Welcome to the first installment of Playing God. The purpose of this column is to discuss approaches, thoughts and pitfalls of house rules, the making of major changes to systems and fine tuning any rules or flavor issues in a game. This is a home for the frustrated game designer in all of us; I play a lot of HERO, one of the most customizable RPGs around, and I still house-rule it all over the place. Some of the ideas discussed may seem fairly basic to someone with a history of tweaking his own game, but I know I would have loved some advice back when I started doing this sort of thing. D20/3.x/Pathfinder will be used for many examples, but the ideas are for just about any system.

As an example, let's start with a high level overview of a not uncommon standard house-rule for d20/D&D based games. A basic decision that seems simple, but can have many secondary and tertiary effects. In this case the GM decides to toss out alignment. What all does this mean for the GM, and how much work will this necessitate? Lets take a look at just some highlights.

First we look at possible campaign and world effects; what cosmology does this universe have? Is the GM planning to use published cosmology such as the great wheel of D&D? If so then removing alignment kills much of the underpinning of this outer planar structure and will require great work to include setting material based on the wheel and alignment, such as Planescape. If the GM has no clear expectation of his cosmology, this decision could save work if the GM runs with the “I'll fill it in later when it becomes important” approach. Or one where the details of a specific cosmology is not as important - a city based E6* type of game where the characters will never visit the outer planes, for instance. Or removing alignment could create a lot of work for the GM, if planar adventures are a future campaign element. Of course the GM could very well chose to get rid of alignment because he has a particular cosmology he wants that is incompatible with the standard alignment structure.

What effect will the absence of alignment have on the gods of the world? As with the Great Wheel cosmology, if the GM is planning to use published gods, he will have to decide on how it affects the Deity’s relationships with each other. It also brings to question similar relationships with PCs. What is done with alignment restrictions of Clerics/Priests of gods? Are there no more alignment based Clerics? Do they instead all worship a god, an idea, or a pantheon? Like cosmology, this could be one of the things the GM desires to do himself, but if the reason for removal of alignment is simply a tonal one for the game, these are things that should also be examined.

What is to be done for the Paladin. Is he excised from the game? This is a not uncommon practice for those that have seen a few too many Lawful Arrogant Paladins. If they remain in the game without alignment are there Paladins of different codes, or do they follow the standard Paladin code, without alignment? One of the default backgrounds for a Paladin is that the character serves an alignment ideal. With no alignment in the game the question is much like that of the Cleric - what does the Paladin serve? Is it A God, a specific moral code, a religious order or something else?

Often alignment is discarded is to keep the game from having absolutes of moral conduct. The GM wants more shades of gray for his campaign tone. But doing so asks the question where does the moral code for characters come from? Do they come from normalized laws in the region, from the church or from tradition? Does each church have it's own moral code and if so how is the common man to know which one might be right? It could very well be that the GM wants it to be none of them. This same moral uncertainty could also lead into questions of what kind of creature it is okay for adventurers to kill without worry. This could lead to the following kind of situation - did some orc they kill have a baby? What are the character's going to do about it? Is it right to kill the orc baby, or do they take care of it, or turn it over to an orphanage? This may be exactly the result that is wanted by removing alignment, but not realizing the ripples of the choice can lead to uncomfortable situations in later sessions when these issues come up and the GM didn't plan for them.

Then on to mechanics: Detect Evil and Good, Protection from Same- the question here as for the Paladin- are they thrown out, or modified? If they are modified, does the GM have a particular global change, or is he going on a case by case basis? Protection from “X” stops summoned creatures in 3.x - if those spells are removed, is that aspect of the spells gone from the game, or is there a Protection from Summoned Creatures to replace it? If a Paladin is a class still available in the campaign, how does the character's Smite work - how is the target of the Smite decided? More cases of potential work for the GM later in the game.

Then we can look at extra-planer creatures - Demons and Devils for example. Are they as supernaturally evil as they are with a traditional alignment setup? If so, what tools do the player's have to be able to deal with that evil? That could very well be another purpose of removing alignment - have evil in the game be the “evil that men do” and ignore the supernatural evil elements. Again, this is something that a GM should be aware of when he decides to make the rule change.

So that is just a quick overview at possible issues from a simple, oft used rule change. There are ripples of the decision that follow through into the world and play.

The questions raised this time are going to be the kind addressed in this column. In this first article I wanted to give an idea of the kinds of things that could be discussed, and showing the scope of the changes that one house-rule can make, and how much work it could mean for the GM. Of course if the GM is one who enjoys creating the world and tone, and like me, a frustrated game designer, these things can make the difference between running a game, and breathing life into it.


* E6 is a popular variant of D&D that caps standard advancement at 6th level. It was created by Ryan Stoughton.