Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Religion, Clerics, and Gothic Greyhawk

Here are choices I made to embrace (or dodge) some of the issues raised in the last post on religion and clerics, for my current game, Gothic Greyhawk.

First off, of course I went with a monotheistic church and a large number of saints and sub-orders within the holy church.  There's a fair amount of evidence that EGG also used quasi-Christian churches in early Greyhawk - there are references to the Church of the Blinding Light and the Church of St Cuthbert in Dragon, and one of the only Greyhawk modules with a home base, Village of Hommlet, very much postulates a Christian, medieval setting.  Besides, Gary made the cleric class like it was a medieval templar, instead of a wavy-dagger-wielding priest of Baal or Dagon.  Or something.  Since the Greyhawk pantheon didn't get bolted onto the setting until later, I'm comfortable ignoring it.

There's still a place to have pagan deities - particularly as antagonists.  One sensible way to reconcile a monotheistic creator deity with various petty godlings is to make the creator something like the prime mover, the uncreated creator;  Perhaps God is something that encompasses the entire universe, like in the philosophy of Spinoza or George Berkeley, or exists outside of creation (or at least outside of this plane).  Wherever the petty gods came from, or how they came to be, they are lesser beings and on a completely lower plane of magnitude.  (And they can be killed...)

You certainly see this approach in some of the pulp fantasy - I just finished The Broken Sword, where Odin and company want nothing to do with God and what they call the 'White Christ'; Christianity is on a power scale above and beyond them, and they don't want to wake the sleeping giant.

I do have pagan priests in the setting, associated with the fallen gods of the past; they're called DRUIDS.  Rather than modify the cleric to be something else, I've loosened up the Druid and made the Druid a catch-all for pagan worship.

I also didn't want to deal with clerical demographics, universal magical healthcare, questions of Raise Dead, or the touchy subject of "do good churches charge poor people for healing".  The church is a non-magical institution, and most clergy function like real-world priests - they lead worship, counsel, bless, and act as scholars.  Actual spell casting cleric class characters are rare, and chosen.

I was influenced by the Old Testament, where seemingly random guys are selected to be prophets, leaders, and carriers of the divine message; often they're subversive outsiders, or humble folk with low status, not a part of the power structures or the established order.  They've been divinely ordained to take a message back to society, to help put things back on course (once, or if, they figure out what is their role).  Clerics in Gothic Greyhawk are the same way; they’re chosen for reasons they don't understand, their powers are miracles, and when they show up, they're expected to be setting-breaking game changers - they threaten the social order by their very existence.

Finally - alignment.  I'm using the classic rules set, so alignments are Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic.  Everyone alive is Neutral, by stint of birth.  I'm not interested in monitoring player behavior, so alignment is a supernatural status, and not a measure of ethics or behavior.  The alignments of Law and Chaos reflect allegiance to outside powers and are typically beyond what mortals achieve; only mortals with supernatural ties gain an alignment of Lawful or Chaotic.  Because the divine order represents Law, all spell-casting clerics are Lawful.  Most monsters, which have supernatural ties, are Chaotic.

Demons and Devils could be a bit problematic in the simplified Law vs Chaos scheme if you make Law = Good and Chaos = Evil; I don't do that.  Heaven and hell are both part of the divine order; even fallen angels came from the divine world, and are part of creation.  (And that's not even broaching the topic that maybe Hell is all part of the plan...).  In this scheme, both clerics of God and clerics of the Adversary would be Lawful; but they would act very, very differently.

Chaos represents allegiance to those things outside the divine order.  It may not hold up philosophically, (if you define God as coterminous with all of creation), and certainly not theologically, but it's a playable solution for the game.

Heck, the only reason to keep alignment at all, alignment as supernatural allegiance, is so that some of the spells and magic items still work (detect evil actually becomes detect chaos, for instance).

One of the things I love about D&D (as opposed to 1E) is there isn't a whole lot of baggage around  the implied cosmology, and it's very much open to this degree of tinkering.  May I never again have to determine how to role play a neutral good NPC with chaotic tendencies, or answer questions of whether good characters kill evil monsters when they just want to talk, and whether a certain act violated lawful good, neutral good, or chaotic goodness.


  1. Good thought on the "it chooses you" nature of clerics. I'm taking a similar approach with the "powered devout" in the City--as opposed to priests who just study thaumaturgy.

