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So I was recently participating in a Pathfinder Society game. Our ship was attacked and boarded by pirates. First thing that happened was one of our party cast sleep, and succeeded in putting four of the pirates to sleep. Pirate 5 was killed, and six was dazed. Several players were rather gleefully trying to Coup De Grace the sleeping pirates, worse they were wanting to do this even after some of the more reasonable members of the party had helped me to start tying them up.

I brought up that Pathfinder Society doesn't allow evil characters, and everyone claimed to not be playing evil characters. Our DM at that point said that all of the sleeping pirates were dead (probably to stop it from becoming an argument). On the one hand, we were in a the lawless wilds, but on the other hand, it seems pretty much the definition of an evil act to kill a beaten, bound and helpless foe.

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I'd say it depends on which god the character worships. Some gods would consider it an evil act and others would consider it justified. As a DM I would review the pantheon and make decisions for each god, then give consequences (such as a minor quest) to those who violated the tenets of their faiths. –  Dietrich Epp Feb 25 '13 at 11:17
    
Divinities don't determine alignment in 3.PF, though worshiping a god may be a way of not ending up in a certain plane when you die (to wit, an LE character worshiping an LN god who then dies will still end up in that god's realm). Alignment, by the standard flavor, exists utterly independent of divinity. –  Lord_Gareth Feb 25 '13 at 13:48
    
Is this the right site to define what is and is not evil? –  Joe Feb 25 '13 at 19:04
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In the context of 3.PF's campaign settings, yes, it is. Note that I'm not touching IRL morality with a pole of any length. –  Lord_Gareth Feb 25 '13 at 19:49
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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/8002/… –  mxyzplk Feb 27 '13 at 3:11
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6 Answers

I believe that it really depends on the more precise circumstances whether or not using Coup the Grace on unconscious pirates is an evil act. I would need to know more about the preceding events, the characters actions, the pirates actions etc.

I can imagine situations when I as a DM would see it as an evil act and others when I wouldn't. Therefore, I'd like to take a more general approach to tackle the implicit parts of your question.

I think any alignment-related issue comes down to how you think about and accordingly handle "alignment". From my point of view it functions as a rough guideline to indicate a characters general take on ethics and life in general.

So, your chosen alignment indicates how your Character tries to behave. But - just as most people do in real life - (N)PCs struggle and don't always live up to their own expectations / ideas (after all they aren't robots; at least in Fantasy settings). So, it can be seen as part of good roleplaying to demonstrate a characters failures and struggle regarding his moral ideals*.

It's hard to think about alignment in absolute terms and therefore I handle it on a case-by-case basis. If I as a DM think a character - especially if it's an alignment-based class - is acting out of line repeatedly, I'll give him an in-game warning that his actions are inappropriate (f.i. his god speaks to him or even punishes his actions). If he still continues his wrongdoings, I will eventually change his alignment as a last resort but never out of the blue. Again, there might be exceptions: When a cleric sets an inhabited orphanage on fire insta-alignment-change is a very valid option.

So, is alignment somewhat squishy, mechanical-wise? Yes. Why? Because ethics / life is not black-or-white but greyscale. Does it make sense to have such a mechanization of ethics in a RPG? I think it can because it intends to make players and GMs think about that dimension of their characters. Is coup-de-graceing unconscious pirates evil? It may or may not be, depending on a more detailed, overall analysis of the situation.

Also, it noteworthy that even given more details two GMs might come to a different result. That's because alignment eventually depends on the GMs moral compass.

Alignment is a tool for developing your character's identity—it is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. In addition, few people are completely consistent.

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How would I ajudicate it? I would call it fair play. I'm assuming there wasn't talk beforehand that you would want to take any of the pirates alive, so once combat was joined, they died in combat.

Given that 1) most RPGs in my experience are written as heroic/good-guy games, and 2) the rules for Coup De Grace appear in the Player's guide instead of the DM guide (since DMs play more evil/bad-guy characters in my experience). It is my opinion that the folks who made the game (Paizo here since it's a Pathfinder question) WANT characters to be able to use the option. I feel that the Coup de Grace is not good or evil, but neutral in design.

