Tuesday, July 5, 2016

JB's Irk

Now that JB is back from Spain, I can make a few comments about this post he wrote back in June.  Once again, I find myself defending clerics.  As JB writes,

"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, such premises are fairly ridiculous.  This isn't a surprise: the creators of the game, from start to finish, have been wallowing about in the subject of clerics from the beginning because, apparently, it is just too damn hard to spend any time in a library.   Moreover, the decryers, I have found, are equally ignorant of the rather "fundamental" things such as thinking the game was EVER about swords, sorcery, murderhobos or the idea that various concepts of magic were intended to 'fit' together.  These are internet inventions, first sparked 25 years after the game, promoted by disgruntled ignorant slobs who also found library time a level above their mental capacities.

Suppose that we recognize, first, that an argument that begins with the premise "there is only one true sort of magic" is one that goes right up its own ass.  Magic, being an invention, can come in as many flavors as ice cream, if that's what we want.  Since when do we give any credence to the slob that needs to shout loudly, "Black licorice!  GROSS!", like we give a damn?

Okay, so we don't have a proper theological context for clerical magic.  Fair enough.  For my money, we don't have a proper theological context for most religious dogma.  In his post, JB spends quite a lot of time talking about the motivations of gods, the cosmological imbalance of gods and their miraculous gifts, the improbability of people not rushing out to all become clerics, the unimaginable solace that clericism offers and how this would completely unbalance the universe.  Here JB writes,

"Just think about having the power to heal yourself and your loved ones. How many of us have wished for such magical powers . . . so 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.' "

Just roll this in your mind a bit and I will come back to it.

On the whole, I'd argue that JB's point of writing the post is one I fully agree with.  I, too, am irked by the 'fluff' behind the class.  I, too, have never liked the idea of gods consciously granting a cleric the power that the cleric has.  I say deliberately on my wiki that the cleric must to pray to acquire spells - but I don't say what actually happens.  Let's say for the sake of argument that the gods sweat magic and that clerical prayer is a way of globbing it up out of the cosmos.  This makes the gods blissfully unaware that the cleric is even praying - and as such, doesn't invoke any of JB's arguments that the gods be personally concerned with what the cleric does.  If we dispense with the 18th-19th century conception of Greek and Norse legend (though I loved Tanglewood Tales as a boy), we can stop thinking of gods as corporeal beings that mortals can understand - and it gets even easier to suppose that the gods just don't give a shit.  Then, like in the Real World, the clerics in power can make up whatever justifications (bullshit) they want for how theology works and there's no voice to correct them.

The only reason why the inventors of role-playing imagined Gods caring came about because of the need to straitjacket players into alignments.  The Gods cared about what the paladin or the cleric did, so the DM could punish the player as a way of restricting the player's free will and balancing the unreasonable powers that came from being able to raise the dead and using a +5 holy avenger with twice the bonus.  But all that DM punishing the player scheme came about as a need for man-boys to swagger at the top of the table and dictate their anti-player agency agendas.  Alignment was shit from the beginning, shit from end-to-end, and every part of the game's rules that came about as a means to adapt alignment to player action has been central to the crap-fest that has defiled the game's potential for four decades now.  JB's irk originates with the will of some people to invent a theological basis for what player behaviour OUGHT to be, based on dogma, so-called roots, inflexible premises and arguments that what 'fits' is more important than what works.  The internet simply took all the back-ass myopic two-dimensional thinking and ran with it right into the brick wall that inevitably became 4e.

