Once you’ve chosen a deity, consider your cleric’s relationship to that god. Did you enter this service willingly? Or did the god choose you, impelling you into service with no regard for your wishes?
The 5th-edition Player’s Handbook, page 57
It’s funny how often lines like the one above get overlooked as players and GMs flip pages to the crunchy bits. How often at the gaming table have I seen a cleric who was impelled into service, as the above question describes? Never. But it’s a cool idea. The new Player’s Handbook is filled with such lines, full of thought and likely to be unread.
Previous editions have similarly encouraged clerical variety, with most of that variety going unexplored. For instance, 3rd edition introduced the idea that clerics might draw their power from devotion to a philosophy or cause, instead of from a deity. That option appears again in 5th edition’s advice to game masters. (Wallace Cleaves, in a response to my previous column, explored a famous example of such a philosophy-dedicated cleric: the Jedi.) It really is a pity that players and GMs explore the full range of variety for elves, halflings, dragonborn, fighters, types of rogues, and clerical domains — but that when it comes to the cleric’s relationship to the divine, everyone goes back to the same cookie-cutter approach, even when the rulebooks explicitly give permission to be more creative than that.
It’s the line quoted at the top of this column that I’m drawing from to create my next Dice Unloaded character: Galatherina.
Galatherina can make magic with her sword that most other clergy envy, yet she does not know a word of their formal blessings or marriage rites. She brings her horse into the temple and expects friars to clean up its messes.
As I’ve indicated in my previous column, my goal in this five-part series is to come up with some new ways to think about clerical power—new interpretations of “divine power” that liberate a PC to be his or her own person instead of a mini-me version of the god they serve while staying within the rules for the class. Dice Unloaded characters aren’t meant as PCs; I’m not going to play them. They’re mostly proofs-of-concept, demonstrations to players and GMs of some of the ways they might open up new or under-explored options for role-playing without creating new rules, domains, spells, class features, or mechanics.
Dice Unloaded characters may be used as models for PCs, as inspiration for NPCs, or as NPCs directly. So long as the underlying mechanics remain the same, so that game balance is maintained, flexible GMs should (I hope!) be open to such plays. I would be, and most GMs I have played with have been open to creative reskinning.
Ironically, one way to liberate a character from pale mimicry of her god is to shackle her, to establish tensions between the cleric and the forces she serves. In restricting the agency of the character being played, one can increase the agency of the player to create a distinctive character unlike the god in one or more ways.
Geased and compelled characters can, in fact, be quite fascinating, their true characters brought into sharp relief against those of their masters. I’m thinking in part of the entire party of adventurers in Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, Dorian Hawkmoon in Michael Moorcock’s Jewel in the Skull. I’m also thinking to some extent of Elric, Moorcock’s most recognizable character. While struggling to carve out his own destiny, Elric routinely found himself fighting those who seemed, on the surface, to serve or aid him, like the Gods of Chaos and his sword, Stormbringer. Elric was, in many ways, more of a cleric than the fighter-magic-user he’s often described as, and I’ll be drawing on him more than once for inspiration in this series. (In another genre and medium, we’ve seen Jack Bauer in season 1 of 24 under remote control and fighting it. For a darker turn, I will say that Thomas Harris’s Hannibal the Cannibal has always been more compelling restrained and in prison than he ever has been wandering free.)
So our character will be geased or bound in some way–an involuntary servant.
An additional inspiration is from the many characters in fiction who wield magic (divine, arcane, or superheroic) because of a relic or item they bear. I like the idea of the clerical shackle being imposed by an object of some sort, almost like the impositions we see from many cursed items in the earliest editions of this game. It’s true that the relic-bearing cleric seems to have a critical and unusual weakness: Most clerics are still clerics if you take away their mace or holy symbol, but our cleric, under this interpretation, might not wield divine powers if her relic is taken away! As you’ll see in the narrative, I’ve attempted to address this issue by tightening the bond between relic and bearer so she cannot simply throw her shackle away, but a brave player pursuing the relic-bearer idea might simply accept that risk and then try really hard not to lose the item!
