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D&D Next: The Arcane/Divine Split

Like every edition of D&D before it, D&D Next (which will really just be called D&D; it will be up to the fans to call it Fifth Edition for clarity) draws a line between arcane magic and divine magic, a separation that has informed a huge number of settings in gaming and genre fiction. At least for me, a lot of the interest to be found in that split has worn off, and now I'm interested in something different. This can go one of two ways: either reunite them, or differentiate them further, in both mechanics and flavor. In this post, I will explore both concepts.

The initial reasoning behind the split, going back to original D&D, is pure niche protection. The cleric mixes it up in melee, but most clerical magic is healing and protection. I've talked a lot about clerics before, so I won't rehash all of that here. Clerics have gotten a bit better at the damage-dealing side of things over time, whether through inflict wounds spells getting less Eeevil and more "acceptable tool in some situations," or through designers realizing that the playerbase was hungry for a cleric more like World of Warcraft priests, casting spells all of the time and not worrying about hitting things with a mace. As a result, 4e and D&DN clerics have at-will (cantrip) spells that deal damage, much like a wizard and generally competitive with them.

I'm happy to see a wide variety of cleric play styles supported, but this does narrow the differences between cleric and mage, in actual use. In the current draft of D&D Next, clerical damage spells face more restrictions, such as smaller areas of effect (more often single-target at comparable levels) or shorter ranges: inflict wounds, hold personspiritual weapon, (surprisingly, there are currently no 3rd-level attack spells) and guardian of faith. Flame strike at fifth level deals 8d6 damage, as compared to cone of cold's 6d8.

Anyway, my point is that the arcane and divine spell lists converge on the damage-dealing side, and they both cover a wide range of utility and transportation effects, so the clear remaining difference is that divine casters have a wide variety of healing spells and mages do not (bards, of course, are arcane-but-different, for no stated cosmological reason). I've mentioned before that D&DN's multiclassing rules do something really strange to this, though: mages can pick up the fundamental healing spells (cure wounds and healing word) by spending one level on cleric or druid, and become about 80% as good at healing as a primary divine caster of the same level, since they can use higher-level slots to cast those spells throughout their careers. There are higher-level divine healing spells of note, many of which offer improved efficiency in the right situations.

I look at this as a problem to be resolved in one of several different ways. Now, the first objection I expect is, "Why is this a problem?"

  1. Optimal gameplay should reflect the fiction, and should at least resemble assumptions stated in the rulebooks. (I realize that "optimal" here may be an overstatement, but it looks incredibly strong to me over the life of the campaign. It delays all of your new abilities by one level and locks you out of your 20th-level Tradition benefit as a mage - but would you rather have strong healing for 20 levels or one extra ability for one level? The cleric level also grants armor use, up to either medium or heavy depending on domain; the Life domain even makes it so you don't have to spend a preparation slot on cure wounds... or the always-amazing bless. What's not to like?)
  2. The social dynamics around healing, in my experience, are thorny. Even with a cleric or druid in the party, a mage might find that others at the table expect him to spend an early level on picking up those healing spells, because they make such a difference in the group's long-term survival. (If this isn't a conflict in your group, good on you; trust me when I say that it could become one in other groups.)
  3. No other multiclassing combination offers as much of a reward for a single-level class dip. (It's comparable to the 4e groups I played with at initial release - the feats that granted, I think, 1/combat inspiring word or healing word were just non-choices, they were so good. These, obviously, got nerfed in a later update.)
  4. When a choice is too good, the choice point is weakened by its superiority and what should be an interesting moment becomes just a necessary stepping stone.
Having said that, if you still object, then that's fine - move on, pilgrim.

So Change the Fiction

One solution that interests me is accepting this as a setting standard and writing it into the nature of magical practice in the setting. In this concept, divine magic is the Right-Hand Path, and arcane the Left. All initiates begin on the Right-Hand Path, but many of them choose the Left-Hand Path shortly thereafter. In some settings, this means that Left-Hand magic is more acceptable than in the most traditional uses of that term. In others, it grants a bit more social foundation for superstition and persecution against wizards, and casts bards as the middle-ground, not-quite-heretical tradition that they are. This could incorporate druidic magic in one of a few different ways - another path that can take a left-hand turn, or a more ancient path that resolves the duality. The obvious downside is that it takes away choice by turning what I see as a likely choice into a requirement. 

That's not the only way the fiction might change - you could take a page from Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles and have the gods be absent from the world, so the prayers that invoke them are matters of mystery and occult lore; invoking those absent gods does still provide spell effects, but at great difficulty and only with prior preparation. Faced with the near-total loss of their magic, clerics (and presumably druids) adapted their practice to mimic the form of arcane magic. Through ritual and preparation, they can still gather together the tattered remnants of divine power in the world into spell effects. All this requires is getting rid of Commune and similar spells, and not giving divine casters access to all spells of each new spell level - they have to earn them through research, exchange, or right of conquest just like wizards.

