Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Player's Cleric

In spite of some of the comments on the previous thread, it has been my experience that unless a DM leans on the cleric, the cleric won’t behave all that piously. Pobody suggests a practical system, though in essence it is little more than the usual pressure through extortion (behave or lose spells) dressed up so that the cleric knows exactly how the extortion will work. R makes some good arguments for the motivations of gods to test and shape their followers. Since, however, the ‘gods’ are really just me, I can’t fool myself that I’m playing out the parameters of the game rather than flatly invoking my will (and my perception of the cleric) upon the player.

I have made no secret of the fact that I’m opposed to such things philosophically.

Wouldn’t it be preferential for the cleric to seek out their god for reasons of their own? Because there were positive gains to be had? In other words, can we drop the whip and invoke the carrot?

I have three proposals, all of which I think depend on the player’s conception of their cleric and how best to participate in the campaign. None rely remotely upon my action as the DM. For the record, as far as I know there have been no other suggestions along these lines.

1. Helpful Spells.

First of all, consider the helpful nature of the clerical spells. That is nothing profound, it is immediately obvious to any player – the clerical spells are not offensive, they’re defensive.

From the point of view of the NPC, particularly the impoverished NPC, even a first level cleric’s spells are a magnificent god-send. Why is it that a cleric, who has the time and the power, never thinks to turn their spells into goodwill from the local peasants or whomever else the cleric chooses? Why not wander about the countryside, purifying the local wells, healing the odd individual who has fallen from a roof or cut themselves with an axe? Why not aid a huntsman for the day? Or put a glyph, free of charge, on the front door of a poor man’s hovel, one who has eight children and who worries about their safety? These things are cheap and simple for the cleric. For the individual, to purchase such a spell is completely beyond their means. The DM’s Guide recommends 100 g.p. for a cure light wounds. Attempting to give it an economic basis, in my online world I’ve given the price as 17 g.p. Do you think a cotter with an injured child can afford such a thing?

Yet what will that cotter say when that 1st level cleric appeared and healed their child – for free? Do you think they will be distrustful? If so, you know little of human behavior, particularly among the poor. In reality, a local village will love a cleric because he will sit at their bedsides and hear their stories or confessions. Add to that the improved safety and survival of the community through magical means. To say that this could be returned practically is putting it mildly. Need a ditch dug or a barn raised? Need a horse for the day from one of the local freeholders? Short on food? Don’t you see that the merest word that Good Father Jakob is going on a journey would encourage the entire community to show up, make sure he has enough to eat, encourage him to look up their relatives if he needs a place to stay, travel along with him a few miles on the road to see that he’s safely on his way and so on. Such a cleric would never need a bed in an inn, would never want for helpful friends, would never lack character witnesses – and would even gain the goodwill of the local lord when his healthy tenants managed their rent or produced their quotas more efficiently.

Does the party need men-at-arms? Why would you need to advertise? Peasant Theobald’s sister’s first cousin has been training with weapons since age five and has four friends – he’d love the work. And when those five guardsmen show up, they may admire the fighter in the party or be amazed by the mage, but they will adore the cleric whom they’ve heard so much about. And they will be of the cleric’s religion. They will follow the fighter’s instructions because the cleric says so. In case you don’t realize, this has been the manner of armies since, well, ever.

You understand, the mage can’t work this way. He may dazzle with a dancing lights spell or ease someone’s burden for a few hours with a Tenser’s floating disc, but most of the time his offensive spells are going to frighten ordinary people rather than help them. The cleric, on the other hand, is seen as a go-between between themselves and a terrifying god – having the cleric on their side offers a tremendous comfort. Do not underestimate the practical aspect of that comfort.

Of course, many DMs will resist this sort of influence by a cleric in their campaigns, seeing it as anathema to the restrictions or limitations they insist must be a player’s lot. I prefer to let the players find ways to make their lives easier ... if they will do so intelligently.

2. Helpful Church

All too often, the player cleric’s church is seen as a wart on the player’s free will. The church tells them what to do, the church tells them where to do it, the church is full of rules and pushy masters dictating this and that to the player. This is how DMs typically run a church. They see it as an impenetrable hierarchy, testy and exploitive, an iron hand micro-managing every cleric’s specific activity from day to day. Partly this is due to the influence of films and stories which depend upon a villainous entity opposing the virtuous and ultimately successful loner. Partly this is due to most D&D players instinctive dislike for any kind of authority, bred in them occasionally by a particular church when they were young.

