Monday, May 14, 2012

Worldbuilding – the Clerical Solution, Part III

In the first article I gave some ideas for keeping clerics in their original class niche, thus avoiding the occasional “spotlight-stealing” that occurs when a cleric of a war god kick more ass than the party’s fighter or when a cleric of the shadow god is more sneaky than the group’s rogue. In the second article I attempted to return the cleric to its original setting role – of the armed monk-crusader, linked to a original (or even monotheist) Church, battling the words of Chaos and paganism. Now I’ll try to do the reverse: let’s call it polytheist pantheism (and no, I don’t know if this sounds absurd).

I’ll try to create a polytheist pantheist setting (or model for your present campaign setting). By this expression I mean a world where there is one (or more) pantheon(s) of very human-like (and monstrous) active deities, all meddling in the various spheres of the natural and human world. Here the divine manifest itself in everything. Every river, city, road, object and even idea is considered to have its own spirit, anima or just to be a reflection of the divine world above (or below). The polytheist bit is about the various gods, the pantheist part is about the “everything is holy/godly/derived from a god”. Please, note that I’m trying not make this just an animist setting, although this model can work fine for some cultures/races of the world if you like.

In this setting the gods behave very close to our idea of Roman/Greek and Nordic deities. They’re bigger than life, quarrelsome, curious, vindictive and archetypically imperfect. You can add any polytheist religion to this bag, even the deva of Indian myths (whom, by already have anything in life, can’t reach enlightenment and thus ascend).

The first consequence of this setting template is that the role of the cleric – an exclusive intermediary between gods and men – loses his purpose. So, no clerics (but I’ll talk more about this later). The cultural/social role of the cleric is fulfilled by most inhabitants of the world. For example, before eating, a family sacrifices a little food to thank the gods of the earth (and maybe other sacrifices to keep the deities of famine and disease away). Religion is not only part of everyday social life, but is also something inherently to the state (or realm).

Because everything is divine (or perhaps animistic), when a plague hits a village, the first reaction is to placate one or more deities (or to petition the help of a patron god). Cities have patron deities, so do nations.

In each village there’re many “priestly” roles. Some are very specifics – the blacksmith may be the only one to make rituals and sacrifices to the god of fire (or the forge) –; others are institutional – the elected prince or mayor is also always a “priest” of the god of civilization (or the god of the heavens, or the god of law etc.).

Many such roles require specific requirements – perhaps only mother can petition the goddess of healing and abundance or only a virgin can petition the gods of the woods. By establishing this taboos and social requirements you can create adventures and enrich your setting.

Now, stuff that is really important to your game.

In a truly polytheist setting, because all gifts and everything comes from the gods, only a fool (or mad) denies the divine. Such character are almost always extremely unlucky or directly and obvious cursed (maybe they’re hideous, or polymorphed into monsters etc., it all depends of the level of magic of your setting). You can simulate this in your campaign by making such character immune to resurrection magic or by creating (or reskinning) races as divine-cursed beings. For example: maybe orcs in your campaign are the offspring of the first mortals who challenged the gods; now they’re a race of outcasts, banished to the Underworld and serving those Things That Were Here Before The Gods (demons, chthonic deities, Cthulhoid creatures… your choice).

Time for the fun part (I hope).

In this setting it’s very probable that the entire party is made either of priests of a particular god or of champions of one or two deities. After all they’re heroes in the Hellenic sense of the word – persons above the common man. Remember, Fighters aren’t simply Warriors, they’re exceptionally gifted or trained combatants. Most Fighters henceforth must pay lots of respect (and sacrifice, i.e. treasure) to the gods of battle, valor and physical might. While traveling through cities and villages, your Fighter will probably be asked to lead rituals at the local temple (or altar) of the god of war.

The idea above is valid for the other classes as well.

Gods of secrets or assassination are served mostly by Rogues, while gods of esoteric and knowledge may have Wizards. These classes’ powers and abilities become here “divine gifts and secrets”, revealed only to the initiated and faithful. This doesn’t mean that a forsaken or unfaithful character will lose his class traits if his patron god is angry with him – he’ll probably get a curse, a quest or just be teleported to the middle of a forest or cave full of monster. All options are great sources of adventures.

Right. So, by now we have a party of hopefully gods-fearing player characters (or a bunch of mad cursed bastards). They also are probably complaining that the gods are always interfering with their lives without giving them “anything” in return (yeah, ungrateful mortals…). Well, if that is the case, you can really make a polytheist setting unique by allowing your players to buy one (or two at maximum) Cleric Domains through feats. The PC must have a sufficient high Wisdom score and the feat allows him to act almost like a cleric – when he reaches the necessary level to cast a particular Domain spell, he can use it, once per day. If the PC misbehaves or offends his patron god, he loses access to these spells (I believe Fantasy Craft does something almost like this).

