Freeing Clerics from their Character Straitjackets
I usually DM.
However, when I play, I will play darned near anything. I once played a merchant. This was during the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The typical game settings had no “merchant” class, of course. Dark Sun added a “Trader” class in a supplement, but we weren’t playing Dark Sun. The Expert NPC class would not be invented until the subsequent edition. So what I ran was a 0-level character, mostly for the fun of it. And it was fun. Despite my limited time on the other side of the screen, I’ve played bards, rogues, paladins, fighters, rangers, clerics, wizards, warlords (4th-edition), and more. If you’ve read my inaugural Dice Unloaded column, then you also know I have a fondness for rolling 3d6 for each stat and taking them in the order they fall.
All that said, I do have biases. I’ve said before that I prefer humans. Sure, I played a gnome illusionist once, and enjoyed him, but humans are my go-to race for both PCs and NPCs.
My other pretty big bias has, historically, been against the cleric. My goal in this column: Find a way to overcome my bias against our poor healer.
Mechanically, cleric is a fine class: Powerful, even. And I’ve played them in the past. One of my favorite PCs was in a Greyhawk campaign. He was a 3rd-edition cleric/wizard/mystic-theurge named Bellenorgum, Priest of Boccob, deity of magic and knowledge.
But from time to time, I’d slip and call my character “Boccob.” At least twice, I introduced my character to NPCs as the god that he was supposed to be representing.
“I am Boccob,” he would say.
I think the DM was being kind for not having my god strike me down by hurling a 10-ton book at me from the sky.
But that’s the problem with the cleric, isn’t it? Or rather, my problem with the cleric. And maybe it’s mostly mine. But I hate character straitjackets.
I don’t play elves and dwarves if I can help it, because elves and dwarves have mono-cultures. It’s tough to make one elf come across, in game-play, as distinct from other elves. Not impossible, mind. Just difficult. It’s made more difficult by the fact that other players and some DMs insist on treating your PC like a stereotypical member of his or her race, despite all the care you’ve taken to distinguish that PC.
DM: The gnome laughs at your grumpiness and sets fire to your beard.
Player: For the last time, my dwarf doesn’t have a beard! He shaves his whole head bald!
DM: Oh, grumpy, grumpy dwarf. The gnome toasts a marshmallow in your flaming face locks.
Sometimes the attempts to distinguish an elf character end up being every bit as painful as if I simply decided he was Legolas. I once tried an elf-related experiment that I hated within minutes of play. I then conspired to get my own character killed—and succeeded.
The Clerical Vestment Is a Straitjacket
Clerics have a mini-me problem.
Out of devotion to a god,
who is already well-known and distinctive,
whose powers bestowed on clerics frequently mirror his or her own divine powers,
and whose most distinctive possessions end up being the cleric’s holy symbols,
it becomes very difficult to run a cleric who feels like his or her own character, distinct from that worshiped god.
Again, not impossible, just difficult.
I suspect this is one reason why clerics always seem to be tough roles to fill in gaming groups, particularly in those that tend toward story or role-playing instead of toward miniature warfare. If you join such a group as a late arrival and ask what the party needs, the answer half the time is, “Oh! We could really use a cleric!”
Players’ reluctance to play clerics is often blamed on its healing role. And that’s certainly part of it. But I seldom see wizards flinch at casting divination spells for the good of the party, or bard-players (of which I am one – I love bards) regret their support roles. So I don’t think the support role is the whole reason. No, I suspect a more significant factor is the challenge of role-playing someone whose whole purpose in life is to represent a pre-existing character created by someone else. The better you are at playing the role of worshiper, the more restricted you feel in the role you’re playing.
Even if that’s just a problem for me, I still want to do something about it.
My Five-Cleric Challenge for Dice Unloaded
I’ve decided to use my Dice Unloaded column to explore some ways out of the clerical straitjacket. I’m going to create five clerics, each not only distinct compared with typical clerics, but also distinct from each other and from any god they might be associated with. Each one will be an attempt to create a new clerical archetype using mostly hacks of what gamers often call “fluff” or “flavor.” They’ll have the basic underlying mechanics of clerics but may feel quite different in play. (As one friend of mine noted upon reviewing this article, “They’re not even clerics!” Well, mechanically, they are.)
My criteria for this challenge:
- Each cleric’s abilities should stay within the existing rules or mechanics – only cosmetic, descriptive, or flavor changes are permitted. I want these options to be open to pretty much any gaming table.
- Each type of cleric should use a different kind of divine power source.
- Each divine power source should be of such a nature that you can imagine more than one NPC or PC following the same archetype. That way, if three players at the table want to play clerics using the same power source described here, that should be okay.