In actual fact, no successful entity can function if abuse of authority or petty manipulation are the order of the day. Some of this might go on, yes ... but the normal order of events would be that of a club of individuals who are anxious to create success though mutual aid and service. A cleric who is in good standing with his church, who collects for it a reasonable tithe (10% of the cleric’s personal income), should receive back in kind very much the sort of goodwill discussed earlier among local peasants and landholders. A cleric should never want for lodging in any city of the world where there is a church, nor for want of information, short-term financial support, equipment (any equipment, not just weapons and armor), political influence or military aid (even if the cleric’s level only merits a bodyguard). Obviously a church might limit the cleric from borrowing a war galley ‘just to pop off across the gulf for a few days,’ but should the cleric need to get across the gulf for good reason, the church might quickly work out a passage with some good captain who is well known to the church and is going there anyway. At possibly no immediate cost to the cleric. They might tell him, “Just add a bit more to the coffer next time around,” saying nothing else about it.

The more cynical of my gentle readers may see immediately how this would impose reverse limitations on the cleric – other clerics showing up to impose for money, aid, and that standard ‘mission for the church’ to which I’m opposed. You will note, however, that I didn’t suggest the cleric show up in an odd town and insist on the local priest’s personal intervention in the cleric’s activities. Only for the sort of aid which can be quickly put off onto clerks, stewards and the like. “Get him passage to Oslo. See that he gets a chance to look over the armoury. And he needs a cure light wounds scroll.”

Would a player, I wonder, be willing to provide a stranger of the same religion a scroll on a moment’s notice, expecting never to see it again? I think probably a player would rather commit his or herself to the adventure personally rather than do such a thing. But that is wrong thinking. What goes around comes around ... and once a cleric has gained a reputation, quite a lot can come around.

Players usually, in my experience, insist on choosing obscure religions from which there can never be any help (nor any imposition). They would rather be alone. In my online campaign, having given his assent to starting in Germany and being well aware that Catholicism and Protestantism would be the norm, he chose an obscure Polish paganistic sect. In my offline campaign, where the party started in Russia, the cleric chose to follow Buddhism and the druid chose Celtism. The latter was at least a little closer to the norm – but rather than move closer to the Celtic orbit, and into Scandinavia, the party instead chose to travel south and east, ostensibly towards China. In other words, farther from their church – one may presume for various reasons. Because religion wasn’t important and because organized religion is a fucking pain in the ass.

Every organized religion has a traditional portion of its holy persons acting according to their own personal relationship with God. Francis of Assisi or Benedict, founding unique monastic orders; Jesus or John, itinerant preachers who considered themselves wholly Jewish (and who were killed for preaching outside the established order and from political expedience, NOT because they were loners); Confucius, who spent most of his life being kicked from one court to another, who followed the traditional religion ‘religiously’ but whose personal ideas were tolerated; Laozi who proposed the Daoist school; Mozi who proposed Mohism; Zoroaster; the Brahmin priests who wrote the Upanishads long after the founding of Hinduism; Mahavira who founded the Jain sect. We have a tendency to think of these things as ‘heresies’ due to our western catholic perceptions ... when in fact these advances were widely embraced improvements on earlier systems of thought and worship. Churches know that there must be a unique, barely influenced group seeking personal religion because they creates vitality in what would otherwise become a stale and declining religion. The ‘gods’ would know this also, and would know enough to keep their hands off clerics who might someday prove greater than their predecessors.

A cleric should never be a ‘follower’. Yet this is the word most commonly used: a cleric ‘follows’ his religion. But a cleric should be a LEADER. Like the mage and the fighter, the player cleric is not an ordinary individual ... and should NOT be bound by ordinary concerns.

3. Money.

In spite of what the book suggests, gods, rituals and practices do NOT underlay the fabric of the church. The gods can’t be bothered (it would be a stupid world where the gods intervened constantly, more so if that was the experience of every person dwelling in that world as well as the players), while rituals and practices are just a dumb-show to impress the locals. Churches run on money. Money pays the army, it builds the churches, it greases the local nobility, it provides for maintenance and for research, it promotes influence and it motivates. A church will last very little time without money to do all of that.

The manner in which this money is gathered is called the ‘collect.’ It is the vast sum of money that a frightened populace is prepared to hand over in order to keep the gods from getting more involved. Lots of money keeps the gods content and happy. A God that showed up every five minutes might awe those immediately present, but the successful cleric is going to be the one who represents another god and who says, “give me money and my god will kick that god’s ass.” In D&D, since all the gods are real, this is probably true.

Gods do not make themselves more welcome by hanging around.

Why would a cleric build a church? For the money. A church is a factory ... and the bigger the church, the more money it makes. Throughout the centuries various religious leaders have understood very clearly that a BIG, BIG church will pour money into the religion’s empty coffers. That is the reason why St. Peter’s was built in Rome during the counter-Reformation, why the Mezquita was built in Cordoba, Spain, and why the Hagia Sofia was built by Justinian in Constantinople. This are unbelievably immense structures, encouraging people to travel thousands of miles to see them and to leave their money.

