Dragonmark: Priests, Krozen and Zerasha

July is quickly fading, but as time allows I want to answer a few questions posed by my Patreon supporters. This month, people asked about a pair of priests—High Cardinal Krozen of Thrane and Zerasha of Graywall.

Dealing with the Divine

Krozen and Zerasha are both powerful divine spellcasters. In third edition, Krozen was defined as a 12th level cleric of the Silver Flame, making him one of the most powerful clerics in canon Khorvaire. While never defined, Zerasha is supposed to be similar in her power—a priest respected and feared by a city of monsters and the mind flayer who governs it. Given that most priests in Khorvaire are adepts—or don’t even cast spells at all—I want players to feel how remarkable these individuals are when they encounter them. A powerful wizard is essentially a scientist, someone who uses logic and knowledge to break the laws of reality. A powerful divine caster is something else. Both Zerasha and Krozen are the chosen agents of cosmic powers. The Sovereigns and Six are omnipresent forces. The Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of mortals, and Zerasha is one of its chief agents. Krozen can command the dead to return to life or call celestials from the essence of the Silver Flame. We can debate the existence of the Sovereigns, but the Silver Flame is the force that stands between Eberron and the overlords, and Krozen is a conduit for its power. These aren’t just people who have learned how to perform magic tricks. They are the chosen agents of vast cosmic forces. If you’ll pardon the phrase, they are burdened with glorious purpose.

But how do you make the powerful priest feel different from a wizard or a prince? This is something I discuss at more length in this article. One of the key points is to separate the way divine NPCs cast spells from how player characters do it. We need the structure of the classes for player characters because we need tactical precision, and I’m fine to say that in combat, Krozen casts spells as a 12th level cleric. But outside of combat I don’t feel that he needs to engage with his magic in the same way as a player character. The most common divine spellcasters—adepts—function much like magewrights; they have a specific set of cantrips and spells they can cast and that’s all they can cast. A typical spellcasting priest might be able to cast thaumaturgy, light, and ceremony. There are specialist adepts—oracles who can cast divination, healers who can perform lesser restoration—but the oracle can’t just decide to become a healer in the morning. They have been granted a divine gift, and they can’t exchange it for another one. More powerful spellcasters like Zerasha and Krozen aren’t limited like this, but they also don’t call their divinity on the phone each morning and make spell requests. Their divine power source grants them the spells they need when they need them, provided the request is justified. Krozen doesn’t prepare zone of truth ahead of time, but if he formally demands you speak the truth in the light of the Flame, zone of truth happens. Essentially, his spells are selected on the fly to match the situation he finds himself in. But the contrast is that he doesn’t have the freedom a PC has to request any spell. The Flame may empower Krozen to raise someone from the dead or to smite them with a flame strike, but in spite of his effective level it’s not going to grant him the power to create undead or to cast contagion; these aren’t the tools of a righteous servant of the Flame, and if you DO see a Flame priest using such spells, it’s a clear sign that they are actually a servant of the Whispering Flame or a warlock hacking the Flame. Krozen may take actions we consider evil, but he believes his actions are righteous in the light of the Flame; he’s not drawing on malefic powers.

Divination is another important example. With the spellcasting power of a 12th level cleric, Krozen could technically cast commune three times a day, along with a batch of auguries. And that’s how things work for PCs. But Krozen doesn’t just have some magic hotline that he can dial three times per day. He can’t just call up Tira Miron and say “Does Boranel dye his hair? Yes? I KNEW it!” It’s not some sort of abstract, scientific tool that he can just use for whatever random, trivial detail he wants to know. But the flip side is that he may simply receive information that he needs—that he can receive divine visions. Even when he doesn’t cast augury, he may suddenly KNOW that a decision he’s about to make could lead to disaster. Even without commune, he might KNOW the truth about a situation. This is especially relevant for Zerasha, because part of what defines the Shadow is dangerous secrets. Consider this description of the Shadow from this article:

As the dark side of Aureon, the Shadow is also the Sovereign of Knowledge… but specifically the things you shouldn’t know. The Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of mortals. It knows who killed your parents. It knows what your lover really thinks about you. And it knows secrets of magic that Aureon won’t share… techniques that can provide power, but at a cost.

So It’s not that Zerasha sits down and says “I want to know secrets about this player character” and casts commune or some other divination spell; it’s that when the players come before her, she simply DOES know who killed the paladin’s parents and why the rogue murdered their partner, because that’s part of what it means to be the voice of the Shadow.