Look at that quote above about helping your loved ones.  JB unfortunately ignores a lot of details about having the power to heal people.  For one thing, having a 9 wisdom is enough for a player in the game, because it is a game, but we have to assume that if we're describing a real place, a person has to have more than a 9 wisdom.  It didn't take that much intelligence to be a priest in the 15th century and yet they got lots of benefits.  Why wasn't everyone a priest?  Because it took training and the schools were full.  Because we didn't just train anyone.  Because even if we became a priest, we didn't get to decide what district we'd be pushed into.  None of that matters to players, because we're making a GAME here - but being a cleric in a real D&D world would probably mean being told to let people die even if you could heal them - just as clerics in the real world were admonished for giving away money, daring to live in poverty, not raising money for the holy mother church and so on.  Yes, you can heal your family - but you're not allowed to have a family because you're a priest.  And if you dare get one, or help one without our permission, we'll cast another spell called excommunication and then the god sweat won't help you.  So suck on that, would-be cleric.

These are the sorts of realities that are always ignored about how religions actually work because these are the details deliberately withheld from the common man.  Priests have no doubt been raping little children since the 6th century - but its only with enforced transparency that we now know it happens.  Churches have always deliberately deprived the poor and the needy, but they got away with it all those centuries by inventing lies like the money is being spent on God or that money doesn't matter because we can't spend it in heaven.  Very convenient, that.  We gloss over these details because we live in this century - we're used to thinking that everyone has the right to the same privileges and the same treatment.  We presume that if it only takes a 9 wisdom to get something, its an automatic get - after all, apart from ability, what other possible obstacles could there be?

Lots.  Lots and lots and lots.  JB rightly says that only a deluded, hard-cased fool would walk a godless path in a cleric-magic universe.  He misses completely that even if the fellow were aware and brilliant, he could still be forced to walk a godless path in a cleric-magic universe, because even in a cleric-magic universe, fuck you.  We don't care if you eat, we don't care if your chronic back ache hurts, we don't care if your wife died yesterday.  These spells are for GOD, not for you.  Your dead wife is in a better place and your chronic back ache will help remind you to be humble.  Now excuse me, I have extremely expensive cloth to buy so I can have my vestments remade for this year's Day of the Dead.

If you read this post and liked the sentiment of defending clerics, or that there's always the chance of a reasonable way of looking at something that's unfairly disparaged, and you'd like to see me go on writing posts like this, donate $5 or some such consideration through my blog or become a Patreon supporter, giving me some small stipend a month that you won't notice affecting your bank account.


JB said...

@ Alexis:

Ha! Haven't even had a chance to catch up on my Tao reading, and you waited to post this? I am totally flattered!

Good points all, though I'd quibble that they presume things about the setting that aren't explicit...like the need to train or be schooled as a cleric, or the existence of some vast institution like the medieval Catholic church.

That aside, they're still good points...and hell, I can think of other obstacles: "These spells aren't for God, they're for MAN, but NOT men of your skin color." For example...you can pick any number of stumbling blocks. There's a line in one of my books (an example of play), in which a cleric PC wields her alignment as a reason for withholding healing from a fellow party member...something I'd guess you'd find pretty abhorrent (given your feelings on both cooperative play and alignment).

However (as you point out), my "irk" isn't the class but the base justification for the core mechanic of the class. I personally find the cosmology of fantasy settings like Dragon Lance to be ridiculously offensive (though that wasn't the case when I was enjoying the books, circa age 12). That is, offensive to my sensibilities, not my religion.

[BTW I also loved Tanglewood Tales as a child]

Thanks for this...I found myself laughing out loud while reading this post which is always good, first thing in the morning.
: )

Hare said...

Perhaps slightly tangential, but you hit on something that has always puzzled me when I see it expressed on the internet. Namely, that the fictional content of a D and D campaign has to always conform either to realism or genre emulation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that we need to ditch all established tropes. I'm saying that 1)D and D is in some ways its own genre, and 2)We can decide how things work in a virtual universe.

