Friday, November 1, 2013

Pimping The Cleric - Intermission (Holy Places and a Clerics Motivation)

When writing about the cleric I realized I feel myself being more defensive about my ideas as usual. Everything religious, I've come to believe, is veiled with the threat of opinion above argument. So when I started writing about holy places, it became more of an intermission to explain the structure I try to implement within the game mechanics (because I see it missing and think it could be of use). Terminology and precise arguments seem to get very important at this point. Inadvertently it leads to a very close look of what the cleric means in the game and what he could mean. I'll try.

Ideas so far

I've written about the cleric two times already (Part 1Part 2) and talked about using the Petty Gods as the Pantheon here. For the holy sites it needs two more ideas. It will be a mix of what I wrote in Settlements as Class with some aspects of Territory in them. The result should be a holy site which, depending on size and importance, will have an influence on it's surroundings. Level will be the core element here. But that will be topics for future posts and just showing some possibilities and directions.

This intermission, on the other hand, is more about what I see lacking in D&D as I know it and how I think it could be improved.

Holy or Unholy places

This is not about unholy places. As a matter of fact, the question needs to be asked if something like an unholy place is a possibility in a D&D game. Even the temples of evil priests are holy to them at least. But "evil" and "unholy" are merely expressions of people opposing foreign ideas, at least as soon as it is about religion.

That it is not to say, that cults as some of those associated with Satanism (to give but one example) aren't something real and amoral, often associated with heinous crimes. It is very real (if very rare in it's extremest forms). But within a game and the three-folded alignment structure law/neutral/chaos, evil acts are not something preordained by the system.

So if holy sites are solely connected to what the system defines as clerics, the nature of the rituals and beliefs of all those fictional entities referred to as immortals, gods or deities (even demons or devils), stays within the frame associated with the 3 alignments. Following this logic, something like an "unholy shrine" isn't part of the system, but a descriptive term, only expressing prejudices between faiths.

Terminology and Meaning

As far as places of worship are part of the system I'll be proposing here in the future, they are all considered as "holy". That doesn't mean they are all holy as the general definition of the term suggests. No, the characters will most likely encounter as much sinister shrines and temples with dark rituals, as they will lawful ones. But those worshiping and using those places will consider them as holy, even if they worship an evil immortal like, say, Orcus.

The benefits of this approach are self-evident. If those places are considered to be the same and hold power, destroying them will result in more damage than just the structural variety, regardless of alignment or idol. But there is more, places of worship are a beacon of the faith they endorse, a symbol of the power any entity might muster on earth. More places of worship means more power, more power means suppressing other belief systems, which, naturally, leads to conflict. Conflict, in a rpg-context, is good.

Make pioneers out of them clerics

A player in the role of a cleric should, in my opinion, have the means to use his faith within the game mechanics to some effect. And I don't mean spells. They should be the reward for it. How rituals could be a part of that was already discussed in Part 1. It is somewhat connected, but what I'm aiming for here is a system that encourages clerics to be on the road and preach or claim some land for their god. He needs to do this or he will loose his powers (or at least gets them restricted...).

It's an idea that's not to foreign to D&D, as several adventures and setting descriptions hold the notion that a clerics connection to his god can be interfered with. Mostly this means some very evil places, directly under the influence of some god or another. But what if it is wilderness itself or just that other cult down the street that threatens a clerics connection to his god? What if reclaiming a dungeon would mean to establish a shrine in it and destroy the other shrines in it?

If we now assume a plethora of different deities, as they were (and will be!) presented in the Petty Gods supplements (to give but one example...), we could go as far as saying that every cleric is an important figure within the hierarchy of his faith. It's just more personal. I'd go as far as allowing the players to come up with their own local deity. Now the character is in a very different position. He is one of the few to preach about his god, one of the few that travel the wilderness in search of riches and relics*.

It could make a holy symbol very important, like it's an individual focus of power, just for this cleric. He looses it and his connection to his god will be so much more fragile**.

All of a sudden a cleric has all kinds of motivations to leave a mark on the landscape, hunt for gold, convert folks or search for relics that could help strengthening his faith. It's a clerics trade, it's where he strives. All his investments would be in his faith. But not just the empty pit that is called church. No. There is a career in order, where every money spent will finance the own temple for the mid-level game. If a player wanted to build a shrine, the DM should have rules how such a shrine could become a temple with time and the player should have a chance to make that happen.

Of course, a good DM could just wing it and improvise all those things as options for the player. But that's not what this should be about. Making this part of the system gives the player a chance to develop ideas beyond what a DM could give as options. It's not a place where a DM could shine with his creativity, but a place where the player decides the fate of his character. In this regard, the system may be considered as neutral territory, or better yet, as a basis where interpretation and individual choice is so much more important than a funny d10 table of strange believes the DM could come up with (which has it's place, of course, as part of the setting).

