Saturday, September 10, 2016

Horror Adventures Settles The Argument About Evil Spells and Alignment

Anyone who's played Pathfinder (or any of its close relatives) knows that alignment causes more arguments than almost anything else in the entire game. A big part of why this happens is that no one agrees entirely on what's right, and what's wrong, and that leads to some serious head-butting. Especially because, as I pointed out in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs, your character's opinions about whether an act is good or evil doesn't actually change whether that action is good or evil. Alignment is a meta-concept, and just like how characters are unaware that the watch commander has five levels of rogue, they're equally unaware that what they consider a correct, right, or socially acceptable action might, in fact, be evil. Because we, the people outside the game, are the ones who deem what is and isn't good and evil.

And, as is mentioned in the rules themselves, final arbitration of what constitutes a good or evil act, and something significant enough to alter your alignment, rests with the DM.

Of course you can do that. What was your alignment restriction, again?

Casting Evil Spells Is, In Fact, an Evil Action

One of the more divisive arguments surrounding alignment has been the use of spells that come from the other side of the axis. For example, how many times can a good character create undead minions before the inherent evil of the spell sinks into his soul? In the past, we had no answer to this question, so people instead focused on arguing that it's the intention of the spell rather than the spell itself that should be judged. Players argued repeatedly that raising the dead in this manner was only evil if you used them for evil ends; if you had your zombies and skeletons protect the innocent, or fight off greater evil, then you should get to maintain your good alignment.

Unfortunately, page 110 of Horror Adventures disagrees with those who hold this position.

No, Steve, I don't care if they're building an orphanage. You're violating their bodily autonomy.
The sidebar on this page makes it abundantly clear that the alignment descriptor of a spell isn't just flavor; it has actual effects on those who regularly use them. So, if you're a good-aligned character, but you just can't resist those evil spells, you won't be good-aligned much longer. In-character you may feel that what you did was justified, and that wielding fell powers is perfectly all right in the service of a greater good, but mechanically you are going to lose your good alignment.

How fast? Well, if you are casting these spells in relatively quick succession, then two is all it should take to move you from good to neutral. Three or more spells is all it takes to move you from non-good to outright evil. Generally speaking, the more time you wait between these spells (time that can be used in meditation, or just re-aligning your own internal beliefs and motivations), the more those numbers reset to zero. If a spell requires the sacrifice of a sentient being, though, that is an evil act, and typically shifts the caster's alignment straight to evil.

Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 gp.

Evil, is Evil, is Evil

A thing that should be stressed when it comes to the rules is that when an act is described as inherently evil, there is no wiggle room. The existence of angels and devils means that good and evil are not just opinions in this game; they are facts. Regardless of what you as a player think, or what your character thinks, there are forces in the universe that have decided what is, and what is not, an evil act. Those who commit those evil acts, regardless of the reasons they had for doing it, are still stained by the inherent evil of those acts.

And it goes the other way, too. Inherent goodness infects evildoers, guiding them out of the shadows and into the light. Good, is good, is good, in those circumstances.

And chaos is... chaos?
The key word in these statements is the word inherently. Evil magic is, by definition, evil. It does not matter why you put your hand in it, you are still tainted by it. There are very few actions that are listed as inherently good, evil, lawful, or chaotic. Most things that a character does will be open to interpretation and discussion with the DM. However, if the book expressly lists a given action as evil, then committing it is still an evil act.

You cannot maintain your lawful good alignment if you sacrificed an infant on an altar of the Old Ones. No matter how many lives you saved by doing it.

This week's Crunch post was a little short, but I have a feeling it will generate a lot of discussion among my readers, and their gaming groups. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, and keep content like this coming your way, then you should stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep doing what I'm doing, and earn yourself some sweet swag in the process! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?


  1. Alignment has always been interesting to me in that nobody thinks of themselves as evil, unless they are utterly borked in the head.

    Example: I'm currently running an assassin character (lvl 7 Stalker from Path of War), and on his sheet he qualifies as LE, in character if you asked him if he was a hero he would laugh in your face, if you asked him if he was evil he would say he could be much, much worse.

