From the Ground Up – Divine and Arcane

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at how to categorize, build, and tackle magic as it pertains to world building. its a broad subject with many facets. This week, I’m going to look at the inherent and design differences between divine magic and arcane magic. 

While the last few weeks have seen me looking at magic as a whole, how people access it, and what can be done with it, this week I want to take a look at what it means to be one of the two (three?) variations on magic. Psionics – Sit down. We might get to you later. What I really want to get to the heart of, is the separation and difference between Divine Magic and the Arcane Magic, what makes them different, and how their effects on the world should be treated, both when they are similar and when they are divergent. 

Fraternal Paths

While there are many ways of accessing and classifying magic, from the base leylines of the earth to the inborn talents of the Wildmage, there are only two different forms that magic takes: Arcane and Divine. They are clearly not opposed to each other and can be combined in some mystics and churches, so what is it that makes them different, and so substantially so? 

The easily discernible difference is the source. For arcane, you are tapping into an innate substance. For divine magic, you are granted the power from a different, deific source. While this may appear to be a subtle difference, it is of great importance to the wielders of said magic, in many instances. Those practitioners of the arcane arts will often have an inward focus on life, generally being people who understand the strength of the self, the importance of independence and the possibilities that lay ahead of them if only they can apply themselves. Those who use divine magic will, on a general scale, be people who seek to aid and assist others, who are trusting and welcoming, and who are nearly uniformly selfless. This isn’t always the case, but it should be a strong trend in the traits of both types of casters. 

These paths intersect in many ways, but they also come at odds. Often what a selfless person sees as greedy and selfish, an independent person sees as necessary and vital to survival. It is this general path that tends to create the division that many see in the magic itself: Divine tends to be oriented towards assistance and perfection, while the Arcane drives itself to the highest peaks of potential, creating a natural rift between the two. While they may seem irreconcilable, I do see paths where they merge, both for good and for ill.

The Divine Insights

Divine power, as described above, tends to create a certain type of person. The sheer existence of the powers they drive are proof that they are beholden to a greater power, one to which they have pledged fealty and vowed to perform actions that further its cause. But what of the power itself? What impact does divine magic have on the campaign world? 

First, and this is something that is rather important to many players, is that it creates a pure, undeniable proof that the gods exist. We are used to, in our own world, being in a state of not knowing. In a world where divine magic is practiced on a daily basis by the forces of the church itself, we have proof positive that the divine exists. This can be extremely problematic if the game is not prepared for it. Much of the worlds problems, especially in the early and middle ages, stem from not knowing if, or which, gods exist and are correct. When that catalyst is removed, many of the ideas behind the middle ages start falling apart, and many of the conflicts fade. 

The proof that deities are real sets off many different avalanches of knowledge that simply cannot be undone. Practitioners of divine magic are, while not commonplace, likely not to be feared and are instead revered. The words of the gods are revealed in communions with the god directly and through the tenants of teachings of the church with proven divine contact. Superstition becomes knowledge and divination creates a greater sense of security. However, not all this proof is good. 

While the divine mystery is laid bare in many fantasy worlds and picks at the basic conflicts of our world that we are familiar with, it can create a different form of conflict. Inter-deity wars will have the same feel, and it play out the same, but the concepts are known and proven as opposed to  assumed. While there may be conflicts both massive and mundane in this type of system, what many fantasy religions miss, though, is that most of the mythic gods are part of a united pantheon against the enemies of humanity. While the gods may conflict, and with them their proxies, they also can be turned against the greater foe. For the Greeks and Romans, it is the titans, for the Vikings its the giants. Egyptian mythology is weird, but does have a central conflict with gods on different sides. These gods will conflict, and the power their followers wield can create devastating consequences, but the gods are of one mind when it comes to their enemy. 

Arcane Assertions

While having many of the divine truths proven to exist does change the way that a world would view holy power, arcane magic presents its own set of problems to a world builder. Especially problematic is the high level magics of many game worlds. How do these extremely power, overtly voracious consumers and practitioners of magic exist in a medieval world. How have they not taken over and controlled society and government throughout the world? 

One of the things that the arcane magic can enhance that must be addressed is all fields science. There was a huge portion of time in which human labor and capital was so cheap and plentiful that invention and design were eschewed in favor of simply abducting more people to do more work. Arcane magic, with its tendency to draw in people who want to become more powerful, would be the realm of scientists and thinkers, philosophers and inventors. This creates a really difficult conundrum. The world is clearly based on 12th and 13th century Europe. There is no mass transit, there is no economy of scale, and there is no capitalism. The world exists in a very different scale here, and a single mage can throw that all out of stability with a small anachronistic thought process. Storage, transportation, point of sale and labor are all in a precarious balance. That balance creates the system (manorilism), that while extremely foreign to us, was the skeleton of that society. 

Arcane magic threatens to disrupt all that. To have that type of force multiplier on tap creates a potent force in the world for near immediate industrialization. To keep this in check, and to keep the setting fairly centered, there needs to be some significant thought put into some of the lower level cantrips. Mending, Produce Flame, Mage Hand, Message, Minor Illusion and Shocking grasp come to mind as having fairly strong consequences for an intrepid arcane wielder. Simply being able to cast them at no cost for essentially ever posses problems. Simple effects like cleaning out grass stains and mending children’s clothing approach 0 effort. Consider the effects of these type of abilities before allowing them to be unlimited out of combat. 

With such high possibilities for magic to interfere, commonplace magic, with there being a mage in every town, a hedge wizard in every village, makes fairly little sense. Making sure to keep these types of magics few and far between is a serious and difficult problem, especially when there are many races that can simply create magical effects at will. I posit that the adventurers are good enough to cast them at will, and that many “at will” monster and racial abilities are much closer to 20 before a long rest. At will for all the intents and purposes that the characters need to know about, but restricted in a global and powerful sense. 


These are some of the ways that thinking about magic will get you to a more realistic and gritty world. While these aren’t for all worlds, I would caution you on creating such a world where these are exploited without changing a lot of what the game represents. It might be a great concept, but it will be even more so when you pull all the parts together into a contiguous whole. 


Until Next time.