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AD&D Magic System Part 1: Gods

art by Valin Mattheis

This is the first of two, possibly three posts about the AD&D magic system. Later I'm going to delve the topics of research, manufacture & recharge for spells, scrolls, potions and expendable vs permanent magic items. I'll also get into the languages of magic. I'll try to be thorough without being boring, giving you page references to the AD&D rule books while letting you do some of your own research. For this post, however, I want to talk about Clerics (and all the other pray-for-it types of casters, which include: Druids, Witches, Death Masters, Paladins and so on.

I've heard that some people don't use gods in their games for a variety of reasons. Maybe it's because they think it hamstrings the class. Maybe the idea of worshiping anything is offensive.

I went through the Satanic Panic when mom's across America were offended by a demon idol on the cover. If these sensibilities are again turned against the RPG, it's old hat. The same noise I heard as a kid. Only the flavor of the nonsense has changed. On this blog I stick to what's important: running AD&D by the book. By the book, you have to worship a god, or a demon prince, or some kind of greater power if you want clerical spells above 2nd level. Yes, you can get 1st and 2nd level spells WITHOUT your deity's approval. Verbatim: "Lesser clerics, then, draw only upon their education, training, and experience...when they renew their first and second level spells." (DMG p38 paragraph 12)

Now, speaking strictly about mechanics (let's reference p38 even more closely) spells of third, fourth and fifth level are bestowed by a sending (typically from the planes of power). Whether this emissary is a minor devil, sylph, or flying pig depends on the deity being worshiped.

Spells of sixth and seventh level are bestowed by the Deity itself! Take that one down and let it marinate.

How many DMs out there actually take advantage of this mechanical value?

I don't understand, Anthony. What mechanical value?

Clerics must ASK for their spells. This is useful in several ways.

The DM may or may not grant these spells. Surely I have already told the story of the cleric that, even after being warned, tried to cure wounds on someone the cleric's deity disapproved of? No? Well, not only did the cure spell fail AND become wiped from the cleric's mind, but when he went to sleep and then meditated for spells, the only one available for him to memorize (above 1st and 2nd) was Atonement.

This drove the point home. Everyone actually laughed.

But in order for this kind of thing to work you have to be consistent and you have to know going into the business of running your campaign, how these things work. That way, when the players start desecrating alters or defying outer powers, you know what to do.


  • When one player accidentally read aloud the name of an outer power, I rolled dice and a sending of that power appeared to punish the offenders, who were then forced to flee blindly into the abyss, from whence not all returned.

  • Purifying or destroying an evil alter might be risky. Certainly the god will notice and may send a retributive strike against the interlopers. I actually include mechanics for one such contingency in Geir Loe Cyn-crul (keyed location 96).

Now, I could be wrong, but I sort of think that folks running clerics in other game systems assume they can just pick whatever spells they want. They think that's a FEATURE of the class. That there's no oversight. But in AD&D almost everything has to be earned. Giving clerics and druids carte blanche on their spell list is insane. It is unfair to magic-users AND against BTB rules. With WIS bonus, the class has access to an OP number of spells per day. Mechanically, you need to:

  1. Make Clerics Accountable for HOW they wield such "free-access" magic

  2. Capitalize on Clerics to build the story of the campaign in a way that helps you maintain balance rather than actively seeding your eventual loss of control.

Ok, Anthony, but like how do you NOT make it heavy handed? Are you denying spells all the time? That doesn't sound fun.

Extremism and oppression have never been qualities of a great DM. ALL powers and authorities the DM holds must be used judiciously, firmly (but open to reason), sparingly, and in the spirit of camaraderie with the players. I think I've denied spells ONCE based on clerical deviance...maybe? So no, I'm NOT using this all the time. And as with the examples above (wherein a demon appears upon name-speaking; or a caster is chastened for trying to cure an adversary of the god) players only need experience that once and they will forever after tread more thoughtfully (even if you all laughed and it was still a good time).

Caveat: D&D is collaborative. If you have players that learn from their actions and adjust to the campaign, rejoice. Players that repeat antics, rebel against your systems and then grump when the consequences of those choices distill are players that, through choice, are trying to make the game about them, rather than about the collective experience.

I pull those players aside after the game and say, "Hey, I don't think you had fun tonight. Maybe this kind of D&D isn't for you."

