No, I’m not referring to Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church.  Rather, I’m referring to a recent episode of Doctor Who (“The Time of Angels“) in which the Doctor and Amy Pond encounter River Song and Father Octavian.  River Song should be familiar to those who watched Series 4, but Father Octavian is a new face.  The Church, of course, is radically different from what we know in the 21st century.  Father Octavian is a Bishop 2nd Class, and he is in command of 20 clerics.  The clerics are all dressed in pixellated camo fatigues and carry light machine guns, and they are equipped more as an expeditionary force than as a holy mission.

In the words of the Doctor, “the Church has moved on.”  Anyway, it got me thinking about priests and clerics and religious infrastructure in fantasy gaming.  Most people are familiar with the clerics who call down heavenly fire or summon healing powers for their allies.  Somewhat less familiar are the acolytes who work behind the scenes or the friars who do not cast spells.  I’m in the process of revamping and sketching out an old campaign world (in the sense that I’ve been working on it for almost a year) for a new campaign this summer, so I thought it might be a good time to revisit religion and spirituality in fantasy gaming.

I have no problem with clerics casting spells and calling upon their deities.  But I do want to think seriously about their presence in the world.  I’ve already considered removing the wizard class as a PC race due to their scarcity, so reducing the prevalence of spell-casting clerics might not go amiss.  Even a 1st level cleric is a reasonable force to be reckoned with in the world, so I find it entirely within the realm of possibility that the gods see fit to grant their blessings to only a few worthy spirits at a time.  Any large city or major temple will have a few, but a small town might only have a friar.  Paladins will be correspondingly rare, but they’re equally common for PCs because they are more likely to venture into the world.

Photo from Paizo Publishing.

Of course, the general assumption is that paladins are the front line warriors of the gods, while clerics bolster the faithful and provide what comfort and support they can (fluff-wise, anyway).  But what if that were not true?  I think that clerics are plenty powerful to serve as the mainstay of a religion’s power, spiritually and militarily.  Paladins are meant to be paragons, at least in my world, and they will be elevated even higher within the hierarchy.  But clerics will be the guiding light and the major force behind most religions.  Services will generally be handled by the acolytes and priests who are not magic-users, while the spell-casting clerics serve a different function.  Healing spells can still be had, but the clerics will consider the needs of the church first and will be called on more frequently in a military capacity.

Of course, this sort of reorganization doesn’t make sense in all religions.  It’ll probably be about a 50/50 split for those that have field-oriented clerics, but it’ll vary by deity.  The town in which my campaign is centered will probably have one temple with a cleric in house and another without, but there may be a group that patrols through the area.  Evil religions are most likely to have militaristic clerics anyway, so they won’t be impacted all that much by these changes.  But battle will be a big focus for most clerics now, especially since my campaign world had an apocalypse within recent memory.  Those things tend to provoke battle-readiness.

One last note – I’m also planning to use the Lovecraftian Gods found in Kobold Quarterly Issue #13.  I find that a little mind-bending horror does wonders for a fantasy game, especially with regards to religion.

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