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So I for a while now I've thought that from a purely mechanical standpoint true neutral is the best alignment as a cleric; you can worship any deity because they will always be within 1 step; similarly, with aligned spells you are not restricted so long as you either worship a concept or have a true neutral deity.

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.

Alignment: A cleric’s alignment must be within one step of her deity’s, along either the law/chaos axis or the good/evil axis.

Well, that's more or less my own theory on it but I tend to overlook stuff in the rules quite frequently and wanted confirmation from someone more familiar with this kind of stuff than me.

Out of all the alignments, what is the best one for cleric, mechanically speaking?

By "best" I mean in a typical pathfinder setting which alignment offers the most benefits in most situations if you only consider the effects alignment has on a clerics mechanics and class features.

This is distinct from this question because

  • this question is about pathfinder, not including 3.5 material
  • that question is primarily from a role-play perspective
  • it cites things like reasoning with people which is not what I'm asking about
  • I'm asking about clerics specifically; it barely mentions spellcasters in general and Clerics are primarily commented that their aura is more likely to raise flags than other types of spellcasters.

While I am well aware that optimization does not automatically make a good character, this question is specifically out of curiosity. I want to know if there is/what is the mechanically superior alignment is best for a Cleric.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Aug 24 '20 at 1:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't played much PF, but it seems to me that it's false that you can worship any deity as TN - one step from TN is NG, NE, LN, CN, not the extreme alignments. It's "along either the law/chaos axis or the good/evil axis." \$\endgroup\$ – Spitemaster Aug 24 '20 at 18:06
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The best alignment for most clerics, in most campaigns, is probably some flavor of Evil, oddly enough. There are two reasons why:

  1. Infernal healing is an Evil spell, and one of the very few aligned spells that doesn’t have a precise analogue in other alignments. It’s also the best healing in the game—a wand of infernal healing will heal more hp per gp than any other option in the game (and using gp is always better than using spell slots).

  2. Most campaigns face Evil foes, and at high levels, the most evil foes—fiends—often sport at-will blasphemy. Many of these do not have much flexibility in this regard: blasphemy is a spell-like ability that they have, and they don’t usually have dictum even if they’re also Lawful or word of chaos if they’re also Chaotic. And if you are Evil, their blasphemy does nothing to you, which is a big deal because blasphemy can be devastating.

    And while blasphemy is—by far—the biggest concern here, at lower levels there are also other aligned effects that follow a similar pattern: fiends usually have the Evil effect, not the Lawful or Chaotic effects, and being Evil makes you immune.

But these advantages are very small and/or circumstantial:

  1. Neutral clerics can still use infernal healing. It may, depending on the GM’s ruling, be an Evil act to cast infernal healing, which the GM may rule will eventually cause someone to slide to Evil even if they didn’t start there, but you’ll have to ask your GM about that.

    For Good clerics, a wand of cure light wounds is nearly as good, and channeling positive energy provides some supplemental healing that probably makes the difference close to a wash most of the time. (There is a celestial healing spell, but it is terrible, so just use cure light wounds.)

  2. This point only applies to “most” campaigns, where you can expect primarily Evil foes. If that doesn’t describe your campaign, then it doesn’t apply. If your campaign focuses on foes of a different alignment, then matching that alignment may be best. If your foes’ alignments are fairly uniform, then there is minimal advantage to any one alignment versus any others—most aligned effects come in all four flavors, so it doesn’t really matter which ones you have.

    Also, most aligned effects aren’t terribly scary or worth worrying about. Blasphemy, and its counterparts (dictum, holy word, and word of chaos), are really the main extremely dangerous aligned effects, and those only happen at very-high levels. Smite is fairly dangerous, since it it can massively improve the user’s accuracy against you and give them a respectable damage bonus to boot, but smite is usually rarer in most campaigns. I’m having trouble thinking of any particularly worrisome aligned effects after that.

