This is not a post about the historical, mythological, or fictional origins and inspirations of the Cleric/Priest class in D&D (specifically at this point, AD&D 2e which is the mode of most mechanics that will appear here). Other, worthier folk either have done this or will do it in the future. I'm not going to ruminate about the appropriateness of the cleric class - a decidedly Christian class (along with the Paladin) in a game that is open to extended pantheons as James over at Grognardia already has pointed out here - or whether or not it should be included in the game here. Whatever chicken hatched from or laid whatever egg is now long past any point of return, in my opinion, as at some point, the practitioner of faith and miracles has now long been an integral part of the game and, in some ways, the fantasy genre at large. Whether it is more native to Pulp Fiction, Modern Fantasy, or Fantasy Gaming than any other is not something I want to debate at this moment.
For right now, I want to talk about how to make the cleric fit the world, and perhaps make the world fit the cleric. Too often I think, the cleric in AD&D, BECMI, and OD&D games gets pigeon-holed into the same corner as the guy that can heal the fighters and maybe ward off the undead from time to time, except in how the player portrays the character. And all to often, the player gets bullied by the rest of the group, or by simple practicality, into falling into that role at least some of the time. Most irksome, to me at least, is that a cleric of Odin looks pretty much like a cleric of Nerull looks a great deal like a cleric of Quetzalcoatl. Why would a cleric of a god of civilization and peace or of romantic love have the same portfolio of powers as a follower of the Dread Cthulhu?
Of course, the first, and simplest answer is to sit back and say "don't worry about it, it's just a freakin' game." And honestly, I can accept that. It's not really a problem that all clerics, despite their object of worship (or too often, lack thereof) wield identical powers. After all, for the most part a fighter is a fighter no matter what race he belongs to, the same for a thief for that matter. It simplifies things greatly, especially in a game system where simplicity is a major goal like Basic/Labyrinth Lord, or Swords and Wizardry.
The problem, for me, emerges when it's just not acceptable to ignore this bit of wrinkle. Many times (not always) I want clerics of various deities or faiths to be not just different in lip service, but truly unique. I want the players to wonder and guess at what powers the cleric of Random Death Cult Z are and how to prepare before facing him. Or, I want an in world explanation of why all clerics are all the same mechanically.
Is this multiplying entities? Yeah, it is, but I think that, done carefully, it can lead to more fulfilling games from my perspective as the GM, and more interesting (read "dangerous) games for the players. Does this tread dangerously close to the Third Edition mantra of "no choice without a mechanical benefit"? Yes, but I'm ok with that for the time being. Like I said way back in the beginning, I think that there's something to be said for everything in moderation. That, and I feel that I can draw a line in the sand before I arrive at feats, domain powers, and "optimization."
Up tomorrow sometime: Manicheism.
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