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.


  1. 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.

    See, this is why I totally dig clerics, especially as a player. Direct line into the DM's setting & culture. Plus the afore-mentioned kickassitude. But I'm strange.

  2. One of my biggest issues is that the clergy, being the most learned men in the land, are a great source for Magic-Users.

    Sounds about right:

    "Morgan le Fay was put to school in a nunnery, and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy"
    Mallory, Morte d'Arthur

  3. Clerics can be quite frustrating. In my opinion, as a DM, they are really the one class that frustrates me the most n terms of making challenging adventures, especially for low levels, mainly because of all the damn bonus spells they get. I've always found them to be fairly unbalanced as a class in the early editions, but for some reason or another, most people don't want to play them. I guess its because of the ties to having to claim their character as a worshipper of this god or that goddess, whatever appropriate to the setting.

    The way I tend to run them, is by not granting them spells when their character has not been roleplaying the priestly aspect of the class. Its not just about running around performing cure light wounds every few minutes. Most people that play clerics don't try and rp the character of a priest (trying to comfort others through faith, convert non-believers, etc.) If a player doesn't play this up in one of my games, he just might find himself unable to get that Bless spell off when he really needs it.

    Anyway, I think you've got a great method to work them into your game.

  4. I think the reason most players are hesitant to play clerics (who have the ability to make even magic up'd fighters feel down right inadequate) is that they are so closely tied to a subject matter we've been trained to keep out of the public sphere — religion.

    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?
    I would prefer the idea of actively allowing God into every facet of life. His very presence brings blessings. It is His absence which brings curses. Nonetheless, this is an excellent way to understand the role of a cleric (especially in a world like Wessex).

    I was particularly disappointed that you had excluded the cleric when you first started down the path of a Surfeit of Lampreys, because I see the cleric fitting quite nicely in to this type of campaign. I'm very pleased to see that you have changed your mind...

  5. I've written elsewhere about how I make my clerics only have a chance for miracles to be granted. Because I agree, the reliable bifurcated magic, you mention, never worked for me.

    One thing I really like about clerics is that they are the easiest way for a player to become a creative collaborator with me the DM. I don't come to the game table with a world fully formed. "What kind of god do you want to worship? Hmm, that's interesting I can imagine competing cults, there should probably be these rituals . . ." etc.

  6. Aw, hell, I'm at work and can't read this now. CRAP!

  7. Sorry, the reason I never want to play Clerics has nothing to do with religion, or social ties, or whatever.

    It is because Cleric's exist primarily to generate healing, and every spell or action you take in combat that's not healing is resented. To test my theory, next combat have the cleric blow all their spells on combat effects, and tell the party there is no healing magic left.

    4E changed this, and Pathfinder has made a few changes, but in older editions of D&D this is the solemn truth, so help me Deities & Demigods!

  8. Jeff, I can't recommend to you highly enough The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe, by Stephen Wilson.

  9. I've been mucking about with clerics in an effort to make them a more appealing player choice. My problem with the cleric is that regardless of how attractive a class it might be mechanically, thematically the default cleric is a crusades-era Christian priest bashing people with a mace, with a setting-appropriate deity substituted for Christ. Boring.
    My current thinking is to recast the cleric as essentially a mystic warrior - a fighter with magic powers. Here's how:

    - Relax the weapon restrictions, basically to "anything that doesn't steal the fighter's schtick".

    - Apply the Wu Jen taboo rules from Oriental Adventures to clerics.

    The cleric's powers might come from a god or spirits, or from inner discipline and mental strength, or from an attunement to universal principles, or whatever. To represent this, the player picks a number of taboos - "cannot shed blood", "cannot light a fire", "cannot cut one's hair", or anything the player can come up with that meets DM approval. The taboos may be self-imposed, or they might be commandments from god, or ritualistic requirements. If the player violates one of these taboos, they lose their spell-casting ability until they have properly atoned.

    Not only does this allow clerics to represent a wider range of character archetypes, it ensures a certain degree of spirituality from clerics during play. The cleric character is set apart from the other classes by their need to observe these supernatural restrictions. At the same time, beyond those concrete observances they're free to develop their character as they like, without worrying about some woolly idea of how their god would want them to act.

  10. My current thinking is to recast the cleric as essentially a mystic warrior - a fighter with magic powers.

    I've been thinking along similar lines for the B/X campaign I want to run, and I like your idea of taboos both constraining and deepening the class.

    As I'm imagining the setting, clerics are like paladins: divinely-empowered warriors on a mission to hunt down and eradicate Chaos. They venture into dungeons in order to exorcise them.

  11. My beef with clerics is so complex and indefinable that I've been writing and erasing this response for like ten minutes now.

    Is it because the idea of worshiping someone or something makes less sense to me, as an individual, than FTL travel, monster ecologies and magic spookums do? Is it because I don't like religions of any kind and that carries over into the self-gratifying realms of my fantasy life? Is it because I'm too lazy to read GURPS Religion?

    Man, I need to think about this...

  12. When I'm not DMing, I'm always the cleric, though by choice more so than necessity.

    Then again, I cut my teeth on Type IV D&D, where Clerics are a little more powerful/balanced. Either that, or my tendency to play agnostic clerics, always being forsaken for their wishy-washiness.

