Thursday, August 14, 2008

GROGNARD's GRIMOIRE: The Cleric (Again)

One of the things that's always bugged me about D&D's "Vancian" magic system was that, while the game mechanics are the same for both magic-user and cleric spells, the explanation for why this is so is fuzzy. If spells take up mental "space" in the process of memorizing their arcane formulae, then does that mean a cleric is simply a magic-user by another name, that is, another flavor of wizard? Otherwise, it would seem to me that clerics, who simply pray to their deity to grant them their spells each day, ought either to use a different mechanical system or a different explanation of how they obtain their spells.

For Pulp Fantasy D&D, I opted to keep the standard Vancian system for clerics but to embrace the notion that they were simply magic-users by another name. Whereas wizards use their Intelligence to command the powers of the cosmos, clerics look to their Wisdom to find ways to bring themselves and their companions into accord with it. Consequently, a cleric's spell list is almost entirely protective/creative in nature rather than destructive, as a wizard's is. What about reversible spells, you may ask? A good question. In OD&D, clerics cannot cast reversed versions of their spells, but anti-clerics can. "Anti-clerics" are Chaotic clerics who can only cast reversed spells. That is, they can only cause light wounds rather than cure them. They can likewise never even raise dead, which has interesting implications for the campaign world.

I like this idea in principle, but it doesn't quite jibe with the way I want to explain why wizards and clerics use the same game mechanics for spells but get very different types of spells. So what I'm doing is this: regardless of alignment, the cleric's spell list does not include reversible spells. The path of the cleric is one of healing and defense. Even the bad guys need healers and the cosmos doesn't care whom you're healing or why, only that you are. However, reversed spells are still possible. A cleric of any alignment can still choose to reverse one of his spells, but doing so opens his soul to darkness, since he's betraying the very intent of the path he has chosen, in effect trying to trick the cosmos through his superior insights into it.

Each time a cleric casts a reversed spell he must immediately make a saving throw against magic. If he fails, he loses a point of both Wisdom and Constitution. This loss is either temporary or permanent depending on what the cleric chooses to do between now and the next time he attempts to memorize his spells. If he wishes to overcome the ability score loss, he can atone by undertaking some sort of perpetual penance that consists either of an action -- never again to eat meat, never to wear purple garments, always give money to beggars, flagellate himself daily --
or a religious devotion -- carrying the relic of St. So-and-So at all times, always greeting others in the name of his god, blessing any places he enters, etc. These penances can never be abandoned, as they are the only thing that keep the wrath of the cosmos at bay. Should a cleric be unable or unwilling to perform one, he will then lose the Wisdom and Constitution he lost before, only this time there is no restoring it. A penance must be performed for each and every time the cleric casts a reversed spell and fails his saving throw, meaning that clerics who make a habit of casting reversed spells will soon either have very low Wisdom and Constitution scores or be a bundle of taboos and eccentric pious behavior. Any cleric whose Wisdom or Constitution score drops to zero dies and rises as an undead being whose Hit Dice is closest to their level at the time of death.

Because my pulp fantasy clerics are closer to wizard's than to the traditional D&D Knight Hospitaller, I've decided to limit their choices to those of the wizard. In almost every other respect, though, they're identical to the D&D cleric -- spell progression, weapon restrictions, hit dice, the ability to turn undead (since the undead represent the ultimate example of beings "out of sync" with the cosmos) -- but I've reworked their experience table thusly, to accommodate the fact that they have fewer armor choices:

1 - 0
2 - 1400
3 - 2800
4 - 5600
5 - 11,200
6 - 25,000
7 - 50,000
8 - 100,000
9 - 200,000

+100,000 XP per level after 9th


  1. atone by undertaking some sort of perpetual penance

    Or a quest/geas? Isn't this a potential adventure-generating machine?

  2. A character who reverse too many spells could easily betray himself as a heretic with all of his taboos, penances and mortifications....

    It might also be interesting if clerics had to carry breviares in order to memorize their spells, and could perhaps even create their own new spell/prayers. Lots of potential for intrigue there -- will the cleric's gods and co-religionists accept the new prayer or reject it as heresy?

  3. Re: heretic clerics

    To be a good secret heretic, you have to be, well, secret. That means having to keep all your taboos and penances hidden from the eyes of others. That's far from impossible. After all, I can name several saints who engaged in penitential practices that they kept secret during their lives and were only discovered after their deaths.

    I like the breviaries idea. It's a question of some debate in OD&D circles whether clerics need "spell books," so I think it's definitely in the right spirit.

  4. Are you planning on publishing this pulp rules set? I want to buy it. :)

  5. Incidentally, "Men & Magic" p. 34 does in fact say that "characters who employ spells" keep them in spell books, with no language distinguishing clerics and magic-users.

  6. There were also a number of clerical spell books published in Dragon. Possibly more interesting is the Leomund's Tiny Hut article from Dragon #39, which makes no bones about the necessity of Clerics having to learn prayers like spells in AD&D.

    Clerics should also be taught a limited number of prayers (spells) to begin the game. Mere knowledge of a spell title will not allow a Cleric to pray for it. Prayers are taught just as spells are taught/given by an instructor.

    However, two Clerics can meet at any time and exchange spell information. This exchange (learning process) takes three turns per level of the prayer. Thus, if a Cleric teaches another Cleric the prayer for Flame Strike (5th level), they will be at it for two and a half hours. The number of prayers awarded at first level should be 2+d4. One of the spells, regardless of alignment, is always Cure Light Wounds. Obviously the instructor must know the spells to be able to teach them. The instructor will not necessarily teach all of the first level spells he/she knows to an Acolyte.

    Try as we might to perceive and establish a cohesive first edition rule set, it is quite clear that the distinction between "by the book" and "AD&D" was blurred at best even in the minds of many TSR staff.

  7. I read your Pulp Fantasy D&D posts with great interest. I have become disenfranchised with how D&D has gotten. All that ultra-hight-fantasy has left a bad taste in my mouth, and I always favored gritty, pulp-styled fantasy.

    I have been working on my own version of a pulp-styled D&D, but most of it is based on rules and ideas from the Conan RPG. Unfortunately, it uses the d20 system, but it has a lot of great ideas that go beyond rules. It's approach to clerics and magic-users, is to just fold it into a single class (called the Scholar). Choosing between being a Sorcerer or a Priest is more a matter of background then separate classes or rule-sets. This make a lot of sense because in the Conan stories, Priests (cultist, whatever) act and feel like Sorcerers, and without healing magic or the ability to turn the undead, they are just Sorcerers who worship gods (devils, elderich horror, whatever) with all the benefits and restrictions that apply. Newbies to the game are off put by the Scholar because they try to play them as D&D Wizards, but they are handled vary differently. A crafty Sorcerer can instill a lot of fear and control without casting a single spell! This is the type of class that is best played though role-playing, instead of just following it crunchy rule-system.

    I'm looking forwards to see what other ideas you got!

  8. Incidentally, "Men & Magic" p. 34 does in fact say that "characters who employ spells" keep them in spell books, with no language distinguishing clerics and magic-users.

    Quite correct! That's why there's a dispute among OD&Ders about the matter. We know from subsequent clarifications that clerics were not supposed to have spellbooks, but the text as written doesn't say so, which is why some people interpret it as to require them.