The short form is that when dealing with NPCs who are powerful divine spellcasters, I want them to FEEL like they are conduits to powers far greater than they are. When Krozen demands that you speak the truth, zone of truth happens. When he barks out an order, it may become a command, because that’s the power that flows through him. I want the powerful priest to feel larger then life, because at the end of the day they are the conduits for something that IS larger than life.

Now, reading all this, you might say “But I thought Eberron was the setting where we don’t know if the gods even exist.” We know that deities don’t walk the world in Eberron. You will never have a chance to punch Aureon in the face. But we know that divine power sources exist. We know that priests have been drawing on the POWER of Aureon for tens of thousands of years, and that in part because of this, most people believe divine forces exist. They may argue about details; the Cazhaak interpretation of the Dark Six is quite different from how they’re depicted in the Pyrinean Creed. But most people believe in SOME form of divinity, and part of the reason for that is the fact that divine magic exists.

With all of this in mind, you might say “If that’s how you handle NPC priests, why don’t you deal with player character clerics in the same way?” I offer some suggestions in that direction in this article. But fifth edition embraces the idea that NPCs and PCs don’t have to follow the same rules. Part of being a player character is having flexibility and tactical control. It’s about having the ability to make choices. I’ve played campaigns in which divine characters CHOSE to give me more control over their spells—embracing the idea that the powers were gifts they didn’t fully control—but that was a choice they made that fit the story of that character. But one of the fundamental principles of Eberron is that player characters are remarkable, and I have no problem with them having a greater degree of versatility and precision than most other servants of the divine.

Having worked through that, let’s talk about the two specific priests that people have asked about…

Who is High Cardinal Krozen of Thrane?

Our blessed child is the Keeper of the Flame and shows us all the path to the light. But I am the keeper of the nation, and if I must toil in the darkness to ensure its prosperity, so be it.

High Cardinal Krozen

People have lots of questions about Cardinal Krozen of Thrane. What’s his first name? Does he realize he’s evil? Does he believe in a greater good—or for that matter, does he even believe in the Silver Flame? What makes him more important than the other 11 High Cardinals of the Church? These are all good questions. I’ve always liked Krozen, but my vision of him is quite different from how he’s evolved in canon sources. I know what I originally planned for him when we first created the character, and that’s how I use him, so I’ll lay that out here. Keep in mind that this directly contradicts multiple canon sources (which, admittedly, contradict themselves on some points). This is MY interpretation and I am not going to reconcile it with what other authors have done with the character; it’s up to you to decide which version you prefer.

My original vision of High Cardinal Thrane was loosely inspired by Cardinal Richelieu as depicted in The Three Musketeers—a ruthless man who is engaged in sly intrigues, but who is nonetheless an extremely capable leader, perhaps moreso than the king the protagonists serve. It was always my vision that Cardinal Krozen was devoted to Thrane and that he performs his duties exceptionally well—that he is a brilliant strategist and a charismatic orator. But this is tied to the idea that he truly believes that he knows what is best for the nation. The basic dictate of the Silver Flame is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. Where Jaela recognizes that this applies to ALL innocents, regardless of their faith or nationality, Krozen believes that you aren’t innocent unless you’re a Thrane and a servant of the faith, and don’t oppose him. He DOES fight to protect the innocent—but only those HE decides are innocent.

So I see Cardinal Krozen as a remarkable man—one of the player characters of his generation. He’s human and I see him as being about fifty years old. The details of his youth—and, in fact, his first name—aren’t generally known; the general story is that he lived on the Aundairian border and that the Flame granted him the power to perform great deeds, first in the defense of his village and then as a templar. He was always charismatic and intelligent, but beyond that, his divine power was always remarkable; when he called on the Flame, he gained the power to smite his foes. In his early twenties he rose out of the templars and into the hierarchy of the church, turning his gifts to leadership behind the scenes rather than fighting on the battlefield. From there, his star rose and rose; those who opposed him were either won over by his charisma or driven from his path, one way or another.

Part of the core idea of Krozen is that he represents the danger of Thrane becoming a theocracy—that in doing so it drags the church into the management of temporal matters and political concerns. The idea of Thrane is that Jaela Daran represents the pure ideals of the faith—while Cardinal Krozen deals with political realities. Again, Jaela does believe that “protect the innocent” applies to all people—that Krozen believes that it can only be applied to the faithful and to Thranes. It’s not that he is a vile, selfish person; but he has blended his faith with his devotion to his nation and places the good of Thrane over all others. Beyond this, Krozen very much has a Chosen One mentality. He possesses immense divine power, and in his mind this proves his righteousness. He believes he was given this power to serve the interests of Thrane, and the fact that he still wields that power proves that he is right to do so. He will crush others who get in his way—even other priests or templars—because he believes, again, that those who oppose him aren’t innocent.

