Monday, June 15, 2009

In Defense of Clerics II

In my last post, I made the argument that Clerics belong in D&D, especially considering the historical simulation roots of the game. However, there are the arguments that the mace-wielding battling bishop is not very historical and that Clerics were only born out of the need to fight the vampire Mr. Fang. This is where the war gaming roots of D&D become important.

War games are by their very nature abstract, and, when it comes to those meant for public consumption, are meant to entertain. This results, on the one hand, in arbitrary mechanical and mathematical representations of all kinds of things like troop size, training, skill, technology, speed, range, etc. On the other hand, in order to make the game entertaining, there is also a need to balance things out so that one side, or one troop choice, etc., has advantages and disadvantages that create interesting game play. It is out of this perspective that D&D has the classic Fighting Man and Magic User. One choice allows all weapons and armor, but no magic while the other choice forgoes all weapons but the most basic and all armor in order to be able to use magic. This concept of classes does not come from literature, where magic wielding characters of all stripes are seen wielding swords and even wear armor — its roots are in war gaming.

This is where the Cleric begins to make sense. A need arose within the game — Mr. Fang and how to defeat him — and new mechanics had to be created. Given the historic pedigree of Christian adventurers, the medievalism of the game and the iconic image of vampire hunters wielding a cross to fend off the undead, it made sense for the new class to be some kind of psuedo-Christian adventuring priest. Given the mechanical balance of Fighting Men and Magic Users, it made sense that the Cleric should sit somewhere in-between:

Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic, armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!), plus they have numbers of their own spells. — Men & Magic

Note that the justification of "weapons that don't draw blood" is only inferred, not explicit. Rather, it is an easily defined category of weapons that arbitrarily limit the number of weapons a Cleric can use. The armor-clad, mace-wielding bishop may largely be absent from history, but from a war gaming perspective it just makes sense. So much so, that it has been with us since 1974.


  1. I've really enjoyed this discussion. I rather like clerics in my game as well, and even prefer them based on a Christian-like church, rather than the usual pagan hodge-podge.

    Tangential to all this: one thing I've been wondering about is how well Raise Dead/Resurrection would sit with Church hierarchy. I'm tempted to make some spells heretical (or at least gray area) in the games I'm running for my SO.

  2. Too many people today don't really grasp the wargaming roots of D&D & roleplaying in general, it makes discussing the origins of D&D difficult. It can make discussing any discussion difficult, I recently ran across an avid fan of Mongoose's version of Runequest who had no idea there had been any previous versions. Needless to say his views on the game were unqiue, but completely incorrect about the reasons for various aspects of the Runequest system and the Gloranthan setting. As an aside I'ld be curious about your opinions about Runequest both as rules and it's main Glorantha setting.

  3. I've been wondering about is how well Raise Dead/Resurrection would sit with Church hierarchy.

    Well, given that Christ rose several people from the dead, the widow's son was risen from the dead through Elijah (1Kings 17:17-23), and Tabitha was risen from the dead through Peter (Acts 9:36-41), I think the hierarchy would be quite comfortable with Raise Dead/Resurrection — especially if that person needed more time to repent or needed a second chance to right a wrong.

    As an aside I'ld be curious about your opinions about Runequest both as rules and it's main Glorantha setting.

    I played White Bear and Red Moon, but never played Runequest. Glorantha, as portrayed in White Bear and Red Moon, fascinated me. It felt, and still feels, very alien to me. This both fascinates and repulses me. I really enjoyed looking at the game board and its pieces and was most interested in the Neutrals — which felt the least alien to me. Although there were ideas that I considered stealing for my own game worlds, I pretty much left the world on the war gaming table.

    My friends and I never adventured in any game world not of our own making. In part because it was so fun, and also because it was cheaper. Thus, I never pursued my initial fascination with Glorantha. When my friends and I finally tried out the Chaosium system, we played Elric and Call of Cthulu because we were big fans of Lovecraft and Moorcock. Although I enjoyed those games, I've never much liked skill based systems — they tend to encourage mechanics rather than role playing.

  4. My friends and I were Avalon Hill fanatics before I fatefully purchased the Holmes Basic D&D set. I think we understood the cleric in the terms you outlined above. I also seem to remember that we understood the cleric in terms of a militant religious order rather than an ordained priestly order. That became a bit of a problem when the paladin came along.

    Excellent and thought-provoking post. Thanks!

  5. I'm sorry to ask a personal question, but I noticed from your handle the "Fr." title. Are you a member of the clergy yourself?