House Rule: Three-Axis Alignment

I feel the need to defend the D&D alignment system. I get the feeling it’s one of the most oft-derided parts of character creation, and in fact the general functioning of the system. I think most people see it as a yoke to pull characters into acting a certain way. For example, “Your character wouldn’t lie to the cops, they’re lawful good! You have to tell the truth!” Not only do I not agree with that example, but the system as written even says somewhere (explicitly, I think) that the alignment doesn’t dictate character actions, character actions dictate character alignment. I mean, if your character goes around lying and stealing, maybe they shouldn’t have been a paladin all along. And there’s no reason alignment can’t change over the course of the character either. I’m more lawful than I was as a teenager. If we’re restricting ourselves to an alignment, then we couldn’t change, and I would be restricted to what it says on my character sheet. That’s not how people work.

While thinking about this one day, it occurred to me that there was more room in the D&D alignment system for action. For example, I said actions dictate alignment and I believe it, but not everybody actively pursues their alignment every day. Some people are content to think what they think, do what they do, but not inflict their beliefs on the world around them. So I thought, there’s room here for a third alignment axis. In addition to the ethical and moral axes, I have tried to add an effort axis to my campaigns.

  • Active – An active character makes a point of trying to change the world and the people around them to their viewpoint. They know that their belief is the best for the situation at hand, and if only people could understand this, or if only the world worked this way, things would be better (“better” being somewhat up to debate, but mostly good for the active character.) A chaotic good active character might fight slave traders, run for office on a viewpoint of equality and egalitarianism, or protest some injustice they feel exists in the current system. A lawful evil active character would attempt to invent a status quo where they have power, or gradually nudge property lines (or something similar) to enhance their own wealth.
  • Reactive – A reactive character does not pursue changing the world to their viewpoint, but will defend it if it comes under fire. This alignment is typically situational; a reactive character may seem active under pressure but act passive in other circumstances. The key is a willingness to enact their alignment, but only in a situation they think warrants it. A true neutral reactive may wait until they see an imbalance in the world before they try to bring things back to neutrality, or they may try to maintain a balance among warring factions. A chaotic evil reactive will wait until some slight is done to them,  then exert full wrath on the perpetrators.
  • Passive – A passive character feels no need to exert any effort to forward their alignment. If someone asks, they may say why they feel the way they do, but they’re generally content to live their life and let others live theirs, no matter how stupid or wrong they may be. A neutral good passive character will do what they think is right and best for everyone, but doesn’t necessarily use this as a drive for what they do everyday. A lawful neutral passive character will follow the rules or their personal restrictions, but if the people around them don’t follow the same rules, that’s fine too.

I want to point out that I haven’t leveraged this third axis in my campaigns in any way. It’s not a requirement, just a neat, quick character building tool that I thought would be useful. For example, I have no restrictions that a paladin must be active; I don’t see why you couldn’t have a lawful good passive paladin defending a small church somewhere. I have no weapon enhancement called gumption that damages passive people, and I have no 7th level cleric spell called ambivalence that kills active characters and blinds reactive ones. I suppose if someone asked, I could add that, but if someone doesn’t want to deal with the complications of a third alignment, I have no intention of making them.

Notably, most PCs are probably active or reactive, and most NPCs are passive (in the same way that most NPCs are true neutral). Monsters can be anywhere; even a giant who regularly raids around the countryside could be chaotic evil passive because they’re not actively pursuing chaotic evil, they’re just doing what they need to do to survive (and they happen to be jerks about it). Now, if they go out of their way to inflict unnecessary harm on people, then we have a chaotic evil active monster. Much like the moral and ethical axes, there’s clearly some wiggle room between alignments on the effort axis, but I want to save the concept of granular alignments for another post.

This is kind of a work in progress. One of the reasons I wanted to post about it was in the hope that writing it down will help solidify it more in my own head. I’m still open to suggestions on how it should work or on the vocabulary used. And if someone thinks it’s the dumbest idea in the world, well, that’s why it’s optional in my campaigns as well.

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