Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Piety Police and Karma Cops

What to do about clerical "transgressions"?  I've got a situation in the campaign where a cleric's behavior out in the wilds wouldn't be endorsed by his church back home; I did some research in AD&D to see how Gary the Great advised the DM to manage the cleric in the campaign back in the 70's.  Incidentally, Tim asked a similar question over on Gothridge Manor about "handling clerical responsibility" so that was enough to get the wheels turning and make me crack the books.

First some background - what the heck is a clerical transgression, anyway?  The Dungeon Master's Guide has advice on the acquisition of clerical spells in AD&D; it assumes the following conditions exist:

  • Clerics serve a deity in the campaign
  • Clerical training involves learning the rites, rituals, ethos and precepts of the deity
  • 1st and 2nd level spells are enabled by the cleric's training
  • 3rd-5th level spells are granted by the deity's servants through prayer
  • 6th-7th level spells are granted by the deity itself through prayer
  • The cleric is expected to act in accordance with the deity's religion to gain 3rd and higher level spells

The 1E AD&D approach goes on to point out how the DM is the subjective "judge" that determines if the cleric is acting in accordance with the deity's precepts.  When the cleric is determined to be out of bounds, the DM should decide on things like appropriate penances, sacrifices, quests, and so on, to get back into the deity's good graces - or kiss their level 3 or higher spells good bye.  Holy Schmow!  We joke about the DM being the creator of his campaign universe, but here (and in the DMG section on the Atonement spell) the DM is literally expected to act as a judging god!

You may note, my group has been using Moldvay BX and the LotFP flavor for basic D&D because I prefer those rules, but for campaign advice, I love heading to the 1E DMG and seeing what Gary had to say; it's an awesome book when running a campaign.

What's interesting troubling here is that a DM is expected to lay out the tenets of a belief system for each deity in the campaign, sketch out the expected behaviors for clerics, and then score or rate how players with clerics behave against the ideals.

I'm finding this whole concept a bit jarring because I've already reduced alignment from Alignment as Ethos to Alignment as Allegiance.  I've been quite proud that my roguish players have been free to loot the sandbox without me having to create a naughty or nice list and do side coaching on what exactly Chaotic Neutral with good tendencies means; the sandbox has its own consequences for 'bad behavior'.  I've been able to avoid micromanaging their ethical choices.  And yet, here it is again - the requirement to subjectively judge player behavior in game, and attach mechanical penalties based on the DM's rulings.  (Dingle!)

I'll put some notes together on the state of affairs in Gothic Greyhawk and my next steps, but in the meantime, a question for readers.

Do you take on the personal "voice" of the deity or deities in your campaign and rule on the ethical and religious behavior of the player clerics in your game?  Do clerics have to act "appropriately" to get their higher level spells?


  1. I ask my players how their characters would justify their actions. I wouldn't do a voice or anything. If Ben's cleric Jozan burned the hobbit village I'd say "so Ben, now that Jozen burned the hobbit village can you tell me what his motivation was? Blind rage, temporary lapse in judgment?- Or do you think based on what you know about Jozen's deity that burning the hobbit village was what his God would approve of in this situation? Make the player involved in deciding how badly they stepped out of line and with the player decide what the consequences should be. Above all though the general ethos of the deity needs to be clear right from character creation, so there are no surprises when the cleric of good gets in trouble for doing something evil.

  2. I generally shy away from codifying things like this too heavily. Sometimes, I do run a game (usually LL/BX), where there are fairly specific deities. In those cases, I'll do things like restrict alignments of clerics, and lay out a few basic tenets or guidelines for the PCs. If players of clerics start to stray too far outside the line, I may give a warning "The Big Kahuna probably wouldn't like that." After that, the gloves come off. Fortunately, it hasn't been a problem for the most part.

  3. What's interesting troubling here is that a DM is expected to lay out the tenets of a belief system for each deity in the campaign, sketch out the expected behaviors for clerics, and then score or rate how players with clerics behave against the ideals.

    One of the advantages of doing a monotheistic world where that monotheism is a Psuedo-Christianity is that much of this work is already done for you.