A final source of inspiration is the agathinon, an angelic being from earlier editions of the game who could take the form of an object, like a sword, and bestow on wielders the power to cast spells and turn undead, albeit at limited levels. The agathinon, though not yet statted for 5th edition, gives us a possible mechanism for a self-willed “relic” that might bind a person to service as a cleric.
Put these concepts together, and we have a relic that’s an angelic entity. It serves a god, and as part of that service, it binds its wielders to serve the god, too. Our cleric has somehow picked up this item and finds herself empowered with divine magic. Most people would love to have more power.
But our heroine also finds herself compelled to serve someone whose alignment doesn’t quite fit her own. And that’s where the role-playing potential really kicks in.
Galatherina: Ability Scores & Initial Decisions
As always in this column, I start with randomly generated ability scores, using 3d6, in order. Here are Galatherina’s, before racial modifications:
A response to my previous columns by a good friend and experienced DM has convinced me I wasn’t as clear about why I’m using 3d6 as I thought I had been. It’s not about seeking a challenge. Everything is challenging. Point-buys pose their own challenges. But I like challenges that trigger my creativity, and not every challenge has that effect with me. Interpreting dice rolls or re-interpreting mechanics is highly generative for me – I enjoy it and I come up with better stuff that way than if I do things some other way. Point-buys tend to lead me down stale avenues; I find I tend to buy scores that enable me to remake old characters I’ve already played or seen. Similarly, my reason for re-imagining clerics rather than trying to come up with interesting clerics who serve gods in all of the conventional ways is that I’ve already done the latter (a lot) and I know myself well enough to know I’ll come up with material I find more personally compelling if I try to play outside of the usual interpretations. Readers may not want to follow these paths; that’s fine. I just want to do some outside-the-box thinking because I find it leads me to interesting places. And I want to share it because I hope others will find it interesting, too, even if they don’t follow suit. — GS
For race, I’m making our cleric a human. Racial ability modifiers will bring each of Galatherina’s abilities up 1 point:
Strength 14, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 12, Wisdom 14, Charisma 11
With her low Dexterity and Constitution, Galatherina will need to wear some good, heavy armor to stay viable in an adventuring world. To give her proficiency in heavy armor and stick with the idea that she had once been something other than a cleric, we’ll pick the War domain, interpreting her later domain features, like extra attacks, as fighter-style training. Even if she loses her relic, she’ll keep those. To help explain how she could afford expensive armor, we’ll have her come from a Noble background. The section on backgrounds gives us explicit permission to swap out one tool set for another, so for this concept, we’re going to exchange her gaming proficiency for a land vehicles proficiency so she can ride a horse. Because I’m envisioning the agathinon object as a holy sword and she’ll be wearing heavy armor, she’s going to have a kind of paladin vibe, except that unlike stereotypical paladins, she’ll have a darker tone, since she’s been dragooned into the role. If she rescues you from sahuagin, there’s a good chance you’re going to feel like you’ve been an imposition and she doesn’t really like you all that much. (Note to players: You could run a geased cleric without the relic-bearing element, if you like the one idea but not the other. There are many ways to become geased.)
Below is an overview of the resulting character.
Galatherina did not start out as a cleric and never thinks of herself as one. She began adventuring as a knight of noble birth and initially pragmatic (perhaps even callous) nature. However, after being healed by servants of a Lawful Good war god, she agreed to fetch a rare relic for them: a holy blade named Daelgaelid. (Note: In Greyhawk campaigns, Heironeous would be a good model for the god in this write-up. In my own Vorago campaign setting, though, I would use the Maid of Arms.)
Pronunciation of Galatherina:
The knight succeeded in retrieving the sword, but then, pressed by enemies and in an act of desperation, she called on the god to whom the sword was dedicated to defend her. Her unthinking invocation attuned her to the sword irrevocably, and though that fact saved her life at the time, she became more and more frustrated with the blade the more she realized that, through groans and purrs, through use of and denial of its powers, and even through fleeting, occasional visions, it was trying to steer her toward an idealistic morality she didn’t consider very pragmatic. Worse, whenever she would prove unresponsive to hints, a geas effect would kick in. Unable to locate the acolytes who had sent her on the quest—their temple seemed curiously deserted when she returned to it—Galatherina attempted to rid herself of the relic only to find it would reappear at her side any time she rested or otherwise wasn’t paying full attention.
