Journey: Ethos

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D&D alignment is silly.

But having some idea of a character's values is a useful thing to have around. Thus we're going to talk about that...


Terms like "good" and "evil" shouldn't really be bandied about as much as they are. These are hardcore metaphysical philosophical terms, and they've got some hefty connotations. Not only that, but dividing the world into two colors seems ridiculous: goblins might be evil, sure, but are they as evil as Sauron? Is Sauron as evil as Melkor? How do we define those differences?

Some folks might want to say that it doesn't matter: evil is evil. Or we start getting into discussions regarding differences between "regular" evil and what I've started calling "cosmic" evil - regular being gobbos and mortals and such, cosmic being demons and devils and whatnot.

In Journey, we've had the idea of personality come up; the idea is that personality will play a role in social combat, somehow, as well as possibly playing a role in motivation and doing some character-building stuff. So far we've been dealing with the Myers-Briggs type indicator, but that seems a little excessive and not exactly the easiest thing to understand. We need something a little more basic, without resorting to D&D's Cartesian plane of alignments.

How do we do this? Well, there is a game that does this sort of thing...

Enter: The Color Wheel

Magic pie.jpg

Magic's color wheel is already philosophically divided, which makes it an easy-to-use philosophical model when attempting to understand an individual's goals and motivations.

In general, the values held by a given color tend to be rather connected - that is, it's easy to see how one belief in a color could readily lead to the others in it. Of course, this is not necessarily the case, which leads us into hybrid philosophies, but the game we're modeling our ethos system on already handles that, so it shouldn't be that big of a deal to import that here.

Just in case we get a bit lost here, linkage to the article that this image is taken from, which also happens to contain some nifty short descriptions of the colors. Also, some more articles on specific colors: white, blue, black, red, and green. If you didn't have a good feel for each color's philosophies before reading this page and checking those links, you will now.

Color Philosophies

In general, it seems that each color consists of two predominant beliefs. In turn, each color has a "at its best" and "at its worst." Even if the colors as written themselves don't have these conveniently divided into a grid, it could easily be arranged as such.

So each color will have two virtues, which are then either "light" or "dark," with light corresponding to "at its best" and dark to "at its worst." This then leads us to each color having four possible interpretations, so we're already at 20 possible, reasonable alignments.

Alternatively, we could simply divide the colors into light and dark, saving us the headache of having to divide the color's philosophies in half. That would allow us to keep the ethos system somewhat simple, while allowing for reasonable variety - if we just go light/dark, we get 10 standard philosophies.

I feel rather confident that you could reliably group most individuals you meet into one of those ten.

We could also turn the color wheel itself into a sliding scale, with each color having three slices for its part - one firmly in its ethos, and the two other side wedges representing parts of the ethos closer to the ally on that side. The further from the center is one direction in light or dark, and towards the center is the other. Multidimensional ethos, woo!

Other Colors? Hybrids?

What about adding another color? What about hybrids?

These are both reasonable things to consider. I'm not sure if you could reasonably fit another color in via this model, though - with some reshuffling of concepts - it might be possible. Personally I enjoy the idea that each philosophy has two allies and two enemies; if it were at six, you would have one direct enemy, two neutrals, and two allies. That might be too much to handle, though it might also make the philosophies a touch less polar.

In terms of another color, it would also be sensible to add a color in the center, an undecided color that isn't really sure of where it's going; let's call it brown. Brown would be the color of children and animals, things that don't really think about their personal goals and motivations too much, or are simply still sorting things out.

Hybrids are relatively easy, at least for allies. For enemies, it's a bit tougher, but they made it work in Ravnica, so I'm sure we can make it work here. In particular, this examination of the guilds in Ravnica and specifically how they combine their composite colors is of interest. Of course, WotC has more awesome ones: W/G, G/B, U/B, W/R, R/G, U/R, W/B, W/U, U/G, B/R.

Also, because I'm a completionist: W/G/U, U/B/R, W/R/G, W/U/B, B/R/G.


There is no good, no evil, no lawful, no chaotic. We remove the idea of objective morality and throw it into subjectivity.

Alignment-based damage is gone, alignment detection is now useless (since alignment is subjective). Each color could be given their own particular kind of damage, which might reinforce stereotypes (ie, white gets holy, black gets shadow).

Certain creatures would have alignments. Angels, for instance, would generally be white; demons would tend towards black. I would strongly argue against these beings absolutes (ie, all angels are white), and encourage such creatures to oftentimes have hybrid philosophies.

We'll also need to avoid the possibility of ethos being a straight-jacket. I have no interest in characters being slaves to their ethos, nor of upholding every single aspect of it. While characters of such a nature can be neat and interesting, not everyone should need to behave in that manner.