    Finally, there’s a flip side here: even if you are an Evil cleric, facing Evil foes, and enjoying protection from their blasphemy, remember that you can’t use blasphemy against them either, and holy word isn’t allowed to you. You would probably want to be either Lawful or Chaotic as well as Evil, so you can safely use dictum or word of chaos on them. This again applies to lower-level effects, but for the most part you could just skip the aligned effect altogether and go with something unaligned; it will usually be better.

You’ll note that neither of these points really has anything in particular to do with the cleric class. Channeling positive energy more-or-less cancels out the disadvantage of not being able to cast Evil spells—that is, not being able to cast infernal healing, since that’s more-or-less the only one you should particularly care about. So even the one thing that the cleric class does touch on, it does so in a way that mostly cancels out. This is because the primary cleric class features that key off of alignment are weak.

  • Aligned spells almost-always come in all four flavors, so it doesn’t really matter which ones you have and use. Infernal healing is literally the only exception I can think of.

    For that matter, for most aligned spells, there are unaligned spells that are largely superior anyway. Only the blasphemy/dictum/holy word/word of chaos cycle is especially notable.

  • The cure and inflict spells are awful, and basically should never be used

    • The only healing spells in the game that are really worth using from your spell slots—rather than from a wand—are

      • stabilize (because it doesn’t use a spell slot, and can handle an emergency), and

      • heal (because it heals massively more than any other healing spell, and also covers most status effects at the same time).

    • For damage, literally any other damage spell will be better than inflict wounds at the same level.

  • Channeling positive energy is a decent amount of supplemental healing, but you still want the wand for most of your healing. Channeling negative energy can allow you to build up an undead army, but you need to put a lot of work and resources into that. Which one is better depends on whether or not you’re going to put the work in to getting the undead army—out of the box, positive is better, but with investment, negative is better. (Don’t invest in channeling positive energy; basically none of the effects are worth it. Just enjoy what you get for “free.”)

  • The alignment domains are all pretty bad. I’m not 100% sure about the subdomains, there might be some decent stuff in there, but even if there are, there’s also plenty of good stuff in unaligned domains, so you aren’t really missing out that hard.

About neutral clerics

As Ben S.’s answer points out, you are incorrect about how the “one step” rule works—effectively, it doesn’t offer diagonal steps on the alignment chart, so “a diagonal step” is actually two steps.

Moreover, because the most potent aligned effects are blasphemy et al., and you really need to have that alignment in order to use them (you are not left out of the area of effect, and will suffer from it if your alignment doesn’t match), neutral clerics are actually in a lot of trouble on the alignment front—you’re vulnerable to all four, and can’t use any of them safely. (Obviously, this only applies at the very-high levels where those spells are found.)

Still, combining channeling positive energy with infernal healing is something; you have the most healing in the game. But all that really does is save you some money on buying wands of infernal healing, which you shouldn’t be going through so fast that the expenditure is really a problem. I wouldn’t assign much value to it, myself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Arguably, if you're fighting primarily Evil foes, the risk of being hit by enemies' Blasphemy spells is probably worth less than the benefit of being able to hit them with Holy Word. \$\endgroup\$ – nick012000 Aug 24 '20 at 6:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow, my play experiences must be very different to yours. Most of the clerics I play with rely on Cure spells on top of channels during combat, and would be lost if they had no Cures spontaneously available. \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Aug 24 '20 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @YogoZuno Right, that’s the “trap”—the way the game seems to suggest the cleric should be played, except it’s actually terrible. Cure spells usually heal less hp than you lose to even one attack, so by definition whenever you use one, you spent your turn only partially undoing one enemy turn—a losing formula. The only cure spell that should ever be used, really, is cure light wounds, and then only from a wand thereof, and then only between fights. Those spells are simply that bad. Pure mathematics. Unfortunately, the game’s text recommends exactly this, so players get “trapped.” \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 24 '20 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Assuming you have enough downtime to cast all of those cure lights, or wait for all of those Infernal healings to finish. I mean, 10hp in a minute can be quite a long wait, for a 200pt Barbarian, right? But we'll have to agree to disagree here - I can think of many games that would have been a TPK with a healer relying on cure light wounds or infernal. \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Aug 25 '20 at 3:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @YogoZuno My experience is kind of a mix. I've definitely had times when a channel or cure serious made the difference in a fight. I've also seen creatures kill PCs from full HP in a single round, which cure critical just can't keep up with (usually lots of attacks + high Str + Power Attack + 2h-weapon). It depends a lot on the kinds of monsters you fight and whether a dungeon is meant to be a test of endurance (can you beat this before you run out of spells, smite evils, bombs, etc.?) or a beatdown (can you beat this before it kills you?). \$\endgroup\$ – Ben S. Aug 25 '20 at 5:38
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Alignment Restrictions on Clerics

