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As the title says, I am curious if the D&D lore mentions the differences between arcane power and eldritch power.

I noticed that eldritch is mostly associated with "evil" aspects of the mythology, demons, warlocks, etc, while arcane is more common.

Is there more to it? What's the story behind arcane and eldritch powers?

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In later D&D editions, the term eldritch is associated with the warlock class, whose signature class feature is eldritch blast. The warlock was introduced in 3.5e’s Complete Arcane, and was a core class in both 4e and 5e. All three of these warlocks tended to revolve around the use of eldritch blast, and as a result, feats and items specifically tailored for this class often use the word eldritch, and such things that are more generally for all arcanists tend to avoid it.

The warlock class is an arcane class, so eldritch can be seen as a subset of arcane. However, warlocks generally gain their powers not through study (as with wizards) or ancestry (as with sorcerers), but through pacts with fey, fiendish, or alien creatures. This accounts for the connotations and associations you’re seeing around the eldritch term.

However, the term is also simply an English word, and it is sometimes used in situations divorced from the warlock class even after it was printed (and clearly, prior to Complete Arcane, any use of the term had nothing to do with the class that hadn’t been written yet). This is seen perhaps most notably (to modern D&D, anyway) in the eldritch knight class; that was originally printed as a prestige class in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for 3.5, before Complete Arcane was printed. At that point, it was just used as more-or-less a synonym for arcane. And even though both 4e and 5e already had warlocks with associations with the word eldritch, Wizards chose to keep the eldritch knight name for an arcane-casting fighter, using it as a knight paragon path in 4e and a fighter archetype in 5e. So the eldritch knight could be seen as a big exception to the idea of “eldritch” being associated with warlocks. There are others.

However, even when used simply as English words, the words have different connotations. Arcane means complex and/or secret, and anything secret can have sinister associations, but eldritch highlights them. Something arcane may merely be complex and difficult to understand (quantum mechanics is very arcane), but something eldritch more strongly hints at something sinister going on.

For reference, Google provides the following definitions:

el·dritch

ˈeldriCH

adjective

weird and sinister or ghostly.

"an eldritch screech"

ar·cane

ärˈkān

adjective

understood by few; mysterious or secret.

"modern math and its arcane notation"

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There is none in lore — they're just different English words that are near synonyms.* Which one is used seems to depends on the spin that the writer wants (naturally), according to their normal English definitions: arcane means mysterious or rarely known, eldritch means strange or sinister.

Its tempting when faced with an unfamiliar word or two to assume that they must have some kind of special technical or lore meaning, but people generally overuse that assumption. Often an unfamiliar word in a roleplaying game is just a normal English word, and checking a dictionary first is often reveals that there's no need to jump to the conclusion that the word is special in any way.

* They're not actually synonyms or even very close, but being archaic words people associate with magic, writers often treat them as synonyms or as decorative words. Making matters worse, other writers don't treat them as synonyms, and choose one or the other for their actual meaning.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ And therein lies the magic.... No doubt that Douglas Niles taught me, through The Dungeoneer's Handbook, the word "spelunking." \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 18 '16 at 22:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Arcane does have a technical meaning in game, though - mortal magic, subject to arcane spell failure (unless you're a bard for... reasons), etc. It's not used with just the English meaning. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Jun 20 '16 at 12:58

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