“Knowledge has made you powerful, but there’s still so much you don’t know. Do you remember what you heard that night when the sorcerer tossed your parts in the fire? You heard a voice call out from the flames, do you remember? Should I tell you what the voice said? Should I tell you the name of the one who spoke?”
-Kinvara to Varys, Game of Thrones episode 6.5
So I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones and if there’s one thing I like, it’s the presentation of the servants of the Lord of Light. Kinvara and Melisandre feel powerful and enigmatic. Even when she makes mistakes, Melisandre is driven by her mission and clearly has an interesting story yet to be revealed (on the show). And yet, watching the show, one thought occurred to me… Clerics don’t feel this cool. Back when I started playing D&D, cleric was the class no one wanted to play; everyone else does cool stuff, and then the cleric fixes them up so they can do more cool stuff. The cleric felt like a box of band-aids, not a mysterious and dangerous vessel for cosmic forces.
There’s a lot of reasons for this. One of the things that drives these scenes is that they’re filled with mystery. WHAT exactly does Kinvara know? HOW does she know it? IS the Lord of Light what she says it is… or is she serving a darker power, knowingly or unwittingly? But that’s not how things work in most editions of D&D. Instead, the cleric is an armored spellcaster who heals and casts support spells, while the wizard is a glass canon with powerful offensive magic. Mechanically their magic serves different purposes – but aside from a few twists in how you select and memorize spells, it performs the same. Divine magic is just as reliable and predictable as arcane magic. Which is important if you’re playing a wargame and want to ensure that every character is balanced. But it doesn’t do a great job of modeling the theoretical differences between arcane and divine. A wizard approaches magic in a rational way. They learn formulas and rituals that allow them to manipulate magical energy. A wizard is like a scientist. By contrast, a cleric is a person who asks the universe to do something for them… and it does. Which raises all sorts of questions.
- Can a cleric use divine magic to do something that’s against the principles of their faith? If so, why?
- If the cleric’s deity will perform miracles on their behalf, why will they only do it two times a day (or whatever)? Why do they withhold the GOOD magic until the cleric goes up in level?
- If the cleric is truly in need, shouldn’t their deity just, y’know, help them out?
- If the deity has awesome power and can alter reality, why don’t they just smite bad things on their own, before the cleric even gets to them?
There’s lots of ways to deal with these questions. The simplest is to say that deities may maintain reality as we know it, but they can only directly affect things on a small scale through the medium of divine casters. There’s lots of possible explanations for this…
- Cosmic Entities. The deity is so cosmic and vast that humans are like fleas to it; the cleric serves as a lens that allows the deity to focus on a specific situation.
- Bound by Duty. The gods are occupied maintaining reality as we know it and if they stopped what they were doing to mess with things directly there would be consequences – Atlas can’t just stop holding up the sky. Perhaps, like the Silver Flame of Eberron, the deities are holding primordial fiends or aberrations at bay, and if they turn their power away from the struggle the world could be destroyed.
- Bound by Rules. There is a strict balance of power between deities that prevents them from interfering in mortal affairs. Perhaps there was a cosmic conflict in the past that almost destroyed reality, and the gods agreed to abide by terms of a truce – should one intervene, all the others could as well. Or perhaps there’s a literal barrier erected that shields the mortal world from direct divine action. Whatever the nature, this divine armistice allows for mortal agents of the deities to act on their behalf. If you like the idea of gods that have stats, that you could find in the planes and potentially even beat up, this is the path to take. Because the gods COULD directly act on the world and many might WANT to directly act on the world, but there are cosmic rules that are preventing them from doing it – and so they need divine characters.
- Abstract Entities. The gods don’t literally exist. They are concepts in the collective unconscious, and people’s belief in them generates power. So they can’t act on their own because they have no actual volition or consciousness; but the intense faith of a divine caster allows them to draw on this power. If you’re an atheist in Eberron, this is what you believe.
The point of these examples is to have divine powers that exist but that can’t directly intervene and that need mortals to work their will. They have vast knowledge and can channel power through their mortal vessels. As for the limitations of level, you can easily say that channeling divine power is dangerous for mortals, and that the amount of power a caster can safely channel grows with experience. It’s not that a god can’t grant a low-level cleric a powerful spell, it’s that casting that powerful spell would kill the cleric.
