Applying the Touch of God to Divine Characters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 9, 2012

When creating a divine character it’s strongly encouraged that you choose a deity. Your PC should try to follow the teachings of this deity and wherever possible spread the god’s message throughout the camping world. But in most 4e D&D adventures I’ve run and played in the divine character is usually just the PC who heals wounds and deals radiant damage. No one seems to realize that there is a “Power” behind the power.

In previous editions of D&D a lot of emphasis was placed on which deity your divine character worshipped. It helped the player develop the role-playing and it often granted access to unique powers. But in 4e D&D there is no requirement to choose a deity and there is no down side for skipping this step. All you have to do pick a divine class and continue with character creation. Players involved in games that emphasize combat over role-playing likely have no idea which god their resident Cleric even worships, despite the fact that it’s this unknown deity that’s enabled the Cleric to heal their wounds. What’s even sadder is that a lot of the players running those divine characters don’t know either.

With the desire for all 4e characters to be balanced, the divine classes were dumbed down from what they once were. This may make things easier for new players but I think it really hurt divine classes. Playing a divine character should require work; at least more work than playing a character with another power source. You shouldn’t just be playing your character, you should be playing a set of ideals, rules and beliefs set out by the character’s deity. After all, you are the vassal for your god. You commune with deities. This certainly seems to me like it should be more complicated than playing the character that swings his sword at the monsters.

In my experience people who play divine characters fall into two categories: 1) players who don’t care about the deity and are just looking to play a divine character because they think it sounds fun, and 2) players who find the idea of role-playing a PC who hears the voice of god and acts on his behalf incredibly rewarding. If you fall into the first group then you’re obviously satisfied with the way divine characters behave in the rules as written. Although this isn’t my preference I understand the desire to keep things simple. If you fall into the second group and seek more from divine characters than you’ll want to keep reading.

Worshiping a deity or an ideal

The first step in distinguishing divine character from others is to encourage players to choose a deity for their PC. This has to be more than just writing down the god’s name. Players running divine PCs need to be more vigilant when it comes to spreading the word of their patron deity. After all, if the deity doesn’t feel that they’re getting the love they deserve then the powers they grant could be withheld. OK, maybe not. That would be unnecessarily punitive to divine characters. But it raises an interesting point. How are divine characters rewarded for taking these extra steps that none of the other character need to take? What does the PC get out of it? I suppose that really depends on which deity the PC worships.

Most D&D campaigns take place in a polytheistic world, meaning that there are multiple gods each of whom have providence over different areas. In fact I’ve never played in a monotheistic campaign world where only one “everything” god is worshipped. Yet when was the last time you had a divine character at your gaming table that worship the god of commerce, the harvest, or fertility? Most of the power-gamers choose deities associated with combat or healing. It’s extremely rare to find a PC worshiping a deity who has powers of some other aspect of life. I’m not saying it never happens, but I haven’t seen too many Avengers of Aphrodite, Paladins of Dionysus, or Clerics of Hera (using a few examples from the Greek Pantheon).

For those players who want more from their divine PCs choosing a deity is an important part of character creation that requires serious consideration. One thing that is often overlooked is that it’s well within the rules as written for a player to not choose a specific deity but instead to have their PC follow a broader concept like “good.” The real advantage of being non-specific is that it presents the PC with broader options and lets the player have a lot more freedom and flexibility while running the divine PC. When a PC worships a concept or ideal they are no longer praying to just one god. Any god whose motives coincide with the concept the divine PC is exemplifying could grant them a reward for their accomplishments.

Rewarding faith

Once a PC has determined their deity or concept it’s time to start spreading the good word. This is going to come out in the role-playing. The more a player gets into character and the more that character does what his faith demands, the more likely the DM should reward the PC. The rewards are intended to reflect the touch of god. When the divine PC does what the deity expects (or exceeds those expectations) the PC is rewarded.

In order to earn the divine reward the player would have the PC act as they deemed appropriate and then solicit a ruling from the DM as to whether or not it was worth of a reward. The rewards should be kept simple and be used almost immediately to avoid unnecessary paperwork. I’d recommend that when the DM deemed a reward was earned the divine character be granted +1 to an upcoming skill check or attack roll. Alternatively the divine character could give the +1 to an ally as a blessing from the deity. Using this kind of reward system is an easy way to get some players to really role-play their character and emphasize the divine aspects of their class.

