Holy Variability – Variable effects with Learned Prayers

I love Divine Favor. I think it’s a far better and more elegant solution to the question of miracles and clerical “magic” than the existing GURPS system, which is basically the same as Magic, with Power Investiture standing in for Magery, and Sanctity making the tag for Mana levels. You pay your cost and you cast your spell.

With Divine Favor, you are (thematically) buying a level of influence with your god(s), and you can appeal to them for aid. The quality of the aid is based on a reaction roll, and can have pretty far-reaching effects.

Cadmus, my Dungeon Fantasy character in +Nathan Joy‘s game based on Pathfinder’s Golarion and Jade Regent Adventure Path, has “Divine Favor 8” which is good for getting my deity’s attention about one time in four if I’m subtle, about half the time if I wave my holy symbol in the air and generally act like a street preacher.

Now, you can request a specific effect, such as the ever-popular Smite, which inflicts 2d burning damage of really ugly holy fire on malign supernatural creatures. It’s particularly effective against the undead. Anyway, the book comes with a list of pre-defined miracles intended as guidelines for effect, and each “level” of miracle has a reaction minimum that comes with it.

You can also buy these as Learned Prayers, which are basically something you can just do, since you’ve paid points for it, and your god has granted you the ability to get the job done more or less at will.

Game mechanically, these are Alternate Abilities, costing 1/5 (round up) the cost of the power that is bestowed; the buy-in is the level of Divine Favor required to “qualify” for the prayer.

Cadmus has used his LPs to great effect, and has several. Protection from Evil (Enhanced) and Smite are great for stomping undead, while Righteous Fury turns him into a Cuisinart for 3d seconds (adds 1d to each of ST, DX, and HT).

Recently, though, I have started to wonder if the “IF Pray, THEN Miracle” nature of how Learned Prayers work might make them a bit too “by rote,” taking away some of the variability and thus mystery of divine intervention.

I’ve not thought this through completely, but I wondered if it would be interesting to work off of the following:

When using a Learned Prayer with things that have a defined benefit, roll 3d and consult the following table:

6-       Half normal effect, double time, or -2 per die damage
7-8    2/3 normal effect, 1.5x time, or -1 per die damage
9-11   Normal effect
12-13   1.25x normal effect, 80% time, or +1 per die damage
14+     2x Normal effect, half time, or double damage

Now, the approximate weighted average of all that crap is about 105%, meaning that on the average, your Learned Prayer is about 5% more effective than the rules-as-written. Kind of a bonus for rolling dice.

Let’s take a look at a few common prayers, and see how this would impact them.

Final Rest: Here’s a great example of an example that isn’t great. You pray for a minute, and at the end, your subject (who is dead) can’t be made undead later. The only thing I can think of here is that the prayer takes longer – two minutes if you roll a 6 or less, but only thirty seconds if you roll well. Big deal.

Protection from Evil: Again, this minor miracle doesn’t let malign supernatural entities approach within a
yard. in this case, you might say that the bad results mean then can get within your hex but can’t touch you, while the bonus effects mean they stay 2 yards away. That’s actually a real benefit, especially for (say) skeletons of the sword- and axe-wielding variety.

Lay on Hands: You can transfer HP from yourself to your subject. This one’s straight-forward, I think. You say how many HP you want to transfer, and roll the dice. If you are planning on transferring 6 HP, a bad roll means you spend 6 HP to restore 3 or 4. A good one means that you either spend 6 HP and restore 8 HP or 12HP, or if (say) your guy is only wounded for 6 HP, you might spend 4 HP or 3 HP in order to restore 6 HP.

Smite: This one’s easy. Roll variable effect, roll damage. You can either just roll the damage and modify that flat out, or use the per-die suggestions above.

Righteous Fury: Cadmus’ favorite prayer, it adds to your physical stats: 1d for 3d seconds. This one could go either way, meaning you might roll only 1d-2 on a bad roll, but roll 2d on a great one! Alternately, for those who don’t relish the possibility of +12 to DX, 3d seconds might be modified directly.

