Tuesday, April 30, 2013

DM Advice - There's No Alignment Like No Alignment

We had a great discussion over on the Old School Gamers facebook forum when I posed this question to the group. Have you ever removed alignment from a game? I wish to share some of what was discussed here as well as my own experiences with removing alignments including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Does this sound like you? I really enjoy fantasy and I think there needs to be a balance of good and evil but the alignment system seems so definite. How often have we heard as players “You are not playing your character’s alignment?” or “That’s not the way that a rogue is supposed to act”? What does this mean exactly? Is there a method for removing alignments from Pathfinder or DND games? The absolute moral compass of alignments is so intrinsically linked though spells, feats, abilities and magic items is it even possible to play without it? I believe that you can have a great game without alignments. There are already systems out there that do not use alignments Heroes and GURPS games come to mind as does Call of Cthulhu and others but most of these systems do not rely on levels and you want to run a level based game so that you do not have to teach your players a totally new game.

Some of my players have even expressed interest in not playing a certain pirate game because they don’t want to be forced to play an evil or morally ambiguous character. As a GM I want to give them the best story and roleplaying whiteboard possible. Let’s look at some options.

What About Spells/Abilities/Etc

Instead of using specific spells or saying that they detect intent just remove them from the game all together. Let’s face it. Like one of the guys on the facebook page said these spells are really just a crutch for the players to try to determine if someone is a bad guy or a good guy without actually putting in the work. I tend to agree with him and think that it would be easy to just remove this ability from the game. There are so many other options that players can take through archetypes that replace these abilities that this shouldn’t be a problem with Pathfinder. If you want to allow players to use these abilities you can change it to ‘intent’ at that moment and time or you can specify it is only for otherworldly creatures such as demons, angels. By removing this alignment detecting crutches from the game you might open up that cleric to some interesting possibilities. For instance, the Paladin could smite (opposing philosophies) instead of evil.

Replace Alignment with Nature/Demeanor

White Wolf’s Storyteller System uses a great mechanic of archetype. This is different from the archetype in class for Pathfinder. In this system everyone has a Demeanor (What they show everyone) and a Nature (What they really are). The cool thing about this concept is that nature and demeanor can literally be any adjective that is descriptive enough to be specific towards an individual paradigm. As an example, a Paladin might have a Demeanor of Celebrant but a Nature of Child. Inside this Paladin could see himself as a child of the deity to which he professes worship and indeed might see himself as a child to the entirety of the faithful. In this example I would just remove any and all alignment specific abilities, spells, feats etc. This way you can have the feel of alignment without the restrictions of alignment. One of the guys in the facebook forum also discussed using the True20 Nature system. While I have not used this system myself, I can say that it sounds very similar to the White Wolf system.

Replace Alignment with “Cause”

One particularly interesting concept that I just came up with (no kidding) is to replace alignments (Good, Evil, Neutral) with whatever motivates the character the most. This would be tricky and take a bit of work but it could be done and it has the potential to become very interesting in the game. I like to have players write up backgrounds that include their character’s motivation and any causes that they might believe. With this option you would basically remove all alignments in favor of a cause or goal of a player. If they play toward their ultimate goal you reward them.

Good or Evil / Law or Chaos

You can also just use good and evil in your game without the lawful or chaotic descriptor or use law and chaos without the good or evil descriptor. This gives players the flexibility to play characters that are more toward the lawful side of society or more toward the chaotic outskirts. In this option you would drop all good and evil descriptors (except for evil and good outsiders) and only use law and chaos since chaos is not necessarily evil or good and neither is law necessarily good or evil.

Drop It Altogether

Another very interesting thing you can do with alignment is not use it at all. In this method you would need to drop all alignment-specific things including powers granted or you would need to redefine them. The problem with this is the moral compass becomes less obvious and some players might want to try to take advantage of this. You as a GM have final say in these instances. A cleric of a good deity that wants to create undead might find her powers revoked by her deity in this instance. She might find herself offered different power from an altogether different deity perhaps however and one that is not in her best interests.

Let’s Sum Up!

The Good

Since alignments can be used as a crutch and alignment-detect abilities and spells can be used to bypass the need for roleplaying or good old fashioned detective work, the first good point of dropping alignment is that the players will not have access to these kinds of things. The lack of alignment, in many instances, can lead to an expanded roleplaying environment as players work together to try to figure out who the bad guy is since the moral compass is blurred by the lack of a definite alignment. Lack of alignment is not a bad thing in this case and as roleplaying opportunities expand the type of bad guys can become less big-bad-evil-guy. Sometimes good people do bad things for good reasons and having no alignment can add to the realism of a ‘good’ character being ‘bad’.

The Bad

The bad of this is that there is some house rules that you will have to put into effect. Some players may not like this idea and some might outright reject the idea altogether. I. Some people like moral absolutes and have a need for good and evil to be hard defined.

The Ugly

Since the systems are designed with alignment in mind if you want to play without alignments then you need to do some house cleaning on your game. For starters, you will have to change out the system to fit with your changes to the alignment system and this includes dropping spells, feats, and abilities etc. that rely on these descriptors. Secondly, you will need to explain to your characters that they still need to play within the moral compass boundaries you are selecting and they need to keep their character within those boundaries. If no boundaries are used such as in the case of no alignment then you will want to describe what constitutes a breach of morality for paladins, druids, monks, clerics, etc. Lastly, you will need to carefully consider what to do with DR and outsiders and define how their moral absolutes (or lack thereof) come into play with the new system you have created.


I am thinking of using the Nature/Demeanor system with the pirate game and the Law/Chaos system with the Serenity game I have coming up in the near future (both using pathfinder rules). If you try any of these let me know how it goes! I will do the same!

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