A Question of Religious Character

At the forefront of any discussion of religion in campaigns are the clerics and priests who organise, develop, and spread it. These people are often the PCs.

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Not Everybody’s a Cleric...​

Religion isn’t just for the holy and it need not be career oriented. There is nothing wrong with having a religious character who isn’t a priest. Your barbarian might always look to the priest for wisdom and guidance; a wizard might ask about the morality of their magical experimentations, a thief might offer a silent prayer before scaling a building. Not every fighter follows the god of war, not every thief follows the god of rogues. A cunning warrior might follow the trickster deity in the hope it will help their strategy in war. A ‘Robin Hood’ style rogue might consider themselves fighting a war against poverty. Your barbarian may follow the goddess of home and family because he just really loves the wife and child he left back home (who he sends most of his treasure back to).

Your character is more than their career and picking a faith for them to follow will often expand their background in interesting ways if you look outside the usual deities in any pantheon. This goes for species too, as there is no reason a Dwarf can’t follow the ‘god of the Elves’ and vice versa. It’s just a trickier fit when it comes to meetings.

...And Not Every Cleric’s a Fanatic​

Even though anyone can follow a religion it will be a more central part of life for those who officiate within it. Having said that, not all priests are fanatics. Like anyone else they too can have a crisis of faith, or see the job as more of a councillor than a religious adherent. Some may just be in it for the money or because it’s what their parents wanted. Although it should be noted this need not make them ‘evil priests’ just not especially faithful ones. They still might want to serve and take care of their community. In general, don’t just take their level of faith for granted, it is always worth considering and developing.

Given that priests usually minister to a community, you should also consider how adventuring fits into not only your character’s position but their religious structure as a whole. The most obvious answer is for them to be ‘walking the earth’ spreading the word. But how is that more valuable than looking after a community of the faithful? Given they won’t find many converts down a dungeon, how do they justify those sorts of adventures as part of the job? The answer to some of these will depend a little on what the rest of the order does. If there are far too many priests ordained, maybe there are simply no open positions as village priest. Perhaps the order wants its priests to have some life experience before they settle down and so sends them out to adventure. But if that’s the case, will they be expected to retire to a life of community service at a certain level?

A Question of Magic​

Having settled what your priest does and where they fit into the faith, we have to take a look at their magic. No other power is more important to any other character. While a wizard’s ability to cast a spell or a fighter’s ability with a sword are vital, they are still just things they can do. A priest casting a spell is channelling the power of a deity they have dedicated their life to. While it may just be healing to everyone else, to the priest it is both communion with their deity and proof that their love and faith is reciprocated. Every spell matters, every time. As a player you should reflect that, and the experience of spellcasting. This feeling may be more potent the higher the level of the spell, and if they are having a crisis of faith the priests might not feel worthy enough to cast the spell.

Spells should be a blessing and a gift, and a reward for the faithful. It is quite reasonable for a priest character to expect a character to pray with them to receive the blessing of their deity. However, few will refuse to help those in need, no matter how annoying or disrespectful they are. In my Dragonlance campaign one of the characters was actually resurrected by Mishakal (the goddess of healing) and his first (rather ungrateful) response was ‘Well, if you think I’m worshipping you now, you’ve got another thing coming’. Mishakal simply responded ‘You are free to do as you will. I brought you back because I love you, as I love all of you,’ and then she wept for those she could not save before she vanished. The character didn’t feel quite so smug after that.

It is also important to determine not just how magic feels for the priest casting it but how it feels for whose on the receiving end of it. Do those healed by the magic feel blessed? Do those hit by a flame strike feel they should rethink their lives (more than anyone getting hit by a lighting bolt anyway)? Perhaps the blessings of the deity only work on those who believe in them. The gods can be fickle and some might not help those who don’t pay them homage, or at least believe in them. Even for more beneficent gods it might just be a fact of life that their power can’t affect unbelievers. Will the atheist fighter decide to go against their principles and offer a prayer just to get some badly needed healing? Will just a few words without any real faith be enough?

One way to bring some mystery back into priestly spellcasting is to, well, keep it a mystery. Instead of allowing the player to pick the character’s spells per day, the GM does so and keeps them secret. At any time the player wants to cast a spell they announce their character is praying for a blessing. If the GM sees a spell in the list that will help, it gets cast. If not, nothing happens. The higher the priest’s level the more chance there will be a useful spell on the list.