Note that none of these ideas prevent a deity from affecting the world in a PASSIVE way. In Eberron, followers of the Sovereign Host say that the Sovereigns are omnipresent – that every time a smith holds a hammer Onatar is there with them, and every time a soldier draws a sword Dol Dorn is there. But Dol Dorn doesn’t DECIDE the outcome of the battle; he just guides the soldiers, if they listen to his voice. This is part of the idea of the god “maintaining reality” – that things we take for granted ARE the result of divine actions.
Now: all of these ideas play off the foundation of gods that don’t directly incarnate or intervene – deities that can only affect the world through their clerics. This is how I prefer to use them… but I’ll add a section about active gods to the end of this post.
So: what follows is a jumble of ideas for making divine character feel different from other spellcasters. Bear in mind: these are about making the story more interesting, not about maintaining perfect mechanical balance. I wouldn’t impose any of these on a player without discussing them first; ideally I’d have the player decide things like divine origin.
How common is divine magic in your world? Is it miraculous, or is it mundane? In our world, we don’t expect priests to perform miracles; the purpose of a priest is to provide spiritual guidance. In Eberron, most priests aren’t clerics; they’re experts trained in Diplomacy, Medicine, Insight, History – people who have practical skills for helping and guiding a community, but who can’t make light by snapping their fingers. The same is true in Game of Thrones – we don’t see priests throwing magic around left and right, which means that when one DOES perform magic they feel mysterious and powerful. Why can THIS person perform miracles? What are their full capabilities? In such a world, the question arises: how does the character perform divine magic? Is it something they studied and harnessed, or is it a gift? Consider the following ideas.
- Faith Alone. The character has never had direct contact with the deity, but their faith is so absolute and deep that it allows them to connect with the divine power. This is the default concept in Eberron. It’s a good path if you want to use divine magic exactly as written, because there’s no outside power granting it; ultimately it’s all about the caster and their indomitable faith. They can do whatever they want with their magic, even if it violates the precepts of their religion, as long as they BELIEVE they are doing the right thing.
- Divine Gift. The character had some form of direct contact with the deity – whether in an incarnate form or divine vision – in which the deity granted the character the ability to channel divine power. So the deity isn’t personally granting or sanctioning each individual spell the character uses; but the character’s ability to cast spells is a divine gift and proof of their role as an agent of the deity. Like faith, this is an easy way to allow the character to use magic even if a specific action doesn’t directly support their faith. If they go way out of line the deity could rescind the gift… but again, the gods don’t sanction each and every spell as they’re cast.
- Patron Spirit. The divine caster is attended by a lesser intermediary of the deity. This being – angel, demon, saint, call it what you will – can’t directly interact with the physical world, but it can advise the caster and empowers them to cast spells. What’s nice about this is that it’s a way to give the player a direct connection to the divine, something they can talk to — without making the deity feel small. Aureon is busy monitoring the entire world, but his angel Caskelon is your personal spiritual guide. In the case of a Patron Spirit, you have a number of additional questions to ask. Can the character communicate with the spirit just as if talking to a person? Or is it that the character feels the presence of the spirit and knows it will respond to their prayers, but can’t speak with it directly unless using magic like commune? The idea here is that the Patron Spirit DOES personally perform the divine magic the caster calls upon (albeit acting through the vessel of the caster) – which means that it may refuse to perform spells that don’t support the goals of the faith, and that it could potentially take actions uninvited… more on this later.
- Eyes of the Divine. Another option is that the character is literally a focus within the world for the attention of the deity. The deity uses the caster as both eyes and hands. To make this feel grander than the patron spirit, I’d clarify that the deity is simultaneously connected to all their divine casters and that the PC rarely has their full attention… and that when they do, it’s a transcendental experience. This is a good path if the player wants to have clear guidance as to what they should be doing; the god is literally looking over their shoulder and will judge their actions. In this path you can definitely have spells rejected if they don’t serve the divine purpose – or empowered or cast unexpectedly when it does serve the divine purpose. The goal of this path is to make divine magic absolutely different from arcane. The cleric isn’t casting a spell from a book; they are a vessel for a vast alien entity who is using them to enact its will on reality.
DIVINE PURPOSE AND COMMUNICATION
If you want to make divine characters feel distinctly different from other characters, emphasize that they have a purpose. As a divine caster, you didn’t just learn magic; you were given magic to help you accomplish the goals of your deity in the world.This purpose can easily be tied to the main story of a campaign; If the campaign is about defeating the Dark Lord, great: cleric, your deity has given you a vision, and it’s your job to make sure this group of adventurers defeats the Dark Lord. This isn’t just “I live in the world, so I might as well save it” – you’ve personally been given this assignment by the universe.
