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Gods and Divine Magic



Like it or not, it’s an integral part of most fantasy settings; particularly those with the concept of divine magic. I’m curious to know, what approach do other worldbuilders take when dealing with interactions between the mortal and the divine?

The way I see it, there are three approaches:

  • Agnostic: Gods are non-sentient, ephemeral, or unconcerned with mortal affairs. The power for divine magic comes from the wielder’s faith (force of will) rather than as a “divine gift”.
  • Channelled: Gods are real but not necessarily sentient, or are unconcerned with mortal affairs... the power of divine magic flows from the priest knowing the correct incantations to invoke that god’s power, rather than the god willingly imparting such power to the priest.
  • Inspired: Gods are real, sentient, and involved (for good or ill) in mortal affairs. They invest their power in their Clergy directly, as a reward for service perhaps, or maybe as a way of influencing the mortal world due to some limitation on their ability to interact with it.
So, worldbuilders, what method do you use for divine magic? Did I miss any approaches out?
There is more then 4 that you listed as the different types of Agnostic you listed have hugely different implications, and even more that you haven't touched upon.

Gods are non-sentient, like forces of nature, that would suggest an almost psychological approach to divine magic underlaying the mystical observences is rituals that shape beliefs.

Gods are emphereal, not sure what you mean by that, simply unembodied?

Unconcerned with mortal affairs. If they created the universe and then left you have a polydeist theology, but if they have never taken an interest or even can't take an interest then that suggests a very polytheology, perhaps Epicurean Theology where the gods exist in the void between worlds and don't interact with worlds, instead forever gazing and contemplating their own immortal perfection. Plus there is always the implication of what happens if you do catch the attention of these uninterested Gods?

Channeling the power of the Gods without the okay of the gods is very Ur Priesty. Blurs the line between clerics and arcane casters some what, because divine magic becomes a matter of technolohy

Inspired can have tons of variations.

One you didn't touch upon is getting divine magic via intermediaries, praying to Saints, Angels, Ancestors and more to intervene with the God or Gods in question. The Gods invest these spirits with divine magic and they invest it in the Divine Spellcaster.

I'm tired but I will explore this a lot more to tomorrow .

Tony Vargas

[*]Inspired: Gods are real, sentient, and involved (for good or ill) in mortal affairs. They invest their power in their Clergy directly, as a reward for service perhaps, or maybe as a way of influencing the mortal world due to some limitation on their ability to interact with it.
So, worldbuilders, what method do you use for divine magic? Did I miss any approaches out?
Closest to this, I suppose. I really lift from the fiction of Tanith Lee & Michael Moorcock, when it comes to the relationship of the mortal to the divine.

Gods gain power, perhaps even derive existence, from their worshippers. It's a chicken and egg question whether the gods created mortals or vice-versa. So when a mortal gains power from the divine, it can be a matter of developing his own power through faith, or of tapping into the collective power of his priesthood, or of gaining power granted directly by the deity. It's just a matter of where he is in a cycle that flows from worshippers, through objects of veneration (temples, priestly hierarchies, graven images, holy symbols, philosophic ideals, etc), to the gods, through miracles & divine-portfolio-management, and back to the faithful.

Then consider that the gods exist outside a multiverse of many worlds and worshippers, that in one world, one god may be supreme, and, in another, be one of many, or even minor. A near-forgotten god might exist in a single such world, more as a sort of spirit, empowered by only a handful of worshippers. Mortals can gather worshippers or even just followers undergo apotheosis and transition to divinity...


[MENTION=8900]Tony[/MENTION]Vargas ...approaches out?Closest to this, I suppose. I really lift from the fiction of Tanith Lee & Michael Moorcock, when it comes to the relationship of the mortal to the divine.

Gods gain power, perhaps even derive existence, from their worshippers.....
Thanks always want to when the idea that worshippers are batteries came from. I am not a follower of that idea.


Mod Squad
Staff member
So, worldbuilders, what method do you use for divine magic? Did I miss any approaches out?
One option missed in the OP is "Ineffable: The exact nature of the gods is not known, or undetermined. Divine magic happens, but nobody has proof of why or how."

This is how most of my games run - unless or until the actual nature of divine magic impact play (so, it becomes mechanically- or plot-relevant), then I don't bother to specify. This allows for more belief systems in the world.


[MENTION=6670153]gyor[/MENTION] Perhaps emphereal was meant to be ephemeral? Ephemeral has been used in fiction to refer to "temporarily immortal". The Highlander film series is an example of this, immortal until your head is taken.

I have this in my games where if a player were to gain enough strength and ability, he or she, could duel a deity to the death. Of course this is extremely difficult to do. More often or not it is one deity killing another.

With regards to mortal deities are rather apathetic, a mortal is nothing more than a little creature flittering about in the world. One can ask, pray, call upon them for aid. However, one must be respectful and appease them through proper ritual, use of litany or liturgy. Thus common people more often or not are seemingly ignored. Actual people capable of calling on divine assistance are limited only by the measure of their faith and piety.


In my game divine is a source of power. Clerics and such follow traditions of tapping the divine to power spells and create specific effects. Gods exist and are sentient, but they are beings of divine power, not the source of divine power. Worshiping a god is not required for being a cleric and even clerics of a specific god worshiping tradition do not get their power from that god. Worship, belief, and the acquiescence of the god do not enter into it, although traditions might teach that they do.