Why bother? 

Honestly, I like variable effect rolls, though in many cases, the effects are already variable. The bottom line is it makes relying on your relationship with your deity just a bit chancy, but also potentially even better than you think.

Why not just use the Reaction Table again?

Um, because I didn’t think of it initially, but it’s a good idea. It’s more granular, and it’s the same basic mechanic used for Divine Favor in general. What the Learned Prayer would do, then, is bypass the Petition Roll, and have an average effect on the same magnitude as the current LP.

Try this as an alternate:

Very Bad 25%
Bad  50%
Poor 75%
Neutral 100%
Good 150%
Very Good 300%


Some people like rolling dice. 🙂

More seriously, it would definitely take some real prep on the part of the GM and/or player. Using the guidelines above, you either need to be willing to make stuff up on the fly so that you adjudicate the prayer results as you go, or you need to create the reaction table for each prayer on the PC’s sheet. Might be too much trouble, but I still like the idea that you can never really guarantee an effect when negotiating/praying for intervention.

Magic is not Technology

People who are keen on this can take it one step further, and apply the same sort of thing to magic. Either make the effects per mana point spent variable as above, look up the margin of success or MoS+some number (maybe 5?) for a casting on the reaction table (that might easily be too good), or some other “you can’t really use a magic spell the way you use a gun” type impact.

Parting Shot

Again, some campaigns styles or player character concepts would break doing this; some players would not enjoy this sort of thing. But as I said when I started, the variable and occasionally unknowable impacts of prayers is a lot of fun in the game I play now, and applying that to Learned Prayers as well is something I jotted down in my Journal of Pretentiousness as a thought experiment.

7 thoughts on “Holy Variability – Variable effects with Learned Prayers

  1. I'm not really knowledgeable about the Learned Prayer rules, although I'm vaguely considering offering them up for any future clerics in my game instead of spells. But in any case, what I write next just might be rules mechanically wrong due to unfamiliarity with them.

    But if the reaction roll is just a one-roll thing (how much does my God give me?) it seems like it could work well – instead of asking for a roll, then a roll, etc. just to find out at the end what to roll for the effect, can you merge them into, basically, "I pray, I roll, and my god gives me X for Y effect"?

    1. That is sort of how General Prayers work ("Hey, Thor, can help a brother out here?"). This is as opposed to Specific Prayers ("Hey Thor, can you spare a copper for a fellow American who's down on his luck?") or the Learned Prayer ("Put it on my Thor Platinum Card.").
      The category of Prayer that Doug is talking about is the Learned Prayer, which is an Alternate Ability that is (RAW) 100% reliable. You don't do any Reaction Roll, you just call down the Smitin'.
      This has bothered me, too; it is more expensive than a Spell, but 100% reliability is huge. It is supposed to be a trade off, where you can only have one thing in effect at once, but I haven't seen that as a major limitation at my table. It is supposed to represent a pre-approved miracle, but that is a lot of trust Thor has vested your Dungeon Saint with!
      This is nice, since it reintroduces variability. You can't fail, exactly, but you might have bigger or smaller access to all that heavenly intervention. I am not sure if I'll offer it… eight players is a handful without adding in more rolls.
      On the other hand, the cleric's player has a custom-built Learned Prayer Innate Attack that could do with some unpredictability, and our Holy Warrior likes Righteous Fury just as much as Cadmus. Maybe I'll mention it to those two players and see how they feel about gambling with the fire of the gods.

    2. Dammann covered this a bit already, but the "generic" Divine Favor system goes like this:

      First, make a Petition Roll, which is basically your Divine Favor level, plus bonuses for number of people praying, whether or not you wave a holy symbol about and are making yourself obvious, and how long you can take to pray.

      Second, make a reaction roll, which gives you the relative merit of your response.