Just Give Mages Healing Spells

I'm in favor of doing this anyway. Bards can heal with arcane magic, and in the fiction many wizards possess healing magic. I haven't re-checked this in detail, but I am pretty sure Ged and Merlin are shown with healing power, and I'm damn sure Elrond Half-Elven is. (Is Elrond's magic arcane? Well, in OD&D it sure the hell would be! But stick with me, I'm getting to the Middle-Earth solution.) I'm biased in favor of this, though: Dust to Dust has plenty of wizardly healing spells, and that doesn't stop people from playing channelers or invokers (the two things most directly comparable to clerics).

Now, D&D has treated healing as a niche to protect, which is why bards, druids, paladins, and rangers were given only very limited healing compared to clerics in 3.x. 4e finally blew the doors off this - while clerics had better per-day healing than anyone else, the other leader classes had fully-functioning per-combat healing. Obviously, this kind of change to the mage means that clerics could use a shakeup as well. With this idea, the mage class becomes a tolerably good expression of a cloth-wearing priest who doesn't go mix it up in melee, while the cleric class is reserved for the armored crusader. (Paladins occupy a still further point on that spectrum, knights who have taken holy orders but don't really pursue the deeper mysteries of the faith.) Maybe clerics have a healing pool (or dice pool) comparable to but greater than a paladin's Lay on Hands ability, to spare them from having to spend a lot of daily spell slots on healing; I'd be even happier if this healing was connected to spending the target's Hit Dice, so that it can be per-combat healing as in 4e without being a bottomless well of healing.

This idea could be expressed as something I've probably said before in this blog. Healing isn't a great niche to protect, because the round-over-round gameplay of healing isn't all that great. The new healing variations introduced to the cleric spell list help, don't get me wrong, but I don't think an action spent on healing has the same sense of tension and resolution that an attack roll or damaging spell does, so players don't feel like they've contributed in the same way. (At least, that's my new theory on why healing is seen as giving away your fun to other people instead of having fun for yourself by dealing damage.)

Unified Magic Theory

Finally, the biggest change: there is no separation between Arcane and Divine. Drawing on biblical sources in a way I hope no one objects to, magic is understood to offer either mercy or severity. Hermetic and alchemical practice drew heavily on religious mystical traditions. Clerics and mages share a new and unified spell list, but each class receives new class abilities that influence the effects of their spells. Maybe clerics, following the path of Mercy, get a greater effect out of healing and protective spells, but it would still be worth a mage's time to cast those spells at their baseline effect (and of course vice versa).

The funny thing about this idea is that, on one hand, it kind of leaves druids out in the cold - a huge part of how the druid class expresses theme is its unusual spell list. On the other hand, I have mentioned before that the druid's blend of healing, utility, and damage output already brings them very close to being a divine caster who fills the mage's niche.

There's a huge amount of heavy design lifting that would be required to implement this idea. But wait, I've got one more idea that might take even more...

Non-Vancian Clerics

Assume for the moment that I've internalized the Vancian wizard, to the point that I went out of my way to implement basically Vancian wizards in Dust to Dust. What I haven't done is gotten myself to the same place with the Vancian cleric, as I've discussed a bit before. My suggestion is to keep mages more or less as they are (or give them healing magic also), and make clerics channel power directly from the gods - no preparation, just action in the moment. Instead of unifying the two, separate them more.

That's hard to implement in tabletop without getting into a deep pit of bookkeeping, from which no traveler returns. It puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Thus implementation does make cowards of us all. I'm intrigued by the conclusions that Bryan Shipp came to in a recent Room 209 post for their Forthright Open Roleplay. It's a really good post on designing magic systems when a weighty spell list isn't your goal, though I have a few questions about it. (Not that any one blog post is responsible for answering every question I could raise about a system.)

There are other possible bases for clerical magic than channeling, of course. Back when I was adapting SIFRP for use in Aurikesh, I played with the idea of all clerical magic involving blood sacrifice, primarily sacrifice of self or willing allies. My implementation at the time had some bad flaws, admittedly. A very narrow spell list, in which each spell had substantial versatility and all casting was on-the-fly might be pretty awesome; it's worked well for invokers in DtD so far.

Combining this idea with giving mages healing spells would be great for me, if I got it worked out, because from there it's a few quick re-skins and I've got a D&D-ish rule set for Dust to Dust, and I could finally nail down the cosmology behind clerical magic in Aurikesh as something decisively different from arcane magic. (I've had the liberty to be incredibly lazy about this, because out of 22 characters created for the campaign, there have been two clerics, and the people playing them both dropped them like hot rocks after about two sessions and started new characters.)

On the other hand, the multi-classing rules would be weeping in a corner somewhere, since the only thing that keeps them working is that all characters use the same spellcasting paradigm. This is an unexpected corner for WotC to paint themselves into, since in the entire history of D&D, psionics has never operated on a Vancian system, and I think many fans would cry foul if it were so this time. To say nothing of warlocks - they've made noises about the warlock's final version, but I would still be surprised if something simply Vancian was the result.

In conclusion, I'd like to see something new and more adventurous happen with, if not D&D's core release, some of the rules modules that follow. Most of all, I want a magic system that makes compelling statements about the cosmology, but also raises questions to be explored in the course of play. Now that WotC has started to at least drop hints about the license structure of D&D Next, I might even try to release a few into the wild myself. 

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