However, I once played a ranger in a 2e game (back when rangers had to be good). We were in a stealth situation, a halfling jumped on my back and made quite a ruckus. Another character threw a net over him to immobilize him and he would not shut up. I told him to cut the yelling, only to be yelled at more. I stuck a sword in him, and the DM ruled I was a fighter at that point. We argued the point both in and out of game. The gist of her argument was that this guy was an innocent, but I argued back that he attacked us, thereby making the situation combat and the kill shot was part of the "fog of war". Granted, he was an innocent to the plans we had in that stealth situation (we were targeting an evil group a few blocks away and wanted to hit them with surprise, this guy was just paranoid that we were going to rob his house). The DM agreed with me that if I had won initiative and killed the halfer before the other character threw the net that it would NOT be an evil act. Which only started another round of the argument. Luckily once that character was retired a few sessions later, so did the argument.

I suspect this is one of those rules/rulings that will vary from table to table based on circumstances, player/dm temperament, etc. For the record, it should probably be covered in the table's houserules right next to things like whether you keep the roll if the dice rolls onto the floor.

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"If it's evil to coup de grace a character, why have the books put those rules in place?" We're still talking about whether it was an in-character evil act, right? Right?! –  Eric Feb 25 '13 at 19:08
    
-1 for 'why have the books put those rules in place?'; having rules for inflicting fire damage doesn't allow you to burn people alive. But +1 for the last paragraph; like most alignment arguments, this seems to have started because different players had different ideas of what is unacceptable. –  TimLymington Feb 25 '13 at 21:38
    
Your DM's reaction in this case is truely beyond the pale. If that had happened to me, not only would I immediately walk out and refuse to play again with that person (which I do NOT do lightly, as players are hard to come by in my circles), but I would be extremely leery of even being in the same room with someone who is that strongly opposed to people defending themselves. –  Matthew Najmon Jun 20 '13 at 21:49
    
This wasn't some sleeping bystander you killed just in case they awoke and blew your cover. This is someone who attacked you just on suspicion that you might try to rob their home. That's already far more evil than anything your character is being accused of, and knocks him right out of "innocent" territory, for a start. On top of that, net or no net, right up to the moment of death he was still screaming to alert the main villains. Thus the net had not really done much to reduce the degree of threat he posed to your life and those of your party. –  Matthew Najmon Jun 20 '13 at 21:51
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No, it was not an evil act

Was it a Good act? Probably not. But there's that N in the middle for the act to fall under. On the one hand, the pirates were helpless, and thus not an immediate threat. However, on the other hand, they were enemy combatants brought down by a legitimate weapon of war. If you weren't in the lawless wilds, a case might be made for sparing their lives - however, you were in fact in the lawless wilds. A ship has limited provisions, even more limited space, and shoddy security with which to hold active and hostile forces your prisoner. Delivering them to civilization would only have resulted in their deaths anyway (typically by hanging, the traditional penalty for piracy), so with keeping them being impractical and freeing them being immoral, the only other option is to kill them.

Now, if you're going to execute them anyway, a Coup de Grace is frankly the ideal tool. Waiting for them to be conscious and having them duel you is both arrogant and immoral, as you're arming a dangerous enemy around innocents. A Coup de Grace while they're unconscious is swift, merciful, and preserves their dignity as sapient beings by not forcing them to suffer undue pain and humiliation. Afterwards, a sea burial with a minimum of fuss or insults would be appropriate.

Is it dishonorable? Probably. But Chaotic Good is still good, and Chaotic Good would be pointing out the above.

Heroes of Horror, Champions of Valor and Champions of Ruin are great resources for understanding 3.PF's alignment system; though they don't actually solve the problems of alignment arguments, they do go to great lengths discussing gray areas, the conflict between good intentions and evil actions (and vice-versa) and what it means to be good and evil. You'll still have to do quite a bit of work and extrapolation yourself, as they don't actually cause alignment to make sense (nor do they explain or overwrite previous inconsistencies and double standards, of which there are many) but they're a great guide for thinking about alignment and thus making judgements about aligned actions.

