Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Original Cleric

The inclusion of the cleric in OD&D makes a lot more sense if you're a fan of the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s, as Dave Arneson was. Between writing and reading Kamandi, I'm in the midst of watching these classic movies for additional insights into the prehistory of D&D. I just finished watching 1958's Horror of Dracula, starring the always-awesome Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing and the equally awesome Christoper Lee as the Count. I can't say enough great things about this film, but I'll save those for another day, after I've had a chance to view a few more. In the meantime, be inspired by this screen capture the next time you decide to create or play a cleric in Dungeons & Dragons.

41 comments:

  1. It's funny you posted this minutes after I posted this!
    http://maximumrockroleplaying.blogspot.com/2010/07/witchfinder-another-way-to-look-at.html

    Similar ideas anyways! :D

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  2. Whoa. Dr. Van Helsing's a GREAT model for a cleric. Especially when played by Cushing.

    This brings an interesting train of thought to my mind. So in this instance, the cleric becomes a monster hunter, with a specialization in dealing with a certain class of monster (in this case, the undead, specifically, Christopher Lee).

    You could readily alter those abilities, or just change what they're effective on, and adapt this role to other types of campaign.

    What if, for example, you're running a bizarro, Planet Algol-esque kind of campaign where there are no undead in the classic sense, but the cleric analogue could turn oozes, slimes and jellies.

    Or a primeval, jungle campaign where certain priests & priestess' have the Thuvia Maid of Mars type ability to turn large, savage beasts.

    Neat!

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  3. Twins of Evil, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter; ah Hammer Horrors, what Ravenloft really amounted to. ;)

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  4. Matthew,

    The Ravenloft Campaign Setting, which I adore -- yes, it's true -- was indeed a great Hammer-horror-meets-D&D world, or at least it could be. The main problem with it is that the modules, by and large, were uninspired railroads overly concerned about "mood" and "story." Better supported, I think the setting offers a lot of great possibilities for adventuring.

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  5. This is precisely why in my more steampunkish and gaslighty campaigns, I can replace the cleric class with a generically metaphysical scholar/philosopher class, and it comes out just perfect. In regular medieval D&D, the inspiration for the cleric is a vague Van Helsing type with a generous post hoc helping of Archbishop Turpin. In gaslight, you can just say "Van Helsing" and be done with it. :)

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  6. In gaslight, you can just say "Van Helsing" and be done with it.

    Absolutely! The fascinating things about Van Helsing, as a character, is that he seems primarily to be a Man of Science, even when he's using things like crucifixes and garlic to ward off the undead. Cushing's Van Helsing describes vampirism as a "contagion" and he attempts to save Mina with a blood transfusion. At the same time, he's also clearly a believer in an immortal soul and an afterlife. It's an odd mix that actually works in a 19th century context nevertheless.

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  7. James,

    Don't miss Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed it's the best of the Hammer Frankenstein series IMO. Lee also shines as the hero (a role usually reserved for Cushing) in The Devil Rides Out. Excellent films.

    Best
    Nick

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  8. I'm fairly certain that the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett also played a role in developing the identity of the cleric class. Here we find the division between divine and arcane magic specifically aligned along healing (divine can do it; arcane can't).

    Particularly apt guidance for those steampunk campaigns J.D. Higgins mentions.

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  9. Nick,

    Those are both in the queue to be watched soon :)

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  10. Justin,

    I'd love for you to be right about this, since I am very fond of the Lord Darcy stories. To date, though, I've never seen any evidence that either Gygax or Arneson had read or been influenced by those stories and every reminiscence about the origins of the class mention Van Helsing and/or medieval warrior-priests.

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  11. James,

    Yes, indeed, it was great for that. I have probably mentioned this before, but I was about fourteen when I was running Ravenloft and at the time (early to mid nineties) ITV was showing Hammer Horror repeats at midnight every week, so my experience of Ravenloft is inextricably entwined with Hammer Horror, though the latter interest outlasted the former. I distinctly remember comparing the lore from the setting with the lore gleaned from the films. I never bought anything beyond the initial campaign box (and actually I think a friend bought that), so was never exposed to the actual published line (very typical of my experience with AD&D, I should probably add).

