Divine/Arcane Divide

I’ve added Ten Foot Polemic to my RSS feed, and spent a little while trawling back through the archives. While there are a few things there that aren’t entirely my cup of tea, it’s creative and inspiring enough that I recommend the read.

That said, I’m going to start this relationship by disagreeing with the writer on a particular matter of taste. In his “Tweaking the Cleric / On Magic” post, Young is discussing his version of the arcane/divine magic dichotomy, and says:

I like wizard magic to be chaotic and horrible with a good chance of going wrong and screwing over yourself and others. Magic comes from Outside and is Wrong and it Fills You and if you don’t vomit out the spells to purge it from your mind and soul it will burn you out and drive you mad. Wizard magic is Chaotic because its very nature is to it disrupt reality and ruin the natural order of things.

By contrast, I want clerical magic to be more reliable and dependable and safe. It comes from Within and is Good and you Channel It Through You and it lights the way and heals the sick and it purges the unnatural and it makes things whole. Cleric magic is Lawful because its very nature is to heal reality and maintain the natural order of things.

On its own merits this is cool, consistent and coherent, very atmospheric, and in keeping with the LotFP rules that he seems to be building on. It’s also in keeping with the Law v. Chaos (or Civilization v. Wild, Church v. Faerie/Paganism, etc.) dualism that has been part of D&D since its inception. It brings to mind Three Hearts and Three Lions almost immediately.

The problem, for me, is right there in the Church part. For most of its existence, the real world’s (Christian) Church has done untold damage to the native peoples and cultures of every land it touched. I don’t like the Christianity that grimly subsumed as many cultural traditions as it could and consigned the rest to the side of Evil in its cosmic war. It declared, “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” It used that declaration to justify genocide and barbaric destruction.

And I feel that, if you gloss over that complicated and tragic history by buying into its post-facto triumphal good-versus-evil narrative, something important is lost. I have an immediate and deep negative reaction to the Christianish vision of a fantasy world where “good” magic is all Church magic, and all other magicians are mere fools riding the crest of Chaos for a while before it inevitably destroys them. I strongly prefer a fantasy world where magic comes from many sources; some more powerful than others, some more dangerous to deal with than others.

This is reflected in the house rules that started this blog. Instead of a unified Church, I present a world with myriad gods of Earth and Dream, with people (clerics and druids) engaging in worship to ask them for boons or avert their wrath. And in the role of wizards I present not unstable walking wellsprings of Chaos, but rather students and shapers of natural forces.

I have little use for alignment systems as a mechanic. But if I had to make a choice, in terms of D&D cosmic alignments, priests are more Chaotic and wizards are more Lawful.

Clerics and druids obey the inscrutable demands of sentient beings for no reason other than that those beings are unimaginably more powerful than humans, hoping that after sufficiently diligent service those beings will reward them with favors. These priests may have purely altruistic motives, and honor only gods who seem benevolent to human society, but in the end they’re still following the whims of alien intelligences. Their minds are full of taboos and observances that must be acted on without any hope of knowing why. (I say this as a practicing, if not intensely devout, Jew.)

Wizards, on the other hand, are fantasy-world scientists. Natural philosophers, if you will. They chart and study the patterns of nature and attempt to harness them. Like priests, they may do this for personal gain or for some greater good, but in the end their primary tools are observation and reason (implying that Int would be a good choice for their primary stat, eh?), and they don’t necessarily serve any masters – meaning they must justify their actions in some way.

Wizards’ minds are full of diagrams, patterns, complex mathematics, lists and correspondences… and the more thoroughly they know the why of any given, action, the less likely it is to accidentally explode in their faces. That ties back to the “fantasy scientist” angle: arcane magic is still dangerous! Real science has killed lots of people while humanity was refining its understanding of engineering, mining, chemistry, radiation, rocket science, and any number of other fields. There’s still room in this view for mad wizards hiding in towers, or necromancers sneaking into morgues at night for parts. It’s just that madness unto death isn’t the inevitable end of anyone who sets foot on that road.

All this theory could be plugged into D&D or some variant with little mechanical effect. (Alternately, it could be played up with rule tweaks and changes such as Devotions-based casting, as seen here). I mostly hope that this view, standing in contrast to how magic seems usually to be presented in the OSR community, is interesting and coherent enough to make a few people step back and look at the issue from a fresh perspective.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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3 Responses to Divine/Arcane Divide

  1. James Young says:

    Oh rad, a link to me! Glad you liked it.

    Some more expansion on the topic –
    My world is pretty much entirely early modern Earth in the 15th century, with some reskinning and messing around with the geography. This means the Church has all the corruption and cultural genocide baggage that comes along with that. It worships nine gods but it acts the same as the Catholic Church and has the requisite Protestant-analog(s).
    They’re not Good. But since they’re the dominant and organised they get to define themselves as Lawful and Good and all the rest.

    The Clerics themselves are above the Church. Each of them a true miracle worker and proof that the gods exist. Their magic is Good and Makes Things Whole and all the rest, but they themselves might not be. Maybe the gods don’t even exist and this magic comes from ineffable force from a Place Beyond that is equal and opposite to Chaos and just as horrid and uncaring of human life (this is so).

    Thematically its the same as LotFP, Chaos seeks to fuck up reality and ruin things everywhere for everyone while Law seeks to create a perfect eternal moment of eternal ordered predictability and ruin things everywhere for everyone.
    Either way you’re ultimately a pawn in the eternal cosmic war and Good and Evil are meaningless.

    • Confanity says:

      Fair enough. Suffice to say that you set off a chain of associations that allowed me to come to some realizations about how I’ve been subconsciously structuring my own fantasy settings. It’s always a fascinating realization, when that kind of thing comes to light! 8^)

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