    A,A, Attanasio's Arthurian retellings have an approach to pagan/Judaic gods you might find interesting and inspirational. There is one god--but the Fall ejected both the angels and devils from the presence of god. The angels set about starting Judaic religion so that the universe could be "perfected" and reunited with the godhead. The devils, in hurt and anger, are just trying to tear the whole thing down.

    The pagan gods are electromagnetic beings that "evolved" in the energy fields around the Dragon (the earth, which is a living thing). They formed tribes and warred, and got humans to worship them. Their beings of great power, but essentially natural beings of another order. Anyway, I thought the series had a lot of interesting ideas.

  2. I find the concept of the Nephilim from Genesis to be a great way to explain godlings. It is possible to interpret them as the offspring of fallen angels and human women.

    I concur that the best way to deal with Raise Dead et.al. is to severely limit access. The easiest way to do that is to have adventuring clerics a whole different order than priests/bishops.

  3. I never cared for the Jewish Mythology angle of the Cleric much, myself, so I treat anything that's worshipped, as a God, gaining more power through influence. Purple Worms or Beholders or Giant Ticks or Titans, whatever. Through enough Faith Points, a monster could attain more power and expand its realm of influence. I find it pretty easy to keep track of, and it has a weird vibe, not to mention generates conflict.(And avoids the One True God who supposedly helps Good, or some such nonsense. As well as the trite rip-offs of Norse/Greek/Aztec Mythology. I mean, if you wanna be original, fight Zombie Jesus Coffer Corpses[they should probably get up faster than 3 days, though] or stat up the Trinity or the 'beaten brass ball' version of Al-Lah, replete with Apollo and Termagent!)

  4. Good stuff - lots of ideas on how a setting's 'minor gods' could have gotten their start in life (something I hadn't gotten quite that far...). AA Attanasio will go on the reading list - looks very, very strange.

    The Nephilim would make great progenitors of all sorts of monsters in a game that embraced angels and fallen angels - FrDave, do you differentiate between Demons and Devils? (I don't recall if LBB's had them).

    The 'American Gods' approach has utility... if something generates enough belief, poof, godhood. But zombie Jesus coffer corpses, lalala (not listening) lalala. Let me hear how that works out.

  5. @Beedo: Not running a Weird World setting in the HereNNow, but if I did: Zombie Jesus Coffer Corpse would definately be on the Menu.(The Spear of Longinus is probably a Very Hard To Find Artifact, so I'm guessing there's not gonna be a lot of Christ Killing.(I'd also say that Faith in Him would get results so adherents could Rise From The Grave as one, too.[though they could presumably be killed far easier than their Friend.])Then there's Islam, Buddhism, Baha'i, Sikhism, Judaism, not to mention the STRANGE strains of same. Could be entertaining mining various beliefs(the more exaggerated and ludicrous, the better: like Al-lah as a ball. Kali as some kind of evil Corpse Witch, the Holy Spirit would, um, do its thing;though YHVH should be the Tribal War God allergic to Iron, not some money god looking for revenge on the Christians in some silly, vaguely racist way[remember ludicrous, not stupid], Atheists could have Nothing/Abject Materialism/Their Ego/For SCIENCE!, etc...) for gameability. With all this, though, the Mythos would probably be crowded out. Especially since some do double duty for real-world mythological counterparts. Could be fun, probably not a campaign that'd last long, though, this tends a bit toward the comedic, and you know how that goes....

  6. @Beedo: Demons/Devils, they were introduced(along with their funky HD[12 sided, really!?!?)] in Supplement 3:Eldritch Wizardry.(Along with the Druid Class, who was a monster in Supplement 1: Greyhawk![That's right: Druids are for killing!]) To this day, the only straight up DnD book I have. One Day, White Box! One Day! I own AD&D(and AD&D 2nd Edition), LL, S&W, and its cousin Tunnels and Trolls and Spiritual Descendant: BRP and games based on same. My Roommate has some Classic. But no LBBs, alas.

  7. I follow quite a similar approach in my Wounded Gaia setting. My setting has two major gods, Vesan/Marzanna (essentially Nature with a consciousness; Chaotic) and Koschei (a Clockwork God created by a magical experiment tearing a part of Vesna and powering a vast mechanism with it; Lawful). But the two major gods are quite inhuman, especially in their present form: Marzanna (the wounded Vesna) has turned cold and bestial; and Koschei is machine-like and utterly a-moral. So most people nowadays worship Spirits.

