Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cleric Ecology

See, when I think of a priest, I think of the dude in vestments down the road at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, not some screaming dude in mail with a mace in hand and holy fire burning on his brow. The Reverend Richard W. Blazejewski in town doesn't dive into dungeons, lead hunting parties against predatory dragons, banish embodied demons by use of a blessed warhammer, or call down curses upon his foes (...probably).

Yet, in games like Dungeons & Dragons, that is exactly what "clerics" do.
(At least, that is how they are portrayed. I've already wrote some on what a cleric "really is.")

Now, I could rant about this discrepancy in two ways. I could say "NO, that's not how things work, really a cleric should be like THIS" and some people might find it interesting and maybe I would have some good thoughts. OR, I could say "okay, now that's not what I think of a priest as being - so what kind of world would make priests like THAT?"

I'm going to do the second one because it sounds like more fun.

So, what weird things do I notice in clerics in traditional RPGs?

1) They're SPECIAL. They get supernatural powers and privileges from their divinity. They have been CHOSEN. Strangely enough, though, after giving their follower all these souped-up magic powers, these divines seem to care very little what the cleric actually DOES with them.
1a) So, I conclude, any divinity with a lot of clerics must have very little headroom of their own with which to decide how to exercise their power, and so must outsource that brainspace to "devoted" followers. Deities in D&D (& Friends of similar ilk) have a lot of magical might but not a very good field of view or attention span. Just as if some random human (with a LOT of power) were trying to run WORLDS and keep track of it all - and decided to share some of that power with OTHER humans who could keep an eye of areas and concerns the "divine" was unable to pay attention to with any regularity. In short, clerics teach us that deities are not so very divine (except, perhaps, in the raw magnitude of their power.)
(Some may here protest that no, actually what is happening is that the cleric prays to an all-seeing deity who then sees fit to reward the cleric's faith with a miracle, but I don't buy that explanation because 1) there would be no reason to have the cleric in the first place, and 2) a cleric's god would seem to be REALLY chill about performing massive acts of wonder in a lot of situations they don't have any stake in, in which the cleric is just pursuing personal goals and just using divine power as a resource to their own ends.)

2) They're EVERYWHERE. Clerics everywhere. Like, they're one of the four traditional core classes, right alongside "people who use magic," "people who steal stuff," and "people who kill things by hitting them." Clerics in every village, clerics in every temple. (Clerics in nearly every adventuring party, it seems.)
2a) So, I conclude, the divines must be REALLY comfortable with all these humans and elves and such running around with their power. Like, they hand out literal godly power like it were candy. You just have to spend a couple years hanging out with the right people and BAM you can do miracles, you and the fifty other people at THIS ONE TEMPLE.
2b) I also conclude the divines REALLY WANT SOMETHING DONE. Whether they want their followers healed or their enemies confounded or monsters slain, they're throwing A LOT of resources around here on the prime planes. (That, or they're just really bored and they want to see what fireworks happen when they give a ton of unreliable little turds access to sparks of the divine. I personally suspect this last option, haha.)

3) They're of ALL KINDS. Not the clerics themselves, necessarily, but they follow all kinds of gods. Gods of war and peace, love and hate, life and death, toads and eagles, greed and poverty, light and dark, goats and snakes, oaths and lies, sun and stone, bears and beetles, fire and water, knowledge and secrets. And all these clerics have legitimate clerical powers, which at least IMPLIES that they worship bona-fide deities.
3a) So, I conclude that there are a TON of deities up there, many of which disagree vehemently with the basic nature of tons of OTHER deities, granting tremendous destructive power to all kinds of followers.
3b) ...Which seems like we have an answer to our question in 2b: the gods are tooth-and-nail AT WAR with each other; sun clerics are expected to strike down underworld creatures, truth clerics are expected to expose and destroy lies (and liars), goat clerics are expected to... screw stuff and eat stuff? ANYWAY, don't think of clerics as passive repositories of power. Think of them as soldiers in a cosmic battlefield. (Better: not soldiers, LANDMINES, blowing stuff up indiscriminately and undirectedly.)

So, next time you're playing a cleric, think a bit more about what that means. Does your deity approve of your use of its power? Does it even know? Does it even CARE?
(And, GMs, ask the same questions for deities in your setting!)


  1. I just had a thought while reading this... what if deities don't as much grant power to their followers, but rather bleed their divine stuff all over the place (while they are fighting with each other), and some random souls going into a baby just happens to soak some of that up. And then you have a "cleric", or at least someone with a scrap of deity's power (and by extension, part of their beliefs or interests). It's still pretty similar to what you wrote, only the gods care EVEN LESS.

    1. See, now that's actually a COOL idea, rather than my silly flights of humor :p