If our players are going to meaningfully engage in the world, it's essential that it has verisimilitude rather than being a big cloud of random handwavium. But it can have its own internal logic independent of fantasy literature or human history. Players need to know how some of this internal logic works, and have the opportunity to learn more, but through playing rather than reading. I'm partly reacting to posts about how skeletons shouldn't move more slowly than zombies, and vampire level draining isn't "realistic". Also a belief that nothing in the game can contradict Tolkien. D and D zombies don't need to emulate any particular model. Of course level draining isn't "realistic". Nor is any alternative. It's not like all fictional vampires share the same characteristics anyway. Is it correct that Gygax didn't want the players to have access to the Monster Manual? You're more familiar with 1st Edition than I am. This points to the adventure of discovery. Who knows what's out there? How dangerous is this creature? Reading about WOTC's adventure railroads, sorry, "paths", I wonder what the point of Orcus and Tiamat are if everyone knows exactly how they tick? I'm overstating my case, but still. "Eventually you will face and defeat the most awesome and legendary foes that D and D players have been familiar with for decades." isn't actually awesome to me.

Are you familiar with magic realism as exemplified by Márquez? I think a few inexplicable phenomena are kind of cool, but that might go against the grain of your approach.

Back to clerics, you make an important point about limitations. Not every thing needs to be balanced through mechanics. In fact, social factors could create a lot of interesting gamable situations.

I do have to admit one thing. I just can't deal with Raise Dead as get out of jail free card. It really needs to be a big deal to reverse death (for me). In the edition I'm playing doesn't have any limitations excluding possession of the corpse. I even wrote out a house rule on this despite the fact that none of the PCs are even 1/4 the way to second level. Going to have to laugh at myself for that. That system shock roll sure is dramatic.

I personally like the idea that most religious figures aren't clerics. Your thoughts?

Had to chuckle at your latest alignment jab. Gygax has put some nice passive aggressive and aggressive aggressive tidbits in the DM's guide. Not happy with they're role playing? Lighting bolt!

Alexis Smolensk said...


That's a lot and much of it is off topic, but I'll try to hit the high points.

Yes, D&D is it's own art form. It obeys no one except the DM and players. Zombies: agreed. Vampires: agreed. Level draining: works as a mechanic; can't say that it's not realistic, however. Not realistic compared to what? The real way that real vampires ACTUALLY drain blood and energy?

Fuck Tolkien. Even Tolkien wouldn't care about his rules vis-a-vis this game.

Monster Manual? Too late to close the barn door. 'Course, there's nothing that says that a goblin has the hit dice the monster manual says. The Monster Manual and its numbers, abilities, limits and so on is not the boss of me. If I want a frost giant to be able to cast spells, that's the player's problem, not mine. My only concern is that if the frost giant can cast spells, it has to do so in the same way as every other person and creature in the game (though some monsters, like demons, are able to do magic by will alone - but there are rules for that too).

Adventure of discovery: thank god we're not limited to the "discovery of the rules" or "what's in the books." Nice idea, but we've all been playing for a couple of years now. Discovering what the rules are, that's noobie stuff.

I only know Gabriela Garcia Marquez. Do not like.

Hmf. Raise Dead is a long way from a Get Out of Jail "Free" Card. First, it's expensive. Second, you've only got so long, else you're going to have to pay for the even more expensive Resurrection. Can mean waiting for a long time in a town. Die, and you don't get the experience bonus for the battle or the campaign, so you're dragging the rest of the party potentially forever. Now and then, a mountain falls on you and NOTHING can save you. Now and then, you blow your resurrection survival and ALMOST nothing can save you - I did make one exception, but it sounded called for and I haven't regretted it. The party has paid two years of adventuring time putting that one to rights and there have been lots of penalties along the way. No resurrection? Come play in my world for three years and then have your character DIE permanently. You'll sing a different tune. You'll feel like you've just written a novel, started up the barbecue and watched the paper burn.

History tells us that religious figures come in all shapes and sizes.

Hare said...

Apologies for the digressions.

I'm not opposed to Raise Dead existing at all. I just think it's important that it's not too easy. The factors you describe ensure that it isn't. The B/X version of the spell is a little too automatic, hence me adding something similar to the survival roll.

Interesting that in Gygax's pro fudging passage he clearly states that this particular roll should never be fudged.

How often does permanent pc death occur in your campaign? You've got significant stakes in play regardless.