    He only kills for gold or racism, random encounter of thugs, he'll beat them to unconsciousness; a hellknight set to track him down and kill him, break their bones and leave them on the side of a road for nature to deal with, women and children he won't touch.

    The Lawful Evil killer for hire, someone with a conscience is somehow the character with the lowest bodycount, and the most principles, and yet he is still unquestionably evil in alignment, but not in his head.

  2. So, if someone raises dead just to defend innocent civilians, and no matter what you do to his alignment descriptor, just does the same thing...again and again.

    Then he's evil. Mechanically.

    But its an empty label. He is out of alignment with the fictional universe, where good and evil are a magnetic field with two poles. He is out of alignment with the "good" gods, because they would never use that method to achieve the same end.

    But you and me? Would we call that evil?

    I think if magic works that way... its boring. So my games will not follow these rules. And that's why roleplaying games are awesome.

    1. Good answer. That's exactly it. Just don't use them.

    2. Brian, I think removing the cost for using this kind of magic really undermines the story. The interesting bit should be how does the character atone for the act of great evil? That is the reason why I agree that 1 evil act may not mean you're instantly evil, but it WILL have consequences, some of which the player may not have considered.

      Repeatedly raising dead, to me, is clearly evil. No only is it a form of slavery, it is messing with the final rest of a soul. It is hard to be good and do that. However, doing so to fight off an attack on an orphanage full of children... that is a compelling situation. The players may be acting for good, but that doesn't wash their hands of the great evil they are doing. The acts are separate.

      This may lead the players to be guilty or haunted (which is another cool feature from horror adventures). Over time, they may in fact want to take actions that solidify their commitment to good. But hand waving an act of evil because it was used for good, I feel, is missing out on the best part of the story.

      I always use the A-Bomb analogy. There is no question the use of the bomb was an act of great evil in hopes of saving millions of lives (an act of great good). But there were consequences for that act that the US has had to deal with for decades. Just because it helped end the war, did not mean it washed the US's hand of the culpability of what happened. That has become a burden the US now has to bear to ensure no one uses that weapon ever again. That's the interesting bit. To me at least.

    3. Invalid, I say. If a warrior swears in good health and on his death bed that his body and strength belongs to his people, to their well-being, forever, even should it interrupt his paradise, and he dies.

      He is later called forth as an undead to defend those same people. When the threat is gone, he passes again.

      You can argue all about 'evil is evil'. No, it's icky. And icky is evil, at least in this case. You did bad.

      This is why my setting has a god of death who is not evil (not good either, death plays no favors), is alright with this exact kind of thing, and has specific rituals to get consent from spirits before undead raising can occur.

    4. A very specific word there is CONSENT. Ignoring consent would make this sort of stuff evil.

      To paraphrase Granny Weatherwax "Treating people like things, that's where sin begins".

  3. I like alignment. I've no problem with it.
    However, I hate attaching alignment to spells. The spell isn't evil, it doesn't draw on 'fell powers', or anything like that, because Pathfinder and 3.5 made magic vanilla. It isn't tied to culture, it isn't tied to belief, so why should it have the evil tag? (And how many spells do you see with the GOOD tag, huh?)

    As far as I'm concerned, Animate Dead isn't an evil spell. If your culture doesn't put great value in a corpse once the person has died, they can still be a Good culture, and using Animate Dead to create servants to help keep the community strong and to help people shouldn't suddenly be seen as an Evil act.

    1. Actually 3.0 and 3.5 were very clear that many spells did call on fell powers. Particularly Negative energy, which bring into the world is evil, in and of itself.

      You bring Negative energy from the negative energy plane into the material plane, you literally shift the universe a little more into darkness, a little more into death. Your action changes the entire cosmic balance a little more towards the side of evil.

      You might use this power for a good cause, but doing so still brings evil into the world. SO its evil.

