Pathfinder SRD has a great description of the alignments, what typifies them, and how they compare, found here. Alignment is a terrific descriptor, and it is also a great way to convey the high stakes some choices carry with them.
An alignment Yellow Card is the DM’s way of saying, “hey, your character was acting outside their alignment! Just be aware!” There is no punitive aspect to it. A character acting outside their alignment is a character who is growing and changing! And growing and changing in character, particularly when confronted with tough moral choices, will almost always be rewarded (with hero points, xp, etc). Likewise, sticking to alignment against all odds demonstrates a character who has recommitted themselves to their ideals. A character who faces down a crisis of alignment and stays true will also almost always be rewarded.
Alignment is a short-hand for your character’s ideals, world-view, ethics, and morals. It clues the rest of the table in on when something is a big deal for the character. Alignment is not relativistic, it is absolute in the Pathfinder world. Killing innocents is always Evil, regardless of the character’s philosophy, for example.
By that token, actions are what dictate alignment. Evil thoughts do not make a character Evil. The most Lawful Good paladin in the world can and should sometimes have Evil or Chaotic thoughts. The fact that she then feels guilty about those thoughts reflects her true alignment. Casting certain spells, performing certain rituals, or even using certain items can also impact a character’s alignment. That same paladin might use the Arch-Lich’s Evil Freeze Ray to destroy the BBE. She has committed an Evil act. Killing the Arch-Lich was not Evil (he’s no innocent!), but using the Evil Freeze Ray is always Evil, it draws its power from the Dark Gods and visiting that power on the world (for whatever reason) is Evil.
Red Carding and the Powers That Be
The DM is tracking your alignment. So are the gods. If a character’s alignment has changed through repeated actions outside their listed alignment, the DM will supply a Red Card and a new alignment to the character. Players can and are encouraged to opt for Red Cards when they feel their character has gone beyond the limits of their listed alignment.
The gods sometimes take notice of actions that are exemplary of alignments (Good, Evil, Lawful, Chaotic, Neutral). Sometimes that notice manifests as boons (or “boons” in the case of some gods) to the characters. The DM will be using a modified version of the Ravenloft Campaign Setting Dark Powers rules to help determine when the gods (Dark and Otherwise) take notice of the characters’ actions.
Just remember: the Powers that Be are watching.
In short, a Yellow Card or even a Red Card is never a bad thing! It is my way of sticking to the short-hand, encouraging a world full of high-stakes moral choices, and providing the players with a fertile field for exploring the growing and changing internal lives of their characters! So, if the DM tosses an alignment note your way, think of it as one (or many) avenues of character growth and development.
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