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.