Reality. Miracles. Infinity. Ascension. Welcome back, Outlander, for Part 2 of my series on D&D 5e Plot Hooks from the Western Esoteric and Occult traditions, how they shaped Dungeons & Dragons (particularly D&D 5e) over time, and how Dungeon Masters, worldbuilders, and D&D players can incorporate Occult themes. This week we kick down the door straight through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and Early Modern Period. Let’s talk about Gnosticism, Thaumaturgy, Kabbalah, Cunning Folk, and Theosophy!
Reminder: don’t forget to click on the “+” sign to expand the Plot Hooks sections.
Tip: monsters and lore from the 5e Monster Manual bear a “1”, from Volo’s Guide to Monsters bear a “2”, and from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes bear a “3”.
PART ONE: Therianthropy, the Old Norse Magickal Tradition, Apotropaic Magick, Hermeticism, Alchemy.
PART TWO: Gnosticism, Thaumaturgy, Kabbalah, Cunning Folk, Theosophy.
PART THREE: Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Ceremonial Magick, Luciferianism, Anthroposophy.
PART FOUR: Thelema, Reconstructionist Neo-Paganism, Wicca, New Age Spirituality, Chaos Magick.
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
#1. GNOSTICISM: ENERGY OF ENLIGHTENMENT
PERIOD: Classical & Late Antiquity; Renaissance.
SOURCES: 1) The Syrian-Egyptian current (Abrahamic monism; Jewish Gnosticism, Christian Gnosticism. 2) The Persian current (dualistic Zoroastrian; Manicheanism, Mandaeanism). 3) Also: Jewish mysticism, early Christianity, Middle Platonism.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: Salvation and awakening. The light of logic versus the darkness of ignorance. Inner knowledge and intuition, hidden and transcendental. These hallmark themes of “Gnosticism” developed one of the most influential Esoteric tendencies, emphasizing the Spirit Realm versus the Material and Psychic Realms. Above faith, Gnosticism approaches salvation through an active pursuit of “hidden wisdom”. Ignorance? The ultimate sin.
So what do Gnostics specifically believe? In the Spirit Realm, the True God (“Monad“), the Supreme Being, Light, and Consciousness, literally emanated lower beings of light called “Aeons” into existence. Depending on the variety, these emanations formed as sonships, as numbers and sounds, or male and female pairs functioning as Platonic Ideals (“Noumena“). This created the “Pleroma“, the Realm of Light. Gnostic cosmology claims that flaws of divine lineage, the faults of the “Demiurge“, or the Aeon Sophia emanating alone, caused the Material and Psychic Realms to arise.
The Demiurge, the False God, existing outside the Realm of Light, thought itself alone and supreme, creating servants, called “Archons“. It created the whole Material Realm (called “Kenoma“), with humanity in the image of its own flaw. And the Demiurge traps elements of the Pleroma stolen from Sophia inside certain human bodies: Divine Sparks, hiding the truth from humanity. But humanity holds the urge to find the Pleroma, where we belong.
In the radical Gnostic view, humans mistakenly perceive the False God, the Creator God, as the Supreme God, trapping humanity in ignorance and damnation. But through true personal experience or perception practices like asceticism, logic, and intuition, humans can overcome the alienation and corruption of the false realms of mind and matter. This entails awakening to hidden knowledge of spiritual truth: achieving Gnosis. It entails liberating the Divine Sparks (Sophia), and eventually reaching the divine realm: the Pleroma.
Gnostics hold that only some humans have Divine Sparks within them, with a three-part hierarchy of possibility. At bottom, the “Somatics“: animalistic humans trapped in the earthly and the flesh, unable to reach enlightenment or salvation. In middle, the “Psychics“: soulful humans perceiving “hypostasis“, the inner reality and emanation of the True God. At top, the “Pneumatics“: spiritualist humans perceiving the transcendent knowledge of the Divine Spark and Sophia. The True God emanates Aeons as saviors to help humans reach enlightenment and deliverance, offering sacraments called “salvific mysteries”.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: Surprisingly lacking. Sounds like an opportunity!
