Clerics, Gods, and Magic

12 Sep

For most of its history Dungeons & Dragons has been a pantheistic world where the gods of many societies exist and vie for influence.  Books like Deities & Demigods encouraged this melting-pot and the progressive codification of the Outer Planes describing where different gods lived drove home the idea that a disjointed collection of cosmic beings was the de facto norm for the game world.

We like having lots of gods in our game worlds.  We like capricious gods, jealous gods, protective gods, warrior gods, nature gods, and evil gods.  This appeal can be seen everywhere from actual human religions to those of fantasy.  Even many monotheistic religions appeal to this with saints, angels, and demons who fill similar cosmological roles as the demigods of pantheistic religions.  There is something in human nature that finds it easier to identify with lots of individuals who have their own personalities and proclivities.  Maybe it’s simply that it offers better opportunities for storytelling.

This is a fine situation for world building and works great for just about every character concept, except the one it should be most important to; the cleric.  Clerics are the instruments of divine will upon the world, holy warriors who wield mystical powers gained through prayer.  This is reflected in their level titles (remember those?) which for Basic D&D are Acolyte, Adept, and Priest/Priestess for levels one through three respectively.  I’ve said before that the cleric is the class least easily identified with in fantasy literature, but in a universe where gods directly intervene in mortal affairs the presence of empowered followers doing their will makes sense.  For many cultures this is the sole basis of magic.

In a pantheistic society there is usually an understanding that all the deities have a role to play and should be respected, or at least placated.  A proper cleric should be the spokesperson for their pantheon, but while we like having multiple gods it’s hard for us to conceive of a holy warrior who represents an entire group instead of a single patron.  Maybe this comes from the same appeal we have for pantheons in the first place, the desire to link a single personality to an ideal.  Maybe it is because most of us come from a real world society dominated by monotheistic religions whose core tenants forbid the patronage of other deities.

Whatever the reason, it’s far more likely that you’ll find someone playing a “cleric of Thor” or “priestess of Ishtar” than a “weapon of the Gods of the Isles”.  Again, where world building is concerned, this isn’t a problem.

Where it does cause issues is in dealing with clerical magic.  Why would a god of darkness grant his cleric the Light spell?  Why would a goddess of pain grant her servants healing spells?  The spell list for clerics is wider than the scope of a single god.

There are a few solutions to this theological problem.*

1) Ignore it and just play the game.  This is the default answer that Dungeons & Dragons used up until 2nd Edition.  The advantage is that it’s quick and easy.  It’s suitable for a player who doesn’t want to get into the specifics of  a religion and for characters who do want to role play a specific religion it’s not going to break the game.

2) Restrict what spells a god will grant their clerics.  The 2nd Edition Complete Priest’s Handbook introduced the idea of clerics whose powers are limited based on their faith.  These restrictions are offset by strengths in areas related to the deity.  Thus the cleric of a death god would not have access to Cure Light Wounds, but would gain powers to Command Undead and Inspire Fear in compensation.  This has the value of logic but at the cost of flexibility and a big part of the appeal of spell casters is versatility.

3) Roll up your sleeves and play with the spell tables.  A cleric in a pantheistic religion, even a cleric devoted to a specific patron deity, is going to call on the powers of all the gods.  Conveying that goes a long way towards bringing the world to life.  If you can do it by increasing a player’s options instead of limiting them it’s even better, and since what defines clerics as warriors of the gods is their magic that’s the best place to start.

In my next post I’m going to demonstrate my idea, so stay tuned.

*These options are not mutually exclusive.  If one player wants to take option two and another likes option three, game balance won’t be upset.


Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming, World Design


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9 responses to “Clerics, Gods, and Magic

  1. Matt

    September 12, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    Apparently you’re forgetting your Greek, Nordic, and Egyptian mythology when you say that a proper cleric should represent his or her pantheon and not an individual god.

    Just because the gods of a civilization’s pantheon cover different aspects of life and society does not mean the deities themselves are all united for one purpose. Take the Trojan War for example. A conflict among the gods is what leads to the war, and the deities of the same pantheon vied against one another’s efforts so that their side would come out on top. What is a cleric who represents a single pantheon to do in that case?

    Then there is also the role playing concept to consider. If a cleric were to representing the Greek pantheon, what would his Code of Behavior be? Would he charge recklessly into battle like Ares or be a tactician like Athena? How could he represent both Artemis’s chastity and the lustful behavior of Aphrodite? How could he represent family values as Hera would wish while partaking in drunken revels as Dionysus would want? If he was chaotic in his behavior to accomplish these different codes of behavior, what would a deity of lawfulness and order think of that?

