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.
: )

Friday, June 10, 2016

Do You Want To Die? (Clerics)

I could devote a whole week to talking about B/X clerics. Hell, I've done it before (I've somehow written a ton about the class over the years), and new ideas and thoughts just continue to bubble to the surface. If I was so inclined, I suppose the subjects I'd want to address would include:
  • An alternate interpretation of "clerics"
  • Forget clerical alignment
  • Losing reverse spells
  • Priests in Tekumel
  • Turning and the undead
  • Warrior-priests of Phum
Plus a couple others that I don't have "catchy titles" for.

One of the game projects I'm currently working on is a D&D-style heartbreaker that doesn't include clerics as a class (there's actually a LOT it doesn't include, but we're just talking about clerics at the moment). It still has priests, of course, though of the Lankhmar, "let's-fleece-the-public" variety, NOT the adventuring type.

The problem with this kind of approach is that it ix-nays all those happy little "Get Out O Jail Free" cards the cleric has up her sleeve: cure disease, neutralize poison, remove curse, raise dead, etc. Having access to the magical repertoire of a cleric in your campaign setting takes a lot of the sting out of the D&D game. It may be inconvenient to raise your dead buddy and remove his "Mummy Rot" (or whatever), but at least it's possible, given time and (presumably) a large enough sack of gold.

The problem is that having ready access to a cleric of high enough level (i.e. a PC) any "sting" can be removed altogether, making the game feel far too easy for the players. At the lower levels, it's a little irksome to have the party exit the dungeon four or five times in a session in order to re-memorize that single sleep spell. By the middle levels, they're still engaging in this order to have access to those beloved healing spells.

The AD&D DMG gives guidelines for the buying clerical magic: 100gp for a cure light wounds, 350gp for a cure serious wounds, 1000gp for a cure disease or neutralize poison, etc. But what is the real cost for a party of adventurers with a competent cleric? In B/X play, a cleric has access to all these spells (yes, up to 4th level spells) by 6th level. Practically speaking, it's only a couple days wait (and consumption of iron rations) to have your party fully healed. A 7th level cleric in B/X has access to ALL clerical spells, including raise dead...your party need never fear death again, so long as you keep your bishop well defended. And clerics reach that lofty level faster than any other class, save thieves, needing only 50,000xp to do so.

That's pretty lightweight to hold the power of life and death in your hands. Peanuts, really. AD&D more that quadruples this requirement (upping the level of experience needed as 9th for a whopping 225,000xp), and all later editions (other than BECMI) follow suit.

It's been a long time since I've had a player who made it to those heights of holy power in actual play. I've allowed pre-gen clerics of 7th level on a couple (that is, two) occasions in recent memory, but they were packing spells other than raise dead, and they were killed before they had a chance to repose themselves and use such necromancy. However, I can remember old AD&D campaigns that featured high level clerics (both PC and NPC), and the access to such powerful healing magic made it far more difficult for me (as a DM) to challenge the players. In true adversarial fashion, I struggled mightily to find canonical creatures and adventures that would circumvent the party's ability to recover from wounds and make the sting of those things have impact, to strike fear in the players' hearts.

D&D should not be a cakewalk, after all.

But it still needs to be fun, and removing clerics and their magic from the game has the potential to make it less fun. Frustrating even. If a blown saving throw means the end-of-the-road for a PC...because there's no counter...the game becomes one of paranoia and waiting for the axe to fall. Will this be the week my character gets bitten by a spider or giant rat, or is flattened by one swing of the cyclops's club? The week that I need to roll up a new character because I had a single instance of bad luck?

Over the years, I haven't voiced all that many complaints about the B/X cleric. Fact is, I find the class as written to be pretty darn good. I like the lack of a spell at 1st level...I like the (slight) delay of gratification as the character needs to "earn her spurs" (or whatever). She's still plenty competent with good armor, turning ability, and saving throws. I like how the cleric (in B/X) can receive bonuses to melee from a good strength, which allows her to be even more effective in melee.

I think the cleric's HPs in B/X are modeled perfectly (D6 every level to nine with +1 per level after). The class's XP rate of advancement is just fine up through 8th level, though I wish there was a slowed rate beginning at name level (similar to the B/X thief). And I like the concept of clerical magic being different from arcane (magic-user/elf) magic, even if there is little difference in the mechanics.