1. Solipsistic Slaughter. A rider from the West bears a dire warning of a horrid entity wreaking devastation upon the surrounding kingdoms. A writhing orb that descends, destroying any it sees, before floating back to the skies. The only survivor of an attack, himself half turned to stone, has warned the entity believes itself a Perfect Being, and has set about to bring forth oblivion, to wipe away the “world of falsehood”. In its madness, it believes all other lifeforms as “Automatons”, incapable of knowledge or pain. The party recalls once hearing a legend like this: that of the Beholder1. Above, one cloud darkens…
2. Aeon Ascetics. A newer order of Elven Monks called the Aeon Ascetics have recruited large numbers of the city’s poor lately. They teach minimalism and meditation, and chide the doctrine of the ruling order, “the Bastion”, as deception. Rumor has it the Aeon Ascetics have also begun teaching their followers to read and write, and that they no longer pray. As the party happens to pass near the Monastery, they see the Bastion’s Paladin Guard approach its entrance. With torches in hand, and swords drawn. Will the party take a side?
3. The Voice. People have begun to hear the Voice. The Voice tells them that this world is FALSE, an illusion concocted to shackle them. Lies, everywhere. The Voice has lived since the Beginning and seen the Truth: the “Gods” of this world are Alien. They will fall. The realm of mind is Ignorance, the realm of matter is Restriction. Only the Spirit is true, only the Voice is Wise, and the Voice will show them the Way. The Voice says, all one must do is drink from the pool of Sacrament to begin rejecting the Corruption. Once this Falsehood finds its Reckoning, ALL souls can join with the Limitless. Now the party hears the Voice too. The Voice of the Aboleth1. The Voice has listened to them, so patiently; will they, too, listen to the Voice?
4. Timeless Transcendence. The party has recovered the private tome of an Elven Lich1 who has claimed to find Enlightenment, and Apotheosis beyond the Gods. The pages possess Esoteric warnings against the “trap” of existence. They suggest that no sacrifice of body or mind goes too far in the pursuit of spiritual salvation. It reads: “given enough time, transcendence becomes inevitable“. But those years will have to come from somewhere. The party closes the book, but behind them: cackling laughter…
5. Gaslit Guidance. The party awakens in a dimly-lit cave to a Gnomish Wizard, Pratylbat, claiming to have dispelled an enchantment upon them. As their shadows flicker on the cave walls, he admonishes them to further “wake up!”, though they feel as alert as ever. He warns that the grip of the “Demiurge” is upon them, if only they would realize it and wake up. Pratylbat hands the party a gas-lit lantern, and points deeper into the cave. Will they go?
#2. THAUMATURGY: MIRACLE & MACHINE
PERIOD: Late Antiquity; Renaissance.
SOURCES: Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Thaumaturgy”, meaning “miracle-work” or “wonder working“, refers to practical magick for the material world. Whereas Theurgy aims to change the self, Thaumaturgy aims to change the world. This can include such “folk magic” as “love potions“, but more often implies the saintly miracles in Christianity, Divine Intervention in Islam, Practical Kabbalah in Judaism, and spiritual powers of meditation in Buddhism.
Thaumaturgy in Europe also had a second interesting aspect. How did the lowly peasants first interpret the mechanical contraptions of inventors? As magical devices. Automata by means of string or spring, pulley or piston, levers, or compressed air, became “the Devil’s work”.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: the 5e cantrip Thaumaturgy; the Wish spell and Cleric Divine Intervention; 5e Gnomish contraptions; the 3.5 Prestige Class Thaumaturgist.
1. Thaumaturgical Terror. An Elven courier has brought foreboding news that a neighboring Wizard’s Thaumaturgy cantrip has gone horribly awry. The note claims his voice booms, cacophonous. Nearby lights shine a scintillating and prismatic blaze. The ground at his very feet trembles terrifyingly as unseen thunder cracks in rapidfire succession, and windows and doors burst off their hinges. In his eyes gleams the visage of Fraz-Urb’Luu3, demon lord illusionist. And he has sent his invitation to the party…
2. Hot Rahd. Riketa Rahd, a Gnomish tinkerer, has simply gone too far this time with her chariot experiments. Distressed Dwarves have informed the party that her latest contraption’s pistons belch forth fire, its screeching levers and wheels moving on their own accord as it coughs forth plumes of harsh smoke. They cry aloud, “is this the ruinous Hellfire Engine3 of the Pit?!?!” Only the party has courage enough to check…
3. Candelabra Cadaver. The solemn party has just found their seats for the recently deceased Captain of the Watch’s funeral. The Dragonborn Sorcerer conducting the ceremony, attempting to light the candles with arcane energy, accidentally awakens the candelabra with Animate Objects instead. The curtains soon catch fire as the candles fall upon them. The crowd panics. Suddenly, the Captain’s animated armor rises from the casket, whirling, pulling the body onto the flames, saving the townsfolk one last time. Tears of joy. But the armor continues spinning faster, recklessly…will the party bring its final rest?
