Divine Divinity: Dividends Of The Divination Divide

D&D’s been around so long that clerics and paladins are a normal part of most fantasy settings. Divine magic in any setting has a great many implications — most of which involve causing players to get into stupid arguments.

I Wish I Could Turn Stupid People

In the real world, people pray to their deity of choice all the time. Whether it has any effect is the subject of intense theological debate and many wars throughout the course of history. The presence of divine magic in a setting means that gods definitely exist and that they will answer prayers. If you ask a cleric how she knows her god is real, she can say “You remember how your bones magically unbroke themselves and you quit bleeding to death? THAT.” If you ask a paladin how he knows his god is real, he can say “You remember when that vampire burst into flames when I smote him righteously in his stupid fangs? THAT.”

A person who has seen the direct effects of a deity’s influence won’t be wondering if their god exists. They have proof. However, there is still the opportunity to wonder if one is playing for the right team. What if a person finds the things their god asks of them to be immoral? What if someone thinks another god will treat them better? A lot of fantasy settings go polytheistic (many gods), so there are a lot of higher powers to choose from. That being said, it may not easy for the average person trying to change faith or renounce the gods, especially if that person’s family or village all support that god.

It stands to reason then, that a crisis of faith of this nature is absolutely catastrophic to a divine-powered character. For starters, there’s not going to be any more divine juice coming. Magic notwithstanding, a character whose resolve used to be backed by the force of a god is suddenly going to find only the otherwise unsupported steel in their own spine, and their confidence and morale are likely to be shaken until they can learn to deal with that.

Oh yeah. There’s also the whole “making a god angry” thing, and I’d imagine there are a few gods out there that might take being abandoned by one of their elite devout as a bad thing. Gods like curses. Mythology is littered with poor souls that ran afoul of the gods. Littered, I say!

Prostrate yourselves! BZZZTALAALKS, the lord of Sperm and Hornets is come unto your world!

Alignment Is Evil

I’ve never been particularly fond of alignment (mostly due to the amount of heated arguments I’ve seen over its interpretation), and while I think it might be useful to a DM as guidance for how to play a monster or NPC, I think it has no place on a player character sheet. People aren’t computer programs with set responses. They’re flawed, nuanced individuals who change over time. Their idea of good and evil may well be different than another person’s, and very few people will define themselves as evil.

It’s for these reasons that I hope game mechanics that deal with alignment go the way of the THAC0 in D&D Next. If you have two people with opposing views that each would consider good and the other’s evil, what then would a Detect Evil spell do? Detect Opposing Viewpoints? Does your whole party glow subtly, the marbled nuance of their moral fibre visible in the darkness?

There will need to be other options made available in their place, though. Detect Danger gets into Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses territory. Detect Malice might work but you’d have to make something angry at you and then it usually becomes evident. Detect Enemies is what this spell is usually after. It’s X-ray specs combined with a lie detector made out of a sledgehammer. Of course, since you’re receiving a power from a god, the god could let you detect whatever the hell they felt like. I personally like the idea of a Detect Nonbelievers variant of the spell. Or they could just mess with you. Detect Pollen? Detect Sharp Cheeses?

An interesting sidebar: the average joe in a fantasy realm probably won’t know the difference between arcane and divine magic (especially in a setting where magic is really rare to begin with). Mages could trick people into thinking their deeds were backed by the force of a god. And what if a divine character suddenly found out the powers they’d received from their god ever since childhood were actually psionic or a natural talent for sorcery?

Let Your Conscience Be Your Spirit Guide

At this point even I am starting to think I’ve loaded a shotgun with Divine Character Thought Pellets and fired it skyward, so here’s my (somewhat dubious) point:

Divine characters are fueled by pure belief. It’s interesting sometimes to think how much a character truly believes in their god’s ideals and how deeply this would affect this kind of character. Their belief in their god, their ideals, their confidence in what their doing would shape their very identity because to waver means to fall. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same.