This kind of reward system needs to be kept in check and it’s up to the DM to keep things balanced. Just because a Cleric worships a deity of healing doesn’t mean that he should receive a bonus every time he casts Healing Word. However, if the Cleric gives up his standard action to revive a wounded ally or makes some other self-sacrifice to heal another than I’d argue that the action could warrant a bonus. Similarly a Paladin who follows a deity of combat shouldn’t get a bonus for killing monsters – everybody does that. The bonus would come from the description of the action and the demonstration of prowess other PCs don’t possess. I’d suggest that players running divine PCs talk to their DM to get a better idea of what will and won’t provide bonuses.

+1 for laughing

Role-playing games encourage creativity and imagination. A good example of this is a concept cleric that I had in a recent campaign. Rather than worship any one god he instead worshipped humour. He believed that the gods wanted him to do his part to ensure that people are in good spirits, enjoy what their doing and see the lighter side of things. Since humour is such a broad concept this PC didn’t have to declare fealty to any one god in order for his prayers to be answered. Any deity that got the joke would reward him. Certainly some deities would appreciate intelligent humour while others would love a good fart joke. Some might appreciate slapstick while another might enjoy a good pun.

This PC was rewarded with a +1 bonus to his next roll every time he made another player or the DM laugh. If everyone at the table laughed it would net him an additional bonus. As humour is highly subjective rewards were awarded for any noticeable reaction from the table. A bad pun or lame joke might earn a groan. This didn’t mean that the joke wasn’t funny just that the audience found it too silly or low brow to laugh out loud. In these cases the DM had to adjudicate accordingly. The added bonus of trying to make the table laugh was that the brevity it created certainly increased everyone’s enjoyment of the session.

Anything that encourages more role-playing is worth a try in my book. After playing D&D Encounters for so long it’s refreshing to find players who want to do more than roll dice. If it takes a bribe from the DM to do it, I’m willing to test it out. When it comes to divine characters I think the idea of a divine bonus bestowed upon the PC from their deity (or a deity that agrees with their concept) makes sense. It’s a good way to bring some of the awe and mystery that once accompanied divine characters. It’s also a great way to remind the other player that as powerful as their PCs become, in a world with Dragons and other fantastic creatures the god are watching and will intercede when they find it necessary, so act accordingly.

Do you think that divine characters are regarded with the esteem they deserve or do you think they are fine as they are – equal to all the other classes? Do you think that having the hand of god bestow blessing upon those who follow the deity’s teachings most closely is unbalanced and brings too much extra power to divine classes? What do you think of my Cleric of humour example? Too silly?

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1 Dominic Matte April 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

I disagree that 4e was dumbed down. Simplified/streamlined and dumbed down are not the same thing. But anyway, that’s not what this article is about.

I strongly agree that divine characters really should make their deity (or area of worship) a major part of their character and roleplay. A divine character who doesn’t act by the tenets of his god is like a fighter who doesn’t wear armour or use weapons — they’re ignoring a core component of the class.

I like the idea of rewarding players for good roleplay, but I don’t think it should be restricted to only the divine characters. That said, this is a very good way to reward the divine characters for their roleplay: it gives them direct, immediate feedback and tells them they’re doing a good job.

But it’s not fair to the other characters to reward the divine player in particular. You say that it’s more work to play a divine character, but that’s only true if the other players don’t put the effort into developing a complex character. I’d prefer to reward all players who develop a rich character, and if Bob the amoral mercenary thinks he’s being left out, then he should consider working on his roleplay.

If you’re not going to give these rewards to every player, you need to keep them small. You’ve made the right choice with a +1 bonus to the next roll: it doesn’t have a significant effect on balance, but it makes the player feel good about their actions.

In case it wasn’t obvious from my comment, great article!

2 Eldard 'Hillyan' April 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Not really something for a divine character but I’ve had an idea for a character raised by parents who followed two different deities and that he ends up with both even though they are conflicting at times.

