03 May 2012

Casting Spells Differently

In classic Dungeons & Dragons, magic is "Vancian" regardless of the spellcaster's class. Magic-users memorize mystical formulae and clerics pray for them (coincidentally for the same length of time), but spells always boil down to words that are charged with energy from the Positive or Negative Material Plane, which, when activated, are promptly erased from the spellcaster's memory. To be regained, the magic-user must memorize them again and the cleric must pray for them again. I recall reading somewhere that the magically charged words of a spell (or verbal components if you prefer) are impossible to understand or remember for anyone who happens to hear a spellcaster utter them. These words are more than words. They are the essence of primordial power. Not even another spellcaster can recall the words of a spell by hearing them. They must be committed to memory by a period of study lasting no less than one hour (in Basic/Expert D&D) or 15 minutes per level per spell (in AD&D).

This is all well and good and I have no problem with any of it as it applies to magic-users, but there's something a little wonky as it applies to clerics. I have no problem with clerics sharing the same limitation of a certain number of spells per level, nor with clerics having to pray to regain spells, but I do have a problem with the words. That is, I do not like the verbal components of clerical spells to be identical in nature to magical spells, i.e. impossible to understand; impossible to remember. Clerics, as priests, are in the business of communication. They study the message of their faith, whether it involves interpreting scripture, interpreting omens, or speaking with spirits. They disseminate the message by preaching to congregations or spreading their faith as missionaries. Clerics communicate. Now, certain religions may indulge in a fair amount of obfuscation for various reasons (such as the use of secret symbolism to protect them from persecution if they are oppressed, or the use of complicated rituals and hierarchical structures to maintain power), but one thing most religions are not shy about is communication. It therefore stands to reason that the "spells" for which a cleric prays are not the arcane formulae memorized by magic-users, destined to fade from memory within seconds, unable to be understood even for a second by the uninitiated. On the contrary, clerical spells are words of power that manifest divine will through the agency of the cleric, and those words are a message that can be understood by anyone.* As the power to cast a spell is granted by a cleric's deity (or, in some cases, the deity's divine servants), the essence of the spell is not a formula to be understood by the cleric, but a message to be conveyed by the cleric.

I would go so far as to say that any player character wishing to cast a spell as a cleric must state what his or her character is saying in order to make the spell work. This needn't be a formally composed invocation, but rather a statement of the cleric's faith and a supplication to his or her deity to enact the desired effects of the spell. This works best if it is stated in character in the player's own words. The same words are not required whenever the same spell is cast. In fact, it probably serves the game better if the words are personalized to reflect a given subject, situation, or location. The words chosen would certainly vary dramatically depending on the cleric's patron deity or sect. Each spell that is cast becomes both an affirmation and an act of proselytization (and it makes playing clerics more enjoyable, too).

I should add that the words themselves, in a clerical spell of this type, do not trigger a spell's effects. It is the cleric's entreaty, the cleric's expression of desired intent, that enables him or her to become the vessel of divine will. The words alone do nothing if they are not accompanied by the cleric's faith and piety.

I think this makes clerical spellcasting significantly different in flavor (and more interesting) without the fuss of new mechanical rules.

* Even in a game world with multiple spoken languages, I think I would rule that the clerical spell as uttered would be miraculously comprehensible to anyone regardless of their familiarity with the cleric's language.


  1. I somehow missed this when you posted it.

    I think these ideas apply well to proselytic religions (ones like Christianity & Islam), but less well to non-proselytic religions (ones like almost all non-Christian & non-Muslim religions).

    But, even when applied only to proselytic religions, it still doesn't necessarily make sense for the messages of clerical spells to be understood by everyone who hears them. Consider how Roman Catholic clerics "cast" their "spells" in Latin -- a language almost nobody understands.

    So I think it might make more sense for clerical spells to be cast in the Alignment Language that corresponds to the Alignment of the cleric's god. That way, beings of that Alignment will understand the message, but nobody else will.

    What do you think?

    1. I'd say the verbal components of clerical spells don't necessarily have to be comprehensible to bystanders, but they should still be in the nature of communication with one's deity, and should therefore be a form of invocation or supplication rather than a recitation of an untranslatable formula. This corresponds even to the non-proselytizing religions. I like the idea of players calling upon divine intervention in character for its own sake. It makes role-playing more entertaining (for me at least). Whether the characters themselves are speaking Common or Elvish or Latin makes little difference to me (unless their objective is to be understood). For the sake of role-playing, however, I enjoy it when players of clerics say what their characters are saying instead of declaring, "I cast spiritual hammer," and leaving it at that.

