Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Old Time Religion (part 2)

[continued from here]

Here’s the GENERAL question:

What is the reason for XP being awarded in the way it is?

Here’s the SPECIFIC question (asked as a follow-up to the general question):

What the heck is a cleric doing in a dungeon?

The specific question should be ask-able (and answerable) for any of the character classes, of course, but cleric seems to be the hardest for most folks to wrap their head around.

And it isn’t helped by asking the specific question FIRST. Sure, that’s easier (kind of) to do, but doing so doesn’t resolve the disconnect. Let me give you some examples of what I mean when I say “asking the 2nd question first:”
  • “My cleric is in the dungeon because it is a place of vast (or rumored) EVIL and it is my holy obligation to smite it.” The ‘I’m in the business of hunting evil’ theory.
  • “My cleric is in the dungeon because there are innocent captives that need to be rescued (or a holy relic that needs to be found or an ancient demon that needs to be slain, etc.). The ‘I’m on a quest with a specific objective’ theory.
  • “My cleric is in the dungeon because these are my companions and I’m here to lend my services as a healer and undead specialist.” The ‘I’ve got a bankable skill set’ theory.
But NONE of these answers work in conjunction with the MAIN question. Sure, they provide a reason your cleric character is present, but NOT in terms of the game as written and designed. Because D&D, at least in the "old school," pre-1985 versions does not reward these things:

  • Hunting evil isn’t rewarded.
  • Accomplishing a specific objective isn’t rewarded.
  • Being a “role-player” (i.e. playing a role in the group) isn’t rewarded.
At least, the game doesn’t reward these things in any tangible, rules specified fashion (you can still receive non-XP awards and the “satisfaction of a job well done,” I suppose). Old School D&D rewards TWO things with XP, XP being the measure of a character’s success and effectiveness (more XP = higher level, higher level = more accomplished):

Primary Reward: Treasure Acquisition. 1gp value = 1xp
Secondary Reward: Defeating Opponents. XP varies based on edition, but generally XP is much less than for treasure found.

The characters that gain the most XP (thereby advancing the fastest, thereby showing themselves to be the most successful) will be those that recover the most monetary treasure. Sure, your fighter can kill 400 orcs (at 5xp a pop) to get to 2nd level, but it’s generally easier to fill a couple large sacks with gold…and certainly easier to recover a jeweled tiara worth a couple grand. Old school D&D is about working smarter, not harder.

So knowing this…knowing that the game (the unadulterated game, the Rules As Written game) rewards characters for acquiring treasure…that O So Base and Material reward that seems a superfluous after-thought to the lofty, high-minded ideals of the heroic personal…knowing THIS, and accepting it, THEN we can set about asking the specific question: what the heck is the cleric doing in the dungeon looking for treasure?

Because that’s what he (or she) is doing. Forget anything you think you learned from Mentzer about clerics in his version of the basic (Red) book. That girlie Bargle fried was naïve and ridiculous at best…or self-deluding at worst. Clerics of Old School D&D earn XP (and thus advance and become more accomplished, effective, powerful) through the acquisition of CASH-MONEY. And that’s why they’re in the dungeon, same as their buddies.

But WHY are they doing it?

Well, first you have to put yourself in a medieval frame of mind. I think “medieval” is most helpful (even if your clerics are worshipping Asgardians or Olympians Great Old Ones) because the game was written with a particular medieval sensibility. I mean, it was based off the “Chainmail” rules, right? And back during medieval times in Europe and the Near East, religion was kind of a Big Player on the world stage. Western students of history spend a lot of time learning about the impact of the One Universal Holy Church on the civilized world because, well, for the most part it was the main driving force of everything. And after the fall of Rome to the barbarians, it was pretty much the ONLY thing going on that provided any beacon of sanity and civilization (even as it did tremendously terrible things to solidify its own secular power).

To do that…to maintain itself, to build its power, to bring light to the masses, and to preserve its foothold in the world…required money. Lots and lots of money.

