Within the collective fandom of Pathfinder and its draconic predecessor, there are few topics that inspire as much speculation, debate, and creative interpretation as alignment. While we have the common structure of good versus evil that defines so many of our campaigns, players and GMs are always testing the limits and exploring what it means to inhabit their favorite square on that infamous 3×3 grid.
Recent shifts in design and an uprising of voices in the community have brought us towards a mindset where alignment is less of a straight jacket. Instead, it serves as more of a suggestion to be either taken lightly or even ignored in all but the most essential implementations. Races and ancestries are seen as less inherently tied to it, and classes such as the monk and barbarian have dropped their traditional restrictions to embrace more choice and expression.
So what am I to do when the game is starting to unshackle itself from the chains of alignment? Lock it in an alignment iron maiden, of course.
Hello and welcome to Eldritch Excursion, the blog where I express my compulsive contrarianism towards trends in the industry as I observe the fascinating intersections between flavor and mechanics. This time, we’ll be looking at an alternative way of using alignment with a more absolutist approach to what it means to be good and evil.
We all have a decent understanding of the basics of alignment. Good, evil, chaos, law, and that funny little thing in the middle. Altruism, selfishness, freedom, order, balance. But what if the acts that we commonly associate with these forces are mere echoes of their true expressions? What if the acts of our grandest heroes and foulest villains pale in comparison to the raw, unfiltered, incomprehensibly vast power of a proper cosmic force?
Consider the beings that inhabit other planes such as archons and devils and proteans, all of whom have very strong ties to their particular schools of thought. Now consider that unlike mortals, these beings are made up of the very essence of these plans, and are more likely to embody these aspects without question or hesitation. After all, a human may tell a lie to get what they want because they want that specific thing. A devil will also lie, but it lies because lies are what it knows. The idea of true honestly without ulterior motive is foreign at best, and for some it may be as existentially horrifying to them as a Lovecraftian nightmare is to a human.
My proposal is as follows. Treat alignment as an absolute. Outsiders and supernatural creatures that are intrinsically tied to an alignment are beings of that alignment, and exist in some way to spread its influence. Such is the case of demons, who will die of shock when exposed to the anathema of their signature sins, but that mindset should be applied to all beings with strong ties to the grid.
Morals, on the other hand, are always neutral in the grand scheme of things. We may have individuals who undertake remarkable actions that shape the world for better or for worse, but such drive is the product if their life experience and choices, not some direction that was predetermined at birth. Echoing the general vibe of these aligned planes is one thing, but the people of the material plane are still made of meat and bones and blood and sometimes spare parts but we’re still largely the masters of our own destiny. It would take the corrupting reach of the outer planes to change something so ingrained.
The Corrupting Reach of the Outer Planes
So here’s where it gets interesting. With the re imagining of outsiders as alien entities driven by maddening exaggerations of our morals, one could see their worship as cultlike and fanatical. Likewise, as their ideas touch the minds of mortals and drive them to emulate their otherworldly mindset, their essence sometimes merges with our own to create mortals who emulate their otherworldly flesh.
Champions and clerics are the most obvious choices for this kind of influence, being mortals that feel the touch of the divine and devote themselves selflessly (or selfishly!) to the cause. Such beings are one of the few exceptions on the alignment restrictions, allowing them to select any acceptable alignment as power of the divine resonates through their hearts and souls. These individuals approach their worship with zeal and are can fight like a man possessed when their faith is threatened.
The biological side is a little more complicated. This can include the obvious ones, such as tieflings and aasimar, or any other versatile heritage that has strong ties to a particular moral absolute. The same could be said of sorcerer bloodlines, as it also represents a mutation of mortality from extra planar sources. Even circumstantial evolution is possible if you want to consider children that are conceived near holy sites or with the blessing of a powerful worshiper. Regardless of the reason, creatures with the divine in their blood will often feel a certain pull or instinct to act out on behalf of their supernatural heritage, and are allowed to shift their alignment accordingly by surrendering to these impulses.
Consider the impact these characters have on the world. When even the objectively good is something to be afraid of, how would a fanatical follower of such creatures be treated? How would that follower see a world occupied by unenlightened, half-blind fools who exist in a moral dead zone?
If you’re looking for ways to add some extra punch to this alignment absolutism, consider adding additional modifiers based on how well a character is adhering to their abnormal alignment. Within the space of one’s ascended alignment, we can see how well they’re balancing their rational mind with their outsider influence. The following options, with more than a little inspiration, grant benefits or penalties based on the character’s level of devotion. It uses Divine Intercession if the source of deviation is from a deity or a bonus to saving throws if from another source, as determined by the GM. As alignment is best used as a storytelling aid and not a tool for punishment, the player and the GM should work together to determine where the character sits and what actions ultimately move them.
Absolute devotees do not question, do not doubt, and place their faith above all other things, as even thoughts of deviating from their creed are a corruption to be purged. They gain their deity’s moderate boon or a +2 status bonus to saves against Divine effects.
Zealous followers are focused, devout, and more than willing to make sacrifices for what they believe in. While still recognizably mortal, they can be very off-putting to their kin. The gain their deity’s minor boon or a +1 status bonus to saves against Divine effects.
Faithful worshipers have dedicated themselves to the cause, but still maintain some connections to their normal lives. While they gain no bonuses or penalties, they tend to maintain a tenuous balance between the demands of the divine and their mortal lives.
Wavering believers have begun to lost their way, suffering under the burden of powers they do not fully understand. A longing for life without the pull of an unknowable entity puts them at risk of further deviation. They gain their deity’s minor curse or a -1 penalty to saves against Divine effects.
Doubtful mortals are, tragically, the most connected to their former lives and loved ones. The siren’s song of normality calls them home, though a crisis of faith may mean the pull of a rival divine force. They gain their deity’s moderate curse or a -2 penalty to saves against Divine effects.
What happens to someone who goes beyond the scale? Are they rewarded with an ascension that concludes their arc as a PC in a glorious send-off? Do they fall in a moment of weakness, only to become the monster they once sought to destroy? Anything can happen, so long as you make it interesting. And a little creepy.
That’s it for now. Hopefully this can satisfy your urgin’ for some purgin’ in the moral morass that is alignment. Come back next time when I continue to harass Oras by putting tentacles on things that don’t normally have them.