The GM can also use spells the player might not have thought of that might reveal other clues. This might be using a spiritual hammer spell on an enemy and knocking them through a false wall to reveal a treasure trove. Using this system might be a little frustrating for the player, but they are free to petition for certain abilities each day in the hopes the GM will pick those spells. The GM also have the advantage of knowing the adventure so can pick spells they know will be more useful to face what is coming. While it can be a lot of work for the GM, it will help the player to see using their power as praying and not just casting spells.

The Uncommon Divine​

In general, priestly spellcasting should never be taken from granted. You can’t just arrive in a town and ask the local temple for a resurrection as if you are ordering a pint of ale. Many priests will require acts of service for their help, not for themselves but for the deity they serve. While a donation of some gold may be suitable for low level spells, anything high level will need an act of real service.

This is not just to be difficult either. It shouldn’t be enough to just reach into your pocket to repay the blessing, particularly if the characters are wealthy. The service they perform will make them work for the blessing and make them remember who they got it from. It need not be some grand adventure either. Most good-aligned religions take care of communities and a certain amount of community service is perfectly acceptable. The characters might work in a soup kitchen, give out blankets, find shelter for the homeless etc. If they think any of these jobs is somehow beneath them, then maybe they aren’t the heroes they think they are.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

JohnF

Explorer
One way to bring some mystery back into priestly spellcasting is to, well, keep it a mystery. Instead of allowing the player to pick the character’s spells per day, the GM does so and keeps them secret. At any time the player wants to cast a spell they announce their character is praying for a blessing. If the GM sees a spell in the list that will help, it gets cast. If not, nothing happens. The higher the priest’s level the more chance there will be a useful spell on the list.
There's a lot to like about this suggestion! I'm going to seriously consider it...

Great write-up, overall. I'll admit to getting lazy about religions and godly-powers-made-manifest, thoughtlessly treating divine magic like the wizardly stuff. You've made me realize I'm not doing the concept of channeling the divine any justice in my games. Must fix that!!!
 

Tsuga C

Adventurer
Denying spells to wayward or lackadaisical clergy is a tradition that goes all the way back to AD&D. If you want the benefits of channeling divine power, then you need to toe the line when it comes to the policies/worldview of the specific deity or general pantheon your cleric worships.
 


Great OP! I especially like the idea that divine spells could impart certain thoughts and feelings in those affected by them.

I currently DM for a party of religious PCs: a rogue and monk who follow the Raven Queen, and a cleric/bard who follows Sarenrae (aka Raei or The Everlight). I haven't played up the religious aspect of their characters as much as I could have, but as my campaign comes to a close I'm trying to play up a bit more the contrast of followers of the goddess of merciless death being regularly aided and healed by a follower of a goddess of redemption. Perhaps the cleric's magic could cause certain enemies to be more likely to flee or surrender as they feel the sorrowful wrath of a deity who wishes the evildoer could be spared (EDIT: I'm now contemplating making it so hostile creatures that are positively impacted by her magic or are brought to half their max HP or less by it have to succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or either flee, surrender, or perhaps even become friendly).

Another topic I'd like to touch on is how "faith" should extend past just supernatural abilities. It could be represented in PCs having faith that their deity works in the world in more subtle ways, that even seemingly mundane phenomena and coincidences were actually infouenced or orchestrated by their deity.
 
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Yaarel

Mind Mage
A priest casting a spell is channelling the power of a deity they have dedicated their life to.

Some Clerics are animists, some are elementalists, as well as adherents of other nontheistic sacred traditions.

The experience of divine magic varies from tradition to tradition.

A Cleric might be a shaman who is training ones own personal magical abilities. A main responsibility of a shaman is reconciling conflicts within the community. This community includes objects of nature. The shaman identifies the source of the conflict and facilitates actions of those in conflict to mitigate it.

A Cleric might attune and harmonize the qualities of various elements.

And so on. Heh, not all sacred traditions are ethnocentrically Roman.