3 Joe Lastowski April 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Great article. I too feel that deities are underserved by core 4e mechanics, and certainly in a lot of hack-and-slash organized play. However, with the addition of domains in the Essentials line, and all the faith-specific paragon classes in Divine Power (not to mention the various feats for worshippers of a particular deity), I feel like there’s enough to make gods matter in a game, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

In the home games I run, I have NPCs treat the cleric like commoners might treat a traveling priest, asking for marriage or funeral rites as needed. It brings the Divine to the forefront, without necessarily unbalancing the game. And if our Raven Queen cleric does a particularly good job overseeing a funeral for some slain villagers, I reward it with a town that’s more likely to help the party out in other ways (“Oh, Reverend, lovely words you said today. Let me see if I can help your friends out with the price of that item.”).

Deity-specific holidays are another great way to make Divine characters feel like their choice of god matters… like when the paladin of Moradin gets the best table at the Dwarven Brewmaster’s competition on one of Moradin’s high holidays.

4 Frank April 9, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Great ideas. I’m playing an Invoker in a new campaign we just began, and I hope to incorporate the Divine into my role-play as you suggest.

5 Sunyaku April 10, 2012 at 12:16 am

Gods are generally the puppetmasters in my campaign. Behind every villain is a series of greater villains, until you start getting to evil demigods and gods.

During skill challenges, I sometimes allow religious characters (who have one specific deity) the ability to roll Religion checks to “pray for guidance”. Behind the DM screen, you can have a LOT of fun with this. After the character makes the check, I like to roughly approach the response in the following sequence: 1) The more specific the guidance the harder the DC 2) Was there anything going on during the prayer/meditation that should make the DC harder? 3) Did they meet or exceed the DC?

If they fail by 4 or less, something obscure might happen to guide a decision, like a leaf falling or an animal suddenly appearing. Granted, the characters may misinterpret such omens, but that’s part of the fun… it almost becomes a riddle of sorts. If the character succeeds, they might have an image, smell, taste, or generic sound that comes to their sense. If they beat the DC by 5 or more, the deity speaks into their mind in a quiet, but clear whisper.

Now, if the character REALLY fails, then you can really start to have fun with it. Perhaps they failed at deity etiquette and their god becomes irritated, or even angry after multiple failures. Perhaps something silly happens, like a bird pooping in the character’s face as they look toward the sky with their eyes closed. Perhaps the weather suddenly changes, and not for the better. Perhaps their deity punishes them in their dreams, causing them to lose a healing surge after their next extended rest. The possibilities are nearly endless.

When one of my characters made a religion check at a key moment in the campaign, and rolled a natural 20, he was rewarded with a permanent boon by his god (The Raven Queen) for entrusting himself to fate in the face of a decision that seemed likely to lead to certain death. And it wasn’t a huge boon, but it was something really cool for the player. I believe I called it “Commune with God: I (Raven Queen)”… and the player now has a permanent +1 to death saving throws, and a +1 to religion checks to communicate with his deity.

6 seti April 10, 2012 at 6:59 am

I don’t think rules should dictate ‘role-playing’ or lack thereof. My main complaint about people who complain about 4e is just that “There’s no ROLE PLAYING in 4e!” type of comment. Role playing is like acting, some people are good at it, some are not. And, some enjoy it, some don’t. For example, I like trying to act as my PC would, but I don’t use silly accents, or demand you call me Ragnar the Black (or whatever, lol) at the table. I’ve also never heard of a cleric not choosing a god/goddess. But, it really is just fluff, and there for can be taken or left as the player sees fit. After all, a D&D cleric is NOTHING like most real world religious people.

7 Alton April 10, 2012 at 10:50 am

I think the cleric has been really under-appreciated in this edition. 4th edition has made great strides to impove the cleric and have done very well, but I do agree that the worship of deities has be all but eradicated.

It may have in part to do with alignment. I think with the many choices of alignments in previous editions, made for a wider variety of worship. You knew what type of character you were dealing with if they worshipped so and so.

Another thing is the loss of domain powers. The cleric itself gains no restrictions from which deity they choose. Every god provides the exact same powers to their cleric. The spells are not limited by alignment, no domains for bonus spells etc. I can see why people do not bother to worship gods when it does not matter which one you worship.

I agree with a few of the assumptions that some people roleplay and some people don’t. It is for your group, or even yourself to determine how your character acts when you play.