4. Sculpture & Scripture. As the Orcs approach, the party gathers with the Cleric and his wife, Yrena, in the Temple, where they must make their stand. There Yrena, a sculptor, reveals her magnum opus: an imposing clay statue. The Cleric’s eyes widen as he pulls the scrollpaper from his robe, placing it on the figure’s forehead. The Clay Golem1 wakes, and the party now has a fighting chance…
5. Pride & Prejudice. A Tiefling Paladin has traveled to the small town of Norburrough, offering alms and aid to those living in squalor. The party guides over an old Matron, and the Paladin offers her Lay on Hands to cure her Sight Rot. The elder’s eyesight restored, she gives her thanks, and the Paladin nods. But as she bends her head, a few onlookers notice her horns. “Devilry!“, they point and shout. A mob begins to grab stones and beat the Tiefling bloody. But she simply takes each blow, silent and still. Will the party act?
#3. KABBALAH: DIVINITY & DESIGN
PERIOD: High Middle Ages; Renaissance.
SOURCES: Torah & Talmud; Heichalot; Sefer Yetzirah; Bahir; Sefer Raziel HaMalakh; Zohar; Pardes Rimonim; Etz Hayim; later Renaissance Christian Kabbalah & Hermetic Qabalah.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Kabbalah” refers to an Esoteric method and tendency originating from Jewish mysticism. It examines the relation between the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the mortal. Adherents believe in a hierarchical chain of being linking all things to G-d through emanations of G-d’s light. Their mystical motif of the Tree of Life or Ten Sephirot (Levels of Creation) reflect ten emanations, attributes, and ethics of G-d sustaining the universe, and the ten ranks of angelic choir. Kabbalah can entail the practice of Numerology, and a notion of a multi-part soul.
Kabbalah bears a dual understanding of G-d as the absolute, transcendent, unknowable Divine, versus G-d as a revealed persona in manifestation relating to humanity. It posits the capacity of G-d to transcend apparent binaries, such as masculine and feminine, compassionate and judgmental, or creator and creation. Why does evil exist? It answers: because G-d poured infinite light into the void, and the ensuing chaos shattered the Sephirot vessels. This initiated a sequence of Divine Light and primordial exile, but the possibility of rectification.
What do Kabbalists seek? For the Theosophical tradition of Theoretical Kabbalah: to understand and describe the divine realm. For the Magico-Theurgical tradition of Practical Kabbalah: to alter the Divine and Material Realms. And for the Ecstatic tradition of Meditative Kabbalah: mystical union with G-d.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: 3e’s angelic cosmology.
1. Ancient Algorithm. The most wizened sages of Metzaras have discovered the True Name the King kept hidden. Its product tallied through the Ancient Algorithm, this name portends a time of great corruption. The King has since declared these sages as treasoners, and locked them away deep in the palace dungeon. Other critics have begun to disappear too. Perhaps a jailbreak is in order…
2. Ascendant Alteration. Rumor has it the Theurgic Mage Yehir has unlocked a means to alter the Prime Material Plane, to an extent thus far unknown and unforseeable. But the Magistrate has grown suspicious, and sends the party to investigate. As they approach, a radiant light pours through the Temple windows, pulsing as the beat of a heart. Nearby matter appears to spontaneously reassemble itself. What lays within?
3. Divine Dictum. The party has discovered a hidden cipher for a sacred tome that suggests a means of restoring the Vessels of Shelhanar. If they can locate the remains of these hallowed artifacts, perhaps the promise of divine reunion approaches. But a Planetar1 has taken notice, its booming voice foretells to the party that matters may not be so simple…
4. Pilgrim’s Path. The party has arrived in a town where rival sects have recently fallen into a bitter dispute on the proper rank and order of angels. Each accuses the other of heresy. A violent feud has since developed, tearing families apart and pitting neighbors against one another. The party recalls having passed an Aasimar pilgrim on the road who bore an elaborate tattoo of divine taxonomy. Perhaps she can help settle the matter? But that means following her, all the way up Mount Extinction…
5. O Holy Light. One morning, amidst the market square the party has gone to, a Messiah-figure rises and reveals a prophecy. A promise to usher in “era of Infinite Illumination“. The mystic declares that following an eclipse, the immortal light of divinity—boundless and perfect—shall erupt forth from the True God and banish all wickedness. Skeptics laugh and mock. But the skies begin to darken, and the morning moon, to cover…
#4. CUNNING FOLK: HEDGEWITCHES & HEXBREAKERS
PERIOD: Late Middle Ages.
