Thursday, June 16, 2016

Taking (the) God(s) Out

In less than 24 hours I will be in Toledo, Spain.

"Holy Toledo" is perhaps my favorite city in Europe...a beautiful town with thousands of years of culture and one that has the distinction of (historically) being home to three major religions...Christianity, Judaism, and Islam...all cooperating and getting along harmoniously. Toledo celebrates this piece of their history, a lovely example of true religious tolerance from a time on our planet when people were killing each other for "religious reasons" more often than now. And this in a town still renowned for its sword-making.

Not sure if it will be as fun with a five- and
two-year old in tow. We'll see.
I'm looking forward to being there again. There are few places where I've found a true and pleasant sense of "serenity." Mount Constitution on Orcas Island (in the San Juans). Assisi, famed home of St. Francis and St. Claire, in Italy. Flathead Lake in Montana. A couple others I'm probably forgetting. It's nice to feel serene and at peace. It's helps me to see the world with a larger perspective. Maybe it makes me feel closer to God.

I've never been an atheist. I did the agnostic bit in the early 90s, wondering why God (or whatever) would allow terrible things to happen, etc. and figuring humans must have just created these religion-thangs out of desperation. These days, though, my feelings are fairly concrete. I believe there is a God (call It what you will) and I believe God cares about us. As in, God gives a shit what's happening down here on Earth.

Not that we can divine God's will or plan (save for some of the larger strokes...loving each other, getting along, learning from our mistakes, making the world better, etc.)...but God's not some divine clockmaker that wound up the universe and "let 'er rip." No, there's an ongoing attention to what's going on here. God cares how this is all going to play out over time. And God's set the table for us in a particular way, specifically so that we can have the experiences that we do, make the choices that we will...for good or not.  The world we live in a place we've created collectively as a product of those choices. And while that may not be a particularly comforting fact, it means we have the power to shape it differently, should we so choose.

At least, that's what I believe. The particular "guidebook" (Bible, Torah, Quran) isn't nearly as important as what you choose to do with it. I don't see God favoring a particular institution any more than I see God favoring one football team over another.

Which brings me round to my latest thoughts on D&D...specifically, the absolute gall of the concept of "clerical magic."

[how's that for a 90 degree turn?]

Plenty of folks before me have decried the presence of clerics in D&D based on their lack of "fit" with either A) their lack of fit with the game's sword & sorcery roots, or B) their inappropriateness to the game's murderhobo premise, or C) some other conceptual gripe. But have we considered the base conceit of the class? That a being (or beings) of divine power rather whimsically bestow magical powers on these mortal followers?

From a theological point of view it's fairly ridiculous. Leave aside for the moment that, in measurement of power (if not, perhaps, overall effect) the non-divine magic of wizards is at least equal and probably greater in might to that of the cleric's patron...that discussion is simply an added cherry of incredulousness. Leaving that aside, consider the cosmological implications, compared to our own experienced reality. Here in the Real World, God (or Divinity or the Universe or Karma or whatever) works through Its creations...whether you're talking the actions of individuals and societies or the eruption of volcanoes and the glacial pace of evolution. There are no divinely bestowed "powers" (other than those we already possess) given to be activated on a whim. When we see something that we consider a miracle, it is something unexplainable in our usual terms, and it tends to be a scarce occurrence...not something that occurs on a daily, willed basis.

Why would God...or the gods...take such direct action? Or perhaps more interestingly, if they wanted to take direct action, why work through mortal mediums? The standard "fantasy answer" usually ranges from "the gods have chosen/vowed not to directly interfere in the affairs of mortals" to "mortal minds cannot comprehend the motives of deities." But if these are deities (and the game defines them as such), then aren't they the creators of the game "universe?" And wasn't it created to their liking in such a way that brooks no direct interference (for if they'd needed it different, they would have made it so)? Why now are they bunging the whole thing up? Is it all a game to the gods? Some sort of sick (or, worse, mediocre) joke?

If it really is the cosmology, I would expect nearly every individual of the game world to be following the clerical path...certainly more than other adventuring class. There is no real faith or belief in the unseen that is required: the proof of the gods and their miraculous gifts are readily available for all to see. Only the most deluded, hard-cased fool would walk a godless path in such a universe, and it would be a strange adventurer indeed who would shy away from such power.

