Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Worldbuilding – the Clerical Solution, Part I

[First, a tender message: dear Blogger, I never asked for a new interface. I was a happy client with the previous one. F*** you. Now, with all formalities done. Lets proceed.]

Reading again some of my previous entries about creating/altering settings, you may have noticed that I’m quite a (anti)cleric fanatic. Well, I do like very much playing with the cosmological aspects of settings. And I do have some problems with certain common assumptions behind the cleric class; mainly because it brings up a lot of “baggage” with it – usually that there’re real and objective deities, that they give power to spellcasters that follow their ethos and that they intervene directly in the campaign world. Ok, it’s possible to remove some of these traits – Eberron did that admirably – but it does require some work.

I was thinking about writing this essay there’s a long time, but it was some of my late reading – A magic of twilight – that gave me the final spark to actually write it.

It’s that old conundrum – clerics are based on the militaristic monk orders of the medieval Catholic Church (guys like the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights). They fit better (and made a lot of sense) within a world where a monolithically and unified religion exists and hold control over a vast region. Using them as a general template for a “priest class” – and as followers of a host of “pagan” and polytheist religious systems – doesn’t fit nicely; generating a lot of what I call “niche overlap”. 

Let’s have a closer look on those issues.

First you have the basic matter that clerics are based on monk-warrior or crusaders organized in regimented orders and armies. Please note the “warrior” bit. Clerics fight and use heavy weapons and armors (ok, in Pathfinder that’s “medium”, not “heavy” armor, but they’re armored warrior nonetheless). A lot of classical deities (and some fictional ones too) don’t fit with that suit of abilities. Divine spellcasters of a war god are ok I guess, but “clerics” of a god of wisdom, peace or fertility definitely don’t. The same is true for a deity of shadows and deceit, or a deity of magic (this besides the fact that these two are probably the main sources of “niche overlapping” that I know).

This leads to our second issue – the “niche overlap” part. This is specific to class-based systems, like D&D/Pathfinder. Basically the problem here is that a cleric of “a god of shadows and secrets” looks like and works a lot like a rogue; while a cleric serving a deity of magic feels a lot like a wizard (sometimes better). This creates an overlap with those respective classes, weakening them. I once played with a rogue in a Forgotten Realms adventure that was worse in general stealth and thievery than the party’s cleric of Mask (the god of shadows and thieves). And I maximized his skills, but the cleric – using his maximized skills and divine spells – was a lot better than me. In other words, “niche overlap” sucks (one reason why I hate the Inquisitor class, but let’s leave that for another post).

The rules for clerical Domains used in the current incarnation of the rules actually diminished (just a little) the impact of “niche overlap” – prestige classes for specific deities are the ones responsible for the greater damage in this regard. In AD&D 2nd, the blame was on the various (and progressively overpower) “specialist priests” kits. If you can still get your hands on the famous Faiths & Avatars books (also for Forgotten Realms) you’ll see how many its priests were a lot better than the respective classes represented by their deities.

Well, how to deal with those issues? (That is, if they’re issues for you in the first place.)

I’ll elaborate on some suggestions in the next posts; basically, on more organic (or logical) ways of integrating the cleric class in the pseudo-polytheist worlds proposed by D&D/Pathfinder.  I’ll give you a few examples about how to use clerics as they’re originally inserted in the game – not as Sword & Sorcery priests or cultists, but as Catholic monk-crusaders (it’s here that A magic of twilight may help a bit). Secondly, I’ll do just the opposite – how to implement a more faithful (no pun intended) “pagan” paradigm on D&D/Pathfinder and if the cleric can survive this cosmological redesign. During this brainstorm I’ll probably suggest some setting templates to be used in your campaigns. Hope you enjoy the trip.

Well, before ending this post, here’s a “quick and dirty” way of keeping the cleric class, but evading the “niche overlap” problem.

  • Use only “Axial Domains”. Yeah, it’s radical, but it strengths the cleric’s function as servants of the quintessential forces of the Multiverse (besides harkening back to the works of Anderson and Moorcock, two authors that clearly inspired lots of things in D&D). So, by this house rule, clerics in your campaign would be able to pick only the Law, Chaos, Good and Evil Domains. And what about “Neutral” clerics? Forget it, they’re Druids (or Shamans, from Kobold Quarterly #21… more on this later). Of course, you could have some exceptions – perhaps clerics of the god of the dead are neutral and have access to the Dead Domain; or clerics of a particular nice good goddess getting the Healing domain. It’s your call.
  • As you can see, by removing the full portfolio of Domains, you limit your pantheon to more iconic (and usually active) deities, leaving “esoteric”, weird (and probably false) gods to the other classes – like the gods of magic, thieves, slimes and halflings. “Clerics” of these deities are usually character of other classes (like wizards) that attempt to serve their deities through pacts with it servants or personal boons. (In fact, I’m adamantly against true divine spellcaster for a god of magic.)
  • The fact that both clerics and paladins are “martial” classes can be seen as a problem. The concept overlap gets even murkier if you add the Knight class (from the Player’s Handbook II) or the Cavalier (from the Advanced Player’s Guide). One interesting suggestion that I read on the blogsphere was simply to remove clerics and use only paladins. I did the opposite in my 7th Moon campaign – I basically removed paladins and kept cavaliers.
  • Another suggestion: If you want to keep paladins, change their affiliation. Instead of following Lawful and/or Good deities and being a “holy knight” template, make them followers of a philosophical system, a race (the champions of Man!), celestials (a cool idea, each paladin has his personal angel) or maybe even dragons (that’s my favorite, simply because it makes a lot of sense to see paladins as champions of Gold and Silver dragons).

Hope to end Part II still this week.

See ya!