Tag Archives: cleric


What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

— Question #1 from Jeff’s 20 quick questions for your campaign setting.

Image from Dark Classics

Clerics are members of an ancient order of holy warriors dedicated to the power of law. In legend, the order originated as the elite judicial and martial arm of a mighty and just empire. They were betrayed by a wicked emperor who was jealous of the order’s influence. The clerics survived underground, passing the Mysteries of Light down from teacher to student throughout the ages. The empire which birthed the order has long since been lost beneath the waves or smashed by mountains that fell from the sky (accounts differ), but the clerics believe in a prophecy that the True Empire will rise again, ruled by just High Priests.

Now, however, clerics are rare, and as self-appointed guardians of the law are often persecuted. Because of their tendency to oppose corrupt potentates, a cleric’s relationship with secular authority is often problematic. In these degenerate times, rulers are rarely better than brutal warlords concerned only with strength of arms, or sorcerer kings that use black magic and dark pacts to rule briefly before losing control of the power they have harnessed. Thus, the remaining clerics tend to be itinerant traveling demon hunters, though there do exist strongholds ruled by High Priests of the Light which claim the authority of the True Holy Empire. Like wandering marshals in the wild west, clerics can sometimes be found traveling the borderlands, offering their services as judge and exorcist to the fragile outposts of civilization. Clerics are often welcomed by the people of such frontier towns.

As clerics belong to an order of mysteries, they must be initiated. This can be done by apprenticeship to a wandering cleric, joining the order at a High Priest’s stronghold, or (more rarely) by discovery of Holy Scriptures of the Light (sometimes on the person of a fallen cleric or overgrown shrine). As the order is handed down by lineage, from teacher to student, it is considered a great tragedy when a particular cleric’s lineage ends with no new initiates. Thus, people sympathetic to the faith but not initiated may feel a duty to continue a dead lineage if a fallen cleric is discovered. Such self-initiates are often distrusted by more established clerics until they prove themselves.

The mysteries must never be disclosed to outsiders, and the true source of holy power is a secret. Clerics powerful enough to fully comprehend the mysteries may no longer even exist. Many outsiders believe that clerics worship a sun god, and much of their iconography does include symbols having to do with light and the sun, though sages have pointed out that the sun is also a potent weapon against many powers of chaos (especially the vampire, a traditional foe of the order).

To increase in level, a cleric must consult with a higher level member of the order. Often, at least for the first few levels, this will be the cleric’s initiator, though if the cleric was self-initiated, or high level, this may require a more extensive pilgrimage. This requirement can also be satisfied by venerating a shrine of the appropriate level (this is based on the level of the entombed cleric). The low level scriptures are written in vernacular language, but the more puissant and subtle are written in a hidden language which only initiates of the light may read or speak. Clerics gain greater fluency in this hidden language as they rise in level. It is common superstition that reading hidden scriptures will drive the impure mad.

In addition to the standard draws of adventure, clerics have several other objectives. Many ancient shrines of the order have been defiled by the powers of chaos, usurped by the vanity of petty gods, or destroyed by jealous black magicians. Clerics gain acclaim by purging such shrines of evil and reconsecrating them in the name of the light. Clerics also value recovering scriptures (written in the secret language of law) or holy relics (the remains of fallen clerics). The shadowy underworld and gloomy forests are littered with the remains of brave champions of the light. Accumulating treasure is also just as important to the cleric as it is to other adventurers, as wealth is required for building a stronghold and raising armies against the powers of chaos.

Clerics believe that worldly power is fully legitimate only as the True Empire, though they will often happily work with other rulers for the sake of expediency. Thus, for most the highest calling is to build a stronghold, especially if by doing so they manage to reclaim some of the chaotic wilderness for civilization. Not all clerics choose to follow this route, though, and instead wander the wilderness unceasingly, offering their services to a world still smothering in darkness and sorcery.

Cults and worshipers of other powers exist, but such priests and cultists are not available as PC classes by default. They may be discovered through play though (and will certainly use different rules than the cleric class).

First Level Clerics & Spells

There is a really insightful comment over at Grognardling by Mike Monaco (quoted partially) about clerics:

Clerics in B/X don’t get a spell at first level so they spend the first few adventures UNABLE to heal people. This gives them a chance to learn more roles, like throwing holy water, turning undead, backing up the fighters or defending the mages, and so on.

1974 D&D and the various incarnations of basic (Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, and the Rules Cyclopedia) do not give clerics a spell at first level. Strangely, some of the retro-clones (Labyrinth Lord, LotFP) do give first level clerics a spell. The clones that don’t are Swords & Wizardry Core, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, and Original Edition Characters for Labyrinth Lord. I believe the AD&D Player’s Handbook was the first place that first-level clerics are given a spell, though more knowledgeable people can correct me if I am wrong.

In any case, I much prefer the no spell at first level version of the cleric. It highlights the martial aspect of the character class, which I think is very important to the cleric as demon hunter and crusader rather than purveyor of cure light wounds.

