Friday, August 5, 2011

On Playing a Cleric

Yesterday, there was a very interesting turn of events at Jeff's Gameblog. Jeff made (from my perspective) a wonderful journey from specifically excluding the cleric class from his Surfeit of Lampreys campaign to an understanding that they are, in fact, a perfect fit for his Wessex setting. As usually happens, however, when one starts talking about clerics and their place in D&D, the comments were a mix of those of us who like clerics and those who as yet can't get their head around them for a variety of reasons. As I've been meditating on this, I am beginning to wonder if (as more than one commenter and Jeff himself implied) the reason for the level of discomfort with the cleric is cultural more than anything else.

Most of us live in a largely secular and pluralistic society that is quite comfortable with the schizophrenia of 30,000+ denominations of Christianity, let alone all of the different flavors of other religions that coexist within our communities. Very few of us have any experience with the shared and assumed daily rituals of Medieval Christendom. Virtually none of us know the monastery and the Church as the center of civilization and learning. [As an aside, a good deal of what we know about classical philosophy and science was bequeathed to us by Christian monks.]

Jeff nicely sums up an outsider's view of the role of the cleric with this observation:
Have we crossed all the i's and dotted all the t's so that God doesn't get mad at us and sends us blessings rather than curses?
Being more an insider who has spent time living in and studying places where there is a shared cultural daily Christian ritual, I thought I'd dedicate some time to help shed some light on what it might mean to be a cleric in a D&D context.

Central to understanding the role of the cleric is the fallenness of man. We know good and evil — where evil is the absence of God. We are intimately familiar with a world that has no God — it is full of misery, disease, decay and death. In Goblinoid Games' Realms of Crawling Chaos, Daniel Proctor and Michael Curtis outline several literary themes found in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. They include:

  • The Insignificance of Man — man is nothing in context of the infinite sea of space and time.
  • The Vastness of the Universe — we are truly alone in an incomprehensibly large and unknowable cosmos.
  • An Uncaring Natural World — nature will kill us many times over before it shows one ounce of compassion for our existence.
  • The Reality of Man as an Animal — we are no better than the basest of animals.

In a world where there is no God, all of these things are true. More than that, all of the misery, disease, decay and death that overwhelms the world are all evidence that we are careening towards nothingness. These are the cold, hard facts of the fallen world.

Standing in defiance of this reality is Christ — where God and His creation are united in one person. He is the one point of historical reality where man is no longer insignificant, but the center of God's plan for salvation; where we have Emmanuel (God is with us) and man is no longer alone; where all of creation can and should be sanctified by the presence of Christ and His Church; and where man is the mechanism by which God works His salvation in the world.

The role of the Church in society is to bring the very presence of God into all of creation — to stem the tide of the fallen world by reuniting it with Christ. We do this by the ritual worship of everyday life. The curses that befall us all are not a result of God, but rather the absence of God. The blessing we experience and the miracles that we behold are the result of the intimate presence of God.

The cleric is the one who is trained in all of the prayers and rituals that the Church has to bring about this presence. His role is to teach and lead the people in these rituals and prayers. As an adventurer, the cleric would see it his duty primarily as stemming the tide of Chaos (the fallen world) by making the wilderness safe for Christian civilization and the sanctifying rituals that it brings with it.

Let me present a couple of examples of what I am talking about. Because Jeff is dealing with a fantasy version of England, let me present a couple of prayers found in the Carmina Gadelica — a collection of Gaelic prayers compiled by Alexander Carmichael.


Life be in my speech,
Sense in what I say,
The bloom of cherries on my lips,
Till I come back again. 

The love Christ Jesus gave
Be filling every heart for me,
The love Christ Jesus gave
Filling me for every one. 

Traversing corries, traversing forests,
Traversing valleys long and wild.
The fair white Mary still uphold me,
The Shepherd Jesu be my shield.
The fair white Mary still uphold me,
The Shepherd Jesu be my shield.


God bless the house,
From site to stay.
From beam to wall.
From end to end,
From ridge to basement.
From balk to roof-tree,
From found to summit.
Found and summit.


Jesus, Thou Son of Mary, I call on Thy name,
And on the name of John the apostle beloved,
And on the names of all the saints in the red domain.
To shield me in the battle to come.

To shield me in the battle to come.

When the mouth shall be closed,
When the eye shall be shut,
When the breath shall cease to rattle.
When the heart shall cease to throb.

When the heart shall cease to throb.

When the Judge shall take the throne,
And when the cause is fully pleaded,
O Jesu, Son of Mary, shield Thou my soul,
O Michael fair, acknowledge my departure.

O Jesu, Son of Mary, shield Thou my soul
O Michael fair, receive my departure!


Alexey said...

Very nice explanation. This points out how characters of different classes not only have different abilities, but probably different motivations that can fit together to some degree.

ERIC! said...

In trying to "deal" with the issues of clerics in my own campaign I have struggled in how to us the Cleric Class. I have concluded that while I like the Cleric Class I would rather relegate it to a semi-NPC class and replace it with a "Crusader" class.

The Crusader acts very much like a Cleric but would be considered more militant in his actions. Where as the Cleric leads the folks the Crusader leads the Armies of God.

My Crusader dabbles in a few of the paladin abilities and because of this I won't be using the paladin. The Cleric still holds a role in my campaign world but acts more of a religious guru or in some instances could adventure, but their concern would fallback towards the folk he leads.

Its something I'm toying with and may dump if it doesn't feel right.


JB said...

: )