When we say that Dungeons and Dragons is magical, we don’t just mean it metaphorically.
Magic, as a mechanic and as a gaming aspect, is a huge part of the game. Sorcerers, wizards, druids, clerics, bards - these are all ways to play the game that center around the casting of spells. Even the martial classes get sub or prestige classes that allow them the use of magic!
It may come as something of a surprise to those who have played only 5e, but D&D uses a two-fold magic system in its worlds and worldbuilding: Arcane and Divine.
Previous editions went to great lengths to separate spells and spell-like abilities into one of these two categories, but 5e seems to have stepped back from it. Oh, its still there (a tiny side note on a single page), but it isn’t listed among the spells themselves, and the differences in casting style and source are rarely, if ever, discussed.
Personally, I think this is a shame - the division of magics is a fantastic aspect of worldbuilding to be incorporated in various ways.
So, for those who aren’t familiar, here’s a basic breakdown of Arcane vs. Divine magic (at least as I have always understood it in previous editions).
Arcane magic is, in simplest terms, external magic.
Arcane magic is simply a source of raw energy, power, and life, which has lingered over top of the material plane since it was first created. It’s spread across reality is sometimes referred to as “The Weave”, which can be accessed through various means.
Classes that use Arcane Magic include:
And each accesses Arcane Magic in a different way.
Wizards access the weave through careful study and application of scientific principles. Runes, rituals, and spell components all have a pseudo-scientific purpose, and the method of making their Weave do what you want can be broken down into careful steps and methods.
Sorcerers are born, for various reasons, with an inherent connection to, or excess of, arcane energy. The control of their power required careful study, but the basic connect they have is undeniable and impactful.
Bards manipulate the weave through their music, or their stories - particular vibrations of notes, or carefully chosen words, can work through the Weave as well as any scientific experiment or traditional spell.
Unlike Sorcerers, Warlocks don’t originally have any connection with the Weave on their own. Instead, they make a deal with a being of much greater arcane power then their own. In return for the ability to tap into such a being’s arcane ability (or simply their energy), they trade something of their own, be it soul, devotion, or knowledge.
Artificers are engineers where Wizards are theoretical scientists. Rather than tapping into the Weave directly, they create and manufacture devices and items that can do it for them, either once or consistently.
The Material Plane has an average amount of arcane energy - but not all planes of reality do. The Feywild, for instance, has an extreme overabundance of it, which causes both the great beauty and great danger in that plane. The Shadowfell has a distinct lack, which also makes it dangerous, but in an altogether different manner.
Divine Magic, in contrast to Arcane, is internal magic.
Rather than manipulating an already existing power, it calls upon the devotion or force of belief of the caster, sometimes modified by outside forces (which in turn are bolstered by the belief of spellcasters). This force of will and belief has a power all of its own, and can modify reality, heal, or otherwise bless/bane allies and enemies.
Gods almost always have an abundance of divine magic, due to the depth of belief that their followers have in them. This is part of why it's so difficult for mortals to fully destroy a god, so long as they still have followers.
Classes that use Divine Magic include:
And each channels their Divine Magic in a different way.
Clerics call upon their devotion to their gods to cast magic through prayer. In return, gods bolster their power and grant them various magical abilities to continue gathering followers for them (or pursue other divine goals).
Paladins cast their magic through sheer force of will and devotion to the oaths that they have sworn (although, they may also gain the blessing of a god to bolster them, depending on how you're playing the character, and which edition you’re using).
Druids also cast their magic through devotion - but to nature, rather than the oaths that they have sworn. Some may also serve (and be connected magically to) gods of nature, but many simply embody harmony with nature to the extent that they can manipulate or cast through it.
Rangers are similar to druids, but their lesser devotion to the wilds results in a lesser capacity for spellcasting. Devotion to their training, against their favored enemies, and for the people that they protect can also be used as the course of their magical power.
Incorporating the Differences
Looking at the differences between two methods of spellcasting, there are dozens of ways that you can incorporate tensions, intrigue, and plot points surrounding it into your campaigns.
On a simple level, you can play into it with your characters - a wizard may think themselves superior to “spellbeggars” who have to ask the gods for power. A druid may hate users of the Weave - believing it to be meddling in the natural forces of the world. A cleric of a god of arcane power may search for a method of combining it with their own divine magic.
And then, of course, these small interpersonal idiosyncracies can be expanded out into the larger world. Maybe its political - arcane magic can be studied and worked on in an official, governmental capacity - but divine magic is subject to individual and divine will, which may lead to tensions not just between religious and monarchal factions, but create pockets of unusual phenomena, reacting to magical stress. Or maybe a town’s local temple and school just cannot get along with each other (who knows what the tensions may lead to there?).
Or, maybe its more fundamental - a circle of powerful druids bent on finding a way to seal arcane magic from mortal hands, aided by unknown forces with an agenda the party doesn’t yet know.
You can make it environmental, too. Perhaps an area has a small amount of arcane power, and your arcane spellcasters need to make checks to cast their spells properly. Or divine spellcasters who doubt themselves or their faith, or who go against the things they are supposed to be devoted to, struggle to cast their spells, and must make checks to do so.
I’m always looking for new concepts and applications of the standard lore of Dungeons and Dragons - if anyone has any other ideas, I’d love to hear them!