Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Generic clerics

There is something of a dichotomy in the way the Dungeons & Dragons (and its descendants and emulators) approach religion. On the one hand, there are clerics, which as a class tend to transcend religious boundaries and be used for priests of wildly differing religions. On the other hand, there are druids, a sub-class of the cleric, who seem to follow a faith so different from those of the clerics that they are deserving of their own sub-class and spell lists, including dozens of unique spells.

The question becomes; which is right? If clerics as a class are generic enough that the same class, and spell lists (albeit with reversed versions of spells being available), can be used for clerics of Saint Cuthbert (the lawful good god of wisdom, truth, zeal, and disciple) as well as clerics of Iuz (the chaotic evil demigod of deceit, oppression, and evil), then how is it that druids, whose veneration of nature seems at least as diametrically opposed to both of those as they do to each other, get a class unto themselves?

The obvious answer is that clerics get their spells from deities, while druids get their spells from Nature, but this is belied by the fact that, in Greyhawk at least, some deities (such as Ehlonna and Obad-Hai) are said to be served by both clerics and druids alike!

Second edition did try to mitigate the problem of the over-extended cleric class by the addition of kits and spell spheres, which narrowed the range of spells available based on the particular deity. Third Edition did the same with prestige classes aimed at followers of specific deities. But in doing so, it also codified the notion that every character (or, at least, every cleric) had to be dedicated to a single deity, which is not always true in the sort of polytheistic society that most D&D campaigns use, and the rules heavily imply.

Bishop Odo from the
Bayeux Tapestry. Note the
That implication, by the way, is quite ironic, considering the heavily Christian origins of the cleric class as a whole. The idea of the cleric's power over undead was lifted straight from Hammer Films Dracula movies (where doctor Van Helsing would flash a cross and "turn" Dracula), the rule against edged weapons comes from the historical figure Bishop Odo, who fought alongside William the Conqueror in 1066, and many of the spells come straight out of the Bible: bless, the various cure wounds spells, create food and watercure blindness, cure disease, prayer, speak with dead, exorcise, sticks to snakes, tongues, flame strike, insect plague, raise dead, part water, earthquake, and resurrection.

So I propose that each religion get its own sub-class, handled along the same lines as the druid. There would still be clerics, but they would be priests of a particular religion (not necessarily monotheistic; Asatru or the Religio Romana are examples of polytheistic religions that have priests who serve all or most of the gods of that religion), to whom paladins would explicitly belong, as well as mystics (at least for those using the Adventures Dark and Deep™ rules, where mystics are explicitly stated to be part of the clerical religion, but coming at it from a different point of view).

This opens up all sorts of possibilities, although it does entail a great deal of potential work for the game master. Imagine priests of different religions possessing vastly different powers and spell lists, where not every cleric is the "designated healer" by default (indeed, imagine a campaign where none of the priests are particularly focused on healing!), where priests of evil deities and demons aren't just clerics with a different spell list and maybe an edged weapon if they're lucky, but are as different from clerics as druids are.

You might just get a taste of what that looks like come Halloween. Remember those two Darker Path books I wrote a couple of years ago? We're about due for another one or two. Mua-ha-ha...