Pet Peeve: Detect Alignment

I THINK THAT EVERY body has a “pet-peeve” or something that bugs them about a game system itself. For me, that pet-peeve was largely spells used for detecting alignment. Now, this stems from playing the game incorrectly when our group was still learning, and not detecting our error, thus never fixing it. But this spell still bugs me to this day. It just seems like one of those things which was put into the game to make the Dungeon Masters life miserable.

How this started, was that I fell for a trick. A player took advantage of my total incompetence, simply asking what so-n-so’s alignment was, and me thinking that he was casting a spell and just telling him, like a total twit. While it took a while to catch onto this little farce, after all, I was still learning the ropes of DMing, it did get me interested in what exactly goes on when somebody is checking an alignment, and how others react to this.


NPCs all have alignments, but the only way to really tell what they are is for a character to observe them for an extended period of time. Only then will their alignment be displayed. I’ve said it over and over again, that Alignments aren’t crutches, and nobody is a slave to their alignments. Good people still do bad things, and Bad people can be quite charming and charitable. Simply having a conversation with somebody isn’t going to reveal their alignment if they don’t want it too. Most people aren’t even aware what the heck an alignment is! Nevertheless ponder the fact that they even got one or not. Truly bad people never once think of themselves as evil, a being who is Lawful Evil can happily live with the belief that he is Lawful Good for his entire life. But lets look at some ways of how characters try to take the easy way out by trying to use alignment against you, and how a character can gain knowledge of what another’s alignment is, as well as how to role-play the characters response to such an invasion.


This is a rude question, if they even have any idea of what the player is talking about. This is such a stupid thing to do, who would say, “Oh! I’m Chaotic Evil, what is your alignment?”

Not even the Player really knows what his alignment is once he’s been created. The only person who does is the DM, as alignments change frequently. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, and never comes up unless a drastic change has happened, at that time, the player stops gaining xp, and may loss special abilities and not even know why.

Since the PCs themselves have no real idea of what alignment they are, how do they expect a NPC to? Alignments are learned through playing the game, not through asking yes/no questions.


This is one of the rudest spells which one can cast. A hireling won’t put up with it, nor with followers or henchmen, this is considered a huge breach of trust, and anybody that suspecting is simply too dangerous to hang around. Trust is a big thing!

Strangers who have this spell cast upon them are likely to take this as a prelude to an attack and lash out before the PC can, else perhaps demand to be allowed to cast the spell him/herself.

The spell itself is completely obvious to everyone around the caster, it isn’t a spell that can be done discretely, or privately. Much of the time, it is a total waste of a spell. Especially powerful beings can foil any attempt to be probed with this spell, and make the caster get whatever impression that they want them to. A lich in disguise can easily foil it and appear to be of any good alignment that he chooses, all the while laughing at the players ignorance and stupidity.


The Paladin presents an easy to manage problem. They can detect evil, but this evil must be true evil, it isn’t precise enough to detect actual alignments. A lich would definitely not be able to hide from a paladin with such easy trickery as he could with a cleric or wizard; but a pirate or barbarian easily could! A being from the negative plane, or who contains so much evil magic and/or intent that they radiate it permanently, this is the enemy of the paladin and they cannot hide from him.

Of course, this works both ways. Paladins reek of pure goodness, alerting truly evil and powerful beings to their presence well in advance of their actual arrival.


I try to give nothing away. Naturally this can’t always be done, but we have to make this spell make sense, or give them an edge once in a while. Using it to detect the alignment of powerful magical items makes sense. Or casting it on a mysterious religious object found deep in the ruins of some long forgotten temple. But as far as trying to catch a killer, perhaps it could point out who is capable of such an act, but it certainly isn’t hard evidence of any wrong-doing. Even a wizard-king would laugh if presented with such evidence.

ART BY: Tim Hildebrandt


Spike Page said...

You bring up a point I and other players have been trying to make for a long time.

"What if"...YOu cast "detect evil" on a character who is not at that very moment contemplating an evil act? What if you cast the spell while he/she/it is doing some mundane chore or just contemplating what to pick up at the market for tomorrow's breakfast? What if you cast the same spell on a normally nice decent person who at that very moment is thinking about thumping you upside your head because you are invading his thoughts?

And your posting totally puts me in mind of Belkar from Order Of The Stick..with his lead shield. :D

OEP said...

Some Paladins really love to detect evil. I've always imagined consistently casting detect evil is as much of a social faux pas as farting repeatedly. Don't you think that would get annoying in real life? Every two seconds a guy you're adventuring with stops what he's doing completely, raises an eyebrow at someone in the distance and concentrates on them for about 15 seconds?

Unknown said...

The explanation I've seen pop up is that detect alignment is kind of like wandering around and telling people they need to let you dose them with truth serum if they want to deal with you. Or submit to getting hooked up to a lie detector. The effect is slightly different but the invasive distrust evident in both cases is the same.

Giving different results based on the source (spell, divine gift, etc) could be interesting. I love story elements like that myself.

RipperX said...

Personally, I consider this to be a waste of a spell, but I do make instances in my games where if you think to use it, then it can save you a huge headache.

For Paladins, they are instantly aware that evil is in the air, they don't know what or who it is, nor even where, but the can feel it. If something is so corrupt that it forms its own "Well of Evil" so to speak, where evil magic is flowing into the air, once the paladin comes in direct contact with the source, they know it instantly. I don't really consider them to be casting the spell, because I don't allow them to control it.

I'm not sure if this is how it is suppose to work, or not; but it is on my terms, so I don't have a problem with it.

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