Monday, June 29, 2009

Are clerics superfluous?

Of course, two days after I announce my hiatus, what happens? I get inspired to write something. Go figure.

I got to wondering why, exactly, we have both magic-users and clerics in A/D&D. The literary antecedent of the magic-user is well-established, going back into the hoary mists of time itself with such figures as Merlin and Apolonius of Tyre. The connection to the cleric is not nearly so cut-and-dried, and it requires a little bit of digging to really put it into shape.

Gygax himself stated on several occasions that the historical template for the cleric class was Bishop Odo of Normandy, who fought at Hastings in 1066 and was famed for using a mace as his weapon so as to avoid breaking the Christian prohibition against spilling blood (in a very cynical way, of course), mixed in with a lot of Friar Tuck (who fought, if I'm not mistaken, with a sword). The prohibition against edged weapons was as much for game balance originally as following any sort of historical pattern. However, I note that Gygax also stated that the clerical spells were created whole-cloth from his imagination (although I cannot imagine that the Biblical miracles from the Old Testament did not inform those imaginings; healings, creating food, curing disease, etc.). We are further told that the class was originally conceived as a sort of vampire-hunter (hence the ability to turn undead) a-la Abraham van Helsing.

In the pulp fantasy literature whence the D&D game evolved, priests are rarely given a spotlight as something unto themselves. We've seen Bishop Odo, Friar Tuck, and Abraham Van Helsing, but if you look through the "high priests" of Conan, they are either simple scholars or cunning wizards who owe their dark powers to the same eldritch forces as his simple wizardly foes. Too, in Lovecraft, no distinction is made between those wizards who make use of magic owing to their own prowess (or the possession of some damned book and its wisdom) as those who call upon some nameless horror from beyond for their power. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of a figure from either pulp fantasy or high fantasy that embodies the attributes of the cleric class; healer, hobbled warrior, undead-hammer. Until after the publication of D&D, of course.

So I'm thinking, why have a cleric class at all? Why not just fold the clerical spells into the magic-user spell list, and take their single special power (turning undead) and turn it into a couple of spells? There would be a Turn Undead I, which is a first-level spell and works against the lowest-level undead, then a Turn Undead II, etc (reversible, of course). That would actually seem a lot more in line with the classic figure of the necromancer as a magic-user specialty. It would also enable us to extract the Turn Demon/Devil function into its own spell, thus giving us a little more definition to the sorcerer specialty.

Gone would be the ability to simply pray for spells, unless we had a sorcerer (who derived his power from otherworldly creatures) with such as a special ability. Or even turn *that* into a spell unto itself (the magic-user always makes sure to keep that one in reserve, to be able to re-memorize spells) or added as a function of the familiar; the Otherworldly Tutor, who can help a magic-user regain spells in the absence of his or her spellbook. Oh, the more I think about *that* the more I like it. It seems very Faustian.

These spells would actually allow us to develop a much more robust system of magic-user specialization than would otherwise be the case (if the harried DM were so inclined).

The more I think of it, the more I like this idea, but I would like to hear from my Dear Readers as to what you perceive as the pitfalls (and possibilities) of such a realignment of magical power.

EDIT: Now that I ruminate on it, I think the notion of having to take undead turning as a spell lines up very well with what I've written earlier about the concept of old-school games as logistical challenges.