Friday, March 1, 2013

Powers of the Prophets (Part 1)

[I know the last couple posts were pretty long, and this one is longer still, so I'm breaking it up into two parts...the second will be posted later today]

So now, back to our original series starter (“what clerics bring to the table”) when I wrote I could see only two real positive contributions that actually impact the party in-game with its mechanics. The first was the cleric’s undead turning ability (already discussed), and the second are the classes particular suite of spells. Let’s take a close look at those spells.

In OD&D (the original entry of clerics into the fantasy world), the total number of spells available to clerics was 22, spread across five levels (though, as with magic-users, clerics were given the ability to pursue spell research to expand the spell list). Many of these spells were nothing more than the equivalent of magic-user spells, like light and protection from evil. As these spells were already listed for magic-users in CHAINMAIL, it might be presumed (well, I'm going to presume anyway) that they were added to the cleric list simply because “these seem like they’d make good clerical spells, too.” Regardless of the actual reason (spell list padding?) we’re going to leave them out of the equation as such duplicates are redundant, unnecessary in a (game) world that can already get these spells from a magic-user (elfish or not).

Cutting leaves us with a total of 17 spells:

1st level (adept or higher): cure light wounds, purify food & water

2nd level (vicar or higher): find traps, bless, speak with animals

3rd level (bishop or higher): cure disease

4th level (bishop or higher): neutralize poison, cure serious wounds, turn sticks to snakes, speak with plants, create water

5: level (lama or higher): dispel evil, raise dead, commune, quest, insect plague, create food

Now, folks who are familiar with the Bible…even a cursory, Sunday School knowledge…will recognize many of these spells as the divine miracles associated with Biblical figures, as well as those attributed to various saints and such. Curing wounds (light and serious), disease, and poison (not to mention raising the dead) are all abilities associated with Jesus. Creation of food and water, turning sticks to snakes, and summoning an insect plague are all abilities demonstrated by Moses and his brother, Aaron. Finding traps, blessing, and speak with animals (St. Francis) are all associated with Saints and other “holy folks”…as is the ability to know God’s Will (commune) and exorcising demons (dispel evil).

Quest is just a renaming of geas, but while an example of magic-using geas can be found in Clark Ashton Smith, one might consider a Papal edict (like the one ordering the Crusades) to be the equivalent example of quest applied on a mass scale.

The only spells that seem truly odd to me are purify food & water and speak with plants. I’m not sure where the latter comes from, unless it is based on the symbolic references of a holy person not being hindered by any form of nature (being able to pass through a forest, for example). And I’m really not even sure of what use purify food & water is…it’s not a spell I’ve seen used more than once or twice in my 30+ year history of gaming. I didn’t notice any rules for food to go bad, but perhaps this is a resource management tool (the dropped rations of a dead companion might spoil before there is the chance to eat them, and this allows a party to “waste not, want not”)…maybe food and water spoilage was a bigger deal and more frequent occurrence in the way they game was originally envisioned? No idea. Certainly it’s helpful against the AD&D water weird.

So in the main, we have a spell suite for clerics that is based wholly on a Judeo-Christian tradition, slanted heavily towards the “Christian” (although most Christians would call the spell-slinging Jesus a “god” and not an “adventurer”). Which is kind of ironic when you consider that anything pertaining to an actual Christian religion (or any type of monotheism) is conspicuously absent from any post-OD&D game product up until the 3rd Edition Deities & Demigods (in which a monotheistic option is presented as a possible campaign setting).

CHRISTIAN. Wasn’t this the game that was decried for causing kids to worship Satan or something? I know my Born Again Christian buddy was forbidden from playing D&D for this reason (though maybe his mom didn’t like him associating with a Catholic family like mine…who knows?).

Here’s the thing (well, one of the things): if you’re playing a game where clerics are simply “priests” of some “deity” …like Thor or Athena or something…why would your god be granting you a bunch of loaves & fishes type magic? If Odin is my lord, what does he care if I can turn sticks to snakes?

See this shit doesn’t really make any sense.

But we’ll get back to my harsh judgments in a moment: let’s say, just for the sake o discussion, that the spell suite does make sense for a priestly individual. Either because the game has an explicit (as opposed to implied) Christian setting OR because creating food and curing leprosy actually was a common granted power of Horus-Ra (it wasn’t).  What does this provide to the players in your game?

Welp, it provides a bunch of “get out o jail free” cards. Character gets diseased? Bam, cured. Poisoned? Bam, cured. Damaged? Same deal. KILLED?! Zapomatic, you’re back to life.

Now remember in my earlier discussions of the genesis of The Game via the remembered recollections of Dave Arneson that there was no “hit points” in the beginning, simply a Chainmail system of “kill or be killed.” What I infer from his statements was that HPs (and variable damage) was created to prolong PC longevity. Then, of course, they had that great idea to “get better” (i.e. go up in level) after playing for awhile, which would lead to more HPs and, presumably, MORE attachment to one’s character.

Because that’s what’s stated: after a number of adventures, one develops an ATTACHMENT (if not an outright personality) for their character. I’ve seen this occur in serial board games often enough, even when there’s little real “character development.” A regular player of Siege of the Citadel wants to always play the Bauhaus guys, or always wants to use a panzerknacker. Or in Blood Bowl, my wife had a tendency to talk to her players and play favorites with them based on what they did in a particular match (based on the luck of random dice rolls), regardless of any actual skills the figure had.

Pretending to be someone, even in a game, and experiencing drama and trauma and triumph and fear is a BONDING experience. And woe betide you of you DON’T like your character…it can be miserable being stuck with an avatar you detest!

So enter the cleric…well, first let’s enter the magician. The magic-user (or wizard or sorcerer or whatever) is a figure we see throughout fantasy literature. Wizards and their “magic spells.” But there are LIMITS to what wizards can accomplish: you don’t generally see a magician bring someone back from the dead for instance…the arena of “life and death” has long been held to be a purview of God (or the gods) alone. And I know it’s not often, even in mythology, that you find folks coming back from the dead. For many, many centuries of human existence, dead was considered dead.

[to be continued]


  1. Personally, I find the Christian traditions (Catholicism, Orthodox, Coptic Church et alia) are full of awesome inspirational material for fantasy-fiction. My own setting basically draws heavily from those traditions.

    These posts on the Cleric are great -- keep 'em coming!

  2. @ Dane:

    Here's the honest truth, Rev: I really can't conceive of a "cleric" (as presented in D&D) without ascribing it to a monotheistic (or at least a dualistic) cosmology. Not anymore anyway.

  3. Have you considered the broader milieu of both the Old Testament stories and the saint folklore attributed to Christian holy men?

    Old Testament prophets lived in a polytheistic society, and the powers attributed to them were also attributed to other Middle Eastern holy men.

    And the powers of Medieval European Saints owe a lot to Celtic faery lore and hero tales.

    I think if you look at the non-Christian basis of many Christian tales, the Cleric becomes a lot broader of a character type.

  4. @ Steve: I HAVE considered it; though OT prophets were still monotheistic (and i see 'em a bit as the primogenitors of the saint in Judeo-Christian lore). While other saints have existed in other cultures (again, I think specifically of the Vedic tradition), that still doesn't make it broad enough to include, say priests of Wotan among their number...IMO.

    Still, I HAVE reconciled the basic concept for my game (which was kind of the point of the exercise/series of posts) and I now have both 'saints' and 'shamans' in my game, all working under the broader cosmology of the setting while still giving God/Allah His due AND NOT making it into any type of 'priest class.'

    Works for me anyway.
    : )