  4. Does this work in reverse too? Say, evil wizard casts celestial healing a couple times in a row, he's now good. Despite the fact that he keeps acting evil? Only thing he needs to stay "good" is regular castings of Celestial Healing?

    So I start wondering what the use of detect alignment spells and powers still is? Or are we really going to say that being an evil bastard who just uses spells with the good descriptor often enough actually IS a good guy?

    1. By those very rules yes. Amazing, right?
      Why do we even have criminals, we can just force them to cast good spells a couple times, and then BOOM, they're cured.

      Throw out a couple Protection From Evil's and next thing you know you're a saint!

  5. The only way I could see somewhat see this work, is if the GM and the player can agree that the spells effectively affect a person's psyche and therefore also their alignment.

    This means that a player whose character uses these spells simply CAN'T continue acting in a good or evil way (depending on the alignment descriptor of the spell), because the spell actually has an effect on his mnd.

  6. The problem with the animate dead spell is that it doesn't explain how the corpse is raised. If it's simple artifice like animate object, then it's a purely neutral if distasteful spell and how the corpse is used is the ultimate determination of good or evil. However if the spell summons a demon to possess the body or summons back and twists and breaks the original spirit of the corpse then it's clearly an evil act casting it.

    Reading the description of the undead in the monstrous manual suggests there are few if any good or neutral undead so creating them is an evil act. At least it is in my games ;)

  7. People are really underestimating the effect of literally BATHING your soul in evil energies by channeling arcane or divine powers that come from, fueled by, realms of literal pure evil. If you summon an Abyssal demon with Summon Monster, grats, you literally just channeled magical energy through your body that is of the ABYSS. That has a corrupting effect on you.

    Animate dead does, actually, have a very specific manner in how it functions. It uses negative energy from the plane of Negative Energy to animate a corpse. Undead are, almost universally, evil creatures with evil and destructive compulsions.

    It's up to the players to responsibly roleplay the effects of an alignment change. If you're using Good magic while Evil, it drags you toward Good as well as altering your behavior accordingly. Yes, you can choose to have your PC disregard it entirely, ignore alignments, that's your choice, but it's not a roleplaying experience I would welcome at my table.

  8. "And, as is mentioned in the rules themselves, final arbitration of what constitutes a good or evil act, and something significant enough to alter your alignment, rests with the DM."

    That's where it should have been left. Once they added the mechanic of "cast N evil spells and you become evil" they took the adjudication out of the hands of the GM. Because the corollary is "cast N good spells to become good," so my power gamers balance out their undead creation with casting Protection from Evil over and over. Or summoning angels to go burn down that orphanage, because summoning good outsiders makes it a good spell regardless of what you command those outsiders to do.

  9. Read how Animate Dead, 3rd level spell, can hinder or block the effects of Speak with Dead, Raise Dead, Reincarnate or Resurrection. The first three are blocked completely; the last requires the animated corpse to be destroyed before it can take effect. 3rd level spell can block a 7th level spell. That is how Evil the Evil descriptor can be.

  10. I love alignment, just becuase of arguements like this!

    In one of my homebrews, Good and Evil are sort of a mix between fact an opinion. There is the relativism of what cultures think is appropriate and all that yada yada, but when in comes to that [Good] or [Evil] descriptor, I look to the mechanics of magical energy for answers.

    The more I thought about how [Good] and [Evil] spells, the more I realized that they have to have some power source that gives them their evil taint. Liek the difference between a realitivly neutral spell life Fireball and some Demonic version.

    They I relazed that the Gods themselves align on the Good, Evil and Chaotic and Lawful axis. So, I decided to let THEM be the arbitrators of what was right and wrong.

    Long story short, my big main Good God wrote out, in black and white, what he considered to be good, and asked his friends if they agreed. One agreed with only some of the stuff, and one thought he was being too lenient and added craptons more laws and regs to his version, and the rest of the gods that agreed with the codes all gathered into one loose confederacy and called it [Good]. The gods that hated the Big Main decided "Fine, we'll do the opposite! Pbbbth!" and created [Evil].

