Friday, February 22, 2013

Religious Fairytales

Officially, last night was play-test #1 of 5AK, the fantasy heartbreaker I’ve been working on that is MY entry into the “build your own D&D” craze that’s been going on with gamers since…well, since long before Gary Gygax passed away (you can probably mark a start date of circa 1975 when Ken St. Andre first published Tunnels & Trolls…). ANYway, unofficially this was play-test #3, though play-test #1 was really just an adaptation of my D6 rules to AD&D (a converted Dwellers of the Forbidden City acted as the staging ground), and play-test #2 was done prior to the setting material being hammered out (back when I was still calling the game Blood, Sand, and Silk…yes, that’s terrible, I know).  

Well stuff IS hammered now…plenty hammered…and last night was the first foray using rules that are about 85% complete (it’s just the “writing it all up” thing that I’m still working on…damn monster/spell lists!). The SYSTEM(s) are in place…everything except for mass land combat and maritime adventure…and I felt confident that the game is put together enough that it would “work.”

And it did.

So far anyway. Unfortunately, I’m starting to second guess myself a bit about the setting. In doing heavy research into 8th century Arabia, both its reality and its folklore (see the Arabian Nights for info) I may have gone too far towards the “fairy tale” genre with the setting. Right now, the game feels a little “goody-goody” as tends to happen when you involve monotheism (or an over-arching “good” deity as the head dude in your game), and where things like customs, family, religion, and romance are given some semblance of importance. In other words: “when it’s not your usual D&D game.”

Thing is, part of the reason I went this route was to move the game away from Tolkien-esque or King Arthur-esque fantasy (moving things out of Jolly Old England) and more towards a Middle Eastern flavor which feels (to me) much more Howardian or “Gor-ean”…more sword-and-sorcery-and ass-kickery in other words. Hopefully from the backs of giant birds (rocs rock, okay?).

But rather than Old Persia and dancing girls I moved the setting forward to a post-Islamic statehood, and the inclusion of Islam (and the Golden Age of Baghdad) has given the thing a much less “gritty” flavor, despite the presence of “abominations” and “beastmen.” Why o why did I do this, then?
  1. 800 CE is the time/setting of the Arabian Nights stories (even though many of them are culled from pre-Islamic folk tales, I realize)…and the Arabian Nights stories are a HEAVY influence on both the game and myself.
  2. I dig on Islam and old school monotheism (like the Coptics and medieval Catholicism) in general.
  3. Without monotheism, I really can’t justify the cleric class.

When I first started doing my heartbreaker (the one that got play-tested with the Dwellers of the Forbidden City) I didn’t have a cleric class in it…only the fighter, mage, and “adventurer.” There was a “holy man” tack-on ability that any class might have (kind of like AD&D psionics) which gave each class a different flavor…kind of like a paladin (holy fighter) versus priest (holy mage) versus itinerant saint (holy adventurer).  But then I scrapped all those rules and started over again.

I’m sure some folks are wondering, “why include a cleric at all?” If you want a gritty, Howardian (or Moorcocking) style S&S game, why bother with any type of divine adventurer, especially considering their lack of literary precedent (in the pulp adventure literature I like)? After all, there’s no such character in the Arabian Nights tales either…one could keep Islam or a monotheistic cult as a religion in the setting AND still exclude the cleric. And then, if I decide to make the game grittier and knock it back a few centuries prior to the rise of Christianity and Islam (back when you only had those “crazy Jews” with their temple and Holiest of Holies)…THEN if you decide to go that route, you can and “priests” can either being magic-users (if they happen to know and use magic) or not (if they don’t). Why O why even bother putting clerics in the game?

Good question. I think I did it for the spells.

Well, for the spells and for Joan of Arc. I LOVE Joan of Arc…that is to say that, for whatever reason, I find her story/legend to be fairly cool and inspiring and I use her as an archetype cleric (though one could, of course, also model her using a “crazy fighter” with a high Charisma score). I don’t know…I also dig the idea of a “war priest” or any type of primitive chieftain who is also the spiritual leader of a people. You see that archetype a lot in history and across many cultures. Hell, it wasn’t all that long ago that the monarchs of Europe were considered to have “divine right” to the throne. And isn’t the English monarch still also the head of the Anglican church??

The point is, whether you’re Mohamed or Saint Joan or some pagan priest of Thor or Mithras or whomever, I kind of dig the idea. On the other hand, my “fantasy adventure game” is trying to get away from being a “war game,” since war can be a boring, one-note story while “fantasy adventure” can encompass a lot of different tales.

But then, let’s go back to the spells.

I know that some people (who prefer a more Sword & Sorcery style game) axe clerics from the mix. They either add cleric spells to the wizard spell list OR they code magic as “black” and “white” (and maybe a couple other colors) OR they just add extra healing rules (like “surges”) OR they just axe ‘em (and their abilities) completely and give the game a much grittier feel due to the high mortality rate.

