Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Does Clerical Magic Mean You Know God?

When writers put on their brainy caps and work out the naturalistic consequences of a world built around the
D&D game rules, one common assumption is that the metaphysical world is known and familiar. You can tell who is really Lawful Good, at least if they're clerics or paladins, because they have their special spells. They can talk to their god and summon angels, and from this people gain tangible evidence of the world after death and the consequences of moral acts. As a result, everyone believes in religion; bad guys just pick a different team. And everyone can trust "working" clerics and paladins to be morally good. If they were corrupted somehow, they would lose their mojo. Oh yeah, all this and ... alignment detection too. Or better yet, alignment language.

The more I think about such a world, the more profoundly unsatisfying it appears, as a place to imagine and adventure in. I'm not even talking about limitations on the cleric player's actions, which I criticized last post.

I'm talking about a world that lacks:

  • Dissension on moral issues within a religion
  • Venal, self-interested priests
  • Bad priests hiding within a good religion
  • Outsider prophets who are persecuted by their own religion's conventions
  • Uncertainty and debate about the ultimate nature of the universe
  • People who act immorally in the here and now because there may not be an ultimate reward or punishment. 

Because of the oppressive obviousness of Truth in such a world, faith is not really faith, any more than believing in maple trees is faith.  Evil now needs an extra sales pitch - a devil convincing you that if you sin really flamboyantly, you'll get in on the ground floor of Hell's Fun Times.

You may as well cut these passages out from the scriptures of a less transparent world:

  • Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 1:11)
  • But the Pharisees said, He casteth out devils through the prince of the devils. (Matthew 9:34)
  • And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. (Mark 8:12)

On the contrary, in my world, clerical magic is a mystery. It uses the standard invocations and rites of religion, but not every ordained minister who uses those invocations and rites will get the magical effect, and not every time - it is prophetic, not priestly. Regardless of whether the magic is reliable or ineffable, though, it ultimately does not depend on keeping up a certain standard of behavior. This is because:

1. The Mind of (a) God is vast, and contains many contradictions. A certain level of dissension in the Church reflects this, and reflects nothing more than the divine totality weighing arguments and coming to decisions. Almost all acts that are not inherently unholy - merciful or strict, generous or stingy - can be justified as a reflection of the Divine. Sufficient will, and the belief that one is holy, are enough to fuel prophetic magic.

2. A prophet sometimes has to break with conventional morality in order to send a lesson to the flock. What appears to be sin, violence, looting, lust ... can instead be a rebuke to a world consumed by these sins on a much higher level.

3. The above justifications come handily to those who cross the line into the foul and unholy. The Devil is a great deceiver; he will gladly step in to duplicate the healing miracles and exorcisms of one who has strayed from the path. If the player keeps their in-game benefits, what matter where they come from? Any discomfort at the slight stench of sulfur attending those miracle cures is entirely a matter of role-playing. Live for today, for there is no game after your character dies!

Monte Cook, as usual, can't be satisfied with a pat answer either. In the middle of Ptolus - a setting where clerics, by the book, dwell in every temple, and magic and the gods appear obvious and real - he leaves open this possibility:

The people here have come to listen to a new elf philosopher named Waeven Iosanil (male expert8), who is telling everyone who will listen that the gods are not truly divine, but only powerful entities, not unlike great wyrm dragons or powerful angels. The only true divine being is the world itself, this radical speaker claims. (p. 337)
Even if this elf is completely in the wrong, he opens up a strong breeze of freedom in the metaphysics of the setting. He allows for the possibility that the self-evident is actually false - and with this come the free will and uncertainty that makes for an interesting and complex game.


  1. Completely agree with your sentiments here about keeping the cosmology vague and unknown, and the religious factions human and full of flaws.

    One helpful piece I've often pulled from the 1E DMG - the idea that the lowest level spells come from priestly training and less from divine support - giving some tacit wiggle room for "the bad priests" to still perform basic duties in the magic-rich world without hewing closely to the deities wishes.

    It gives you the ability to have the iconoclasts and rogue prophets (your visionaries in #2 above) be the folks with higher level spells because they're a bit more influenced directly by the otherworldly voices than the venal, institutionalized clergy.

  2. I banned alignment languages and alignment detection in my games a long time ago. Just because a cleric worships a particular deity in a particular way doesn't necessarily mean their behavior can be predicted. Alignment, like religion, can be open to interpretation.

    Clerical magic is a thornier issue. If it's truly miraculous, then by definition it is proof of divine endorsement. If God didn't condone it, then He wouldn't enable the cleric to work the miracle. Miracles are evidence of ultimate reality.

    If, however, clerics work their miracles by following prescribed rituals that always work regardless of the moral state of the cleric, then the source of the miracle can remain a mystery. The cleric may or may not have the favor of the deity (if that deity exists), but to the observer it will appear miraculous. Even clerics may not be immune to the occasional doubting of their own faith. Along those lines, I prefer to have gods act mysteriously, if they act or exist at all. They convey their messages through seeming acts of nature or supernatural occurrences, but even these could be interpreted as other than what the cleric perceives. Maybe it is proof of their divinity, maybe it's proof that they are merely powerful beings, maybe it's all just a coincidence. The cleric's faith is tested as much as his or her flock.

