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spellcasting clericWorld builders from a western cultural heritage tend to think of magic and religion in a particular way. What they have in common is that religion fundamentally deals with things of the mind and spirit, or the heart and soul[1], and magic also deals with “unseen” things, especially with supernatural forces.

But where they depart, they are radically different. Whereas religion is, at its heart, spiritual in nature, the main concern of magic is to effect change in the world around us. If a curse is cast, even if it works through supernatural agency, the result is a person becoming physically ill or dying. If there is a drought, a weather spell will make it rain, and so on. Regardless of how the metaphysics of these things work, the end point is almost always some change or effect in the material world.[2]

From this perspective, then, westerners frame religion and magic from a dualistic, Cartesian point of view. Religion addresses one set of needs and works in one particular sphere; magic addresses a different set of needs and functions in a different sphere.

The Hybrid Combination of Religion and Magic

World builders often mingle these two, or try to create a bridge between them. A work of fiction might feature a priest-king who is both religious leader and mighty caster of spells bestowed by his powerful deity. Role-playing game designers are no strangers to tracking magic powers given to mortals by various gods, developing a body of “clerical magic” that stands apart from “regular” magic use both in scope of powers and their religious origin.

However, this blending of religion plus magic often results in a hybridized form of religious magic which merely spackles over the basic dualism lurking in the background. This is especially evident in rpg design work, where the function of clerical magic is typically a mirror of regular (wizardly) magic, simply pasted on to a religious structure as justification for the cleric knowing spells.

Clergy gained magical powers in gaming not only because this fit in well with fantasy tropes, but because it enabled clerics to aid their adventuring parties (for instance, with healing spells), and to have some special powers granted by their gods. The basic structure of spellcasting developed for magic-users was simply extended to the clerical class and justified with the rubric “divinely bestowed powers.” Even in fiction, religious magic is often envisioned as a set of specific spells and spell-like powers, thus taking the traditional magical framework of spell-casting and grafting it onto the tree of religion.

Consequences of This Paradigm

And here is where we get into trickle-down consequences for today’s generation of fantasy world builders and fiction writers, so many of whom have had their creative imaginations shaped by rpgs in the last many decades.

1. God-granted Powers.  One consequence is that many writers think of clerics or priest-type characters as necessarily having some kind of specific powers or abilities granted by their gods—something magical or supernatural in nature, beyond the ordinary trappings of a priestly class.

This is not the best starting point for designing either religion or magic or a priestly profession, because it is founded on too many borrowed assumptions about the nature of these things. Even the phrase “clerical magic” is bundled up tight with unquestioned cultural bias.

2. How Magic Functions.  Another consequence is that clerical magical abilities typically function in a way that is very similar to that of wizardly magic, in terms of the nuts and bolts of the process. To take the classic D&D example, there will be a casting time required, a duration of spell effect, a range, certain ingredients or somatic or verbal actions required, and so on.

In part this is a result of the gamification of the process, distilling “spell use” into a game mechanic that can be played at the tabletop. But by the same token, this particular game mechanic has so steeped into collective imaginations that many writers have an unquestioned, underlying assumption that their spell-casters must go through these or similar steps, and that clerical magic will have at least that much in common with wizardly magic.

Taking that as a starting point for designing magical systems, the world builder ends up asking things like “what kind of divine spells does this priest have?” instead of better framing questions like, “how does divine magic work in this priest’s culture?”

These consequences incline world builders to create derivative and copy-cat-ish styles of magic for their fictional worlds. This goes beyond the needs of designing for rpg game mechanics, and trickles into works of pure story fiction and even what bunny trails the world builder chooses to follow (or not follow) when trying to invent new magic systems or create a new religion plus associated spells.

In short, this way of thinking about magic and religion has become both entrenched (in some portion of the design community, anyway), and it continues to echo the underlying dualistic view of magic and religion that is a western cultural perspective. This has resulted in a hybridized magic style in our fantasy works that somewhat awkwardly grafts spell-casting onto the religious function.

3. The Need to Integrate Magic and Religion.  A third consequence is that even if a fiction writer approaches religious magic without any rpg influences to color the picture, our dualistic western thinking still subconsciously frames the issue. We think about how to develop magical abilities in a religious context so the end result makes sense. While that is at root a sensible design concern, it also tacitly treats “magic” and “religion” as separate constructs that must be integrated in some manner.