But getting back on topic with the notion of whether or not to grant a cleric all the spells he or she prays for: this mechanic is not (IMO) primarily punitive. There's flip-side utility that I've used much more often. A well-played cleric (or other pray-for-it class) ever cognizant of his/her relationship to the deity is sometimes denied spell X and bestowed spell Y instead.


I assume the spell-granting emissary has knowledge of the sort you'd expect when casting Augury or Contact Other Plane and KNOWS the dangers the cleric is likely to face. Therefore I might tell the cleric she is given Resist Cold instead of Spell X. These are wonderful moments for the Cleric as they simultaneously feel rewarded for their role playing AND gain useful insight about the dangers ahead. It simulates a kind of enlightened or sinisterly-informed wisdom.

That's not in the books, Anthony.

Well, it states clearly that clerical spells are BESTOWED. Read DMG p38 carefully. Now close your eyes and imagine what that communication must be like. Take the dry text and extrapolate. How does the deity who is already taking the time to either send an emissary (or show up in person [even in a dream]) behave toward a favored representative? Do you really think it would be: "Bro, here's your resurrection spell, bye!" ???

I mean it COULD if you're gonzo but that's not my cup of tea. Granting spells to a follower should come with praise and possibly some parameters or admonitions. If clerics of high level are asking for powerful magics that are inappropriate to the challenges ahead and the deity is THERE bestowing the spells in person do you really think they're just a vending machine? Or does the flying pig say, "Hey man, I happen to know that the spell you're asking for is probably going to be useless today...why don't I offer you this instead?"

Such interactions with deities and their sendings might even provide unique spells which only that deity can bestow. You know...the good stuff that's not on the list. Whether such bestowal of behind-the-counter spells is a single instance of access or whether it allows the cleric to pray for that spell thenceforth is up to the DM.

If you want to flesh out the faith/doctrine/cult whatever, that is up to you. But at least you have mechanics supporting the fiction, providing the character AND player with payoff, while at the same time maintaining balance within the campaign.

Can clerics research spells?


But it's not framed that way. Though the well-played cleric has no NEED of researching spells b/c they are rewarded directly by their deity through the ever-conscientious role-playing of a good DM, clerics can petition for new and cool spells directly from their deity IF their temple is impressive enough (see DMG p115).

Here's how I lay it out for the player:

You are a cleric of [deity x]. Here is your spell sheet. These are all the spells from the PHB you may petition your god for. Notice some spells are missing. You cannot access those spells. However, if you play your cleric well, you may gain access to spells outside this list as you advance. These bonus spells will reflect your deity's powers and interests. For example, since you worship a fire deity, you might at some point be able to pray for the magic-user Fire Ball spell. Keep in mind that you are free to memorize spells of first and second level without asking my permission. But spells of third level and above are given to you at the pleasure of your deity and therefore you need to check with me to make sure the spells you want are granted. In most cases, you'll get what you ask for, but sometimes, for a variety of reasons, you might not.

This, by the way, could make clerics the best elementalists out there, right? But that's up to DM fiat. I will cover clerical spell research when I cover research in general in a later post so for now, let's get back to how clerics are bestowed spells.

The emissary that bestows 3rd thru 5th level spells may be a familiar-like creature, or other sort of being that the cleric develops a relationship with over time. This NPC might only appear in dreams for example, but in those dreams may hold lengthy conversations with the cleric or paladin.

[Side note: did you know that clerics can turn (anti)paladins? Yeah, I'll let you look that one up. But it's there (and vice versa) in DMG p76]

Moving on, let's talk about how clerics (and other pray-for-it types) create magical items in AD&D (because it's different from magic-users and other study-for-it types). What a lot of DMs might not realize is that clerics can actually fabricate magical items BEFORE magic-users. See DMG p116 bottom paragraph left column.

Because the system for fabrication is a little fuzzy and somewhat left to DM fiat, I actually allow clerics to fabricate items at level 9. Reason being is that I've judged the Commune spell to be the requisite spell for clerical fabrication...just as Enchant an Item is the linchpin for magic-user fabrication. For druids I use Commune With Nature and so on. These are small and subtle deviations from DMG p116 (Illusionists are able to fabricate at level 10 rather than 11 for example). But the benefit of this tweak is that the spell names act as mnemonic devices for remembering when characters of different classes can begin such work. So to sum up, my spells for item fabrication run thus:

Ergo the LEVELS for Item Fabrication which are expendable vs permanent run thus:

Magic-User: 12/16

Illusionist: 11/14

Cleric: 9/16

Druid: 9/12

Keep in mind that this is NOT exactly BTB. But I've called out where I've deviated and my deviations are small.