But there is room for balance at the top end of the scale. I'm just going to put this out there: I've spent an awful lot of time with Holmes Basic over the last year or so...reading it, dissecting it, digesting it. And I've done this because I am extremely enamored with a couple-few things, and two of those things are Holmes's presentation of the cleric and the fighter. Unlike the thief and magic-user, there are no issues of scale with these characters at the low levels, and I find the de-emphasis on mechanical advantage (bonuses for ability scores, variation of weapon damage) to be a refreshing change of pace.

But there is still room for improvement at the "top end" of the least with regard to the cleric. B/X shows the pitfalls inherent in the extrapolation of the character class from its "basic" roots (the Cook/Marsh expert set was written to be somewhat compatible with Holmes, after all). It's not that I'm dissatisfied with the class as a's the execution in play (at least at the mid- to high levels) that I dislike. But going to the opposite extreme...removing the class altogether...makes for some tough row hoeing in your usual, dungeon-delving campaign.

Balance. Death in the game should be a setback, an should give the players an interesting choice (do we spend the time and resources to bring this character back to life? or has the character 'run its course?'). It shouldn't be impossible...this is a fantasy world, after all. But neither should it be incredibly easy. And finding that middle ground needs to be applied to other "penalty effects" (poison, disease, level drain, etc.) in D&D.

Balance. The rules regarding petrification (and restoration of a petrified character) are just about perfect in my opinion. It's a rarely encountered effect (and one that has a save), but it is difficult to reverse requiring both A) a wizard that knows the spell, and B) has the willingness to burn a 6th level spell slot. Even a 14th level magic-user only knows a total of three 6th level spells (in B/X), and there are so many other good ones to choose from...disintegrate, invisible stalker, anti-magic shell, reincarnation, death, etc. Clerical magic doesn't require such hard choices...and that's a pity.

All right, enough rambling. Got to get back to something.
Hard not to tip the scales.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Barbaric Edge

All right, you guys finally broke me. You don't know how tempted I've been to break my self-imposed "blogging ban" this last week. Clerics! I want to write shit-tons about clerics! But I've held off and held off. I cannot, however, maintain silence in the face of a really, really good idea, even if I dislike its execution...especially when it fires my own pistons.

So it is with this latest post from John Slater over at Land of Nod regarding the "edge" displayed by the barbarian protagonists of Bob Howard (and emulated by pulp S&S writers everywhere). The idea that such rugged individuals, by dint of their hard lives and uncouth nature, are a cut above civilized folk is a standard fantasy trope...and one that begs for the modeling and re-modeling (or at least re-examination) of a "barbarian class" time and again. And again.

*Bleah* (that's the sound of me gagging)

I know I've taken a couple-three whacks at the idea over the years, though none of them have "stuck" in my own campaigns...though perhaps that's as much influenced by my personal bias (I like the standard B/X classes) and/or folks' aversion to the idea of playing some primitive malcontent stereotype. Regardless, having a barbarian "class" hasn't worked for me. It just comes down to a set of particular themed bonuses or abilities, and the CONCEPT of the character gets lost. This is why the barbarian class of 5E is so stupid. It's not about someone wanting to model a "barbarian;" it's about wanting a rage bonus in melee combat.

[yes, yes...for some of you it MIGHT be about playing a barbarian. Shouldn't it be a background than? Something to be added to ANY class...barbaric shamans, thieves, etc.? And just what background is a barbarian supposed to take, anyway? Aside from outlander, it would take a bit more effort to work with most of the other 5E backgrounds...but I digress]

The word "barbarian" comes from the Greeks, which they used for all those "uncivilized" Germanic tribes that lived north of their ancient empire. The word means "bearded guys" or hairy ones or something, but it's really a derogatory term for people who don't speak Greek. In other words, "I see you are talking, but all I hear is 'bar-bar-bar.'" Still, though, "beards." We see that today in Romance languages (barba means beard in Spanish, for example). It doesn't mean indigenous American, or spear-chucker, or "savage" (though these things can be inferred from the use of the term). It simply means, someone from outside our polite society.