Consider that when it comes to your cleric class; regardless of whether you’re running Tolkien-esque high fantasy, or ancient Bronze Age adventures, or Vancian weirdness. If you include the cleric class as one of your adventuring archetypes, it’s easy to see reasons for adventuring:
  • Building temples, shrines, and churches.
  • Building strongholds to defend those churches and their followers.
  • Hiring troops to supplement the faithful.
  • Funding wars to bring the Good News or defend against Infidels.
  • Supporting and maintaining non-adventuring clergy members and institutions (including monasteries and convents).
  • Acting as patrons of divinely inspired artwork (sculpture, painting, architecture, etc….the European Renaissance was kicked off by religious artwork funded by the Church).
  • Precious treasures found can become part of the ritual implements for religious services (or be sold for money to commission creation of the same).
Delving dungeons and slaying sentient creatures for their possessions (looting orcs, etc.) is an expedient method of finding treasure to fund one’s religious goals, and not nearly as distasteful as the historic actions taken by real world religious institutions (one of the objectives of the Crusades appears to have been bringing back treasure and booty from the Holy Land…not just Islamic and Jewish temples but anything that wasn’t nailed down!).

If it feels “un-Christian” for your Lawful cleric to rob a tomb or ancient temple, you’re not thinking with the proper mindset. While the Romans were “all inclusive” when it came to allowing other cultures to retain their own religions as part of their beneficent Empire, those other religions were still second class citizens (and outlawed entirely after the adoption of Christianity). And consider this: today’s widely held idea that “we are all children of the same God, just using different names and practices” is a recent belief and was NOT the historic norm. Another culture’s holy places/shrines/temples were considered fair-game, totally lootable at best, and outright delusional or evil at worse. The Christians burned many a pagan and the Muslims stomped out a lot of other religions in their conquest of the Middle East and North Africa. Sometimes this was done for political reason (less chance of facing an organized rebellion when the spiritual heart of a city-state has been cut out), but often the folks doing the conquest were actual, devout “True Believers” in their faith. And, as said, for most of our history people have believed its “my way or the highway,” with regard to religion (and to some folks that way of thinking is still alive and well as seen in our dehumanization of those who don’t share our own cultural beliefs).

Does this mean your character (lawful cleric or paladin that she is) can’t be a “hero?” No.

Look, being motivated by money (which adventuring PCs are) does NOT mean there’s no room for heroic action. DCC might have the line about your characters being scurrilous rogues, but that doesn’t mean heroic behavior is proscribed. It just means you might have to reconsider what heroic behavior is within the context of the game.

You can perform feats of courage and nobility and self-sacrifice during the course of your adventure…that is the essence of being a hero. Heck, even setting foot into a dungeon (and plumbing its mysterious depths) is a bold and extraordinary action and can be considered heroic. And there’s plenty of room for cleverness and social interaction (rather than turning every encounter into a slaughter-fest) which are traits of many heroes of myth and legend…it’s not all punching someone in the nose and stealing their goodies.

But remember the context. Stealing that jade statue worshipped by the foul denizens of the Underworld is doing a SERVICE to your own theology…and if you can convert it into cash for the building of a synagogue, all the better. Robbing some ancient tomb isn’t sacrilege…only bizarre pagan idol-worshippers bury their wealth along with the dead (their souls are resting with their gods, there’s no need to leave jewels rotting in the earth, and their baubles can be used for the betterment of one’s own Church). In your character’s mind he or she is doing “the right thing” by pulling off a big haul.

D&D is, of course, a game. Most of us wouldn’t stab someone with a sword in real life, but we don’t have a second thought about doing so in the game. Why? Because it fits the CONTEXT (sometimes justice is “rough” in those days that followed the oceans drinking Atlantis…). So, too, with your cleric’s religion. Remember that the cleric character class is not just some church-going dude with a holy-symbol around his neck. You are a divine agent of your faith. Your god speaks through you, granting you the ability to perform miracles. You are a righteous, holy roller…if you dig up an ancient Indian burial ground to put in a mini-mall that will directly fund your local Cathedral you will be REWARDED…in THIS life as well as the next.

[and who’s to say your politically incorrect actions won’t be for the best in the long run? The Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica was both damnable and outrageous. But would the alternative be to allow human sacrifice to continue to this day? Another sticky philosophical question]

Anyhoo, that’s the attitude I choose when I take up the mantle of the cleric class. It’s why I don’t “hang back” and wait for my chance to heal the wounded or turn undead or whatever. No way, man…I am leading the way (and the charge, when it comes to that) in the party’s quest to find treasure. It’s all for the Greater Glory of my character’s god, you see? And my character believes his righteousness will be rewarded… he’ll make his saving throws or his turning checks or his attack rolls…by doing the will of his divine patron. And if he should fall in battle, well, it was probably in his god’s plan and all things serve that higher purpose, right?

