Understanding Alignment I: Introduction

With some care, creativity, and humour, thinking about ethics in Pathfinder can improve the quality of our roleplaying experience and even illuminate some genuine moral truth, however modest.

That summarizes the guiding values of this blog, and will inform everything I do here. But while I plan to apply the resources of academic philosophy to Pathfinder and take the subject seriously, that doesn’t mean that I plan to take myself too seriously: not only do I think that this is all more or less accessible to any roleplaying gamers willing to think critically, but I also think that this discussion is better conducted with humility and humour, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

After all, at the end of the day, while morality by its very nature gets at what is most important in life, this blog is going to involve a lot of monsters, magic, gods, demons, undead abominations, talking swords, and sentient household objects, all of which is just tremendously made up.

To start us off, I want to talk about alignment. Alignment is one of the core concepts of character and creature construction in Pathfinder, and probably the single most important element of understanding morality at the gaming table (hence the name of this blog). I don’t think that my project (or anything like it) will be able to get off the ground without having a good working notion of what we’re talking about when we talk about alignment, and it will certainly be something that keeps coming up here.

Why, then, is alignment so poorly understood at the gaming table? No Pathfinder topic sparks argument as quickly or fervently than asking whether some action fits a character’s alignment (or what her alignment is supposed to be), whether it’s in the middle of a dungeon crawl or on an esoteric online message board.

And this isn’t like the rules around carrying capacity or siege equipment, where they just never come up and no one bothers to read them anyway: alignment comes up all the time, from rookies rolling up their very first character to experienced murder-hobos who’ve been playing together for decades and still fight over what should cause a paladin to fall. Despite how central it is to how we play Pathfinder, alignment is an obscure and fuzzy concept with more questions surrounding it than answers.

To some extent, that’s a sign that we’re actually on the right track with alignment: for all kinds of reasons, real moral questions are complex and difficult, and any easy answers you find to them are almost certain to be the wrong ones. But whether we’re wondering about how to treat strangers or how a lawful neutral cleric of Asmodeus should feel about black-market slavery, the effort alone of trying our best to solve these issues can teach us something important about ethics, even though – or perhaps even because – the questions are difficult and complicated with no easy answers in sight.

In that spirit, I’ll be dedicating my first few blog posts to getting a handle on the very concept of alignment in Pathfinder. Check out the next post for my look at a few different simple answers to the question of how we should think about alignment…and why those answers are indeed unsatisfying to the thoughtful gamer.