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Playing Dice With The Universe

First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Clerics

by Bill Kte'pi
Mar 11,2004

 

Playing Dice With The Universe

First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Clerics

So what we're going to do here, in case you didn't recognize the riff on Einstein's anti-chance protest, is examine religion in roleplaying games: not the Jack Chick tracts, not the 80s talk show episodes about Satanism in D&D, but the ways religions -- both fictional and real-world -- take part in various game settings, and how we can tinker with, improve, or vary those ways. I'm starting with D&D (and similar fantasy games) because I think it's still one of the biggest common denominators, but I have a few dozen ideas in mind for future columns, ranging from superhero games to science fiction to Hunter: the Reckoning.

There's a very simple, very obvious reason why this column exists. I don't mean the proximate cause -- I sent in a pitch that said, "I'd like to do a column on religion in games. Why do attempts to emulate religious communities in Star Wars always suck?" I don't mean the less direct, quasi-personal, "Well, religion is just one of those things I like playing with, the way science fiction writers play with physics, and 'roleplaying religion' would combine all my interests into one little nougaty ball of fun." I mean the ultimate cause: why is "religion in games" a topic there's anything to say about, why am I so sure it's something I'll never run out of topic ideas for?

It's cause I've never gone to church and seen the minister, priest, or pastor cast light, that's why.

I've been to plenty of churches. I've been to Congregational churches -- no cure light wounds. I've been to Pentecostal churches -- no create water. I've been to a gospel church in Boston where not a single person had a bonus to their saving throws, and I've been to Saint Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter but don't have any magic weapons to show for it, much less Kodaks of sticks turning into snakes. And even Jesus never opened up a gate or summoned a monster.

I'm not being flip. What I'm getting at is that the real difference between D&D religion -- just as an example -- and real world religion isn't alignment or tenets or rampant polytheism, it's certainty. No one doubts that Garthas the Flamelord of Whampadoo exists, since the Priests of Whampadoo conjure minor flame elementals every year at the Whampville Fire Festival. No one in the Forgotten Realms can possibly question whether the gods exist, when their Chosen are running all over the place, and their avatars keep tearing the place up.

That's perfectly okay if it's what you want, but it's also a large part of why clerics, paladins, and other religious characters seem to be the ones who are least frequently played well. It's hard to draw on real world models of faith when your character lives in a world where the gods respond instantly and the only proper debate isn't, "Does this god exist?" but "Which god is better?"

It makes you wonder what the gods need priests for. Many people hew to the "gods gain their power from their worshippers, and will 'die' when no one believes in them" school of thought, and again that's fine, but it's too often treated as a default. It's a variant, used in fiction more often than the real world, on the belief that the age of miracles has passed: that there was a time when the supernatural was more active in the world, when miracles were still worked.

I'm not proposing that this difference makes D&D and similar systems "broken"; but I am going to propose an alternative: get rid of the clerics. All of em. Get rid of priest spells. Put the mystery and faith back in religion.

I'm using "cleric" here to mean "priest as a character class, with spell access and/or supernatural abilities, granted or otherwise," because I'm not proposing you eliminate priesthoods themselves from your game. I'm proposing a variant approach, for the sake of a change of pace, particularly if you want the flavor of religion to be different in your campaign. You can go about it a few different ways.


Option 1: No Clerics At All.

Keep whatever deities, religions, and priesthoods you want intact -- but if their workers want to do magic, or anything along those lines, they'll have to take a level of wizard. Although you could then have the churches try to corner the market on wizardry the way the Catholic Church controlled access to education in the Middle Ages (simply through lack of competition rather than design), that's not quite what I have in mind. Keep magic secular. Keep it independent of beliefs and ethos. There's room for a ground-up restructuring of magic along faith-based lines, maybe borrowing some notes from the way the Dark Side works in WOTC's Star Wars game, but let's put that aside for a later column.

Do churches need magic? In the real world, of course, they've done fine without it. But in a world where magic exists (and is viewed as natural and morally neutral) and wizards are no more rare than the PHB presupposes, it seems more than likely that churches would employ wizards, or hoard a certain amount of magical items -- but this needn't be more significant than the fact that real world churches employ plumbers and carpenters, and "hoard" computers and audio equipment.

Depending on the social power of magic in your world, wizards might very well claim their power comes from a deity, or disproves the power of deities (Google up some of the stories of the fights between the Apostle Peter and Simon Magus); charlatans might use legerdemain or magic items to make claims of divine favor; or if it's clear and well-known that the gods don't provide spells, magic may be viewed as demonic, untrustworthy, tainted. Maybe only some magic is: maybe a church the teachings of which value the human (or demihuman) body will oppose healing magics, polymorph, and anything else that alters the body; maybe nature deities object to anything that alters the "state of nature" -- particularly weather- and ecosystem-disrupting spells like fog cloud, lightning bolt, and so forth.