In considering all this, take a moment to think about the Shadow in the Flame. There are those—the Whispering Flame cultists—who knowingly choose to serve Bel Shalor. But the true power of the Shadow in the Flame is its ability to piggyback on the Voice of the Flame and to pour poison in the ears of the truly faithful. Bel Shalor loves to erode empathy and to convince people to do evil when they only seek to do good. The Shadow in the Flame reveled in the suffering caused by the Silver Crusade, and Bel Shalor undoubtedly sees Cardinal Krozen as a valuable tool. The question for the DM to decide is how much of a hold does Bel Shalor have over the Cardinal? In MY Eberron, Krozen KNOWS the dangers posed by the Shadow of the Flame; all the faithful do. And with that in mind, he does his best to resist those impulses; he knows that he does questionable things (like, you know, torture and murder…) but he truly believes that he is acting for the greater good and that he’s NOT a tool of the Shadow in the Flame. But in your campaign you could decide that he HAS fallen prey to Bel Shalor’s whispers and no longer realizes the evil he is doing… or even go further and decide that he is a priest of the Whispering Flame. Personally I prefer to follow the shades-of-grey model, to say that while Krozen does evil things, he only does them when pursuing the interests of Thrane—that he always believes his actions are justified. I like the idea that Krozen knows he walks a dark path, but that he believes it is the path the Flame has set him on, and that at the end of the day he is protecting the innocent—even if he has had to sacrifice his own innocence to do it.

Now, some people may be say “That’s all fine, but who IS he?” Krozen is one of the high cardinals of Thrane. Per the original Eberron Campaign Setting…

This group of powerful church leaders administers both the workings of the church and the functions of the government. In theory, the cardinals answer to the Keeper of the Flame. In practice, they run the church and the government, only dealing with the Keeper on issues that require divine attention and interaction with the Voice of the Flame. The cardinals believe that they know best when it comes to running the government and the church, and they leave the Keeper to deal with the well-being of the spirit of the nation. This arrangement has led to problems between the Council and the Keeper in the past, but the current Keeper seems interested more in divine and spiritual matters than the intricacies of secular administration.

There may be twelve High Cardinals, but Krozen is the effective leader of the Council—and thus, of Thrane. If you have a divine problem, talk to Jaela. But if you’re looking into the deployment of Thrane troops or about getting more resources for Rellekor, it’s Krozen who can get things done. The general idea is that Krozen is in many ways the opposite of Jaela. Where the Keeper is compassionate, the Cardinal is ruthless. The Cardinal is a master of political intrigue, while Jaela prefers honest dealing. Jaela wants what’s best for all innocents; Krozen cares only for Thrane.

The final thing I’ll call about about Krozen is this: If there’s twelve high cardinals, why is he the leader? What makes him special? The short answer is that what makes him special is that he IS special. Again, not all priests are spellcasters at all, and in a world where everyday magic goes to 3rd level, a 12th level spellcaster is remarkable. He can raise the dead! Those who oppose him are struck down by flame strikes! You’ve seen him shape celestials from the pure power of the Flame! And as I said, while I don’t just let him cast commune three times a day, he hears the Voice of the Flame in ways that others do not (and, of course, potentially the Shadow in the Flame as well). There’s surely other spellcasters among the cardinals, but Krozen stands out; if you look to the 3.5 statistics, he’s notably a more powerful spellcaster than the high priest of the Host and Archierophant Ythana in Sharn: City of Towers. Power alone isn’t everything, but the whole idea is that this power is matched with passion and charisma—that just like a player character, Krozen is remarkable. With this in mind, he doesn’t command the Council of Cardinals, but he has won the loyalty of the majority of its members and thus is the EFFECTIVE leader of the council. In my opinion, there’s four cardinals who are utterly devoted to him; three who believe he’s doing what’s best for Thrane; and four who don’t support him. Of these four, all believe that the Keeper shows the proper path for the nation and that Krozen’s actions are concerning; one or two may have deeper concerns, or believe that he is serving the Shadow in the Flame. So Krozen DOESN’T have absolute control of the council, but he’s effectively the leader.