Several months later, at a monastery library, Galatherina researched the object. She discovered it was well-documented, although the last record relating to it had been recorded more than a century earlier. According to the records she found, Daelgaelid isn’t in fact a sword at all, but a divine entity—an angel or deva—having taken physical form as one of a set of weapons dedicated to its god. The weapons in question are referred to in her texts as the redeemer blades. The sages she has read write that the angelic blades specifically search out people who have shrugged off the gods or who refuse to honor the divine. Their mission: to bring such lost sheep to the light and transform them into champions of the deity who commands them.
Personality (Role-Playing Notes)
As Galatherina climbs in levels, her character—that is, her personality, morality, attitudes—adjust from time to time, due to experience, due to personal revelations, and due to conditioning from long use of Daelgaelid.
At the earlier levels indicated below, Galatherina wrestles with the blade frequently, trying to adhere to her old ways of pragmatic neutrality and knightly codes, eschewing ranged attacks and so forth. However, as she advances in levels, she comes to learn more about the god in question, and though many of their original tensions remain, she increasingly pursues a Good morality that overlaps with that of her deity, even if they are not completely in sync.
Even at such levels, however, Galatherina often feels (justifiably!) manipulated or coerced. From time to time, when feeling rebellious, she tries again to ditch the sword and revert to old habits, but the sword returns to her, the geas effect returns, and she finds herself back on the same missions as before.
Galatherina also experiences considerable frustration when doing what is Lawful conflicts with her new code’s demand of Good—the two are not always in sync. Sometimes her old knightly conventions conflict with her new divine mandates, and then she feels tension as well. In many ways, Galatherina has been so bound by codes imposed on her (one by birth and culture, the other by a god bent on conversions) that she only feels she knows herself during these internal struggles, for it is on those occasions that she can chart her own path, developing on her own solutions that none who have tried to condition her might approve of—but which, at least, she knows are her own.
At all levels, in terms of culture, priorities, and behavior, Galatherina remains more a soldier and a knight than a cleric. She is unimpressed by other clerics, thinking them wimpy. She has several times offended clerics of other temples and gods, as well as acolytes she has since encountered who venerate her own god. From 5th-level on, as a symbol of independence and middle-finger of sorts to her god, she carries around a wicked-looking (nonmagical) black mace bearing symbols of her god’s enemy. She doesn’t remotely care what other clerics think of it.
Particularly alarming to other priests of any deity is Galatherina’s rather stunning ignorance of religion, doctrine, code, and ritual. (She has no Religion skill!) Galatherina can make magic with her sword that most other clergy envy, yet she does not know a word of their formal blessings or marriage rites. She brings her horse into the temple and expects friars to clean up its messes. Moreover, she enjoys using her sword simply as a sword, and sometimes, just to spite it, wields a spear, lance, or mace instead.
Daelgaelid has the following properties:
- It has no apparent properties until it attunes to a wielder.
- It attunes for life.
- It only attunes to a martial-proficient, non-cleric character with a 13 or higher Wisdom and either Chaotic Good, Neutral Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, or Lawful Evil alignment—and only then if the wielder invokes Daelgaelid’s god by name.
- Once a wielder is attuned to Daelgaelid, the wielder must take Cleric as his or her next class level, and must continue to do so until he or she has more Cleric levels than any other class levels. From that point on, levels in other classes may be taken, but the wielder must always have more levels of Cleric than in any other class.
- Clerical abilities gained with cleric levels are provided by and channeled through the sword, which acts simultaneously as sword and holy symbol. (The god’s symbol is worked into the hilt.)
- If the sword is separated from its wielder for more than an hour, it vanishes at some point while not being observed and then reappears within arm’s reach of the attuned wielder during the wielder’s next rest. There is a chance (DM’s choice) that the sword will also reappear to the attuned wielder if called for or invoked.
The stat blocks for Galatherina, offered at 1st, 5th, and 10th levels, have been relocated to this page.
♦ 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.