Monday, March 4, 2013

Clerical Conclusions & Cosmology (Part 2)

[continued from here]

Tolkien’s world postulates that there’s this Fallen Angel-type (think “Lucifer”) that created a bunch of monsters by twisting and f’ing around with the beloved creations of The Big Guy in the Sky (think “God”), so orcs are just corrupted elves and trolls are just corrupted ents, for example (humans apparently don’t need to be corrupt as they already have “evil versions”). When you realize orcs are just corrupted elves, you get a better sense of things: why they might crave and hoard treasure (and live in underground “cities” and craft weapons and armor, etc.). You also have a justification for killing them without much guilt (demonic spawn of Satan!). See how that works?

When I was working out the system for 5AK, I had to consider these things, this cosmology, too. And I still like the answers I came up with. For example, it’s one think to want S&S style “beastmen” or “apemen” or “halfmen” in your game (those “subhumans” Conan and his ilk are always running into in pulp short stories). I mean, they’re already present in B/X (read the description for “orc” in Moldvay and forget the illustrations in the MM)…but in a world were civilization has continued to march forward, how do you explain the appearance of these organized, intelligent, tribes of savages. At least, without creating some Great Evil Overlord like Sauron or Morgoth?

I decided to go a little Biblical.

But, of course, that’s the problem…once you have a rational cosmology (even a fantastical one) at work in your game, you start losing the ability to wahoo-style pulp. Vance’s Dying Earth makes little rhyme or reason sense in general, except that the world is SO LARGE and SO DIVERSE and SO OLD that it is simply fraught with a huge amount of weirdness…weirdness that doesn’t need to make sense. On the other hand, part of the theme found in his books is the absurdity of behavior and culture especially in its diversity (when set-up in isolation based on a break-down of society) and how despite culture and tradition some aspects of human foibles remain regardless and can be played (and preyed) upon. But I don’t want my game to be a discussion on human weakness.

Instead, I want a game that creates the opportunity for heroic fantasy, with individuals whose greatest asset is their natural drive and ambition, rather than any “superpowers” (“feats, “ etc.) or the acquisition of powerful gear/equipment.

Ugh…this post is just rambling now. Let’s try to tie it up.

I know I wrote (back in the beginning) that I was a little distressed to find my game becoming a little too fairy tale in feel and not as “S&S” as I would like. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I hold “sword & sorcery” on some pedestal of absolute coolness compared to other types of fantasy (tried to sit through Tales of an Ancient Empire the other night and found it to be absolutely terrible…meanwhile, I still consider Disney’s Dragonslayer which is much more “fairy tale” in nature as one of the greatest fantasy films ever made). But I wanted my game to be a little more “gritty” and if anything has forced it to be too clean it’s the polite and ordered nature found in an idealized SETTING like the Golden Age of Islam circa 800 CE.

Unfortunately, moving the setting BACKWARDS in time (a la prehistory "Hyboria") makes it much harder to conceive of certain game elements: like a clerical class that makes sense sans traditional monotheism, or large cities like Baghdad and Basra and Constantinople. However, keeping the setting makes it hard to rationalize why there are still perilous adventure sites of the kind that would be considered “typical D&D” or rationalize the presence of huge humanoid populations or the existence of Evil High Priests…at least without moving waaaay away from even “mythic history” (like saying China is ruled by some Darth Vader-ish figure or something…I mean, you just start going down a really silly road that way). Greyhawk and Blackmoor got away with this (a bit) by creating a main megadungeon “tent pole” around which to build an otherwise functional fantasy world (still based on a 10th or 11th century European feel)…but just reading Gygax’s novels you can feel his world was much more a world of MEN (even “elven men” and “dwarf men,” etc.) than MONSTERS. It’s a world of politics and war, not dungeoneering…not surprising, really, when you consider the man was a war gamer that created D&D from the CHAINMAIL (war game) chassis.

I wanted (and still want) my game to be one of heroic individuals (the player characters), but I want real heroic tales, not just counting clacks and coins or whatever…I mean maybe I’m just being stupid about this. Maybe the best thing I can do is simply give folks tools and inspiration…I mean, they’re going to tweak the rules as they see fit anyway, right?

