Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Who's Your Deity?

Over at RPG Blog II, Zachary Houghton is pondering clerics. In this case, it's less the age-old cognitive dissonance we've all experienced, where the pseudo-christian cleric mashes up against the pseudo-pagan, polytheistic worlds we game in. Instead, the cleric seems not medieval Catholic enough for Mr. Houghton, which is an interesting perspective on the problem.

It seems to me that it's just the other side of the same coin, however. Pretty much all the other character classes come ready to play right out of the box. The thief needs stuff to steal, the fighter needs things to kill and weapons and armor to do it with, and the magic-user needs spells. All of these can be found in the box.

But the cleric needs a god, and those don't always come in the box. Even when they do, it's rarely more than a list of powers or approved spells and equipment. It isn't enough. It's not what we expect when we're talking about religion.

Part of that is the modern perspective. We assume religion is a personal thing, a one-on-one relationship between worshiper and deity. This was not always the case. In the city-states of the Bronze Age, religion was a civic matter, and worship was a duty you owed your community, just like paying taxes and jury duty. It certainly wasn't a matter of personal choice, and thinking that you could have personal relationship with a god, like Odysseus or Perseus, was the height of hubris. Besides, most folks who ended up in personal relationships with the gods usually came to regret it.

The assumption in D&D tends to be more of the modern, personal relationship model that most of us who grew up in the West are familiar with. The cleric loses access to spells and powers if that individual deviates from the deity's dictates and interests, not if the god's favorite city gets sacked or the priests at the holiest of temples stop making sacrifices. The cleric is often expected to proselytize and bring more worshipers to their deity. Zeus didn't need folks wandering in barbarian lands spreading his word, and he didn't get his nose bent out of shape if you worshiped other gods, just so long as you kept the sacrifices and adulation coming. The Romans even made sacrifices to “the Unknown God” just to be sure they didn't offend some deity they'd never heard of due to ignorance.

But if you're expected to adhere to a set of divine strictures and spread the word of your god's greatness, you kinda need to know what those strictures are and what makes your god so great. The vague guidelines provided by the rules typically result in goody-two-shoes characters who make vague pronouncements on those rare occasions when they can address a crowd and must be conveniently facing the other way when the party decides they have to do something that the cleric's god disapproves of. (Or, even more bizarrely, tree-hugging, vegan druids who will starve the wolf's cubs by saving cute little lambs.)

It's traditionally been the campaign settings that have filled in the gaps, with varying levels of success (Planescape has probably provided the most fun with this idea). Frankly, if I had the power to remake D&D, I'd probably dump the cleric class entirely, give anyone and everyone the opportunity to earn powers from the various deities based on their level of service to said divinity, and moving healing powers to rangers, elves, and sage-type characters.

Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and William Shakespeare Burton


Erin Palette said...

Or you could do like I did with Pellatarrum, and dispense with gods entirely. Have them worship Energy and elemental planes instead!

/tooting my own horn

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered why they bother with a Cleric class to begin with. With the duties they have, where would they find the time, much less permission, to go wandering off all over creation. I've yet to have a player even want to play a cleric in my C&S campaign because of that very reason.
Even religious fighter types like the Paladin aren't likely to be free to do whatever they want.
Actually, I wonder if the whole character class concept might be passe.

Maroon said...

For what they can do, 'cleric' is a bit of a misnomer for the class. It's perfectly possible to imagine a layman miracle worker, or an ordained priest without any magic powers.

I'm currently enamored with Tekumel's way of handling priesthood and magic (as gleaned from Dave Morris' Tirikelu RPG, since I'm not that familiar with Tekumel yet): there is very little correlation between gods and magic, since magic is just another skill to be learned (if you have the required psychic ability), BUT the main bodies of magical learning and teaching are the temples. There are ordained priests without any magic ability and lay priests that are powerful sorcerers, however, since not every priest can work magic and not every psychic applicant is inner circle material.

Which suits me just fine, since I've always found the idea that religious fervor alone makes your hands glow a bit odd.

Zachary Houghton said...

Thanks for the link!