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  12. Some possible cleric predecessors from Appendix N books:

    The Roger Bacon character from Bellairs' Face in the Frost - described as a "wizard," but clearly a tonsured medieval friar.

    Brother Parvus from the Anderson's The High Crusade.

    If we take the class name "cleric" in a broad sense, the class could encompass scholars and bureaucrats, particularly in a pseudo-medieval setting where the functions of both overlap significantly with "the church."

    I think there's something to be said for seeing the cleric as a Van Helsing-ish (or Roger Bacon-ish) man of science and faith to distinguish him from the purely supernatural magic-user, though that may be hard for us of modern sensibilities to reconcile.

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  13. My favorite "turn the undead" scene in movies is Roddy McDowell in "Legend of Hell House," where at the end he's going up the church shouting at the spirit.

    I
    KNOW
    YOUR
    SECRET!!

    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    Art and Review

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  14. I think there's something to be said for seeing the cleric as a Van Helsing-ish (or Roger Bacon-ish) man of science and faith to distinguish him from the purely supernatural magic-user, though that may be hard for us of modern sensibilities to reconcile.

    Yes, there's a lot of appeal here. In my Dwimmermount campaign, clerics are all Lawful (even those of evil deities) and Law is strongly associated with knowledge, including scientific knowledge.

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  15. Everything I've ever read in D&D that describes the Cleric class hearkens back to Archbishop Turpin from the "Song of Roland."

    But everything I've ever read in D&D about turning undead hearkens back to Peter Cushing and his good guy counterparts in Hammer films.

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  16. BigFella,

    I've always advocated seeing the cleric as a monster hunter, particularly when monsters are understood to be sin personified. A vampire, for example, personifies humanity's desire to become immortal sans God. This is why vampires find holy things such as crosses to be so abhorrent — mechanically expressed as Turning in D&D. This view allows clerics modeled after Van Helsing to be inserted into a wide variety of settings.

    James,

    I take exception to your characterization of Van Helsing. Being a Man of Science and a believer is not an odd combination. Christianity has long seen science as a tool to be used for good and the glory of God. It is only in context of the false dichotomy of science vs. religion in the wake of Darwin has this this combination seemed "odd." In truth, the lists of saints are filled with men of science.

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  17. Some possible cleric predecessors from Appendix N books:

    The Roger Bacon character from Bellairs' Face in the Frost - described as a "wizard," but clearly a tonsured medieval friar.


    I recall reading a Gygax review of FitF (sigh, I hope it becomes as popular as the other "acronym" series), and he read the book after OD&D, but before the DMG. I think it was on his mind when he wrote DMG, because he specifically mentions it in the spell casting section.

    RPG.net says the review's in The Dragon #22, Feb 1979.

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  18. I take exception to your characterization of Van Helsing. Being a Man of Science and a believer is not an odd combination. Christianity has long seen science as a tool to be used for good and the glory of God. It is only in context of the false dichotomy of science vs. religion in the wake of Darwin has this this combination seemed "odd." In truth, the lists of saints are filled with men of science.

    I am well aware of this. I spent most of grad school studying St. Thomas Aquinas, after all. But a clear sub-text of the novel Dracula is the triumph of Science over Superstition, with Van Helsing as the champion of the former. Most cinematic portrayals of the character follow suit. I called it "odd" in that context, not in an absolute historical one. I certainly don't see any conflict myself, but many Victorians did and the popular opinion of the 20th and 21st centuries seem to have adopted the same attitude.

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  19. I think comparing Van Helsing with a priest character class is the problem. Like the man said, Helsing was a man of science who also believed in things science cannot explain. Might as well tell people to run their cleric like Fox Mulder.

