Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Religion and Clerics

I've seen some thoughtful posts lately about religion and D&D - JB over at B/X Blackrazor and then over at Fr Dave's place.  JB inquires why religion is given such short shrift in RPG's, and Fr Dave provides examples from his own game of religious practices and beliefs having a pivotal role.

Why is religion so often overlooked?  Well, take a second and consider what it would require to have a meaningful religion in your D&D game; to make it seem real, the DM would be required to create beliefs, practices, observances, feasts, the religious hierarchy, and the modes of worship.  That's a lot of work.
Games that feature a monotheistic church can draw on practices of the real world religions and have a huge advantage - most of that stuff is done for you.  Unfortunately, raiding modern-day religious practices for game grist can tread on sensitive ground, depending on how it's done, and the views of the players.

A priest of the beloved Elway leads followers on the holy day.
Meanwhile, I've yet to see a polytheistic approach that had religions reach that level of depth; most of the time, the cleric in a polytheistic game is a cheerleader or fan for his deity - the D&D equivalent of this guy over here.

Polytheism has other problems.  The cleric class is more or less a Christian templar with a mash-up of Van Helsing.  The blunt edged weapons, the turn undead, the list of spells mostly from Judeo-Christian miracles; I don't remember that kind of stuff in Greek or Norse myth.

Heck, can anyone point me to a non-Christian "cleric" in any of D&D's source fiction?  (Buehler, buehler?)  So far, I've encountered Christian clerics in Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Broken Sword, The King of Elf Land's Daughter; while there isn't any Turn Undead, there's plenty of using holy words to drive back monsters and the creatures of Fairy.  This would be kind of funny -  the DM announces, "Yes, your  turn attempt is successful, the ghouls are fleeing.  And the party's elf and gnome run away for 3-12 rounds".
It seems the various published settings of D&D have all been polytheistic and ignored developing the religious practices.   If I want some inspiration from real-world polytheism, I might go check out my copy of The Golden Bough, with all it's lurid sacrifices.  Yeah, I can understand why 80's game designers didn't go there.  Maybe a study of Hinduism and other religions in the far East might provide some more useful approaches to adding depth to a polytheistic setting?

The cleric presents other problems too, if you start thinking about it too hard… For instance, if you're going to make the cleric believe in something, and they're granted powers by a higher being as evidence of their beliefs, isn't the DM kind of obligated to adjudicate behavior?  Yikes, that's kind of messy.  I thought this was supposed to be fun?  Of course, if you want some *real* fun - go to any AD&D 1E message board and start a post about how to manage alignment in 1st Edition (don't forget to say, "by the book", or ask about the treatment of prisoners).  Good times.

Then there's the healing problem.  What changes does magical healing and Raise Dead have on the campaign world?  Should you calculate your societal demographics, what percentage of folks are clergy, what is their range of levels, to get a sense on how prevalent are certain spells in the world?  That can be a bit messy too (though I love it as a thought exercise).

O god of cheese, grant us victory, and brauts.

At the end of the day, it's just so much easier to make the cleric like this guy with the funny hat.