Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Looking at Film

Last night, I spent my evening (after putting Diego to bed) watching the old 1982 film Beastmaster. This was not for fun or entertainment (though I’ve viewed it many times in the past for just that reason), but with a critical eye towards the film as a model of cinematic “swords & sorcery” or “D&Dish fantasy.” Afterwards, I spent the remainder of my evening reading through the novelization of The Sword & The Sorcerer, the other main fantasy opus of 1982.

[no, I spent no time watching Schwarzenegger’s epic first Conan film…I’ve owned that one for years and have pretty much memorized it in its entirety]

Now, I’m the first to admit these are no great cinematic masterpieces in the traditional, Oscar-worthy sense of the term. But I’m not looking at them for inspiration in creating my own film. Instead, I’m looking at them in light of how they relate (cinematically) to a genre that I’d like to adapt, at least in part, to a fantasy adventure game. Or rather (since the game is mostly written at this point anyway…here I’m talking about 5AK) I’m looking at how to refine my setting.

And considering whether to junk it altogether and start from scratch.

The thing about these fantasy “epics” is they have free reign to include fantastic monsters and fabulous treasures and supernatural magic and violent adventure and steamy romance all under a single, semi-coherent whole. They also have an advantage over “historic-ish” fantasy fiction in that, being non-historical, they don’t have to pay any attention to real history. Which, of course, is useful when building an RPG setting, since it gives both DM and players full freedom to move and shake the world however they wish without guilt or complaint from armchair historians in the group.

Having such freedom contributes to stress-free fun.
; )

[interestingly, I was surprised to find that The Sword & The Sorcerer IS set in our “real world,” somewhat. The novelization makes reference to Egypt and Rome and Persia and Zimbabwe being contemporary cultures, and the main bad guy is the King of Aragon (a medieval Spanish kingdom), even though the main city/kingdom of Ehdan has no apparent counterpart in our real world]

Anyway, mainly what I was looking for was HOW each of these films dealt with the subject of religion, priests, and the cleric class…because right at the moment I’m having a really damn hard time justifying its inclusion in my game.

I have blogged about and dissected the cleric class in many, many posts over the years. I’ve discussed how to justify it in terms of Old School adventuring; I’ve talked about how it doesn’t have to be the “team medic;” I’ve discussed the character in relationship to the paladin class (and how the latter is fairly redundant with the inclusion of the cleric, save for the cleric’s weapon restrictions); I’ve discussed how the cleric as a concept renders moot the whole idea of “character death” being a substantial penalty; I’ve written what I feel is the difference between clerics and “temple priests;” I’ve written about my own experiences with the class, both as a player and as a DM…just a lot of different clerical posts can be found on this blog.

What I don’t think I’ve written about is DROPPING the class altogether.

A few years back I was inspired to write my own fantasy RPG, using Tolkien as a model. This game did not include clerics (there aren’t any clerics in Tolkien, unless you count Aragorn). It also, really didn’t make it out of the game (my main aim was to incorporate a clever mechanic I’d devised into an RPG, but a single clever mechanic does not an RPG make). Call this game “L.”

A couple years ago I again started working on something very much like my own version of B/X D&D (this was even before I started tossing around the concept of “D&D Mine” though it was a fantasy heartbreaker in all the usual regards). The magic system actually had a little similarity to that “clever mechanic” mentioned earlier, but otherwise it was a lot of keeping B/X as B/X, save that it shaved the total number of classes down to three: fighter, magic-user, and “adventurer.” While it lacked an actual clerical class, it provided rules for playing a “holy man/woman” that would be added onto the normal character class, giving you a few benefits (turning the undead, healing wounds and illness by “laying on hands”) in exchange for certain vows and alignment restrictions. Aside from the obvious differences, this game was actually largely inspired by the Good Parts found in DCC, but reflected and modified some of my frustrations found within the DCC system. It still wasn’t great and I decided to junk it. That game was called “FFA.”

Then, of course, WotC announced their D&D Next project (5E) which I thought was pretty stupid and insipid and caused me to do a little introspection into what I felt was the “real core” of D&D. This line of reflection led me to the conclusion that we all just need to write our own D&D…what I call the D&D Mine concept…and stop worrying about editions altogether. I set out to do just that, culling from OD&D and Chainmail and Holmes as much (if not more so) than B/X. My game, which I was calling BSS (Blood, Sand, and Silk) had all four basic classes of B/X including the cleric. It also, in this iteration, threw out a single “subclass” for each (the monk, paladin, illusionist, and assassin), each of which was heavily based on the OD&D supplements with regard to scope and requirements.