That is not a bad thing as far as it goes, but I believe it does not go far enough, because the starting point of that thought process is the dualism mentioned earlier. Instead, there is another way to think of magic and religion which avoids the innate separateness of Cartesian duality, and also skips merrily past the default design assumptions of the rpg tradition. This alternative viewpoint enables one to create a magical religion that is far less likely to feel derivative, and which is much easier to grow into a unique take on magic and faith in a setting.

And what, exactly, is this different conceptual framework? I am speaking here of a “magico-religious system” of belief melded very closely with magic. Anthropologists have written about this concept and the role it plays in real-world cultures. In part 2 of this post, I’ll talk about that alternative magic/religion model and some implications it has for world building.

I’ll update this with a link to the post when it is published. (If you are on the WBA mailing list, you’ll get an announcement when the post is up.)


1. Even though one can point to religious strictures that affect life in the material and social world, those mandates stem from religion’s concern for the spiritual life.

2. There is also an “informational” class of magic—divination, clairvoyance, and so on—that I would argue still takes as its meat and drink images or information drawn from the material world, either in present time or some other time frame future or past. Hence, this class of magic also works via interaction with physical reality, although the effect is not as obvious as in, say, the casting of a fireball spell.


15 Responses to Magic and Religion in World Building, Part 1

  1. Chris Halliday says:

    I’ve always disliked the idea of clerical spells, to the point that I don’t allow them in games I run. Instead I replace clerical magic with appeals to the gods or spirits, with the likelihood of their success based on the piety of the appellant and modified by holy days, sacrifices, oaths, the nature of the appeal and the appellants past history with the supernatural agency they’re dealing with.

    In my games the only real power the cleric has is the ability to frame prayers in the right way to attract the attention of their god or gods. It also opens up plot opportunities, as gaining the attention of a deity isn’t always a good thing (in fact in the long run, it’s almost always disastrous!).

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Interesting approach, Chris. I imagine that allows you to bring ritual and religious practices more to life and give them more weight in contrast to the traditional D&D-ish manner of doing clerical magic.

  2. Steve the Magnificent says:

    I’m glad to see some of my own misgivings articulated so thoughtfully. It’s also a positive sign to see people here (a small sampling and one that we can be hopeful might be be indicative of much needed creative ferment in the hobby) introducing overdue novelty into the mechanisms for representing ‘magic’ in adventure games.

    Much of this, it seems to me on anecdotal evidence is that a really big proportion of people who play fantasy games/MMOs and read fantasy lit are die-hard atheists. They’re at play in the fields of a lord they not only don’t believe in, but have no interest in even explaining, apart from mocking militant believers for their more demonstrably false claims or some vague theories about how we’re ‘wired’ for belief.

    It occurs to me that perhaps the way through the endless repetition of DnD cliches and tropes is to go back to basics and rethink the problem of how to portray the deployment of paranormal forces generally. A novelist need not deal explicitly with how people make things happen without touching them (h/t Frank Zappa).

    St. Gary’s dichotomy of ‘clerical’ and ‘arcane’ magic arose, along with the concept of ‘memorizing’ spells that are forgot upon the casting, from the works of fantasy authors he was enamored of (and since Grognardia’s author for some mysterious reason pulled the plug on that outstanding Olde School gaming blog, I won’t easily be able to find out just who). That is to say it was his own (inspired by others) caveat that invented this distinction in the first place. It’s a distinction our ancestors (wherever they be from) would have found a little puzzling.

    Looking at medieval grimoires (most of them are actually renaissance) such as the “Sworn Book of Honorius”, one instantly finds endless entreaties to God, Jesus and angels in order to conduct ritual magic. Is this clerical magic? “Arcane” magic? To me, it’s just magic. Or as Uncle Aleister would put it, magick. The invocation of spirits of various sorts to make things happen without touching them.

    Similarly, folk magic – lets’ take the Vikings. Or American aboriginals. It doesn’t really seem to matter. Egil’s Saga makes reference to Egil setting up a curse pole aimed the King of Norway (the efficacy of which is seen later in the story). The curse involves land spirits and appeals to the gods but there’s a godi nowhere to be seen. Look at any mythic tales involving wizards and you find spirits both good and evil are invariably hovering just out of sight, commanded and tasked by mortals and gods alike.