This allows lots of non god-based secret society type magical traditions. It also means Thor can be the god of thunder as depicted in myth without requiring he have the power to grant spells or to have any spellcasting of his own or be in contact with his worshippers. It allows magical cleric traditions worshiping giants and dragons and demons. It allows emperor cults, cults to false gods, and ambiguity on the exact nature of gods. It allows for Thoth-Amon style sorcerer priests which I find appealing yet keeps them separate in their magical traditions from wizards or warlocks.


Registered User
In my setting deities are real, but not necessary to get divine magic. Some shamans and warlocks worship ancestors, totems, vestiges or kami (feys). Almost nobody is really atheist, and everybody accept the afterlife planes, also celestial and infernal, as a reality. Somebody may be misotheist (he hates gods) or maltheist (his opinion is gods aren't good or they really don't worry for the mortals). The fear to a eternal punishment in the infernal planes is general, but some criminals think they only be punished in the afterlife for crimes against followers of the same deity (or infernal lord).

There are some followers of deism, this means they accept gods, or a supreme pantocrator, but neither religion nor clery are necessary. Or they opinion is there is a Cosmic Force, but this power isn't a sentient spirit, and without self-awareness.

As hook or source of new stories of conflict I also add psionic ardents and favored souls, with a hate-love relation with the rest of divine spellcasters. I don't imagine the favored souls like sorcerers with armour and divine spells but with class features like a softer version of monster templates (half-celestial, half-fey, half-dragon..). The psionic ardents could be allies of clerics with the same religion, but they don't need to show their faith, nor being followers of any deity. They could work like "freelance" or infiltrators or sleeping agents within a rival clery, maybe close a temporal monolatry, this means are followers of certain god but only working for her for some time and after they could work for other cult, like a autonomous worker with divine magic.

And I imagine warlocks as a remake of binders and pact magic with vestiges. They wouldn't be arcane spellcasters but primal, like druids, rangers, shamans, wardens and seekers. Some vestiges wouldn't spirits from a beyond plane but special "living" beings like demigods, ancient wyrms, lord feys...or maybe a lord mummy or a lich. Some warlocks/binders would try to a vestige to become a help, or the redemption of a fallen angel or other former celestial being. In a way this warlocks or binders they are also their own version of religion. Some powers given by vestiges would be like softer version of levels of template class (or half-blood racial class).


I have multiple pantheons ruling over different peoples. Some of the gods actually directly live on and rule territory, others just work through their clerics, some even work through warlocks. It really varies.
I occasionally have an unreliable NPC tell the party's wizard that there is no arcane magic. The secret trickster god, LaMoSheCuJo, has been playing a game for years, getting otherwise intelligent beings to make ridiculous hand gestures, say stupid things, and hold bat poop in their hands in exchange for spells working. The NPC then prophesies the coming of the 4th spell component, dance moves......


I've toyed with a lot of different approaches over the years in different campaigns. Beyond just a vanilla "the gods are real, they grant spells, don't worry about it" model that I tend to default to if nobody cares enough to make it a campaign point, I've also had:

* The gods are real, but they're basically the Marvel Comics version of the gods. They don't sit around granting spells to clerics - they're too busy fighting each other and saving the world from cosmic threats to care about what humans are up to on a daily basis. Clerics basically know the cheat codes of the universe to tap into the Power Cosmic that fuels the gods' power and as a part of that clerics have to "ritually embody" the principles that the god believes in if they want to cast spells - if they ever start doing things that are counter to their chosen god's desires, then they get cut off from the access. (Or worse, the god whose power they are tapping into notices what they're doing and gets mad about it).

* The gods are real, but they're basically the mirror of the Demon Princes or the Archdevils - very powerful Celestial beings but no more or less powerful than the top of the heap among the demons and devils. In that campaign clerics/paladins were basically warlocks in fluff though not in mechanics.

* There are no gods, and clerical magic is just a different flavor of magic. This was an old B/X game that I ran back in the day that worked out pretty well with the limited spell lists and fewer number of caster classes in the game - I've never had a desire to go back to it for a post-3.x campaign though.

* There are no gods - there are alien beings of unspeakable horror who grant their worshipers spells in exchange for devotion, which somehow they derive sustenance from. One of them delights in pretending to be a whole pantheon of "good" gods and feasting off the devotion of the poor deluded fools who worship him in one of his many guises. (This was a secret campaign bit that my teenage self thought was awesome but was basically me ripping off Lovecraft. It never got the reveal that it was supposed to get because the game petered out before it became a plot point. Honestly, it's probably for the best - the rest of that game didn't go near Cosmic Horror at all, so the reveal would have come out of left field. My teenage self was kind of dumb in many, many respects...)


I go "agnostic" by the given chart. I like the Eberron approach to gods (which was presaged by Al-Qadim years prior). I'm not a fan of the gods-are-just-big-monsters approach to divinity, no matter how ingrained in the system it is.

Actually, that's not true; I love the contrast of including the Lovecraftian Elder Gods alongside the "civilized" pantheons. So you'll probably never meet your god in person, and that's literally your best case scenario.