In general, this seems a lot more organic and useful than D&D alignment. We can use ethos as both a probable-action-indicator as well as a possible motivation-indicator. We can also use it extensively in social combat, which would rock all kinds of awesome. I think that this vision of alignment holds a lot of promise, and could be a much more useful tool for a system that encourages a "shades of grey" world.

Angels and Demons

Angels and demons are actually rather neat, in this system.

Rather than be tied to a specific color, each color has angels - that is, there are white angels, blue angels, black angels, and so forth. Angels are always mono-color, paragons of the virtues of their color.

Demons, on the other hand, are always two colors, and always an allied pair. Demons are direct opposites to angels - for instance, the black/red demon hates on the white angel.

Black angels and black/red or black/blue demons do not necessarily get along, though. Demons take on all the virtues that oppose angels of their shared enemy color; an angel has all the virtues of its given color. Meaning that a black angel and a black demon (of either variety) are only going to share half their belief system; while the two could work together, they are not immediately buddy-buddy because of the color connection.

Ethos and the System

Okay, so now we have an idea of what we want ethos to look like: a wheel of five or six colors, each with a few virtues that stand out above the rest, that oppose to some extent or another one or two other ethoi, along with a general indicator of how those virtues are put to use (light or dark); along with a central color that indicates a general lack of any particular tendencies or beliefs, used to represent those without the means to think about their beliefs (animals and constructs) or those who simply haven't thought about them (children).

What does all this mean, systemically?

Developing an Ethos

For starters, we need to talk about how one goes about acquiring an ethos.

At character creation, the character is a blank slate - that means strongly brown. If the background generation system is used, the choices made there will determine the character's ethos when he comes out. I'm envisioning an essentially point-based system that, at the end, you take your point totals for each color, and the one that comes out strongest is the one you go with, with a method for indicating hybrid philosophies.

If you don't go with the background generator, you get the standard 30 XP... and lack an ethos. We'll just go ahead and say that you can pick your character's ethos, up to three colors, any shade. Any more than three colors and you start getting into weird ethos territory (not to say that it can't be done, but for starters? KISS, yo).

Ethos Mechanics

Everything has a dice pool. Everybody gets two. Ethos is no exception.

We'll discuss default, because lifepath builds off of and interacts with default ethos assumptions.

All five ethoi begin at d8. You can adjust an ethos down a rank by adjusting another up a rank, or adjust one up a rank by adjusting another down. Ethoi max out at d12, and must be at least d4 (these guidelines exist only at first).

Examples of Possible Ethos Ratings
d4, d6, d8, d10, d12
d6, d6, d8, d10, d10
d4, d4, d8, d12, d12
d4, d8, d8, d8, d12
d8, d8, d8, d8, d8

Obviously each of these end up feeling different.

The ethos rating is a representation of your general feelings towards that particular ethos, taken as a whole. You may have a d12 White, for instance, but not be particularly fond of the White's Order virtue. That's okay. Ethos rating is a general feeling, not specifics.

Ethos ratings can also change over time, or even in sudden, drastic moments. Obviously, when you start drifting towards an ethos, because of how we build ethos ratings, something has to suffer. If you drift towards an ethos, you take away from the ethos rating of whatever ethos is opposite what you're drifting towards (ie, drift towards the more "order"-focused side of White, and you'll drift from Red rather than Black).

If the drift would cause an ethos rating to exceed d12, it follows the same rules as any other dice pool (that is, it goes to d12+d2, and continues from there). Drift can also cause an ethos to drop below d4. An ethos can drop to Rank 0 (that is, a 0) - but even in these situations, it is possible for your character to drift towards that ethos.

Example: A classic D&D Paladin may have the following ethos ratings: White (d12+d4), Green (d12+d4), Blue (d8), Red (0), Black (0). There are still opportunities and situations that may cause the paladin to drift back towards Red or Black.

No matter what, an ethos cannot drop below Rank 0 (nothing can, so this should be no surprise). It also means that there is an actual cap to how hardcore you can be about an ethos: 3d12+d4.

It may be possible for an ethos to drift up without causing another ethos to drift down. I'm not certain how that would work, but it would remove the hard cap and also enable creatures that are exceedingly ethos-centric (angels, demons) to have such extreme views without being completely without opinion on other colors' virtues.

Ethic Drift

Drift functions similarly to social combat; that is, it is a scale.

Whenever a virtue in an ethos gains XP, that causes the ethos to drift up; whenever a virtue opposed to an ethos gains XP, that causes the ethos to drift down. "Drift up" means to go towards gaining ranks; "drift down" means to go towards losing ranks.

