Sunday, April 11, 2010


I have long felt a niggling sense of dissatisfaction with the cleric as a class. I believe I am not alone in this. Despite OD&D including the cleric but not the thief as one of the foundational three classes, there seems to be general sense that while thieves and nimble roguish characters are well-represented in the source material, clerics are not.

The prevailing orthodoxy is that cleric characters represent something akin to members of militant religious orders such as the Knights Templar or the Teutonic Knights. The hoary old creation myth of Sir Fang and the need for someone to counter his undead power contradicts this tale. Clerics seem to be an unholy mish-mash of various sources; part Solomon Kane and part Abraham Van Helsing, with a healthy dose of biblical miracle-worker and the cudgel-wielding Bishop Odo from the Bayeux Tapestry thrown in for good measure.

For my Dung Age interpretation of the cleric I've decided to bring the cleric back to its mediaeval roots. In this context it is necessary to consider the ramifications of a monotheistic religion with a vast and dominant church. The culture of Mediaeval Europe was united and dominated by one God and one Church that played a part in everyone's life.

Interestingly the tropes of pulp fantasy downplay the influence of religion and display a strong tendency toward a kind of pantheism, perhaps in emulation of antiquity. This has been translated in D&D-world in such a manner as to produce campaign settings where religion and the gods play little part other than as exotic window-dressing. Sure there is occasionally the trope of pseudo-Olympians playing a great game with mortals as pawns but the point I am trying to make is that traditional D&D pantheism does very little to produce a dynamic that emulates the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the one defining characteristic of Mediaeval Europe is monolithic and inflexible and pervasive Christianity. Contrary to this in D&D's nominally mediaeval settings, desire for escapism (plus social factors that I can barely conceive as an Australian atheist) has produced cookie-cutter blandly tolerant pantheistic worlds.

The truth of the mediaeval world was often very unpleasant. The Catholic Church persecuted and destroyed non-believers, and waged a highly successful war for the hearts and minds of the peoples of Europe. The history of this world of unquestioned monotheism is filled with thousands of accounts of individuals whose faith in god makes them miracle workers - saints. There seems to have been a saint for every village, "Dark Age" Britain in particular is crawling with them. It is as if the more benighted a place is the more tales of divine heroes who banish snakes and kill dragons and heal the sick and plough up fish from the soil appear.

All of this is a bloated and unwieldy preamble to my re-interpretation of clerics and religion for the Middenmurk setting. A single monotheistic religion that is pervasive and dominant is necessary for the evocation of the classic Dung-Age atmosphere. This religion needs to be served by zealots, saints-in-the-making. I'm re-imagining clerics as fanatics - people touched by the One God, so fiercely devoted as to be able to work miracles and banish evil.

Importantly, fanatics need not be members of the clergy (though most probably are) many saints, such as Joan of Arc and various of the Holy Roman Emperors were just particularly devout members of the laity.

Other threads of mediaeval religiosity also inform my imagining of fanatics. Various heretical sects engaged in religious uprisings such as the Hussites, flagellants and visionaries, individuals like Peter the Hermit and the nameless French peasant boy who led the Children’s Crusade and the historically later phenomenon of the inquisition.

In the Northern Marches, every day is a saint’s day. Every village has a crack-brained holy man predicting holy doom. Pilgrimages criss-cross the countryside as the faithful seek atonement for their sins, and the fanatics whip up religious hysteria, crusades and witch-burnings, exorcisms and torture, persecution and martyrdom. The fearful populace cling to their faith because the righteous fury of its servants is often the only thing standing between them and the real evil of that which lies somewhere over the horizon.

So, integral to fanatics is their capacity to work miracles (cast cleric spells), not their combat ability (which isn’t too shabby but not what you’d expect of elite shock troops like the Templars).

The blunt weapon thing is just so arbitrary, I’m going to allow fanatics to use good, honest peasant-uprising style agricultural weapons –pitchforks, mauls, billhooks, threshing-flails, sickles, hatchets, staves and cudgels. These guys aren’t so much trained warriors as those driven by zeal to smite the enemy with whatever means are available, as well as this it keeps things earthy.

No heavy armour, for similar reasons.

There will be some kind of mortification of the flesh going on, scourges and whips, cilices and hairshirts, not sure precisely how I’ll implement this but I’ve got a couple of ideas.

XP will be given for gold donated or distributed among the poor.

Angry mobs of hirelings in a fanatic’s pay (or potentially merely devoted followers) should have a morale bonus to reflect their zeal.

The fanatic should probably be able to preach to believers, adding their level to reaction rolls.

Turn Undead will become Banish Evil and have wider applicability including cleansing miasmas and exorcising demons.

Tonsures and/or crazy eyes will be back in fashion.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. What a radical and intriguing interpretation of the cleric!

    My campaign, too, is dark age, though a bit earlier than yours, which means I have more of the convert-or-die madness and truly bizarre saints but less of the crusades, inquisitions, and burning of heretics, women, and cats.

    I envy you the fun you're going to have with this.

  3. Now for the comment I couldn't get to work properly earlier. Damanable internet!

    Good post! Two books that might interest you if you haven't already read them:

    The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn is a history of a lot of those nutty fanatics in millenarian cults in the Middle Ages.

    The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington is the sort of Dung Age fantasy you're going for--and has at least one fanatical cleric in it.