Power Struggles: Gods and Patrons, Warlocks and Clerics

Dungeons and Dragons is weird, because the magic used in the game is inspired by a lot of different sources. Dungeons and Dragons itself is its own genre, based on mixing and matching a ton of different elements of disparate bits of fantasy together. This is further complicated by the fact that even individual D&D settings have further defined exactly how magic works, within the lens of how magic is presented.

In Days of Yore

In previous editions, magic was specifically divided between arcane and divine magic. Arcane magic was ambient magic that people may have a natural connection to, or may learn to control through study and practice. Divine magic was the magic of the gods, which people could only access through their belief in something.

Oh, and there is psionics, which isn’t magic, but may be magic, and is psychic power you are born with, by maybe just magic that is powered by your internal force of spirit, which is kind of what monks do, but they aren’t psionic, at least not in this edition. Let’s not talk about psionics in the framework for now, okay?

These distinctions start getting cut finer as time goes on and more classes get added to the game. Bards initially have druid spells, which are divine magic, but then get lumped in as arcane casters. Arcane magic used to be more broadly defined as magic you head to learn how to use, but then sorcerers, who were tied to bloodlines, were added to the game.

Third edition introduced a pair of classes were added that further cut things a bit more fine. While there were many others, these classes melded into something else in 4th edition, which continues to make an impact into 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

In 3rdedition, we were introduced to Warlocks (who originally were flavored as to have made a pact with some fiendish creature to gain their magic), and Binders (who were flavored as borrowing powers from once-powerful entities fading from the universe, who want to touch reality through their connection to the Binder).

The problem is, binders and warlocks were arcane casters. They don’t “believe” in anything that directly grants them their powers. They make deals to borrow power from other beings. But gaining powers from an entity is also the general form of divine magic.

Now, lets turn back time and make things even more blurry. In earlier editions, it was mentioned that 1st and 2ndlevel spells were basically just a manifestation of the cleric’s belief. This was reinforced during the Forgotten Realms adventures in the transition to 2ndedition. But wait, not so fast! In Dragonlance, the whole premise of the setting was that for the 300 years that the gods were gone, nobody got anything related to divine magic, no matter how much they believed. For a lot of people, this shifted the perception from “belief powered magic” to “must have an official being that is cosmically allowed to grant divine spells.”

Both the 2nd edition PHBR series, and the Spelljammer setting implied that gods weren’t really a necessary part of the equation. For example, the PHBR series mentions clerics of philosophies gaining spells, and the Spelljammer setting introduced the concept of the planar churches (where a cleric generally worshipped the general goals of the inhabitants of one of the outer planes), as well as just finding a god that was generally pretty similar to yours on a different world (i.e. If you worship Tyr and are from Toril, you can just start pulling power from Heironius on Oerth, because they are the “concept” of the same god).

Into the Current Century

Third edition added some additional complexity to this concept, not only with the addition of arcane casters that drew power from specific beings, but also because third edition explicitly mentioned clerics of concepts being valid, as well as introducing the concept that maybe the Loviatar of Toril’s multiverse wasn’t the same Loviatar of a Finnish pantheon related world, because some prime material planes were connected to the Great Tree and others were connected to the Great Wheel, and even similar planes between the cosmologies were potentially just alternate versions of one another (thanks a lot, Vecna). Also, that whole “cleric of a concept” thing didn’t fly on  Toril or Krynn, but nobody was even sure if there even were real “gods” on Eberron, because they don’t show up in person.

I’m sure 4th edition won’t confuse things, right?

So in 4th edition, we have a few more elements that confuse all of the previous editions and the lore about magic. Druids, rangers, and nature types don’t use divine magic, they use primal magic. Wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks are all still around, and are all arcane casters. Clerics and paladins are divine casters. However, in 4th edition, nobody loses their powers. Once a cleric, always a cleric. Once a warlock, always a warlock.

While this can be seen as a lore change, it’s as much a change in the thought process of modern game design. Dungeons and Dragons was evolving away from “gotcha” mechanics where the Dungeon Master was going to take away your class abilities because of how they interpreted your religion, alignment, or vows. You are playing your character, it’s up to you to determine if you are having a crisis of faith or struggling with your abilities.

