Thursday, August 04, 2011

a mental journey

I've long been annoyed by the cleric class.  Their level titles suggest the medieval church hierarchy and many of their key spells are based upon the miracles of the Bible.  There things don't fit into vaguely pseudo-Hyborean or gonzo far future science-fantasy settings, which is where I tend to run a lot of my games.  And theologically I've never been cool with the fact that the miraculous powers of clerics were so dang reliable.  In my world miracles and reproducible results seem to be the opposite of each other.

And then there's the issue that most players I've met only agree to run a cleric, they don't really want to run one.  Everybody acknowledges the need to incorporate some healing and undead turning into the party, but ofttimes playing a cleric seems to be more about taking one for the team to a lot of people.  This despite the fact that an easy argument can be made that the cleric is a totally kickass class in many editions.  You can stomp around in the heaviest armor you want, your hitdice, to-hits and weaponry choices are a close second to the fighter types, you get some darn useful spells and on top of it you can tell the undead to sod off.

At some point I decided to kick clerics to the curb.  I've been just as down on thieves at times, but nothing about them seemed to undermine the cultural or spiritual integrity of my campaigns, so they've remained.  A running gag at the game store is that I hate clerics.  That's not really true.  I dislike dealing with the campaign implications of the cleric as written when trying to run a campaign where the gods may or may not exist.  And I don't like that magic is forever bifurcated in D&D.

Then I started in with this Wessex setting, where the medieval Catholic church is a factor and not some half-assed Crystal Dragon knock-off.  Sure, I have a little wiggle-room with half the map being Celtic and I can always exaggerate the differences of the Usage of Sarum for effect, but that doesn't change the overall issue that in my latest campaign the capital-C Church should be a big effin' deal.

The problem is that the Church's power is primarily cultural.  And players, being the bastards we all love, either ignore or gleefully flaunt such power.  Players only understand things like cultural constraints when you use game mechanics to beat them over the head with them.  If you want regular type players, the kind who who show up to games to roll dice and kill things, to respect something like a church then you have to give the church some power they can fear.  One of the few in-game consequences players anticipate is retribution.

One idea I had was to up the number of kickass Templars in England well beyond what one would expect so soon after the founding of that (in)famous order.  Bunches of burly swordsmen all answerable to the Pope would do the trick, but that also seemed crude.  Then I got another idea.  Lately I've been doing a bit of reading to try and get a peasant's-eye view of the period.  My two key texts in this endeavor are Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley and Fief by Lisa J. Steele. The latter is aimed specifically at gamers and is published by S. John Ross's Cumberland Games & Diversions. Get the PDF here or the Lulu print version here.

These two texts have really changed my thinking on the relationship between man and church in the middle ages.  To wit, the primary job of the real medieval cleric was that old Confucian goal: proper ritual observance.  Are the dead properly mourned?  The fields blessed before harvest?  The sins of the community properly confessed and absolved?  Have we crossed all the i's and dotted all the t's so that God doesn't get mad at us and sends us blessings rather than curses?  These things are a distant second: showing compassion to the flock, teaching theology, converting the rare non-believer.  Clerics are in the business of the manufacture and distribution of Holiness, the universal mana of Claude Levi-Strauss.  At least I think it was Levi-Strauss.  Maybe I'm thinking of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

So I've completely turned around on clerics as written, at least within the context of this particular setting.  The cleric as Miracle Technician actually seems to map pretty well onto the Catholic priest of the period in question.  And the magical powers of the class give the Church something that ordinary players want on their side, so they will be less likely to wantonly mess with this pillar of medieval society.  Not that I'm against the players breaking anything in the campaign they want.  I just like it when such actions have interesting consequences.  Anyway, I'm still trying to figure out what the return of the cleric means for future Wessex gaming.  One of my biggest issues is that the clergy, being the most learned men in the land, are a great source for Magic-Users.