I have talked about my atheism on this blog before, and how having a group of kids with similar backgrounds affects their ability to play a Cleric. This season on Game of Thrones one of the continuing story lines involves the conflict of Church and State. The discussion of that has got me thinking about how all of this would come together in playing a Cleric. I think this merits a longer and more in-depth discussion. What role does a Church play in your world? What do most of the members of the clergy do?
The last couple of episodes of Game of Thrones has provoked some ire from a friend of mine. He thinks it is dumb for these Kings and Queens to cede so much power to this new High Septon and his ‘sparrows’, basically church soldiers. He was wondering why they don’t just surround the High Sept with soldiers and set it on fire. Which brought to mind the infamous quote of Josef Stalin:
The Pope! How many divisions has he got?
To which my response would be that the Vatican and the Pope still stand, while the Soviet Union is gone.
It is easy for those of us without any real religious belief, living in our modern age, to laugh at those who believe in religion. Who follow a set of beliefs. And let those beliefs guide their actions, regardless of the consequences or if it might be the most rational approach. But as a student of history, it is a fact that Religion is a much bigger force than some people think. History is full of stories of people performing actions in the name of their god that made no sense in any other fashion. From simply accepting a horrible lot in life as just being the way of the world, to performing vile and terrible deeds in the name of their god. Those of us living in modern, more ‘rational’ times might look down on such thinking but there is no denying its power. Even today the Middle East is a testament to the power of religious beliefs as people use their beliefs to justify a multitude of seemingly irrational actions.
Now let’s add some more points for perspective on this for role playing purposes. Getting back to the Game of Thrones, this is a story world where actual magical things have happened. They may not be as common, especially to those in certain locations. But they do happen. And that has a big effect on religion. It becomes a lot easier to believe in and worship a god when you see a man rise from the dead. Or demon babies are used for assassinations. Or giants and dragons really exist. In that world faith becomes a lot easier.
Added to that is the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. Which means that people find it a lot easier to pray to and believe in a higher power when they are desperate. Well, in a world where technology has effectively stagnated at a high middle ages point, where there is no gunpowder, and the seasons are variable, life can be pretty cheap. When things like infant mortality are probably commonplace, and medical practices are limited in their effectiveness for the majority of people. In that situation, it is generally accepted that people turn to some form of higher power for help or at least some hope of going to a better life after death.
In other words, this (and most fantasy settings) is a setting ripe for the spread of any religion that promises help, and some chance of a better life for those who follow a simple code. Add in the fact that those who are out there proselytizing for their religious beliefs are capable of performing real life ‘miracles’. Given those circumstances, the chances of someone saying the Church has no power makes no sense.
Now let us go into the realities of political power in a feudal society. Specifically, one as advanced as most high fantasy settings. For the most part, these are not literate societies. And what education that is out there comes from the Church, and that education is accompanied by some level of indoctrination. There is no widespread system of modern education. Only the nobility will receive any education outside of the Church.
On top of that, there is often a heavily stratified class system. The very concept of a feudal society, which is the most common in any fantasy setting, is based on levels. Levels of power from the highest power down to the lowest. The lower you were on the totem pole of power the greater the likelihood that you were illiterate, poor, and did not receive much in the way of medical attention.
So, the large mass of people are not educated, poor, and work very hard for a living when they can get it. And in most cases any organized religion will support this political structure. With the Kings claiming power in the name of the gods. And in many cases, the religious scriptures include a large amount of talk of there being a better life if you do not challenge that hierarchy.
One can look to European history to see this. The idea of the mass of people assuming political power did not come without mass education. Mass education did not occur without a weakening or changing of the scripture. And only at the end of all that could you have a political leader challenge a powerful religious leader. I am not referring to a religious schism like Henry VIII, or the Reformation. Because in many cases, those changes did not reverse the political order.
In this type of political system, there is simply no incentive for the political leaders to completely deny the power of the Church. They might encourage changes in the Church leadership. But in no way would they have any reason to simply eradicate a Church or group of church leaders. Especially when the leaders of that Church might be capable of calling down the literal wrath of the gods on that leader.
The biggest thing to take away from all this is that even in a fantasy world, where magic and miracles are relatively common, people still need to eat, sleep and procreate. And most common high fantasy settings are centered around a mostly agrarian economy. There are no John Deere combines or massive irrigation systems. Farming has to be done by hand and hard work. That means that feeding large groups of people takes a lot of people. If you have a large city, there had better be an equally large amount of farmland with a lot of farmers out there providing the food for all those people to eat. That is just basic economics and reality.
So you have a lot of farmers and people who work the land. And most of those people are illiterate. When people work the land the thing they worry about most is the weather. Will the weather allow them to produce enough food to survive and maybe even sell and pay taxes? The next thing to worry about is health. Because you cannot do all that hard work when you are sick, and the work can be dangerous. In most such societies one of the ways to lessen the burden is large families. Large families that will lessen the work burden. And if you want a large family, people worry about fertility.
That means the majority of the people in your world worry about practical things. And will look to religion to solve things like bad weather, illness and fertility issues. That is what they will look to their Clerics and Priests to solve. There may be some people in the cities who worry about a few more things like business luck, or questions of morality. But for the most part, people worry about the simple things.
Now in the midst of all this, you say you want to play a Cleric? I think it is important to realize the role a Cleric or Priest would really play in this society. A priest would be busy almost all the time tending to the needs of their flock. Praying for weather changes, tending to the sick, helping with the issues of fertility. They would not have time to get up and leave. And very little interest in things like gathering treasure or renown.
An adventuring Cleric would have to have some very good reasons for going out and doing anything that does not perform the tasks I have outlined. Sure there are worthy causes like protecting the village from a wandering monster or undead. But for anything beyond a one or two mission job you would have to have a very good reason. It would certainly not be a recommended career or condoned by the Church hierarchy to be spending all of your time wandering around with a group of murder hoboes. Maybe your particular faith demands that you wander around, which is certainly not without historical precedent. It would make sense to fill the role of an itinerant preacher. But at the end of it all, you would still have to do some preaching and ministering to a flock.
What I am arguing for is that a Cleric should be far more than just spellcaster with a different set of spells. You should be concerned about things like the people who follow your god. At the least your adventures should be very mission oriented, you need to go clean out that dungeon because the monsters lurking there are threatening a village. Even an evil Cleric of the Sith would still be out there for some purpose, not just personal gain. If all you care about is personal gain then why play a Cleric? Seems to me that there is almost a point where the players Church would step in and tell the Cleric they must return to their flock.
Given all this I am actually glad that none of the boys wants to play a Cleric. Because it would be very hard to get them to buy into that kind of mindset. And if I do find myself playing a Cleric in a future campaign I will be sure to follow these guidelines.