However, not every campaign has a goal that fits the sphere of a deity. Perhaps you’re just dungeon crawling for gold. Perhaps you’re playing a one-shot. But as a GM, you can still play with the idea that divine characters have a purpose… and that this can be updated at any time. At any point, you could hit a paladin or cleric with a new goal. For example…
- Is your war cleric on a dungeon crawl? You have a vision of the tormented souls of soldiers bound to their bones and unable to find rest. Which is to say, there’s undead in this dungeon – but as a war cleric, it’s your duty to lay these warriors to rest.
- Oath of Vengeance paladin who’s found the remains of a caravan struck by bandits? It’s your duty to hunt down the brigands and punish them for what they’ve done.
- Life cleric passing through a village? Perhaps you know that you need to help the crying child on the corner. Or you can feel a darkness rising that is going to threaten this village… you don’t know what it is, but you need to protect these people.
In many cases, these might be things the players would choose to do anyway. The point is that the divine character has clear purpose: this is what you should do. With that said, a second question is how is this information provided? If your divine origin gives you a direct connection to your spirit or deity, you could have a booming voice in your mind giving you instructions. A patron spirit could be an entertaining partner – not unlike a familiar – who you can converse with an ask for casual advice. On the other hand, divine visions could be very abstract and open to interpretation. Arriving in the village, for a moment the cleric sees the crying child covered in blood. Does this mean you must save this child from a coming threat or you should kill this evil child? This sort of abstract vision can be very interesting from a roleplaying perspective. When you walk into the bar, for a moment you see a golden crown floating above the head of the innkeeper. Is he the forgotten heir of a noble line? Is he a tyrant in his tiny domestic kingdom? Should you do what he says? Note that this is exactly what happens with the Red Priests in Game of Thrones – they see visions in the flames, but these visions aren’t explicitly spelled out and we’ve already seen instances where the priest misinterprets the vision with terrible results.
If I was using this sort of communication, I’d probably let a divine character make a Religion check to get some hints about the vision, because part of the point of religious lore would be knowing about past visions, the meanings of specific icons in your faith, etc. With that said, in that innkeeper-crown scenario, I wouldn’t just respond to a good die roll by saying “It means he’s a secret heir to the throne” – I’d say “There are a number of accounts where servants of the Light have written about seeing a crown above the head of the true heir to the Golden Throne; Helekan the Wise said that the Light runs through the blood of the true kings, and described a crown almost exactly like this one.”
So again, you could just have a booming voice tell the paladin what to do… but it can be a more interesting story if visions are mysterious and have to be interpreted.
UNPREDICTABLE MAGIC, CAUSE AND EFFECT
Arcane magic is a science. It make sense that it only works when called upon and that its effects are predictable. Divine magic is a gift, not something a caster can ever entirely master or control. Again, if you’re primarily concerned about balance and strategic reliability, you probably want to keep things as they are. But if you WANT divine characters to feel different, here’s a few things to consider.
- A divine caster normally selects their spells from their class list. However, as divine magic is a gift you could choose to start the day off by replacing one or two spells on the character’s list with specific spells – essentially, these are what your deity wants you to have today. If these spells are going to be especially useful in the adventure, there’s no need for further modification. If not, you might empower the spells – when you cast this spell, it’s as if you used a higher-level spell slot – as a way of saying this is the power your deity wants you to use. It’s a simple way to push the idea that as a divine caster you don’t have full and rational control of your powers – while also compensating for that either with a slight boost in power or assured utility.
- Likewise, it’s a relatively simple matter to empower spells used in direct service of a divine purpose or cause… and to minimize the effects of spells that don’t support that cause. This is something I’d avoid unless you have an absolute understanding with the player, and that they are prepared for the idea that their magic may not always perform at peak efficiency – but it is a concrete way to differentiate between a cleric and wizard. This could extend to a cleric being unable to heal or bless a party member whose actions are strongly opposed to principles of the faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that party members have to follow a cleric’s faith to receive healing… but a cleric of a god of Law might find that their deity won’t give aid to the chaotic evil rogue who’s always stealing from innocent villagers. With that in mind…
- You could allow sacrifices, oaths and vows to have a direct impact on divine magic, or simply on the actions of the faithful. Perhaps that rogue can receive healing provided she swears not to steal from the innocent for the next three days. Perhaps the paladin can his smite empowered if he swears to give this bandit’s treasure to the local temple. The question is what consequences there are for swearing an oath and then breaking it.