Just think about having the power to heal yourself and your loved ones. How many of us have wished for such magical much more useful than the ability to throw a ball of fire. Forget raising the dead...let me just fix my sprained wrist or my chronic back ache. Let me just cure my wife's cancer. It's not like the requirements for the cleric class are so difficult to make. In B/X there are none (just give up using edged weapons? hell, that's easier than quitting nicotine). Even in AD&D the class is open to any human with a WIS of 9+...that's barely "average."

And just consider the "afterlife" implications. Really, how many humans are interested in ending up in Hell or the Abyss when they die? Given the evidence on display, you'd figure only the tragically insane would walk the path of the Evil High Priest...unless D&D's version of hell is somehow a lot nicer that the way it's portrayed in the movies. And if the good-aligned religions in such a universe are anything like the ones we have in real life, I would strongly suspect the institutional members to worry a LOT less about temporal power and political machinations, considering the true knowledge of Divine Law that they'd possess.

Okay what? Just where am I all going with this? A few years ago I wrote this post expressing the opinion that there should probably be more religion...or more religious role-playing games given our basic human condition. I still think that. And I don't think gods-granted clerical spells are at all necessary for such considerations. You don't need magic for religion to have a profound impact on your fantasy world (see Game of Thrones).

However, I also wrote (a few days ago) that, for the most, I like the design of the cleric as a character concept. That is to say, I like the basic (game) mechanics of the character, even though I have some issues with how it scales over time (and what that does to your game). But what's been irking me lately is the "fluff" behind the class...this whole idea of them being granted these miraculous powers by their deities. It doesn't jibe with me. There are plenty of stories of saints and crusaders and agents of the gods who seemed to have certain "blessings" bestowed on them...things that would lead the faithful to believe even as their detractors scoffed. You don't see much of the concrete manifestation of magical powers attributed to God or the gods. Certainly not in such a systematic way as the D&D system.

Anyway, I have found two different ways to handle this in a way that's satisfactory to me. The first is the way I've approached the cleric class in that B/X supplement I was working on a couple months back (still need to finish those last few pages...). The gist is that all the clerics are worshippers of the same God (regardless of the name they use for it), and that alignment is simply a description of the character's personality, not some sort of "cosmic side-picking." In other words, there are no "evil high priests" (well, there are, but they aren't clerics per se...), and your cleric may be cowardly, or selfish, or a bullying tyrant, etc. Clerical magic is much closer to magic-user magic, being a product of specific ritual and prayer and is thus learned (not "bestowed"). Clerics are thus a bit more limited (compared to standard B/X) with regard to spell access...but at least they make a bit more sense (it's a tougher path). Oh, yeah...and no reversed spells.

It's still a fantasy class with fantastical powers, but it works with the premise of a world being assaulted by demonic forces of supernatural evil. And those dark forces offer their own temptations and lures of power (both temporal and otherwise) as they try to restructure the fabric of reality. That, I suppose, is reason enough for the gods to offer a little divine help to their mortal followers.

The other tact I'm taking is with the home-brew campaign I've started developing (see this post regarding the whys and wherefores). At the moment, I'm working out a re-skin of the cleric class that leaves the abilities while completely redefining it. Yes, they will still be "priestly" types. No, they will not be getting their spells from "higher (or lower) powers." More on that later, perhaps...I won't bore you anymore than I already have.

Right now, I have to get some sleep. Got a long flight in the morning.
: )


  1. Clerics are charisma, not wisdom.

    'Fear is the Mind killer'.

    Our Bene Gesserit psionic has the basic talent: 'Fear'.
    Undead types are replaced by 'hit dice affected'. So now you progress through living foes of increasing hitdice. Skeleton=1HD, Zombie=2HD...basically you put the thought of a purple people eater in their eyed, one horned, flying, purple people eater... ;-)

    Spells (beginning at second level psionic) are psionic feats. These require preconditioning of the mind through meditation.

    1. @ Sean:

      An interesting idea, but not what I have in mind (though psychic dead raising reminds me of some 80s style horror a cool way). Actually infringes a bit on my wizard cosmology.

