The Splash Damage of Alignment Restrictions

I’ve been trying to come up with something else nice to say about 5E. I don’t think it’s a bad system, I just think it took away a lot of the things I like about running D&D games like agency and accomplishment. It still did several things right, like backgrounds (though the playtest version of them was much more interesting, closer to themes instead of “choose your life story from a dropdown list”), inspiration (though the rule as written invalidates its stated purpose and I vastly prefer the Angry GM’s version), and simple multiclassing (there’s no caveat here; I actually really like the multiclass spellcasting). There’s another quiet change of which I approve, more an absence of a rule than a rule itself: there are no alignment restrictions.

I didn’t even notice this until I went looking for it to see how badly it would hurt me, and I was pleasantly surprised to find few places where alignment even mattered. Monks don’t have to be lawful, because you don’t need a rigid code of ethics to be good at punching and running. Paladins don’t have to be lawful good, because a character can commit to evil just as easily as to goodness. Druids don’t have to be neutral, because “to follow nature, you have to be nature” sounds like the sort of statement one can only follow with “…you feel me, man?”. Even spells like detect evil and good only care about creature types, not evil or good itself. Character building in 5E has limitations and hard-coded assumptions, but none of them hinge on your alignment, binding you to a specific side in a specific war by virtue of your class. Which is good, because alignment restrictions don’t just bind the character you’re building. They bind other players too, and possibly the whole campaign.

Several years ago we started on a new Pathfinder campaign, one we’re still playing. We knew we were playing in Golarion, fighting demons at a thing called the Worldwound, and the campaign would run roughly as long as we had tolerance for it. During Session Zero I saw the opportunity to finally play an evil character. It’s not that evil characters have some appeal to me in and of themselves. I wanted to prove how evil characters could fit with a good party, how they don’t damage the campaign, how when played right they’re actual people instead of mustache-twirling villains with Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. I tend to pick my characters last so the exact build was subject to what the party needed, but the goal was something evil, allied with the other players, and capable.

My concept was an inquisitor of Asmodeus. He joined the group because the god of devils has a strong opinion about the might of demons. As long as the party fought devils he would be their unflagging ally, willing to watch their backs and put himself in danger for them. He viewed them as tools for his crusade, but incredibly effective tools he couldn’t afford to lose. He’d be willing to do things they couldn’t stomach, perhaps find them friends or supporters in places they wouldn’t think to check, and provide narrative conflict whenever they met somebody who frowned on his religion, all without belittling them the entire time. He was unlike the other players but in an interesting rather than a disruptive way, he committed wholeheartedly to evil but not to the detriment of party unity, and he fed into the campaign concept to show just how seriously the rest of the multiverse viewed the threat of demons. I loved this character.

Except, as I said, I picked last. Two other players had already decided on their campaign concepts: a divinely-powered archer and the most dwarven front-line defender possible. While I was working on my character’s actual build, they each realized the best way to get the character they wanted was by playing a paladin, and then my character fell apart.

Paladins are lawful good. All of them, all the time, without exception. They smite evil, detect evil, guard against evil, and otherwise fight evil in all its forms. Paladins as written had a built-in conflict with my character, and we foresaw plenty of in-character arguments over how we went about things. But what really put a nail into it was the paladin code of conduct:

While she may adventure with good or neutral allies, a paladin avoids working with evil characters or with anyone who consistently offends her moral code. Under exceptional circumstances, a paladin can ally with evil associates, but only to defeat what she believes to be a greater evil.

“The entire campaign” did not strike us as an exceptional circumstance. Paladins are, by rule, explicitly disallowed from being in the same party as my character. The other players understood what I was trying to do and we all looked for ways to make it happen, but any archetypes that loosened the code of conduct also precluded the archetypes that made the players want to have paladins in the first place. Since the code is so indelibly linked with the concept of paladins, we didn’t feel comfortable throwing it out for the campaign. The only alternative we saw was to have me hide my alignment from two people who can detect evil at will, and while I found a way to do it, I realized I was spending half my build trying to mask the nature of a character whose payoff involve being overtly, shamelessly evil. I scrapped the character and played a nature-loving ditz instead.

This isn’t about the other players specifically (or accidentally) picking something to subvert me. Everybody was invested in getting this character to work, but the rules prevented it. A warrior who turns into rock cannot associate with evil creatures, because her rock powers come from her code of conduct for reasons the game pointedly does not explain. In the world of Pathfinder and D&D 3E, that’s not a problem, that’s a feature. The paladin class prevents the character from taking actions the player might want to take, and that’s its job.

But it’s not just a narrow restriction for the paladin herself. It’s a blanket restriction on the party and on the campaign itself. A paladin prevents all characters from taking actions the players might want to take. You don’t have to go far in gaming to find stories of an Active Lawful Stupid character who stubbornly vetoes every action that isn’t perfect goodness and light. Maybe you’re unlucky enough to have played with one and seen it first-hand. On the other end of the scale, you can have a perfectly agreeable paladin around whom other players overcompensate. If your group knows the paladin is in constant danger of losing her class abilities, will they come up with a plan that involves subverting or fighting lawful authority even if the paladin herself is fine with it? The looming specter of a god’s wrath hovers over everything the group does, so the sweet spot for paladins requires a group that acts reasonably but not so reasonably as to preclude the events of the game.

It also restricts the DM, because now the campaign has to consistently involve the fight against evil or the paladin doesn’t have a reason to be there. Everything now goes through the lens of “how does this affect the paladin’s code?” And this is just the largest instance of a problem with all alignment restrictions. Knowing the monk must lean more toward tyranny than freedom, can a DM justify an adventure where the monk must save people from slavery? Knowing the druid must maintain neutrality, can he justify an adventure where the players have to pick a side in a cataclysmic battle? The DM has to balance the wants and needs of every character and every player, and a character has inordinate weight when the rules bind her power to where her actions fall against a subjective, intangible metric.

You may be wondering why we can’t just ignore these restrictions. If they damage the player, the campaign, or the table experience, why use them at all? And you’re exactly right; we can throw out alignment restrictions for all classes as easily as waving our hand, and the game is not only undamaged, it’s improved. That’s the point. These rules serve no purpose except to bring characters in line with what the designers want players to want. Alignment restrictions shouldn’t be blanket problems inflicted by whole classes on the game at large. They should be character-specific and open to interpretation instead of load-bearing supports for a class’ entire feature set. The monk should decide whether his code allows him to affect others’ place in the world by freeing slaves, and the druid should decide whether to wrestle with her role in the apocalypse, all without the threat of having their powers spontaneously yanked away based on the interpretation of a single rule. If we’re going to use alignment, it should support the game, not take away from it.

This is something 5E did right. Classes don’t have alignment restrictions, and you can play a paladin of murder just as easily as a paladin of hugs. Subclasses might have limitations but they’re localized on the characters’ actions and worldview and they have nothing to do with the rest of the party. In these limitations I see opportunity, not bludgeons to force characters back in line. I might not like all the half-hearted ways 5E tried to lean toward narrativism, but I find no fault in letting players decide what their actions mean to them.

Now if only monsters had the same freedom, we’d be set.

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One Response to The Splash Damage of Alignment Restrictions

  1. Yanni says:

    This, a hundred times this. I’ve long despised the alignment system in D&D for a number of reasons, the idea that Goblin(or whatever) babies for example are evil and worth of death being chief amongst them.

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