As usual, I have roleplaying-shaped ulterior motives behind my article. With all the recent discussion on Mike Mearls’ latest L&L column about clerics (and by “discussion”, I mean people angrily yelling “HEALBOT” into the heavens), it’s clear that people have a few defined ideas about what clerics and paladins should and should not be. One of the things that has me very excited about D&D Next is that the design team seems committed to making a system that allows you play whatever you want, whether it’s a traditional “mace & shield” cleric or “I get a horse and +5 holy avenger” paladin, or something new.

People are complex. Religion is complex. People’s feelings about religion are crazy complex. There’s conflict and drama all over the place. That means there is a wide variety of things you can create a character from, and million more things you could try when roleplaying that character. There is room in the imagination for infinite gods, and those gods can each grant different powers or demand something different from their followers. Even then, it’s up to the player to determine how his or her PC chooses to worship. Of course, in D&D, it helps the DM’s sanity if you have specific powers backed by game mechanics, but for several editions now clerics could choose spells or domains or feats or skills that made them different from any other Generic Cleric™. Paladins can still believe very strongly in gods and causes that are not Lawful Good, and I see no reason why a character’s personal code of ethics couldn’t be peppered with some nice habañero chaos.

For my part, I will be petitioning the team at WotC to make sure the default setting for D&D Next includes gods in charge of:

  • Habanero
  • Bacon
  • Pigtails
  • Marching Order
  • Eczema
  • Rock

Wish me luck. Or pray to whatever gods govern tabletop roleplaying games. Doesn’t matter to me. Crom gives a man but two things at birth: a blog and the courage to post in it. And if he won’t help me, then to hell with him!


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  1. Holy Father Greasy Goodness says:

    The problem with this can be summed up in one word, namely; balance. WotC wants each class to be able to appeal to varying personalities, and lets be honest, no one….NO ONE…. would ever choose any different class or alignment, if one of the options was “Priest of Bacon”

  2. Cormacolinde says:

    In the new campaign i recently started, clerics and other divine users pray to the gods and think those prayers are answered through divine magic, but that is not the case, they are reeally tapping in a source of magic power separate from the gods. The gods were the ones to teach mortals how to use it, but beyond that they do not influence how it is accessed or used.

    So yes, there are gods, but the use of so-called divine magic is not a proof of their existence or powers.

  3. …and the award for longest set up to a Conan joke goes to…Vanir!

    Seriously though, you have good points. Belief is a sticky wicket, and that reality of the human experience translates into the gaming hobby in the same, thorny and knotted way that it permeates the day-to-day lives of the folks who participate.

    In your gaming experiences, and when you run games with Clerics…what kinds of base assumptions about cosmology are supported?

    Is it like the greek myths where they meddle constantly and are hard to appease and understand? Did they build the universe and then walk away putting it on auto-pilot? Are they really beings of such inestimable power and sufficiently strange origin that the minds of mere mortals would recoil or be destroyed by the mere revelation of their appearances? Is it more like history where people like Epicurus and Pyrrus were concurrent with all the other religious beliefs of that time and place?

    Above the table (or to the side or whatever) what are the base, ontological assumptions of your fantasy cosmologies?


  4. One of the parts of the implied D&D setting that I always try to ignore is the fact that not only are gods real, there’s a very real afterlife. You can visit there and come back. You can kill things there and take their stuff and bring it back as a souvenir. I would think that would cause a lot more upheaval in civilization than tends to be covered by a typical campaign.

  5. Detect Evil is one of the most difficult spells to manage. Perhaps it should be renamed in the manner in which it was intended: Detect Evil Intent.

    Some beings are, without a doubt, undeniably evil. Straight up demon lords from hell are always evil, and filled with such intents. People, on the other hand, may not always be. In my mind, a person can be evil-minded, but if they don’t act upon their impulses, does their point of view actually matter?

