Friday 21 March 2014

Champions of Balance

I’ve been looking forward to Champions of Balance for some time. Over the years, there have been many books published covering the topic alignment in Dungeons & Dragons/Pathfinder games. However, these book have tended to focus on good and/or evil. There has been a dearth of books covering the alignment that sits between the two: neutral (there also haven’t been a whole lot looking at law and chaos). To an extent, neutrality’s position as an in-between alignment makes it harder to define and discuss. Yet, in many ways that makes discussing it all the more important. I was also quite impressed with Champions of Purity, which looks at good alignments in Pathfinder, so this is another reason I looked forward to the arrival of Champions of Balance.

The wait was certainly worth it. Champions of Balance is quite a remarkable book and exceeds my already high expectations of it. As I’ve said before (in my review of Champions of Purity, linked above), I’m not a fan of alignment overall, and I honestly think the game could be improved without it—though it would entail quite a bit of work to make the change. However, if it’s going to be there, you might as well make the best of it. Yet alignment can be a difficult thing to adjudicate. Good and evil can be hard to fully define, and if you can’t define good and evil, then how do you define what fits between them? In the real world, these are just abstract concepts. Everyone has their own concept of what good and evil are, and they bring these concepts with them into the game. Yet in the game, alignment is not so abstract; indeed, it is an absolute concept where one can be objectively defined as “lawful good” or “chaotic evil”. In the real world, most people will agree that other people can behave in evil ways, but virtually no one would ever actually admit to being evil, as no one actually believes themselves to be evil. There are always justifications and reason for actions. Yet in-game, a detect evil spell can state quite clearly that someone is evil and there’s little one can do to argue against it. Outsiders representing the ideals of particular alignments exist in the multiverse. These powerful beings’ very existences are centred on, and defined by, their alignments. As such, the game needs a clear definition of what good and evil are. I’m not sure that that definition has been fully attained—it probably hasn’t, as there will still be disagreements between players—but books like Champions of Purity and now, Champions of Balance have moved things a little closer to achieving that definition.

So, how exactly does Champions of Balance define neutrality? Is it a case of someone who is just a little morally wavering, someone who isn’t quite good, but still refrains from evil acts? Is it someone who just doesn’t have a rigid moral code and is just indifferent to it all? Or is neutrality that oft-touted, but somewhat bizarre concept of perfect balance, where every act of one alignment is countered by an act of its opposite alignment? Is neutrality something actively chosen or is it something people end up following just because they don’t quite live up to the ideals of any other alignment? Well, it’s a little bit of all of that. Much like Champions of Purity does with good, Champions of Balance achieves a definition of neutrality that allows for a wide variety of character types and personalities. After all, there are only nine alignments total in the game, yet there are far more than nine different kinds of people.

Champions of Balance follows the same basic structure as Champions of Purity. In comparison with most Pathfinder Player Companion books, it is quite heavy on descriptive (“fluff”) content. Just like with good, a lot of discussion is necessary to tie down just what “neutral” means. Most of this fluff content is concentrated in the first half of the book with mechanical options (“crunch”) taking up much of the second half. This doesn’t mean that there’s no crunch early in the book and no fluff later, but simply that there’s more of each in their respective locations. I tend to prefer fluff to crunch (and as such, my reviews often focus a little more on fluff), but I have to say I really like many of the crunch options in this book. They are generally very flavourful and work to enhance roleplay as well as offering mechanical benefits.

