I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Cleric spells with NO divine intervention

I've written about this before... but I guess I didn't consider all of the consequences.

So, the idea is this: you can get spell in multiple ways - study forgotten tomes, worship a deity, bargain with a demon, have magic blood running in your veins... But once you learn a spell, it is yours.
 A paladin that falls from grace still keeps his powers - making fallen paladins the stuff of legend! What is worse, they can pledge loyalty to an evil, rival deity becoming more powerful in the process. There is always a high demand for turncloak healers in the Evil Lord's army! That is why lawful deities are so careful when choosing their clerics and paladins!  
Chaotic deities, on the other hand, will be more flexible - they might exchange spells for goods and services.
Of course, forgotten tomes of forbidden lore are also useful when studying magic. Their authors must guard them carefully, or such secrets might be turned against them.
On the other hand, casting spells you haven't memorized should always be dangerous. Magicians can also create "trap grimoires" to fool their rivals.
The idea that a deity can strip you of yours powers is not only a shackle to the character, but also wastes interesting possibilities, such as the renegade paladin that goes rogue (with all his powers intact) and must be hunted by other followers. The fact that the deity cannot take you powers away directly opens a lot of indirect possibilities like this one.

It also makes sense in other ways. 

The idea that your deity is right there with you when you cast a haling spell gives deites an omnipresence/omniscience that is NOT fitting to the vast D&D pantheon. If the deity can strip you of your powers, why not DOUBLE your powers when you're in dire need? Also, why even CHOOSE the spell you want to cast and not let the deity intervene in a way that is more beneficial to its goals? The deity knows a lot more than you, anyway...

In short, I think of most D&D deities as non-intervening. At least, direct intervention should be rare. Deities act through angels, avatars, followers, etc. In addition, the deities are not omnipotent. The spells they can teach are limited resources.

(BTW, I really like the RC idea that deities need more followers to be more powerful, and I love the idea that a deity without followers maintains its powers for a while...)

But I hadn't really thought this through. In Dark Fantasy Basic, a magic-user that fumbled a spell roll had the spell wiped from memory... but a cleric that fumbled a spell roll could anger his os her deity.

But, come to think of it... why? If the deity had given the cleric magic powers to heal the wounded, why would the cleric be damned just because of bad luck?

What if you say, instead, that the deity will just TEACH you a spell from time to time - through prayer and meditation, you can get to revelation, but deities are careful when imparting such gifts... A deity can give a spell... but it can also give a sword, a prophecy, a vision of guidance, heal your wounds, etc. 

Cleric's spells are not "miracles" anymore, and miracles become a lot more varied. In addition, divine gifts are not only for clerics - maybe a god of war will give your fighter the strength to fight an important enemy, etc. Religion becomes a lot more relevant for ALL characters.

As you can see, this solves LOTS of problems.

So, in my new RPG, spells are just spells (or maybe living spells). 

YOU choose the spell level, BTW. Pushing your luck is risky.

Fumble your spell-casting roll and it is wiped from your memory. You have to learn it again. If you have a grimoire, all the better. Otherwise, it will take a while. Your deity might help you... but ONLY if you are in good standing with it.

So, even if you LIKE the idea of a deity giving you a quest after you fumbled a spell, this has the same effect... but the motives are different. The deity isn't necessarily punishing you. It simply has to be careful while sharing limited resources with someone who is so eager to use them in imprudent ways. 

In addition, these quests are not only proofs of faith - if they were, any dumb thing such as removing one of your eyes would do. 

The quests are are means for the deity to further its own goals in the world. This makes them much more interesting - maybe you have to find a lost relic, or convert more people to your faith... or even hunt down a rogue paladin.


  1. In this approach it also explains well why so few ordained priests are actually casting clerics in fantasy worlds - it is just a deity being careful with tossing too much power around.

  2. Short response: Love this and stealing this for my own ideas. Good ideas are apparently like clerical spells!

    Long response: this works well with an idea of working with specialty clerics or "themed" casters.

    I've talked before about liking the idea of a "build a spell" method that allows combining and scaling basic effects. I like this for wizards because it feels like you are actuLly murdering someone over their research notes because you can gain different techniques (ex. a lobbing spell effect that allows you to arc a point source spell up a hieght of half it's linear distance to hit a target. So max 10' high arc on a 20' long arc) or base spells (basically cantrips). You are not locked into a specific spell, and creativity and ingenuity is rewarded.

    Clerics however get direct boons that are strong in their domains but not as flexible (so auras for example; in fact I think most effects could be rewritten as an aura range). So you could have your paladin of a benevolant god with an aura of courage making allies immune to fear if they are within 20'. If that paladin falls from grace and gains an aura of fear, they can now tertorise their enemies without effecting their allies.

    I hope this comes across relatively clearly.

    Thank you again for such great ideas.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Sean! I'm really glad you like it! The idea of wizards taking a more "cerebral" approach, and "murdering someone over their research notes" is awesome story-fodder.

  3. My preferred treatment of divine power: some people simply manifest abilities at a young age, generally after puberty. These blessings are not taught, but one slowly learns new abilities as one masters existing ones. Their manifestation is seemingly, but not totally random -- ordained priests, monk/nuns or anyone belonging to an existing order is never so "chosen" (the theory is that they already have a divine "job"), and ability to manifest these blessings can definitely wane if one strays in the faith (whether this is divine punishment or simply a lack of confidence is debatable -- either way, zealotry does absolutely help with blessings). In any case, divine power is probably not god acting as a celestial butler so much as god giving one a necessary tool in a world filled with monsters and magic. (There *is* divine intervention, but it works in a more "real-world" fashion through prayer and sacrifice, but even that has enough "plausible deniability" to again avoid celestial servitude.)