    Which makes it difficult for Paladins to function. The default mode for a Paladin is “Detect Evil on all the time”. Can you blame them? They get it as a free power. But it doesn’t really help all that much unless something evil is nearby – and what if that something evil is someone they trust, but who has never done anything specifically evil? It introduces a whole new level of paranoia that doesn’t help anyone at all.

    So why not change it to “Evil Intent?” It’s pretty straightforward. An ‘evil intent’ is when a person or creature wishes to perform an evil deed. Murdering another person, for example, or attacking someone out of vengeance. Those are typically ‘evil’ things to do, and the level of evility should determine just how strong the presence is. This can make someone who is normally good-minded actually detectable by ‘detect evil’ – Someone can be Lawful Neutral, and just following orders when they are told to go murder a mining village so their lord can take over the operation.

    I just think that makes a lot more sense, personally.

  6. Personally, I like the idea of a Detect Pollen or Detect Sharp Cheeses spell. I think I might even be in need of that in real life. But seriously, I have to disagree with E-1337 on the argument for having an evil intent spell. Evil intent is also subject to the same interpretation and gray areas. I think a better approach is to default to the standard that most people and beings in the D&D world, just like in our world, are not good of evil. As your article points out, they are complex and free-willed individuals, often they even battle the ideas of good and evil and morality within their own minds (our minds). I know I do!

    I don’t think there is even a need for a “detect evil” spell at all in D&D. Evil should only appear evil because of how it is perceived by others or because of how that “evil entity” acts in the game: that’s why it’s called role-playing folks!

    For those individuals and beings that have embraced evil to their core, such as in the case of demons and certain individuals who have sold their soul to the devil, you shouldn’t even need a detect evil spell to determine they are evil. They exude evil! Even a common person would know this as they kneel before Zod. Such a person quakes in fear and knows immediately they are truly in the presence of vile darkness.

    Such obvious “detecting of evil,” though, should only be reserved for situations in which those beings or individuals have wholeheartedly and unashamedly embraced evil to such an extreme they glow red, develop puss-leaking warts, exude chilling stares, and stink or something. I see evil as sort of a poison that strives to seep into one’s mind and thoughts continuously and contaminates our bodies to the point of it becoming more and more obvious to others (in the way we dress, the way we look, the dark circles around one’s eyes, how often we bathe, etc). Get enough of it in you and you glow black or red or something, sort of like a person who has been exposed to too much radiation.

  7. Pekka Pekuri says:

    If I have to use alignments, I prefer Law and Chaos as cosmic forces with no moralistic aspect to it. Either one is “good” when it happens support human well-being or strivings, and “evil” when it’s destructive. Both might be ultimately bad for humans but you can dedicate yourself to either one. Detect Evil might just detect the opposite (or just differing) alignment. Your behavior wouldn’t make you one alignment or the other, it’d had to be a choice or something magical – like meddling with chaotic magic. E.g. all wizards might be Chaotic and all clerics Lawful.

    Is there an actual use for Detect Evil apart from giving players license to murder things?

    Like it was kinda said in the original post and at least one comment: unexplainable magic isn’t a sufficient proof of god(s). I feel usually the simplistic and not psychologically realistic way D&D portrays superstition takes away lot of the drama. Everything is way too categorized and neat. Early 20th century sword & sorcery did superstition (religion and cults) way better than modern fantasy.

  8. “For those individuals and beings that have embraced evil to their core, such as in the case of demons and certain individuals who have sold their soul to the devil, you shouldn’t even need a detect evil spell to determine they are evil. They exude evil! Even a common person would know this as they kneel before Zod. Such a person quakes in fear and knows immediately they are truly in the presence of vile darkness.”

    ^^ A thought on this. What if it were possible to magically mask this, so to speak, odor? Then a Detect Evil spell would be greatly helpful. In fact, you could actually start continuing to go along this evil-as-an-odor trail, and arrive at some interesting places.

