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.

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Faith: Opening and Ending

I love working music into campaigns. Whether it’s using the lyrics of a song as inspiration for a plot or naming campaign villains after a specific artist’s works, tying music into the game is among the most deeply rewarding, if normally private, activities I do as a DM. I think of them almost like Easter eggs I leave for myself, inside jokes as much as creative tools. Though it’s even better if players can figure them out too, and I’ve been known to pick music that hints at plotlines or spells out enemy weaknesses to reward the enterprising researcher. I haven’t yet built an entirely campaign around a soundtrack, but I’m slowly inching my way there.

Obviously Faith was always going to have an anime-style opening and closing song, but I couldn’t approach them the same way I usually do. First, the songs had to be Japanese pop or rock, not the genres I usually use. Second, they couldn’t already be tied to an existing anime, because I was worried any association with a known work would be too strong for be to overcome. Third, they could not relate to the campaign or its plot in a meaningful way. Anime themes rarely have very much to do with the shows they bound and I wanted to keep up that fine if weird tradition. With this in mind the feel of a song became much more important than the lyrics, and I had to go digging until I found something with the emotional impact I wanted.

Now that we’re halfway through the first season of the campaign (episode 13 is today) I’ve finally found something I’m happy with:

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A Window in the Fourth Wall

DMing involves a lot of juggling acts. You have to balance what you want versus what the players want, challenge versus frustration, character and player spotlights, and all the payoffs that keep people at your table. Different games involve different tradeoffs; a DM with a rules lawyer and a thespian in the party faces different challenges from a DM with five mix-maxers with competing builds, and only certain campaigns have to handle keeping the feel of a popular video game franchise. There’s no single piece of advice I can give on keeping everybody’s interests out of conflict, but the most helpful thing I can suggest is to keep everybody communicating. As an example, I have a story to share.

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Faith: Signature Items (Angeline)

I had a rule of thumb for the capstone abilities: if a player read the ability I was trying to give them and their only response was “are you high?”, I did it right. Each capstone is ludicrously powerful, able to swing a battle all on its own. They’re basically custom 10th-level spells, atomic representations of the characters both by the dictionary definition of atomic and the fact that they’ll blow up an entire combat. With that in mind, I love this capstone. Of all the things I’ve written for D&D, this ranks among my favorites, alongside the healer class or spells like Grog’s audible profanity.

Angeline’s item is something like the opposite of Jace’s. Jace wanted to be good at one specific spell, but Angeline could end up with any spell in the book, so she needed an item that would complement almost anything and everything Pathfinder had to offer. Also, it had to be pretty. As if that wasn’t rough enough, Angeline is also the party’s smart guy by omission (Liam, the bard, is actually the chick, and Sarai, the scholar, is actually the big guy) but had exactly zero ability to perform that role. The solution I got was to ignore the build entirely and focus on the character. Angeline isn’t a sorcerer, she’s a magical girl, so I looked for neat magical girl powers and translated them into Pathfinder rules. That’s what I did the whole time, really, but here it stands out more than in other places.

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Faith: Signature Items (Sarai)

I ran the first draft of these items by each player, but I didn’t mail the entire group. I wanted everybody’s item design to take place in a relative vacuum. Each player knew the early levels I posted in March, but nobody knew how everybody else’s items progressed until they were all almost done. This wasn’t to avoid an arms race or prevent players from working together for ridiculous combos. Heck, I want ridiculous combos as long as they’re cinematic instead of blatant rules manipulation. But I thought it would be easier to get something each player wanted if they weren’t worried about how it would interact with anybody else. Balancing things was my job, not theirs. The versions posted here are the canonical item descriptions, so you’re finding out about this only slightly after the players themselves. I hope you’re proud.

Sarai wants gears. Her player asked for the ability to escalate when situations seemed especially dire, to have a well of power or resources she doesn’t tap until it’s time to disable her limiters. Pathfinder hates that, and it has no design space for characters getting stronger as the situation gets worse. I had a whole character build based on it in 3.5E and not a single thing in that build got ported to Pathfinder, so I just stole things from a previous edition. Sarai’s desperation mode is based on the alternate barbarian rage from the 3.5E Player’s Handbook II, and her limit break is the logical extension of it. Besides that all she really wanted some some extra accuracy so her big attacks hit more often, so I had a bunch of room to come up with weird abilities for a scholarly magic/fighter snake who worships a bug of camaraderie.

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