But I really can’t help but think there is an advantage to having these things thought out in advance. I want there to be a reason why it’s okay to find a female fighter out and about in an (otherwise) medieval, patriarchal society without simply being a matter of transposing ideas of 21st century equality onto this otherwise historical (fantastical) world. I want to know WHY if magic-users are SOOOO powerful with their “wish” spells and whatnot, how come only clerics can raise the dead or create food? And why the gods would even ALLOW such a thing as a “raise dead” spell if they’re in the business of collecting souls? I mean, assuming we have multiple gods from conflicting spheres fighting over the same batch of sentients for worship and adoration.

And why haven’t the orcs run roughshod over the whole of civilization again?

I realize that to many players of Dungeons & Dragons and other “fantasy games” the cosmology of the thing makes little difference to them. They are content to enjoy the escapism of the thing, blow off steam pretending to be a sword-swinging merc or a spell-slinging wizard. There are also plenty of folks who think modeling “romance” with a mechanical system is a completely cockamamie idea and one with no place in their “fantasy story.”  One has to be careful about introducing real morality in a fantasy adventure game, not because you might offend someone (I mean, I don’t THINK making an atheist or Christian play a Muslim-knockoff would be any harder than asking one to play a priest of Odin or Zeus), but because introducing morality brings question to the whole “adventuring idea” of killing things for their stuff. If a creature was intelligent enough to gather wealth, then this is tantamount to murder and theft...and yet, how else is one to get rich in a medieval world if you aren’t born into wealth and nobility from the get-go? Sure you can try your hand at dragon slaying (good luck at 1st level)…but how many dragons with hoards are left in the fantasy world?

And if there are evil wizards holed up in castles of brass and basalt, why haven’t the forces of Christendom (or Islam) already knocked down their walls?

It’s a tall frigging order to reconcile in your mind (or your game)…if you happen to be someone who cares about these things. When I was ten years old, I didn’t…nor when I was 14 or 24 for that matter (though I certainly wanted some level of sense to my game world…even if it was only “Krynnish” sense).

At this point, I think I will keep the rules for 5AK as I’ve already written them, clerics and all. I still LIKE how I did clerics (though I’m going to change my own “undead turning” rules to be more in-line with OD&D), and even though I really like the typical swords & sorcery take on priests (a la The Beastmaster take), I’m not quite ready to devolve my setting to one of Neolithic prehistory. Instead, I’m going to rework the cosmology a bit to account for why clerics have one sort of magic, and why magicians have limits on what they can do (and I’m talking spell-wise, not armor-wise). And also make sure that the wilderness of the world remains “barbaric” enough to account for the diverse amount of monstrous fauna. I guess I really need to play-up the “ancient ancestral people” that once inhabited the region and left “dungeons” (i.e. “adventure sites”) dotting the landscape.

You know, now that I think of it, perhaps my biggest issue with the cleric class is making it common. Like every temple has a high priest (9th level cleric) with a number of “under-clerics” filling out the administration. MY idea is that clerics with true healing ability (i.e. the saints) should be even fewer and farther between than magic-users, let alone adventuresome fighters and thieves. Maybe I need to rename the classes to get the point across that these individuals are rare and wonderful? Perhaps something like:

Adventurers (for thieves)
Heroes (for fighters)
Saints (for clerics)

[I already use the term magician for magic-users, but either way any suggestion that a person possesses magical knowledge implies a special and uncommon individual]

Of course, I’d have to rewrite large sections of the book, since I generally use the term “hero” and “adventurer” interchangeably for the term “player character.” Or perhaps I should retain the term “adventurer” for PCs and simply call thieves…um…skill-monkeys? Or something.

