If you know me personally, you know I’m an unapologetic atheist. I dally with antitheism. I find religion no more than documented superstition. I do. Your mileage may vary.
But, when you make fantasy games, you accept the conceit that religion is essential. It heals you. It buffs you. Sometimes it makes you a badass. While wizards are the wacky materialists of their age, plucking strange energies from the Multiverse and shaping it to their will, priests promise something more. They offer salvation and succor in return for a degree of subservience. Do what I want, and I’ll help your people—be it an adventuring party or a community.
But that hasn’t always been the case in fantasy roleplaying games. While religion, and especially the cleric class, have been a part of D&D since the Men & Magic, earlier versions of religion and their priests really were conceits and sometimes strange ones.
Given that D&D came out of a medieval wargaming tradition, the cleric was based on Odo of Bayeux, that strange antihero from the Bayeux Tapestry. The story at the time was that Odo was forbidden by God or the pope to shed blood, so he wielded a club at the Battle of Hastings and any time he needed to fuck someone up. While some historians debate that story today, it had its effect on the game.
Clerics in the early game were not allowed to use edged weapons, but they could wear armor and shields. In return, they also had spells, but their spells were not as offensive as that of the magic-user. The 26 spells on the cleric spell list nearly entirely came from biblical myth, from the ability to cure light wounds to turn sticks to snakes. As the game grew, there was a slow and eventual shedding of biblical myth with the creation of new gods and pantheons on various worlds, but the core of the cleric class stayed somewhat saddled within Judeo-Christian myth for a long while.
But as time went on, the cleric and its cleaving to biblical stories started to take its toll. The rest of the game sidestepped Christian myth. Deities and Demigods presented a host of ancient and fictional pantheons, and the Greyhawk setting presented its own group of gods, demigods, and hero deities. Dragonlance come along, and while it has the whiff of Mormonism in its story, it had its own pantheon of gods. And it was that setting that eventually started the push for diversity for clerics. Dragonlance Adventure split the cleric class into three—the clerics of good, neutrality, and evil. It introduced the priestly spheres to split up the cleric spell lists and give each cleric a bit of flavor based on their deity’s interest. This would continue on throughout the game, finding one of its more exciting manifestations in a trio of Forgotten Realms supplements—Faiths & Avatars, Powers & Pantheons, and Demihuman Deities. The solution was a little nuts, but it was fun. While they kept clerics, each god had a specialty priest with its own set of rules, as well as all sorts of information about the church, dogma, worshipers, and stats for the gods themselves. In the campaigns I played and ran that used these rules, clerics just about became a thing of the past. Anyone who wanted to play a deity worshiper found more flavor (and often more power) within the specialty priest section for their favorite deity.
Of course, there was a downside to this method of presenting religion. It took up nearly 600 pages of tiny typeface on crammed pages. While the amount of flavor was fun for some, it could amount to homework for many who just wanted to get on with it and play the game. Because while players like options, they tend to do better when those options are slightly more digestible.
Later incarnations of clerics utilized spheres that didn’t restrict but added to their spell lists, granted a little extra power. Clerics were given additional healing abilities that could either be used instead of their spells or on top of their spells to give each priest a bit more oomph and diversity without spoiling a player’s desire to sometimes being more than a medic. Different support classes were created, clerics were designed, redesigned, and designed again. Hell, I remember a couple of card-side designers at Wizards of the Coast making a half-hearted pitch to remove clerics from the game or make it a kind of celestial bot that floated above the party, zapping the characters with healing so clerics could do other things. With the prevalence of cheap cure light wounds wands in the 3.5 versions of the game, some of those guys sort of got their wish, as that handy and inexpensive stick started to take up the healing role. Others complained that the diversity added to the cleric over time and that they could heal an entire party made them overpowered, creating complete parties of various clerics and tearing down dungeons to prove their point. In just about every edition of the game, one of the first questions asked is, “how can we fix the cleric?”
When designing the priest class for Delve, I didn’t really want to fix the cleric. Because of the non-Vancian method for spellcasting used by the game, and with the addition of the Essence attribute, I really didn’t have a problem with endless healing. I could make healing fairly robust and scalable without making the characters invincible. Given that I had already decided that the potion of healing was going to a relatively inexpensive item, I even had an essential fix for those parties that chose to go healer-less. The mix of these two design points allowed me to add healing without cannibalizing other things I wanted the Delve priest class to do—to be champions of divine causes. And I liked that diversity to mirror the imagination of the game master.
I did want all priests to have some similarities. Each had a religion. While all faiths had goals, they also all had common enemies. All religions see both undead and Chaos as anathema. The undead takes themselves out of the Cycle of Souls, which every god sees as hugely important due to vast by still finite soul energy that’s awash in the Multiverse. In the religious view, Chaos is nothing more than the destruction of life, the Multiverse, and ultimately all souls, so they are fuckers too. Of course, each religion has other enemies of the faith, which just adds flavor and story to their own particular form of divine perfection. Religions tend to grant a core of spells to most priests. Some may be forbidden for some reason or the other, but these are few and far between and make sense to the narrative. But every faith has its own secrets—its own spells, talents, and divine allies which are not shared with other religions. And of course, each religion has its own sacred text, favored weapons, divine symbols, dogmas, ethics, and goals. In short, each priest you have is of a type, but with its own toys that often make them play differently. In some ways, each is a specialty priest of old but easier to manage set of variables.
There are some challenges. When each god, pantheon, or sect has a set of powers, those powers must be designed. But in the end, I think that’s the middle ground that makes each priest unique without having to take a class for each one or falling back on the abstraction of spheres. For the Delve Proto, I designed four religions. The first is Kuthberd of the Kugel, an unyielding deity of piety and law. Priests of Kuthberd are a sort of mix of a stern Catholic schoolmaster and an overzealous cop enhanced by divine power. Kuthberd’s counterpoint is Vindri the Green Knight, a protector of the innocent and a bastion of freedom and good. Maybe a counterpoint to both of those gods is Vyra, Lady Treachery, a god who is typically appeased rather than worshiped but has a seeming soft spot for orphans and lost causes. Standing outside this jumble are the Seven Regents of the Dwarves—the ancestors and protectors of those people whose chief concern is the welfare of their progeny. Of course, this is just the start. It gives a template for how individual Delve Masters and later works can expand religions and their priests (and later paladins) in a manageable and expandable way.