Friday, July 20, 2012

Mysterious Miracles

Jeff asked a question about cleric spells on G+, the normal Vancian system being too much like "a snap-your-fingers-and-God-comes-running affair."

I agree wholeheartedly, and if you've been following my blog you probably know I have my players draw dominoes to see if petitions for aid are answered.   I've spent a lot of brain cycles on this, trying to make it simple enough for even new players.  And just when I think I have the system as simple as it is going to get, I find I'm not really satisfied with it.

Sure, the ways of the gods, or your ancestors, or your totem, are mysterious.  They know more than you and are wiser.  How can you know whether a petition will be answered or not?  But as a mechanic it really sucks when in the heat of need, your petitions go unanswered again and again and again.  I've seen more players disappointed than helped by this system.  And I'm pretty sure my players have little interest in playing the class because of it.  So what to do?

A New Approach
I want to keep the mystery in divine aid, but not in whether prayers will be heard or not.  So maybe I can shift the mystery to how prayers are answered.  What if I made a more general spur-type chart of aid granted?  Clerics will get a certain # of petitions answered a day, but how they are answered is up to the divine power (or in this case our interpretation of the chart).

This will require more work, but could be potentially cool.  I'd want the aid to come in a form that fits the power where possible; Zeus tends to send lighting & thunder, the wolf totem- a wolf.  But I'd also like to have a bit of choice for the petitioner so that the miracles will fit them, maybe they like little animals coming to their aid, maybe they are more of the persuasion of melting enemy faces off.  Either way, pc clerics would begin to resemble distinct saints as they grew in power.

I need to think more about how I'd construct this "Aid Granted" chart, maybe for any dangerous situation it would have general entries of the type: "smite enemies," "escape granted," "unharmable," "hidden," etc.  I guess it takes away some of the strategy if miracles just become get-out-of--jail-free cards.  Then the player's choice becomes: when do I ask for help because I can only ask a few times.

Another possibility that could work in tandem with the mysterious miracles above are random boons clerics would get at the beginning of each game session (this idea comes from Jeff's question).  This would make for miraculous powers that are more useful and tool-like for players-- "I've been granted the ability to walk on water, lets go to the sunken dungeon!"  But I would want a big list, at least 100, so that it would always be fresh and interesting.  Probably should have room for the flavor of their divine power too.  Hmm, I wonder if I could just use my Spell-Like Effects spur for these boons.


  1. Here's my proposed solution: magic-user spells use verbal or verbal and somatic components only. Cleric spells use material components.

    For the sorts of material components I have in mind, see here.

    If you don't want petitions to always be answered, then use the Wu Jen taboo system from Oriental Adventures. If the cleric follows her taboos, her rituals will be answered. If she breaks them, the spirits won't aid her until she atones or makes sacrifice.

    Introducing uncertainty to the cleric's spells or taking them out of the player's hands and into the DM's or a random table are guaranteed to make the class less fun, I think.

  2. The D&D standard is a spell caster who can cast his spells he has memorised. If there is a chance they can't cast them then the class is worse than normal. How about you try to go below and ABOVE the normal power level. So sometimes the ancestors, spirits, Gods don't help you and sometimes they help you a lot. So instead of 30%, 70%, 100%, make the chances 30%, 70%, 100%, 130%, 170%, make it a nice bell curve maybe.

  3. Perhaps you could repurpose the turning table? Identifiers like "smite enemies" or "escape" could be attached to the undead and/or turning levels. That would make all the cleric abilities feel of a kind, in terms of the mechanic, and also would be easy for new players to learn. You could limit by number of times per day, or if that feels to dissociated, maybe something like a saving throw or wisdom check after every miracle request to see if another might possibly be granted afterwards.

  4. Thanks for your comments, folks. I went on a long hike after writing this post and realized even these ideas weren't satisfying for me: 1) spells already cover most of the kind of aid a player would want, to throw those specific solutions out and go more general seems counter productive, but 2) if I use the same spells and keep the chart I would just be giving players random spells which, along with the boon idea above, seems too random unless we're talking about a priest of chaos or a trickster shaman.

    Anyway, I'm leaning now toward just using a houseruled version of 2e's priests system with its domains. It was one way I thought 2e really improved on 1e.

    @John: That link points to some awesome, flavorful incantations. I think it would take a lot to provide that for different types of divine deities. As for the taboo idea, yeah, I was thinking of including vows that are particular to each power (as a bonus this can explain why clerics can't use edged weapons).

    @jbeltman: Extra help sounds cool. I was thinking maybe part of my system's problem was that I set the %s too low, 70% is not that great of odds. But even a 10% or 1% chance of failure will suck when it happens. Maybe I could give deities different holy days and give players bonuses to all their rolls on those days.

    @Brendan: Hmm, that's another possible approach, degrees of success, it might take a lot of little table for each spell though. I'll think more about that. Thanks.

  5. Maybe divine spells could also have side effects to represent the mysterious will of a deity. Something like, "okay you healed my wounds but why did my skin come back bright green?" or "my god sent lightning to vanquish my foe but now insects are constantly following me around, is this a test? am i meant to bring bugs to those around me?"

    Just some thoughts. A chart for each god of different side effects might suck but there could be some overlap and i'm not sure how often you'd want a side effect generated for each spell casting but that's up to you.

  6. @Telecanter: I think the way I'll do it might be to write just one ritual for each spell, basing the flavour of the ritual on the nature of the spell. Then a cleric of a specific god could have modifiers - e.g. a priest of Dionysus could use wine in place of blood or holy water. Since some components might be an in-game obstacle to acquire on short notice, there'd be pressure on the player to come up with plausible alternatives when they need them. At least that's what I hope.

  7. @Seth S.: Shifting the randomness to consequences is definitely an option. Thanks.

    @John: Sounds fun. You might even abstract out the ingredients (liquid, powder, plant, symbol drawn) to make it easier on yourself when you list differences for the deities.

  8. Why not have a hybrid system?

    For basic things like turning undead and healing a cleric can just do it as a spell, their outstanding faith has granted them that ability. For big miracles though, like high-level spells (4th level and higher?) or situational one-off miracles, the player has to roleplay.

    Have them actually pray in-character at the table and describe any attendant ritual their character does in detail. If they do it well enough (solid roleplaying, accuracy of a predetermined ritual, etc), their god responds in a thematically appropriate and proportional way.

    That way they may not get exactly what they asked for. A poorly-executed ritual or lackluster prayer may irk their deity so they get a lower-power response. Or a poorly-crafted prayer may take an 'exact words' bizarre twist.