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Each god has an agenda. This is propagated to the clerics, in the sense that if a cleric follows a certain god, (s)he does so because the god's agenda reflects the mindset of the cleric.

Thus, a god's agenda would be better served if all clerics suddenly wielded max level spells. But...this doesn't happen. Experience and levels govern their spells, as mostly everything.

What is the explanation behind this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The nature of cleric powers varies between editions. For example, D&D 4e divine classes don't even source their powers from their gods. Since it matters for this question what edition this is for, I've gone ahead and tagged it with the edition indicated in your (previous) first paragraph (which I've removed as now unnecessary). \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 0:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ (D&D 5e players, please check my work here, I'm not certain of it!) \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 0:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I added a bunch more tags that seen to fit your purposes, but I'm not certain dungeons-and-dragons is strictly needed, anymore. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 1:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see this as an acceptable lore question within the edition and setting, even if the answer is "it's gamefied." - From review \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    May 2 at 2:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are similar issues with paladins and warlocks, who also get power from another being. (debates about power from oaths aside). \$\endgroup\$ May 4 at 9:28

9 Answers 9

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That's not how this game works.

The Players' Handbook says:

As your character goes on adventures and overcomes challenges, he or she gains experience, represented by experience points. A character who reaches a specified experience point total advances in capability. This advancement is called gaining a level.

This has been a hallmark of D&D since the earliest days.

In-game explanations

If you need an in-game explanation, here are a few.

The gods' power is not infinite. In the DMG, under "Gods of Your World", it discusses "Divine Rank":

The divine beings of the multiverse are often categorized according to their cosmic power. Some gods are worshiped on multiple worlds and have a different rank on each world, depending on their influence there.

It then goes on to discuss greater and lesser deities, quasi-deities, demigods, titans, and vestiges.

In the Players' Handbook, under Cleric is says:

Divine magic, as the name suggests, is the power of the gods, flowing from them into the world. Clerics are conduits for that power, manifesting it as miraculous effects. The gods don’t grant this power to everyone who seeks it, but only to those chosen to fulfill a high calling.

And also:

In a pantheon, every deity has influence over different aspects of mortal life and civilization, called a deity’s domain. All the domains over which a deity has influence are called the deity’s portfolio.

So we can determine that the default assumption is that there is a hierarchy of gods, that they have areas of influence, and that they grant powers to their clerics.

So that means that their powers aren't infinite, and they are in some level of conflict with each other, from cooperation to out-and-out war.

So they are giving some of their power, a limited resource, to their clerics.

Experience is needed to handle that much power

Since they don't grant power to just everyone, perhaps clerics need practice in order to build up to being able to handle the full power gods can give out.

Arms race

If they are in competition or conflict with each other, if one god grants high levels of power to just anyone, then perhaps the gods they are competing with will too, leaving them poorer in power, but no better off. Better to carefully give out power, using their clerics as pawns to jockey for position.

Determining who is worthy

If power is a limited resource, the gods must need to determine who among their followers is worthy of more power.

It isn't just clerics

Why don't other classes start off at advanced levels?

Myth, legend, and fiction are full of adventurers who were mighty at a young age, well before their prime, granted their powers by the gods or fate; for instance, many heroes in Greek myth.

You don't have to play that way

You can start all your classes at whatever level you want.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a minor variation on the cleric needing their skills honed to be able to "handle" the power, (i.e. they'd be injured or killed if the deity poured through more magical power than they were ready for), you could flavour it as the cleric's personal mental prowess opens a channel for divine magic to flow through, and this is tiring just like for a sorcerer or wizard. Deities can't just directly intervene willy-nilly on the prime material plane, only when a cleric succeeds at creating a pathway via divine intervention, or by granting spells. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 10:46
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Forgotten Realms-specific explanation:

In the Forgotten Realms, before the Fall of Netheril, magic (at least arcane magic, and maybe clerical magic) was much easier to attain. It was only after the Fall, with the imposition of Mystra's Ban, that magic became something you had to work for (and the level of power was capped in a way that it had not been previously to boot). She basically made the Weave harder to use; rather than allowing the caster to fuel the spells directly from the Weave itself, the caster had to develop the experience and capability to memorize the spells (this is all 2E/3E material, thus "memorize") and channel the power through themselves.