Whenever an ethos attains a new rank (or is set to a rank at character creation), it is set at 0 on the scale, with positive integers on its right, up to the ethos rating's max value, and negative integers on its left, down to the ethos rating's max value expressed as a negative.

Example: You have the White ethos at d12. The scale goes from -12 to 12.

Whenever a virtue opposed to the ethos gains XP, that causes the ethos to drift down towards the negative end of the scale. Whenever a virtue of the ethos gains XP, it causes the ethos to drift up towards the positive end of the scale.

Example: You have the White ethos at d12, and is at position 0; your Black ethos is at d2, and at position 0. You check Harmony vs Animosity, and decide that Animosity should win (taking average on both virtue rolls). Animosity gains 2 XP, which causes your White ethos to slide to -2, and your Black ethos to slide to +2, which causes its rating to increase to d4, position 0.

If a virtue causes an ethos rating to increase, one of the newly-gained virtue tokens must be spent on that virtue (both can be spent on it, if desired). Likewise, if an opposed virtue causes an ethos rating to decrease, the virtue it is related to must be one of the two decreased (or suffer both decreases).

Example: You have White at d12, pos -3; Black at d6, pos 2. You check Harmony vs Animosity, and roll both; both roll above average, with Harmony winning. Your White ethos suffers -1, because Animosity gained an XP, but also a +1, because Harmony gained an XP, resulting in no change. Your Black ethos does not change either, with inverse values (+1 for Animosity, -1 for Harmony).

Those examples should suffice to explain what I'm getting at, here.

Ethos and Reaction

Ethos should play a roll in your character's general reactions to events and people. If you're blue, you should be curious, for instance.

This needs reworking due to a revision of how ethoi and virtues function mechanically.

Ethos and Combat

Ethos is largely irrelevant in combat. There might be some ways to make it relevant, but... I'm just not seeing it.

Ethos and Social

Ethos will impact social combat. In particular, there will probably be ethos-dependent disciplines (ie, one for each) that you can only access if you have that ethos. Ethos-specific specials could require a certain amount of ethos strength in that ethos (ie, you must be at least light blue 5 in order to use this special).


Table V-1: Virtues
Virtue   Virtue
Morality vs Amorality
Harmony vs Animosity
Selflessness vs Selfishness
Trust vs Paranoia
Order vs Chaos
Conformity vs Liberty
Certainty vs Creativity
Responsibility vs Freedom
Curiosity vs Ignorance
Caution vs Impulse
Detachment vs Emotion
Forethought vs Spontaneity
Reason vs Instinct
Progress vs Tradition
Education vs Nature
Manipulation vs Direct
Parasitism vs Interdependence
Worldliness vs Innocence
Individualism vs Community
Indifference vs Empathy
Indecisive vs Decisive
Uncertainty vs Certainty

What the color wheel does for us is determine, in a general sense, someone's ethos. However, each of those colors is composed of a number of virtues, which we'll discuss now.

As you can see on the table, we have a set of 44 virtues, each of which corresponds to an ethos; the last set of four virtues correspond to the central ethos of "no ethos," with its corresponding virtues being in any ethos - that is, all ethoi appreciate decisiveness and certainty.

Aside: It is possible that we may want to remove the last four virtues on the list, as some ethoi might not appreciate those values. In such a case, brown would be represented simply by lack of strong beliefs in any virtue.
Aside: We're in trouble now, with the brown virtues, because Certainty is now a White virtue, opposing the Red virtue of Creativity.

There is going to be some sort of system in place which will allow you to express your character's ethos in the course of conversation and such. I have a few ideas on how to go about that, which would be interesting because we would be skirting the line between simulationism and narrativism, if we go with what I'm envisioning... though perhaps not so much. Anyway, since I have only an inkling of an idea of how to do that, I'm going to stop talking about it until I have something more solid.

In general, for a character, each virtue has a value. To determine your ethos, you would add up the values for each ethos' virtues, and whichever one has the highest wins - that's your ethos.

I'm also tossing around the idea of, when you determine what your ethos is, you gain an additional virtue (or maybe a few) that only applies while you have that ethos; ie, something you hold important that nobody else really does. The idea here would then be that the six virtues on Table V-1 would be those that anybody could reasonably have a little bit of (ie, most people are probably at least a little bit curious), whereas the ethos virtues would be those that only members of the ethos care about it.

Initializing Virtues

It's early morning on April 2, 2009, and I think I have a better grasp on an idea of how to handle virtues.

Talking about ethos earlier on this page, every ethos has an ethos rating, a dice pool. The max value of your ethos rating determines how many virtue tokens you have... just bear with the terminology a moment. So if you have a d12 White, you have 12 virtue tokens for White virtues.

