Friday, March 1, 2013

Powers of the Prophets (Part 2)

[continued from here; sorry that took awhile!]

But in a GAME where your character is simply a figure on the playing field, getting killed takes you out of play…as does being poisoned or paralyzed or diseased or reduced to so few hit points that the next blow WILL kill you and take you out of the game. And being out of the game means not playing. And the point of the game is to play, right? So how to provide an in-game reason to bring someone back from the dead (i.e. “back into the field of play”)?

“Lazarus come OUT!”

Christianity may not have the first tales of resurrection (Osiris came back from the dead after all…though he was already a god himself, and his “raising” simply put him back into heaven rather than raising him to new mortal life on earth)…*ahem* Christianity may not be the first tales of bringing someone back from the dead, but it is certainly a well-known and prominent place for such tales. MIGHTY HEALING one might call it…with the power of God anything was possible, even the raising of the dead. So the Bible would tell you (and so it’s been telling many, many people for centuries).

[as a side note, I was reading Julian Johnson's Path of the Masters a few years back...about enlightened masters and the importance of finding a guru for one's own path to enlightenment...and one thing claimed in the book was that ANY enlightened teacher (i.e. "a sainted master") has the powers exhibited by Jesus in the Bible: things like healing folks and raising the dead; however, according to the book, most enlightened masters choose NOT to do this, because suffering individuals are working off karmic debt, and preventing them from doing this (as Jesus did with his miraculous healings) is a BAD THING and will in fact place a negative karmic burden on your own soul. To me this is a load of bunk...even if such were the case (i.e. that suffering people should be allowed to suffer for the good of their souls), I personally can't believe someone would take a negative "hit" to their karma by freeing someone from their suffering; that just doesn't jibe with my world view of a caring God...maybe I'm a rosy idealist, but I'm guessing Christ didn't reincarnate as a cockroach because he cured a bunch of lepers]

SO...having a mighty Saint in your game, one able to channel the power of God (and hopefully doing His Will on Earth by acting in such a way) gives you an in-game justification for a mechanic that allows you to bring PCs back from the dead. Meaning your game can continue.

Even if your player characters aren’t high enough level to have such a miraculous supplication granted, the mere presence of such in the rules implies characters may encounter or entreat NPC clerics to do their “raising” for them (probably for a cost that helps to keep the PCs' bulging bags and backpacks light of their cash). Likewise with other clerical spells…originally, all were in aid of PRESERVING party members (including the creation of food and water for the starving and thirsty). For the most part, the cleric spell list…and here I mean the true cleric spells, not the magic-user ones deemed “appropriate” for clerics…the unique clerical spells are game mechanics designed to “save” PCs who failed their saving throws or took their damage or got themselves killed. They are spells designed to MITIGATE the impact of BAD LUCK and POOR PLAY.

[ooo…now THAT sounds harsh!]

That is to say, those spells other than the Mosaic spells (God always showed up as more of a “vengeful god” back in the days of the Old Testament). At least the speak with animals and plants gives you the ability to circumvent altercations before they begin (mmm…as does find traps). But the spells that see the MOST use in game tend to be the curing and healing and raising spells. And yeah, in a game where a single blunder of bad judgment can mean as much disaster as a single bad die roll, it’s kind of important to have something that can off-set or mitigate these effects.


Remember, the original point here was to figure out WHAT the inclusion of the cleric brings to the game that the class’s exclusion would cost you. In looking at the spells here I have a couple thoughts twisting through my skull:

#1 Including these spells in this form allows PCs to mitigate such things as poison, disease, damage, death, etc. In effect, this makes the campaign setting a very forgiving world (no pun intended)…which may or may not be your cup of tea. Do you want PCs to plunge ahead, heedless of consequence, knowing that only a single survivor is necessary to “bring ‘em back alive?” Are you afraid that without such easy magic close at hand your players will get all tentative and skulky and invest in a herd of cattle to drive through the dungeon before them, setting off traps and distracting monsters? How deeply do you want this to impact your world (pro or con?)?

#2 Having these spells as a “divine” form of magic preserves a LIMIT on what magicians (and sorcerers and wizards etc.) can do, which I LIKE. I like the idea that magic-users can’t create permanent effects (like healing), without resorting to magic item creation. It echoes myth and folklore and fairytales…like the magician who has the stupendous castle created wholly with magic that dissolves into nothingness when the enchanter dies. Or the sword & sorcery stories where magic spells are mainly of the mesmerize and mind control (illusion) style magic…with the exception of the occasional hideous death attack hex.