The book opens with a look at “Why Be Neutral?” and offers a number of brief, very basic reasons why a player might choose to make a neutral character. It introduces the various concepts that the book will be tackling, although doesn’t yet go into a great amount of detail about them (that comes later). There is also a sidebar on “Strategic Neutrality”, which talks about players who choose neutral alignments for their characters simply because there are fewer spells and abilities in the game that directly affect neutral characters. The sidebar stresses the importance of the roleplaying aspect of alignment and choosing an alignment that will make the game fun for everyone at the table, not just one that provides the most mechanical benefits. Finally, this section also contains a new story feat, Crisis of Conscience, which is for characters making the journey from either evil to good or good to evil and who are currently at the neutral stage of that journey. The goal is to reach the desired alignment. This feat has a great deal of roleplaying potential and in the hands of a good GM and player, it could prove to be a very fun feat to include in a game. A tale about a character seeking redemption, for example, could be very compelling. Alas, it’s also a feat that could be easily abused, especially as there is the option to take it a second time after completing it to allow you to go back the other direction—back to your original alignment (be that good or evil). Reaching the goal in either direction requires simply committing an act of “decisive good or evil that shifts your alignment accordingly”. There are some examples of decisive acts given, but ultimately this requires careful GM adjudication (surprisingly, the feat makes no mention of using the redemption system given in Champions of Purity to help adjudicate characters trying to become good) as it would be pretty easy for players to just do an act or two of good (for example) to change alignment and get the completion benefits, then immediately revert back to doing evil acts. Fortunately, the aforementioned sidebar, although not on exactly the same topic, helps stress the importance of the roleplaying side of this feat.

The next three sections of the book take a look at each of the three morally neutral alignments in turn, starting with lawful neutral. Provided with each alignment are three “philosophies” showing different ways to play the alignment. They helpfully illustrate how a single alignment can cover a breadth of character personalities. There is also a look at the advantages and challenges of each alignment, as well as the kinds of allies and opportunities each alignment presents. Each alignment also has a couple of traits associated with it. Finally, there is a sidebar with each alignment covering a topic specific to that alignment, and all of them address what I consider very important things. The lawful neutral sidebar looks at the relationship between lawful neutral characters and the local laws of the land, and whether such characters always obey those laws. Players and GMs often conflate “lawful” with “law-abiding”, and this sidebar points out the ways in which a character can be law-breaking and still lawful by following a rigid, personal code. It emphasizes, however, that the code must be reasonably detailed and “more than a set of consistent emotional responses to certain situations”. The neutral sidebar looks at the concept of “Intelligent Neutrality”. Animals and mindless creatures generally have an alignment of neutral; however, this doesn’t mean that intelligent creatures who behave like animals get to have an alignment of neutral as well, even those who follow naturalistic beliefs. Intent plays a role in alignment and intelligent creatures are still responsible for their actions—an important thing to stress. Finally, the chaotic neutral sidebar looks at the differences between chaotic neutral and chaotic evil. Too many people use the unpredictability of chaotic neutral to commit evil acts and not have to write “evil” on their character sheets. This sidebar sets the record straight that this isn’t what chaotic neutral is about.

Following the discussion of each neutral alignment, the book moves to an overview of various neutral nations, planes, and organizations, showing how neutrality can exist at more than just the personal level, and providing locations and groups for neutral characters to belong to. The neutral organizations also contain a benefit for characters with the Leadership feat who belong to that organization. The section also introduces a new feat, Practiced Leadership (which requires Leadership as a prerequisite). This feat gives some added bonuses to a character’s cohort and each of the organizations in this section also provides an additional bonus for these cohorts.

From here, Champions of Balance turns its focus to mechanical options for characters. There are a number of new subdomains, ninja tricks, a couple of archetypes (the negotiator for bards and survivor for druids), new feats (including some grit feats for gunslingers), a new bloodline for sorcerers, a new cavalier order, new alchemist discoveries, new arcane discoveries for wizards, and more. What I really like about the options in this second half of the book is that, for the most part, they contain great roleplaying hooks that help to expand the whole concept of playing neutral characters. I also like that many of them (particularly the spells) help to redress the fact that there are very few abilities in the game that specifically affect neutral creatures, even though there is a plethora of abilities that affect good, evil, lawful, or chaotic creatures. Several of the spells are based on existing spells that already have variants for different alignments but neglect the neutral alignments. Dispel balance, for example, works like dispel evil (and its variants), except that it works against creatures with a neutral component to their alignment.

One of my favourite new additions is the “impossible” bloodline for sorcerers. This bloodline basically gives sorcerers an insight into the paradoxical nature of reality and its abilities are based around altering reality in some manner (like walking up walls as if they were floors). The order of the scales (the new cavalier order) looks quite interesting, but once again fails to address the order’s place in the setting—a continuing problem with cavalier orders.