Something that may help in the future, or what they could have done to add flavour is to create a theme for each god so the character can apply it to their character. This way some of the powers are different from player to player. Just an idea.

8 Al April 10, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I think 4e did a great job defining Clerics in a polytheistic environment in a realistic fashion. In this type of world Clerics like Doctors in the real world come in two flavors: the Generalist (GP) or Specialist. The Generalist would have knowledge over a wide range of gods (pantheon) and their practices but a lesser understanding of their higher or more obscure practices. Whereas, a Specialist would have a complete (or as good as any mortal can) understanding of a particular god but still a good understanding of other gods as well.

The rules provide for both options with general powers for all Clerics but also specialized powers (ie. channel divinity) specific from particular gods. So whereas a Generalist cleric may appeal to the most appropriate god to a situation (because it may fall within their domain), a Specialist would still appeal to his god because of a greater personal connection to that god.

I think the issue is one which has already been stated which is RP related. It should be incumbent upon both the player and DM when a Cleric is created, what the expected RP elements will consist of.

9 donalbain April 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm

by the gods you have actually made me want to play a cleric ing my 3.5 game now.

10 Svafa April 11, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Two nit-picky details.

First, in my experience most D&D is not polytheistic, but henotheistic. That is, most characters only worship one god, while accepting that multiple gods exist. Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods simultaneously. The “concepts” idea is closer to polytheism, though usually I see it written as people disregarding the gods entirely to worship an ideal (can’t get much more postmodern than that o.O).

I’ve started putting a lot more polytheism into our home game with 4E. Our villain, for instance, actively worships Torog, Erathis, Kord, Bane, and Orcus. He also worships, at least for appearance’s sake, Pelor and Bahamut, and he’s most definitely Evil (probably on the Lawful side). I’ve extended it to the good guys as well, some of the good NPCs worship Baphomet and Lolth.

Second nit-pick, 4E makes it impossible to not worship Hera or Dionysus or Aphrodite or a similar “non-combat” deity. Each 4E deity includes multiple roles. Sehanine is the goddess of love and motherhood, in addition to her roles as goddess of the elfs, the moon, and illusions. Pelor is not only the Lawful Good god of the sun and healing and zombie-smiting, but also the god of agriculture, the summer, and time. Moradin is not only the god of the dwarfs and smithing, but also the god of the hearth and community. In 3.x there certainly was the situation of adventurers not choosing gods of agriculture or family or love (though why would an adventurer?), but they removed that issue in 4E by giving every god overlapping domains.

Anyway, as to the article itself, I like the idea and I think I might give it a go in our home games. Though, as others have pointed out, I think I’m going to extend it to everyone. I don’t see why it should be restricted to divine characters when any character can be religious, or at least roleplay their power source. A wizard describing their spell-casting or a rogue describing their sneak attack should get the same benefit a cleric does for describing his healing word.

As for our campaign’s divine character? He’s a deva invoker who primarily worships Melora but has powers that line up better with Kord (lightning theme). As deva are nearly divine on their own and invokers receive their power from a divine spark in themselves and not through worship, I almost want to reveal that his character’s power source is his own soul purified through multiple reincarnations rather than the expected deity.

11 Ryan June 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm

I don’t have as many problems with home games and divine characters role-playing that much.

However I have seen people seem to select gods in the LFR for no other purpose than access to specific feats. They don’t role-play their alignments and are not punished lack of doing so.

I do however remember playing in an LFR game where I played a Battlerager Dwarf we had one additional dwarf fighter in the group and a Pacifist Cleric. When fighting a few orcs on an adventure the Cleric asked us not to kill the orcs. Being an outcast to my people I did as the cleric asked and much role-playing was had between my character and the other dwarf during that combat.

The only strange issue in that game was that the Cleric in question didn’t have diplomacy as trained skill. I felt it strange for a pacifist not to have a skill to negoate. Later in the game during the final battle we almost lost a member of the party. I went berserk and started killing the monsters in retaliation.

The Pacifist requested I spared them. But I stated that his lack of diplomacy skills were unable to crack my characters current rampage. The player laughed and still continued to call out to my character as I caved in some monster skulls.

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