Alignment in Pathfinder Unchained

In the last post I looked at how rules affect the way we play roleplaying games. I considered some general principles and then looked at the way the changes to the summoner class in particular might affect how it is played in game. This time I’m going to look at that old chestnut alignment and how removing it from the game, as Pathfinder Unchained allows for, might affect your game.

When the designers of the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons were coming up with a list of the core concepts that defined the game, alignment was one of those central pillars. They felt that, along with dwarves, clerics and magic missiles, when you thought of D&D you thought of alignment. Without lawful good paladins opposing chaotic evil dragons it just wasn’t D&D. Paizo evidently had similar feelings when they incorporated alignment so fundamentally into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Few other games have such rigid ethical structures applied to the fabric of the game. Call of Cthulhu takes no interest in the goodness or otherwise of its protagonists. The threats in the Mythos are far beyond our concepts of morality. The Warhammer world assumes everyone has enough on their plates just trying to survive to have any alignment beyond neutral. Neutrality is more like normality than some kind of mystical attempt to achieve a spiritual balance in the world. Only the most extreme characters go beyond this to evil, law or chaos and even those things are closer to a differing cultural outlook or religion than to a moral code. Many games, the World of Darkness canon being an apposite example, have a fluid approach to real world morality as a central plank to their games. Ethically conflicted vampires are fundamental to the milieu.

Even in D&D and Pathfinder, many players have misgivings over how the nine alignments represent morality in the game. There is no denying that the complexities of real world morality are hardly brought to bear in the alignment system. No one in the real world is actually Chaotic Good or True Neutral. But, by incorporating these rules into the game the way players approach characters and monsters is heavily influenced. Everyone expects a red dragon to behave chaotic evilly – selfish and aggressive, even in those groups that don’t pay much attention to alignment.

The equal space given to the dichotomies of law vs chaos and good vs evil makes for interesting arguments about personal freedoms and collective responsibilities and makes them an integral part of the game. Given the libertarian leanings of many gamers this is perhaps not surprising. I can think of no game that sets social order against personal freedom to such a degree and which puts this conflict side by side with good vs evil. The alignment system encourages a unique kind of philosophy that determines much of how the game actually plays out

Likewise, the clear definition of evil allows some of the basic tenets of the game to take place. Killing orcs and taking their stuff is ok because they’re evil. It says so in the Bestiary so it must be right. If you can’t just kill evil creatures then how are you supposed to play the game?

Alignment bad?

However, alignment does cause some unique problems. Being able to detect evil creatures with simple spells and abilities makes running scenarios with, for example, a murder mystery quite difficult. If you can cast detect evil then you can identify the vampire, werewolf or serial killer in your midst relatively easily. The old horror campaign setting, Ravenloft, kept alignment in the game but did away with any means of identifying it, allowing monsters to roam undetected throughout the land. In this way the integrity of the setting required a change to the rules-set. The setting affects the rules as much as the rules affect the setting.

Pathfinder Unchained gives options to amend or do away with the alignment convention for groups that want rid of it. I imagine many groups will take this approach. This has a number of implications, beyond detect evil no longer being a useful spell. Without the obvious opposition of good and evil, law and chaos, the characters adventures become more personal. You can’t oppose the necromancer just because he is evil. He must be doing something that your personal code, or that of the society you live in, opposes. This may not be too hard to justify if he is raising the dead but, in a fantasy world without mechanically described morality, when is animating the dead a bad thing? This is something the game world has to justify when the [Evil] descriptor can no longer be slapped on any spell or monster that seems a bit dodgy.

The societies of many creatures need to be defined in greater depth than the basic rule books allow. If elves are no longer chaotic good by default, what are their values? Are there still broad social mores that can be applied to elves, orcs and dwarves that retain much of their old alignments or are creatures much less socially cohesive now that alignment has been removed? Slapping a chaotic evil label on a monster gives everyone a firm grounding of where that creature is coming from, even if they have the scope to be more complex than that. If you remove alignment from the game you have to carefully reconsider how your players will approach orcs and how red and gold dragons deal with each other. There is no longer such as a thing as a natural enemy. It is all cultural now and that needs deeper exploration.

Games without alignment may be able to play around more with ethical dilemmas and moral judgements. However, they may find the removal of those old crutches takes away much of the inherent questions at the heart of the game. Having alignment puts a moral agenda right at the top of every character sheet. Everyone needs to consider morality right from the very start of the game and confronts questions on it throughout. Removing alignment from the game may be a good thing for many groups but its influence is all through the way we think about D&D or Pathfinder. And I think that is a force for good. Lawful good probably.

One response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *