In a supernatural environment, parsimony insists that gods exist. But that doesn’t mean that your god exists, or that it likes you, or is listening to your entreaties.
So, let’s keep the efficacy of prayer mostly secret.
Only do this if it’s fun, obviously. Do you and your players like the idea of praying for water, and then looting the body of a dead ogre to find a full waterskin, and not knowing if it’s coincidence or not?
Here’s what your player should tell you about their religion:
- God/Pantheon’s Name:
- Domain of Influence:
- Cleric's Sacred Duties:
- Cleric's Forbidden Acts:
- Weapons allowed to Clerics:
- Opposing Force/The Enemy:
They can make up lots more, but that’s what’s essential.
The GM instructs the player that they can pray for miracles, and the god might respond. Requesting too much can anger/bore the god. And the Enemy is listening, and will tempt you into damnation if you pray for the wrong thing.
That's all they know.
The GM makes up a clerical spell list. Maybe it’s exactly the standard list, but maybe you add a surprise or two. About six spells at first? Include two additional spells that are counter to the god’s desires, which would be granted by the Opposing Force. Don’t show this to the player.
Don’t worry too much about this list—treat it as a guide for judging the appropriate level of divine intervention.
Let the player pray for anything they wish. They do not need to frame it in standard spell terms. A general prayer ("Deliver us from danger!") can be interpreted lots of ways by the GM, for good or ill. A very specific prayer ("Grant your servant a pony, O Lord.") runs the risk of not being something the god will grant.
If it’s in line with the god’s desires, and has any sort of analogue on the spell list, then a miracle (or at least a convenient coincidence) may occur.
Wearing out the Almighties
Use ammo dice for prayer. Roll it when they pray. On a result of one or less, they have used their portion of divine goodwill for the day. This and all other prayers for the rest of the day will not be granted.
1st Level: 1d4-3.
2nd Level: 1d4-1.
3rd Level: 1d4.
4th Level: 1d4.
5th Level: 1d6.
6th Level: 1d6.
8th Level: 1d8.
9th Level: 1d8.
10th Level: 1d10.
11th Level: 1d10.
12th and all subsequent levels: 1d12.
When the ammo die is exhausted, don’t let the player know. Just let them wait and see if their prayers have been answered. Feed them ambiguous information.
Falling from Grace
If the prayer is best answered by the Opposing Force’s spells, make a tally mark under “Heresy” for that character. If, over the course of an adventure, the character’s Heresies exceed their Level, then they are damned in their god’s sight and now belong to the Enemy. Make up a new list of spells. Use reversed versions of the original spell list when you can. Reversed spells may be cast unwittingly when the cleric tries to invoke the original effect. Other spells can only be cast when the cleric goes against the original god’s wishes—partaking in a forbidden act, refusing a sacred duty, etc.
A character may continue in their faith for a long time without knowing that they have fallen from grace. They may never realize, and decide that the weird results of their prayers are part of the god’s ineffable plan. This is how heretical sects get started.
If a character does realize they have fallen, they can seek redemption, but it should be a big quest-type deal.
Results of Prayer
A lot of the lower level Cleric spells are invisible, and provide such minor effects that you might not be able to discern their presence. A priest lays hands on you and says a blessing, and you feel better, but did you really gain a +1 to save vs. poison?
When prayers are granted, whenever convenient, make the results invisible. The player should not always know when a prayer was answered or not, or exactly how. Results might not show up right away.
Cure Light Wounds: This one seems like a pain to keep secret (extra bookkeeping, and no player is going to enjoy not knowing their HP), so just let them have it. There’s still plenty of uncertainty if they fall from grace, and this reverses into Cause Light Wounds. Also, I tend to allow all sorts of things to provide some HP recovery, including morale boosts, like rousing speeches or battle hymns. So I’d give back 1 HP just for placebo effect, if both healer and healed are sincere about the effort.
Detect Evil/Magic/etc.: Provide false positives even when the prayer is not granted.
Light: You could just make this an obvious miracle, or you could have light show up in some possibly natural way. A shaft of light makes its way through a chink in the rocks, a patch of luminescent fungus begins to bloom, someone finds another flask of oil in the backpack, an exhausted torch sputters back to life. Or a bunch of hobgoblins with lanterns and pitchforks show up.
Protection from Evil/Purify Food and Water/Remove Fear/Resist Cold: All spells where you can tell the players affected, “You feel like that might have worked.” Keep any bonuses awarded (or not) to yourself. Now’s when you’ll see how much faith both the players and the characters have in the gods.