Think of your player’s church as a money-making entrepreneurial venture. I propose that for every 100 g.p. spent on the structure, it should earn 4 g.p. per month: 2 g.p. to be paid to the religious organization as a tithe, 1 g.p. for maintenance and 1 g.p. to go into the cleric’s pocket, to do with as he or she sees fit. The bigger the church, the bigger the return. This is not very far from the reality. During the 30 Years War in Germany, the Protestants and Catholics vied to destroy one another’s churches (and thus their potential revenue) while defending and building more of their own. Tithes paid for that war ... and virtually for every war preceding it, as governments had not quite mastered the method of running on a deficit (which was standardized during the Baroque effort) and free money is the easiest to pay back.

No doubt this last will be the hardest to swallow – for anyone who has not actually worked within a religious entity, or who has not had experience with their bookkeeping. I would note that the Catholic church continues to be the largest landlord in the world, a condition which was created through the spreading of religion and the gathering of the collect. Very often the Catholic church as been able to put its own army in the field, a circumstance reflected very definitely by the gathering of men-at-arms as described in the Player’s Handbook.

Did you think the player was supposed to pay those troops out of his own pocket? Or maybe that they would graciously fight for free. That could be ... but what would they eat?


R said...

This is really great work. I try to keep my campaign as close to the perceived "real" medieval world as possible, and the points you have here help immensely.

I've had players who have said "my cleric's going to go find some homeless people and help them out" - but I haven't gone that in depth with the benefits of being so gracious.

The "church as a money-engine" concept is very VERY interesting. I never knew how important they were from an economic standpoint, and I plan on incorporating it as soon as possible.

"Since, however, the ‘gods’ are really just me, I can’t fool myself that I’m playing out the parameters of the game rather than flatly invoking my will (and my perception of the cleric) upon the player."

If you have trouble separating yourself from the gods of your campaign, I just have one piece of advice: I play my gods like I do my NPCs - they have goals, motivations, personality traits, etc. I simply channel them or try to think how they would act or react in certain situations. Obviously it doesn't eradicate the personal bias, but you can't ever truly remove that anyway.

shimrod said...

Good post. Better than the previous one. Points 1 and 2 are definitely things that I’ve seen. The role and potential of the cleric as community leader and friend to the common folk is something we often see in play. It’s something Clerics frequently do whenever there’s “downtime” around people (like in town while people are healing up, shopping, investigating, etc). The cleric spends some spells and time helping the poor and winning converts and admirers. And as I touched on in my responses to the previous post, the groups I’ve played with have almost always included Clerics which got some benefit and support from their church. Whether it be a secure place to stay the night in a foreign town, or a scroll to remove a curse at a less than exhorbitant price, or a favorable introduction to the local lord.

The way you write about how DMs “typically” run clerics and religion in their groups is pretty negative. Are you basing this primarily on bad DMs you’ve played with, or stuff you’ve read, or what?

Pobody's said...

In my case I must admit I build mechanics specifically to AVOID the situation you describe of the cleric wandering around healing. Not because I fear the PC doing such, but because then logically many NPC's should be doing as such.

In many ways the power of the cleric are truly so mind bogglingly societally changing than the wizards that it breaks the low fantasy historical setting. Many of the spells allow clerics to create a world without famine, death or disease while the warrior is still trying to save up enough for platemail.

A world with unlimited clerical abilities is in the end a world where the gods very directly intervene in the day to day routines of almost every human being.

It is up there with "Mages Colleges" churning out magic items on such a scale that it becomes technology.

In such a case we have the archmage Stephen Hawking and pope Gregory House. In essence we have gone from a swords swinging fantasy to a science fantasy akin to star wars. Where technology is just magic.

I prefer my priests to be able to save the entire village from a plague, or heal the child who fell down a well, but not constantly and not without price.

That is just my preferences.

Pobody's said...

I should point out I do agree with the concept of the helpful church, the church as a money factory and the love townsfolk have for the priest, and use those in my games.

However the mechanics are different than pure good nature (as many religions were not all happy go lucky, especially in regions like Meso-America)

The piety mechanics I mentioned were intended as limited on High Sorcery being common (which priest magic is still magic).

A priest who didn't want the quick and dangerous route to power (missionary work, converting villages of non-believers through deeds, crusades) would set up shop in a small village.