Howard was a Texan and a bit of a misfit to boot, giving him real issues with regard to "polite society." This he communicated through his stories, both in the attitudes of his heroes and the circumstances in which they generally found themselves (strife and turmoil in the land caused by the decadent machinations of people in power). It's not surprising that a man who felt himself an outsider would write about outsider heroes, nor is it surprising that his characters would resonate with those seeking escapism from "real life" in the fantasy fiction of pulp stories. Anti-authority is a fine attitude to have, until and unless you need your streets paved, your police and firefighters to arrive in a timely fashion, or your post office and DOT office to be well-staffed and helpful.

But D&D is fun for the same reason: escapist fantasy (how often do PCs need a post office?). And PCs are fairly "outside normal society" by their acts and profession anyway, so it's fine and fair to indulge in a little fantasy barbarism of the Howardian staple...the hard dude (or dudette) that sneers at polite society, that solves problems in Gordian fashion, that has an aura of primal leadership (or animal magnetism). A type of character that has an edge, in other words...something gained by dint of their upbringing and uncivilized attitude. Here's how I'd implement it, mechanically, for B/X (or similar "basic" games):

1. To be from a barbarian tribe, you must be a human character, though you can be a cleric, fighter, or thief (magic-users, even those from barbaric backgrounds, have too broad a perspective to carry the disdain of barbarians...their arrogance is of the magician to the mundane and their "edge" is their spell-casting powers beyond that of mortal men). Your character must have a CON of 9+ to reflect the fantasy trope (in a sense, you are playing a new type of demihuman race).

2. Your "barbarian" begins with the following restrictions: you receive one-half the normal starting gold at first level (roll 3D6x10 as normal, but divide the amount by two). Your character speaks your own language (as "Human Dialect," see page B13) fluently, but can speak only broken, accented common (the "civilized" tongue). You begin with no other languages known, regardless of INT.

3. When dealing with civilized individuals of authority (gate guards, tax collectors, nobles, etc.) your character receives a -2 penalty to reaction rolls unless the person in question speaks your character's native language.

4. If your character has an INT of 13+ you may choose to learn a new language (up to your maximum additional languages known) every time you earn a new level of experience. Learning a language implies fluency and capacity for writing as well. Common may be chosen as a language. Being able to speak fluently in a person's language removes the reaction penalty above.

5. Your character gains the following bonuses as his/her "barbaric edge:" +1 to melee attack rolls, +3 hit points, +1 save versus mind control magic, +1 bonus to hear noise, +1 bonus to detect traps, +1 bonus to retainers' morale score.

6. Success and soft-living will gradually remove your character's edge; every time you go up in level, remove one of your edge bonuses (your choice of which is lost). By the time most barbarians reach 7th level, they are thoroughly "civilized."

7. A player may stave off the eroding effects of civilization by disdaining its decadent trappings. This includes taking following actions:
  • Never sleeping indoors unless the weather is bad (and even then, preferring a hard, bare floor to a cushy bed and soft pillows).
  • Eschewing wealth; discarding 90% of all monetary treasure (giving it away, blowing it in taverns/brothels, etc.), and never retaining more than can be carried on one's person and/or horse. Equipment purchased must be of the most practical type: no fancy clothes, decorative armor, etc. Most fantasy barbarians (either sex) never bother wearing pants.
  • Maintain a healthy respect and distance for enchantments; never possessing more magic items than the character has hit dice (so maximum of nine at levels 9+).
  • Display nothing but contempt for the decadence of civilized folks: sneer at their pointless politics, their indulgent foods, their polite manners. Character should be forthright and blunt in interactions and avoid slyness and dishonesty. 
  • Your character's word is his/her bond. Never break an oath.
This issue provides a good model
in the erosion of "barbaric virtue."
So long as the character abides by these restrictions, her barbaric edge is only lost every two levels gained (so at 3rd level, 5th level, 7th, etc.). No spartan lifestyle can completely halt the erosion of one's edge!

[if a character "falls off the barbarian wagon," she may jump back on upon reaching a new level of experience...i.e. after losing one edge at the standard reconsidering her decadent life and "getting back to her roots" (vowing to follow all strictures). However, only one such attempt at "atonement" is allowed...if the character succumbs to the temptations of civilized life a second time, there's no third chance!]

All right...we now return to our self-imposed silence. Shhhh...
: )