I know those are all options. I just don’t like them.

Or rather I prefer to have cleric spells (“divine miracles”) separate from the magic of a wizard. I like to think that there are SOME things magic cannot accomplish (arcane limits). I also prefer the rules as written with regard to healing (or with possibly even LESS healing) because I think the rules as written are “plenty gritty” depending on the edition of D&D you’re playing. Inflating PCs to superheroic proportion is the bigger expunger of “grittiness” from your campaign than the addition of a cleric class with a handful of healing spells.

So I LIKE that. I like a separate class that has a separate (and limited) type of magic. In fact, I’ve found ways to limit clerics even more with regard to their spell use, which I find to be very cool AND prevents them from becoming too much the “party medic.” But the ONLY way I’ve found to do what I want…which is to have two very different types of magic, each limited (or powerful) in their own ways…is to have one set of spells be granted by a divine force. Something capable of granting miracles to the truly devout.

Now, this of course, doesn’t model my real world mentality of the divine and religion…no more than my wizardry spells model what I think of “real” magic. Personally, I’m a big believer in the power of human mind and thought and its ability impact the world in ways one might seem mysterious. I am also a believer in the power of ritual (whether we’re talking Wiccan circle magic, hermetic voodoo, or the Catholic Mass), and of humans bending their thought and intention (i.e. “prayers”) towards an end and having that end met…in the manner that is favorable to the divine Will of God (or the Universe, Fate, whatever).

But that New Agey stuff is NOT what I want in my fantasy adventure game. I want to hearken back to a time when illiteracy and superstition mixed with folklore to give rise to legends of wizards and their spell books, back to a time when people feared attacks from literal, corporeal demons, and when the reading of a holy text (whether the Bible or Koran or Talmud or what have you) could banish said demons and cast off evil and perform miraculous miracles. I want my wizards to look into crystal balls or scrying pools and see far off places or future happenings…AND I want the power of prayer to protect holy men and women from the maleficent effects of sorcery. Astrology and tarot card reading is just side note “color” – I want my witch to make a flying potion with a few nasty ingredients and zoom around the Dome of the Rock three times, flaunting his mortal form. Now, if he ends up shattered and broken by the power of a true Apostle (as happened to Simon the Mage)…well, that’s the price you pay for being flamboyant with your sorcery.

I like that dichotomy…that “push & pull.” Unfortunately, it does seem to lend the game more of a fairy tale or fable type of feeling…instead of a wining and wenching and lotus eating bloody-sword-in-meaty-fist feeling. Which was what I initially set out to create.

Conan never seemed to give much thought to his mortal soul; he was a very secular adventurer. Which was probably the case for most ancient sell-swords and mercenaries…it’s hard to put too much stock in God and religion when you’ve put a lot of screaming people to death with your blade (especially when a lot of them were praying to God to save them from such a fate). A fighter like Conan is more likely to disregard religion…but such wasn’t really the case with most folks for most of human history (up till say, the 18th or 19th century). In the middle ages you were at church every Sunday not because you wanted to be a “good Christian” but because you imperiled your mortal soul by skipping the service…and that was a threat that used to carry a lot more teeth than it does in our jaded and decadent age.

Conan (and Elric and Leiber’s heroes, etc.) are products of the 20th century and 20th century ideologies and ethics. Gosh, maybe S&S literature could simply be termed “Godless fantasy.” Which is kind of ironic when you consider how many high priests and pantheons and mad gods and fire worshippers, etc. are found throughout the pages of those books.

So, yeah, I’m second guessing myself a bit, because I wanted to get back to more of D&D’s “literary inspirations” and instead it’s reading a bit more like an Arabic version of the Brothers Grimm. Which isn’t terrible (plenty of people get beheaded, poisoned, beaten, enslaved and cannibalized in those old Arabian Nights stories)…but it’s a little unsettling to have strayed so far from the path I originally intended. Just in tone.

And speaking of “straying from the path”…sheesh, I started this post with the intention of blogging about the actual play of the game session and here I wandered around for three pages, airing my tangential thoughts instead. I guess I’ll do a separate post on the play itself.


  1. I like seeing your chain of thinking on here, especially how you are rethinking assumptions after playtesting. I am still looking for a playtest group, though development on my own systems continue.

    In my own game I have a world that is somewhat agnostic about God. The Priests worship a Living God (that is still around) and everyone remembers worshipping an actual God, that is now dead.

    Looking forward to reading more about your playtest!

  2. “I have lived long enough to know what I did not at one time believe - that no society can be upheld in happiness and honor without the sentiment of religion.” Marquis Pierre La Place

    Clearly, there is a historical distinction between divine or arcane based spell craft. Prior to the papal inquisition and the Renaissance, magic was seen as a natural force under the dominion of God, not in opposition to to the divine.