    And Spirits are everywhere: in the streams, in the mountains, even in your hearth. They can be killed, they are not omniscient; but they do have divine powers, and can be interacted with -- PERSONALLY. BY EVERYONE. Sure, Shamans are better in interacting with spirits (a hefty bonus to Reaction rolls), but every villager can leave offerings to his farmhouse's Domovoi to have his hearth blessed by good luck, and every village chief can make sacrifices to the local Rusalka to ensure bountiful fishing at the local stream.

    The main rules alteration I'm making in changing the Cleric to a Shaman is changing the spell-list a little bit, restricting the number of spells known and replacing Turn Undead with a Reaction Bonus with Spirits.

  8. @Beedo

    do you differentiate between Demons and Devils?

    I do not. To do so ignores the actual meaning of the word 'devil.' In Greek it is diabolos which comes from a verb which literally means "to throw through" — throw something in-between two people. Thus, devil is the one who divides.

    This can be seen in Genesis where the devil tries to separate man from God (Adam and Eve eating the fruit) and man from his fellow man (Cain murdering his brother Abel). This kind of activity is intrinsically Chaotic, not Lawful. Thus, there is no significant difference between demons and devils.

  9. @Omer Golan:
    Interesting take on Nature Worship there. But Druids are for killing! See Supplement 1! Supplement 3 is heresy, I tell you; it brought something worse into D&D than Devils/Demons: PSionics!(And Mind Flayers)! ;-D


    True on Greek 'devil'. In Greek Mythology, though a 'daemon' wasn't bad!(They were good mediators between the Divine and Human.) A couple of my Christian players considered this Demon/Devil thing a distinction without a difference as well. Oddly, they were Southern Baptists; I would've expected the Catholic dude to have made mention of it...

    Isn't that how Jewish/Catholic Mysticism explains it?

    Of course D&D's handling of mythology was kinda screwy. Manes, Lemures as Demons? Demogorgon, an actual Deity, as Prince of Demons. Likewise Orcus, as Prince of Undead! Baphomet, thought to be a conflation of the name of Muhammed with some kind of evil spirit(supposedly worshipped by Templars!) as Minotaur Lord in the Abyss.. Asmodeus, Prince of Devils, is a being from Jewish Mythology[who converted to Judaism!], who died in the pogrom in Mainz, Germany in 1096!(Also sometimes used as the hereditorial title of Devil Kings in Kabbalah, whih may have been how Gygax thought of it.) Deifying Asmodeus is kinda creepy, as he is sorta the D&D (Christian)Satan(Was that an in-joke at WOTC?) Of course, there are other Deities present with serial numbers filed of, so to speak... Then there's the Christian parodies of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel(Not really based on the Catholic Saint) and the 'Evangelical' Pholtus(Of the Blinding Light.[his Crusaders are truly terrifying!]). Note that Messrs. Arneson and Gygax were lifelong practicing Christians!

    Then there's the duplication factor, seen with undead, fairies, humanoids, dragons, giant animals, etc... With Demons/Devils it's kinda cheesy: Succubus/Alu-Fiend(D&D 4th consolidated and threw the result into Devil territory!), Type VI(Balor)/Pit Fiend, same monster! What do you think Planetars, Solars, and Devas are? Though I heard Gygax was leery of any player killing Angels...., but I've never seen this.(Need to check.)Also, Nymphs and Dryads and Satyrs for killing, really? Nice use of the Medieval Gorgon, though!

    I guess it boils down to player's need XP, what you gonna do? Unfortunately: Deities and Demigods, yeesh! Gods With Stats?(though current beliefs should be avoided, Hindu and Native American Deities are presented; not to mention there are people who do worship Norse/Greek/Roman/Celtic Deities still! :-/) They must be for Killing(Like Druids ;-)) And oddly enough, King Arthur(Catholic Ass-Kickers) and the Cthulu Crew(Non-denominational)!

  10. It's a little strange that there hasn't been a published setting (for D&D, at least) that's a bit more up front about building on Judeo-Christian folklore - either the fanciful approach you see in medieval legendry, with Christian knights, Saracens, Paynims, the forces of Faerie, etc; or that takes FrDave's approach of incorporating older pieces of myth straight up.

    I guess maybe Green Ronin's thing for d20 (Testament) might have... I dunno. Are folks too touchy to "game" with beliefs that have real world traction?

    @Veleran - I should have you do a guest spot on Mythic Monday - just let you ramble. It'd be epic.

  11. IIRC the GURPS Fantasy world includes the three Judaic religions (brought there from our world by the banestorm). I seem to remember tribes of Jewish and Christian goblins.