    Divine magic under good gods, thus, are [Good] and the same under evil gods is [Evil]. But what about arcane magic?

    Well, that's the interesting part. You see, for me, Arcane magic gives no crapbirds about where the magic comes from. Spirits, energy loci in the earth, the power of the mind, whatever I just want the fucking fireball. But, if you dip power from an ancient promise some evil god made, or call for an effect that an Evil god would love to "fund", then its probably going to be an evil spell. Using the blood of an dead Good god is probably going to create a good spell.

    However, I also left room for Absolute Evil/Good. Sometimes magic and artifacts are sourced from things that are just, as Neal puts, inhernetly evil. These magics set up great drama becuase you could really have a sistuation where someone dooms themselves to madness and villany while trying to save their friends with an [Evil] spell. You can also have injustices like a despot who uses [Good] spells to destory his people, becuase they are only [good] becuase of their power source.

    In this system however, the alingment you write down many not be as important as those effects on your body/mind/soul, so while your character may continue to act like a good guy, the evil inside might change her appearance, make her mood swings more extreme and to the vile, and make her react badly to objects that are opposing in alignment. Not to mention, evil forces will work harder to tempt her into actually living out the "alingment" of her soul, in hopes of dragging her to Hell or using her.

    This also creates for interesting dramas within alignments. One [Good} army may go to war with another [Good] army over what ammounts to a quibble over what is truly [Good], and their respective gods, if any are involved, will act accordingly (whatever that might be..)

  11. You cant force a player to take actions. All they are doing is make alignment mean nothing. So a player casts animate dead over and over the dm follows the rules and says, "OK you go neutral" or "OK you go evil". The player if they are not a paladin or cleric or something else it matters to goes 'OK' and never changes their actions. They ignore alignment and continue being good even if evil for casting the spells.

    Unless the player wants to go evil they don't change you cant force them to play evil if they don't want their character to play that way.

  12. The alignment system in Pathfinder (and the D&D alignment system it draws upon) is one of the most inherently stupid parts of the entire d20 system. Entire races are born good or evil. Chaos is a tangible force.

    You can't have a town guard who acts entirely by the lawful neutral book on the job BECAUSE IT'S HIS JOB, but actually be more of a neutral good personally. And then there's a trait that throws that all out and says you can be a LG cleric of Asmodeus because wouldn't that be a laugh (Pact Servant in Distant Shores Gazeteer).

    In short, as far as I'm concerned, the alignment spectrum as we know it today exists for the sole purpose of starting players off with a common, base idea, but actually using it as more than the vaguest guideline is a recipe for a terrible campaign. The DM should be the judge of good, evil, law, and chaos in the campaign, not the absolutist oversimplification that are the alignment rules as written.

    1. Whether you agree with the mechanic or not doesn't really matter. The point is that it exists, and it is a part of the engine that makes the game work.

      Every DM can keep or ignore whatever they like from the system. However, given that my blog is about rules as written, it doesn't really matter to me what people do in their home games. So saying, "I don't like this mechanic," is sort of meaningless. If you like it, use it. If you don't, house rule it. But house rules aren't what I'm here to talk about.

    2. My point is that the rules as written have been intentionally vague about the subject since well before I started playing 3.5, due in large part to how ridiculous trying to make a general definition for good and evil within such a fluid system as D&D/Pathfinder--it's not like there aren't plenty of completely silly effects resulting from what few specifics we had to work with before. Adding these rules just added more room for rules lawyers and common sense players/GMs to argue.

      Adding more specific rules for something that should be entirely non-mechanical, if still ruled over by the GM, just seems counter-intuitive.

    3. Given the sheer amount of stuff alignment affects in the game, from whether you get to keep class abilities to how certain spells affect you, calling alignment or its changing a non-mechanical aspect of the game seems pretty silly.

      For most players it may never come onscreen, but for those who want to see how integral alignment can be, play a cleric or a paladin for a campaign. I think you'll find that the mechanical effects of alignment (yours and your enemies) can be a crucial factor.

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