Okay Anthony, but now it seems like you are screwing magic-users.

I don't think so. Magic-users can make almost any item from the DMG including magic swords. A cleric cannot. Clerics, Druids and Illusionists are limited to creating items specific to their class. Not only does it make sense for them to gain quicker mastery of a smaller domain but, in the case of pray-for-it types, I assume they have a powerful ally in the creation: namely their deity. Just remember that the only items that clerics can manufacture are items with a (C) beside them in the DMG p122--124. Ditto for druids. I sometimes force an alignment on the item or some other type of restriction to further balance the fact that clerics can make them so early.

For the full procedures of pray-for-it item fabrication, see DMG p118. I adhere to these rules directly and will summarize them for you:

For those who don't know, a fortnight is Old English: feowertyne niht, meaning "fourteen nights" [British slang for two weeks].

So, the cleric must have COMPLETE isolation for 14 days: NO INTERRUPTIONS WHATSOEVER. I roll dice for this b/c at 9th level a cleric has over a hundred fanatical followers that are dying to bask in his/her glory on a daily basis. Any interruption will require the cleric to start over.


  • 14 uninterrupted days of meditation, sacrifices, prayer followed by

  • 7 days (a sennight) fasting [or possibly abstaining from pleasures/speaking/etc.]

  • Then the item is prayed over for 1 full day

  • The item is then placed on the alter and the deity is invoked. For each day the cleric invokes the deity there is a cumulative 1% chance of success (until success is guaranteed)

  • After success, an expendable-type item is taken into seclusion (w/in 24 hours) and the requisite spells are cast on it: Resist Cold for example.

  • But for permanent items, the item is simply sanctified to the Deity (which typically means I enforce an alignment upon it or some other stricture that limits its use outside the faith)

  • After creation, the cleric MUST rest 1 day for each 100 points of the item's XP value. Example: an item worth 2,000 XP necessitates 20 days of rest where the cleric can do NOTHING but rest and eat. No conversing, no spell casting, no nothing.

Note that these procedures are completely different from potion and scroll fabrication, which I will talk about in a later post. Also note that it is therefore likely to take a cleric roughly 30 to 70 days (or more!) to manufacture a Rod of Resurrection PLUS 100 days of rest, thereby effectively removing said cleric from the campaign for roughly half a year or more of game-time. To understand what this means, you can read my post on training times. Note also that even though the Rod is expendable I would of course mandate that the cleric be 16th level to manufacture it.

In closing, it's my opinion that without gods, devils and demons vying for influence, the true upper levels of AD&D are meaningless. For what is left then but perhaps and endless game of Chainmail between neighboring kingdoms? I understand that many players of old school systems run strictly low-level and low-fantasy games. I respect that. But in this wise you are wholly tossing out 50% or more of the rule books' content. For me, I want neither a Monty Haul campaign nor a campaign where I can never rise out of the mud to rule kingdoms and travel planes. In fine, I DO want to one day be able to go after the Demon Prince in my +5 plate with a vorpal sword...but it might take 6 or more years of gaming to get there.

The advantages of gods and godlings is that the ceiling for progression becomes so very high, the machinations of the multiverse so very deep, that your world's final intrigue will never be known and the most powerful artifact will never be obtained and yet, you will also have what is effectively limitless progression split between a few truly high level favorites and many lower-level characters in the stable. Furthermore, through the use of gods and godlings, you may exercise controls on the items possessed by said characters, ensuring they are useful only to "this" or "that" and that they are also targets for destruction by opposing factions and powers.

Very great magical items have been lost to my players. Only to be replaced by new items with new mechanics won from new and terrible journeys. This is the endlessness of your campaign.

But this is also enough blog reading for now. In Part 2 of this post I'll show my spreadsheet calculators (suffice to say that spreadsheets are a pain to make but make your life easier ever-after) for spell research (both existing and new spells), potion brewing, scroll scribing and magical item manufacture. I'll also cover recharging of magic items.

This blog post was requested by one of the Blue Bard's readers, so thank you, and if you have other blog topics you'd like me to tackle (after I finish this short series) don't be shy about asking.


Happy October and happy gaming

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