If you decide you need to keep this preservation mechanic, but don’t want to have the divine trappings of the same….either because you don’t want monotheist-style holy men in your game, or you can’t find a way to rectify a Judeo-Christian-themed spell list with a pagan priesthood…then your only option is to include these “get out of jail free cards” in the magic-user spell list…and that's a pretty f’ing lazy way to go.

I mean, in my opinion, it’s no less lazy (and nonsensical) to give magicians “healing spells” (just for the sake of having them in the game), then it is to simply keep clerics in the mix (just for the sake of having them in the game). Because if you have magicians bringing people back from the dead (for instance), you are stepping out of established folklore and myth to do so. Meaning you’re establishing YOUR OWN GENRE OF FANTASY…which is no better (nor worse) than what Gygax/Arneson did with their inclusion of the cleric.

At least the cleric makes SOME semblance of sense: again, from the original Holy Man of Christ concept that seems to be present in OD&D. Once you move out of the realm of Christian myth (whether that move is to ancient “hyborian” times or some weird-ass world where people worship Odin but no one’s ever heard of Jesus)…well, you’re pretty much in Lala Land at that point, so who cares whether or not you have clerics…or dragon-born or half-halflings or whatever!

Where'd I leave my plate mail?


  1. I always think of this when thinking of non-Clerical resurrection.

    One quick point regarding the use of "Powers" (called Siddhis in Eastern traditions). There is a different paradigm for the use of Powers as compared to the Powers attributed to Christ in the Bible.

    The goal of the traditions who incorporate the Siddhis is to transcend the World. The use of Siddhis (Powers that exert supernatural influence upon and within the Physical World) entrenches the user in the World further -- as opposed to moving away from the Physical World.

    There are some parallels with Christianity, but the Miracles of Christ come from a different presumption: Demonstrations of God's power and mercy.

    That said, there are plenty of interesting ways to combine these real-world concepts into the game. Heck, there is even a tradition that claims that Jesus spent his early adulthood in India and became Enlightened before returning to his homeland.

  2. I agree with your analysis.

    I have never used anything resembling the D&D cleric in my games. Particularly I find their crypto-Christian trimmings and blunt weapon restriction ludicrous. Also, the idea of playing 'the party's HP battery' is dull.

    To avoid having to run clerics, why not just give all the classes extra HP and a few spare lives? Maybe 1 per level? Or hand them out as a pool for the players to draw from at need? Or give the heroes access to 'elfin healing cookies'? Or... forgive me... healing surges.

    But these are all character powers.

    Is there a need for character powers that can 'keep characters in play'?

    No. Depending on your game the death or incapacitation of an individual character might not matter.

    Is there a need for some game process that keeps players in play?

    Yes, it's essential.

    In fact, one often sees NPC clerics used in low level campaigns as an external (to the party) game process to keep players in play in low level campaigns. The PCs don't have (good) healing abilities (heck they don't even have a cleric - nobody wants play one), but they know the Abbot, who does. When the Abbot starts to hint that he needs some help in return, the grateful characters get plot hooks too.

    Other games have other ways of keeping players in play; not all of them involve character powers that heal characters.

    As a practical matter, the temptation to introduce PC-saving mechanics is strong. Although this is partly about the tendency for players to become attached to their characters, I think there are more practical forces at work in D&D.

    It takes time and trouble to make up a character. Even in early editions it's several minutes work, and can become repetitive after a while. How many 1st level fighters do you want to roll up, name and equip in a single session? Its just rolling dice, shuffling paper and doing math.

    More importantly, in an ongoing campaign new characters start at the bottom of the XP ladder. That's OK when most of the PCs are still at level 1. It surely doesn't work when most of the cohort has reached levels 4-5. There's simply no way a first level character can adventure with the cohort, and no way to catch up. The player with the new character could play a bunch of separate adventures. But that puts the players with high-level characters out of play.

    There are other ways around this problem. You could design a game where characters don't advance in power. That's probably a better fit with most fantasy fiction than the D&D model anyway. If new characters were really easy to generate, all the better. Paranoia, on the other hand, had a system of clones...


  3. @ Rev. Dane:

    I am familiar with Levi's "Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ." Nice little fill in the blanks for ol' JC (though I'm sure at least part of that time was spent doing the "carpenter thang"). The Siddhis is definitely NOT right for this particular game...a little too esoteric, I'm afraid.

    @ James:

    You do bring up good considerations that I've tried to account for. I really don't think chargen in my game takes even as long as, say, AD&D, but it provides a more interesting and variable character...consequently, I'm not too worried on that end.

    The "spare lives" thing won't work, but I've got some (I think) fun ways to "decrepitize" players without being so hard-core death oriented. And while character advancement is definitely ON the table, it's not the 'be all, end all' of the game.

    *sigh* I can't really get into all the mechanics at the moment. I will in the future, though. Thanks for the thoughts.