Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thoughts on the Cleric

Partly in response to Edward's response to Rachel's distaste for the cleric.

To the degree that I have read her material, I mostly agree with Rachel.  The cleric is important to gameplay, though I would argue that the importance of turning is often underemphasized compared to spells.  I see turning as the cleric's primary / core 'encounter-win-button' ability - the first-level mage can sleep, the first-level thief can backstab, and the first-level cleric can turn those foes who are immune to sleep, morale, and stealth.  I also believe that the cleric serves an important social function as the advocate of morality, per Roger's post here, as a balance to the thief, who advocates for selfish action in the party's interests.

So they have their uses...  but I concur that the standard light-sun-and-law gods, to which clerical spell lists typically default, are rather dull.  I suspect that there are a handful of reasons such deities are standard-issue, rather than say the jealous and fickle gods of antiquity, or Moorcock's cosmic Law vs Chaos from which D&D derived its alignment terminology.  First, the influence of the Hammer Horror films on Arneson has been noted as a probable influence.  Second, the influence of historical Medieval literature, with its Christian religious themes, and Tolkein's work, with its thematic struggle between light and darkness (both in the Silmarillion between Morgoth and the rest of the Ainur, and between Sauron and the forces assembled against him).  Finally, there is the fact that the game was developed in the USA in the 70s.  Even in the 70s, it was still 'Murica (particularly in Wisconsin), and even if the game's authors didn't buy into Zoroastrian-style cosmic dualism, their players and the rest of their communities probably did.  Cultural context matters.

Finally, alternatives.  I like the divine elves idea.  A lot.  Part of this is because I like Midnight, and part is that I feel that nature/star-driven divine magic suits elves better than arcane magic does.  While capable of maintaining the mechanical functions of the cleric, the divine elf does suffer from the lack of necessary moral superiority for the social role of the cleric as "shepherd to the flock".  It would also be fun to take the "multitude of minor and confusing gods, each with many aspects" approach from the Wilderlands - every cleric gets his own deity, and random rolls for the spells his patron can provide!  Players choose deity name and flavor based off of any emergent trends in rolled spells.  Dark Heresy's priest is really more like a bard, which might be a reasonable interpretation of how religion works in some settings as well.  Or what I've been doing so far, which is just rolling loads of specialty cleric subclasses...

The trouble I always sort of expect to run into with any such change to the cleric is resistance from players.  Which upon further reflection seems sort of silly; how many players bear so much affection for clerics that they would object to changes thereto?  Given that my current party has only one normal cleric (and he's a henchman) but three non-pseudo-Catholic cleric variant PCs (bladedancer, amazon, and sea-priest who had to drop), I begin to believe my concerns are unfounded (though I have heard grumbling from some of the fighters about 'None of these clerics can wear plate!  We're doomed!  The line cannot hold!'  Which is patently ridiculous, considering that for the first 75% of last campaign, they lacked any cleric at all, steel-clad or no, and the line usually held...).  For what it is worth, I vaguely recall Alex Macriss of Autarch mentioning on the fora that one of his regrets with ACKS was keeping a standard cleric in Core and shamans and witches in the PC, rather than going for alternative divine casting in Core for a default "sword and sorcery and sandals and Thulsa Doom" sort of feel, with the reasoning being that "it's a retroclone, it sort of had to have a cleric."

So smash all your idols, and build anew!  Therein was the thing that bothered me in Edward's post - suggestions strictly for the use of published material, rather than a new and strange idea yet to be built.  Go forth and create!


Edward Wilson said...

John, I agree about being creative but not everyone's good at that. ACKS is great in that it has built-in templates for creating new classes in the Players Companion. Unfortunately in most D&D type games creating a new class is as much guesswork as science. I mostly wanted to point out in my post that there are good ready-made alternatives to the cleric which you can use out of the box or as an example/inspiration. I wonder how my players would react if I ditched the cleric in our next campaign?

Timothy Vaughan said...

Why not run clerics as wizards who use the divine spell list and turn undead?

John said...

That would be super-nerfed, especially if you kept the XP values the same. Some folks have suggested merging the divine and arcane lists and having one caster class that covered the whole slew. I dunno.

John said...

It is fair that creation is not for everyone, and I would argue that even in ACKS class creation is nuanced work (I believe the forward to the classbuilding rules even states something to the effect of "This is finicky stuff and not written in stone; apply judgement"). I'm categorically disinterested in buying books with more classes, though - the d20 boom and the Wizards supplement treadmill burned me out on that notion for the foreseeable future. It feels to me like more interesting (and just... better) stuff comes out of "Here's this thing I felt I needed in my game, so I built it and decided to share it with you guys" than from "We need to make our sales targets for Q3 this year; better build some more classes."

Timothy Vaughan said...

I like your idea of rolling random spell lists and making up an appropriate god to go with them.

As a player, I once created my own god (complete with pantheon, domains, full description) to go with my Favored Soul character. It ended up being a really awesome way to fill out my character and distinguish him from Cleric Generic (also the name of my Gregorian chant band).

As a DM you could encourage characters to invent their own gods when they choose to play a divine class by providing an XP incentive. You could then provide banned and bonus spell types (light, darkness, healing, control, etc.) based on the god they have described.

I say this because I think a lot of the boring-ness of the vanilla cleric comes from players knowing nothing about their god, and the gap between their character's supposed fervent beliefs and their own disinterest. If there is some investment (especially in a god, which theoretically is a character that won't just die in ACKS), players are probably more likely to make that a real part of their flavor.

Rachel Ghoul said...

Glad I could get you thinking. I agree the random spell list thing could be pretty interesting in the right sort of campaign.