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  20. I think comparing Van Helsing with a priest character class is the problem. Like the man said, Helsing was a man of science who also believed in things science cannot explain. Might as well tell people to run their cleric like Fox Mulder.

    Except that it's a historical fact that Van Helsing -- specifically Cushing's Van Helsing -- was one of the original inspirations for what became the cleric class. It's not as big of a stretch as it might seem, especially when you consider that "cleric" is not the same as "priest," despite what many D&D players have believed.

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  21. I was about to post on Archbishop Turpin, but Tom O'Bedlam beat me to it. It is clear that Turpin is the progenitor for absolutely everything except turning undead.

    But I will grant you the turn undead mechanics.

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  22. I was about to post on Archbishop Turpin, but Tom O'Bedlam beat me to it. It is clear that Turpin is the progenitor for absolutely everything except turning undead.

    But I will grant you the turn undead mechanics.

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  23. Turpin is very likely another early model for the cleric class (as is Odo of Bayeux, I believe), although, in AD&D, Gygax likens clerics to religious knights like the Templars (which makes one wonder what the paladin is supposed to be). I bring up Van Helsing, though, because it was the turning of undead that gave birth to the class in the first place and its inspiration was Peter Cushing's Van Helsing.

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  24. Well, the paladin is clearly more of an "eternal hero" archetype, I would say. Turpin is certainly an inspiration, as the twelve paladins are for the paladin class, though his use of sword and lance did not deter Gygax from following the mistaken interpretation of Odo of Bayeux wielding a mace (or more properly holding a baton) on the Bayeux Tapestry as indicative of an attempt to sidestep non-existent Christian rules on the literal shedding of blood as opposed to taking part in violence. to be fair to Gygax, it is a widely disseminated myth, having been only properly challenged in the last forty years or so, and still pervasive in academic works that really ought to know better. Some good discussion of the subject here: The Cleric as an Archetype, including a link to Mike Mornard confirming the inspiration of Van Helsing.

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  25. Anyone know of any good Hammer movie packs with a bunch of these in one bundle?

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  26. I've been playing a cleric the past several months who's a layperson, specifically a Deacon, not a priest of any kind. He's patterned after Wellman's Silver John, who if you think about it is kind of a backwoods, self educated Van Helsing.

    Other Wellman inspirations for a monster hunting cleric could be characters like John Thunstone or Judge Persuivant.

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  27. Gygax likens clerics to religious knights like the Templars (which makes one wonder what the paladin is supposed to be)

    I was going to bring that up. With all this ruminating we've been doing about early D&D I've been pondering if the AD&D sub-classes are really worthy. Do they actually manifest role archetypes or are they the beginnings of "munchkinry"?

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  28. My personal favorite clerical inspiration is Ronald Lacey's mercenary chaplain from the 1985 film Flesh & Blood. One of the scenes that really got me was when they unearthed a statue of Saint Martin and the chaplain interpreted it as a sign from God favoring their company (led by a Captain Martin played by Rutger Hauer. The religious aura of mystery and wisdom the mercenaries granted him, and the relationship between his faith and Martin's leadership made me sit back and say, "That's what a cleric should be to an adventuring party."

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  29. Certainly; try Best of Hammer Collection

    You are evil, evil ...

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  30. With all this ruminating we've been doing about early D&D I've been pondering if the AD&D sub-classes are really worthy. Do they actually manifest role archetypes or are they the beginnings of "munchkinry"?

    My guess is that most of the sub-classes arose specifically out of someone saying, "How do I play character X from book Y?" and then creating a class to do so. The paladin, for example, is quite clearly the Holger Carlson class, just as the ranger is the Aragorn class. Over time, some of these classes have become more archetypal but they didn't start out that way and I suspect that's why a lot of contemporary fans of old school games tend to look down their noses at them.

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  31. "Might as well tell people to run their cleric like Fox Mulder."

    I WANT TO BELIEVE.

