Last night I was reading Oath of Nerull by T.H. Lain when a passage struck me and kept bouncing about my skull. The gnome wizard, Nebin, had just summoned an fiendish hawk to help win a wizard duel and was being healed by a priest of Palor when the this happened.
". . . Then the priest gave Nebin a chiding look as he walked away saying, 'Be not too swift to call dark agents to your side, least you become addicted to their hate. Seek instead for allies in the celestial sphere.'
Nebin ducked his head guiltily. True, the hawk had the taint of the Lower Planes on it, but his choices were limited. He did what he needed to win the match and refused to believe that was wrong. It was only a game, after all. But despite his rationalizations, Nebin also knew that the priest's words were true. He promised himself he'd remember the warning . . ." (Lain, 72)
Now that's an interesting way to handle summoning magic that has never entered into my games before. Traditionally the only restriction that I ever impose on my players casting Summon Monster is that they cannot be an opposed alignment to the creature being summoned (thus a lawful good wizard cannot summon a monster with the descriptors of evil or chaotic). Beyond that I've never imposed any other sort of restrictions or consequence for the spell.
Yet I am taken by the notion that a spell a magic user casts can impact his spiritual well-being. This notion that the actions we take in casting magic having a wider impact on our character than just a mechanical effect is one I had never considered in my Third Edition games. It implies that, at least for the author, the alignment of a character had a more meaningful impact on the game than just the lip-service that I have always payed it.
In my games the alignments, while mechanically important, were mostly just something that we wrote on our character sheets and mostly forgot about until someone decided to make an issue of it (which was incredibly rare). What was far more common in my games was the interplay between law and chaos often being shown on the grand scale with forces on each side arraying for battle much like you see in Warhammer but without good and evil really taking a lot of space in the conversation. Such things just didn't interest me much. But this idea has really taken a hold of my imagination and for the last few hours I've been thinking about what casting spells like Inflict Wounds and the like do to a character. Are the effects purely spiritual without any outward effect or is there a physical change that takes place over the character?
In Heroes of Horror - which is the best Third Edition book I have ever purchased and arguably one of the best rpg books I've ever owned - the James Wyatt led design team proposed the Taint mechanic (Ha! Taint! - forgive me, I'm twelve) which was designed to provide the players and Dungeon Master with a consequence to the evil that they encounter in the game that goes beyond the momentary feigned emotions played at the table. The Taint of Evil (pg. 62 - 68) would have a physical effect on the player's character that ranged from a dead eye to their lungs being eaten away. Then there were the mental symptoms that would present themselves (pg. 65 - 66) that ranged from presenting compulsive behaviors to becoming completely catatonic. For me the corruption mechanic became something that I would use in situations where my players had encountered some terrible evil and I wanted to provide them with a meaningful memento of the occasion. And it works beautifully when used that way as it tends to add a new layer to the character that makes them more distinctive and unique; like a scar or limp that will almost certainly never happen with magical healing readily available.
Moving away from Third Edition and looking at the Fifth Edition Player's Handbook the effects that summoning a fiendish hawk might have on a player's character are hard to decipher considering that Summon Monster isn't in the book; but that doesn't mean that we have to avoid the idea that magic can affect a character's soul. The idea that a character casting a spell that can be viewed as evil is affected by it is a powerful one and it should be brought into the new edition. It makes the choice to use a spell more meaningful than just simply casting out something that will allow you to roll a lot of damage and that is an incredibly valuable thing.
I believe that I will be testing out the Heroes of Horror corruption charts with my Fifth Edition game this weekend to see how bring the mechanic into the new edition affects things. My educated guess from having studied the rules is that if I use it in a similar manner to how I used it in Third Edition that I will receive similar results. More after I do so.
Lain, T.H. Oath of Nerull. United States: Wizards of the Coast, 2002. Print. pg 72