SOURCES: The Discoverie of Witchcraft.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Cunning Folk” refers to a collection of diverse European folk traditions of “wise folk” and “white witches“, freelance folk healers and oracles. They would act as seers, as midwives and matchmakers, as hedgewitches, hexbreakers, and hunters of missing persons. Cunning Folk use charms, divination, and wortcunning professionally, emphasizing protection against the “black magic” of curses. Folk magick includes both oral culture and grimoires. The Scots Magickal Tradition includes the “Cantrip“, a magical spell or trick read aloud as a mnemonic palindrome chant, as well as spellstones. The Gaelic Magickal Tradition includes Geas (a magical duty) and Shillellagh (a cudgel with associated folklore).
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: Druidcraft; the Abjuration & Divination Schools of Magic; Orbs; some Ranger tracking; Warlock & Wizard tomes; the Mage Hand spell; Cantrips; 5e’s Geas & Shillelagh.
1. Band of Bugbears. A local Halfling Wise Woman has revealed to the party that through her crystal ball she scries the movements and positions of a warband of Bugbears1 approaching the town under cover of dense forest. If the party can make it through the thicket in time, perhaps they can repel these attackers before more children go missing…
2. Hex & Hedge. A fell Cleric has cursed one of the party members’ NPC allies with Bestow Curse. Despite some time, the hex has not ceased. Perhaps the hedgewitch Asilya can offer a Remove Curse before the fever worsens, provided the party can locate her woodland hut…
3. Geas & Grell. The wounded Druid Soren Woadsprog has compelled a PC via Geas to undertake a journey to the Amber Hills, sacred lands that the Grell1 abominations now infest. If the party can bring back the bounty of brain and beak, Woadsprog promises to reveal the secret passage they’ve sought…
4. Seer & Seafang. The Seer‘s vision has located the missing sons of Turiam, their fishing raft crashed upon the coastal rocks. Quickly, the party must roam beyond the cove and rescue these youth before High Tide, when Seafang, a predatory Plesiosaurus1, stalks the shoreline’s waters. The party departs but her directions prove hazy…time slips by…and was it not she who first told these sons their route?
5. Family Feud. The menacing Warlock Skarlu has inflicted a malediction upon the local Village Elder. His senses seem muddled and marred. Urgently, the hexbreaker Oren, a renowned Gnomish abjurer, offers to aid the party in striking down Skarlu before he can finish fleeing for a fortress. The foul fortress of Oren’s forsaken father…
#5. THEOSOPHY: ANCIENT RACES & ASTRAL REALMS
PERIOD: Renaissance; Modern Era.
SOURCES: Johannes Arboreus’ Theosophia; Jakob Bohme’s The Threefold Life of Man, The Six Theosophical Points, and The Six Mystical Points; Helena Blavatsky’s Investigating the Powers in Man.
REAL-WORLD ABOUT: “Theosophy” concerns itself with direct enlightenment (called “Gnosis“) from presumed mysteries. What questions does it grapple with? The origin and purpose of life and the cosmos. The nature of existence and divinity. How to reach enlightenment through hidden knowledge, salvation through ancient wisdom. It promotes “Universal Brotherhood” without prejudice, and emphasizes Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science. And? It also focuses on “the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychic powers latent in man.”
