Actually by the RAW they have everything to do with morals and behavior, but that’s lame.
So, after reading Pathfinder Unchained and its alignments options I didn’t find anything that I truly wanted for my games (though Shifts and Affirmations were something I’ve been looking for and the Cosmic Alignment option was – at least in name – one of the main ideas for this post).
While I enjoy intelligent uses of the current Alignment System – especially in adventures where the Evil guy is the victim – I also understand that they’re mostly exceptions. Although you could build settings that present interesting complications to Alignment (like the awesome Scarred Lands, the cool relativism of Eberron or even the Blighted Eyes proposal for 3.5), when you’re going deep for an intrigue-rich or more social game, where drama is the main drive, it really becomes hard to work with the RAW Alignments. Besides, detect evil is a brutal spoiler for most stories dealing with mysteries, intrigues and hard choices*.
*Let me point out, however, that I would like to try one day to extrapolate a setting where detect evil is taken to its utmost consequences (socially, religiously and even economically).
However, it must be stressed – and let me digress about this a little – that Pathfinder does really interesting things with detect evil (from a mechanical point of view).
First, non-outsiders of Evil alignment doesn’t register in a detect spell if they have 5 or less HD.
Second, detect evil in Pathfinder does register “evil intentions” (I guess that means “hostile intentions”) against the caster, which is simply a perfect way to catch players unexpectedly.
Finally, there’s the small rule that gave me the idea for this entire post: clerics, paladins and other divine spellcasters (or characters) with the aura class feature register the alignment of their aura, not their own (which usually means that a cleric will register as his deity’s alignment).
So, I thought, what would happen if you extended the aura class feature from a rules’ exception the one of game’s basic standards?
I’ll get into that, but back to our “philosophical” discussion about Alignments.
Another problem with the Good-Evil axis starts when you begin to think really hard about the Evil Alignment. No one in their right mind would think of themselves as Evil. Usually only the truly deranged (psychopathic) or insane would think that – and they’re obviously the exception. That’s because the Evil Alignment doesn’t make sense if think about as anything other than an (moral?) excuse for players to kill tons of NPCs without feeling bad about it (after all, they’re the “heroes”**)
**Which is a perfect topic for another day.
Ok, going on. This is – after all – just a game, so why bother with all these complications, do you ask? Well, because there’re actually some pretty cool implications if you do ask these questions. And they might be useful to your games if want to run a different D&D/Pathfinder, especially considering the various effects that deal with alignment (those damn spells like unholy blight…).
What can be done with the Evil Alignment (and the Good)? I got basically two options. The first is just me trying to rationalize Evil (but I didn’t go far) and the second option is probably how I’m gonna run my next Pathfinder campaign.
The RAW Approach: Ok, this one is just me using the Alignment System as it is for a setting that suits it. Because, otherwise, the Evil Alignment only is there only as (metagame) rule to forbid player characters from acting as jerks (i.e. in anti-game ways), and to clearly mark who the players can kill without losing their class stuff. Really, I can’t fathom any other use for this thing. Even if you read and try to rationalize it for your setting, no one in their right minds would trust or help even a Lawful Evil guy. Although you could create viable settings where alliances with Evil are necessary, there’s no good use for Evil PCs (no pun intended). And yes, I hope Paizo prove me wrong with their next Adventure Path about Evil PCs.
So, given those premises, I give you the one setting where I believe Alignments as written works – worlds with a “Big Unified Evil”.
Seriously, think about it. Settings with a personified entity/god/character representing all Evil actually do work very well with the Alignment system. Examples (that I know) are Middle-Earth’s Sauron, Midnight’s Izrador (OK, that’s just a not-Sauron), Wheel of Time’s Dark One and The Land’s Lord Foul.
The quintessential setting for Alignments as written is of course Earth’s Mythical Medieval Age, where the Devil walks among Men and claims the sinful ones’ souls to depths of Hell (though you could use the same idea for other religions like Manicheism).
In all the above settings, being of the Evil Alignment is acting in accordance with the Primordial Evil and thus serving Him on a cosmological level – even if you’re against Him personally.
This has some considerably brutal and dramatic consequences – maybe no one is born Evil in those settings, but become one through his actions (or maybe Fate is a cruel mistress and you can be born Evil). The cool bit is that players don’t want to be Evil because theoretically they’ll serve the Guy that is trying to kill them in the first place. There’re some excellent plots in these settings to create drama (i.e. hard choices) for your PCs.