- Each divine power source should inherently leave a player free to develop the character in non-mini-me directions.
The Dice Results
Because I’m embedding this clerical challenge within my Dice Unloaded framework—in which I design characters out of random 3d6 results, without re-arranging the dice—I face a special problem. I want to create five clerics, but I don’t know ahead of time what I’m going to roll! However, I came up with a solution that bends my preferred practice a little bit: Roll lots of characters, and then pull five sets of stats that can be used as clerics. Then use the other results for later Dice Unloaded columns.
So I now have a bunch of character ability sets to play with. Some are even weaker than Greggor. Some are more powerful, ability-score-wise, than the illusionist I described in the Greggor column.
My five clerics are all fairly moderate, though. Here are the sets:
A Sneak Preview: Five New Clerical Archetypes
I have sketched out what I’d like to do with each of the five, and will share the plans below, as a kind of sneak preview.
Set 1 Character: Galatherina (archetype: reliquary, or relic-bearer)
Galatherina was once a knight and not a terribly nice one. She wasn’t evil, exactly—just indifferent to the impacts of the laws and customs she observed and enforced. But one day she retrieved a holy relic, a sword, and later that same day, in desperation while under attack, called out to the god to whom that sword was dedicated, not really expecting a result. Aid appeared. She survived. From that point on, Galatherina has found herself bound to the sword, endowed with clerical powers she never sought, and under constant pressure to adhere to the morality of the sword’s god. The sword, it turned out, is one of a set called the redeemer blades, each one an angelic servant of the god in question. Each redeemer blade entity has volunteered to assume the form of an inanimate but intelligent object with a mission to convert wayward-but-promising souls into divine agents. Although the sword’s moral pressure is gradually nudging Galatherina toward a good alignment, she resents the god’s and sword’s presumption that she needs redeeming. She has attempted unsuccessfully to rid herself of the weapon, only to find it reappears at her side while she sleeps. (Source note: Galatherina’s sword, named Daelgalid, is inspired by the 2nd-edition angelic creature called the agathinon, which could take the form of a weapon and imbue its wielder with some divine powers.)
Set 2 Character: Bettelfegne (archetype: semidivine being)
Bettelfegne looks human, but isn’t. Instead he belongs to a semidivine race, similar to devas or aasimars, called the obilim. All obilim are foundlings; no one has ever witnessed the birth of an obilim. Members of the race live unnaturally long lives and tend to have unusually high Intelligence and Wisdom. (Rules note: The obilim use exactly the same racial features as high elves, but appear and behave culturally as humans.)
An obilim organization called Sanctuary recruits young members of the race, offering to train them and develop their natural talents. Those who accept become, in all respects, clerics, though in their case their powers are better thought of as racial features than class features. Obilim who reject the training often become sorcerers called malbilim, drawing on their innate powers in a more untutored fashion.
Although they belong to an organization, the obilim typically travel alone, drawing on a shared philosophy for guidance rather than answering to any masters or committees (though they do report on their decisions and actions to Sanctuary when called upon to do so). Trained obilim often ally themselves with divinities, whom they serve in idiosyncratic ways—often in ways that puzzle, startle, or offend official clergy of those religions.
Although found and raised by a barbarian cult, Bettelfegne fled their culture upon invitation to Sanctuary. He has become a skilled divination specialist, allied with a god of knowledge and arcane magic.
Set 3 Character: Mitra, Daughter of Masks (archetype: demigod)
Mitra is a demi-god, though not yet a terribly powerful one.
(Edit: I use the term “demi-god” here in the sense of child-of-a-god, not in the sense of divine rank as described in 3rd-Edition D&D. An earlier reader argued that D&D demigods cannot be 1st level or without divine powers, but I think he’s conflating the hereditary term with the deity rank term. At any rate, it seems like a good thing to clarify. The idea here is that Mitra’s clerical powers are innately divine, powered by her adherence to her personal philosophy and portfolio, rather than granted by someone else.)
Mitra was conceived not in an act of love but as a rebuttal in a domestic argument between the pantheon’s matriarch and her king-of-the-gods husband, who had a fondness for shape-changing and engaging in lusty contact with mortal flesh. (Mitra’s mother is known as the Queen of Masks due to her cleverness, stealth, and skill at intrigues; accordingly, she is revered by rogues.)