      The snag with alignment languages is that I never use them. They make no sense to me.

      (Incidentally, I do like the blurring between religion and sorcery in Empire of the Petal Throne, a game that, in my opinion, probably did the best job of incorporating the disparate rules of D&D into a game setting I've ever seen. When sorcerers and priests on Tékumel both shout out their spells in incomprehensible words, it seems weirdly fitting, so I guess it depends on the context of the setting.)

    2. I, too, would find it more entertaining if players of clerical spellcasters invoked the divine intervention of clerical spells in character. And I agree that invocation should take the form of communication with the characters' deities because that does correspond with all religions.

      I also agree that alignment languages, as presented in the books, make no sense. But if, instead, alignment languages were the magical languages of the outer planes that correspond with each alignment, then they would make sense. All beings of an alignment would magically know the language of the outer plane which is the source/incarnation of that alignment. And clerical spells would be cast in the language of a clerical spellcaster's deity's alignment.

    3. That's a fascinating idea. Somehow, people are cosmically in tune with the plane that is their soul's ultimate destination, and people who are on the same cosmic path, as it were, are on the same "wavelength" and able to communicate with one another after a fashion. Those who are most in tune with the outer plane of their alignment are "fluent" in its magical language and thus are best able to tap into the power of that plane and cast spells. I like it!

    4. Even though it's not the conception of alignment languages that I'm currently using*, I find it an interesting idea, too.

      My wife & I were talking about it, and she wondered if such alignment languages would be writable & readable. We agreed that it would make sense either if they weren't at all or if they were, and automatically so, even by illiterates, but only by beings of the correct alignment.

      Ultimately, though, we both found it most interesting if learning to read & write an alignment language was exactly what made someone a 1st-level Cleric. So only Clerics (and inhabitants of outer planes) would be able to read & write alignment languages. And clerical scrolls would be written in alignment languages. So clerical scrolls would be usable only by Clerics of the same alignment as whoever wrote the scroll.

      *In my games, alignment languages are merely sub-cultural dialects of ethnic & racial languages. They use the same words as whatever ethnic or racial language they're part of, but with meanings different from both the main (unaligned) version of that language and all other alignment dialects of that language. So somebody speaking their alignment language just sounds like they're speaking their ethnic or racial language, but only people of their alignment will understand what they really mean. It's exactly the same as how different subcultures mean utterly different things when they use words like "good", "evil", "rights", "freedom", etc.

    5. "Ultimately, though, we both found it most interesting if learning to read & write an alignment language was exactly what made someone a 1st-level Cleric."

      That idea appeals to me. The cleric has reached a higher plateau of awareness and understanding, which unlocks this knowledge.

      Making alignment languages organic to the metaphysics of the game world is the way to go. It's the only way I'd be able to find either a use or an excuse for them in my game worlds.

      In response to your description of alignment languages as they are currently in use in your games, if the words used in the alignment language are the same as those of the speaker's native tongue, wouldn't that mean only speakers of the same language and same alignment would be able to communicate in their alignment language?

    6. "[I]f the words used in the alignment language are the same as those of the speaker's native tongue, wouldn't that mean only speakers of the same language and same alignment would be able to communicate in their alignment language?"


      There are no 'universal' alignment languages in any of my games (yet) -- only alignment dialects shared by ideologically similar members of individual cultures.

      So they're really useful only for semi-secret communication within a language, not translingual communication.

      And they're not even useful for positively determining whether anybody is of the same alignment as anybody else unless you can somehow be certain whether the listener (or reader) really did or didn't understand what was said to them (or what they read).

    7. I forgot to say...

      Having learning to read & write an alignment language be what makes someone a 1st-level Cleric appeals to me, too. I like it so much that I'm thinking about starting a new game to use the metaphysical alignment language ideas we've been discussing and see how they work out. And, if my players want to, I might even go with the Narnia-like option of allowing anything of at least "Animal" Intelligence to understand its alignment language.

    8. Please let me know how it works out for you.

  2. I forgot to mention...

    Another topic my wife & I discussed was whether animals should understand the language of their alignment. We agreed that, unless one wants to play in a Narnia-like game-world, only inhabitants of outer planes and beings whose Monster Manual (or other such) Intelligence rating at least extends into "Average" should understand alignment languages. But, the lower the Intelligence needed to understand alignment languages, the more fantastical a world certainly becomes.