from #10. As soon as you come to a broken commandment, the accrual of bonus XP stops.
For example, Sir Rodd of Todd gets back to town after delving in the Caves of Chaos. During that foray, he never called on Neutral or Chaotic gods, had no improper relations with men or women, obeyed the castellan and paid his taxes, shared treasure equally with the other adventurers, but did tell a lie to an orc sentry. So, he managed to obey the first four commandments, and thus earns a +12% bonus to earned experience points on the adventure.
Reward System Two - Setting Saintly Standards
In system two, we divide the commandments into the Greater Commandments (1-5) and Lesser Commandments (6-10). This scheme works much as the first, except one starts with an XP penalty and gradually lessens the penalty before it becomes an XP bonus. So, the commandments now look like this ...
1. You shall not murder/kill [+15%]
2. You shall not steal (even from evil temples, though feel free to destroy their idols) [+12%]
3. You shall defend the innocent and helpless with your life [+9%]
4. You shall donate a minimum of 10% of your acquired wealth to the poor / the temple / etc. [+6%]
5. You shall not use wicked tactics in combat (i.e. poison, flaming oil) [+3%]
6. You shall not lie [-3%]
7. You shall share treasure equally with other adventurers [-6%]
8. You shall obey legal authority anointed with legitimacy by Law [-9%]
9. You do not have improper relations with tavern wenches / stable grooms / etc. [-12%]
10. You shall only worship (i.e. tithe, sacrifice to, call on) Law [-15%]
With this scheme, you again look for the highest level of "goodness" you manage to achieve, and are rewarded accordingly. Using the above example of Sir Rodd, the best he manages to do is share treasure equally, so he suffers a 6% penalty to earned experience points.
Obviously, this represents a much more severe attitude by Law to vice and virtue, and chaotic types had better make sure they score lots of experience points with their evil, because the universe is going to be acting against them at every step of the way.
System Three - Karma
Our last system is a modification of system one. In this case, you receive a +3% bonus for each commandment you obey and a 3% penalty for each commandment you break. All commandments are considered equal in this scheme - there is no chain of commandments from low to high - every one kept is a bonus, every one broken is a penalty.
Let's again look at Sir Rodd. In our first example, we know that he kept the first four commandments and then broke the fifth. Perhaps he also abstained from wicked tactics, gave 10% of his treasure to the poor and defended the innocent with his life. That would give him 7 commandments kept (+21% XP) and 3 broken (-9%), giving him a total XP bonus of +12%.
Obviously, this is not a system for everyone. Take it as nothing more as a notion that struck me one day about how one might design an alignment system based on deeds (i.e. what you do) rather than words (i.e. what alignment you profess). If you find something of value in it, feel free to play with it, modify it and use it. If you think it sucks, feel free to ignore it.