This punishment for transgressions was deep seated, and just kind of slowly fell away. In earlier editions, even your non-divine casters could take an experience point hit for not living up to their alignments, because apparently characters only get more powerful, they don’t actually evolve their philosophical stances. Even classes that weren’t divine casters often had specific “gotcha” prohibitions built in to them, that allowed the DM to either dock XP or remove class abilities.

Much of this felt like the game communicating that your agency, as a player, ended when you finished making the character. And if you were randomly rolling that character, that agency only existed in a pretty narrow band to begin with. Once you said you were a neutral good thief, the DM got to interpret that anyway they wanted, and would get to rap your knuckles whenever their concept of your character didn’t fit with their concept of the world.

I’m not sure exactly when all of this changed, but I like to think it was due to Dirty Dancing, and that whole scene about establishing whose dance space is where.

The point is, the game evolved away from punishing players for not jumping through the right hoops, and that meant that if you picked a class, you didn’t lose class abilities based on your actions. But, that does seem to say something about the universe and how divine powers work. Also, it seems to imply something about how warlocks work as well.

Back to the Present

Where do we currently stand? There is no divine or arcane magic in 5e. Power sources are not rigidly defined. This is interesting, because it means that the boundaries of magic are fuzzy, and it’s a lot easier for people to assume things about how magic works that may not be confirmed by the rules of the game. The biggest indicator of the differences between power sources are the implements used by different casting classes. Arcane casters usually get some kind of wand or staff, nature-based classes often have something like mistletoe or other symbolic item related to the natural world, and divine casters (using previous edition definitions) generally have holy symbols or reliquaries.

What is interesting is that it seems that a lot of people, when discussing the differences between classes, are using an amalgamated understanding of the class over multiple editions, instead of expressly defined differences between classes, as defined in the current edition.

The 5th edition cleric class description hits a few major points:

  • Intermediaries between the distant planes of the gods and the mortal world
  • Conduits for the power of the gods
  • Divine agent acting as directed by their gods

You can argue if gods really exist in the cosmology, or the exact means by which the power of the gods is directed through their mortal conduits, but it’s pretty clear that clerics believe in a divide between the divine and the mortal, a need to bridge that gap, and a responsibility to act on behalf of the divine.

The 5th edition warlock entry also has a few highlights for looking at the relationship:

  • Made pacts with mysterious beings of supernatural power
  • Beings that serve as patrons are not gods
  • Are driven to learn the secrets of the multiverse
  • Some warlocks worship their patrons as if they were gods

Now, there is some wiggle room in there in a few places. The class description specifically calls out that patrons aren’t gods, so gods shouldn’t be lowering themselves to offer pacts. Pacts insinuate that both sides of an agreement have some amount of agency in the agreement, before it is made, and are then bound by the agreement going forward. Warlocks aren’t intermediaries. They aren’t even referred to as conduits or agents. The biggest defining feature of warlocks that is consistently mentioned is learning secrets.

Warlocks look for magic where other people don’t, which leads them to mysterious patrons, which gives them more power to unlock more secrets. Even if they worship their patron, their goal is unlocking more secrets, not acting as an agent or an intermediary. In fact, as “mysterious entities,” one could argue that the patron doesn’t want the warlock giving up information about their desires.

In the end, you can see the difference between the classes by looking at their end goals. The cleric wants to serve their god and act as an agent and an intermediary. The goal is service. The warlock, even if they do worship their patron, who for whatever reason in the definition of the setting isn’t accorded the fully authority of a god, has a goal that is to unravel more secrets.

Lessons from the End of Time

Let’s look at two characters that worship beings that may or may not bring about the end of the world.

Example one is our cleric of Loki. They, personally, don’t want to end the world, but they love the chaos and mischief their god causes, and loves their god. They will seed various means of starting Ragnarök, even if they personally don’t think it’s a good idea, because it’s part of their god’s natural inclinations as a trickster. They all about making Loki happy.

Example two is our Warlock of the Great Old One. Their patron doesn’t really care about the planet that the warlock lives on, other than its willingness to connect the warlock with greater power so that it can see through one more set of eyes and know more of the physical universe. If too much of it manifests in one place, it can cause reality to unravel, but it doesn’t care one way or the other.