The ban was in response to reckless use of arcane magic, but the ban covered magic in general. It's entirely possible a side-effect of the ban was that clerics became incapable of channeling that much power from the Weave, even with godly assistance, if they hadn't developed the necessary skills, wisdom, experience, what-have-you, as represented by class levels. A god could always manifest specific powers directly at the cleric's request, but presumably this is costly and/or annoying for the god, so they only do that for their more favored clerics (e.g. those at 10th level with Divine Intervention class ability); under normal circumstances, the gods help those who help themselves (develop the experience to channel magic without the god having to hand-hold them so much).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I am glad there is an in-lore answer, and would love to see it higher up. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    May 2 at 23:50
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I am not aware of any source that provides a direct answer to this question; however, sources imply 3 answers, all of which are likely to be true at the same time.

Deities' powers are finite, and they probably cannot do what you suggest

With possible exceptions for "overdeities" such as AO or IO, the DND pantheon generally views the powers of deities as somewhat limited. They have various portfolios, and at least in later editions, their power levels are tied to their followers among other things. It is also possible, at least in Faerun, to kill a deity, and canonically several of them have died (and some that have died have come back).

While the exact limits of the deities' powers are left slightly vague, most likely none of them could simply elevate all of their clerics to maximum power at once.

While this answer is geared towards being edition agnostic, and I think that the core of this part of the answer is edition agnostic, it is worth noting that some of these details vary slightly by edition and also by setting. In particular, in some editions and settings, a cleric's maximum level and power level were tied to their deities' divine rank; in other editions and levels, that was relaxed. With that said, I think every edition and every setting setting at least implicitly imposes limits to the amount of power that a deity has to give away, and it is probably far below the point of making a large number of clerics have 9th level spells.

Clerics are special and need to be able to handle the power.

Adventurers in general are meant to be special. The question was specifically edition agnostic, but DND Beyond has a quote "Not every acolyte or officiant at a temple or shrine is a cleric...True clerics are rare in most hierarchies."

In other words, the vast majority of people working in a temple and holding services for a deity have no spellcasting ability at all. Those that have any have something special.

While I am not aware of any rulebook that requires it, there is extensive support in the published fiction for the idea that cleric's need to build up their ability to channel their deity's power.

Even if a deity had the power to hand out 9th level spells to every cleric, most of their clerics probably couldn't handle it for long.

Deities need to worry about their clerics betraying them.

Clerics betray their own deities at times in DND. In earlier editions, there were significant numbers of "Traitor Priestess" to Lloth who either wielded Vhaerun's power instead of Lloth's while paying lipservice to Lloth for political reasons or drew power successfully from both.

Even among the clerics, a deity may want time to vet the cleric and allow the cleric to prove their loyalty before giving more power to them, and that is assuming that the deity has more power to give and that the cleric in question could handle it.