[for that matter BSS also included rules for dwarves, elves, and halflings in an appendix, noting that including these particular classes would give the game a “high fantasy” feel other than what had been intended by the author. This was me throwing a bone to people who like to include demihumans]

And then we came to 5AK, which isn’t all that different from BSS, except that it has discarded the “alternative combat system” first found in OD&D (and subsequently copied through AD&D and Holmes and B/X and BECMI) and moved back to a Chainmail-like system. In the process, everything about the game was updated to a D6-based system, and the magic system was reworked and the classes simplified (especially the subclasses) and additional subclasses added. Oh, yeah…and all of the setting material and additional rules stuff was piped in to the mix.

Yeah, actually the latest iteration is quite a bit different from the prior version.

So. clerics…first let me examine these films with regard to clerics.

The Sword and the Sorcerer: despite being (kind of) set in a “real world” setting, there seems to be no recognizable divinities present. The mention of Rome and Egypt as separate entities makes me think the time of the setting is pre-Christian (which would also mean pre-Islam since Islam didn’t arrive on the scene till six centuries after Christianity). The sorcerer himself is pretty demonic in appearance (and is treated as a sort of demon or minor divinity…at least by the witch that raises him) but the whole thing is kind of sketchy. It IS a movie after all: a vehicle to provide certain thrills and chills in an effort to make money. It’s not necessarily a thoughtful, well-constructed setting for use of a “world.”

Conan the Barbarian (also issued in 1982…do you think any of these were produced to capitalize on the marked popularity of a certain role-playing game?) is set in Howard’s Hyboria sometime after the Fall of Atlantis (circa 10,000 BCE for the first destruction based on the Cayce timeline; a bit more recent if you use Solon’s account) but before the advent of the Aryan race (which, if simply meaning “Old Iranian” would indicate 6th century BCE). That’s a long span of range, and Howard’s world is generally considered to be pre-recorded history. Recorded history is figured to have begun around 4,000 BCE (with the invention of writing allowing history to be “recorded”). In the Conan film we have a villain who purports to be a “demigod” walking the earth…though he may, alternatively, be simply a sorcerer and/or supernatural creature. HE has priests and worshippers, but none exhibit supernatural powers…they simply enforce the tenets of his particular “faith.” The time-setting of Hyboria also puts it long before the advent of any type of monotheism. In other words, no “clerics” in the D&D sense, despite the presence of necromancy.

Beastmaster certainly has the most “ancient” look to the setting. The largest city is a simple (by medieval standards) walled village whose centerpiece is a step-pyramid temple. There are (small) pastoral villages and marauding hordes and that’s it…no real organized civilization to speak of. Fewer population and people are closer knit (a lot of folks are related to each other and everything has a “small town” feel to it), plus names like Imur and Ard are suggestive of Enoch and Ur for “ancient city names.” Technology is slim: there’s agriculture and animal husbandry (including domesticated riding horses) but no metal armor or shields that I recall. They do have steel blades…. nice ones!...but again, it’s not really helpful to try attributing any type of rhyme or reason to the “world design” of a cinematic piece like Beastmaster.

In Beastmaster, the priests really ARE “priests” in the Old Religion sense of the term: with preaching and conversion and sacrifices to an unknown, unseen divinity…likewise, the lives of the people are fairly ruled by religion and there is the classic (and historic) struggle between rival powers of Church and State (the king and high priest don’t get along, causing the drama that drives the plot). As far as supernatural powers go, though, the priests really have none…at least nothing that is divinely channeled. The high priest’s harnessed the aid of witches who work sorcery for him, and he’s instilled fanaticism in his followers, and he’s got some alchemical secrets under his belt…but that’s it. Beastmaster feels a lot like OD&D…if OD&D was played only with fighting men in a semi-neolithic society. Even the priests (of which there are many) are all “fighting men;” they carry swords and crossbows and the heroes worry being outnumbered and killed or captured. The religion means having a willingness to die for the cause and following the instructions of the divine power (as interpreted, sometimes haphazardly, through the mouthpiece which is the high priest).

