Sunday, December 8, 2013

Towards a Better Cleric

Our religions are some of the weirdest things we've ever come up with (see also: sacred foreskins, cargo cults, Xenu). And since everything in a fantasy world is weirder, fantasy religions should be totally insane. 

Most fantasy religions I've seen are analogues of real-world religions, probably because:
1. Religions are already fantastic enough.
2. Atheist nerds need to be able to relate to them.
3. The DM is comfortable with the pseudo-fantasy milieu that DnD assumes.
But those are all stupid reasons. Make your religions weirder and your game will be enriched.

And clerics are the bleeding edge of this sword called religion.

Anyway, mechanics.

Fighters and magic-users learn the skills that make them so effective.  Clerics don't learn anything except how to pray harder and believe more.  So while other characters increase in skills and knowledge, the cleric only increases in faith.

Faith is a very big thing for a role-playing game. It locks down some aspect of your character.  The communist fighter can become a capitalist gladiator on Brawl Street, but if the cleric of Ra can't become an atheist without losing their powers. So clerics are railroaded, a little bit.

I'm a little dissatisfied with the mechanics that clerics have inherited in DnD. They pick and choose their spells almost exactly like wizards. Healing and turning undead are their protected niche, which I'm sort of ambivalent about (how do you feel about necromancers turning undead, or white mages could heal?)  And clerics are supposed to be members of an extant religion, so how come my cleric players never seek out the dinosaur-pope to ask his blessing? They don't even attend black mass! (Cleric means 'member of the clergy'.)

Thesis: Clerics should feel different from wizards, not by virtue of niche protection, but by mechanics for emulate faith.

So, here's my attempt to rebuild the cleric class.

-You don't choose your spells beforehand. You don't even have spells.
-You have faith points, that you use to pray for stuff (analogous to casting spells).
-You can pray for whatever you want, but prayers might not be answered.
-Faith points go down when your prayers go unanswered.
-Faith points go up when you attend mass/temple/orgies, get blessed by a priest, or whatever.

Can we make a viable class out of these ideas? Maybe.  I'll focus on the first 3 levels for now.

A fighter whose indomitable faith can work miracles.

Start with a cleric from your favorite system, subtract the spellcasting and Turn Undead, and add the following stuff.

Level 1: Max Faith Points = 2. Communion 9.
Level 2: Max Faith Points = 4. Communion 10.
Level 3: Max Faith Points = 8. Communion 11. Double Prayer.

Faith points (FP) represent how certain you are that you deserve the miracles you pray for. They are spent when you request a small miracle of your deity, but they are immediately refunded if your prayer is answered (since that reinforces your faith). Your FP maximum is modified by your Wisdom bonus. FP don't return every day. Instead, they regenerate only if:
  • You do some great deed in the direct interests of your faith (e.g. triumphing over an enemy cleric). Smaller deeds (e.g. finding a minor holy relic) might return 1 or 2 FP.
  • Spend (at least) 4 hours praying in a major site of worship, or get blessed by a high-ranking member of your faith.
  • Spend (at least)  4 hours praying  in a minor site of worship. You can build these with time and resources (e.g. raising a monolith in a clearing), but these cannot raise your FP higher than half of its normal maximum.
  • Very powerful ceremonies (e.g. the pope presiding over a gigantic ceremony to sanctify your mission) may raise your FP up to double its normal maximum.
Your communion rank represents the strength of your connection to your deity. You get +1 communion while in a minor holy site and +2 communion while in a major holy site, while unholy sites (such as an opposing church) give equivalent penalties. When you pray, roll a d20 and test under your Communion. If the rolls is successful, your prayer is answered (comparable to a 1st level spell) AND your point is refunded.

You cannot pray for the same thing twice. If your god doesn't want to cleanse the leprosy from the nonbeliever, it would be insulting to ask again.

Your god is more likely to answer some sorts of prayers than others, depending on your deity's portfolio. A sample prayer portfolio for a generic god is given on the next page, although technically you can pray for anything. If you pray for something that is:
  • perfectly aligned with your god's portfolio (such as asking a sun god to fill a dark cave with light), but not listed, it is just as likely to happen as your other requests. Test under your communion, as normal.
  • sort of aligned (such as asking a sun god to dispel a spellcaster's invisibility), your DM may ask you to test under your Communion -4.
  • not aligned (such as asking a sun god to unlock a door), it has no chance of success, and your spent FP are wasted. However, there are exceptions based on the god's interests (such as asking the sun god to unlock the the back door to the moon god's temple so the party can raid it).
  • against the god's interests, it will never be answered.

