Exalted: when virtues aren’t
White Wolf games have a habit of using dubious morality mechanics. As far as I can tell, this began with Vampire – as a method of tracking the loss of humanity and the dominance of a vampire’s inner beast.
In Exalted, characters have virtue scores (nearly the same ones as in Vampire): Courage, Conviction, Temperance, and Compassion. Each of these are rated from one to five. Nominally, higher virtue scores are better. In reality, though, I’d never call anyone with a 5 in even a single virtue to be a virtuous individual.
A few reasons.
First, in Exalted, virtues often conflict. There has been a lot written in moral theory about the possibility of conflicting virtues. My take on it is that if virtues conflict, then looking at virtues as morally important is stupid. Virtues are human constructions – they are handles that we put onto sets of character traits. When we say Courage is a virtue, that’s really shorthand for “there’s a virtue related to facing threats – somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness – we’ll call it courage for short.” I’d take that a step further and say “there’s a virtue related to facing threats in such a way as to not conflict with other virtues – somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness – we’ll call it courage for short.” Anyway. This is fairly esoteric virtue theory that no one is likely to care about except for me.
Second, in Exalted, virtues often compel action. Exalted virtues don’t model morality – they model deeply flawed heroes of stories. If an Exalted character has a high virtue score, she must roll (or spend willpower) to act against that virtue. You have a Compassion of 5? I hope you don’t live in a city with too many beggars, or you’ll be poor very quickly.
By acting against high virtues (and doing a couple other things), Exalted characters gain points of Limit. When they get 10 points of Limit, they have a Limit Break. This results in them acting according to a flaw that is listed on their character sheet. The flaw is related to a virtue. A high-temperance character might go on a debauching binge or, alternately, give away all material goods and fast for a month.
The idea here is to model things like the berserk rage of Heracles or the sulking of Achilles. In-setting, limit breaks are a result of a curse placed upon the Exalted by the Malfeans for rising up against them (and winning).
The problem with limit breaks is that they’re no fun.
Most of them either set the PCs against each other in a remarkably predictable manner or they essentially take a character out of play (often for an extended period of time).
Also, it is certainly possible for your limit to hit 10 at a relatively non-dramatic point in the story.
The other day, Jenn and I were discussing the lameness of limit breaks. One possibility of fixing them that we came up with was to get rid of limit breaks, but say that every time your limit hits 10, it becomes more difficult to act against your virtues.
I’d take this one step further, adding the limit breaks back in as limit stunts: if you manage to incorporate extreme virtue-related behavior into a dramatic scene to the general detriment of your character, you can then reduce that difficulty to act against your virtues.
This brings back the same modeling of heroic flaws, but it puts it into the hands of the player. Rather than having his character’s behavior be determined based on die rolls and the actions of others, the player can decide how it would be the most fun to play his character. This makes sense to me.