Champions of Balance also includes a new prestige class, the envoy of balance. This class, aimed at spellcasters, seeks to maintain the balance between good and evil, law and chaos. Its members must be true neutral. The concept of “balance” is a bit of an odd one, and I’m not sure this book does a perfect job of discussing it. How exactly does one balance good and evil? It certainly can’t be that every good action is met with an equivalent evil one, as evil beings don’t commit nothing but evil acts. Even a single evil act can be all it takes to make a character evil. One of the philosophies in the earlier section on Neutral characters is the agent of balance, and this philosophy attempts to address this difficult and problematic concept, and it’s this philosophy that forms the basis of the envoy of balance prestige class. Unfortunately, there really isn’t room to go into enough detail on the concept and that makes the envoy of balance a bit difficult to approach from a roleplaying perspective, even though it might offer interesting abilities. I’m not sure anyone could ever really play an envoy of balance that truly reaches the class’s strange ideals.

Something that surprised—and also pleased me—is that there is no centrefold in Champions of Balance. When I say it pleased me, I don’t mean that I think there should never be a centrefold and hooray! they finally got rid of it. Rather, I’m pleased that one hasn’t been included simply for the sake of including one. I’ve talked about this before (most recently in my review of Bastards of Golarion). While these two-page spreads in every Player Companion since Varisia, Birthplace of Legends are often very good and enhance their respective books as a whole, there are a few volumes where the centrefold seems to be there simply because there’s supposed to be one there and not because there’s anything useful to put there. Its absence from Champions of Balance shows a willingness to leave it out when its not needed—and that’s a very good thing, indeed.

The best thing about Champions of Balance is it adds greater dimension to the neutral alignments. It makes them more than just in-betweens, and gives players a wealth of background, advice, and mechanical options for their neutral characters. It’s definitely one of my favourite alignment books I’ve read. As someone who doesn’t really like alignment, the fact that I think this is a very good book is pretty high praise. I am intrigued to see what Champions of Corruption will bring. That book hasn’t been announced at this time, but its eventual existence seems inevitable. I’m not into games with evil PCs, but a discussion of evil in the game is an important conclusion to the discussion of good and neutrality.


  1. I don't know where else to say this but I have off topic question. How would you rank the pathfinder adventure paths (rise, curse, darkness, legacy, council, king, serpent, jade, shackles, star, reign and wrath) in order from best to worst in terms of overall quality. I would like to know because your reviews are so good and reliable but you have no interest in looking at past AP's. It would please me greatly to know.

    1. Hmmm... Interesting question. It's not that I have no interest in looking at past APs (I actually do have such an interest). It's just that I don't have the time. I keep hoping that I'll eventually get the chance to go back and write reviews of earlier ones.

      At any rate, ranking them all from best to worst is a tough call. I would put a lot of them pretty close together in terms of overall quality, so the exact order I'd put them in might vary depending on when you ask me, but I'll give it my best shot. To date, I have not read Second Darkness, Carrion Crown, or Skull and Shackles all the way through (though I have read bits and pieces of them), so I can't really rank them. As for the rest, I'd probably put Curse of the Crimson Throne or Reign of Winter at the top, followed by Kingmaker and Rise of the Runelords. Wrath of the Righteous would probably come next and then maybe Jade Regent, Legacy of Fire, and Council of Thieves. At the bottom would come Shattered Star and Serpent's Skull.

      Of course, every adventure path has strong points and weak points. Souls for Smuggler's Shiv (the opener of Serpent's Skull) is a brilliant adventure. It's a shame the rest of the AP is somewhat lacklustre. And a good GM can make even the worst adventure a lot of fun.

      Hope that helps!

  2. The adventure path material is high quality material, thats said you need to find out your gaming groups average style. Thats the tuff one. I have a split group older players that are old school and prefer AD&D1 its more about the experience & the sand box go anywhere mentality, the other a younger base and pathfinder players former D&D3.5 who like to build characters and history. Its more about the plot and mystery and intregue. It boils down to Diablo2 vs Skyrim. I wouldn't go racing out and get a ton of Adventure path stuff only to find they they don;t like that style. Know you players, have people give you a love/hate blog. Know you time frame, how much play are you looking at, and prob when. Once a week/2 weeks month? For 6 months year?
    Sounds over the top but its actual what you need to do to find your target block.