    I think the problem with the traditional Detect Evil was that the concept of evil was too simple, too abstract, too detached from reality. Regardless of whether or not you believe Evil is a palpable force, it’s that way in the game. But it doesn’t manifest in a very real way, at least not insofar as it’s been written. It seems to manifest as a sort of beacon, a big pointy finger that says “Evil Alignment!”

    But, really, in such a world, everyone’s going to be entwined in evil, somewhat. At the very least, it’d come off as a mild little cologne if you have so much as a nasty thought. I could go on with the whole idea of “saints are humans, broken and fallen–just the sinners who get back up”, but I think you get that picture. (Indeed, the ones who strain the most to keep a specific external code of conduct can often be the most inhuman, as we see demonstrated by the controversy of the Jedi code. But…well…I could go on about this, but won’t. Hmm. That’d actually make a good future blog post…)

    At any rate. A Detect Evil in a world where evil is tangled up in most every human’s life would be a sense that’s not completely crystal-clear. It’d be like seeing evil out there, but being hard-pressed to pinpoint it, unless there was a heavy contrast. If a paladin was trying to determine the nature of a subject, to discern the shadow that clung to them, they would likely be hard-pressed to figure it out, depending on the metric. The evil of a serial killer might stand out against that of a regular townsperson, but of a petty thief? Practically indistinguishable.

    Hmm…this really -is- starting to feel like something which deserves its own post…

  9. I know it’s not popular, but I’m going to defend the concept of alignments.
    See, if you do use the default D&D assumptions then the gods are real, and that means that things like good and evil aren’t just subjective points of semantics – they are objective realities. Building on that, it makes sense that there are mechanical consequences for behaving in a certain way (say getting hit with a holy word – it only affects those stained by evil).

    Given that, I agree that characters are three dimensional and have complex relationships with their beliefs and their attitudes about religion – I don’t think that is incompatible with alignment. I’ve never played with alignment as a restriction, like a program that directs the actions of a bunch of robots. Instead, I view it as a role playing tool, like a set of shorthand notes that help inform the actions of the characters (and help players to keep a little bit of character consistency). Players pick the alignment they think fits their character concept, and if through the course of play that characters beliefs and actions are consistently incongruent with that alignment, then it changes (sometimes the player announces it, sometimes I have had to prod it along a bit). Alignment change isn’t a punishment, its part of the player driven story of the PCs (and I think a lot of the animosity about alignment stems from DMs using it as a cudgel). How many comics and films feature villains who have a change of heart and switch sides, or mama’s boys who decide one day that the rules are for suckers and suddenly thumb their noses at authority?

    The arguments that arise from alignment at the table (“well that’s what my rogue would do – he’s chaotic neutral!”) are going to happen anyway, even in a system without alignments (“well, that’s what my rogue would do – he’s generally a decent guy but was raised in a house that believed in the Ferengi rules of acquisition”).

    [sorry for the length]

  10. Forgive me if I’m wrong, as I’ve been die-hard 4e since it came out, but I think you guys are remembering Detect Evil as being way too powerful. Not every evil person or entity has an aura of evil. If I recall correctly, there were guidelines on whether an evil person displayed an evil aura, and how strong it was. Even still, I hope they restore the old 3×3 alignment grid, and that there are some mechanics to back it up. I find that when there aren’t associated mechanics, players are less likely to choose an alignment, which makes them more likely to play the characters as selfish mercenaries.

  11. The moral questions that most often enter a D&D game are: 1) should I kill it/him/her? and 2) should I steal it from it/him/her? There are only so many ways to present or answer those questions. That’s the problem with morality in D&D. The religions and philosophies have to be as complex and specific as real-world value-systems, or else the existence of moral polarity in a campaign becomes useless. In that light, I wonder if it would be best to either eliminate alignments, or to make them more specifically suited to a particular campaign religion/value-system (which would need to have unique, creative tenets that weren’t a cop-out imitation of the Catholic Church — no offense to real-world Catholics intended at all). But maybe that order’s too tall.