      If you were going for a specific prayer (say, Lay on Hands or Smite), you need a certain reaction score from your Deity to activate it. If you activate it, you then roll for its effects, if they're variable.

      Learned Prayers turn each ability into something resembling a spell, where you bypass the petition and reaction rolls, and just roll for effect. The cost of this, is, of course, that you have to buy the power at 1/5 cost as an alternate ability. I think Smite cost me 9 points or something like that. However, the effects are much less random, since you skip right to the effect part of the roll.

      What my noodling does is reinstate the reaction roll. It wouldn't be too hard to look at each specific prayer and come up with a one-roll solution where the reaction level AND the effect were combined.


      Righteous Fury. This has two levels of variable effect. The "worst" you can do is +1 to each of ST, DX, and HT for only 3 seconds (that's a minimum roll on the three 1d rolls for quantity, and also on the 3d roll for duration). At the upper end, it's obviously +6 to each stat for 18 seconds. 40 points for 3sec lower end, 240 points for 18s at the upper end. That might be more than enough variability to say that an average reaction roll gives you (say) 9 points to distribute among three stats for 10s, or you get 19 points for either duration or stat increases, maximum 6 in stat. So you could be +6 to all three stats for 1 second, or +1 to all three stats for 16sec. Better reactions gives more points, worse is fewer.

      Just noodling out loud, but I think overall it would be possible to make one-roll solutions that felt like reaction rolls and included variable effect.

      The reason to NOT do that, and have two rolls, is so that you can apply just the one variable-effect table, and then modify your LP accordingly.

    3. As usual, you over-complicated everything =) but you rescued it by invoking the Reaction Table. I really like the idea that a Learned Prayer isn't a rote miracle, it's simply a miracle that you're guaranteed to get, but the exact effects are still variable depending on how your deity feels about you at that time.

      I'll have to add this to my house rules for my great DF revision.

    4. Yeah, I had a real streak going there, and then I realized that the basic mechanic, the Reaction Roll, is way better because it's already invoked by the rules. I didn't want to just delete the first thought though, like I normally would in a Pyramid article.

      Probably should have, though.

      It also makes sense to have things like the behavior and worthiness of the subject change the effect. Healing a might hero that was wounded fighting for your own deity? Bonus to reaction roll.

  2. Variable effects table: Good stuff. Re the first example:

    "Final Rest: Here's a great example of an example that isn't great. You pray for a minute, and at the end, your subject (who is dead) can't be made undead later. The only thing I can think of here is that the prayer takes longer – two minutes if you roll a 6 or less, but only thirty seconds if you roll well. Big deal."

    Interesting example you pick, as this spell is essentially concerned with a binary state. Hard to put much "variable" into that…

    But there's room for creativity, *especially* because we're talking divine magic. Just for fun:

    On a "2x effect" roll, the god takes a real interest in this case (for inscrutable godly reasons). He appears in person (or in booming voice, or whatever), and announced that he'll take this spirit under his personal protection, and see that no necromancer ever befoul it. He even hints at a vague curse on anyone who tries…

    It may mean nothing in terms of further game play, but it's an awesome effect!

    Now, a "Half normal effect" roll? The god responds, but for whatever reason, is half-hearted or fuzzy about it. An avatar or minion responds, and says it'll "request protection" for the spirit. So does it get done or not? Or the god responds, and says he'll protect the spirit for "a time and a half a time". Huh? How long is that? Or he says he'll "hinder any who would call this spirit back to the mortal plane". Hinder? As in, like, a mere skill penalty on zombification?

    And so on. It's magic. There's always room for weirdness!

    1. final rest: I picked it deliberately as a binary state example that you have to strain to make work, since there are plenty of such examples in Divine Favor, things that are on/off.

      Agree that there is lots of room for variable-effect as adjudicated by the GM. I like to show some pre-written possibilities, though, since "just make it up" isn't really that helpful on a blog or article. 🙂

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