Having written extensively on the cleric, I’m not sure what more I can add to the discussion of priests. In trying, let me begin with the first holy practitioners.
In primitive cultures, priests were not ‘trained’ as in D&D, but were merely those members of the society who were thought to have some special talent for communicating with divine spirits, or who had natural abilities to perform magic. In D&D, of course, this would be actual magic.
As an aside, it is reasonable that given a considerable number of humanoid births, a certain portion of these would spontaneously be capable of producing magic at will – thus the existence of psionics. I, however, do not use psionics, primarily because they defeat the baseline for conquering the game. It is as though you were to give one of the players in monopoly the opportunity to roll twice each turn. While this would result in more payouts, it would also enable them to quickly buy up property early in the game. In spite of the balances that have been attempted to limit psionics, I don’t find that the non-psionically endowed players feel particularly appeased. I’ve never encountered a long time player who wasn’t perfectly happy to play without them.
Very well – let’s dispense with the argument of priests having natural powers, and continue with the matter of their selection. And in doing so, let us consider the shaman, a holy person who was believed to acquire power by direct intercourse with spirits during a vision or dream. Unlike the cleric, who is seen as an intermediary, the shaman actually possessed power within himself. This is in keeping with the principals of animism, which I haven’t discussed previously. Animism describes spirits as agencies of the supernatural, rather than as gods. Usually such spirits are deceased ancestors, or heroes – and therefore are no different than living humanoids, except that they are now dead. It is not so much that they are deified – only that being dead, they are less restricted to the laws and rules that govern living men.
The shaman would become such a spirit upon death – in life, however, he is the focal point, ‘helped’ by the spirits to perform rituals. This to me is a stronger template for the nature of druids than the clerical one – it suggests that druids are less dependent on ‘gods’, and thus take their power directly from themselves and from the definite, localized spirits in any particular area. If we widen the shamanistic format to include the various little geniuses (so called by the Romans) which inhabited every rock, tree, river, doorway, plant, creature and so on, we can perceive that spells such as call lightning or stone shape are not obtained from the god, but directly from the cloud or the stone itself. As long as the various elements of nature are at peace with the druid, there is no trouble in casting. But should the druid through action or inaction alienate any particular aspect of nature, he would not be able to draw again upon that power until the matter was again made right.
Thus, if a druid were to inexplicably destroy a young tree, wood spells would cease in availability. However, since snow and ice, which happily rips trees down as it falls from the mountainside, could not care, spells based on cold would function as normal. This seems right and proper.
It may not seem so, but I have just come up with that in writing it down.
Moving further forward in technological development, we know that virtually every form of religion has possessed priests in some form or another. The reason that this is so is quite plain – the development of the priestly cast came about through knowledge which was not generally known. Priests were those who developed the ability to write, who kept records on when to plant and on who had paid taxes and who had not. Priests conjured methods by which the dead should be buried, and incorporated rituals which made themselves indispensible in the driving off of evil spirits and demons. Priests knew what was needed in identifying a promising chief, and later became the principal advisors for kings. It was a soft life for a priest, provided the advice given was good advice and that the signs were read correctly. But priests learned, as society developed, methods for how to lay the blame off on other things – rituals performed incorrectly, or a weakness in tolerating certain members of society that should not have been tolerated: “O King, it would have worked, but that you have continued to sleep with that harlot, whom I warned you against these three years ago.” Yes, that sort of thing.
Through sacrifice, priests could further establish their position of authority – what better way of getting rid of one’s enemies? Rarely will a D&D cleric realize that the best way to dispense the party of a certain thief is to suddenly recognize that the thief has green eyes, and that some written tract somewhere once warned that “green as the sea, a villain is he.” Whereupon, pointing at the thief and uttering the words, the party should at once seek to rid themselves of these angry spirits, build a pyre and roast the thief upon it.
Alas, clerics are not given the sort of credence in D&D as they are in life. But once they were ... and it was a power to be used sparingly, but practically. When the cleric announces that the castle must be taken, there is reason to follow the cleric’s word. If it should ever be discovered, however, that the cleric has misinterpreted scripture, ah, there’s the rub.
But we don’t have the sort of writings in D&D for a cleric to choose from, do we? What DM is likely to produce hundreds of pages of religious text to support the actions or inactions of a cleric who comes to play only on weekends, and sporadically at that? Is not the weakness in the class partly due to the weakness of the form? What priest would be without their Bible, perfectly memorized so as to produce a justification for every circumstance? Surely, no cleric can be as well prepared.
I tell you honestly, I don’t intend to write out a list of do’s and don’ts for the clerics in my parties. But it does occur to me, writing this, that it wouldn’t hurt to provide a bit more background, a bit more of what is expected, and a stronger notion of how the cleric’s day begins and how the cleric chooses his or her actions. All worked out with the cleric, of course ... provided the cleric is interested in that sort of thing. I haven’t met many players who were.
I might, though. If I were playing a cleric, I might take some time to write out a few psalms, hack out a few practicable myths and morality plays (outlines, at least), just to draw on them at the right time. It couldn’t hurt.
Well, this has been a bit of a hodgepodge, and I admit I’ve pulled some of this post out of my ass. But we have to have fun once in awhile.