Saturday, October 16, 2010

Clerics versus Undead Monsters

As is well known now, the cleric was inspired, in large part, by the character of Dr. Van Helsing, as ably portrayed by Peter Cushing, in numerous Hammer horror films in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Consequently, the class's signature ability is not spell casting but its ability to "turn away" undead monsters, such as zombies, ghouls, and, of course, vampires.

As I noted in my earlier post on the subject, anti-clerics lack the ability to turn undead entirely in OD&D. This is a stance that, so far as I can recall, no other version of D&D adopts, not even Holmes, which otherwise does include OD&D's anti-clerics (or "evil clerics," as the good doctor calls them). AD&D, intriguingly, does not allow evil clerics to turn or destroy the undead, but they can neutralize or even command them. Moldvay/Cook/Marsh gives all clerics, regardless of alignment, the ability to turn undead, a stance also adopted by Mentzer.

Of all these options, I find the one adopted by Moldvay/Cook/Marsh and Mentzer to be the least satisfactory to me, as it makes all clerics equally efficacious against the undead, regardless of their deity (if any) and alignment. The implication seems to be that the simple fact that a character is a cleric is sufficient to have power over the undead. The AD&D position, meanwhile, is more coherent, inasmuch as alignment is significant, but it's also more dualistic (or perhaps "multipolar"), since it gives all alignments some power over the undead. OD&D, as noted, implies a "monopolar" reality, where Law, which is often equated with goodness, is the only force to which before which undead monsters flee.

Of course, in my Dwimmermount campaign, Law does not equal Good, or at least not all Lawful beings can be reckoned good ones, except in the narrow sense that they oppose Chaos, which seeks the destruction of all. The religion of Typhon, to cite a prominent example from the campaign, is a staunch defender of human civilization, a paragon of Law, but it also turns a blind eye to oppression and cruelty and supports strength as an indicator of rectitude. As in the LBBs, there are no non-Lawful clerics, excepting demon worshipers, which follow slightly different rules.

Given that all Lawful clerics, regardless of the deity they serve, can affect the undead, it seems clear to me that it is a cleric's Lawfulness, not his deity, that grants him this power, a position that carries with it cosmological implications I've embraced rather than shied away from in my campaign setting. Though there is no "church of Law," as we see in some early D&D materials, there is a Lawful cult, one that eschews the usual gods and personifies Law itself as a kind of Supreme Deity. This cult doesn't have clerics but rather paladins, who, interestingly enough, lack the ability to turn the undead (as in Supplement I), an oddity that I think helps to paint a delightfully muddled cosmology -- just the way I like it.


  1. The Moldvay stance strikes me as a "simplification for simplification's sake", but this probably has to do with the way Chaotic Clerics are treated in Keep on the Borderlands. Considering Keep was written by Gygax in the AD&D years, it's not really surprising that it features a Chaotic Cleric stomping around at the head of an army of Undead like he just waltzed in out of AD&D. There's also the traitor cleric, but beyond him being a traitor, his behaviour is mostly left up to the DM.

  2. One of the few advantages of later editions over earlier ones, IMO, is the delineation of individual priesthoods. Although it adds more complexity I enjoy having, say, a priest of the Earth Gods who is totally different in ethos (and has different spell choices and powers) than the Priest of the Dead or the Priest of Healing. While easier in some ways to adjudicate, simply dividing priests into "Law" and "Chaos" never seemed to work for me.

  3. For my old D&D campaign it was always a matter of personal faith which empowered my clerics. And they could lose their powers if they began to doubt. My clerics were essentially members of a monastic fighting order,* the armoured fist of the Church. The average priest had no clerical powers, beyond the ability to pray for a miracle (which were very rare), although it was not unknown for clerics to put up their armour and "retire" to the Ministry.

    Then again, my gods were generally silent (although various oracles claimed to speak with and/or for them), and it was possible to contact the strange beings of higher planes of existence or summon demons for information (which was problematic on determining if there actually were gods since they were notorious liars).

    Of course this led to much fun with heresies, heterodoxies, and other arguments over canon that is impossible when gods take an active role in the world.

    Law equated to civilization, and the wilderness was Chaos. There was no great metaphysical aspects to either of these quantities. The Church was dedicated to spreading civilization by defeating and taming the wilderness. And this is the role that the clerics trained for.

    [* Initially one, which eventually became the tail that wagged the Church, because it had a major presence in the principle area of play (the Mother House of the Order). But it eventually expanded into half a dozen fairly separate martial monastic orders, each represented by a slightly different character class of "cleric."]

  4. I began to have issues with clerics being able to turn undead in any fashion. In the films it was always a matter of faith (and in a couple films the priest's faith was shaky and therefore ineffective), some games mentioned that atheist vampires weren't affected at all (I think it was GURPS Horror?).

    That, plus the power of turning a vampire seemed to rest in only one faith: Catholicism.

    Obviously, it never made sense to me that a priest of an entirely different religion would be able to do this. And evil clerics might not *want* to do this.

    But rather than gimp the cleric, I decided that good clerics could turn as normal, but clerics that serve evil gods would be able to stop or even command the undead for a short time (1/2 the normal duration). That is the short, simple answer.

    The long, complicated answer would be to draw up a chart of the various spheres of influence and figure out, say, what kind of modifiers there would be for a cleric of the Water Goddess, a cleric of the God of War, etc.

  5. The Mentzer approach of "all clerics can turn undead" can be coherent and consistent if you assume that the basis of the connection between god and cleric is inherently antithetical to whatever necromantic force animates the undead. A turn attempt becomes a "pulse" of this holy energy which forms the conduit between man and god.

    Thematically this can be quite interesting: Gods need their clerics to manifest their actions in the world; they need that living connection. Undead, as the antithesis of life, represent a severing of that connection.

    This, of course, has some impact on your pantheons. Gods of the Undead are going to be somewhat problematic.

    But what could become really interest is the Pantheon of Unlife: Gods who manifest their connection to the world through the necromantic energy of the undead; these are the gods of the vampire lords and pharaohic mummies. (And if bursts of holy energy from the Gods of Life turn undead, what effect does a burst of unholy energy from the Gods of Unlife have?)

  6. Another possibility is that all deities rely on earnest worshipers in life and loyal souls in death. That makes animation of the dead in antithetical to all clerics.

    The harnessing of said souls, or life force or ptah, or whatever, to animate the dead would only be carried by those attempting to usurp the gods prerogatives - sorcerers, necromancers, mad scientists, etc.

  7. Musing on this post and your previous one makes me think: If priests of Law have power over undead doesn't it make sense that priests of Chaos have power over humanity? There is a sense of reciprocity there. Also the aforementioned "Finger of Death" spell seems to back up this idea. Maybe an idea that the anti-clerics work on humanity with illusion and enchantment/charm to woo them to the side of chaos. If one views Chaos as more indicative of wilderness this would still work in my mind as the anti-clerics would be using humanity's own primal desires against them to help destroy law/civilization.