      Still would use wisdom over can have jerk, anti-social psychics, too. Plus, what else would you use WIS for? Rename it willpower if you like (or "psychic" power, as in EPT/Tekumel).

      Psychic undead hunters. Very "Buffy."
      ; )

  2. I think D&D assumes an eschatology more akin to Norse, Celtic or Greco-Roman mythology than the Abrahamic.

    The Olympians didn't create the world. They inherited it from the Titans, who also didn't create the world. Similarly with the Aesir/Vanir, or the Tuatha de Danaan.

    As for why not everyone walks the path of the cleric, well not everyone in our world can walk the path of the doctor. Or the SEAL commando. Or the lawyer. Or the clergyman. Or the academic. Some jobs require specialized training that not everyone has the will or the ability to complete, despite there being obvious benefits for those who do. Perhaps being a cleric isn't as simple as just being a human with average or better Wisdom.

    My $0.02, YMMV.

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  4. Very interesting stuff.
    The other day I was reading some D&D thing or clone that explained that religion was very powerful because the high-ranking clerics had all these cool powers...
    Automatically, I thought, "no, it must be the other way around: the gods move in mysterious ways, so not only the holy hermit could be more blessed, but also the sinners could find themselves touched by divine grace".
    I wouldn't think being a cleric or wizard is as easy as being a fighter... that is why most monsters and NPCs are treated as fighters.
    I like the BECMI/RC way of doing things: gods need followers, so they give powers, but they incur in some risks while doing so...
    Dragonlance's "faith is what creates miracles" could also work.
    D&D seems like a bad place to have omnipotent divinities anyway.
    Anyway, I'm rambling.

  5. I've always explained it (in my campaign, anyway) by having "divine" magic be a counterpart to "arcane" magic: both of them are skills that are learned by people. The difference is mostly flavor and setting: clerical magic is taught within the hierarchy of the Church (so someone who could heal wounds with a touch would almost certainly explain this power as coming from their God[s], regardless of any other theories), while "wizardly" magic is taught outside of it.

    The only real-world analogue I can think of is martial arts: there are many types of martial arts, some of which assume a spiritual element (like Qigong or Tai Chi), while others don't (such as most American forms of Karate and Taekwondo). The focuses might also be different - offense vs. defense - but in the end, the broad strokes of the practices are still the same.

    Then again, I've always resisted the urge to bring in deities in my D&D games. The usual approach robs them of any mystery, and I think that having characters go find the thunder god and kill him would lead to way too many complications if said deity were actually in charge of the weather. If I ever did have a PC meet a god, and they tried to kill him/her/it, my answer would be "No. You lose." (After all, most of the Greek myths of this type end very badly for the hopeful god-killer, unless the hero in question is a god himself.)

  6. Have a good time - I assume that picture is Toledo, and it looks beautiful!

    Some interesting perspectives to think over in that post. I'm working on a campaign based on Bellairs' Face in The Frost, and both the idea of clerics as devotees of the One God and the subtle incursion of darkness into the world fit with my vision. Serendipity! ;)

    My Mom, who passed away a year ago next month, always believed that things happen for a reason and there was some plan to it all. I'm not sure I believe, particularly now, but I hope there is.

  7. In the 4th edition cosmology, the Primordials created the world, then the Gods gave the world stability. Afterwards, they had a big war over which faction's vision of how the world should be would be. The Gods won, but they were subsequently prevented (it doesn't say how or why) from visiting the world for extended periods of time. Each god has a sphere of influence, and seems to grant a "pool" of divine power that is accessible to the god's followers. It says in one book (perhaps the Core Player's Handbook) that the cleric receives his powers through ordination by his church, NOT directly from his god.

  8. "And God's set the table for us in a particular way, specifically so that we can have the experiences that we do, make the choices that we will...for good or not."

    So...God is like a DM. Excepting that He manages a table with only PCs. Some of those PCs are Good Aligned, some Evil Aligned, and He doesn't handwave or railroad the stories of those of either alignment, but lets the Game play out, intervening only when necessary.

    Is that what you are saying?