Meta-answer or Doylist Answer

Finally, if we step outside the fiction of the game, it basically has to work that way. It is a fundamental assumption of this entire genre of games that player characters can gain levels or otherwise grow in power. If all clerics had full power immediately, they wouldn't have room to move up and would also overshadow all of the other classes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That most priests are not clerics has always been true. 3e and the “v.3.5 revised edition” even had the NPC-specific adept class, clerics without combat skills, without domains, without turn undead, and only half as much spellcasting off of a heavily-reduced list. And I’m reasonably sure most priests weren’t even adepts; most were just experts (another NPC class that only got decent skills and nothing else) with skills in Diplomacy (Persuasion), Religion, Perform, Profession, and Sense Motive (Insight). \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    May 1 at 23:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Named and statted PCs, perhaps. I’m like 85% sure I’ve read comments from Gygax about how demographically, such characters were rare. I’ll try to find older references, though my knowledge of older editions is poor. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    May 2 at 1:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan FWIW, the original 1e DMG (in its section about henchmen, page 35) suggests that 1 in 100 humans (and half-orcs) are capable of gaining character levels, improving to 1 in 50 for other races; and of those individuals, they split 20% cleric/druid, 44% fighter/ranger/paladin, 20% magic-user/illusionist, 15% thieves/assassins, 1% monks. So in a human society you'd expect maybe 1 in 500 people to have cleric (or druid) levels. (These rules are of course meant for figuring out who's available to hire to work for you, but their text implies they are demographic guidelines as well.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Carcer
    May 2 at 9:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast, it's been a long time since I've read it and I have no idea where my copy is to verify, but I could swear the 2nd Ed rulebook explained that the vast majority of NPCs inhabiting a world were considered level-0 characters. So even if built using PC classes and such, they are still weaker and don't have the same abilities as PCs. Players play characters that are something special and are relatively rare, even at level 1. \$\endgroup\$
    – Seth R
    May 2 at 15:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is accurate (that goes can die, their power is finite, and they draw their power from their followers) in Dragonlance as well, which is one of the other two main worlds of D&D. \$\endgroup\$
    – TylerH
    May 2 at 15:36
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Each deity's power is limited, so they must invest it wisely.

From a game design sense, it would of course be unbalanced to have 1st-level clerics cast 9th level spells. All lore reasons flow from that precept.

If we go back into earlier editions, it becomes clear that deities have only finite power, and so they invest it in beings who will provide a net gain. According to the Planescape sourcebook On Hallowed Ground (1996), which delves into the nature of D&D's gods (p.40):

Granting spells takes something out of a god, and the tangible demonstration of strength (no matter how minute) also drains energy. Still, if the action will make the god more powerful in the long run, the pay-off will be worth the effort. That's why it's so important that a priest constantly stump for his god; if he just takes the spells offered and does nothing in return, the deity loses strength without getting anything back. No matter how altruistic the power, he's not likely to let the one-way flow continue.

A deity is therefore like a billionaire, who could easily throw a million dollars to support an entrepreneur, but he expects a return on his investment. Deities gain their power from the faith of those who believe in them, and so forgotten gods can actually die, with their colossal, dessicated corpses floating in the Astral Plane.

It is therefore imperative that the gods invest their power in people who will stand as exemplars of their principles, promote their faith, and fulfil tasks on the deity's behalf. High-level clerics have proven that they can handle this responsibility, and can be trusted with more of the deity's power.

The 5e Player's Handbook doesn't go into as much detail, but it concurs that cleric spellcasting power is commensurate with devotion to the deity and their precepts:

A cleric might learn formulaic prayers and ancient rites, but the ability to cast cleric spells relies on devotion and an intuitive sense of a deity's wishes.

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A God's Agenda Would Be Better Served?

In actual fact... that's unlikely. If any given cleric of a deity could wield max level spells, calling down miracles and the like at their whim, one of two things would happen: either the power would be abused, or the deity would have to invest a considerable amount of their time and attention into oversight of those clerics, to the exclusion of their other duties.

Assume a well-meaning 1st-level cleric. Provided the power to cast miracle, she feels that as her god is a god of healing, it would be great if she wielded a miracle to eradicate all disease. Does she understand the consequences of that decision? To say nothing of the reprisal from the local deity of plagues? Or how about a god of protection and community, whose 1st-level cleric sees a volcanic eruption that will endanger a village and miracles it into not having happened. Congratulations - the town is saved, but wait... all that volcanic ash that would have gone toward enriching the soil for next year's planting season, that's all gone now; the terrible lesson the people would have learned about the dangers of living too close to an active volcano are replaced with the message that the gods will sort out any idiocy you choose to partake in. How did the eruption get handled, anyway? Was the lava simply taken away in its entirety, casting matter into nonexistence? Was it pushed back down to increase in pressure and heat, likely finding somewhere else to escape?