The warlock, on the other hand, is now obsessed with the concept of unravelling local reality, because it’s a secret of the universe. Nobody else has ever unraveled reality in this part of the universe. Even if they cease to exist, for one moment, they knew something no one else knew . . . how to unmake the world! That’s not their god’s goal, it’s their goal, and it’s related to learning the secrets of the universe.

At their hearts, the warlock’s goal of learning more things they weren’t meant to know is going to supersede their love of their patron. Serving the patron was a means to an end, and even if they love them deeply, the purpose of the pact was transactional.

Clerics are meant to be intermediaries that champion the goals of their gods. As has been mentioned, over and over through the years, not everyone in the church hierarchy is a cleric, which means that becoming a cleric is less about a transactional interaction with the supernatural, and more about having faith in your status as an intermediary of the divine.

As far as other casters go, the warlock is going to go places for knowledge that the wizard considers too far outside of the logical “norm,” and they are going to be willing to do specific things, rather than just practice and see what turns out, the way a sorcerer would.

Rules as Story Elements

As far as what it means that clerics and warlocks can’t lose their powers, by the rules of the game . . . it may not mean anything. It doesn’t mean that player characters can’t run into warlocks that have broken their pacts and no longer have powers that are NPCs, or clerics that have lost their faith and no longer are connected to divine power. It means that the assumed “story” of adventuring player characters is that they won’t lose access to their class abilities in the normal course of a game.

What do the class descriptions mean for a D&D world? They don’t proscribe that gods do or don’t exist, but they do imply that clerics believe there is a divide between the divine and the mortal, and that for whatever reason, the being making a pact with the warlock isn’t traditionally accorded full divine status. There is a lot to play with using those jumping off points, but I also think that those jumping off points are very important to keep in mind.

Think of it this way . . . if your warlock has a Celestial as a patron, why would an angel or other being generally regarded as a messenger and/or warrior for cosmic good make a pact with a mortal being to share the secrets of the universe with them? It still implies that something is not quite right in this relationship. The angel wants an agent that isn’t part of the normal hierarchy of good, and is willing to seek out this person that is driven more by a love of supernatural secrets than anything else to be that agent. How does that inform the story of your campaign?

I actually like “class stories” being more important that giant meta-rules statements. It means that as long as you keep in mind the “class story,” whatever is true about the universe, as long as it isn’t directly adversarial to the class story, it can work for that setting.

A Practical Example

Since part of the discussion I’ve seen recently has been framed by discussions of Dark Sun, I’ll offer an interpretation, and what the story of the classes would convey about the assumed themes of the campaign, based on the decisions that you have made.

  • Druids, in Dark Sun, are worried about maintaining the balance of nature. That can be a very local thing, and while it may entail reversing damage done, it can also be about keeping things from getting worse as well. They worship the cycle of natural as it exists in the here and now.
  • Clerics, touching the elemental planes (beyond the plane of mortals), believe that each element has a manifest goal for life on Athas. It’s their job to express to mortals what the manifestations of the “truth” of that element means on the mortal plane.
  • Warlocks are connected to mysterious powers that are not legitimately seen as gods. The Sorcerer-Kings want people to regard them as gods, and are willing to grant power to their Templars in exchange for keeping the peace in their cities, even if the Templar in question is corrupt and willing to push forward, looking for new secrets and more angles to power.

All of these things say something about the assumed themes of the game, if you use the classes for how they are described in 5thedition. Druids are a bit more “grounded,” worshiping nature as it currently is, and how it should be, and how it naturally manifests in the world when not destroyed by predatory magic. Clerics look for a grand vision beyond the mortal plane, and seek to enforce that grand vision on the mortal plane, by translating cosmic truths to mortal messages. Using warlocks as templars reinforces that the Sorcerer-Kings are actually illegitimate deities, predatory, mysterious supernatural beings that have usurp the natural order of the world.

I’m not saying that my take is the “right” take, just that looking at the classes how they are described currently, versus carrying over definitions of power sources and classes from previous editions, can make discussions a bit more clear.

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