Monday, December 20, 2010

The problem of the cleric

As I start thinking of the setting for The Black City, and it's roots in Weird Fiction, I keep running into the problem of the cleric.  Lovecraft is basically an atheist; the genre of cosmic horror he pioneered revolves around a vast, impersonal cosmos that assumes humanity arose by chance in a godless universe.  Or, if there are gods in the universe, they are uncaring primal forces of destruction like Azathoth or Yog-Sothoth; at best they are communed with by insane sorcerors, but certainly not worshipped in the personal sense of D&D deities that grant helpful spells to their clerics.

So then what to do with the cleric class in a D&D game attempting to emulate the tropes of Weird Fiction?

Do you wipe out the cleric - there are no anthropromorphic deities, so there is no divine magic for the cleric?

Do you recast the cleric somehow, perhaps as an alternate form of magical practitioner - white magic, sympathetic magic, witchcraft, perhaps some kind of shamanism?

Perhaps there are uncaring 'Other gods', like those from HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands Cycle.  Are they petty enough not to break the tone of a Weird Fiction setting?  Why would they grant spells to clerical worshippers?

Are there other options? 

Whatever it is, I don't like the idea of using the clerics and patron deities as is... it devolves Weird Horror to Supernatural Horror (Odin, Thor and the host of Valhalla vs Cthulhu and Dagon, FTW).  Um, no.  Too gonzo.  And stupid.

I can get my head around arcane magic (magic users) as alien science passed down through ancient times, although I see that ritual sorcery from something like Carcossa (or the Call of Cthulhu game) fits the vibe better...  With the cleric as is it's too easy to slide into cosmic struggle with a host of higher powers on the side of humanity that undermines the atheist dread implicit in Lovecraft.

Just thinking out loud at this point...

After giving it some more thought, this is the approach I'll take with clerics in The Black City campaign:

"Many gods are worshipped and prayed to, but they've never spoken to you or answered your prayers; you wonder whether they're really out there.  Through your priestly training, you were taught rituals and devotions that have allowed you to cast spells and do amazing things; the priests of your order claim this is proof that your god is real.  You're not so sure.  Could the power of your spells be coming from somewhere else?"

...And pretty much leave it at that.  Allows the cleric to exist, along with a belief in pantheons and deities, but with doubts as to the source of divine magic, and no clear belief that there are any greater powers whatsoever on the side of humanity.