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So, I had an idea for a future campaign where spells and magical abilities would be color coded based on the user's alignment. Good and Evil would be white and black respectively, while Lawful and Chaotic would be blue and red. Neutral on either scale would be a greyish silver color. For example, a Lawful Good paladin using their lay on hands ability would generate a blue and white aura and a Chaotic Evil warlock would have a black and red eldritch blast.

As far as magic items go, I was thinking of having their effects a Neutral grey but I like the idea of using the creator's alignment. I was also considering having hide/alter alignment spells be more common, and having items available that would have those effects.

Would this give too much information to the players? I plan for the PCs to deal with NPCs all across the alignment spectrum, even in ostensibly "good" organizations.

On a meta level the PCs would basically know the alignment of every NPC they saw using a magical ability, and I'm afraid that that knowledge could start influencing their actions in-game. There is also the issue that classes with no magical abilities like Fighter or Barbarian would not give their alignment away like that, which may be a potential handicap in their favor. I think it would be a nice little addition and would add some flavor to the magic system, but I also don't want to unbalance gameplay for it.

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Another possibility you could explore is if the color isn’t really determined by alignment but simply tends to line up with it. The players may eventually notice this, which gives them a mystery to pursue if they want to. –  Robert Fisher Apr 29 at 14:23
    
@RobertFisher You should turn that into an answer. –  AJMansfield Apr 29 at 18:54
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Out of curiosity, how do you plan to handle spells with a normally subtle or non-glowy effect, such as charm person or invisibility? –  GMJoe Apr 30 at 4:43
    
What happens to your spell's aura when you disguise your alignment? –  Arle Camille Apr 30 at 9:34
    
Disguising your alignment would affect the spell coloration. I think even subtle magic would have a brief "activation" glow, even if its just a quick flash around the hands or eyes. Not big enough to give away spellcasting if the caster is trying to be sneaky, but if someone notices the caster that would be the tip off –  D.Spetz Apr 30 at 13:09

6 Answers 6

Alignment Usually Isn't Hard To Determine

Alignment often isn't that hard to figure out anyway. Spells that can detect it are readily available, some classes (like Paladins) can detect evil as much as they want, and in certain cases you can discern it from their actions (a Cleric casting a Good spell can't be evil, because a Good type spell can't be cast by Evil Clerics).

It's possible to take steps to conceal it, but in my experience not many people do that.

So I don't think the real risk here is that you're going to make alignment too easy to determine.

Overemphasizing Alignment

To me, the biggest concern is that by having the world reflect alignment so readily, you're making it more important. Being Good is so important in your world that all magic is affected by it, even when the spell is thematically neutral and doesn't do anything that relates to alignment.

You've elevated alignment to be a more prominent thing. Considering how rigid the alignment system can be and the problems it can cause with player behavior, that's not something I would want to do.

Consider what that means? Normally if I see someone cast a Fireball to take out some creatures, I'd just determine what to think about that based on what I saw, and if I cared about those creatures or not. But now I'm seeing an Evil Fireball. If I'm a Good character, do I have to do something about the evil spellcaster? What if they're on my side? What if the people they're attacking are also evil, but those people are using weapons so I can't tell?

The alignment is so in my face that it distracts from trying to figure out the motivations of the people involved, because literally the first thing you've told me is "that Wizard is evil."

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It's funny, your comment actually had the opposite effect of what I think you intended. It might be really interesting to see how this would play out. –  Kevin Apr 29 at 18:01

I will address your concerns one by one.


Would this give too much information to the players?

That depends. Since this is your world, you decide what "too much" means. There is nothing wrong with having personal flares and unique elements in your story. As long as it is internally consistent.


I'm afraid that that knowledge could start influencing their actions in-game

In a world where alignment is visible through spell casting there is no avoiding this knowledge. It would not be meta knowledge in so much as it would simply be knowing a characters alignment, much like a characters race, armor, or weapons can be seen easily.

If it is easy to detect magical users alignments then evil casters would be more fearful of using their spells in public. And evil characters without magic would not worry as much about being detected.

Disguising ones alignment might even be very important in this game since it is so easily visible.


I also don't want to unbalance gameplay for it

If all the characters including the player's characters showed this flare, then it would be "balanced" in the sense that this was not favoring the players or the enemies.

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I agree with this answer and will add: As DM you may need a firmer grasp on how exactly alignment is determined than when it is less visible. You won’t be able to gloss over the gray areas between alignments as much. –  Robert Fisher Apr 29 at 14:20

There is actually a system that already deals with something like this (though not quite on the scale you propose). In White Wolf's Exalted games, many of the magical effects that players can deploy reveal to those paying attention which kind of supernatural being they are (though visually all beings are human). Since there is a setting-defined inquisition against the players' kind, this has significant implications.