Every virtue token you spend gives you a rank in that virtue. So if you spend two of your tokens on Harmony, for instance, then Harmony has a d4.

Whenever you check a virtue, you roll its ethos rating and its virtue rating. So this example's Harmony (White) would have a dice pool of d12+d4.

If you are doing tailored character creation, you get to set where these go... if you are doing lifepath, they're randomly assigned, though we might let the player decide where a few go (just to get some amount of control going on).

This would seem to be a much better system than what we had before, because that was just kinda wonky.

When you drift from an ethos (so it goes down one rank), that means the virtues in that ethos lose two ranks (that is, you have to reduce one virtue two ranks, or two virtues one rank). You can't reduce a virtue below Rank 0.

Virtue Mechanics

Okay, so - mechanics!

Whenever a virtue situation arises, you have four options - take average on both the virtue and opposed virtue, roll virtue and take average on opposed, take average on virtue and roll opposed, or roll both.

Regardless of which option you choose, whichever gets the higher result is the one that wins; the character acts according to that virtue. If there is a tie, roll again; alternatively, the player can choose which wins, in the event of a tie. If the player chooses which wins, and chooses the opposed virtue, that virtue does not gain additional XP (see below).

If you roll a virtue or an opposed virtue, and its result is higher than its average, it gains 1 XP. A virtue requires 5 XP to reach its next rank, regardless of its current rank. A virtue whose rank is modified due to ethic drift does not lose any XP it has accrued.

In addition, to represent the idea of sudden changes of heart and such, you - the player - can choose to have the character act according to their opposed virtue (ie, if you have Harmony higher than Animosity, Animosity is the opposed virtue). If you do so, the opposed virtue automatically gains 2 XP.

Virtue Definitions

Let's define some terms.

Trust (White) vs Paranoia (Black)

Trust represents your willingness to trust others. Paranoia represents an inability to trust others.
High trust indicates that you are likely to take the words of others at face value, accepting their stated intentions as fact. High paranoia indicates that you are rather unlikely to trust the words of others, and will often ascribe motives to others regardless of contrary evidence.


A long discussion was held on this topic at the stone on March 31, 2009, in which many concerns came up.

System-enforced RP

Basically, the original vision for this system basically implied systemically-enforced roleplaying; that is, the character's actions are sometimes independent of player input.

This is a large point of contention, and is something I'm really not interested in having, either. Basically what happens is, if the character's actions are entirely decided by dice, we have a system where the player is simply along for the ride, and has no input towards the character's actions; this results in a rather Xenosaga-esque system wherein it's more like watching a movie than interacting with game elements.

On the other hand, we want some kind of enforcement on some level of the character's personality, or else it's irrelevant. D&D didn't really have much enforcement regarding alignment, but there's no reason that we should follow in their footsteps; we can - and should, to some degree - ensure that the character acts as the character should.

These goals are obviously at odds with each other, though I am convinced that there is some kind of reasonable middle ground that can be reached, something that will make both arguments happy.

Possible Solution: Cascading Ramifications

The first possible solution that came up is mechanical ramifications of disobeying or modifying a character's ethos.

Basically, your social hit points would reflect how strongly you believe in your ethos. If you are a paladin (for argument's sake), then you would have very high social hit points, and this would also impact how strongly you believe in your ethos.

Your social hit points would then act as a filter for when the player has the character act against ethos, providing an exchange rate based upon distance from human norm - ie, higher social hit points mean that the impact of acting against ethos is stronger than if you have lower social hit points.

What, exactly, those mechanical ramifications are would be determined later.

Possible Solution: Narrative Tokens

Another possible solution is the concept of narrative tokens.

Basically, for each session, a player - yes, the player, not the character - would be given a pool of metagame tokens, which we'll call narrative tokens here. You would receive narrative tokens equal to your average Spirit, and that would be the cap on how many you can have at any time.

You can spend a narrative token to have your character act against ethos; if this system is used in conjunction with cascading ramifications, then the expenditure of a narrative token means that there is no cascade - the tokens are a workaround.

You gain a narrative token whenever you act sufficiently in-character; that is, if you act according to one of the character's "important" virtues, a descriptor we would determine later.

What Next?

What do we still have to do?

Define Drift

Still need mechanics for defining drift. I'm anticipating an XP-like system, that - whenever virtues conflict - you have the option to take average, which doesn't cause drift, but if you roll, there's a chance of drift.

Ramifications of No Decay

There isn't decay here, meaning that it is theoretically possible for two opposing dice pools to get rather large. I like the feel of that, because if you have two 3d12-ish pools opposing each other, it represents that your character has thought about that issue a lot, and has a pretty good handle on both sides of the argument; but again, because it's a dice pool, one side is more likely to win than the other.

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