    It seems to me the only special powers ‘clerics’ (priests, &c) have in both historic and current use is the power to speak directly to the god(s) they serve. And to conduct healing of a miraculous nature. So maybe the best path out of the rut is to unite the two varieties and give the holy people the powers religious believers generally attribute to them – the power to communicate with the spirit world and receive wisdom, hints, winning lottery numbers and instructions.

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Hello, Magnificent Steve,
      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
      I’m not sure its the atheistic leanings of a portion of the gamer population that short-changes clerical magic, but we do live in a (largely) secular world, and whether atheist, agnostic, or religion-identified, the world we have experience of is particularly lacking in ritual, metaphysics, and mindful practices that link religion and magic in a way we can easily grok and translate into world building (or gaming) terms.
      I totally agree with the need to “go back to basics and rethink the problem of how to portray the deployment of paranormal forces generally.” That’s a starting point that gets routinely skipped over.
      Also agree that traditionally there is quite a lot of blurring between clerical and arcane magic. I think part of the problem here from a world building point of view is that while these subtle nuances may be adequately portrayed by a fiction writer, gamers (in contrast) want harder, sharper lines distinguishing between the two for the sake of adjudicating game situations. That’s not the only way to create meaningful difference for gaming purposes, but it is an easy default mode to fall into.

  3. I think part of it is the Judeo-Christian slant of Western RPG writers. It’s not even about the beliefs of creator, but the cultural tolerance (especially in the US) when it comes to polytheistic religion; many of us here will have heard of the ‘Satanic panic’ which still makes some RPG companies (Palladium especially) a little skittish when someone asks them about ‘magic’ even without any religious connotations.

    Add to that the paucity of relevant examples, since modern neopagan magic is hardly exciting and immediate enough for most games, but ancient examples of divine magic almost exclusively feature is being used against rather than by humans, and it’s hard to find a starting point that is not ‘god-mode’ overpowered or so wrapped up in strict codes of conduct that it undermines player-agency…

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Good points, Anthony. Although I think it is incumbent upon us as world builders to learn more about these things so that we _can_ step outside of our usual cultural framework to create more interesting/exciting/multi-layered worlds.

  4. I agree completely with your logic regarding the problems. Too much of the distinctive flavor that could be part of what I think of as clerical magic often seems lost because of the similarity with wizardly magic. At the same time, the obvious solution of having different game mechanisms for the two forms of metaphysical effect raises the prospect of introducing game balance problems, or exacerbating existing ones. I especially agree with what you’ve had to say in your reply to Frank’s comment.

    My solution has always been that a clerical magic system needs to have elements that perform the same functions as those of the arcane magic system that is native to the game system in use, but that the individual elements need to be different. Spells may have superficially similar game mechanics, but the differences in terms of power source and the allied implications can make them quite different ‘in the field’. Both require some mechanism for the acquisition of existing spells (which I often call ‘prayers’ in the clerical-magic field), but those mechanisms do not have to be the same. Both require some mechanism for determining how many spells can be cast per day of a given type or power level, but those mechanisms don’t have to be the same. In my Fumanor campaign, Wizards can only cast the spells that they have placed in their spell books and need to acquire more from other sources to extend those capabilities. Priests also only gain a few spells automatically when they acquire access to a new power level of spell, but they can at any time pray to their deity for a specific standard spell that meets an identified need – but receiving such theological “help-desk support” always comes at a price, and if the deity doesn’t agree with the urgency of the need, or disapproves of recent character choices, or simply feels like driving a hard bargain, there may be a price to be paid before or after the ‘gift’ is given. I also have metamagics in place (3.x campaign) that reduce a spells effective power by reducing it’s effectiveness in some manner (the opposite of normal metamagics) – these may be used by the deity to confer a prayer early, at the price of being granted the full-power prayer at a later time.

    This introduces some profound effects on play – the Wizard is his own master, and makes his own choices, but also has to pay for that independence with additional work to pad out his spell list. The Cleric must always consider things from the perspective of his theology, and is less independent in his choices – but his abilities evolve in response to his experiences and his understanding of the theology on which they are based. So he has both more flexibility and less, both at the same time.

    Hope these comments haven’t stolen too much of your thunder from Part 2…

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mike, and the description of how you’ve introduced complexity into clerical magic.