  3. Clerical magic is a thornier issue. If it's truly miraculous, then by definition it is proof of divine endorsement. If God didn't condone it, then He wouldn't enable the cleric to work the miracle. Miracles are evidence of ultimate reality.

    Well, not really. How do you know who is really granting the power? The patron could end up being an Athas-style sorcerer king rather than the actual creator of existence. All the cleric knows is her personal experience (perhaps this is too much epistemology for a blog comment, but it is true nonetheless).

    1. Bingo. My problem is not the room for faith but the room for skepticism... and "proof positive" of faith can always be undone if you also have a trickster god (or other supernatural power) who can play stage magician in front of the faithful.

      That said I'm really too big an atheist to ever be able to run a true monotheistic setting even in a game (it is an enormous personal failing of which I am not proud). It's a huge "what if?" that would reconfigure the whole world, and I'm usually all over that, but somehow I just don't want to put in the brainwork.

      I have another bit of folk sociology too, that stops me from going all Star Trek on this and positing a world where everyone reacts in X way. I think people mostly do what they want and make up reasons for why afterwards. I really think that even if people know for a fact that they will go to eternal punishment for eg. having sex outside marriage or disobeying their priests, they will still do it. Even though they know the trade-off is terrible. And they still won't think of themselves as bad people.
      Maybe that's the thing I can't imagine my way around. If your setting includes humans, these are the things that I think you can't avoid.

  4. The gods don't have to necessarily be static entities, either. In the one-on-one I run with my wife, the gods are known entities, but their natures were shifty and unpredictable and their origins were mysterious.

    As Brendan notes, not everyone gets their powers from the gods, too - there have been plenty of sub-classes and variants from earlier editions which get their powers from patrons like demons or dragons.

  5. Why even assume that the power comes from a being? Couldn't divine magic come from a doctrine, or philosophy, or belief? If I remember correctly, in the 3rd ed. version of Deities & Demigods, Plato's Academy was given a portfolio and domains. Maybe divine magic comes from a set rules for perceiving reality, it is the belief in those perceptions that allow the magic to be possible?

  6. I wrote a post a few months ago addressing exactly this: divine accessibility and definitive orthodoxy. In short, I don't think there's anything in D&D that mandates that Clerics can speak directly to their god, or that there isn't wiggle room where clerics can disagree with each other about dogma but still satisfy their god enough to channel his power.

    Relatedly, I had a couple of posts on alignment that touch on some of your concerns here: one that talks about what capital-A Alignment means (and what that means for, say, Detect Alignment spells) and one that talks about how I feel Alignment should be handled by players and DMs - namely, as the character's "core beliefs," meaning that acting "out of alignment" doesn't immediately shift your alignment and, possibly, removing the mechanical penalties associated with changing alignment.

    My latest Pathfinder character was an Elven Wizard who was an atheist - he essentially held the same belief as Cook's Waeven Iosanil that "gods" were just powerful entities, and that Clerics were either essentially witches (granted power by a non-divine entity) or deluded wizards (casting arcane magic through varied rites and attributing it to "gods"). It's a wonderful subversion, and lets you deny Zeus' divinity to his face.

    1. It sounds like we are on a similar track. As to the problem of evil you bring up, the standard D&D world seems to combine Manicheanism (evil comes from a supernatural being outside God) and a kind of truce where deities are limited in their intervention in the World, which is easy once Manicheanism knocks the props out from under divine omnipotence.

    2. This is true, but I find it over-all unsatisfying. That is to say, "good is Good and evil is Evil" works on a cosmic kind of level, and I prefer something more personal - I define my alignments as "good is Altruistic and evil is Egoistic."

      There are two major 'wins' to this slight shift, I think: it muddies the waters of "detect alignment" - Law, Good, and (to a lesser extent) Chaos are mostly non-judgy (let he who has not played a CG hero cast the first stone) but "evil" is always bad, and this fixes that; and it allows a more-granular way of defining characters, because evil no longer means Evil and good no longer means Good, you can have a Lawful Good villain ("this is what's best for the common good, and your suffering is acceptable") and a Chaotic Evil hero ("listen, princess, I only take orders from one person: Me") in a way that's more-intuitive than the traditional interpretations - ie, all characters have 'access' to all nine alignments, instead of 5 "heroic" alignments and 5 "villainous" alignments.

      Of course, none of this is to say that Altruism/Egoism is the One True Path; I like a bit of cosmic-level conflict myself, once in a while (and even briefly contemplated adding a Holy/Unholy bit to alignment (so there's be Holy LGs and Unholy LGs), but tossed out the ideas as complicating matters without adding enough value.

      Sorry, I do tend to ramble. :p

    3. "I don't think there's anything in D&D that mandates that Clerics can speak directly to their god" --- The /commune/ spell allows you to ask questions, but only a limited number, and only yes-or-no questions. Furthermore, I take the existence of this spell as proof that a cleric may not normally speak directly to their deity. If you could, you wouldn't need the spell, would you?!

      There are a lot of other points raised in this post and the comments which I shall have to consider for my own works.

  7. These are great points, and the issues are ones I grappled with when trying to run a Birthright campaign. Which is a great setting, but includes divisive churches worshiping the same gods, and it doesn't always make sense. In the past, I've handwaved priestly magic as a form of magic that was taught to the clergy by their respective gods, and so it was slightly more powerful than arcane magic and I could justify having a cleric cast spells that might not necessarily be "approved" by the doctrine of their religion.