Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hack & Slash's S&S Manifesto (Part III)

Part I and II, motivated by this post on Hack & Slash.

With our Warriors (and maybe even Rogues) properly “energized” and our Arcane caster duly ostracized, it is time to deal with the true black sheep of Sword & Sorcery RPGs: Clerics or divine spellcasters in general.  That is, if you want to use divine spellcasters in the first place, because many believe that they just don’t work with S&S. If you think so, then maybe this post may be of help (here and here). Otherwise, in the spirit of -C’s manifesto, I’ve some ideas for our devout casters.

Pulp S&S Religion!

You’re playing a follower of Otherworldly Entities, Ancient Powers, Primordial Ones. You’re a heathen, a pagan, an unorthodox priest, a true initiated, a mystic. Within this proposal, most “priests” and their respective “official” religions in the campaign setting should be controlled by lay members and hollow rituals. You however do the real stuff. You commune with the cosmos’ true rulers and they’re hard, vain and demanding (even the good ones, actually especially the good ones). True Powers are strange, terrifying and too unpractical to be followed by the normal peasants, merchants or princes. Most people prefer “tamed” religions (i.e. false ones).

You are then an initiated, a “shaman” deep in the rituals, mysteries and trances used to align oneself with an Otherworldly Power and his inhuman servants. This doesn’t mean necessarily Cthulhu-stuff. Far from it. Go read the Old Testament. Even angels (the epitome of Law and Good) can be scary and alien. You don’t even want me to get started on the Chaos side of things.

You’re not a Medieval Cleric, you’re a Priest of Mitra (or Set)

As I said, Gods are all about power, vanity, ritual and unfathomable ends. What your Cleric or Paladin thinks/believes in his conscience doesn’t matter, what matters is how he behaves and does things. Forget Monotheism’s (or Buddhist’s etc.) “inner” morality and picture a Roman/Greek/Ancient World mindset on your priesthoods. Ritual is more important than conscience. Yes, that means you can play a Paladin that is a complete bastard, but good luck on trying to cheat your Patron and poor soul if He/She/It finds out.

Clerics, Paladins and other divine-granted spellcasters MUST wear their sacred vestments, use holy symbols in a proper manner and employ weapons/paraphernalia/symbols/colors dedicated to their Patrons. There is no such thing as a “disguised” Cleric or one casting spells in “civilian” clothes or without his “symbols of office”. Appearances – it must be stressed – matters, intentions do not. And forget that idea that “true faith conquers all”. Balderash! However, that doesn’t mean that anyone can be a divine spellcaster: the “tools” (vestments, symbols etc.) are just a part of it; knowledge and initiation are required.

Rituals and taboos are then of utmost importance. They must be either weird or demanding on the priest. If your Patron’s symbol is something as simple as a sword and his sacred color is red, you better respect swords and red things. Expect dire curses if you so much as break a common sword (even from enemy’s sword) or kill a red creature (red dragons will give you a real headaches… and I hope your Gamemaster’s hobgoblins aren’t red skinned).

Gods don’t reward success, they punish (merciless) failure

Be an ass when roleplaying a Cleric’s Patron. Send dreams with annoying demands and fanatical quests. Do it regularly. Do not think logical or reasonably. Think by symbols and associations, not ends. Forget logic.

If the Cleric (Paladin, Druid whatever) screw things up, don’t remove his class features at once – remove a few key spells (whose absence will hurt him most), curse him, make greater demands, send an outsider to torment him, take away his magic item etc.

Furthermore, routinely choose some of the divine spellcaster’s spells for him (roughly 30% or even 50% if the PC isn’t acting properly in the Patron’s interests). After all, they’re divine-granted. The mortals don’t get to choose. The Patron may also have different ideas/agendas – He/She/It may prefer more righteous might unleashed and not all those pitiful healing or teleport spells that his mortal servant seem to care so much.

You’re your Patron’s avatar (almost), not just a mortal man

Use the old magic rule of sympathy. Your divine spellcaster is, in some aspects, the earthly reflection of his Otherworldly Patron.

For example: if you’re a servant of a god of war and wolves, then you’re naturally (even if unconsciously) attracted to zones of war and violence; you also probably love red meat and enjoys wilderness (besides hating acting alone). If you’re a paragon servant you may even get the occasional help of your Patron’s minions (wolves in this case). Following this idea to its opposite, tranquility and peace annoys you and you may even be incapable of healing (and most certainly of recovering your 1st and 2nd level spells, see below) inside temples of peace or serenity.


Because divine spellcasters are the rare, the few mortals initiated and capable of communing with the Otherworldly, that means that they’re the perfect targets of corruption. Think about it: why spend time and power corrupting a normal peasant when you can get a full priest, the genuine article, ready to unleash curses and (un)holly power on the world.

This means that divine spellcasters are the first choice of every Power in the arena when it comes to enlisting new servants, seducing power-hungry mortals or just corrupting that holier-than-thou cleric of Mitra.

But changing sides doesn’t come for free. Things like medusas, ghouls, vampires and other stuff came from clerics/paladins that betrayed their powers (oh, and they were the lucky ones… Patrons don’t usually give cool powers to these traitors).

There is no such thing as a free spell

Let’s recover (sort of) that old Gygaxian rule:

1st and 2nd level spells are the basic mysteries. You can prepare them with trances, mystic secrets and holy paraphernalia (and that includes holy books/inscriptions, Clerics need this thing too).

3rd and 4th level spells also require communing with your Patron’s servants. This usually can be done with special herbs, drugs and trances… if done inside a hallowed (unhallowed) temple. And only there. Temples become a very important point of political control for true priests. If “temple-less”, you can try to summon one of your Patron’s servants (see below).

5th-6th level spells require that you somehow summon and deal directly with your Patron’s servants. Each time. You have to summon a Deva if you want that raise dead, pal. No pain, no gain. That’s easier inside a temple or holy place (dedicated to your religion of course), although a “properly aligned place” (like a battlefield for a war deity) will suffice. Otherwise you the risk of offending the outsider.

7th+ level spells are the real deal, the true hard stuff. You need to call the Boss. Either through a special – unique – holy place or through relics (that’s divine artifacts; and yes, that’s the Ring of Set-level of artifact we’re talking about… good luck).

As you can see, this last requirement means that probably most high-ups on clerical hierarchies are constantly at each other’s throat, always hunting for and protecting powerful relics. And that’s exactly the favor I’m striving for.

These are just some basic suggestions to make things harder for divine spellcasters (actually, the word here is “interesting”). The idea is the same employed with arcanists – to give liberty and more flexibility to Warriors and Rogues, and to make the life of spellcasters weird, bizarre or just plain cursed. If your players want to play with Primordial Fire, let them play, but make sure they pay the Price.


  1. I love your post, I think I'l be printing this, it's almost exactly what i had in mind for my setting and it fleshes it out really well.
    Oh and I used to tinker with rules about vices and virtues for characters, but it did'nt really fit the S&S vibe, but your interpretation of priest having to BEHAVE like they should is perfect (decorum, taboos, rituals). In S&S, actions speak louder than words or thoughts, end of story.
    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks Jean for the kind words! I'm very satisfited that this approach changes (basicaly) just the divine spellcasters' flavor.