Taking magic away from the priests doesn't mean taking it away from the gods: how much more awe-inspiring and dramatic is divine retribution (like the plagues visited on Egypt) when no one has the divine hook-up? How much more interesting might wars between gods be, when the gods -- and their immortal intermediaries -- are the only ones tossing power around? That hurricane buffeting the shore, that volcano that dumped a dozen tons of lava into the sea, those so-called natural disasters could well be signs of a conflict between the earth god and the sea god.

On the other hand, you may want your gods to keep a lower profile. You may want your world to reflect the real world a little more, with people blaming or crediting one thing or another on the gods, with no real "signature" to prove it.


Option 2: Bizarre Alien Gods.

On the other hand, if you want to emphasize the strange and exotic nature of foreign gods and cultures -- I have Conan in mind here, and pulp fantasy in general, which seems to be making a well-deserved comeback -- then build up a strong social and cultural base for the religion(s) in your setting's "home base" (this is important: if you're giving the magic to the other side, you need to have reasons for the religions of the PCs' homeland to exist. Incorporate them into the government, or family structure, or national identity) and introduce a newly-encountered or rarely seen (nomadic, perhaps) foreign culture with strange and unusual gods -- as strange as the animal-headed Egyptian gods would have seemed to the Greeks, if not moreso -- and equally strange and unusual priests.

Give them, and only them, access to priest spells. Focus particularly on the spells that are markedly different from wizard spells. Change up the level assignments and domains if you want to -- they're NPCs. Play fast and loose with granted powers. Keep the PCs on their toes.

And above all, don't let a PC convert and take a level in Foreign Priest With Cool Powers.


Option 3: NPC Priests.

In the first fantasy campaign I ever took part in -- sometimes running it, sometimes playing in it, because we took turns -- there were never any PC wizards. Somehow it just didn't occur to us; the PCs had plenty of magic items, but actual spellcasting seemed, intuitively, better suited to the NPCs whose inner lives we didn't partake in.

This made for pretty easy deus ex machinas (or whatever the plural of deus is), which was handy in fifth grade. Whenever something went wrong, Merlin came in and fixed it (the campaign was set in Camelot). When something went too right ... well, Merlin became a villain. That was my doing.

This is a variation on option 2, really: the goal is to keep divinely-granted power, and its wielders, in the realm of mystery. Don't do what I did in fifth grade, though: don't have such characters use their powers arbitrarily. Give them motivations that aren't fully explained by mortal concerns; incorporate prophecy, perhaps, and look at Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin for two very different but very popular examples of how prophecy can fuel motivation.


Option 4: Equal Access, For a Price.

With this option, we're still ditching clerics and their special access to divine power: but in lieu of that, make your gods "listen in" a little to mortal prayers and concerns, giving everyone a chance -- if the wind is right, if the god is in the mood -- to seek divine aid.

Forget spells. Forget attempting a specific game mechanic for this, for that matter. Simply establish that "sometimes the gods help the faithful."

That warrior who offers a battle prayer before joining the fray, and had previously made an offering of an enchanted sword to the god's temple -- maybe he gets a +2 to all his rolls for this combat. Not next time, not the time after that, but this time, maybe.

That drowning man praying to the water goddess, promising all sorts of things if she'll spare his life, maybe he manages to get safely to shore -- and if he doesn't deliver on those promises, he may feel a growing compulsion to be near water, one that could lead to him sleepwalking right off the end of the pier.

This requires careful DMing. Do not treat it as a points system, with prayers as trading stamps that can be saved up for favors. The gods are arbitrary; they're whimsical; they're biased; they're unfair; they're unknowable. You can use it to get a PC out of a fix if you need to, but make sure NPCs benefit sometimes, too -- and don't hesitate to "tax" the PC with an adventure hook, if you do let the god help them out.

("Well, it turns out the god of thieves smiled upon you, and despite your dropping the plates on the stone floor, the guards haven't woken up. But one of the plates seems to have concealed something -- a map, maybe? -- with the god's sigil upon it. Some long-lost treasure sacred to his temple, maybe. He might not keep smiling upon you if you don't take the hint.")

Remember that we want to preserve mystery here, so the parenthetical example is about as far as you'd want to go in making the "presence of the god" obvious. Gods should work in coincidence as often as possible (the map seems to have been in the plate, rather than appearing out of nowhere).

(Thanks to Kethet, by the way, who suggested "God Plays Dice With The Universe" as a column title when I came up blank.)

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