Wednesday, June 3, 2009

No Piety, Please

A recent post by Ryan has got me thinking that I have hardly written anything about clerics. This coupled with the party in the online campaign suffering somewhat from a lack of healing, having lost their cleric to the winds of change, plus the complete disinterest in anyone from the blogosphere coming forward to play a cleric, impels me to write.

Ryan asks the question, “Though many versions of many players handbooks throughout the years have mentioned time and again about a cleric advancing his temple/deity/cause's interests, how often does your average DM or player actually do anything of the sort?” To which the answer is, naturally, virtually no one.

There’s no doubt that the cleric is the least liked character. There are a number of reasons for that, not the least of which is the general dislike that RPG players have for traditional Western organized religion. One might say that religion is the antithesis of D&D, as virtually everything about the game flies in the face of what the church deems moral behaviour: the embracing of evil, the butchery of random creatures, greed, the depiction of devils and demons, etc. There may be Christian groups out there playing D&D, but they’re not particularly vocal. It has been my experience that players who come to the table have generally chosen to leave their religion elsewhere.

So the cleric seems like the player must put on a straight-jacket of behaviour, to obey both God and Church, and in the process become the thorn in the side for every party member who wants to rape and pillage. (Well, pillage. D&D has surprisingly little rape).

The game has done little to remove this stigma.

Take the most useless book ever produced: the Deities and Demigods. In the paltry section at the front of the book, which should have been a beacon to clerics, do we start with, ‘How to run a cleric?’ No, what we start with is ‘Dungeon Mastering Divine Beings.’ Because what is really important is teaching the DM how to use gods as monsters or as a means of railroading the party into adventures; quote: “... the characters themselves may be asked to (or given no choice but to) take part in the maneuverings of the gods’ forces upon earth.”

This is followed by the section, ‘Clerics and Deities’, which goes on to describe other means of railroading, as well as blatant threats to take spells away from clerics who do not accept said railroading. This is followed by two completely useless pages about omens and immortality. And that’s all. The fuckwits at TSR really earned their money that day.

Given that, why would anyone want to be a cleric? Well, the spells are fairly decent and clerics go up levels considerable faster than mages (at the beginning), so that is at least something. Give me the healing, let me turn a few undead and let’s just agree not to make a big deal out of the god thing, all right? To which most DMs will agree. I’m not that much of a stickler myself. I’ve never removed spells from a cleric – never felt that was necessary. I’ve occasionally made a cleric walk over fire for a god, invariably because after five levels of the cleric barely acknowledging that gods exist, they suddenly want something.

(I have this problem in particular with druids).

Ryan brings up a few points: 1) that the cleric is usually the only one in the party who actually worships at all; 2) what is the cleric doing with this party of grubby bastards; and 3) who watches the temple if there is one? These are all salient. I’d answer that the cleric is the only one who worships because he’s the only one who has to; that the cleric is usually no less grubby that his companions; and that most assets owned by parties (castles, gatehouses, various entrepreneurial ventures such as inns or blacksmithies) all have a magic protective field that automatically stops them from being destroyed or fucked with when the party is out of town. Not that it should be that way – it just usually IS.

I don’t particularly have problem with clerics being with ruffians – Friar Tuck is the traditional example, a swordsman comparable with Robin and a dwarvish appetite. There’s nothing about clerics that insists they must be upstanding members of the community. That is a trope invented with the Victorian Age; if you haven’t read The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, then you know jack shit about medieval clerics. To note another source from the period, Dante’s Inferno was full of clerics.

A cleric is perfectly in his right to do nothing for a party who will not pay lip service to the religion. In fact, there are several spells which I impose a strict limitation on with regards to players who are not invested in the cleric’s religion – protection from evil, bless, chant, prayer, combine, to name a few. If you’re not of the cleric’s religion, you don’t get the benefit. It is the cleric, tolerating the party’s heathen behaviour, that enables indifference and apathy. Admittedly, most parties would rather do without a cleric than mumble a few gracious words to a god in exchange for a cure light wounds. That is only pride, however. Watch how a party will scrape and bow when it comes to getting raised.

