Monday, May 05, 2008

Zen and the Art of Spell Casting

It must be magic week on the D&D intrawebs. James Maliszewski has posted his response to the question, "[i]f clerics and magic-users both use the same game mechanics -- memorization, spell slots, etc. -- then why do they use two entirely different spell lists?" He's got an intriguing answer:

Under my interpretation, both are "sorcerers" in a broad sense, for both tap into the same universal power source. The difference is that magic-users bend that power to their wills, which is why they acquire spells faster and their magicks are generally destructive and self-aggrandizing. Clerics, on the other hand, bend themselves to match the warp and weft of the universe's power; they improve themselves in accordance with its laws.

This solves a lot of the mysteries of D&D magic in any edition. How can both sides in an internal religious dispute still have magical powers if at least one of them must be considered heretical? Why doesn't worshiping a more powerful god give you more powerful abilities? How can clerics worshiping demons get the same powers as those who worship true gods? What about clerics who are worshiping beings that claim to be gods, but really aren't, like in the module Against the Cult of the Reptile God?

It also explains the high-level spell acquisition of paladins and rangers. Both classes come to the same harmony with the powers that underpin the universe, but in a very round-about way. Finally, rangers don't have to choose a divine patron when they reach a high enough level to start casting spells. The spells don't come from gaining the attention of the gods, but rather from an inner discipline that slowly brings the ranger into line with natural flows of energy in the universe.

But you can take this idea even further. How is the high-level fighter able to take on entire armies of foes and emerge victorious? How can the high-level thief pick the pocket of even a wary individual? Could it be that they also achieve the same sort of harmony with the same natural energies, albeit in a rather limited way? This would make Earthdawn and D&D far more similar in their metaphysical underpinnings.

It's a neat idea, and certainly worth further consideration. As for me, I'm going to continue tinkering with my sacrificial mechanics. After all, one of the joys of early editions of D&D is how amenable they are to being bent around the themes and tropes of individual campaigns.


Anonymous said...

So what you're saying is some kind of cosmic "force" flows throughout the D&D universe? :)

James Maliszewski said...

Re: The Force

Actually, yes, I am. I think it works rather well, given that, in most conceptions of the gods in D&D, they're not the creators of the universe so much as its rulers and/or caretakers. Magic seems to be something "outside" the gods, a separate source of power that even they tap into.

trollsmyth said...

Heck, not only does a cosmic "force" flow throughout the D&D universe, but it also has a "light" and a "dark" side, at least according to Gygax.

I speak, of course, of the Positive and Negative Material Planes (later renamed the energy Planes, I believe.) These are the well-spring of all energy in the multiverse, including life itself. And unlife.

Contact with the undead (and, by extension, the Negative Material Plane) doesn't just sap away the physical health of your body. If it did that, it would be enough to say that vampires and specters drained away hit points. Instead, they steal "life energy", the effects of a character being in harmony with the Positive Material Plane and expressed in the mechanics through class levels. Fighters lose their skill with the sword, the thief's fingers grow clumsy, even the cleric loses some efficacy in channeling and preparing spells.

- Brian

RipperX said...

I know in 2e, that the more powerful a god is, the more spheres the cleric will have access to.

I've always interpreted this as some gods can only give access to reverse spells too, such as curse and cause light wounds.

Where spells come from, well I've seen several different examples of this. In the Ravenloft setting, it is the demi-plane itself that grants the spell, however many spells have been altered monsterously. In advanced society, were the belief in mythical gods is nil and none, characters instead almost worship alignment. In this case, it is their faith that pulls the magic from the air.

However, magic isn't ever an exact science, I think that any false religion wouldn't be getting spells at all! And the very fact that they are would make for one excellent adventure.