In settings with multiple Evil and Good forces the above conflict loses some of its “dramatic” weight. You also loses the idea of a Primordial Evil, especially in a moral sense, also dropping a brilliant way to explain (mythologically) why there’s Evil in the world (and thus the Evil Alignment goes back to be a tag for “you can kill it”). In fact, you lose the absolute moral explanation about why Evil is “wrong”. And in fact the entire reason why Evil Alignments are so hard in to use in more “gray” or mature games is because they clearly mark who is “right” or “wrong” in a given conflict.
However, one interesting interpretation that you can use in the RAW Alignments System is that no one normally chooses to be Evil. The Universe (Multiverse) chooses for you. Through your misdeeds you acquire an otherworldly taint to will ultimately condemns you to one of Pathfinder/D&D’s myriad hellish afterlives. How you deal with that should be the focus of the drama in most games.
Maybe a character considers his fate unjust and thus ironically reinforces his dark path. A really cool concept here is that of the Evil PC that seeks Ultimate Power© to kill a greater force of Evil (like a demon lord) in order to “buy his way out of Hell”.
Traditionally most evil characters (peasants, merchants and normal people) aren’t aware that they’re Evil. Perhaps (and that’s where I believe lies most problems with D&D/Pathfinder treatment of Evil) evil religions are either ways to escape the worse punishments of Hell or just religions based on lies and deception.
The problem, henceforth, is that if you have entire countries dedicated to Lolth, Cyric, Bane and other evil gods, those nation’s divine patron should offer some kind of reward/relief for their Evil followers instead of the usual “you’ll become the playthings of devils/demons when you die”.
While some official material indeed mentions that high-level NPCs can go to their hellish afterlives to be reborn as powerful outsiders, this usually is a major exception and thus the rest of the “poor” Evil mortals are just cannon fodder.
OK, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you want a game where PCs are divine character sent to (literally) enlighten the masses of evil nations. And there’s nothing wrong with that for most “normal” human/demihuman Evil nations. The evil High Priest that uses lies and deceit to corrupt souls is a classical archetype, after all.
However, when you go to intelligent and powerful races like dark elves the entire idea starts to lose verisimilitude very quickly. How can a race so powerful, resourceful and smart follow a goddess that will most surely f*** them up in the afterlife?! (unless you concoct that the dark elves’ original Curse is a lot more dire and that’s why they’re all are born Evil and suffer an yet more horribly after dying… which for me just implies that Corellon Larethian is a real bastard and Lolth just a miserable loser in an old divine war).
So, these are my ruminations about Alignments System as written. What am I going to do in my next games? I’m glad you asked (and that you’re still reading this). And no, I’m not going to say this time “remove Alignment” or to use some Taint- or type-based mechanic instead of the Evil designator. There’re already variants to that greatly (besides the 4E and 5E Editions of D&D). What I want here to keep all the Alignment-based rules and just offer a better explanation, more useful to games fueled by drama in D&D/Pathfinder.
I believe you can solve most of the problems with the RAW Alignments System, and yet keep its entire mechanics, just be removing the behavior/moral part. Basically: Alignments have nothing to do with behavior or morals. They’re cosmic allegiances.
OK, that’s easy with the Law/Chaos axis and games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess have been preaching that for a long time. But what about the goddamnit Good/Evil axis?
Here’s where you get to start to work. I’ll give a few suggestions.
Alignments here are actually the Cosmological Forces that power the Multiverse of Pathfinder/D&D. They are literally inhuman and independent Living Concepts that shaped the cosmos and the PC’s campaign setting. They have nothing to do with behavior or human morals in the traditional sense. In other words, you can be a saint or a demon, but that has nothing to with your Alignment (besides, one can argue that “saints” like Noeh and Moses did horribly stuff and were, for Alignment purposes, all “Lawful Good”).
In our proposed setting, the Law/Order and Chaos/Change duo arouse first from the Void and in fact may be responsible for starting the Multiverse itself and for its current shape (i.e. the Planes).