    Sin is a separation from God (the Greek means "miss the mark"). Thus, loss of certain powers in entirely appropriate; however, I am not very heavy handed with these things. In part, because my characters are willing to do this themselves — they help keep each other in line. Mostly, though, man is created in the Image and Likeness, therefore we are free to use God's gifts as we choose.

    Sin, however, does not just affect those individuals who commit them. Thus, the inappropriate behavior of a cleric would affect others outside the party. God would then hint that the cleric is responsible and should do something about it.

    One mechanism I like to use is the idea that sin can physically manifest. Therefore, if the cleric is misbehaving, that sin will manifest as a monster that embodies the sin. Thus, the cleric will have to come face-to-face with what he has wrought and then take care of it and the mess that it makes.

  4. Helpful comments, fellas.

    My "plan" that characters dedicated to the monotheistic god of the campaign world would act accordingly hasn't completely worked out. So I will need to sketch some basic tenets out for the church, keep them high level, and provide some rationalization/wiggle room, as Pierce suggested. I know the guys mainly want to throw dice and crush monsters, whereas I'm always making the campaign political and serious - gotta know your players. I may borrow some ideas from medieval Christianity, but not everyone at the table practices that faith, so it won't be equivalent. (The player of the cleric in question is Jewish, for instance!)

    Deities and Demigods advises the use of omens to guide the cleric; FrDave's idea of having unusual monsters show up as an outer expression of the character's spiritual shortcomings is pretty interesting and could make for some entertaining moments.

  5. I'm running an animistic/polytheistic world where I essentially hand off a lot of the creative freedom in this area to the players: I have some sample gods and religious practices, and they essentially get to choose one (or more) of those, or just make anything they want up. Perhaps as a consequence, I've never had this problem come up.

  6. I've never been heavy-handed with clerics in my games, but then they usually follow the tenets of their gods anyhow; of course, this is only for those gods that have a guideline of doctrines etc.

    I like the idea of having the church come calling, rather than God just popping down or sending down a servant. High-Up clerics coming to smack the naughty cleric's wrists, so to speak.

    I like FrDave's comment about the manifestation of Sin. That could work really well. Hmm, might have to think about that some more.

  7. I guess the question is how active the gods of your universe are. If they have a relationship directly with the cleric, either because they do not have many followers, or because they are so powerful, then they get a difficult conversation with their god, saying "hey, repent" or "don't do that"

    Otherwise, it seems like the god's displeasure should creep in slowly: i.e. spells start to be less effective, the PC has strange dreams, messangers appear telling them to repent etc.

    Many of these things could apply to non-clerical PCs too, because they also have a relationship with the god(s).

  8. Going by Gary's advice in the DMG, it implies the god ends up having a fairly personal relationship with the cleric... at high levels, when the spells are granted directly.

    I can see myself having to develop some basic bulleted tenets (like these, lifted from one of the 4E deities):

    *Uphold the highest ideals of honor and justice.

    *Be constantly vigilant against evil and oppose it on all fronts.

    *Protect the weak, liberate the oppressed, and
    defend just order.

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  10. What you - the DM - have to know is; what is known, and who knows it.

    First: Is the Clerics god even aware of the clerics behavior? In ohter words, is he watched from on high?

    Traditional gods are not omniscient. Not even close.

    But if the god knows, and cares, then the god will punish. Most traditional gods usually won't care about earthly morals, but that, of course depends.

    Second: Is the clerics "church" aware of the clerics behavior? If they are, do they care? If they do care, what will they do? Could lead to all sorts of campaign developments.

    If neither is the case then nothing will happen, and "nothing will happen" seems to be what your player expects.

  11. New thought: this is a serious departure from traditional casting, but I've come up with a system that essentially reverses the burden -- instead of the DM needing to sit in judgment of the PCs' actions, why not demand that the PCs proactively pursue worthiness in order to be granted magic? Check out devotions at the bottom here. (I think it was inspired by the magic system in Unknown Armies.)

    If you want a punitive aspect for misbehavior, just say that any action that runs counter to the normal array of devotions for that god erases all of the built-up "charges."