I should explain a bit about my campaign world. It is intensely monotheistic (with a bit of legacy polytheism around the fringes), with the main religion closest to an admittedly idealized (though not perfect) analogue of the Roman Catholic church in the early Middle Ages. As such, there is a definite hierarchy at play, which is where my ideas such as the Friar come in. It may be worth noting it is much for the same reason I don’t care for the Monk, as “Monk” brings up a much more occidental or western image and archetype

I think it is as much an issue with the feel and power level of the class as it is with the literary influences of my campaign. In my game, the default D&D-ized cleric doesn’t match the role of the common brothers and sisters of the church. For higher echelons, honestly, I’m ok with the Paladin, as there are holy crusaders and church knights, but that sort of makes the cleric redundant in filling that role.

Talysman said...

I've been considering dumping clerics, too. My possible solution: give everyone aligned with Law a prayer ability based off the Turn Undead ability that can also be used for miracles (cleric spells, with spell level equivalent to undead hit dice.) Probably add piety rules, too.

trollsmyth said...

Erin I need to get over there and comment, but your Pellatarrum rocks on toast. Awesome setting, and it "explains" a lot of D&D's default assumptions very nicely.

Underminer: Legend says the cleric was first created to counter the powers of Sir Fang, a vampire PC running roughshod over the games Mr. Gygax and company.

As for being free to do what they want, it really depends on the religion. In my current LL game, the priests of Lergan are primarily tasked with keeping the dead in Tartarus and the living out of Tartarus. Since the dead are allowed to cross over on the autumnal equinox, they spend a lot of time during the next few moons rounding up the strays and sending them back. Clerics of Uban can be found poking in ancient ruins as they seek to preserve the knowledge of times past. Clerics and Aratshi and Shkeen are in the van of any hunt for fugitives of justice, bandits, and pirates. But again, none of these bear much resemblance to the traditional pseudo-Catholic cleric of the Magical Platinum Jesus Dragon. ;)

Maroon: Yeah, I've always ruled that the powers come directly from the god or from the gods servants and divine underlings. It's not fervor that makes a cleric's hands all glowy, but being plugged into a hierarchy, which can make their lives hell, what with the usual office politics and paperwork. ;)

Zachary: My pleasure! I'll always link to stuff that's cool and makes me think. Honestly, there's so much good stuff out nowadays, I could never hope to link to all of it.

Talysman: Interesting... I could definitely see that fitting some game settings much more neatly than the standard cleric. Thanks for sharing.

Chris said...

Frankly, if I had the power to remake D&D, I'd probably dump the cleric class entirely, give anyone and everyone the opportunity to earn powers from the various deities based on their level of service to said divinity, and moving healing powers to rangers, elves, and sage-type characters.

So, kinda Runequest-ish then? That'd work. It would also remove the 'revolving door of death' at mid/high levels, making the game more evocative of traditional fantasy heroic sacrifices.

I kind of fumbled in the Bronze Age/Tekumel polytheism direction with my Nagoh pantheon. Didn't do enough with them to make the cleric less nonsencuscal though.

Zzarchov said...

That type of view is very much how I run Priests in Piecemeal. Its not about what you believe, its about what you do for your god. Build temples, give sacrifices, smite those who he doesn't like. Converting is one possible avenue, but certainly not mandatory.

Any EVERYONE can summon miracles, its just harder if you don't know the right way to beg for your gods attention.


Nick Crayon said...

It's nice to know that there's a reason why the cleric seems a bit unusual. I know that D&D takes modern assumptions and pretends people always felt that way, and I understand why they did it. But, as you pointed out, when you take something as ingrained in everyday medieval culture as the "cleric" and modern it up, it seems really, really odd.

squidman said...

First of all, this is a great entry.
I've noticed the problem of how religion is treated in RPG's long ago and tried to change the rather flat perspective provided by handbooks to a more complicated one.

I hate how game designers try to put deities into simple pigeonholes and categories. God1 - war, god2 - fertility. In real polytheistic religions the character and role of a single god was much more sophisticated than that. A good example could be Ishtar, who among many other roles, was a goddess of fertility, sex, war and magic, even though there were other gods in the same pantheon having very similar roles.

As to game play, I think that the cleric is a useful class and that it's weakness doesn't come from the mechanics but the way it is played and used by both DMs and PCs. An example of such abuse would be a situation in which a cleric laughs at deities other than his own or even openly defies temples of other gods. In my games, the players, upon choosing the class, are expected to worship and treat all gods with respect and fulfill the rites of their own god in a very specific manner. I think that the cleric class being a rather powerful one (compared to the limitations of wizards) should be balanced by a role playing burden and responsibility.

online pharmacy said...

Sacrifices to a unknown deity? is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my whole life.