Deities, Followers, and Divine Casters
After one of my games a conversation came up about what is the relationship between a deity and a paladin vs a deity and a regular follower or an exalted being who has access to divine power. My answer to the player was unsatisfactory to us both so I thought I would explore it in more detail, especially as there are so many different ways that player characters can draw power from or have a relationship with their deity. This is part 4 of a 4-part series because I think about this sort of thing way too much.
So how do these three things come together to define what makes the three classes similar and different?
Like a cleric there is something intentional about the warlock’s relationship to their patron. Just as the cleric choses a domain and some powers, the warlock researches and chooses the over-arching theme of their power. One might lust for immortality, another for control over a kingdom, and a third for battle magic, but whatever the theme that seems to be intentional on the part of the warlock. But there is a limit to this power. In order to reach the highest levels of power the patron has to get involved somehow. This is like older editions of the cleric where the power of the deity determined the maximum power of spells granted, except that the patron is the one choosing for the warlock (in lore/flavor text only, out of character the player still makes the choice of which mystic arcanum their character knows not the GM).
Clerics and paladins both follow deities not patrons (though there is a lot of wiggle room thanks to oaths and non-deity-worshipping clerics), and both have some kind of religion or cult they theoretically belong to. Warlocks are as likely to be solo acts as members of a cult or order. Clerics and paladins have a social responsibility and role that is directly related to this religion or order or cult. Warlocks might, but there’s really no guarantee, and it’s not likely. Clerics and paladins both focus on spells and spell slots with some powers that get used once per rest or per day, while warlocks focus on powers with some spells.
Paladins are unique in the way that the stronger they get the less hands on the deity needs to be as the paladin and the deity are asymptotic (the lines that get closer together the farther along you measure, but only meet at infinity). Eventually the paladin and the deity are totally in sync. The cleric might grow more like the deity over time, might not, might become the leader of a wacked out splinter cult, who knows. The Warlock can be fairly independent at the beginning, and they find all kinds of powers that no one else has, pure super-hero like powers not individual spells. But the farther they go, the more direct control they lose as the patron more and more inserts itself into the selection process. Eventually the warlock has lost their free will and is a pawn of the patron where all of the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th level spells and the capstone powers are flavor/lore-wise up to the whim of the patron. Classic bait-and-switch faustian bargain where you get a lot of temptation up front but eventually you need to pay for it by doing the patron’s bidding.
So, warlock starts with freedom and ends a pawn, they have the most interaction with their patron but maybe more than they want. The cleric kinda muddles along with a relationship that is all in their own head. Might have a strong relationship, might only think they do, in the end it is devotion not the actual contact with the deity that defines the cleric. The paladin starts out with the least obvious relationship and eventually becomes a mini-me of their deity where free will or lack thereof is irrelevant because they want the same things anyway. And in hind-sight that perception of a minimal relationship is revealed to actually have been a very tight but secret one as the deity guided their paladin’s early growth.
The end relationship for all three is really up to the player and GM, as all stories are, but those are the trends as I see them. Most clerics will be loyal but distant. Most warlocks will end up wishing they had that freedom. And paladins have the least visible interaction with their deity, but the closest relationship. But one thing all three have in common is that they only wield mortal power. However, it comes from the deity and whatever the relationship is, they are not rewriting the rules of existence and turning into manifestations of the laws of physics. They are mortals, with mortal limits on power.
Having looked at Clerics, Paladins, and Warlocks now the question is, what about those who actually have access to divine power and how are they totally different?
Gods might select a herald or champion or have a child. Now this is something different because here the deity is not just granting knowledge or mortal power. In these cases the individual actually has a portion of the deity’s power that reduces how much the deity themselves have. Clerics, paladins, and warlocks all serve the deity in a way that makes the deity stronger. Typically, this is measured in followers or belief or faith or whatever. A herald or champion or child actually takes a portion of the deity’s power in a way that makes them weaker. In BECMI this was measured in power points and % of total power invested n a given form. Why would a deity do this? Why make themselves weaker?
Safety for one. If the deity makes an avatar and it gets killed the loss is permanent. If the deity turns their child into an exalted demigod and the child dies the power returns to the deity. It counts as a stroke against them sure (which is a term for deity-level successes and failures), but this is a miniscule price to pay compared to the permanent power lost when an avatar goes down.
Secondly because it allows the deity to be active in more areas at once, and to bypass one of the most important rules of creation: Gods cannot directly interfere in the prime material plane. Dawn war, titanomachy, elder era, time of dragons, whatever your world calls it, basically every game and human mythos from real-world Earth has some explanation of why the gods were active in the past and aren’t “now”. When gods cannot act themselves, and the challenge is more than even the most powerful cleric warlock or paladin could handle, they can send in an exalted servant. Because these are entities that absolutely do have divine-level power, that ability to stab strength itself or create life, or whatever, they really can break the rules.
Finally, because it inspires the paladins, the clerics, the warlocks, and the general masses in a way that makes the deity look even stronger. “Wow, hercules is so strong and that’s just a fraction of Zeus’ power!” or “If this is what a valkyrie riding sleipnir can do, imagine how much more power Odin himself wields!” Yes, Odin sometimes loaned his steed to a valkyrie, which is symbolic of the exalted status.
But that original statement has to be remembered: an exalted entity makes their deity weaker in direct proportion to how much power they were granted. By contrast, mortals wielding mortal power make the deity stronger based on how much attention, faith, devotion, souls, etc they direct toward the deity. Sure, the deity always hopes that wisely using the herald will cause more people to convert or believers to have more faith and thus it might turn into a long-term gain in power. But this is far from guaranteed.
Exalted beings are a huge risk for the deity. Not every deity decides to do this. On the other hand, basically every deity has at least one cleric somewhere.
In Home, I also include angels, demons, and fiends in this category sometimes. All of them are made by deities using divine power. Some of them actually have access to a portion of divine power. Those are not only the biggest and baddest asses; not just the pit fiends and solars and inevitables. There might be a wimpy CR 3 or 4 celestial or even CR 1/8 imp with a tiny bit of real power. The equivalent of that “artifact” that only gives +1 to hit but not to damage. The contests and strategies of the immortals are very messy and they do have uses for such tools. That seemingly insignificant imp, is in its own way more powerful than a level 20 cleric, and has a more personal relationship to its patron than any paladin or warlock. Because it is wielding that unique immortal power.
Does that mean it is “better than” or “more beloved than” any given paladin, cleric, or warlock? Not necessarily. That is a matter for the GM and player and the needs of the story and the setting. In Home, mostly the answer will be “yes, it is more beloved than” or “more important than” any mortal servant. But only usually. There are exceptions. The story drives itself where it needs to go, and where the players and GM are often surprised to see it go.