In chat, BESW added these statements from the alignment section of the PFSRD:

First: Good characters and creatures protect innocent life. Evil characters and creatures debase or destroy innocent life. Emphasis on "innocent" both times, which pirates are not. Second: Good implies [...] a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Your point about mercy killing hinges on giving them a dignified death.

(Quote edited: bolding added for ease of reading)

The PFSRD then goes on to state that Evil beings kill out of convenience; however, killing these pirates is not simply a matter of convenience. Not only are they likely to die anyway (as the result of their conviction for various crimes), but most ships, as stated before, lack reliable resources for holding people prisoner - especially for holding them prisoner in a fashion consistent with compassion and human(oid) dignity. A swift death while the Sleep spell has them unconscious preserves their dignity, avoids unnecessary pain, and prevents further harm and threat to innocent seafarers who might otherwise have been victimized by these pirates.

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+1 for pointing out that the traditional punishment for piracy was death, so the choice (assuming that your setting follows this tradition) is not between "kill them" and "just lock them up", but between "kill them now" vs. "let someone else kill them later". Yes, killing the pirates without a trial might be unlawful (although even that point could be argued under the given circumstances, especially if the captain decides to hold a summary trial and find them all guilty), but (at least if they were caught in the act, and thus clearly guilty) it's not necessarily evil. –  Ilmari Karonen Feb 25 '13 at 17:23
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+1 but also clarification on saving them for trial. The Captain of a vessel at sea is considered the legal authority and can hold court/try prisoners/sentence them (to death if warranted) so there is no need to deliver the prisoners to civil authorities. But this doesn't detract from ur answer that it was completely NON-evil to kill pirates boarding your vessel. –  Ben-Jamin Feb 25 '13 at 18:32
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Too bad for us question-answerers, most of the rules of this game (and its D&D relatives) leave it up to the DM to decide whether an act is Evil and if so, whether it influences a character's alignment (in the way it allows the DM to choose to put a group of Kobolds or an Orc in the next room). And that's okay, because the alignment system isn't intended to be an obstacle for the players (as opposed to that Orc in the next room), it's intended as a role-playing aid. Leaving the exact implementation to DM's discretion gives it the flexibility it needs to be fun, while providing the moral framework a fantasy setting typically requires.

I say most of the rules, because, for example, casting Animate Dead, a spell with an [Evil] descriptor, should RAW probably be considered an Evil act (cf. Good-aligned divine casters who are prohibited from casting Evil spells).

But for every other act, RAW, it depends...

Tell me, does your DM subscribe to the idea of an absolute alignment system within his/her game?

If so, what else, presumably next to casting Evil spells, does he/she consider irredeemably Evil acts?

  • killing an innocent, sentient lifeform? — Then the answer is no.
  • killing a helpless, sentient lifeform? — Then yes.
  • killing a sentient lifeform? — Then yes.
  • gleefully killing? — Then yes.
  • killing a sentient lifeform except when you're in the lawless wilds and they are pirates? — Then no.

Or does your DM prefer a more relative alignment system, where there are no such moral absolutes? — Then mu, your DM will have to make a complex value judgement in their heads depending on all relevant factors including their own moral compass. Maybe animating a few mindless dead to keep a city from being destroyed isn't so Evil after all... Maybe the pirates were only pirating to feed their families, killing them—no questions asked: pretty Evil...

Most probably your DM uses a mixture of these two: some things are absolutely Good, some things are absolutely Evil, everything in between is Neutral and therefore subject to the aforementioned "complex value judgement". In this case, if the pirate-killing isn't in the DM's list of irredeemable Evils nor evil enough to trigger an Evil value judgement by the DM, the act remains Neutral. Although your DM might still rule that the Good (or Neutral yet good-inclined) god you worship decides to like you a little less, there are no direct gameplay repercussions.

Anyway, enough contingencies and speculation. The answer to this question then, should be:

Ask your DM.

(Just like when you want to know what's waiting for you in the dungeon's next room.)

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Morals are not absolute.