    Witchcraft or harmful magic was a crime prosecuted under secular courts and not necessarily demonic or diabolical in origins. Other forms of magic (alchemy, healing, fortune telling, etc.) were often practiced openly and tolerated in the high middle ages.

    Two examples from our own Earth’s history: Agrippa wrote one of the seminal texts on ceremonial magic and alchemy, yet he was a devout Christian;
    Born in 1365 AD, the medieval author Christine de Pizan was the daughter of the court physician / astrologer for the Christian King of France.

    It was confessions obtained (many thru torture) during the papal inquisition that prompted the movement of the jurisdiction of harmful magic or witchcraft from secular to church courts. There was a distinction in the High Middle Ages (11-13th century) between naturalistic, arcane or magical knowledge from that of divine power and wisdom. Most magic of this period was concerned with activities that dominated everyday life such as crop growth, romance, animal husbandry, child bearing, weather prediction, etc.
    (The Middle Ages by Phillip Daileader)

  3. I agree about clerics, and I try to keep them in my games.
    For example, in my classic D&D Hyborian Age campaign, clerics are always chaotic, and their sorcerous knowledge derives from pacting with demons of the Outer Dark. Their role isn't necessarily tied with religion. Magic-users instead develop their sorcerous knowledge through formulaic and "academic" study. As the Hyborian Age is bleak and "godless" (although demons ARE real!) any character class can be a priest of some religion. Some religions are actually demonic cults (e.g. the cult of Set the Old Serpent,) and its sorcerous priests are actually clerics. Other religions of "good" gods might have sorcerous priests, but these will be magic-users. This dichotomy creates some interesting dynamics, as for example magical healing is seen as something dangerous and unnatural.

  4. I agree that it is really cool to see your thought processes written out here, because we're seeing someone in the process of developing a game system. It's a rare treat to get this sort of "designer diary" in the OSR, I think. So please, don't apologize for this sort of "brainstorming" post, because it's really fascinating!

  5. one solution is to separate clerics from religion, think of clerics more of saints, or prophets, more than priest and knight.

    Do you really think that the inquisition would treat differently a cleric from a witch or a magic user if the cleric only tried to say things against the church (or whatever organization do you want to model)? A knife in the night or a nice process for heresy would set everything in place....

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  7. the way I see it, medieval physicians and surgeons would probably be magicians or alchemists (Agrippa, Faust, Dr Jekyll, etc.)
    . . .
    Divine healing only comes from the priests.
    The term priest includes clerics; however, the term 'cleric' only applies to followers of the tri-union (LG, NG, CG) God of the Universal Church of Good. The advantage that clerical orders had over pagan religions in the ancient or medieval world is literacy and organization. Unlike pagan priests, clerics have a professional, scholarly and salaried hierarchy. The first universities of the medieval world were founded as religious centers of learning that teach in the official church language; Latin in the catholic West and Greek in the orthodox East.
    The priest’s alignment will determine which weapons are available to him. All clerics or priests may wield clubs, hammers, maces, slings, staves and whips.
    Lawful clerics may use long-swords.
    Evil priests may also use scythes. Chaotic priests or clerics may also use daggers.
    . . .
    Pagan priests may also use those weapons dedicated or assigned to their deity; i.e., priests of Poseidon can use tridents, the priests of Odin may deploy spears and priests of Set may wield a kopesh.
    'Priest' used above is gender-neutral

  8. @ Everyone:

    Your thoughtful comments on my random, tangential reflections have led me to some deeper introspection on the subject and I feel the need to delve a little more on the subject...either in a new blog post or a series of posts.

    However, first I need to do a little "research" which means reading back over my prior posts regarding clerics AND taking the time to watch a couple old S&S films, that will take some time to get.

    More on the matter later.
    ; )

  9. Random tangentially relevant factoid:

    Back in Old Testament 101, if I recall from about King David onward there was a distinct division between priest, prophet, and king:
    Priests were necessary for.the rituals.
    Kings held leadership and did military stuff.
    Prophets got handed messages of God and social reforms to pester people about until something happened.
    This was after the people of Israel asked God to give them a king so they could be like all the other nations.

    But prior to this you had the "judges" (Nagid?). Judges were like a combination of kings and prophets (maybe also priests?). You would have this pattern where something bad is happening in Israel, probably because the Israelites got decadent. God raises up a judge who motivates the people both socially and, if necessary, militarily. Things get set right, but a couple generations later: more decadence, rinse and repeat.

    But it wasn't just the judges and "official" prophets who got prophecy. IIRC there were a couple instances where whole groups fell into a frenzy and just started prophesying en mass.