There’s a major thing that’s always bothered me about pretty much all Fantasy stories and especially game settings and even more especially roleplaying games published since Dungeons and Dragons came out. For some reason, Gary Gygax separated Wizards and Clerics, which later became a separation of arcane and divine magic, and this assumption has been played out blindly ever since.
The huge problem is that if you go back into actual human beliefs about magic and religion, they are intrinsically connected. This is very important because it prevents either from becoming arbitrary with reference to the other. The big example of this arbitrariness is found in D&D – any edition you prefer. Arcane magic is completely illogical and absurd. You chant nonsense words and wave your hands (or whatever) and for no apparent reason things happen as a result.
Divine magic in D&D is equally absurd. You do the same as a wizard, but you get slightly different arbitrary results. You’ve got a slightly better justification – it comes from a deity – but even then, the deity doesn’t really impact your life beyond that aside from telling you what weapon it prefers.
This is stupid.
If you look at pretty much every culture, there are generalizations you can make about their view of the supernatural. First of all, none of it is arbitrary. It is embedded in the culture’s mythology and structure and history and values. What D&D calls divine magic is better described as official magic; that is, the magic that people perform who belong to an official state or mainstream cultural religion. Arcane magic, better referred to perhaps as the occult, is simply magic performed by those outside the norm. Put simply, a medieval priest calls on God or Jesus, a medieval peasant might call on local spirits or ancestors or pagan deities, etc.
This has always bothered me about fantasy roleplaying games, and it isn’t even always reflected in fantasy fiction. In the Lord of the Rings, magic is intrinsic to the world. It is a fundamental part of some races or beings, but there is clearly a power present that is drawn upon. Of course, Tolkien was writing before D&D, so he didn’t codify or systematize the way magic works. Post-D&D, almost every author has to do so because that kind of systematization is just in the genre now. Inescapable.
Another example might be Robert Jordan. He’s written that he intentionally left religion in the usual sense out of the setting because there is his own idea of the intrinsic power of Aes Sedai – much like Star Wars, you’re born with a certain sensitivity to it, and it can be trained – its basically a slightly more complicated Force.
Way back, one of the main motivations behind creating Epic was to have a magic system that actually makes sense in reference to the religions and occult practices in the world. Central to this was to come up with a system that covered “arcane” and “divine” magic, and other forms of magic, in a more interesting way.
One of the biggest disappointments of D&D 3.0 and 3.5 was that they basically didn’t touch the magic system, except to make magic items profoundly less interesting. Its just such a stupid system – not only is it absurd compared with ‘real world’ beliefs and practices, but it isn’t even very interesting as a stand-alone system.