What all sacred traditions seem to have in common is a connection to an ultimate reality, a cosmic power, that brings meaning to life.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Technically a "priest" is an official servant in a temple.

A "cleric" is something different. All priests are clergy, but not all clergy are priests.

A cleric might be a teacher, a miracleworker, a facilitator of offerings, a leader of ceremonies, or any sacred responsibility that a community formally assigns. The duties of a cleric vary from community to community.

The essence of a cleric is the sacred community and what matters to them most.
 

Veril

Explorer
Instead of allowing the player to pick the character’s spells per day, the GM does so and keeps them secret. At any time the player wants to cast a spell they announce their character is praying for a blessing. If the GM sees a spell in the list that will help, it gets cast. If not, nothing happens.

what a terrible terrible idea.
First GM has to do the player spells every round?
Player says "I try to cast something useful" every round - wow, way to empower player decision making.
terrible.

Mystery is what the GM controls, not what the player controls.
 


Crimson Terrain

Explorer
Publisher
Instead of allowing the player to pick the character’s spells per day, the GM does so and keeps them secret. At any time the player wants to cast a spell they announce their character is praying for a blessing. If the GM sees a spell in the list that will help, it gets cast. If not, nothing happens.

what a terrible terrible idea.
First GM has to do the player spells every round?
Player says "I try to cast something useful" every round - wow, way to empower player decision making.
terrible.

Mystery is what the GM controls, not what the player controls.
I would say this is taking it too far. The idea isn't entirely flawed, rather it feels that it ran away with them a bit. I think it would be better as a sort of wild magic mechanic but a smaller pool of spells/effects for one and specifically invoked(cast) by the cleric, possibly a few groups of spells to select so you at least know what your rolling for is potentially worth it. At that point, you can either rely on a dice roll or have the GM choose. Personally, I would go dice roll. I know we all like to joke about the GM being "God" of the campaign or whatever but having this fall to the GM puts too much of the outcome in their hands in a very specific way that is rife for causing drama at the table.
 

Bluebell

Explorer
I would say this is taking it too far. The idea isn't entirely flawed, rather it feels that it ran away with them a bit. I think it would be better as a sort of wild magic mechanic but a smaller pool of spells/effects for one and specifically invoked(cast) by the cleric, possibly a few groups of spells to select so you at least know what your rolling for is potentially worth it. At that point, you can either rely on a dice roll or have the GM choose. Personally, I would go dice roll. I know we all like to joke about the GM being "God" of the campaign or whatever but having this fall to the GM puts too much of the outcome in their hands in a very specific way that is rife for causing drama at the table.
I could be on board with a separate category of spell that is either randomized or DM-selected when the PC invokes it. Though, complete randomization feels like it runs counter to the goal of this -- wild magic is randomized because it's chaotic, whereas this is meant to reflect divine intent.

Or, perhaps rather than the spells themselves being determined by something other than the PC, there could be something like a "divine surge" that kicks in under certain circumstances. This might cause additional effects from an already-cast spell that were not intended -- healing that spills over onto characters other than the target, or an attack that also explodes into bright light that temporarily blinds the target, etc.

I definitely agree that a system that forces the player to completely relinquish control over their spellcasting choice goes way too far. A cleric is their spells. Taking their spell choice away from them pretty much nerfs their ability to play effectively. And a cleric at upper levels has way too many spells for a DM to have to manage.
 

Azzy

KMF DM
I would say this is taking it too far. The idea isn't entirely flawed, rather it feels that it ran away with them a bit. I think it would be better as a sort of wild magic mechanic but a smaller pool of spells/effects for one and specifically invoked(cast) by the cleric, possibly a few groups of spells to select so you at least know what your rolling for is potentially worth it. At that point, you can either rely on a dice roll or have the GM choose. Personally, I would go dice roll. I know we all like to joke about the GM being "God" of the campaign or whatever but having this fall to the GM puts too much of the outcome in their hands in a very specific way that is rife for causing drama at the table.
An interesting take on this is to only do this when a cleric character has begins "straying from the path" or having a crisis of faith. The spells the DM choses should be ones that reflect, strictly, the ethos of the cleric's deity so that the straying cleric may find that they may not have access to less thematic spells. This could provide for a more interesting alternative to simply revoking the clerics powers altogether.
 

