Gygax On…Cleric Spells

I don’t play clerics that much—only when no one else fancies it—and so I’m not wise in the ways of their ins and outs. That said, I’ve recently been wondering from where exactly a cleric (or a druid or whatever) gets his spells. Wizards get their spells from study, sorcerers by dint of their bloodlines and, of course, clerics I’d always assumed get theirs from their faith.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


So what did Gary have to say?

“Clerical spells, including the druidic, are bestowed by the gods, so that the cleric need but pray for a few hours and the desired verbal and somatic spell components will be placed properly in his or her mind. First, second, third and even fourth level spells are granted to the cleric through meditation and devout prayer. This spell giving is accomplished by the lesser servants of the cleric’s deity. Fifth, sixth and seventh level spells can be given to the cleric ONLY by the cleric’s deity himself, not through some intermediate source. Note that the cleric might well be judged by this or her deity at such time, as the cleric must supplicate the deity for the granting of these spells. While the deity may grant such spells full willingly a deed, or sacrifice, atonement or abasement may be required. The deity might also ignore a specific spell request and give the cleric some other spell (or none at all).”

Player’s Handbook (page 40) Gary Gygax

That’s beyond cool and something I had never really thought about before. A high-level (coincidentally name-level) cleric prays to his god for spells and he delivers them…personally! He may also substitute them for what he feels the cleric needs, which is a handy way of the DM giving the group a hand or a hint about what lies ahead. (Although some players may resent the GM meddling with their spell selection in this fashion).

Also, when you think that a 1st edition cleric of 9th-level and up actually communicates WITH HIS GOD to get 5th-level and higher spells that’s a massive deal for the cleric. (1st edition only had cleric spells up to 7th, but I think its safe to apply the same treatment to 8th- and 9th-level spells in 3.5/Pathfinder.) He or she is literally his god’s messenger on earth.

On the other hand, it could make things like raise dead and resurrection much harder to get as it’s up to the deity and not the cleric whether to grant the spell. If the recipient is not deemed worthy by the deity, he’s out of luck no matter how much gold his friends offer!

What Do You Think?

Is this cool or what? Would you—occasionally—tell a player his god granted different spells to the one the cleric prayed for? Let me know in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

21 thoughts on “Gygax On…Cleric Spells”

  1. This is exceedingly cool, and something I’ve played with before. I love PCs that come with built-in relationships, and clerics (and warlocks in 5e) come with a doozy. I haven’t done it as much as I should in 5e, but in older games, the PCs knew the name of the god’s servant who delivered the spells, and could rely on that servant as a resource for information.

  2. I often smile at the often adversarial relationship that Gary encouraged between DM and Players. I generally don’t like to tell a Player what spell they can or can’t prepare, but I do like the idea that intermediaries and deities get involved at higher levels.

    It seems that in the early days of AD&D, the Players would routinely attempt to outsmart the DM. Which makes sense – even the name, “Dungeon Master”, suggests a somewhat villainous bent. At some point, though, it appears that an adversarial relationship was abandoned in favor of a much more cooperative one.

  3. This was changed again in the DMG pg 38.

    1st and 2nd are from the cleric’s faith/training alone (so basically like magic user spells)

    3rd to 5th were granted from emissary’s of the deity.

    only 6th and 7th were from the deity in question.

    Meaning that until a cleric is 11th level AND has 17+ wisdom they are not worthy of getting spells granted by a deity.

  4. I love the fact that high level clerics are directly interacting with their gods. It makes the distinction between Arcane Magic and Divine Magic very real. Warlocks, really, muddy the waters.

    As to the question, “Have I or would I alter a PC’s chosen spells,” the answer is Yes! More than one cleric or paladin has been denied certain spells and offered other spells in their place. The gods are real and they have agendas.

    Thanks for reminding me of cool stuff to work back into my campaign.

  5. Personally I have used the following:
    “I will pray to my god for guidance on what spells I should have.”
    Gm: “Ok, hand over your spell list”
    “I don’t have one, I’m asking my god what he thinks I should choose.”
    usually ends with the GM being very confused.