Not that there’s a “wrong way” to play a cleric (far be it from me to suggest such a thing, *ahem*) but I personally find the proactive choice to be the right one for me. I mean, I am wearing the heavy armor, right? Most of a cleric's allowable weapons are one handed (allowing the use of a shield). And don’t you need to stand in front of the group to reveal your holy symbol to the undead? How else are they going to see it (and thus fear it?) if you’re hiding behind the dudes with the pole arms? It seems to me that a character “strong in his/her faith” isn’t afraid to lead from the front; providing a holy light in the darkness, as it were (the better to shine off gold and jewels in the dungeon).

Huh… I should probably institute some house rule about how faithless skulkers (i.e. “weak-sauce clerics”) lose some of their spell-casting ability or take a penalty to turning checks. Boy, that would sure piss some people off! But dammit how else are you going to justify the cleric class’s swift rate of advancement and fantastic saving throws?

Oh, right…I suppose some people don’t think about that kind of thing.
; )


  1. This is seriously good stuff. Required reading for old school clerics everywhere. And I just got a core message for my players who struggle with clerics in our current bash and loot style of game.

  2. Wow. EXCELLENT article. I've been struggling with the purpose of the cleric in my own (being designed)campaign, and this helps me to define the role for the purpose of the campaign. Thanks!

  3. Totally with you. I recently wrote this about clerics in the setting I am currently working on:

    In addition to the standard draws of adventure, clerics have several other objectives. Many ancient shrines of the order have been defiled by the powers of chaos, usurped by the vanity of petty gods, or destroyed by jealous black magicians. Clerics gain acclaim by purging such shrines of evil and reconsecrating them in the name of the light. Clerics also value recovering scriptures (written in the secret language of law) or holy relics (the remains of fallen clerics). The shadowy underworld and gloomy forests are littered with the remains of brave champions of the light. Accumulating treasure is also just as important to the cleric as it is to other adventurers, as wealth is required for building a stronghold and raising armies against the powers of chaos.


  4. That's what it's all about, right there. Healer? Supporting character? Bah! You've got a mace; get in there and smite something with it! Then take its gold for The Righteous Cause.

  5. This is brilliant. I'll be thinking about this for quite a while.

  6. Great stuff, as usual. Next time I play a cleric my character'll be up in the front, kickin' ass for the Lord!

    -Ed Green

  7. never used "loot = xp".

    this resulted in never having a problem with character motivation. characters did whatever they liked and a flexible (more sensible?) xp-system allowed them to do so.

    not giving the cleric that didn't take the treasure any xp seems silly. not rewarding roleplaying naturally makes the game feel less like an rpg.

    1. But you need to remember that this is what it was all about. In OD&D you go XP for treasure. End of story. Now I personally play various editions and clones, but this is what OD&D was set up to do. The Cleric was actually based more upon "holy" crusaders than it was "priests" in the original game. That would be a part of why the 1st level cleric doesn't truly have divine powers in OD&D.

  8. @ Brendan: Each DM will, of course, have to determine the "clerical specifics" for his or her own campaign, but so long as folks are thinking of an answer to the SPECIFIC question in terms of the overall GENERAL game play, that specific answer can definitely be nuanced...as your example shows.

    I think there are a lot of people that just look at the RAW and look at the cleric (with some pre-conceived presumptions) and then throw up their hands in despair.

    @ Shlominus: Um, okay. Leaving aside the problematic question of "how does one reward role-playing" I wasn't trying to imply that there weren't other methods of doing advancement. Certainly 3rd edition+ circumvents the whole question by simply rewarding clerics (and everyone else) for "fightin' monsters;" those WotC editions are about nothing more than "kicking ass" in a variety of ways (determined by class).

    My post was aimed at folks who play Old School D&D, i.e. editions from back when loot was given for XP. It doesn't really make sense for players of 2nd Edition+ or their own home-brewed rule set.

    1. i know. ;)

      i just think gold = xp is one of the most stupid d&d-rules ever and this seemed like a good place to say it.

      i play(ed) other systems much more than d&d and i have yet to find a way to award xp that i consider as moronic.

      obviously, if you use loot = xp and you play a cleric, your position makes a lot of sense. i just think it's a bit limiting.

    2. Well, JB's whole thesis here flows from the fact that the game is about treasure hunters (that's what GP value = XP means).