    /now, THAT, is a neat idea!

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  32. > the always-awesome Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing

    Yes! And for the Oriental Adventures cleric, I'd vote for Lam Ching Ying's Geungsi Sinsang (a.k.a. Mr. Vampire), the Chinese Taoist Van Helsing:

    http://www.och.cc/blog/images/mr_vampire.jpg

    http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews/mr_vampire.htm

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  33. My personal favorite clerical inspiration is Ronald Lacey's mercenary chaplain from the 1985 film Flesh & Blood. One of the scenes that really got me was when they unearthed a statue of Saint Martin and the chaplain interpreted it as a sign from God favoring their company (led by a Captain Martin played by Rutger Hauer. The religious aura of mystery and wisdom the mercenaries granted him, and the relationship between his faith and Martin's leadership made me sit back and say, "That's what a cleric should be to an adventuring party."

    For me, the best fighting/adventuring man-of-god character in movies had to be Reverend Dahlstrom (played by the brilliant R.G. Armstrong) from Major Dundee.

    5:07

    Aside from Armstrong's performance, what makes this character a great "cleric" is his piety (without being sanctimonious) and his motives.

    "Any man with a just cause should travel with the word of God."

    and

    "Seventeen years ago I married John and Mary Rostes"[the family massacred at the beginning, whose sons were abducted and whose rescue is the reason Dundee is assembling this expedition]"Who that destroyeth my flock I will so destroy."

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  34. I think the conflict between Van Helsing and Dracula is less about Science vs Faith, than of it being about Reason vs Superstition.

    In our world magic is a thing of Superstition. But in many fantasy worlds it is a thing of Reason. It can be shown to exist and is (in most games) eminently reliable and formulaic. Repeatable even.

    [I find this particularly disingenuous with the cleric class, because it often feels like the gods are serving men, rather than the other way around. Which is probably why my clerics are sorcerors, just using very reliable rituals created and improved on over the centuries. I don't feel that true miracles should occur on demand.]

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  35. I asked Gary where his influences came from. With the cleric, he said, the influences were Brother Odo (in a big way), Hammer films (with turning, Friar Tuck, and religious healers (those fakers who pretend to healer ppl by touching them "You've been saved!", or by using chicken guts to pretend to pull out cancers)

    That visual of grand Moff Tarkin is cool! Makes cleric look bad ass as any fighter. Stoic faced against the undead.

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  36. What, a cleric is NOT a priest? OK, whatever you want to call it - shaman, deacon, monster hunter...it basically boils down to a guy who prays to a god for favors. In this case, the cleric gets them. He's a priest.

    But I do like the monster hunter idea, but in D&D context, all characters, including thieves and bards, are monster hunters. That the cleric and Paladin are the only ones who can turn undead does not change that fact.

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  37. Sidebar:

    I've always enjoyed Peter Cushing's performances which are often meticulous exercises in what thespians call 'object exercises'. Whilst delivering lines that might otherwise be damned as utter dross, Cushing elevates mundane patter by accompanying his superb delivery with a masterclass in how to use props within a scene. Whether he's preparing tools for vampire slaying, utilising a small chemistry set or finding information in an ancient tome, Cushing's technical proficiency in operating any filmic prop is so convincing that it adds gravitas and truth to whatever he is engaged in.

    I also like Christopher Lee, but that's purely physical.

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  38. I can't help but notice that the most common use for clerics in play - laying hands on the party frontliners as they dodge ogre clubs - is not the most iconic role from fiction.

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  39. So what if it isn't? There's no law that says your characters need to stick to a hackneyed stereotype.

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  40. There are an awful lot of "I went to university and got tonsured, but I didn't settle down as a priest" characters in early pulp fantasy, wandering around looking for their fortune in creepy magical happenings and trouble. That's a cleric possibility too -- and it would explain why you're out adventuring.

    Heh. That does sound Mulder. Reynard of Muldere. :)

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