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.


  1. One possibility of handling this in game-mechanics terms is to simply unite the magic system into a single class - Sorcerer - with most clerics being NPCs without spellcasting power, while the spellcasting clerics are clerics who've learned spells and rituals from holy texts. With a unified spell-list, the true nature of gods and religion becomes more obscure...

    Sure, there are temples, priests, the belief in gods, altars and sacrificies, as there are in the real world where magic doesn't work; and theologists debate on whether or not all magic is divine or secular in nature. But in game terms, your spellcasting priest would be yet another sorcerer, maybe with spells selected according to faith.

  2. When you say unifying the spell lists, do you mean combining cleric and magic user lists into a single list?

  3. My thoughts along this line are to replace the cleric (functionally, but not socially) with something more druidic, along the lines of the RuneQuest shaman - there are approachable spirits who are part of the natural world, not so horrible as the outsiders, but possessing not even the tiniest fraction of their power, either.

  4. I can think of severals ways to resolve your problem.

    1. Historically, a god has been something that you can literally carry around with you in a box. (The Japanese still do that with their omikoshi. You could have a world of gods like that that are small, tribal if not personal, and whose miracles theoretically come from the strength of the cleric's belief more than anything else.

    2. In medieval times, a lot of magic was seen as a bargain -- holy men needed to make concessions or sacrifices to their faith in order to gain special powers. Heretical magicians were said to have sold their souls in return for a brief lifetime of service. Maybe Marduk, when supplicated in the right manner, will produce a miracle for you -- but not because he cares for puny mortals, merely because the price was right.

    3. You've hinted at this one yourself, with the Lovecraft references. Maybe there are "gods of Earth" that are "on our side" -- but they're just not very powerful. So divine magics can help adventurers overcome a normal servitor, and the gods themselves might be able to hold their ground against a Great Old One, but even in their stronghold in cold Kadath, the gods of Earth must stand mutely and endure the mockery or wrath of Nyarlathotep. Against the all-consuming blind power of Azathoth, of course, they wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell.

    This last one seems rather appropriate to your "weird tales" vibe. It's a delicious moment of horror epiphany:

    A. We're one misstep away from inevitable doom in the face of forces we can't even comprehend without going mad. If our luck runs out, nothing can save us!

    B. No, Thor will save us!

    C. Wait, it turns out that Thor, too, is one misstep away from inevitable doom in the face or forces he can't even comprehend without going mad.

    A & B. D:

    Just to drive the point home, you could have certain monsters or classes of monsters (oozes and slimes?) be immune to clerical magic. Attack spells wash over them like water over a fish. Utility spells fail to move them, or fizzle in proximity. Burns caused by their touch stubbornly refuse to be healed.

    (This last, of course, adds a mechanical element to the sense of horror. If you don't want that bit of flavor to equal punishment or a gotcha moment in-game, perhaps certain herbs would be known to soothe the burns.)

  5. Confanity - those are all really good ideas and provide good alternates to the standard divine being in D&D as well - either use less-powerful, semi divine entities (so there's no cosmic answer to the horror) or make the gods themselves inimical and treat the cleric more like a sorceror that takes power.

    thanks for dropping the note in on this old post, all useable ideas.

  6. Pardon me for stepping into an old post, but I faced a similar issue in my current campaign. It's a dark or weird fantasy setting that does a pretty good job of masquerading as a bog-standard sword-and-sorcery tone - the players haven't quite figured it out yet, in fact. But to this end, I felt I needed to overhaul the flavor of the clerics in order to keep the gods distant and a little uncertain, since they might not even exist. No changes to the rules were actually needed, just a little shift in semantics and presentation.

    First, I told the players outright that Clerics are not walking first-aid-kits - they simply haven't got the spell access to be reliable healers - and instead described them as a sacred order of holy knights, sort of a cross between the Knights Templar and the Jedi.

    Second, I describe the cleric as gaining her spells not through prayer but through meditation - that was the verbiage used in the edition that introduced me to D&D (the pre-Cyclopedia Black Box), and I've always liked the flavor. I spice it up with a little bit of New Age blather now and then - microcosms and visualization and whatnot.

    Third, I let the cleric's player in on a little secret the order keeps. The founder of their order is popularly believed to be a half-god (the Hercules to my setting's Zeus, with a good dose of St Cuthbert mixed in), and his sacred blood is passed down through the rite of initiation. Each newly-inducted cleric receives a ritual wound and mixes blood with a Name-level cleric.

    The end result is an order of clerics who harbor the tissue of an inhuman, otherworldly creature which grants supernatural powers to those who are taught how to access them. (To clarify, the spells don't need to be learned - they are just accessed through the meditation techniques all clerics know.) Although this blood is supposed to be the legacy of the setting's sovereign deity, it could just as easily be the blood of Yog-Sothoth or simply an alien symbiote. There is nothing here to prove that the gods are even real.

    I haven't really emphasized the point to my players. I'm enjoying letting them make assumptions about how the setting works, and I'll enjoy seeing them gradually discover that all is not as it seems. I think it will achieve a good dose of cosmic horror, that "everything we know is wrong" feeling that makes weird fiction so powerful. But I think it could work for a more overtly eldritch setting, simply by making the point up front that the gods remain distant and uncertain.