      Rewarding "roleplaying" in my opinion actually devalues the roleplaying, because you end up with PCs acting heroic for the reward rather than out of selflessness, or eccentric for the reward rather than for the humor. It leads to caricatures. The incentive system being about greed makes perfect sense to me.

      Only giving out XP for treasure and defeating enemies doesn't limit the PCs at all. They can still do whatever they want, based on whatever in-game motivations they have, and their rewards for doing so will be diegetic (reputation, infamy, favors, whatever).

    3. i never said "reward roleplaying with xp", did i? i said "don't punish roleplaying by withholding xp." :)

    4. I don't understand what you mean then.

      Lack of reward is not punishment.

  9. Totally agreed. That's how I have run clerics from my Mentzer days. Just a note: the "motivation" for the sample adventure in the Mentzer set is to "kill Bargle since he killed Aleena" but in so doing you are going to get MONEY (1000 gps!), AND pay swift retribution to the infidel. The cleric I had in the party back then exactly played the part of the punisher and avenger.
    I don't see how this is "wrong" aside the usual snark comment when dealing with the Mentzer rules. NOWHERE in Mentzer you will see mention of rewards for other than treasure and monsters. As an example it's actually orders of magnitude better than what is provided in the Moldvay set.

  10. It's genuinely nice to read somebody describe religion in a role playing game in manner that makes sense when we consider how religions came to be and their real world histories. More of that please! If you couldn't guess, I would prefer it if more RPGs used religion like this.


  11. More notes: AD&D 2e has a very flexible system to handle XP, which you can tailor to your campaign. You can use treasure as XP, adherence to class role, casting spells to further ethos (relevant to this discussion) etc.
    In 3e and 4e no XP is directly given for treasure, because the assumption is that treasure will in some ways be guarded by monsters and/or traps, both of which give XPs; so in some way they bypass the issue completely, which is reasonable as it brings to the front the fact that gaining treasures is DANGEROUS! While in 4e treasure is more of an afterthought, in 3e it's VERY IMPORTANT since characters are supposed to be adequately equipped to face the challenges of the dungeon, and equipment can only be bought by accumulating treasure.

  12. I forgot to add. In 3e and 4e you get treasure for defeating a monster, which does not necessarily mean killing it. So if you are smart enough to avoid it to get the treasure it guards, you get as if you killed it.

  13. @ Shorty: Thanks, I try.
    : )

    @ Shlomo/Brendan: XP for role-playing (or lack of the same) is it's own ball of wax; I may address this in a (near) future post.

    @ Antonio: I was remiss in my snarky, off-hand comment re Aleena the cleric...just went back and read the sample adventure in MY copy of Mentzer this morning and she is definitely out looking for "treasure and monsters" (in that order). It's not WRONG to have additional motivations, but again there is 1) working with the game as written to decide what it means, and 2) deciding what it means without taking into account the rules as written. I think the latter is fairly common and can lead to a disconnect when it comes to playing "old school" editions (and Mentzer's BECMI is (mainly) using Old School rules even if it seems to lack certain Old School sensibilities).

    But I really don't want to beat up on Mentzer in this thread.

    RE 2nd edition: I don't own the 2E books anymore, having sold them in disgust a loooong time ago; however, my remembrance was that only "rogues" and their sub-classes received XP for monetary treasure. I don't remember there being other optional XP rules, but it has been a few years since I last read those books.

    RE 3E+: I'm not sure what your point is or how it pertains to the topic at hand. That's not meant to be snarky, I really mean that!

  14. How DARE you speak ill of poor, sweet Aleena?!!

  15. My point about Mentzer was that the motivations are exactly "treasure and monsters" much like the previous version, to the (apparent) contrary of what you seem to imply.

    RE: 2e: yup, it's all in the DMG. All the possible experience handling systems you could want/imagine/desire. Including treasure.

    RE: 3e+, you write: "Certainly 3rd edition+ circumvents the whole question by simply rewarding clerics (and everyone else) for "fightin' monsters;" those WotC editions are about nothing more than "kicking ass" in a variety of ways (determined by class)."
    Well, a perusal of the DMGs of 3e+ shows that that's not really the case. "Defeating monsters" (among the other ways to gain XPs) is only the mean to an end: gaining treasure, which in turn is the "currency" by which characters get better (better equipment, spell/magic item research etc.)

    Anyway, nice post!

  16. I always figured they sought treasure in order to have something valuable to sacrifice.