Monday, November 14, 2016

A Rebuttal to The "Hack" of Using Spells to Control Your Alignment

So, as we all know, Pathfinder now has rules in Horror Adventures that state expressly that casting spells with an alignment component can change your alignment. I covered this weeks ago in my Crunch post Horror Adventures Settles The Argument About Evil Spells and Alignments. However, as I've said before, absolutely no mechanic in gaming causes more vehement (and occasionally incoherent) arguments than alignment does. This was no exception. And the most common argument I heard for why this was a poor decision was that it meant spellcasters could now regulate their own alignment through the spells they used. Eaten too many babies? Don't worry, I'll just cast this good-aligned spell a few times, and there we go, back to neutral. Uh-oh, I used soul harvest as a way to get past a bad guy... guess I'll just use angel cuddle until I've been redeemed.

That's not how this works... that's not how any of this works...
Now, mechanically, that scenario (ridiculous as it is) is possible. However, by suggesting that's what players are going to do in order to somehow "game" their alignment ignores a lot of other facets.

Why This "Hack" is Pointless

In order for this sort of alignment maintenance to happen via spellcasting, it requires a spellcaster of a certain alignment to learn spells of an opposing alignment. If you're a good-aligned spellcaster, why would you learn animate dead, for example? And if you're an evil-aligned spellcaster, why would you learn celestial healing, particularly when infernal healing is an option? Perhaps a neutral spellcaster would know them both, and use them when appropriate, but why ensure that you cast an even number of good and evil spells? Because that's not, exactly, what "being neutral" means.

Seriously, this isn't a rhetorical question.
While it is possible for you to "atone" for your one evil spell with good spells, it's on the player to explain A) why the character would have spells from both ends of the spectrum, and B) why that character would feel the need to play one step forward, and one step back? Alignment is a meta concept, after all, which means that the characters are often unaware of where they sit on the spectrum without some form of highly-specific spell to tell them where they are.

More importantly, though, a player should ask why the character would even feel the need to bounce back and forth. Aside from the player's own, personal desire to fit squarely into a good or evil bracket that, as far as their characters know, doesn't even exist.

If a character is not a member of a class for whom alignment is important (such as a wizard, a magus, or even a bard), then there's no purpose to using spells to "cheat" the alignment rule that would make you good or evil for dipping your fingers into pools of liquid malevolence or beneficence. If a character is a member of a class for whom alignment is important (clerics, warpriests, inquisitors, etc.), then the question should be why would this person blatantly reach outside the alignment they're supposed to be maintaining to use tools that are outside their toolbox? This is particularly true for divine casters. Because while it's true that a good-aligned cleric could pray for spells with the evil descriptor, why would a good-aligned god grant those spells to them in the first place?

Roleplay Your Changing Alignment

The big question that playing footsie with your alignment by casting spells should ask, though, is what are the roleplay and story implications for that kind of flirtation? Does the wizard, who thought all magic was just a tool, develop a taste for true darkness? Does he begin relying on evil spells, even when he doesn't need them, just for the sickening rush of power? Will his reputation, and legacy, be twisted as he refuses to let go of his corruption?

Why did I change my seal? No reason, really.
The same is true from the other direction. What happens when the evil necromancer learns good-aligned spells in order to trick his opponents, but ends up seeing the light when he uses them too many times? Does he try to go back to his old ways, but the things he's done, and the person he was, are so revolting to him now that he can never understand how he once performed such awful acts without thought or care?

Lastly, it's important to note that a changed alignment doesn't wipe your slate clean as a character. For example, an evil character who, for some reason, becomes good-aligned through use of a good-aligned spell doesn't get to shirk responsibility for all the evil acts they may have committed. Their deeds were still done, and the enemies they made are still their enemies. There's also the question of what's going to happen when their masters find they've wandered off the proper alignment path. How hard will the character fight to maintain its new outlook on life when it knows that cult leaders, demon lords, and others have invested a great deal in them remaining evil?