[no, not scoundrels]

But Saints, Heroes, and Magicians sound good in place of Clerics, Fighters, and Magic-Users. After all, a cleric sounds a bit more staid and traditional in the stay-at-home pastoral sense. And ALL of my adventurers can fight (members of the “fighter” class just do so more heroically). Mmm…this is all stuff I’ll be meditating on over the next couple days. My wife just got back into town, so I’ll have the opportunity to return to my play-testing Thursday. We’ll see if I can get out of the “Ali Baba” realm and into something a little more dark and grisly.

I'll keep you posted.
; )


  1. I've been thinking about the issue of clerics as especially holy people (and the run-of-the-mill sort of priest being just a normal person). Of course, I tend to think of it in terms of medieval Ireland, where Saints were fairly common - every petty king was likely to have one in his court, because they were the social system's replacement for the Druids (uh, and so were the Poets, and some other people, but we can ignore them for our purposes here). So, to my way of thinking, Saints should be about as common as Magicians.

  2. @ Faol:

    Sure, and a setting like India, too, one would find many more saints (in the form of yogis and gurus) than "magicians." And for many more centuries to book!

    [also a Hindu saint would not need to be a monotheist]

    Islam has its own saints (caled a Wali or "friend of God") just like the Chrisitian saint or the Jewish Tzadik, which (like the Christian saint) need not be a Church administrator (i.e. "priest" or "cleric") of any type.

    I am currently in the process of officially changing "cleric" to "saint" in my game.
    ; )

  3. I used the word "Priest" in my world -- which is used for both men and women. In fact, in the (made-up) etmology of my world the suffix "-ess" means the same thing as "-est," meaning "best." As a result only the Messiah (the living Goddess-Empress) is referred to as "Priestess" -- but only in the sense that she is the ideal that all Priests strive towards.

    Constructed Cosmologies and worlds are basically my hobby, I agree that having a complete cosmological explanation for everything can make a much more satisfying and complete game.

  4. One of the work arounds that I came up with was that most priest do NOT have the ability to cast spells. When you get to your town temple and look around there might be a standard heirarchy of levels with a high priest on top, but damn few if any of them actually have the ability to cast spells. The spell casting, curing, raising of the dead - needs to be done on the hallowed ground of the temple in question - it's the location that grants the gifting of heals and what not.

    Also, the 9th level guy might not have the ability to head the healing - it could be the 3rd level novitiate who the god has "touched". In my campaign, about 1 in every 20 are "touched" priests and have the ability to cast spells - and the concensus is that it's to maintain the "compact" that the gods made long ago during the forging. For every good, there is an evil and so on.

    So the presence of good priests pretty much means there is a similar number of diametrically opposed evil priests somewhere.

    This "total" fluctuates up and down based upon wars, death, famine, atrition, and the bestowing and reducing of divine presence.

    So to sum up: 1) it's not the preist who heals, but the temple/shrine/mosque that channels the god's power.
    2) not every priest met has the ability to cast spells away from the temple (roughly 1/20).
    3) For every good aligned priest there is an evil one some where. For every good and evil priest there is a neutral one somewhere.

    Keep on writing - I'm enjoying where this is going!


  5. @ Vanadorn:

    Actually, I think I'm pretty much done with this series...we'll see what (if anything) comes up in future play-tests!

  6. Still I think that I will go for a particular kind of magic-user that specialize in healing magic (and body-control magic probably, something with a common theme and that would make sense to give them more physical abilities) more monk than cleric maybe but with the need of books and whatever. The saint seem to have a special contact with the divine that put them a little out of place in a bunch of adventurers (not to speak of the fact that if they are special they can hardly be a class)

  7. @ Fabio:

    Again it really depends on your cosmology. What percentage of the population counts as "adventurer" in your setting? If every guard encountered is a "fighter level 1-4" that's a shit-ton of adventurers. But if a true "combat specialist" adventurer Was few and far between (i.e. As common as a sorcerer or person "touched" by the divine) then you might feel differently.

    Same goes for "thieves," at least in my book. There are lots of bandits in the wilds and swindlers in the city willing to steal from a person, but very few "thieves" in the sense of the well-trained, forger-locksmith-cat burglar variety. My thief is a pro amongst pros and just as rare as any other adventurer type.