Friday, November 19, 2010

Divine Classes and Cosmological Considerations

Allow me to rant a little. See, I’m a great fan of adventures that revolve around hard choices and tough decisions that always cost something for the heroes. For me those are things like conflicting loyalties, dubious allies, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, characters with second (and secret) motivations… stuff like that. The components of a good drama.

The problem?

I’m also a great D&D and Pathfinder fan, games that many believe to be the antithesis to most of the aspects listed above. Some blame the alignment system, others certain divination spells. And there those that point to the origins of the game as a proof of its incompatibility with such intrigue-rich scenarios.

Well, I don’t buy it.

First, you just have to see beyond Good x Evil as a source for conflicts. Even without a full-fledged setting, a traditional d20 game (like Pathfinder) gives you – right at the Core Rulebook – a ton of factions and divergent groups, all ready to start plotting and performing some skullduggery. The Good/Evil axis is just one of many: we have races, religions and – always forgotten – classes! Please note that I didn’t even mentioned the old Law x Chaos cliché. There are also d20 settings full of intrigue and some of the dramatic elements mentioned above.

As my first example, take a look at classic computer games like Baldur’s Gate II and Torment, where the main hero is always forced to deal (or even ally) with the “other side”. We’re not talking here of corruption or any “temptation of the Dark Side”, but of necessary alliances and – again – tough choices with dramatic consequences. Some may even remember the AD&D 2nd product trilogy Jakandor (of the Odyssey line), where we had two rival cultures totally divorced from the Good/Evil axis (and both accessible to player characters). The classic Gazetteer series for the Known World setting (a.k.a. Mystara) for OD&D also presented plenty of realms and cultures with opposite values, most without even touching on the alignment subject.

In the last years, two campaign settings caught my attention by creating some truly unique and intelligent sources for conflict and intrigue adventures.

The setting of Valus, released by the small press Different Worlds Publications, introduces us to a world born of divine strife and disdain, where a pantheon of petty siblings squabbles constantly for power, without any sympathy or care for their mortal worshippers. The rich mythology of the setting, along with a more realistic and medieval world, generates a lot of situations where alignment lines are crossed due to nationality, religion and race. Of course, Valus is a gritty setting, with mature themes like racism and sex are common.

Let’s take a look at a more “traditional” setting.

The Scarred Lands setting from Sword & Sorcery Studios, launched soon after the D&D 3rd, had an elaborate cosmology involving a recent struggle between titans and gods. In one side we had the divine races, followers of the gods; in the other site the titanspawn, servants of the imprisoned titans. The catch was that, while the later were usually more primitive and aggressive, they were not necessarily evil and destructive. Actually many of the divine races were a lot worse: slavers, zealots or merciless conquerors. This duality created – again, totally outside the alignment system – an excellent hook for all kind of stories, especially if the party has member of both factions (yes, it was possible, another good point for this outstanding setting).

Well, I talked more than I meant. This article is supposed to be about divine classes of Pathfinder and world-building.

When writing a new setting the question of whatever using or not using the cleric class is always my first point of consideration. After all, clerics imply all kind of cosmological assumptions: there’s a real divine source of power and, probably, a higher order of beings capable of influencing the material realm. Who are these beings? Are they really gods? Or just powerful spirits? Why do they require worship? Etc.

As you can see, I have a preference for complex and factious scenarios and I believe that classes are a good starting point. Specially divine classes (in the other words: cleric, druid, paladin, spellcasting ranger, oracle and inquisitor).

For a more “pure” Sword & Sorcery world, I would probably remove the cleric. One crazy idea was to take all clerical domains and convert them to feats, accessible only to “initiates” of the various cults and temples. That way, you could have the classical evil sorcerer servant of the Serpent God, with access to the Evil and Death domains (two feats). But let’s leave that idea for another day.

What I’m really seeking here is a setting where all official divine classes of Pathfinder are allowed and represent different holy (or unholy) traditions in a very complex war for the control of the Material Plane. I don’t want them to be necessary hostile to each other, but also not open friend, at best uncertain allies (in very specific situations). I want conflict and tension. Drama.

Ok, I’ll start with the oracle class from the Advanced Player’s Guide. I REALY like the feel of this class. It has a S&S or Odyssey-like vibe. They are scary and mysterious, “blessed” by strange divine forces. I’ll make oracles the servants of the Old Gods, the first divine order of the world. Ancient and inscrutable beings, more placated and feared than worshipped. They are powerful, but also distant, spending most of their forces and attention in the Outer Planes. They rarely pay note to the affairs of mortals (for which these are thankful). Their interventions are rare but potent (or better, cataclysmic), usually around old relics, artifacts and sacred places. Think about the Abrahamic god of the Old Testament, the old chthonic gods of Greece, and about the early Middle-eastern deities. Oracles don’t follow a specific deity, which made them perfect for this elevated and uncaring pantheon. The oracles are divided by temple, not deity.

The clerics in this proposed setting are the divine agents of the Ascendants. These gods represent heroes, champion, sages and legendary creatures who achieved divine status during the last age of the world (think about all the heroes and monsters of classical Greek myth, for examples). The Ascendants are a lot more “humane” and fathomable, but also are very ambitious and passionate beings, who hated to be denied. They are the “new kids on the block” and possess many of characteristics, flaws and extravagances of Greek, Germanic and Celtic gods. Their main goal is to the reach the vast sources of power in the Outer Planes, but these paths are closed and guarded by the Old Gods and their chthonic servants. Because of that Ascendants seek mortal support (through worship), artifacts and places of power in the Material Plane. Ascendants live in far realms and mythic locations of the Material Plane and are a lot more present than the old pantheon.

Oracles and clerics don’t get along too well, in part because the Ascendants clearly desire to supplant the Old Gods. Neutral and good Ascendants are more tolerant, as are oracles from temples of such alignments. Tolerant oracles have an almost fatherly attitude toward clerics of like-minded Ascendants.

Now druids. Usually druids are servants of old, barbaric and Celtic-like pantheons. Let’s change that. I’m thinking about making my druids the followers of a new pantheon. They’re the result of an  invading divine force from Outer Planes. Druids are the priests of this alien pantheon of elemental and primordial creatures, more natural forces than rational entities. Druids don’t care about morals or philosophies. All their want is to increase the influence of elemental god they serve.

Finally we are left with paladins and inquisitor. I don’t like very much of inquisitors, the class is just too powerful and versatile for my tastes*. But paladins are a classic element of D&D/Pathfinder. For my home setting I’ll steal an idea from Valus that I love: paladins don’t follow gods but celestials. Each paladin is directly sworn to a planetar, solar or more powerful angel. This create a closer bond between this holy champions and their “deities”. Also this explains with paladins have such number of “Christian knight” trappings.

*But if I must: I would make all inquisitor members of an unique divine order (maybe divided by alignments?) who seek to keep outsider influences out of the Material Plane. That include any spirit or extraplanar creatures servants of any deity. And that ALSO includes manifested Ascendants. If these younger gods want something, they must use their clerics. Whom the inquisitor work for? Maybe the Creator himself (a thesis deem heretical by other religions?). Maybe not even the inquisitor know from where their power come from. That could be a dark secret (imagine if the inquisitor are actually pawns of Archdevils?).