Monday, August 5, 2013

Clerics in Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes

On the subject of gods and clerics in traditional pulp fantasy and whether D&D works better with them or without them, Geoffrey McKinney of Carcosa fame wrote me with an excellent analysis of the status of priests in Original D&D Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. I felt it unfair to keep it to myself, so I had to share. He wrote:

I've enjoyed lately re-reading your thoughts on clerics in D&D, particularly your blog post noting their relative absence in the Giants in the Earth articles from Dragon. To emphasize your point, consider clerics' relative absence even in Gods, Demigods & Heroes:

Nagas, Nike, Odin, Balder, Hel, the Maiden of Pohja, Ukko, Mitra, Asura, Pictish shamans, and priests of the Golden Peacock can use cleric spells. That's it. That's 7 deities, 1 monster, 1 hero, and 2 groups of Hyborean clerics.

The latter two groups are clearly given cleric powers in GDG&H only because they are priests, NOT because such powers are given them in REH's tales. (This is pretty much admitted in the entry for Pictish shamans, and I do not remember the Golden Peacock guys at all from REH's stories.)

Mitra and Asura are not depicted at all in REH's stories, but only mentioned. Why the authors gave them cleric spells is beyond me.

That leaves 2 figures from the Kalevala, 3 from Norse mythology, 1 from Greek mythology, and a monster from Indian mythology. I seem to remember Ukko being little more than a name in the Kalevala, and I certainly do not remember any clerical powers wielded in the Norse Eddas or in the Greek sources. I admit ignorance in the case of Indian mythology.

What we see here is that, not only in swords & sorcery literature, but also in mythology, clerics are mostly (if not totally) absent. One might be forgiven for thinking that clerics would be heavily present in a book entitled Gods, Demi-gods & Heroes, but this is certainly not the case. Compare the very frequent references in the book to the entities' fighting-man and magic-user abilities. These two are standard entries in the stat blocks! Hell, even psionics is a standard entry. But clerical abilities are not in the stat block.

Clerics really are the odd man out in D&D.

I (delta) think those are great points. I also think that many of us would perceive Sup-IV much more bluntly as a "super high-end Monster Manual", whereas that would get retconned or re-interpreted later as a series of of cosmic beings that you wouldn't ever fight. It casts a particularly harsh light (as if it was needed) on Gygax's pitch in the AD&D work that:
DEITIES & DEMIGODS is an indispensable part of the whole of AD&D. Do not fall into the error of regarding it as a supplement. It is integral to Dungeon Mastering a true AD&D campaign. Experienced players will immediately concur with this evaluation, for they already know how important alignment is, how necessary the deity is to the cleric, and how interaction of the various alignments depends upon the entities which lead them. [AD&D DDG]
... when in actuality, the Cleric class is practically incompatible with the earlier source's work, as shown by Geof above. Other thoughts about that?


  1. Coming from the German Das Schwarze Auge which was written by the guy who first translated D&D into German but could not afford the license (unverified hearsay), I was used to role-playing games not having clerics. I was confused when we switched to AD&D. Clerics!? As it turns out, the German game soon got its own clerics. ("Geweihte") I keep wondering about running a game without clerics. I don't think I'd miss them.

    1. Fascinating! I must say my players and I have been pleasantly surprised by how well it works. As long as some other healing resource exists, there's really no problem with it.

  2. I've got mixed feelings about 'em. Currently, I use only the Cloistered Cleric, sans "cure [x] wounds" spells, meaning that players have no incentive to be one. That said, I think, after reading your blog, that "no clerics" is where I've been moving all along, without realizing it. I think next campaign - no clerics. You converted me!

    1. NPC-only is a pretty reasonable way to go.

    2. I’d also argue that if you’re trying to be consistent with swords & sorcery fiction, then perhaps magic-users should be NPC-only as well. They are nearly always antagonists.

  3. Interesting observations!

    While I agree with the cleric class having little to no precedence in sword & sorcery or myths & legends... While I agree that D&D can get by fine without them... While I’ve certainly taken issue with the class to varying degrees (and have renamed it in my current campaigns)...

    D&D began as the ultimate mash-up. Even moreso than sword & sorcery tales, which tend to do a fair amount of that themselves. GD&H itself is an excellent example of that. Indeed, a lot of my issues with the class stem from it being something of a mash-up itself. And D&D draws on more sources than swords & sorcery and myths & legends.

    Better without them? I dunno. For me I think it is a wash. Equally good with or without. I certainly have enjoyed many cleric characters over the years and even played a few myself in the past few years.

    1. Well, my own favorite-ever PC, and longest running, was also a cleric. I love playing a half-crazed lecturing cleric (my personality slightly turned up, perhaps). It's the campaign-construction problems that get me down about it as DM.

  4. This discussion seems very strange to me; most of this kind of thing that I see is about how the "thief" is the odd man out due to not being included in OD&D, which clerics most definitely were.

    As for the "source material" issue, most of the cleric's inspiration seems to have come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. A number of consequences follow from this.

    1. Christianity has spent most of its history working to reduce the status of other faiths, relegating their "clerics" to the role of witch-doctors, shamans, etc. -- in other words, petty magic-users.

    2. Most of the clerical oeuvre necessarily corresponds to the one deity that they couldn't insert into any D&D supplement, and presumably largely Judeo-Christian powers didn't feel right when it came to various pagan gods, demigods, heroes, and so on.

    3. Despite the obvious influences of sword & sorcery and the like on D&D, we can't pretend that that was all. For example, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions was a Christian-centric world explicitly referred to in OD&D that gave us, among other things, regenerating trolls and Law vs. Chaos.

    I don't think any given class is truly indispensable to D&D-style play; any given "lack" simply demands a change in play style. No clerics means finding alternate ways to cope with injury and undead. No magic-users (aka wizards aka mages) means greater reliance on clerical magic, magic items, or flaming oil and other "technological" solutions. Even fighters can be done away with for a party with sufficiently careful tactics.

    1. I agree with everything you say, and it's been a long-running thread on this blog. The first three posts ever on this blog were (1) an introduction, (2) trouble with thieves, and (3) trouble with clerics (link). And I completely agree that if you fully commit to a medieval Christian church that things are more sensible; it's the retcon away from that to polytheistic paganism in the game that made things really a mess.

    2. True, but if you picture it as a bunch of temples to different gods that can produce these crazy fanatic militarised miracle workers then it just hangs together fine.

  5. Way late to the party, but this popped into my brain on my way to work and it won't let go.

    The polytheistic assumption, to me, only makes clerics weird if you allow any god to empower a cleric. Why in the world would a god of learning and magic have priests that wear armour and go out beating people with maces?

    My initial impulse is to say that clerics worships gods of war, explaining their martial abilities. That has a little verisimilitude with the Christianity influence of the class, since in the old old legends Moses made a pact with a war god to set his people free, in return for their eternal devotion.

    But if a cleric is empowered by a war god, why are they slumming it in dungeons with a bunch of mercenaries, thieves, and black magic users?

    Two explanations I can see:
    1) Like soldiers after peace is declared, adventuring clerics are warriors in search of a war. Denied their place on the battlefield, they are making ends meet selling their services to the highest bidder.
    2) Clerics are not priests of war gods at all. Rather, they serve the god of adventures, Cleros.

    1. LOL at the last line. I salute your brain working to make sense of this creatively!