Giving the DM tools for destruction and creation

Preparation and improvisation are the basic trades for every DM. The system he chose could be considered the textbook that shapes his game. There are, again, two different kinds of usage for a system. One is what exactly to use as rules (AC descending or ascending, three saves or 5 or 1, you know the drill), the other is creations stemming from those rules (setting, adventures, campaign, characters, monsters etc.).

These distinctions are important when one is to understand and interpret the underpinnings of any system and it's usage. What is lacking in the "textbook", needs to be improvised and the difference between selecting rules and creating from those rules gets imprecise. This is to be expected in the process of shaping a game to the individual needs of a DM and his group. It is problematic as soon as the gap is to big, because most improvisations won't produce results that are repeatable without a lot of work.

Anything related to "faith" in D&D (including the cleric) has such gaps in the game mechanics. It's just not part of the system, not in a satisfying way anyway. A DM is expected to produce a pantheon, different churches, power structures and factions, acolytes and clerics as part of a setting. Or at least buy the book where it's already done by adding little subsystems, monster book entries, some random tables and flavor text like what underwear a cleric prefers. It's not helping. It's the reason for so many unhappy people as soon as the cleric enters the discussion (and so many claims to just dismiss the class entirely).

But if recognized and not just hand-waved, it should be a chance to improve the system and make changes where they count.

Holy places are one area where I see possibilities to improve the game in a way that enables a DM to prepare them in a meaningful way (with powers, size, influence and acolytes) and without to much work and also, on the other hand, improvise and convert them (if found in an adventure) with ease and as needed in the game. If there are rules how power structures influence each other, it's far more easy to improvise a cult and see it's impact on the surroundings in abstract terms. It being part of the game mechanics will also make it repeatable.

There you go

Not sure how much I was repeating ideas from earlier posts here, but it felt good to give them some (new?) form. Now comes the hard part in finding solutions for those problems. But I'm looking forward to it and believe it's worthwhile to give the cleric a chance to be the class he should be (and those being worshiped the punch and power structure to go with it). We'll see how it turns out. Anything I wrote is, of course, open for discussion, suggestions and ideas.

*If I were to compile this stuff some time in the future, I shall call it Riches & Relics...
**Thinking about it, I always felt a bit underwhelmed by what a holy symbol meant in D&D. Guess I expected something more... divine?


  1. I'd like to challenge the idea about there being no unholy places, just other people's holy places; often, in fact, religious conflicts arise because multiple religions agree that a particular place is holy. On the other hand, it's entirely possible for a place to be considered unholy by a single religion and for all the other religions to have no idea what they're going on about. For instance, a place could be cursed because someone was rude to a god there, or because it's where traitors are buried or otherwise used as a spiritual refuse pit. Or, it could be a shrine held by a cleric that lost their faith without turning to a new one.

  2. Very good. You raise an excellent point when stating that the holy power of a place might be interesting for different faiths. I hadn't seen it this way (although it does not contradict my original argument). Of course that's what the Romans with Pagan places all over Europe did. And the Christians with those Roman temples after that. Very well, I need to consider this.

    Now for the challenge. The division I tried to establish in my argument is one between semantics and the game mechanics. Let me give another example. In D&D you have magic and (sometimes) antimagic. In game terms they are direct opposites. Either there is magic or there is none at all. It also means, as long as there is no antimagic area, magic is, if not already there, at least very possible. This is (again, in game terms) what would be expected from unholy places: to be the direct opposite of holy places. But such a thing doesn't exist in D&D (as far as I'm aware, at least). In D&D, interference with clerical powers is always derived from other powers, so it is, basically, a conflict or struggle. Of course I would describe a cursed place as "unholy" (among other things), but it's always from what I believe to be an individual perspective in the game world. If the reasons for the rumors are really result of some divine conflict, I don't need rules for unholy places, I need rules for what happens with holy places if they are changed (for better or worse). So, sure, you can call places "unholy", but as far as the game mechanics go, it either describes the wrong thing or means additional (and unnecessary) work while describing the same thing in a different way.

    The place where the traitors are buried, could very well be a holy site for those who believe in the god of deceit. Being rude to other gods might be common in a world with many gods and might not even have consequences for normal mortals. And if a guy who believes he has no god is still able to do the divine, there sure as hell is somebody out there who believes otherwise and grants him power.

    I'm sorry if I was not as precise as I wanted to be in the post above, but I hope this will present my thoughts a bit clearer and we can agree that we're in the end not that different in the things we're saying.


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