That is the DMs fault, usually. Unless the party isn’t being made to perform a quest, the raise dead spell is generally as available to a party as a suit of armor. “We’ll get him raised,” the party says casually, never thinking that perhaps the local 9th level cleric might have a better use for that spell on a daily basis than bestowing it on nere-do-wells who blow into town with a dead body. Got money? Oh sure, here’s your spell. How often does an NPC cleric stop to consider whether this adventurer covered in blood deserves to be raised?

I won’t argue that a cleric who withholds his spells is going to quickly find himself isolated come the next encounter. A player’s antipathy towards ANY pretence of religion would incline you to think that the very act of saying “Thank you God” will spontaneously invoke vomiting from every participant at the table. So naturally, even a gung ho cleric quickly washes himself squeaky clean from any hint of piety, rapidly becoming a mage with poor spells who quickly goes up levels.

I want to explain why that is poor thinking, on both the player’s and the DM’s part, but not today. I’ll pick this up in the next post.


shimrod said...

I’ve seen some of this, but IME it’s not as bad as you portray. For every Cleric I’ve seen played as you described I’ve seen at least one played with explicit devotion, attempts to convert other PCs and/or NPCs, and specific missions assigned by the church.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky in terms of the players & GMs I’ve had. Maybe some of it comes from having gamed with a lot of LARPers, and people who also played White Wolf and similar storytelling games. Those kind of gamers (again IME) tend to be pretty into their characters, and when they choose to play a Cleric, it’s not just for the cool powers.

Ryan said...


If that is the case, you experiences have been very different from my own. In my 17 years of gaming, I have seen one cleric really played to the hilt, and the player who did so was neither a LARPer nor a White Wolfer. (She has since played WW games and enjoys them, but coming into it she was largely a D&D player)

Alexis said...

Yes, well you see shimrod, where you said "...and specific missions assigned by the church," that's called railroading. Assigned by the 'church' means assigned by the DM - and that is exactly what I am talking about. Sounds to me that the clerics you've seen that are 'playing their character' are playing the DM's version.

R said...

The clerics in my campaigns have always been closely knit to their church - the church acts as a source of information, a refuge, or even a place where the PC can get a favor or two to get out of a difficult bind.

Being a cleric has always come with an organization to me - whether the church is a well-liked public charity group or a secret underground cult. Clerics in my campaigns come with missions and agendas from their religion's hierarchy.

This is really just how it's always been and I'm not sure why. I've never really had players who wanted to be clerics just for the abilities - almost all of my players like creating flavorful and deep characters, so maybe that's it. In my current campaign one of the PCs is a pacifist cleric who always pursues negotiation first and uses spells like Command, Hold Person and Charm Person or Mammal to enforce his god's peaceful ways (and his church gave him a list of places where they need diplomacy to fight the chance of war).

Excellent blog, by the way.

Alexis said...

Thank you R for the compliment. You've anticipated tomorrow's blog, in your first paragraph. But once again, there's that line: "Clerics ... come with missions and agendas from their religion's heirarchy."

I don't have to define railroading, do I?

There is a conception that clerics cannot be their own driver. I am the first to argue the importance of the church; I plan to talk about that tomorrow. But it should be recognized that the game does not require that the cleric must act like a pawn in the DM's god-generated system.

If the cleric is ever to seen as an appreciated, flexible character, we must get rid of this "I must act towards the benefit of my god" nonsense. Missions are all very well and good - but the cleric that amasses a fortune, builds an immense cathedral and builds a powerful army is just as useful as one who digs through dungeons for one more queer item for the church.

Clerics must be left free to serve their God in their own way; NOT in the DM's way and not in the book's way. Remember that God helps those that help themselves.

Why don't we give the cleric a chance, hm?

R said...

"There is a conception that clerics cannot be their own driver."

That's an excellent point. I've had clerics in my campaigns that thought the church hierarchy was full of pompous asses. I've had clerics that were nothing more than loner prophets, or where the religious organization is so flat that everyone has as much control as anyone else. The church most certainly does not have to be in charge.