Theosophy refers to two contrasting tendencies: one of Christian Gnosticism, and one of Syncretic Gnosticism, influenced by Hinduism. Bohme’s Theosophy included heretical Christian views and a Neoplatonist Alchemical system of the planets, Greek humors, and elemental associations. Blavatsky’s Theosophical cosmology includes the emanationism from Gnosticism, but also adds “metempsychosis“, a doctrine of karma, reincarnation, and past lives. It also adds an “Akashic Record“: all world knowledge stored in the Æther. Their cosmology also speaks of “Seven Root Races” and “Lost Continents“, including a cyclical progression of Polarians, Hyperboreans, Lemurians, Atlanteans, Aryans, Manuans, and Pushkarans. Some other Theosophy concepts, per Faivre, include: the “Divine/Human/Nature Triangle“, the “Primacy of the Mythic“, and “Access to Supreme Worlds“. These concepts all reveal themes of mind, myth, and metaphysics.
A final concept from Theosophy, that of “Secret Chiefs“, proposed the existence of a “Great Brotherhood of Light“. This spiritual organization, supposedly comprised of “Ascended Masters” who have transcended to immortality, watches over the Earth and through contact can guide Theosophists.
HOW IT IMPACTED D&D: Ethereal & Astral Planes; DDO’s Past Life Feats; D&D’s Civilized Races.
1. Gith Gnosis. The party has just decoded a cryptic pamphlet disclosing the existence of the Sha’Sal Khou3, the secret society of Githyanki and Githzerai working for the reunification of all Gith. The tract introduces this “Astral Alliance” against the remnant Illithid1 slavers, mentioning a “Metempsychotic Migration” that will supposedly end the Gith Civil War. Suddenly, a hypnotic message enters the party’s minds: “we who have felled Flayers, sailed spiritual seas, request that you combine with us against our mutual foe…or else perish.”
2. Akashic Accident. The “Taosefi Temple”, a renowned cloister of mages and Monks, has invited the party to see the proof. They’ve finally achieved Astral Projection to the Innermost Ripple of the Astral Plane, wherein they glanced upon the “Akashic Record“, a compendium of all conscious and unconscious events of the past, present, and future. The voyagers quickly returned from this haunted realm, as the ghosts of memories best left forgotten dwell there, endlessly in wait. However, the cloister Magus Xochitl did see but one single page: the arrival of the soul-rending Astral Dreadnought3. Worryingly, she now detects an impossible ectoplasmic trail…leading right back to the Taosefi Temple. Right where the party stands…
3. Æthereal Exchange. The spectral firelight flickers as the drums’ cadence continues. Each beat presses deeper and deeper in its rhythm. The drums’ pulses pound at the shells surrounding the initiates’ hearts until they burst open, spilling forth a ghostly glow both sacred and sublime. The breathtaking voices of the Æther Vanguard echo forth from the incorporeal aurora, so rapturous in their revelation the party holds motionless, awestruck, as the messenger materializes. The Planar Ally’s arrival implies a gift of guidance. But at what price?
4. Misbehaving Mork. What began as a harmless hobby of collecting shells has developed into a habit of greed for a Halfling child of the Stormshire Coast. The family informs the party that the misbehaving Mork found a knack for stealing the family raft too. He disappeared last week after his hair grew increasingly disheveled and his eyes dream-glazed, his speech hypnotic and his grip acidic. They presume he’s made it to the Ancestors’ Island. The nutters around town speculate that his latent powers and persona suggest he’s the reincarnation of a malevolent Morkoth2. If true, the flooded tunnel chambers promise a dread hoard. And a darker hazards…
5. Brawn & Brain. Oracles have long predicted the return of the Sunken Continent Mneumenor, land of ancient genius and technological arcanum without parallel. At the port, the party witnesses anguished sailors docking, who cry out that the fog-shrouded forcefield to the North has finally vanished, and an island emerged. Through the ship’s crystal lens they saw a massive disembodied brain command an army of wretched figures, all pounding tools in unison, sometimes dying on the spot. The party recognizes this image as the Elderbrain2 their Lorebook spoke of. Troubled, they recall that if the sailors got close enough to see the entity, that means it likely infiltrated their minds too. The sailors, calm now, have all begun grabbing ropes…in unison…
Well folks, that’s the second set of five Esoteric & Occult traditions down, for all you DM’s, worldbuilders, and D&D players. Feel free to share the article if you liked it, and I appreciate feedback in the comments. Stay tuned for parts three and four. Next Tuesday I’ll cover Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Ceremonial Magick, Luciferianism, and Anthroposophy. In the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. And if you’d just like to stay up-to-date on posts, there’s also a new newsletter sign-up at the bottom here. And thank you to my first Patron on Patreon: Rudy! Much appreciated, Rudy.