Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thoughts on divine spellcasting: we need a miracle

So in most standard fantasy RPGs there's typically two types of spellcasting. The first is of course capital "M" magic, the ability to tap into some vast, powerful force and screw around with the laws of nature. The domain of wizards, sorcerers and magical beings. Whenever you're talking about something being "magical" it probably refers to this first flavor of spellcasting. Then you've got "divine" magic, that is power granted to a human by gods/spirits/cosmic forces. This is the one I wanted to talk about today.

You see, the problem with divine spellcasting is that it rarely feels very different from "standard" magic. The cleric and wizard of dungeons and dragons are an excellent example (although most fantasy games run into the same issue). The two classes themselves are pretty distinct: the wizard is some dude running around with a staff and nightgown while the cleric is an armored warrior-priest. But when it comes to using their actual powers things are pretty darn similar. Both have 9 "levels" of powers, both spend some time preparing their spells ahead of time and have a limited number of spell "slots" that they can use every day.

When it comes to the spells themselves there's some distinction, clerics can heal for instance and get a variety of "thematic" (ie holy/unholy/axiomatic/chaotic) spells that are extra effective against particular enemies. Wizards tend towards the more flashy and dramatic powers. However, when examined closely the differences are fairly slight and both spellcasters will likely have many spells in common (or close enough if you squint). In fact, because the cleric buffer and tougher than the wizard there's often an attempt to make the cleric's spells less directly effective and more focused on enhancing themselves and their friends.

If you think about it this actually makes divine spellcasting fairly...lame. I mean on the one hand you have a human chosen as the personal servant of a diety and granted superhuman capabilities to make their will manifest in the mortal world...and they're often less impressive than the guy who just studied a whole lot. (before I get a flood of comments, yes I'm aware most people consider the cleric/druid to be contenders for most powerful class, I'm speaking more of the perception rather than the fact and I'm talking about more than just D&D here). Shouldn't the guy who can call upon the wrath of Thor himself be pretty darn terrifying? Or at least pretty distinct from the guy whose powers come from reading lots of magic books?

So, in the interest of doing more than just complaining I'm trying to think of a system to do just that. And, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've been rewatching episodes of Hercules and Xena and it just so happens that the gods play a pretty hefty role in those shows. In fact, it's pretty common to see the gods granting favors and miracles for mortals but they do it in a very different way than the D&D style cleric. Rather than just turning their chosen mortal into a spellcaster they'll give them some kind of special relic or divine mcguffin which they can use to try and unsuccessfully take down the protagonist. So if the priest of Hera wants to call upon her she doesn't just give him a selection of powers, she'll give him a magic urn containing a demon lizard or a divine weapon. That's an interesting sort of divine intervention right there.

Still using D&D as the standard example the closest to that idea is probably the Warlock, they've got a small selection of specific powers that are effectively indefinite or at-will. And the distinction between the warlock and a cleric of one of the nastier powers is pretty small. So...something like that, but not necessarily that restrictive.

So, just brainstorming as to what this theoretical cleric might look like...say that they can call upon miracles at a place or time that is sacred to their god (by default at a consecrated temple). Most miracles will take the form of blessings, sacred objects and so on...not just spells in a clerics head but blessings or relics. These blessings last indefinitely, essentially permanent until a cleric chooses to swap them out for a new blessing.

So, lets say priests start with two blessings at first level, and this increases by one every odd level. Not that this is in no way attempting to be a useful or balanced system...I'm just throwing thoughts at the wall and seeing which ones are sticky. So you can have one miracle of your highest spell level, double that for the next lowest, four of the next lowest, etc. arranged however you like.

Ex: a third level cleric can have 3 blessings, one 2nd level blessing and two first level. A 12 level cleric has 7 blessings: one 6th level, 2 5th level and 4 4th level.

Of course if the cleric chooses they can have lower-level blessings but I don't imagine there's much point. The idea is a cleric with a small selection of potent powers, not a grab bag of random spells.

So, what is a blessing? Well essentially it's a spell that's effectively indefinite, assuming the spell was not instantaneous. Depends a lot on the spell though...some of the short duration spells would definitely be unbalanced as semi-permanent powers while others (like say summon monster) would work fine.

Ex: Huthbert, cleric of pelor, is preparing for a journey with his companion so he visits the temple. He's 1st level so he gets two blessings. First he lays his mace upon the altar in the beam of sunlight streaming through the window and asks for Pelor's blessing on the weapon. It takes on a slight golden sheen and becomes a +1 weapon (Magic Weapon). He then brings in his companions and saying a prayer annoints each one with holy water from the font (Bless), granting them courage for their journey. 

So these blessings stay in effect until the priest decides to ask their god for a new set of blessings. Of course sometimes you just need to smite some infidels, so you could always request one-shot miracles...basically some kind of major, instantaneous spell-like ability that the cleric can call upon once and only once (until they return to a holy site to request new blessings). In general these one-shot powers should be big and more effective than other spellcaster's have access too. So calling down a pillar of holy fire should be more deadly than an equal level wizard spell...these would be the big, deadly powers you use on boss fights or when facing armies. Like normal blessings these should probably still have a physical orb containing holy fire, a vial of pelor's tears to bring back the dead, etc.

I doubt I'll ever try and actually create a "class" for this with D&D...balance in the system is precarious enough as it is. But it's a way to organize my thoughts. I've been pondering how to handle these sort of rules in some of the game systems I occasionally tr and throw together. So we'll see how it goes.