As far as railroading, you don't need to define it, but I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt. The missions and agendas from the churches in my campaigns usually have about the same influence as the rumors, hearsay, gossip, and legends that the characters hear about in town - the cleric is aware of what the church wants and what the church is up to, but the hierarchy are not always asking let alone demanding the cleric's aid (higher-ups in the church may even complete some of the tasks despite the PCs' interest). It's much more organic than that. The PC clerics can mill about their church and find out what's going on with the rest of the flock. It's totally up to the player as to whether or not he or she cares about what's going on with them.

"Clerics must be left free to serve their God in their own way; NOT in the DM's way and not in the book's way. Remember that God helps those that help themselves."

I'd say this is jumping to the other extreme. While I generally agree, there are times that it may be more fitting for the PC NOT to be left free to serve their god in their own way. If the cleric is worshiping a very jealous and demanding god, or a particularly evil or vengeful god with harsh requirements to test and shape its followers, then I would say the PCs shouldn't necessarily be left completely free to serve that god in their own way - the mandatory rites, rituals and demands could add to the mood and tone. Of course, I take every effort to make all of these things perfectly clear during character creation (since the PC would be signing up for a bit of voluntary railroading).

Looking forward to part 2.

Alexis said...


Point taken. I think the argument you make in your last paragraph has merit, IF the cleric is of high enough level to be noticed. I run a very large world, and I perceive that one god generally doesn't have the time nor inclination to micro-manage his devotees. Once a cleric has climbed to tenth or eleventh level, or demonstrated real influence on the course of natural events, I would probably have a god show interest in the manner you suggest.

I'll write part 2 as soon as I wake up.

Pobody's said...

Well, this is a very poignant topic to me. I hate to pimp my own products (even free ones), but I worked out this very failing (to me it was a failing anyways) in how priests are run. They are often simply wizards without books.

The piecemeal RPG (named because you can swap bits out to throw in other games, so you may want a look) uses the "Piety System" for priest "miracle" use.

A priest powers their miracles through accumulating piety, which they store. Things like building churches, winning converts, slaying heathens, burying the faithful and destroying the churches of enemy faiths earn a priest "piety" which are a form of "brownie points with your god". The priest then calls in those favours to do things like healing, blessings, resurrections and all the other priest abilities.

This makes all "spell use" of priests a decision. No spell is frivalous since you could always save the spell for later. There are no daily spell limits, no requirements you pray for specific miracles ahead of time.

Only that you have already curried the favour with your god and that you have not asked too much of him (or her).

This obviously works better for "petty" deities in some games, such as Ancient Greek settings. It also works well in games where some overgod prevents the deities from interfering in mortal affairs to heavily (piety representing how much trouble the god is willing to get in on your behalf).

If you are interested in "plug and playing" this section into your game, you can download Piecemeal the RPG at

The rules are contained in an .exe "Rules viewer" under the Classes -> Priests menu.

A printable PDF spell list is also available.

I think this may be of interest to you, or anyone else who doesn't like the non-pious priest dilema.

shimrod said...

R and I seem to be on much the same page in our experience of Clerics.

Alexis, if you consider a plot hook or assignment given by an NPC to be railroading, you have a different definition of railroading than I do. There are many happy balance points between total freedom of action (to the point that the character’s connection to a larger organization is purely nominal) and slavery. And not every adventure hook given by the DM leads to a point-to-point script which the PCs are forced to follow. That’s the definition of railroad with which I’m familiar.

I appreciate that we don’t want a PC cleric to be a minion or flunky sent hither and yon whether they will or nil, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The church can give the PC assignments and allow them their own discretion in carrying them out. And they don’t have to be compulsory either. Maybe just plot hooks indicating that church artifact x was lost over in dungeon y, and any priest recovering it would win glory for the church. Or that faction y has been slaughtering their parishioners over in country z and they need help organizing/recruiting/providing some armed resistance.

The better-played Clerics (and other members of religious orders) I’ve seen have also always been the product of collaboration between the DM and player. I’m not quite clear what you mean by “playing the DM’s version”. Care to clarify?

Norman Harman said...

"one god generally doesn't have the time nor inclination to micro-manage his devotees."

Exactly, that is why they set up organized, hierarchical religions. So, there's many, many people with time an inclination to micro-mange their devotees. It's the original multi-level marketing scam.