No “clerics” here either.

If I look back at my Howard or my Moorcock, the only priest-types one finds are sorcerers or illusionists or charlatans or political figures that generally worship demonic (and/or uncaring) entities and rule through intimidation and fear, if not outright lies. On the other hand, even fast-forwarding to more medieval, “non-ancient” fiction doesn’t find anything of a “clerical” example. Arthurian legend has a background Catholicism to it (in some legends) and nature-worshipping Druidism (in others)…but Merlin an Morganna, even in the fiction that considers them “pagan priests,” are more akin to magic-users in their spells and abilities. Healing through herb lore is NOT the same thing as “channeling the power of God” to heal wounds.

Anyone here remember the priest in Dragonslayer? That’s the closest thing I’ve found to an adventuring cleric in cinematic fiction (at least cinematic fiction not derived from D&D)…and we all saw what happened to him. Bacon.

Personally, despite the fact that I’m enjoying playing a cleric in my on-line game (mainly because I don’t play him like a cleric…at the moment he’s in a bare-knuckle boxing match), I’m thinking I need to axe the archetype as a class. Yes, D&D…in ALL its post-Chainmail incarnations…has always had clerics. I understand WHY, too…but I’m thinking of doing away with the whole concept.

And since this post is getting kind of long, I’ll talk about my thought process for “how to do it” in a separate write-up. Cheers.


  1. Wow, I had a teen-age flashback of having Showtime and watching all those movies, over and over and over again. But I think you're missing one of the quintessential great, bad movies, Hawk the Slayer. The big battles were fought around a convent. Lots of nuns. I don't remember any priests. But none of them had super abilities, well except they made other feels guilty.

  2. Some other movies to consider (in addition to Hawk the Slayer, which Tim mentions):

    The Warrior and the Sorceress (the Homerak is sort of a warrior-priest or paladin)

    Krull (science-fantasy, so maybe outside of the area you are looking at)

    Ladyhawke (the priest is more of a confidante/sage than a miracle-worker)

    Barbarian Queen (though the rape-y plot is pretty off-putting)

    Fire & Ice (which could be considered "Frazetta: The Animated Motion Picture"; no clerics to speak of)

  3. If you're trying to create a sword & sorcery game, get rid of the cleric! Move cleric spells over to the magic user. 'Nuff said! Seriously, have you looked at Crypts & Things? I think it's a decent example of what can be done with regard to dumping the cleric from the D&D chassis.

  4. I am with Anthony Simeone on this one. Healing and protection magic, that the cleric is famous for doing, is an integral part of the game. If you take something away like that, you will find that it will alter the play of the game drastically. Unless you want players, not doing a whole lot of fighting because even an 8 hp fighter can only take so many wounds before it's GAME OVER, then you might want to keep the healing spells in the game somehow.

    Other 1980's Sword and Sorcery flicks to consider watching might be:

    Clash Of The Titans

    Possibly Highlander.

    Of those movies I only recall Excalibur having any healing magic, which was done by Merlin and came at a great price. In the real world, even with modern medicine, wounds could lay a guy up for weeks, and then there is the possibility of infection and gangrene. If you want to get that realistic, then D&D is probably not the best system for the job.

  5. For a non-cinematic take on lack of clerics, look at SPI's Dragonquest. Lots of magic and there is a healer profession, but nothing resembleing a clerical class. "The Powers of Light' are very vague and opposed to the use of magic. The whole game has a very S&S feel.

  6. @ Anthony:

    I've owned and played DQ in the past and there's a lot there that kind of tanks the game for me, including its skill system (the healers and troubadors and whatnot). On the other hand, in some ways it feels more "Tolkien" than any other RPG on the market (including MERPS!) and that's not a terrible thing for that brand of fantasy.

    A game. And I do NOT particularly want to get rid of religion. DQ does this (no evil cults or high priests as I recall...but it's possible I may be misremembering).

  7. Well, there are references in several of the "black magic" colleges about cult activity; they leave A LOT for the GM to flesh out. The Earth Magics college mentions that there are pacifist Druids and dark druids. There's the idea of infernal pacts with both Greater Summonings and Black Magics (witchcraft).

    And there are penalties/bonuses for Holidays of the powers of Light and the Powers of Darkness. Of course, the only holiday specifically mentioned is Midsummer's Eve.