First, I think there's a misunderstanding here. Your question suggests that True Neutral allows a cleric to worship any deity. However, a close reading of the rules shows that this isn't the case.

Alignment: A cleric’s alignment must be within one step of her deity’s, along either the law/chaos axis or the good/evil axis. (emphasis added)

So a True Neutral cleric could follow a Neutral Good god like Shelyn, or a Chaotic Neutral god like Calistria, but not a Chaotic Good god like Desna. You can see this in the Cleric Alignments chart shown on each deity's page in the Pathfinder Wiki. For example, here's a picture of Desna's allowed alignments:

Allowed alignments for Desnan clerics

The allowed alignments for Desnan clerics - NG, CG, and CN - are marked in a brighter blue.

Note: I'm showing the picture because it's a good visual indicator of the Pathfinder 1e rule. Pathfinder 2e is generally more restrictive (e.g., Abadar only accepts Lawful worshipers in 2e). For your purposes, you'll want to make sure you're looking at a 1e source.

Bottom Line: The deity you choose is likely to restrict your cleric's alignment. Since domains are restricted to certain deities, I usually see players choose the domains that they want first, then try to find a deity that grants them without forcing the cleric into an unwanted alignment.

Channeling Energy

PCs generally find it easier to get good use out of channel positive energy than negative energy.

In most parties, the PCs are harmed by negative energy. Without the Selective Channeling feat, it's hard to avoid hitting the other PCs when channeling negative energy. A high Cha is also important for channeling negative energy, because it determines how many channel uses you get, the save DC, and how many targets you can exclude with Selective Channeling.

Channeling positive energy is easier for PCs. You're more likely to start in a good position, since you usually start closer to your party than the enemy. Since you're usually trying to heal rather than harm, the save DC rarely matters. There's also less need to exclude targets with Selective Channeling because:

  • Many fights have fewer monsters than PCs, so you don't need to exclude as many and can use positioning to do it more often.
  • If the PCs focus their fire, you only need to exclude the current target - healing a monster that's already at full HP does no harm (the same goes for dead enemies, though not unconscious ones).

For NPCs, the same arguments basically work in reverse - if you're alone or in a small grou, there's less need to worry about harming allies. Evil NPC clerics can also use undead as their meat shields, who don't need to be excluded.

Alignment Auras

Clerics give very strong readings on detect chaos/evil/good/law. A lvl 1 cleric registers under those spells, whereas most characters need to be around lvl 5 to give any kind of reading.

Depending on where your campaign takes place, this could represent an advantage or disadvantage. For example, Razmir has outlawed all religions save their own. There are PFS scenarios where the PCs literally visit Hell. It's not necessarily a huge issue because of undetectable alignment, but it's an extra expense to consider.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Calistria is Chaotic Neutral, not Lawful Neutral. \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Aug 24 '20 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @YogoZuno Thanks for the catch. Originally I wrote it with Lawful, Abadar, and Erastil, but some of those alignment tables now show the 2e restrictions, so I changed it. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben S. Aug 25 '20 at 0:42

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