Saturday, December 13, 2014

Holy Texts or Amputating My Game at the Cleric


My house game doesn’t have clerics. This is what I use instead.

The Madrid Codex, one of the only three Mayan texts that haven't been incinerated by white guys.
All characters can choose to become part of a religion at any point when it makes sense in the game, including during character creation (only if the players ask; their faith is vague by default). Mages who convert can then opt to trade in the spell book that every mage starts with for a holy text. This text can be a book, scroll, codex, tattoos all over the mage’s skin, a small abstract sculpture, whatever. It contains select spells all the way up to the maximum spell level of whatever game you’re playing, which should be chosen based on how well they conform to the philosophy of that religion.

A copy of the Torah that survived the Kristallnacht Pogrom in Leipzig, Germany.
The word "holy" is actually a little misleading. There's no distinction between divine magic and arcane magic in my game, so these are basically really powerful (but at the same time, limiting) spellbooks.

I use the spells from 52 Pages, which has a pretty flexible system for creating religions with customized cleric spell lists: the spells are divided into schools, and a cleric (or prophet, as that game calls them) of a new religion works with the dm to pick two or three schools of magic that make sense for that religion. You’re also supposed to come up with a guiding motto like “protect the weak” or “get out with the loot” which I don’t like or use, but the spell list part is simple and works perfectly for my purposes.
Catholic crusaders might have access to restoration and abjuration. Druids get restoration and nature.
So you get that holy text, which comes fully stocked with all the spells that priests of your religion are permitted to use. The text is enchanted to somehow “know” if you stray from the faith by casting a blasphemous non-kosher spell. If you do that, the words of the text will forevermore appear scrambled and illegible to you. Obviously, you can go back to using a spell book and being a regular old mage if this happens. The book also appears to scramble itself for those who haven’t gone through whatever initiation ritual is appropriate for priests of your chosen faith.

A religious text should probably also have some sort of loosely historical parables in it, which should probably provide some useful information. That sort of takes care of itself in my house game. Mages already get advantage to knowledge/lore checks, so maybe I could just say that the bonus is because they’re constantly collecting little scraps of lore and jotting down notes and ideas, and the stories in your holy text would function the same way.

It doesn't look like it has enough pages for 500 years but I'm guessing it's bigger on the inside.

I also don’t use paladins, but I do allow fighter-mage type characters. If you tell me you want to play as a paladin, I’ll tell you to make a “spellsword” (cause that’s what it’s called in my player handout) with a holy text instead of a spell book. Maybe you can go on a quest to find the divine blade of the demonslayer or something if you’re just in it for the smite evil ability.

Now that I think about it, I like using special items to create the equivalents of a lot of the fancier classes (by which I mean anything other than fighter/thief/mage). An axe of berserking basically makes you a barbarian, while a cloak of stealth and a magic bow turns a fighter or thief into a ranger, for all intents and purposes. If I’m drunk and unusually pliable I may give your thief an opportunity to find a magic keytar of illusions or something. I would also be cool with letting a character go train somewhere to get certain abilities. If you can’t create the character you want to play during character generation, start having your character ask around in-game.


Implications of the Cleric Thing

Normally, clerics get their powers directly from their deities, which makes the idea of atheism a non-starter in the campaign world (Lamentations of the Flame Princess sort of addresses this by saying that divine magic comes from some vague notion of faith and that gods still don’t necessarily exist). By the book, it doesn’t really make sense for me to write an npc or for you to play a pc that sees all religions as collections of lies and hates them, or politically powerful clergy members that secretly lost their faith long ago. By eliminating clerics and using holy texts (which don't necessarily imply the existence of a god), I open up the possibility that all religions are, in fact, scams, and leave the nature of life and death just as vague as it is in real life.

Religion no longer implies alignment. I hate alignment so much, for so many reasons. It will probably be its own post at some point. LotFP takes this on too, by explicitly stating that law and chaos refer to cosmic forces and have nothing to do with politics or behavior, and that everyone is neutral except lawful clerics and chaotic mages. I still don’t like it because it doesn’t make sense for them to be on the same team, unless your players bother to come up with something, which my players wouldn’t do. Kind of (by which I mean exactly) like saying that a witch hunter and a witch are lifelong friends without bothering to explain how that happened.

I use D&D 3/D&D 3.5/Pathfinder (3.x)’s threefold saving throw system for skills as well as saves. Eliminating the cleric leaves only three main classes, meaning that Reflex Saves, Fortitude Saves & Will Saves translate to Thief Stuff, Fighter Stuff, and Mage Stuff. This isn’t all that different from a free game I ran for a while called Warrior, Rogue and Mage, and it struck me as a really elegant solution for something that can get pretty messy. WRM sort of failed for me by using those three scores to replace the six core ability scores, and keeping something pretty close to 3.x’s skills and feats, the parts of 3.x I hated most when I was running it. I like the idea better as a threefold skill system.

Monotheistic religions which believe that "there is no god but god" don’t make sense in the setting implied by the cleric rules. Neither do ancestor worship, nature worship, or anything approaching an abstract pursuit of nirvana sans mythology.* Belief and ritual are incredibly diverse throughout the world. To limit the way it works to an odd mix of ancient polytheistic belief and medieval monotheistic practice is to waste a pretty huge opportunity.

One of the most iconic d&d scenarios is the one in which some powerful creature has set itself up as the deity of some cult. I like the idea of the beholdragon or whatever being able to build a cult of empowered priests by creating holy (unholy? whatever, not for me to judge) texts for their followers, which aren’t immediately useful to the party. Or kidnapping the pope and forcing him to do it since he obviously knows how.

I didn't feel like drawing a beholdragon so here's one by one "SPipes" on devart.


*Yeah yeah, I know d&d monks are basically buddhist martial artists or at least a collection of modern movie tropes about them BUT I don’t think any d&d edition’s manual treats it as a religion in and of itself. By my house rules, a fighter or fighter-mage with no armor or weapons already functions basically the same way as a d&d monk as far as combat bonuses go. If you got your fighter-mage a holy text with the right spells you’d end up with all the wuxia magic you would need.

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