An inexperienced cleric doesn't think of these things, and imbuing them with the power to reshape the world without regard for the consequences would have great potential for calamity.

Believe It Or Not

Then there's the fact that the gods want faith; if every cleric goes around with the power to casually bring forth major miracles, enemy clerics will need to do likewise in their turn. Suddenly, the extraordinary is not only commonplace, but fundamental to the continued operation of the world Two obvious outcomes present themselves: either faith will give way to certitude, which does the gods no good, as their power is shown off far too constantly for anyone to doubt them; or faith will give way to disbelief, as the line between what is divine and what is simply the work of particularly short-sighted wizards blurs to the level of irrelevance.

The gods need to trust that their agents on the Material Plane will work to build their faith, and exercise the magic with which they have been imbued sparingly, and in service of the god's cause.

Welcome To Rocket Tag

Finally, of course, we must remember that as the gods need faith, so too do they need mortals kicking about to provide said faith - and if they escalate their intervention on the Material Plane proper, whether via forking over 9th level spells to all of their clerics or just dispatching as many solars as they can find on short notice to fly about telling everyone exactly how to live, then their adversaries must do so in turn - and while rocket tag is fun, you don't really want to be doing it around the extremely fragile source of your continued existence.

In Summation

  • Gods want their clerics to advance their agendas, but chief among those agendas is that gods desire faith and belief, which sustain them. High-level spells don't provide that inherently and can in fact undermine it.

  • Gods limit how much power they will invest in any one vessel to ensure that they can trust that vessel with safe and appropriate use of that power. A well-meaning but inexperienced cleric could cause havoc with a poorly-applied spell.

  • Gods may not like playing fair, but they would rather find loopholes in the collective guidelines governing their behavior than risk provoking divine rocket tag and endangering their primary source of faith. By allocating these powers only to seasoned, trustworthy servants who have proven their worth and maturity over time, the gods can ensure that their agendas are being promoted on a scale appropriate to their needs, without worrying about the prospect of all-out divine warfare.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ as their power is shown off far too constantly for anyone to doubt them - There's already not much room for doubt in the existence of gods in most campaign settings. It's not like our world, where there's basically zero hard evidence and religions are build around accepting things you're told. I imagine in a D&D setting that isn't low-magic, for most people faith in a god or other divinity is more about belief in their goodness / helpfulness, faith that they will keep you safe. i.e. faith in their power. Perhaps some believe a certain god is omnipotent. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 11:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ So atheism is likely much rarer in most D&D settings than in the modern world, and most people who don't worship / "believe" in one or all of them would likely be due to a lack of trust, or a "what's in it for me?" attitude, rather than doubt in their existence. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 11:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps philosophers would debate whether divinity is a real thing, for example other powerful being exist (dragons, storm giants, solars, wish-granting djinni, archfey, various warlock patrons that grant spells), so it would be reasonable to believe the gods are just powerful beings, not of a fundamentally different type. For that, throwing power around proves very little, still just a matter of degree. It obviously proves the existence of the supernatural, but so would a random elemental running loose in the countryside for people that saw it. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 11:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Overall nice answer, though; agreed with your overall point about the amount of potential havoc, especially from well-meaning attempts to do good without considering the big picture. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 11:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes: Of course, in at least one setting (FR), the "what's in it for me?" is pretty clear: If you don't pledge yourself to a deity (or your deity dies and you don't pick another, or whatever; you die without a currently living deity you're pledged to, or you betray their ideals enough they don't want you) you end up immured in the Wall of the Faithless after death, which is a worse after-life than just about anything you'd get from worshiping one of the gods. It's not a metaphor, it's a real place people could (with magic/portal aid) visit in the Lower Planes. \$\endgroup\$ May 3 at 5:56
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The amount of favour or piety players have.