As you can see, it’s easy to use this idea with the Fighter, Rogue and Wizard classes. Other classes require a little more thought.

Barbarians can be god-possessed or god-touched warriors, the fighting equivalent of oracles (and maybe their guardians). You can give them a better name, like zealots/berserkers/dervishes etc. Rangers are probably champions of woodland deities or famous monster-slayers – practically paladins in status, as they acquire much of that later class fame in these types of settings. Sorcerers are really the offspring of a god, while Oracles are… well… oracles (like the famous and often-quoted Apollo oracle of Delphos). In fact, Oracles have great chances of being the most feared and respected class in this setting. Wizards are those mortals that studies forbidden things, known only to the gods and thus are the most common subjects of curses, exile and such (unless they have a patron deity – or demon – protecting their skin). Bards can be the “legal” wizards, member of mystery cults and thus “authorized” by the reigning divine order. In fact, you can make Bards work as wizard-hunters if the idea appeases you (the Magus is also a good candidate). Alchemists can be reskinned as natural philosophers or mad sages (especially if change their alchemical bomb ability for something else).

Moving on… Summoners can be servants of weird and unknown deities, whom send their “angels” or servants to add these spellcasters. Perhaps each Summoner has a secret agenda with its master. Cavaliers can be noble fighters and leaders of cities and armies (perhaps renamed here Cataphracts or Charioteers). Witches are the easiest to use – they’re the official servants of deities of magic; perhaps you can even limit Witches to females-only, thus creating a setting where every male wizard is hunted (almost like Wheel of Time). Another option is to make Witches (and warlocks) the priest of the older religions, subsumed and conquered by the present pantheon – perhaps from a time where elves and gnomes, but not humans and dwarves, ruled.

Monks can be ascetics devoted to strange philosophies (idem for Psionics, if you use them).

The problem (for me) are the Paladin and Inquisitor classes.

Because of their strong Catholic/monotheist components, I suggest simply removing the Paladin and the Inquisitor. However, if your players are really relaxed about religion at your table, you can use Christian paladins serving the Angel Hosts and hunting the world of signals of the lost (or self-exiled) Creator. Paladins would be outcasts in this setting; living saints in a world where polytheist still holds total control. A less radical approach is to change Paladins in “divine champions”, almost like Sorcerers. Paladins are the sons and daughters of gods of light, order and civilization (like Heracles); they’re born, not chosen.

Finally, we’re left with Clerics and Druids. The first idea is simply to discard them. On the other hand, if a player really likes those classes, you can accommodate them in a polytheist world through some reskinning.

Druids (let’s call them shamans) can be animists – servants of lesser spirits and local numina. They’re seen by Oracles as “lesser priests” and are the targets of prejudice. However, they may know “the Truth” – that the present deities are themselves just old spirits that managed to reach higher level of powers (maybe through worship or sacrifices). Maybe Druids live at the borders of the “civilized” (divine) world and thus are the ones responsible for occasionally toppling civilizations and societies, enthroning new pantheons.

Finally, the Cleric. In a world where practically everyone is a priest now, the Clerics as based on monk-warriors of Medieval Europe are not a good fit anymore. Think of them here as almost an European equivalent of the Japanese sohei. They’re the fanatic warriors, the mad mystics that devote themselves to one and just one deity (whom would be so crazy?!). Each Mystic (our reskinned Cleric) belongs to an order strongly associated with an Alignment and a god. Their magic comes from esoteric mediations and weird disciplines. The various mystic orders are always fighting and competing against each other. They hate each other, especially orders with a different Alignment but following the same deity. A mystic walk in the civilized world openly displaying his order symbol and holy weapons. Because they’re fanatics devoted to the reigning pantheon, most rulers and princes must suffer their presence (yes, even of evil Mystics, although good Mystics are equally a pain in the ***). Mystics are not evangelists and preachers. The idea of “converting” someone to their god is alien to this society. What each Mystic seek is to destroy the other orders.

My last advice is to avoid removing class features for breaking a god’s ethos (even from Clerics and Druids, if you use them). Actually, you must place a list of sins or ethos for your PCs to obey, prefer a list of objective taboos and strange practices. Avoid moral obligations. And remember that instead of removing a character’s powers, you can instead curse him or send him in some wild quest – deities in this setting are very close and personal and it’s not “unrealistic” for gods to meddle so often with a PC’s life.