Left at a temple of her mother and raised as an orphan on the streets, Mitra now maintains two identities in two different cities. Neither of those roles is as a priest, though Mitra wields divine power. One identity is Shandry Cork, a shadowy figure in the criminal underground who runs something of an intelligence operation, using information she obtains to further the goals of both of her identities. Her other identity is as Galimitra, an upper-class wife to a gentleman adventurer active in the politics of a large city, where she engages in the intrigues of court and bench. (Her marriage is one of convenience, a mutually beneficial alliance with not a spark of romance to it.) In each role, Mitra draws on information and influence available from the other role to further plots nearly indecipherable unless one has inside knowledge of both of her networks. In both roles, she supplements her intelligence networks’ information through direct action on her own part, as she enjoys the thrill.
Mitra knows who her mother is, but the god who bore her remains aloof. Even at higher levels in Mitra’s development, when Mitra is able to cast spells like commune, any attempts to call on her mother for aid tend to be unsuccessful.
Set 4 Character: Raicho the Recusant (archetype: recusant)
Raicho is often referred to by other clerics as an infidel, and doesn’t mind the term, though he prefers pantheonic mercenary. Recruited at an early age for clerical training in an evil cult, Raicho started out like most clerics do: assuming that he was chosen as a vessel of divine power because of his morality (well, lack of it), and trying to stick with the code he was given lest his gifts be stripped away.
However, Raicho found his missions distasteful and disturbing and eventually quit, relocating to a new country and new culture, assuming his days as a cleric were forever finished. Instead, he was recruited again, this time for a good order, despite his adulthood and previous allegiances. Raicho joined the new order, at first pleased to have been given a new opportunity, but inwardly he thought a lot about the odds someone would be chosen twice to serve very different gods. Eventually, Raicho worked out a hypothesis: Perhaps clerics were not chosen for their ethos, virtues, or character. Instead, perhaps they were chosen because very few people have the ability to channel divine power, and gods need agents in the mortal realm who can pursue their visions. If so, that would mean that his ability to channel divine power was both innate and in demand, and he might be able to do better for himself by being a free agent. There was only one way to test his hypothesis: He quit a second temple.
And a third time, Raicho was approached.
Believing his hypothesis confirmed, Raicho now is an independent operator, drawing on the powers of any god whose interests align (even temporarily) with his own—and sometimes carrying out missions for divine interests willing to pay the right price. This arrangement has both its benefits and its consequences. Raicho enjoys almost unparalleled independence for a cleric, but he has a rocky relationship with divine powers. Some refuse to work with him entirely and are hostile to him. Others seem to enjoy or respect his game-playing, but because they are game-playing powers themselves, they can be tricky beings to negotiate with. Raicho has at times found himself rather horribly outwitted, like a too-clever wisher being surprised by a more-clever djinn. Still, as a Chaotic Neutral character (where his alignment has finally settled), Raicho values his independence strongly enough to tolerate the occasional setback.
A friend of Raicho’s, a sage, has, meanwhile, challenged Raicho’s interpretation of his own experience, positing occasional alternative explanations that Raicho generally dismisses. Two suggestions by his sage friend have disturbed Raicho, though he refuses to admit it:
- Raicho may have had the same patron all along–a divine being that is playing some game, with him as a pawn on the board.
- Raicho may, without realizing it, be drawing his power more from his adherence to his philosophy than from a deity: “All things have anima, Raicho. Rocks, trees, grass. Individually, their power does not amount to much. Philosophies and concepts can have anima, too, possessed of power and ethos, though without consciousness. They are the trees and ferns of the divine world. I wonder if perhaps you are drawing power from that sort of source. I know you see that power as having external, divine origins. You see that power as coming from agents of deities, instead of from within. But have you considered that perhaps these are phantoms of your own mind — that you are mad?”
Set 5 Character: Arethkayn of the Ruaud (archetype: scion)
Arethkayn is the last descendant of a powerful, noble family called the Ruaud that has, for generations, enjoyed a pact with four gods in her people’s pantheon. In return for service and sacrifice, the family has enjoyed the ability to draw on divine power to further its own ends. However, after a couple of centuries, the alliance among the gods in question became strained, even fracturing at times. The tensions among the family’s patrons have had consequences over the years for Arethkayn’s family, leading to its slow decline. Enemies of both the Ruaud and the gods in question have been able to pick off the Ruaud with assassinations, while legal and social maneuvers to thwart political marriages have kept their birthrate low.
Arethkayn has fled her former kingdom for foreign lands, knowing that despite any claims she might have back home, she lacks the power to enforce them. Still able to call on her family’s patrons (even if she sometimes has to be sensitive to hostilities among their ranks), Arethkayn wields divine power as a cleric but pursues a long-term personal agenda: revenge on her family’s enemies and a return to power.
(Note: Wallace Cleaves has written a response to this article.) †
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. He has also written a fantasy novella about the last cleric in this article series, titled Godfathom, which is presently available for free. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.