Krozen as a Villain

As I’ve just spent a lot of time insisting that Krozen believes he’s acting for the good of Thrane and that he is an effective leader, you might wonder if I actually see him as a villain. I do, generally—just a villain with many layers. He performs evil deeds in pursuit of the greater good, and more than that, he is only concerned with the greater good of THRANE. When I use Krozen, I want it to be clear why people support him. I want Thranes, in particular, to feel conflicted because Krozen IS good at his job—that if the nation was guided purely by the idealistic Jaela, it would be easy prey for the machinations of Kaius, the Royal Eyes of Aundair, and the Dark Lanterns. Krozen is effective; but is that enough to justify his methods? And IS he a tool of the Shadow in the Flame, even if he refuses to see it?

Zerasha, the Voice of the Shadow

You think you know why you’re here. You think we have to be enemies. But that’s the voice of your petty and jealous Sovereigns, who fear what you could become if you follow the paths I could show you.

Zerasha of Graywall

The medusa Zerasha is a priest of the Shadow in the city of Graywall. She’s mentioned in a Dragon article, which says…

The street ends at the Eye of the Shadow, a small windowless temple formed from black stone. The medusa priestess Zerasha holds court here. A fearsome combatant and skilled ritual caster, Zerasha is the most influential voice in Graywall after Xorchylic; the people of the town have come to trust her oracular gifts. At the moment, she is an ally of the Daughters of Sora Kell, but her first loyalty is to the Shadow and to her own warlord, the Queen of Stone. Should there ever be a civil war in Graywall, the black-scaled medusa will be a force with which to be reckoned. 

Backdrop: Graywall, Dragon 368

That’s the only canon information that exists on her. Since I wrote that article, people have asked: What is the priestess Zerasha’s relationship with Xorchylic? What are her goals, and what might cause those goals to become so misaligned with Xorchylic’s as to cause open conflict?

In my mind, Zerasha is truly devoted to her faith and to her Queen, in that order. As described in this article, she believes that the Shadow is the guide and guardian of those creatures followers of the Sovereigns consider monsters. Beyond this, she is what the article describes as a mentor. Acting on behalf of the Shadow, she seeks to help the faithful achieve their ambitions—even if that means following the darkest possible paths to do so. Beyond that, the Shadow is the Sovereign of secrets. As described above, she is an oracle—not as gifted in this regard as Sora Teraza, but certainly the most powerful oracle in Graywall. She knows secrets. Having said that, as I called out above, her knowledge comes from the Shadow and she doesn’t know things until she needs to know them. When she meets a player character, the Shadow may tell her their secrets; but it’s not like she just randomly knows everyone’s secrets all the time. And again, if the Shadow shares a secret with Zerasha, it’s so she can DO something with that secret.

So in terms of her goals, I believe that Zerasha’s goals are first and foremost to offer spiritual guidance to the people of Graywall and to help them achieve their true potential. Beneath that, her goals are whatever tasks the Shadow sets before her; it’s quite common for her to feel that there is a particular individual the Shadow wishes her to focus on, someone who needs to be guided on the proper path. And beneath that, her loyalty is to her queen, the medusa Sheshka, and to the people of Cazhaak Draal.

Her relationship with Xorchyllic largely depends on what the DM decides Xorchyllic is truly up to. As long as Xorchyllic is pursuing the greater good of Graywall and Droaam, Zerasha will support him. But we’ve called out that the Flayer Guard of Droaam serve the interests of the governor first and the common folk second. If Xorchyllic is somehow oppressing or harming a portion of the city in pursuit of his personal agenda, that could bring him into conflict with Zerasha. Ultimately, the question is what is the interest of the Shadow? If the Shadow supports Xorchyllic and wants the illithid to achieve its ambitions, Zerasha could work closely with the governor. On the other hand, if the Shadow is most interested in helping a lowly kobold on the Street of Shadows achieve her ambitions of overthrowing Xorchyllic and becoming a new warlord, than Zerasha would oppose the mind flayer. The same is true for player characters. What does the Shadow think of them? It could be that it favors their enemies, in which case Zerasha will oppose them. Or it could be that the Shadow has an interest in one of the adventurers and wants to show them the path to power—in which case, Zerasha who seek to serve as their mentor. But again, a mentor of the Shadow will always lead you down dangerous paths…

That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

Gameplay: Adding Drama to the Divine

“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 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.

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.