Your alignment is an important aspect of your character, but it is not a get-out-of-jail free card. You can be good-aligned and still be wanted for crimes. You can be evil-aligned, and still find a way to never stray into illegitimate areas of the law. Finally, yes, you can alter your alignment by using good or evil spells... but the real question you should be asking yourself is what purpose does that kind of metagaming serve?

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday entry. Hopefully it helps some folks who've been grappling with this issue, and it stops some arguments at your tables. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to make a small donation. Donate at least $1 a month, and there's some swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?


  1. All the rules do is divorce players actions from the mechanics. The "spells change your alignment" is just as meaningless as the "hack" of performing alignment calculus. The GM has always been the force that handles alignment and character actions, not the rules.

  2. I agree with pretty much all of your above post, with one important sticker. Divine casters that are clerics, cannot prepare spells that are in opposition to their alignment. Quote from the srd"
    Chaotic, Evil, Good, and Lawful Spells A cleric can't cast spells of an alignment opposed to her own or her deity's (if she has one). Spells associated with particular alignments are indicated by the chaotic, evil, good, and lawful descriptors in their spell descriptions."

  3. We had a good version of this mechanic earlier. We had a sorceress from 3.5 ed rules who became discouraged from the staying power of her spells. Through her own research and roleplaying started to turn evil and learned necromantic spells. True she was a force to be reckoned with on her own, but she found that raising dead and empowering her undead to be more interesting in reaching her overall goal. Hiding the gradual alignment change from the rest of the party was actually pretty easy as she slowly turned to using the darker arts and her attitude adjusted accordingly over time with it. We didn't have any party alignment requirements so no one noticed it as being out of place to use Finger of Death instead of something nicer.

  4. Paladins have Detect Evil. I game with a player that began playing DnD in the original white box, and who never really "Got" that paladin codes had changed.

    Back then, Paladins weren't supposed to travel with anyone evil willingly, and were expected to frequently check to make sure they weren't.

    Traditionally, Detect Evil has detected evil presences or negative energy, which often includes any evil character depending on the GM.

    The end result is that whenever someone played an evil character, they and the paladin alike had to metagame hard in order to make sure the paladin wouldn't instantly try to kill them.

    So, when gaming with people that have had the same vision of what a paladin was since DnD was a new concept, this rule only serves to destroy the party and cause a group to shatter ICly and OOCly alike.

    That's why I disagree with it.

  5. Evil spells often make no sense. Utilizing Symbol of Pain and Painstrike which are the fantasy equivalent of rubber bullets is a heinous act. Meanwhile giving someone 3rd degree burns over the entire surface of their body with a fireball is acceptably righteous.

    Alignment really has no place in most game mechanics.

    1. Man, pain spells are a bitch and a half.

    2. That awkward moment when one of your players comments on a comment.

    3. I would argue that the difference here is intent.

  6. I always treated alignment as a purely academic thing. A sort of cosmic background scale that measures your actions, which are ultimate your own decision

    the impression I get from many people complaining about this change was that to them, alignment was a straitjacket, a cause rather than an effect. They help people in need at their own expense because they are good aligned, rather than the other way around.

    Because of how easy it is for people to "game" their alignment, I've come to a conclusion: In a world where magic is as researched as it is, and in a world in which there is a literal god of fairness (based Abadar), Alignment isn't really taken in to account when it comes to judgement in the legal system. Who cares that you've got a sparkly good aura, if there's evidence you've committed these crimes, you'll be punished for those crimes.

    Furthermore, the sidebar says that how/why the spells are used effects how they change your alignment, it could be argued that using a spell with the intent to balance your alignment wouldn't have any effect.

  7. And in your post about this mechanic and its pointlessness in the way of cheating you successfully conclude without saying it outright that it, indeed, is a pointless mechanic ruleswise and should never have been implented as alignment is and should be more or less an abstract guideline handled by the GM rather than given rules ramifications.

    Just felt I sould point it out (and do not anyhow intend to be offensive), as the above point is what most people arguing about the mechanic in Horror Adventures were actully arguing about.


  8. Personally, I feel it's useful more from a roleplaying aspect and as a quick and dirty way to judge a character. My favorite stories have always been about alignment shifts.

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