The Gods are Fickle

Jack over at TOTGAD recently reminded me of his cleric spell preparation house rule: the referee chooses half (or all) of a cleric’s prepared spells every day. Here is his original post on gothic character classes. I think that I would like to try out something similar: random spell determination for clerics. This would represent the incomprehensible and mysterious nature of the gods. In terms of game play, this would also differentiate the feel of the cleric from the magic-user even more. Intuition versus reason.

The only downside that I can see is that some players might feel best served by just waiting several days until they get the spells that they want. To make this work in general, strict time records must be kept. But we’re all good Gygaxians, so that’s already a given, right?

X13 Neutralize Poison

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

For the first revisitation entry, consider the fourth level clerical spell Neutralize Poison from the Cook/Marsh Expert booklet:

This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds.

Think about that. Parties with sixth level clerics become significantly less vulnerable to death from poison. Unlike magic-users, clerics have access to their entire spell corpus automatically, so there is no question of the cleric needing to do something special to learn Neutralize Poison (unless you are playing with house rules). Sixth level clerics require 25,000 XP, so while reaching sixth level is an impressive achievement in a reasonably dangerous campaign, it is not in the mythical realm of “name level” abilities that most players never reach.

This changes the nature of the game at sixth level. This is not the only spell that has this effect. As 1d30 writes:

All of this means the attention of the players gradually shifts away from counting food and water and illuminations, simplifying the Normal Equipment part of the character sheet just as the Magic Items inventory becomes more complex. … Which means low-level play was intended to be more focused on nonmagical equipment to solve problems, and high level play focused on magical equipment to solve problems.

Though that post is explicitly about AD&D, I think the same observation holds regarding basic D&D. It also shows how the availability (or lack) of specific classes can drastically change the nature of the game. If there are no clerics, then mundane resource management becomes dramatically more important at higher levels (it is always important at lower levels). This says something about party balance that I don’t think is often acknowledged within the OSR, especially since many people (myself included) like the idea that any character can try anything. However, if you don’t have a cleric, you have to carry more rations and be more cautious around poisonous monsters. If you don’t have a magic-user, you need to rely more on ropes and grappling hooks due to the lack of spells such as levitation and fly. Obviously, the point is not absolute, as magic items can take the place of some of these abilities, though the players have less control over whether or not such gear will be available.

The “within ten rounds” bit also reminds me of the AD&D death rules (see the Gygax DMG page 82) and the “Hovering on Death’s Door” optional rule from the Second Edition Dungeon Master Guide (page 75). Both of these systems see characters losing 1 HP per round if at 0 or negative HP and actually dying at -10 HP, which mirrors the “dead from poison in ten rounds” suggested by the Neutralize Poison text. Thus, one could think about a failed save against deadly poison as instantly reducing the victim to 0 HP (and unconsciousness) and starting the “final death” clock. (The 1E rules are harsher than the 2E rules, as a near death experience also results in 1-6 turns of coma followed by a week of required rest, but the idea is the same.) Further, this suggests that “death” at 0 HP is not medical death, though it might as well be for low level characters.

A bottled poison antidote would also be a reasonable extrapolation from these rules. (Is this already in the rules somewhere? I can’t find such a thing in either the Basic or Expert rule books.) Having antidotes available would turn poison into a resource tax, and would be particularly appropriate in games that also have Raise Dead spells available for a price. My preference would be for antidotes to be not economically viable for low-level characters. Clerical spells are available as scrolls, so Neutralize Poison could also be “bottled” in that way, though a cleric would still be required to use the scroll, unlike an antidote. Scroll creation also offers pricing guidelines; by the magical research rules on page X51, an antidote (really, a Potion of Neutralize Poison) costs 2000 gp and takes 4 weeks to produce. Market price should be higher than that, to allow for profit margin, so I would probably allow PCs to buy antidotes for 2500 gp. Brewing antidotes would be a nice little side business for an entrepreneurial cleric with some free time.

Neutralize Poison can’t be used as a prophylactic (such is noted clearly in the text). However, items that provide temporary protection against poison (following the example from the scrolls of protection) might also be interesting treasure items, allowing another level of resource management.

Hammer Horror & Cleric Power Delegation

I had not heard of Hammer Horror films prior to being a regular reader of Grognardia (see this post). After reading the argument that Van Helsing was one of the inspirations for the cleric class, of course I decided that I had to watch some of the Hammer films. So, I did some web research, and this DVD set seemed to be a good place to start. Quatermass and the Pit and The Devil Rides Out also seem interesting.

Speaking of clerics (this is my attempt at a segue), The City of Iron recently wrote about doing without the cleric class using blessings & pacts. I was just thinking about sources of cleric power, and one of my ideas was “Hierarch; source is a higher-level cleric (it’s turtles all the way up)”.