    On top of that, a cleric representing all parts of a pantheon would have to be more versatile and skilled than a bard because he would have to specialize in the ways and rites of every single religion and every facet of life and society those religions represented.

    This is why clerics are best left serving one god. The player has a code of conduct to help determine the character’s behavior, they have a skill set that helps serve the particular aspect of life and/or society their god represents, and the monotheistic nature of the cleric represents that the cleric has a special relationship with a deity because he has been invested with such divine power unlike the polytheistic layperson who the cleric may occasionally tend to.

  2. Fractalbat

    September 12, 2013 at 9:38 PM

    I’m not forgetting them, I can fit those into my model too.

    First thing, all this depends on how you want to do your world building. If you want to have possessive deities then my option isn’t going to work. Then you are back to the first two options.

    But even with the pantheons you mention this can logically work out. In the case of a direct conflict between deities, let the PC sort it out. Maybe he or she will decide to support Zeus over Apollo because Zeus is higher in precedence. Maybe Hera’s cult is more powerful so the cleric chooses her interests over the less powerful cult of Vulcan. Maybe the cleric will decide it is her duty to mediate the dispute.

    If the cleric is devoted to one god, then the mechanics of the system dictate the answer. If the cleric is independent of the cults, then you present the player with a crisis of faith and make them come up with a solution. It becomes a role playing option instead of a mechanics decision.

    In the examples of personal conduct, the choice of tactics between Aries and Athena would be up to the cleric, both serving the will of the gods. In the case of social behavior, the cleric can attend to the feast days of each deity as they come around. In between, the dictates of one deity do not determine how the cleric will act.

    I disagree with your statement about the level of knowledge being prohibitive. It isn’t hard to find modern day pagan practitioners familiar with the tenants and rites of dozens of beings, or Catholics who can go into detail about legions of saints. Keep in mind too that the cleric I describe is independent of a specific cult. They won’t be handling the secret rites of Ra one day and the hidden ceremony of Set the next, but they will know the appropriate prayers to call for the blessings of Light and Darkness.

    No system is going to cover every base (for that matter, nor does any religion, appropriately enough). I’ve been thinking more along these lines because I think it gives a good justification to the classic cleric, increases player agency, and adds choice and flavor.

    • Matt

      September 13, 2013 at 12:17 AM

      But if a cleric is choosing Zeus over Apollo or Vulcan over Hera, doesn’t the act of choosing between gods mean that the cleric, in the end, is choosing to represent parts of a pantheon instead of the whole of the pantheon? It sounds like interesting framework for a campaign: taking a cleric who starts off representing an entire pantheon and having her hone a specialization in a particular part of the pantheon as she advances in level, learning from her religious experiences, crises of faith, and choices she made to deal with it all.

      That also would mesh well with the level of knowledge point I brought up. When I referred to the knowledge, I didn’t mean that the cleric should only be knowledgeable in the religious rites of the deities in her pantheon, but of the skills related to each deity’s aspect of worship. For example, a priest of a harvest god would probably have skills in or knowledge of agriculture, botany, basic meteorology, and basic astronomy. A priest of a blacksmith god would have knowledge of metallurgy, forging techniques, and be knowledgeable how to create tools, weapons, and armor. The priest would have these skills because the expertise in a needed area of society or civilization would help convince the typical polytheistic layperson to seek out the priest and pay for the knowledge with offerings to the church and prayers to the priest’s god.

      The cleric of a pantheon would have to have some knowledge in all of these areas (unless we’re going the specialization route) because I imagine part of her mission would be to journey to other lands where other pantheons hold sway and show up the priests of other gods in order to win converts. However if you only have a basic understanding of agriculture and you try to show up the agriculture priest of the elvish pantheon, you’re probably not going to come off the better unless you roll well or outrank the priest by several levels. And if you don’t, then how do you spread the influence of your chosen pantheon?

      • Fractalbat

        September 13, 2013 at 8:10 AM

        Good stuff Matt! I’m going to break my reply into two parts.

        I love the idea of a cleric growing from a universalist into a specific patron. I can see a cleric over time coming to realize that they have a stronger affinity with a divinity and wanting to specialize. I can also see a single great event causing a flush of devotion, like winning a great battle or banishing a powerful demon. It’s be pretty cool to have a character declare their eternal devotion to Zeus in thanks for delivering the party from the ravages of an undead horde.

        If a player did that I’d go with the Rule of Cool and come up with a kit for them to transition into.

        I can also see a character going through the same trials and continuing to be a universalist cleric, declaring that the ways of the gods are many and mercurial and that the faithful are wise to praise them for their mysteries.