See p23 of the DM's guide.

Characters can earn promotions as their renown increases. As the character’s renown within the organization increases, he or she might be eligible for further increases in rank.

Earning a rank within an organization comes with certain benefits. A character of low rank might gain access to a reliable contact and adventure leads, a safe house, or a trader willing to offer a discount on adventuring gear. A middle-ranked character might gain a follower, access to potions and scrolls, the ability to call in a favor, or backup on dangerous missions. A high-ranking character might be able to call on a small army, take custody of a rare magic item, gain access to a helpful spellcaster, or assign special missions to members of lower rank.

See also piety.

The gods bestow favors on those who prove their devotion. With each rank of piety gained, a character can pray for divine favor once per day. This favor usually comes in the form of a cleric spell like bless. The favor often comes with a sign of the divine benefactor; for example, a character dedicated to Thor might receive a spell accompanied by the boom of thunder.

A high level of piety can also lead to a character gaining a more persistent benefit, in the form of a blessing or charm (see chapter 7, "Treasure," for such supernatural gifts).

And on p227.

A supernatural gift is a special reward granted by a being or force of great magical power. Such supernatural gifts come in two forms: blessings and charms. A blessing is usually bestowed by a god or a godlike being. A charm is typically the work of a powerful spirit, a location of ancient magic, or a creature that has legendary actions.

Granting spells or gifts is within what they could do, although leveling up players isn't a suggested perk. If you are DM you could certainly make it so. For example, I've run a game where there was a tournament of the gods, and leveling up, magical items, and special perks were all dependent on the whims of the gods. Their advancement pace was absurd and most enjoyed the very high power play, although one less experienced player found it hard keeping up with leveling.

In the base game the answer is probably they don't want to buff players, plus they can't grant levels, plus they only bless their favoured, plus they have limited time and attention to bless people and most deeds aren't worthy of blessing. You can change up religion as you wish though as DM.

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Gods want to avoid escalation

If a god is willing to invest all their clerics, even low-level ones, with high-level spells and powers, then the likely result of any conflict would be mutually assured destruction of all sides of the conflict and everything unlucky enough to be caught in between. Most gods don't want to destroy the world entirely (and the ones that do tend, in most pantheons, to be opposed by ALL of the others, even if those others don't normally get along), so they keep their conflicts limited in scale by forcing mortals to prove their worthiness before they are allowed to wield such magic. (This is also why most gods even have clerics in the first place rather than descending to the Material Plane every other week to solve the world's problems themselves.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 Not sure why this got downvoted, gods trying to avoid a world-destroying all out war amongst each other is a pretty common trope for why they do not intervene more directly, and a good in-game explanation why they do not vest eveyone with extreme power. Maybe try to expand your answer a bit. \$\endgroup\$ May 2 at 13:06
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Not all D&D settings have gods,

and even the ones that do don't always operate on that ruleset. Athas, Ravnica, and Ravenloft are bereft of deities. (Well, technically Ravnica has Ilharg, but not much has been fleshed out there; and the subjects of Orzhov and Selesnyan worship aren't actually gods.) Eberron has a few pantheons, but it's intentionally ambiguous as to whether or not they actually exist aside from the Silver Flame, which can't even grant Jaela 9th level spells when she leaves Flamekeep.

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the official sources do not explicitely say, but my best hypothesis is that

Divine spellcasting also needs skill

A god can only open up to a cleric but then the cleric must go and connect to the power source. Unexperienced clerics are not capable of channelling more power.

This hypotesis also explains why (and is corroborated by):

  • gods can and do cut off renegade clerics but I never saw clerical powers partially witheld, in any published material of several editions I played.
  • clerics that switch gods can mantain their level if the new god accepts them.
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