Quartz

Hero
At the forefront of any discussion of religion in campaigns are the clerics and priests who organise, develop, and spread it.


In the past, priests weren't generally devoted to a specific deity but served all the gods within the pantheon. There would be areas in the temple for each god, with the more important gods having bigger areas, and the patron deity having the biggest. You didn't have clerics of Thor or Zeus or Tiamat but rather clerics of the Norse, Olympian, and Sumerian pantheons. Thor or Zeus or Tiamat might be their particular patrons. So a cleric of the Olympian pantheon would pray to Aeolus for controlling winds and to Poseidon for water breathing.
 


Hussar

Legend
While this is admitted a lot more boring of an idea, instead of the DM picking spells for the cleric, why not use the cleric's save DC? A very pious cleric character whose player has made sure to really play into the cleric's faith and is doing something that is directly tied to that faith (such as a Forge Cleric creating something) maybe gets a +1 or +2 to save DC's, whereas a straying cleric who is just casting spells because he or she can finds that the DC drops by -1 or -2.

I still think that players would absolutely lose their minds if the DM tried this though. Too direct manipulation of the character by the DM. You'd need iron clad buy in from the player before even considering this.
 

nevin

Hero
Ive only a few times done anything close. I have as a punishment taken certain spells away from the rare cleric's, who were not following alignment or thier gods ethos ( for some time), or after praying handed them a list and said here's the spells your god gave you today. Once for a severe infraction of treating the head of the pantheon as an errand boy, the god told the High Cleric to not ask for spells till he had redeemed himself.

But I wouldn't mess with a clerics spells unless they were simply not following the ethos and rules of thier patron Diety or actively caused thier diety harm or embarrasment.
 

Regards to the subjectivity of granting of spells by deities and their agents, it is valuable to look into the play of extreme subjectivity with bargaining and cajoling from the spirit/witch/shaman style of receiving spells, where one must deal with a choir of ghosts or fey to get anything done, it must do persuasion checks instead of concentration checks.

Another contrast if we go along another axis is the warlock class -a sort o long-term relationship with a higher force like a cleric, but dealing with the arcane and casting with verve of a sorcerer.
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The situation where the-powers-that be could substitute one spell for another without the players consent is an interesting NPC character hook. Perchance if the cleric is in a good state with his deity or Avatar he would have the spell substituted because his God looked upon him. This is good if as a DM you think your character is about to make a mistake and to give him a better chance. It's a god :) upon him. The cleric wants to cast Grease but the DM notices that web would be a much better option, especially since he holds a torch. And that's what happens, along with a ditty of divine music as a special effect to indicate to his clEric that he has his best intentions in mind in regards to the substitution.

Just just a few observations...
 

nevin

Hero
I would never change out spells for a cleric in good standing. I also can't imagine a D&D god who's not all knowing would be watching the cleric at exactly the moment they cast the spell unless they are in something that is seriously important to the diety.

Now the god might send an outsider to help, another worshiper, grant an extra spell or boost an existing spell. But unless a player were worshipping a CN diety, I can't imagine a situation where I'd mess with the choice of spells for a cleric in good standing.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
I also can't imagine a D&D god who's not all knowing... would be watching the cleric at exactly the moment they cast the spell unless they are in something that is seriously important to the diety.
Isn't that the nature of gods, to be all-knowing?

The OP is tossing out brainstorming ideas, but underlying it is the idea that out of all other classes, the Cleric (and perhaps Paladin) is unique in that they serve a greater idea than their personal, selfish needs. Yes, you may want to draw upon your god's resources to rip the spirit of your deceased brethren PC back from the Ethereal plane into its body, and if you don't mind deity, heal that body too. And that's great if you have access to power like a wizard that you can use willy-nilly to do whatever the hell you want with.

But a god? You've committed yourself to a higher power and to use those powers towards that goal. You worship a god of the sun and renewal? When is the last time the person you're trying to raise ever sacrificed their essence, risked their life, towards that deity's area of influence? Have they dedicated their time, resources, wealth, and life to eradicating undead, or to helping birth a child?

It's totally an RP thing, but the idea of a cleric as more than a "heal-bot" is what distinguishes tabletop RPGs from video games.
 


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