Double Prayer
You pray twice as hard as humanly possible. If your prayer is answered, it is answered with twice the effect. Double effects have been indicated in the prayer table below. Treat these double effects as level 2 spells (normal prayers are only level 1 spells).

Default Portfolio
This deity has a portfolio that includes healing, purification, and life. Prayers that are aligned include (but are not limited to) the following:

Commune Receive ambiguous omens/visions/warnings.
2x = Receive slightly less ambiguous omens/visions/warnings.

Heal Touched creature gains 5 HP or recovers injury as if rested for a week.
2x = Touched creature gains 10 HP or recovers injury as if rested for 2 weeks.

Bless Target gets +1 to attacks and saves for an hour.
2x = Target gets +2 to attacks and saves for an hour.

Purify Remove a level 1 curse (or enchantment).
2x = Remove a level 1 or 2 curse (or enchantment).

Turn 1d6 nearby undead must save or flee, beginning with the weakest.
Undead with more HD than the cleric get +4 on their save.
2x = 2d6 nearby undead must save or flee, as above.

Cure Target gets a new saving throw against a poison or disease.
2x = Cure a poison or a disease. 

World Integration
Clerics are usually members of extant religions, and they usually have ranks within those religions. (Your cleric may one day be an adventuring pope.) Your faith is assumed to be unswerving, and you are probably involved with your religious institutions. If you advance far enough within your church, you'll probably be asked to give the sermons instead of just attend them. 

Hmm. That looks like it might not be total shit. Instead of writing down all the spells that they want to prepare for the day, the cleric just has to keep track of how many times they can pray in a day (FP) and how likely those prayers are to come to pass (Communion), which seems like a good trade. 

They're a lot more flexible, since they can pray for whatever they want.  They're also very unreliable, since their prayers will go unanswered often.

I like the "you cannot pray for the same thing twice" as it makes a lot of sense and prevents clerics from abusing their sometimes-large FP pools.

I like trimming down a god's portfolio into six spells. It seems like a good way to capture whatever a god is about, in a very practical way.

The "It only costs FP if you fail" rule is pretty strange, mechanically, and it means that the Communion rank is doubly important. It may lead to a cleric spending all their FP without any results and becoming frustrated as a result (the sort of thing that might make a cleric question his devotion, no?)

Communion should probably never get higher than 12. That means it might rise to 14 in Saint Peter's Basilica and that's pretty powerful because your getting twice as many miracles per FP as you would if your Communion was 10.

They need to visit their temples regularly which is awesome but potentially a huge disadvantage if they spend weeks out in the wilderness. If they are going to be in one place for a while, they'll probably want to sanctify a small area for their worship, which is cool.

Some credit is due to the excellent Nine and Thirty Kingdoms blog, which is excellent all over but especially here, where it has an article about clerics without spells.


  1. Have you checked out Brendan's Shamanism system. Here's my work on it:

    The main issue with more defined Clerics is it requires player buy in which is sometimes hard to get.

    1. I like that. I'm glad I posted this--people have been linking me some excellent alternatives to clerics.

      And you're right about player buy-in. But hopefully leaving most of the mechanics undefined can encourage player involvement by asking them things like, "What do say in your prayer?" and "How do you prepare your holy space for prayer?"

  2. Hey, here is another idea that might be fun: anybody that is not a cleric also has Faith Points, but never more than 4 and the can't make miracles the way clerics do. However a cleric can use FP from another character (PC or not) if they share the same religion and the other character gives her permission. Of course, those characters would lose FP with failed miracles and also would recover them as a cleric.

    This way it would be natural for clerics to try to convert other people and to keep a group of acolytes nearby. After all, is not this what religion is all about?

    1. Maaaaaaybe. I'm thinking that instead of draining your follower's FP, you just regain FP when you win new converts. Converting the nonbelievers is a victory for your god whether you keep them around you or not.

      I was playing around with the idea of making a generic form of Faith Points (maybe Passion points?) that any character could have, but they could only be used to get bonuses on rolls. Like a fighter who is really nationalistic could spend a passion point to get +3 on an attack roll or a save when he is defending his country.

  3. What if every god had his demonic opposite/shadow, so when you asked something outside the god's interest, you had a chance of getting a message from the Other who volunteers to do it for you. You loose communion with your god, but gain it from the other.