- Another possibility – tied to the idea that a divine caster is the deity’s tool in the mortal world – is that divine magic may trigger spontaneously when it serves the deity’s purposes. Someone who blasphemes against a cleric’s god might find themselves struck by sacred flame – even though the cleric didn’t cast it. A paladin hoarding their lay on hands pool could find some of that energy diverted to heal a sickly innocent. As a DM you don’t want to overuse this or take too much control away from a player… but it can be a way to clearly remind a caster of their deity’s will.
- A less intrusive form of this is to have a divine character occasionally gain insights tied to their deity’s sphere. This is sort of like divine communication, but it doesn’t have to have a purpose attached to it. A favored soul of the goddess of Love might simply know when two people are in love. When the cleric of the Death God meets an old man, you might say By the way, he’s going to die tomorrow. Ideally, this is like the Kinvara quote that starts off this article: the PC suddenly has a piece of knowledge that they couldn’t possibly have. But again, the point here would be to say that they don’t know why they’ve been given this knowledge, and they can’t ask for clarification; they just suddenly know a thing.
- A final twist on spontaneous divine magic would be death curses. Perhaps when a divine caster dies, the deity might take vengeance on the killer. The simplest way to implement this is to trigger one of the caster’s uncast spells; if the caster is out of spells, then their power is spent and there is no curse. Alternately, you could make a death curse a more abstract thing – but something that could linger until the deity is appeased. While this would occasionally help out divine PCs, it’s more likely that it would be something PCs would have to worry about when they end up fighting divine casters; it might be a reason that you want to subdue an enemy cleric instead of killing them, so as not to incur the wrath of their god.
Like I said: I wouldn’t institute any of these ideas unless you’ve discussed them with your players and everyone’s on board. But these are a few ways to make the divine feel a little more unpredictable. If you’ve got questions or ideas, add them in the comments below!
BUT WHAT ABOUT DIVINE INTERVENTION?
What I’ve suggested above is really focused on settings in which a deity can only affect the world through the medium of a divine caster. But what about settings where the gods DO manifest in the world, realms where you can meet – or fight – a deity?
I generally don’t like these for the same reason I don’t like having powerful benevolent NPCs in the world. If the godess of justice can manifest in the world and take direct action, why doesn’t she? By making the paladin her hand in the world, you give a player character a vital role in the story; if she can show up and personally solve a problem, the paladin is suddenly the rookie cop who only gets to be special when the boss takes a day off.
Likewise, once you start getting into the idea that deities can arbitrarily affect the world – whether by smiting bad guys or giving advantage to their servants – you run into the question of so why aren’t they doing it all the time? If the paladin is serving their cause, why don’t they automatically heal him? By saying that the caster is the hand of the deity, and the magic they possess is the extent of the deity’s ability to alter reality in their vicinity, you clearly establish what is and isn’t possible… even if you decide to say that their magic could be empowered or could trigger spontaneously. This is what I like about the idea of saying that if the enemy cleric has cast all of her spells, you don’t have to worry about a death curse… because her deity has no power left to affect the area.
With that said, you could certainly say that the gods have the ability to manifest in the world and have the power to personally change events, but choose not to. Perhaps they are trying to teach or elevate mortals. Giving clerics divine magic is like an alien giving fire to a neanderthal. They are providing a tool, and offering guidance, and occasionally they may even show up in person… but they want mortals to solve their own problems, even if that means that they may suffer or die in the process.
The main thing is that in many myths where gods walk the Earth, the gods end up being the main characters of the story… and that’s a situation I always want to avoid.
A key point to all of this: My goal here is not to make divine characters more powerful than other characters – it is to BALANCE certain benefits with greater responsibility and unpredictability. You don’t always get to choose the spells you want – but your deity may give you the spell you need, or empower the gift they want you to use. They will have expectations of you that the simple fighter doesn’t have to worry about.
Anyhow, that’s all I have time for. Here’s a list of my upcoming events, including DragonCon – I hope to see some of you there! Share your thoughts and twists on divine magic below.