    1. I remember a campaign long ago where I gave the GM full discretion over what ‘spells’ were being cast. I’d utter (write, it was an online game) a prayer regarding the situation and leave it to the GM to interpret and judge what happened.

  6. I always liked (and continue to use) this. I think a lot of the options available for modern players are a result of the need to include the less patient, mass media audience. D&D has made a great swing away from the historical and the literary that I believe made this game great (it was a (real) nerd’s game at one point, not the hipster nerd of today). I strive for verisimilitude and I most certainly don’t grant all the requests of my players. I like that the 2nd Edition AD&D game required 1,ooo gp of special incense and long stretches of time (days, weeks) to summon a (physical, not ethereal) familiar (and other such spells). It makes the game more believable for me and, honestly, more gratifying and meaningful for players that work hard for what they get.

    The rise in video game mechanics in table-top roleplaying games has shifted focus for players. Video games are instantly gratifying. I like that the gods may not deem the player’s choice a good one, or may rescind their spells on a whim (who knows what the gods see and what they mean for their priests!). It is a hallmark, and a test, for priestly characters to have to be okay with the will of their god(s). They walk in faith. Even if they cannot see the path, they must walk it (or quit being a priest/cleric). I like Gygax’s reasoning.

  7. Also, only clerics of greater gods could be granted seventh level spells (per Deities and Demigods)–meaning that anyone who chose to be a cleric of a demigod (limited to 5th level spells) or a lesser god was definitely limiting their potential power should the campaign seem likely to reach high levels.

    1. Gygax said in an interview that he never used that rule. He didn’t pay any attention to Deities & Demigod.

  8. I have always played that a cleric must follow a god and his tenants. Failuretodo so means loss or reduced spells. And yes, why would Heironeous let his cleric raise a follower of Hexor?

    Detailed God’s do add flavour to clerics, and clerics who follow their dictates should have special powers/skills/spells. It makes the game more interesting for cleric players rather than just being healbots.

  9. Maybe a *cough* less scrupulous *cough* diety wouldn’t mind their spell being transcribed to scroll. You know, for ‘future reference’…

    Or, perhaps, ‘lending’ to someone else…

    Maybe for a small reciprocal fee…

  10. It’s an awesome concept but with most of today’s players the hissy fit you’d get isn’t worth it.

  11. This is exact how my clerics have worked for 3 years, when Clerics got 9th level spells I switched the levels about, 1-3 by prayer and faith, 4-6 by intercessor ( clerics get a particular intercessor whom they come to know by name, and 7-9 directly from the Diety, it works well when to make them feel like the direct servant of their deity.

  12. I like that!
    Great way for the cleric to be rewarded or punished for their actions recently. For surely the cleric should be spreading the word of their deity?

  13. I rarely demand absolute loyalty and fealty of my clerics (although, I role play it that way for the clerics that I play), and rarely withold spells from them; however, if the player screws the pooch, I absolutely will let the cleric know. One player got off track, and refusefd to get back in line when given a warning (DM to player, off set, as it were), and when it got to the point I was ready to kill the character and let the player start over, I gave him all of his thirteen allotted spells; however, it was seven catrips, and six basic 1st level spells that he would never choose, and ZERO healing spells.
    The player pitcherd a royal one, and I explained that his diety was angered, and was showing his displeasure……
    Yeah, that didn’t go over well, and he quit; however, the players left sure as hell followed their god’s plan.

  14. Oddly enough, I read the DMG’s version of this (slightly different as noted in another comment) the other day. I quite like this.

    I never played a cleric until very recently, and I am really enjoying it. If you really sink your mind into what it would mean to be a cleric in whatever setting you’re in, it can be a real blast with so much role-play potential.

    As for a deity agreeing to dish out a Raise dead spell: only if the raised soul pledges to serves that deity hence-forth in all things. Why would it be any different? Best let the players know at the start of the campaign though, perhaps by meeting someone who has been raised. That way they know the fine print before having to sign the contract. On the flip side, it would make setting up adventures pretty easy for the DM once everyone has been raised… Your boss is your boss!!!

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