Oh, those patron higher powers. So prickly. So judgmental. So demanding.
And when a GM has to portray a boss, patron, king, devil or god, by what means does she use to evaluate a character’s devotion to a particular ideal – then act accordingly?
Is the cleric’s faith strong enough? Is the paladin’s heart pure enough? Is the monk’s mind in tune? Are the druid and ranger at one with the environment?
And what of other characters? Is the warlock abiding by the infernal contract? Is the wizard acting in accord with the astrologies and signs? Are the scoundrels keeping up their ends to business deals? Are the warriors keeping to their oaths?
A lot of GMs like to use the alignment axis to keep tabs on such things. Is the paladin lawful good? Well, let’s see. She helped that old fella across the street. That’s good. But she can’t shake a gambling habit, and the king has a degree against dicing. So, we have to take off a few points on the lawful side. Tsk, tsk. A little wobbly.
Alignment has its uses, and in most fantasy d20 games are hardboiled into a lot of rules, including spells, so it’s difficult to excise even if you wanted to.
But when it comes to judging by what degree a character is abiding by the core behavior of their class, when it comes time for another NPC to interact with them based on their perceptions of that character’s actions, I find alignment to be a poor barometer.
Better than that is a sliding scale from 0 to 10 that I keep in my head that evaluates a character’s fervor.
What is fervor? It’s a catch-all term I use for judging how the portrayal of a character fits with the essence of that character’s class.
Understand, it’s not a requirement that a player run a character a certain way, that they must always strive to be an exemplar of their class. If the PC is portrayed as lax or wanting in some fashion, that’s great. That’s good roleplay.
But a player character that goes that route, either intentionally or if it develops during play, then that portrayal has consequences.
As an example, let’s use the cleric. Do the cleric’s actions match the tenets of that character’s faith? Maybe the character started out abiding by those expectations, but over the past several sessions has started to veer into behavior that might require disciplinary actions from his church’s superiors. Or maybe, the actions are suited for another deity’s faith entirely. Maybe there is an overture from another church to adopt their faith. Using a fervor scale, as GM I’m figuring out how that interplay might work.
Daphne, a cleric of Zeus, laments during play that all the party’s good deeds are being ignored by the townsfolk, and most galling, by her own brethren. So I slide the indicator on the fervor scale down a bit. Then I send a priest of Ares her way. “Join us! We’re all about the glory and honor bit. Nothing in the way of a pension plan, but you can bet we’ll celebrate your victories.”
Then you let Daphne consider the offer and roleplay off her decision accordingly.
As a GM, I would never use fervor as more than a rough estimate of the situation. Codifying it would actually be contrary to its utility.
Remember this isn’t a tool to guide or direct PC actions. Let players develop their characters as they will. But as a means of helping a GM decide if an NPC should act as tempter, seducer, friend, or instigator, it can be invaluable.
I like this! That’s a technique I’m going to borrow.
Glad to be a help. That’s what we’re here for.
I like the idea of codes and degrees of adherence. Sure, for a Paladin, we expect perfect adherence to a code. But even the old cavalier had a code–nicely spelled out–that guided both the player and GM’s expectations. It’s nice to be able to say, “hmm… do you want this to be part of the tale that’s told about you?” with some expectation that everyone’s on the same page.
I’m finding in 5E DnD that it is an excellent way to test whether a PC is using the Backgrounds and Bonds components of character creation.
Using fervor as a way to gauge how well a character cleaves to an ideal is great idea. I’ve been more or less using fervor in my games for years, though without the 0-10 scale or the handy name “fervor”. Thanks for that. 😉
You’re right that fervor can apply to a lot more than holy classes like clerics and paladins. Alignment and faiths are obvious uses for it, of course. But everyone’s got something they stand for, whether it’s a secular organization they belong to, a profession they practice, or simply a set of skills they exercise.
Back in the old days of D&D the rules specified punishment for characters who strayed from their alignments. Some GMs see things like fervor as a modernization of that– a mechanism to punish characters who stray too far from their ideals. But that misses the point. Fervor is best used to foster constructive conversations with players, both in character and out.
As an example, in my game world there’s an order of mages whose rules are, basically: 1) Protect the secrecy and safety of the order. 2) Do no evil. 3) Add to the collective arcane knowledge of the order. Suppose there’s a PC member who sits on her hands for 6 months. While she is obeying tenets 1 and 2 it is only through inaction, and she is doing nothing to support tenet #3. Her fervor is low. In character, she will face disapproval from others in the order. Challenges might come from an official, a mentor, a colleague, a rival, or an ambitious understudy; or quite likely two or more of these sources at the same time but in different ways. These roleplaying challenges likely affect the overall story arc and could easily be the basis for a side plot, too. Out of character, I would discuss with the player what her goals as a member of the organization are and whether she thinks it’s still a good fit. Then I’d work with her to either bring her character back into the group’s good graces or transition her out of it. Again, impact on the story arc and opportunities for side plots.