He would gain power for himself (and his god) by doing priestly duties. He would gain piety for burying the dead, he would gain peity for baptising or otherwise bringing new people into the fold (initiation rituals etc) as a converting process. He would gian piety (small amounts) every week by preaching to the congregation and keeping them following his faith.

All of this is a source of power, as the congregation is born, lives and dies the priest gains power.

But if they are going to follow and worship (and tithe) to this god and his church then surely he will protect them?

Thus some of the piety will be spent healing people from accidents, curing a disease, increasing crop yields and blessing soldiers before battle.

But there is a limit to how much can be done, thus in times of extreme disaster the priest must shrug and say "its all part of a mysterious plan"

The adventerous priest could gain more power by risking his life travelling to new lands and converting the masses, destroying rival temples and otherwise embarking on a crusade.

But there is still going to be the priests who tend to a local flock.

I don't see this as threatening to take away a priest's spells. Rather I see this as the ULTIMATE carrot.

The priest has no spells, he is rewarded with spells in the first place by being a priest.

If he is a Paladin (part priest part warrior) he might focus more on the soldiering and less on priestly duties, he can choose how many carrots he wants.

If he is all priest he is going to focus SOLELY on priestly duties.

Thus, it my mind its less of a straight jacket to the players. It lets them determine how pious and how zealous they are.

To clarify.

shimrod said...

I apologize if you felt the tone of my post was challenging or insulting. In retrospect, I guess it comes across as boasting. That was not the intent. Rather I meant to confirm that you’re not alone, that these are indeed good ideas, and that they work well in practice as well as in theory. My experience is no doubt less wide-ranging than yours, and undoubtedly I’ve been fortunate in the groups and people I’ve played with.

I’m not in any way trying to discount or cast aspersions on your observations or suggestions. In my first post I believe I indicated that I HAVE observed problems with Clerics like you’ve described, roughly as often as I’ve seen them played (and DM’d) well.

You’re a smart person, and have a lot to contribute. It does seem like you sometimes take an excessively superior and/or antagonistic tone, which reduces the accessibility and utility of your writing.

Alexis said...

I rescind my earlier comments.

A bit patronizing at the end there, shimrod. Why would you think I want my writing to be accessible?

Pobody's said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shimrod said...

Takes one (patronizer) to know one? :)

Well, you’ve gone to the trouble of writing online, allowing free access to folks around the world. You’ve gone to the greater trouble of writing some very detailed analyses and explaining them step by step to the public. Clearly not everyone puts the same kind of skull sweat and critical thought into their D&D, and it feels like you’re trying to help others add more detail, verisimilitude, and even realism to their games. I just sometimes get the sense that you feel like you’re casting pearls before swine.

Alexis said...

Whatever keeps the swine away.

shimrod said...

:) Fair enough.

Sorry to see that you've removed the previous response. I think it breaks the flow of the comments when you read them without it. I seem to be apologizing to the air, to some extent. The majority of it was also a legitimate answer to my question.

R said...

I just wanted to chime in and say that the "skull sweat and critical thought" is much appreciated and a little inspiring. I can only hope that if I had the time and skill I'd do something similar.

Kent said...

Your happy-go-lucky cleric skipping around the countryside sprinkling miracles on those with aching knees or sore thumbs would shed his naivety the first day he was chased by a horde of complainants. "Why can't I have a glyph on my door too, you bastard" is closer to the reality of human nature.

Any effort at simulating real world religions for an AD&D cleric crashes up against the problem that in the the real world there is no certain existence of the deity revealed through daily petty miracles and the core concept of faith is rendered meaningless. The more realistically you describe your church the more foolish clerics with fantasy spells look.

Alexis said...


I would guess you've never lived in a rural setting in your life.

Kent said...

What was it AC Doyle via Holmes said about pleasant looking country dwellings? Something like, don't let the appearance fool you, fouler deeds take place there where no-one can hear the screams.

E.G.Palmer said...

This is a bit I wrote for a post on Dragonsfoot a while ago in a thread that concerned clerics.

An explanation as to why I enjoyed running the stern, but fatherly Luminar, cleric of Pholtus.

Grulg, " Arrrrrghhh! I'm bleeding to death! Help me shining priest!"

Luminar, " You must sing the lesser hymn to draw the good will of the God."

Grulg, " Not again, please! I'm going to pass out!"

Luminar, "Sing!"

Grulg, " Pholtus loves me this I know! For the scrolls of enlightenment tell me so!
Adventurers to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong!
Yes, Pholtus requires strict adherence to the path of rightness!
Yes, Pholtus requires strict adherence to the path of rightness!
Yes, Pholtus requires strict adherence to the path of rightness!
For the scrolls of enlightenment tell me so!"

Luminar, " Forget not the tithe!"