Following on that, what if delegation is a standard mechanic for cleric spells? Here’s how such a thing might work:

  • Any cleric can grant spells to other characters.
  • Max level of spell that can be bestowed is one less than the highest level the cleric can cast (e.g., a cleric that can cast third level spells can delegate first and second level spells).
  • As long as the spell remains granted, that spell slot is occupied.
  • The cleric can revoke the granted spell at any time.
  • The cleric will know when the spell is discharged, but not the specific circumstances.
  • Some monsters could also be able to bestow similar blessings.
  • Non-clerics can at most retain one granted spell.

I’m not sure if I would actually want to play with this system, but I think it is an interesting variation.

Sources of Cleric Power

Writing up my Secret Santicore entry today got me flexing my random table muscles. And then this post provided a wacky explanation for clerics. I’ve always liked the idea of the cleric as a mortal siphon for SOMETHING. What is that something? Here’s a table. This is more a collection of other people’s ideas, but a few are original.

  1. Celestial bureaucracy; preparing a spell requires paperwork and approval
  2. Sorcerer king; cleric is a templar, like in Dark Sun
  3. Parasite; cleric is a cosmic thief, roll again for source (cleric will be in trouble if the source finds out)
  4. Hierarch; cleric can delegate spells in the same way that the deity can grant them, roll again for source
  5. Hierarch; source is a higher-level cleric (it’s turtles all the way up)
  6. Machine; orbiting AI like in ASE1
  7. Machine; ancient device buried in the underworld
  8. Machine; cloistered in a temple, maintained (controlled?) by high-ranking priests
  9. Imprisoned higher being; celestial battery (think Trigun)
  10. Demon; cleric is a warlock (think Elric)
  11. Aspect-based pantheon; cleric often engaged in tasks for the god’s personal vanity (think Greek mythology)
  12. Faction-based pantheon; cleric is a soldier in a cosmic battle (think Book of Revelation or Jotunn versus Aesir); spells are granted like ordnance
  13. Vampiric; cleric must steal spells (or spell slots) from other magic-users or clerics, perhaps by ritually slaying them, or perhaps the cleric does not understand how spells are acquired
  14. Monotheistic; could be explicitly Christian (see Blood of Prokopius)
  15. Ancestors; spells are granted by the spirits of deceased family members
  16. Deiphores; clerics feast on the flesh of dead gods (source)
  17. Aliens; gods are actually advanced starfaring extraterrestrials (think Clarke’s third law and Stargate)
  18. The Prince; political power fuels godhood in a similar way to how believers are sometimes explained as the source of a god’s power
  19. Bodhisattvas; enlightened beings who remain in the world to benefit the unenlightened (they were once presumably mortal, and still exist in the material world)
  20. Spirits inhabiting rocks, trees, and other natural phenomena (think Japanese kami)

    Mad Max Meets Van Helsing

    Being a review of the 2011 movie Priest.

    If you move past the awkward writing and badly-acted gravelly voices, this movie is actually pretty good, from a gaming and setting point of view.

    I submit the following points as evidence:

    • The priests are clerics of the ass-kicking school. They even have a weapon restriction (though it’s against guns rather than bladed weapons, and is not explained; this restriction was probably meant as an excuse for martial arts, but it still made me think of D&D clerics).
    • There is a party of adventurers (ultimately made up of 2 clerics and 1 fighting man).
    • Vampires are nasty monsters, not misunderstood antiheroes. Since “the eyes are the windows to the soul”, vampires have no eyes. They are insect-like horrors.
    • The setting is a very good fit for a wilderness in the D&D sense. The only places safe from monsters are the walled cities, which are ruled by a corrupt priesthood.
    • The city is a self-conscious homage to Blade Runner.
    • It also brings to mind a mock-serious goth version of Trigun (I mean that as a compliment); I like the use of the Western (in the sense of cowboys and outlaws) imagery and stereotypes. (Aside: Wolfwood from Trigun is also a post-apocalyptic ass-kicking cleric.)

    There are a few truly cringe-worthy scenes (for example, evil guy “conducting” the pillaging of a town as if he were Beethoven). The Matrix-inspired fight scenes are not bad, but I feel like the ambiance might have been better served by less martial arts and more gritty action. That being said, these elements are more than balanced by the beautiful post-apocalyptic grey and brown vistas. I particularly like the scene with the huge statues when the priest is first leaving the city, and the bird’s eye view shots when they are driving though the skyscraper ruins. Something that came to mind: it could possibly be interesting as a silent movie with a creative soundtrack and a few scenes cut.

    One site/encounter directly inspired by this movie: ancient train, eternally moving back and forth between two ruined city sites. Train has been repurposed as a lair for something and can be included on random encounter tables for the hexes that it moves through. It is essentially a mobile dungeon. Train is large, multiple rooms per car. It is more or less linear, but in this case the linearity fits (and might be a nice change if your campaign is mostly made up of heavily Jaquayed sites). The train could be used as a mobile base by PCs if they clear it without destroying it. Compare also to the haunted train from Final Fantasy VI.