The players are forced to be very strategic about which magic they use and where they use it, to avoid being revealed for who they are. Obviously at higher power levels this becomes less of a concern, but it is relevant for quite a long time. There are conscious choices to be made between using powers versus blending in, and they form the bedrock of the game's story.

What you're proposing is something even more extreme. In Exalted, there are many abilities which do not leave any traces, and many more which are not identifiable as belonging to a specific kind of being. This gives the players (and NPCs) some wiggle room. If literally all magic is "tagged" like this, there's going to be a lot more to worry about when casting magic.

You'll see a lot of clumping of like persons together, more so than exists in traditional D&D and more so than exists in the real world. Non-magic users, as you hypothesized, will be more free to go about their alignments, which means there will be more of them and less magic in the world.

Another area which is interesting here is magical items. Do they take on the alignment of their bearer, or do they have an inherent alignment? Inherent seems more in line with the way your system works (based on the alignment of the creator). Now you've got a nice dilemma when the characters find some magic loot: if it's an opposed alignment, that could be very problematic (or, see #1 below for how it could be very useful).

Two Suggestions

  1. Make the players outcasts in alignment. There's not really much tension in this game world if the players are good and the society is good so they just get to run around zapping the occasional very obvious bad guy. Much more interesting is for the players to be good and the society to be evil, or some similar combination on the other axes. Now the players have to be absolutely terrified that everything is going to come down on their heads if they play their cards wrong.
  2. Make magic more powerful. This is can be a dangerous play, because you could really unbalance the game if it comes out wrong. But consider that this "tagging" has made magic a lot less useful, because it could expose you. So in order to tempt your players into risking everything, magic better be really, really awesome. I think this is one of the things that Exalted really got right, and the setting may not have worked out if the power scale was lower.
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It really depends on the kind of world you want to portray and on the edition you're playing.

For instance, D&D 3.5e has several spells that work differently based on the alignement of the targets. Knowing if it will work as intended in advance might be a major tactical advantage (working for both sides).
In 4e, instead, alignment only matters when choosing your deity and only some classes care. Moreover, the change only influences character building and is not used in-game.

So, then ther's the kind of world you want. A world where some people's power is limited my the society's acceptance of their alignment can play very differently from ours.
The CE warlock could choose not to use his powers on public to avoid being seen as a loose cannon, while infiltrating evil cults could be impossible for casters.

Gameplay will surely be changed by these graphical effects and the player actions should be influenced by those. If you're not ready to change your game this way, you'd better avoid the effects idea as a whole.

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Like others have mentioned, this brings alignment to the foreground, at least when it comes to magic users. From a setting perspective, I see two major ways that society might react.

One extreme is balkanisation. The good magic casters and nations will tend treat evil casters (and probably other classes as well, if detected through detect evil) as evil outlaws to be hunted down, while evil casters and nations will reply in kind. Neutrals might be prosecuted by both (if you are not with us, you are against us), might be a third power or might try to blend in with whatever company they are in. The same could apply to a lesser or greater extend on the lawful-chaotic axis. In that setting alignment is important, and a factor in the major politics, even if the common man might not cate.

The other extreme is cosmopolitanism. If an evil caster isn't breaking the law, then who cares that he is evil? Yes, the mayor of the town is demonstrably lawful evil, but he has done good by our town, even if he is ruthless at times. Of course, even if the setting is cosmopolitan, individuals might not be so open-hearted. The town guard might be hunting a serial killer ex-paladin whose victims are evil (but apparently law abiding) magic users. This setting is more subtle. Alignment is still important, since you know the alignment of the mayor. But what do you do about it? Do you do anything about it?

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All of the answers above are very correct, but truth be told, the only way to know what will happen is to play test it for a while, see what happens, take carefully notes, talk to the players afterwards, and after a several sessions decide if its something you want to keep. But definitely give it time for the players to get use to it, maybe "let it happen" as a result of some "cosmic alignment" of your universe. There are innumerable ways to bring this idea into existence without it being a new sudden rule. Such as actions begin to have a faint glow according to the alignment color system. Eventually the glow is vibrant and seen easily in bright daylight. And just as you brought it in, if it isn't working out well, have it fade away, this leave the door open to bring it back, and other quests based on it become possible. Just my 2 cents as a game developer, as for my opinion? I like the idea and I'm interested in hearing how it turns out.

JD

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