      I guess part of my bugaboo about D&D style magic is in the unquestioned assumptions and definitions that are bundled up into it. Why do we even have clerical *spells*? Because there is a a game mechanic for adjudicating magic use (based on what mages do), and it has been applied by extension to religious practices as well. Yet, if we look at (for example) most indigenous folkways in our own world, we see frequent use of magic *without* “spells” being cast at all. Magic is invoked by ritualistic behaviors, observing taboos, requesting things of the gods in daily life (and quite frequently, at that; no “you can do this once in a while,” or “that’s your allotment for today, thankyouverymuch.”)

      The limitations imposed on clerical magic in fantasy gaming, by virtue of the game mechanics (as in “you get X spells per day”), are there for one primary reason only: to create game balance, so that one character does not become an endless spell machine disruptive to the adventure. But there are other ways to attain game balance, or limit clerical magic (to take the case in point) without falling back on “number and frequency of spells” as a power cap.

      For instance, I would dearly love to see a religious system where clerics are bounded by taboos and prescribed behaviors (just as in many real-life situations), and _those_ strictures are the limiting factor as to how much magic a cleric has at his or her disposal at a given time. This would be much more culturally “true to life,” and incorporate a game balance limitation rather invisibly into the actual character behavior itself, rather than imposing it through the artificial (and depending on the religion, unfounded) limitation of “X spells per day.”

      • I actually tried that at one point – the characters earned piety points which were used to dictate what they could and could not do, and which were consumed by things such as “spell” use. It was modeled on something from Hackmaster. Unfortunately, it proved completely unwieldy in play. After the non-functioning elements were trimmed away, what I described previously is what we were left with. The trick was not throwing more of the baby out with the bathwater than was absolutely necessary.

        I would also point out that giving clerics the ability to cast spells is also a function of game balance – it’s giving them the opportunity to participate equally in what is, after all, an adventure game.

  5. RepatMatt says:

    Curiously, I don’t know whether I agree with you or not.

    I have a three pronged system, Magic Psychic and Spiritual, All come from a concept of power through belief, External, Internal and Bestowed. They all have ‘distance’ and ‘damage’ and ‘effect’ values.. so are you arguing that by attributing the same value system (attributes / parameters) to ‘spells’ they are no different than priests ‘abilities’? that a priest system should be using different parameters?

    or that labels of these parameters should belong to the ‘backstory’ of the world, priests would talk about the ‘range’ while sorcerers talk of ‘distance’ so as to differentiate themselves from each other in the eyes of the ‘peasants’

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      My use of the D&D magic specs was to illustrate how religious magic was simply taken under the umbrella of an already existing mechanic, without actually thinking religious magic through from the ground up. It was not a blanket condemnation of the use of mechanics/specs to quantify magical effects.
      Game mechanics are a simulation tool. Before we add that layer of crunch, it’s important to know exactly what we’re simulating. My larger point is that we more closely think through what it is we’re simulating (how it is expressed in terms of mechanics is relatively trivial). In any case, from what you describe in your magic system, it sounds like you are much closer to the integrated magico-religious system I’ll be writing about in Part 2, rather than the “force unlike systems together” approach that I believe plagues much magic design in worldbuilding.

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      By the way, Matt, your magic system sounds fascinating. Have you described it in any detail anywhere? If so, I’d appreciate a link. I’d like to learn more about it. Or you’re welcome to correspond with me directly (teramis at deborahchristian dot com).

  6. Brian G says:

    You have out my subconscious thought on this subject into the written word. There has been something that has bothered me about these two elements. I just could not articulate it. Thanks for the post and it could not come at a better time. I look forward to the follow up.

  7. Frank says:

    Perfect pondering as I am rethinking my magic system for clerics in Egeszfold.

    The dificulty for me is I want a mechanic that is significantly different than arcane magic. Divine magic isn’t really magic at all in Egezsfold. In most cases its a supernatural gift or a supernatural being acting on behalf of the PC. But as a mechanic, I don’t want the decisions of that being to rest solely on the Game Master. 

    • Teramis Teramis says:

      Thanks for the comment, Frank. I’m glad that’s timely grist for your mill.
      It’s good that you’re willing to invent a mechanic for your divine magic system–that’s probably the only way to come up with something that reflects the feel and function of what you are striving for. I don’t have a lot to say about mechanics per se (usually), but I do think the right starting point is to first get crystal clear on the metaphysics, functions, and limitations of your magic system. Mechanics, after all, are simply a simulation model. The real starting point is in knowing what it is you are simulating.

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