Law and Order are about stability, separation, defined borders, organization and the natural order of things. You can steal from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other OSR games to define that Law has everything to do with magic (particularly divine magic) and powers that help you keep things as they are (spells that dispel magic, stop planar conjunctions, restore form, banish curses, heal or otherwise keep the world “looking normal”).
Chaos and Change are about the overly supernatural – arcana magic, warlocks, planar manifestations, planar travels, the removing of barriers, changing shapes and forms, evocation, illusions, fey, destruction, mutations etc.
Note that small bits of Chaos can be a beneficial effect (represented in most settings by the elven civilizations), while the extremes of Law can result in sterile and unchangeable desert worlds inhabited either by constructs or maybe only by undeads/dead (if you don’t consider in your cosmology that undeads are synonymous with Chaos).
OK, let’s go to the hardest bit: the Good/Evil axis.
In our “Alignments have nothing to do with behavior/morals”, the original shapers of the Multiverse where Law and Chaos (and perhaps Neutrality/Balance).
Later in the War for the Multiverse came a new order of Powers, which I suggest we call Light and Darkness here.
These newcomers – whose origins are a mystery – came relatively late in the War and many sages suggest that their coming had something to do with the rise of the mortal races. The reason is simple: while Law and Chaos fight for the Multiverse itself, Light and Darkness fight for its souls and are a lot more bound to the conflicts in the Material Planes.
The catch here is to reshape Good and Evil Alignments in a more friendly form to fuel games with “gray areas” and drama-heavy conflicts. In this new scheme of things Light and Darkness are Powers interested mainly in the gathering of mortal souls to strength their numbers. What are their ineffable goals? No one knows exactly. The more you come to understand Light and Darkness the closer you come to becoming one of its exalted (and inhuman) servants – like the Deva (Light) and the Baatezu (Darkness).
As far as mortals understands Light is about Beauty, Harmony, Civilization, Collectivity, Serenity, Perfection, Hierarchy and Purification (note that things like Good, Justice, Mercy and Benevolence are not necessary to Light, but are just more common there).
Darkness is about Individualism, Personal Power, Improvement at all Costs, Anarchy, Freedom, the Removal of Restrains, Passion, Might makes Right etc.
Good references for Light in my opinion are the Heaven faction from the Nobilis RPG. The Sith Code is the perfect reference for Darkness. Another good pair of references could be the gods Morrow (Light) and Thamar (Darkness), from the Iron Kingdoms (although Thamar is usually associated with Evil, she can be a more complex deity, especially if take in account the legends that hint that thanks to Thamar the Gift of Sorcery was given to humans, thus allowing them to beat their evil overlords).
What about Neutrality?
Neutrality/Balance in this cosmology can mean the literal balance between Law and Chaos and/or Light and Darkness; or it can be used to represent a “third way”, for example: a world devoid of outsider interference (Law, Chaos, Light and Darkness are to be banished) and maybe of lower mana/magic setting (like Earth in many AD&D books); or a world where Neutrality equals the natural (i.e. inhuman) order, devoid of humanoind-like civilizations and intelligences (the path of druids); Neutrality can represent maybe the Spirit World (from nature spirits and totems, to undeads and the dead) where shamans rule; or maybe even Lovercraftian monsters (DCCRPG does that). Or maybe, Neutrality is just the absence of a cosmic allegiance (the natural instance of most mortals).
Now we can try to create a setting where there no easy answers to be settled by a detect evil spells (now renamed Detect Darkness or Detect the Dark). Darkness is now a planar allegiance, not a moral stance. A follower of Darkness can be honorable and reliable, while a fanatic of Light can be dangerous and murderous. You can now have complex Light and Darkness-aligned NPCs that aren’t instantly identified as friends or foes. In fact, a simple way to give goals to these NPCs in the new cosmology is to remember that Law and Chaos are interested in increasing/decreasing their magical forces in the campaign world and in changing the Multiverse to their own “perfect” vision; while Light and Darkness are interesting in converting and collecting souls for their own war (a cool side effect of this last goal is that Light and Darkness Powers are probably unwilling to allows a free use of resurrection magic). And you can – of course – mix those Powers, to create things like a world-conquering god bent on eradicating planar interferences and creating a place where only the strong are fitted to rule (that would be a Law and Darkness Deity and the closest thing to the old Lawful Evil deity if that’s is what you want). The Harmonium faction from Planescape is probably the quintessencial Law and Light foe for a campaign.