    Also, DIY D&D stuff

  13. I think the Cleric is hands down the best class for B/X D&D at low levels. Keep in mind the classes don't level up at the same rate. At 3,000 xp you get these levels and average hit points:
    Cleric 3 ~ 12hp
    Dwarf 2 ~ 10hp
    Elf 1 ~ 4hp (ouch)
    Fighter 2 ~ 10hp
    Halfling 2 ~ 8hp
    Magic-User 2 ~ 6hp
    Thief 3 ~ 9hp

    The Cleric could have an additional 2d6+2 (on average +10 more) hit points via Cure Light Wounds.

    Not to mention the excellent AC, the roleplaying hooks, versatility with spells, magic items and turning undead.

    I'm happy to play the Cleric. :)

  14. @Stuart: My players don't really think in those terms, though. They don't look at the rules and decide which class will give them the greatest game benefits. They look at the descriptions of the classes and pick one they think will make a cool/fun character to play (I run AD&D, for context).
    I don't think the weakness of the cleric has ever lain in the rules, but in the flavour. If my players are encouraged to think of the cleric as not only a battle-priest, but potentially an oriental mystic, an Obi-Wan type, an ancient witch, a cabalistic commander of spirits, or similarly varied characters, and if the rules actively support that interpretation at least a litle bit so it doesn't feel tacked on, then I think the cleric will quickly change from the least to the most popular class in my group. I'll see, once we start the next campaign.

  15. I have to agree with StephenWarble that there is an expectation that the first, last, and every other action be to heal the party. This is great if you're a fighter and want to go melee longer, for example, but playing the cleric can be rather frustrating. The metagame resentment that builds when it doesn't happen can tear apart groups. One solution for this that I have considered is that clerics (and sometimes magic users) have their choice of spells for the day. However, a given spell can only be used once, so when you heal the fighter with CLW, that's it. No more healing unless you have a higher level healing spell.

    I also suspect that there is a fault in the general religious order of game worlds, in that there are 10 or 20 or more different gods and goddesses, and one is expected to represent one of them. This means that clerics can be somewhat pigeonholed by their faith, and that the faith does not seem relevant to other characters. I have never played in a game where non-clerics had any professed religion at all without being forced to it.

    I think treating these various gods as members of unified pantheons would be more productive. Bob Cleric is no longer a priest of, say, Thor, but of the Nordic pantheon and it's values. Other characters might be more willing to get religion if it just means following a few general principles, and thus buy in to the cleric. You could also induce them with bonuses to upholding their religion, say +1 to saving throws. By generalizing the religion and encouraging buy-in from other players, it may make the cleric seem like less of an odd-ball choice.

  16. The problem I always had with clerics is that the party seemed to expect them to focus on healing them up after a fight, so that was where they had to put their spell levels instead of into other things that may have been more interesting.

    I'd be interested in playing a cleric of a war god, who has no healing spells at all, or maybe a cleric of a death god who is focused on easing the journey of the soul from the grave to it's eternal resting place and thus sees healing as running counter to his religion.

    I'm sure there are other examples of non-standard clerics that could be run to avoid the necessity of playing the party doctor.

  17. I look forward to your future writings on the matter.

    I've been struggling with them in my setting as well, so it's good to read up on what others (like FrDave) have done.

  18. I've always felt the best intro to the OD&D cleric is to read Gregory of Tour's "History of the Franks." It's a great introduction not only to "Dark Ages" life but also to the way clergy were viewed in that time... miracles were rife, clerics were very in-your-face, and there were even some who wore armor and wielded maces!

  19. BiffTheYounger11:43 AM

    Personally, I consider 80's era Runequest to be a RPG that specialized in clerics. If one was looking for ideas about how to integrate polytheistic clerics into a campaign, one might look there

  20. I spent a year playing a cleric in a friend's campaign, and found he kind of ended up playing a lot of roles related to the infrastructure of our adventuring band.

    I handled last rites and inheritance, I kept the party's general purpose slush fund, and I was the Human Resources guy for our hirelings. I also tended to end up as what passed for our party's diplomat, since I had a non-negative charisma bonus (not a positive one either, mind you) and wasn't demonstrably insane.

    In short, I seemed to end up as a cleric in terms of the other definition of the word, a.k.a. clerical. And it worked for me. I wasn't really a spotlight guy, but I'd like to think I was one of the lynch pins of the party's structure. It was a fun role to play.

    P.S. Apropos to nothin', 'cept the kind folksy angle I used for The Deacon (he was largely structured after Wellman's Silver John character) my captcha word is crambno, as in "froggy went a courtin' he did ride, c-c-c-c-crambno"

    Sorry, it's late and I'm nonsensical. Can't be helped.

  21. Anonymous8:13 AM

    I know I mind sound a bit like the lunatic fringe-leftist-anarch-marxist I am, but the reason the warrior chaste first and nation states later kept clergy around (and put bishops and priors in place for a big chunk of the middle ages) and shared some of their power with them is to control the poor, unwashed, non-empowered masses and teach them that if they're obedient and accept their place in this life, it's better for them. And not just in Christian Europe.

    So, yes, not only clerics in D&D are completely disjointed from what clergy was, but also are a kluge of a character class, with some MU-like spellcasting that bears no link on whether they are pious or they follow their religion at all: there are no rules for adherence to religion and faith, so most times this really rich aspect of the game and human societies is completely ignored.

    So, yeah, I'm getting rid of clerics (as mentioned on Plus), but introduce cults. Will post on it this September.

  22. tsojcanth, I don't really disagree with your Marxist criticism of the function of the medieval church. I'm not saying all the priests will be goody-goodies in the name of Christ or anything like that. I just need a stand-in for the very real authority they hold over people's lives. And in a game where magic is already a given, allowing clerics their traditional game powers seems like the path of least resistance.