  4. I like the way ASE encourages buy in with the orbital satellite gods. Ask the player "who's your god or I roll on a table" - but all gods are functionally the same, and all can make demands, because they are crazy AIs - works for gonzo. For more serious games or spell/prayer differentiation I think it's GM labor time.

  5. Hi, I'm working at some old school Japanese stile stuff, and I was searching for a way to make the cleric different. Then I recall your great faith point way. I'm planning to include it in the book (not the whole mechanic, but the succes/recover point or fail/lose point thing) and I'm just here asking for your approval 😁

    1. Go for it! Remixes are great. Bonus points if you give credit.

      Although honestly I'm working on a different version of a cleric these days.

  6. "You cannot pray for the same thing twice. If your god doesn't want to cleanse the leprosy from the nonbeliever, it would be insulting to ask again."
    Dunno. I get why you put that rule in there, but this does not quite reflect how religions work.
    For example, consider Gen. 18:23, where Abraham basically haggles with god about the fate of Sodom.
    Or think of stories of totemist religions with stories about how some god gets fooled. Or the stories in european polytheistic religions, like ancient greek or norse.
    In any case, I see some guy spending a whole day praying to save one guy. And I don't see his faith necessarily going down - not what a fanatic would do. Or compare with the story of Job in the bible, who keeps worshipping god while god keeps on taking stuff from him.
    In terms of game mechanics, consider that any check if a prayer works would make a cleric sort of an unreliable spellcaster compared to a wizard.

    1. I agree with nearly all of your points, but sometimes "what is the real world like" and "what is interesting to talk about" must make way for "what rules lead to the best game".

  7. I have just added this post in my box of ideas for reforming clerics and religion in D&D. I totally agree with you,

    "Clerics should feel different from wizards, not by virtue of niche protection, but by mechanics for emulate faith."


    "Our religions are some of the weirdest things we've ever come up with (see also: sacred foreskins, cargo cults, Xenu). And since everything in a fantasy world is weirder, fantasy religions should be totally insane."

    I think Arneson designed the cleric in his Blackmoor campaign, because he needed a healer/physician to keep the party alive. Anthropologically, healing has always been an idea tight to blessings and faith. Disease and injuries are terrifying things that can cease our (characters') stories. They are bad things that traditionally, until modern age, could not be easily fixed with manual labour and knowledge. Diseases, wounds, poisons, famine, war have also been associated as works of demons, who want bad things to happen to us. Faith in God(s) protect us from demons, who are bad spirits, as undeads are bad spirits... Putting all of that together with the rules of OD&D for fighters and magic users, and there it is Arneson's cleric.

    I think what you are doing with your cleric is very cool, because you are creating a new rule mechanics. Arnerson mixed together the mechanics of the fighter and the magic user, with the special faith spices (healing, blessing, removing curse, rebuking unholy, resurrection). New mechanics makes it more unique, and changes how the players use their PCs in the game.

    Yet, I think there is one ingredient still missing, it is the mechanics by which the gods interact with the setting and the other characters, who are not clerics. There are no game mechanics in D&D for that. If there is no mechanics, the gods become strange NPCs, such as kings from distant realms, whose existence is ignored by the players most of the time. If the fighter, thief and wizard lack game mechanics to the faith, they basically don't need it, and don't care about it. If they need help with wounds, curses, or undeads, they turn to the cleric, not to the gods. The DM cannot religion onto the PCs. They prefer to be atheists, such as they prefer to be loveless orphans with no attachments to family or land.

    I was thinking in perhaps making a faith mechanics linked with a luck mechanics. This thing is materialising in my mind, but it is not clear yet. Pious PCs, who go to the temple and join the rituals, gain luck. Sinners, charisma save vs losing luck. The gods like some more than others... The gods then would become luck mongers, and faith (as luck) would become a supply, such as torches and rations. Sanctuaries, shrines and temples would become "shops" of luck. Places for preying, penitence, and sacrifices, where the PCs pay in other resources -- such as treasure, time and health -- to be cleansed from their sins, and to ask for support in the cosmos (luck) in their future endeavours. Something in this direction, but I am afraid it could become overwhelming.

  8. I've been trying to adapt this to Basic Fantasy RPG, but I have been having trouble deciding on the Faith Points progression - especially since BFRPG has progression to level 20. Have you tried running this version of the Cleric into higher levels? Regardless, I would be quite interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.