        The fun is in seeing how the players handle the situation and I’d leave the agency with them to decide how to proceed.

        I can also see a scenario where things take a darker turn. Imagine a cleric successfully defending a city against an invasion of kua-toa declaring that this is a sign of Posiden’s rebellion against Olympus. The cleric would swear off all spells dealing with the ocean, brand the use of such prayers as heretical, and launch an inquisition to root out any followers of Posiden and forcing them to recant or die. Religious schism and dynamic change to the game world achieved!

        Man, now I really want to play a cleric 🙂

  3. Fractalbat

    September 12, 2013 at 9:40 PM

    Also, thanks for the comments! Fun discussion.

  4. Fractalbat

    September 13, 2013 at 8:24 AM

    I’m losing the threading here, but I realized that if I replied to your post again then my points would be out of order.

    To your second point, I have two related thoughts. The first is that I realized we’re looking at the wrong virtue.

    Knowledge is the realm of the magic-user. Faith is the virtue that fires the cleric.

    Consider one of the best real-world analogs for the cleric class, Joan of Arc. She was an uneducated peasant girl touched by the divine and raised up to lead armies. Not only didn’t she know the ways of her god’s church (beyond that of a lay person) but she wasn’t part of the church’s structure. If anything she was considered a threat by the hierarchy.

    In your example, the cleric doesn’t need to know anything about agriculture. The cleric needs to demonstrate an unswerving faith that Demeter will provide.

    My second thought is that a cleric is first and foremost a holy warrior and renown is the vehicle for spreading the faith. The cleric won’t talk with the elf about how she improved the harvest, she’ll tell how she hunted down and destroyed the forest spirit that was casting a blight on the crops.

    • Matt

      September 13, 2013 at 11:46 AM

      First, Joan of Arc is not a real-world analog of the cleric class. If anything, she’s a paladin (in fact if memory serves, she’s listed as an example of such in the D&D Paladin’s Handbook). She’s a warrior fighting to restore France with a smattering of divine powers to help her out in that quest.

      Second, knowledge is the realm of both the priest and the wizard. Wizards are more of the literary and general scholars while priests possess specific knowledge in what their god specializes in. Some examples:
      1. Real World Example — Monasteries of many faiths like Christianity and Buddhism served (and in some cases, still serve) as the centers of scholarship and education.
      2. Real World Example — Druidic students underwent years of education and training to become full druids and fulfill their roles.
      3. Fantasy Example — The Druid D&D class has knowledge and skills that make them master scholars of the wilderness.
      4. Fantasy Example — In R.A. Salvatore’s Cleric Quintet, Cadderly has many skills in scholarship because he is a priest of the scholarly god Denier.

      This knowledge could be made as part of the priest’s specialty kit (as druids do) or gained as the priest advances and specializes, but they should have skills in their god’s field because it helps the be better devotees of their god and impress others to follow the god when they need that specialty aid.

      • Fractalbat

        September 13, 2013 at 1:02 PM

        I’m not sold on Joan being a paladin. When I think paladin I think highly trained warriors who devote themselves to a cause. The sword comes first and the divine magic second.

        The paladins of Charlemagne were the elite of his army and in the thick of battle. Roland was an inspiration for his courage in battle. Joan was not a skilled warrior and it was her devotion that brought the faithful to her banner. To me, that’s the difference between a paladin and a cleric.

        Your examples of study are great, but there are plenty of holy people who go without it. Rasputin would be a holy man with divine healing power who spurned the rites and learning of the church. Many religious zealots believe that their faith and direct connection to the divine renders the rites and traditions of the established faith invalid. And in a fantasy world, if the cleric continues to receive his spells then that’s all the proof he’d need that he was right to shun the temples.

        A fantasy example would be Goldmoon from Dragonlance. She became a cleric with no training and the knowledge she gained came from divine communion.

        Conversely a fine example of the cleric you describe would be Highlord Verminard.

        Another factor in my take on this is that I like clerics to be rare. Somewhere along the line we came to expect every old village priest to at least have Cure Light Wounds available and every bishop to obviously be a high level cleric. I’ve built my worlds that way too but more recently I’ve been trying to move away from that. I want clerics to be more like holy knights errant and less temple priests.

        I believe we can see evidence that this was the original concept. In Basic and Original D&D clerics didn’t receive spells until second level and the only way to earn levels was to go out and adventure.

        I really like your example of the Buddhists for gaining cleric powers through scholarship. Christian scholarship doesn’t make the claim that education conveys divine power but Buddhism and martial arts do. And now we’re in danger of diverging into the monk class 🙂


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