Monday, February 9, 2015

The Effects of Consorting with Beasts and Saying Terrible Things to the Wrong People

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.

Works Cited

Lain, T.H. Oath of Nerull. United States: Wizards of the Coast, 2002. Print. pg 72


  1. Heroes of Horror is one of my favorite 3e books. I'd recommend checking out the 4e Corruption of Mechanics (4e Book of Vile Darkness) because I think its simplified method is easier to track. Instead of looking up a table to determine when a PC goes over the deep end, Corruption goes against the PC's single highest ability score.

    4e Corruption shifts a character's alignment one step toward Evil or Chaos each time Corruption exceeds that ability score, resets to 0, and starts counting up again.


    1. You know the more that I think about it the more that I think I should have stayed with 4e longer and checked out their splat books. Unfortunately I didn't have anyone who really wanted to play it at the time so it was difficult to justify spending so much money on the system.

    2. I spent a solid 3 years with 4e and I don't regret it. With the added hindsight of 5e, there are a lot of things I'd like to go back and do differently with 4e. I tried to play on the game's terms but it lacked something -- which may have been the developers' own lack of faith in the product. I don't know.

      I only recently started to realize how much I'd been craving dungeon crawls, and there's really nothing in 4e to prevent them -- not that there's a lot in 4e to support them, but that's kind of what I was saying already. ;)


    3. I would love to read a real dissection of Fourth Edition and what went wrong with it from a publicity standpoint - because something went incredibly wrong.

    4. I'd be interested in reading such a thing. My perspective is mostly that of an auto mechanic who "just makes the thing run." I don't know anybody at WotC who might offer that kind of insight.


  2. Great observations and suggestions. In my game (Elthos RPG) we have Alignment as a fairly important factor for the PCs. When they do some action it is considered in terms of it's Law-Chaos, and Good-Evil aspects and the Character Alignment is adjusted accordingly. So as an example, Arik the Dwarf shakes down a wealthy city council man and gives the sack of silver pieces as alms to a miserable beggar in the street. This gets charted out as "Law-Chaos: Chaotic 2pts", and "Good-Evil: Good: 1pt" ... so Ariks Alignment changes from (lets say) LC: 3, GE: 1, to LC:5, GE:2. Hence if Arik continues in this vein he will over time become more and more Lawful Good. We track these by assigning Law Chaos to the Action Axis (deeds), and Good Evil to the Moral Axis (motives). So every action is accompanied by a motive, and these two form the Alignment shift for the PC. While we could do this with every single action, we don't really, because most actions tend to be neutral, neutral, or at least not especially significant in terms of alignment. The book keep, besides, would be onerous. But with any legally or morally significant event we will record the Alignment shift and this does affect the Character's standing with the Spiritual World. Over time some Characters who are persistent will achieve far ranging Alignment values and become noticed by the Spiritual Powers that be. Depending on the circumstances this can turn out to be either good or bad for them. So I really enjoyed reading this post because it gives me more grist for the mill on ways to bring the subtle aspects of Spirit more into my game. I especially like the physical consequences of evil deeds, such as the Dead Eye, etc. I would balance this on the other side with positive good deed effects, such as "Lustrous Hair", "Golden Eye'd Gaze" which give off impressions and can influence NPCs under certain circumstances. For Lawfulness I might offer things like "Stormy Brow", which causes NPCs to think twice before doing some petty crime in front of the Character, and for Chaos I might have something like "Impetuous Smirk" which in fact does the opposite. And so on. These are nice touches, and so I like to say thanks for the interesting ideas.


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