There are some things that some people consider evil and others do not. Is stealing from rich people and give it to the the poor the right thing to do? It depends who you ask.

It's not bad that different characters have different opinions on whether slaying the pirates is good or evil. Some people would think that causing unnecessary deaths is evil. Some can see it as evil, but a necessary evil, as they could return to cause trouble. Some even could think that slaying them is the right thing to do, because they are murderers that could bring further deaths to other innocent victims.

These different opinions bring conflict into the game. And the conflict is great for roleplaying purposes. You should not discuss it out of character, but in character. You should not avoid the in-game debate just because you have the out-of-game rule of not being evil. No one would consider himself as evil, so let the characters discuss what is right and what is wrong.

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The problem with this is that in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, apparently, morals are absolute. Otherwise detect evil and the like would not work. Somehow (and the books are extremely unclear on how this is even possible), these games and settings are supposed to have objective morality and ethics. I would argue that this is only possible in the most naive and simplistic of campaigns, but that seems to be what TSR/WotC/Paizo was aiming for. –  KRyan Feb 25 '13 at 15:14
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@KRyan Well, we can assume some absolute morals. Killing innocent people is evil. Rape is another evil act. Steal from poor people seems evil to every nearly all. But between the black and white morals there are space for gray areas. I am not a great D&D connaiseur, but I imagine there are some acts difficult to calify as evil or good, those in the gray areas is often the source of conflict between characters. Otherwise, D&D characters would have never moral dilemmas. You could not make interesting characters or situations for your players. –  Flamma Feb 25 '13 at 17:42
    
Yeah, that's... pretty much what I'd argue the end result of the alignment system as written is. You cannot make interesting characters or situations for your players, at least in a moral or ethical sense. –  KRyan Feb 25 '13 at 17:53
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I’d say no. If anything, it’d be dishonorable, but it’s Law and not Good (or, at least, Lawful Good) that concerns itself with codes of honor, but considering they were pirates who presumably had every intent to kill you, using lethal force is perfectly reasonable. Good characters are not expected to take prisoners rather than kill, unless the person in question is an innocent, perhaps having been misled or mind-controlled, or perhaps in the case of surrender.

In this case, they fell to an offensive action, and were slain. Considering the potency of sleep, this would most likely be a tried-and-true combat method in any setting that followed the rules of Pathfinder. Not killing them/taking them hostage might be a Good act, and killing them is certainly not, but that doesn’t necessarily push it all the way to Evil.

Moreover, to address the concerns in your question, a single Evil act does not an Evil character make.

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Additional information supporting this answer can be found in Heroes of Horror, Champions of Valor, and Champions of Ruin, which supersede information on the subject found in the Book of Exalted Deeds and Book of Vile Darkness. –  Lord_Gareth Feb 25 '13 at 4:57
    
@Lord_Gareth All 3.5 books rather than Pathfinder books, so I'm not sure that the Pathfinder Society cares. Still, alignment didn't change much to my knowledge between the two, so they may be useful if only for the reasons why. –  KRyan Feb 25 '13 at 5:05
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Where does 'every intent to kill you' come from? Historical pirates had every incentive not to kill those who surrendered. Granted, there may be a reason why these particular pirates should not be spared; but the mindset 'anyone who opposes me should be killed in any way possible' is closer to Evil than Neutral. –  TimLymington Feb 25 '13 at 14:38
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@TimLymington "Anyone who attacks me with violence and potentially lethal force of their own prerogative and for their own selfish gain is not someone whose life I need to worry about protecting," is very Neutral. "Looking out for myself" is a Neutral attitude. It's only Evil when you have no problem harming those who never threatened you. –  KRyan Feb 25 '13 at 15:13
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@TimLymington Yes, but in this case they are magically compelled to sleep for a very limited amount of time, not sleeping in their own beds on their own ship. If sleep lasted longer/was less prone to waking, I could see an argument for sticking them on their own ship and leaving, but sleep does not give that option. Would you have felt differently if the spell cast by the Wizard had simply killed them outright? What difference is there between weird and sleep + coup de grace here? –  KRyan Feb 25 '13 at 19:29
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