Following on from my recent post about the portrayal of religion in games, I thought that I’d get some hooks together on the subject. All too often, the poor old cleric is treated as some glorified paramedic and undead-repellent, with nary a thought for the social structures into which he must – by virtue of his role as a priest of the church – fit. I’ve already mentioned my idea of a threefold split in the functions of clerics into healers, spiritual warriors and temple administrators and may flesh that out in a post one day but this post is for those DMs who want to give the clerics in their campaigns a bit more to chew on when it comes to fleshing out their characters.
It should be noted that where I refer to “the church” I’m intending it to mean the dominant religion of that area, country, kingdom. Although there are some subtle (and in places much less than subtle) nods to incidents in our world’s history, no-one should take offence, because I’m certainly not giving it.
1) There’s been a war in heaven and power has changed hands. The souls of those who worshipped the old regime have been exiled into their old corpses who now rise from the graves. They are not malevolent, merely desperate for life again and will do anything to hold onto it. As can be imagined, the new regime’s clerics are not too happy with heretic zombies walking the earth, whilst the old regime’s clerics, low on power and devoid of the high-level spells they need, will do anything to regain power and restore their gods.
Enter the hapless party.
2) After a long and bloody war, in which both sides are exhausted, the sudden appearance of a cleric preaching forgiveness and reconciliation is very persuasive. That the cleric also preaches letting humanoids into the folds of the church is somewhat less orthodox but strangely enough, the humanoids are going for it – perhaps they’re fed up with war and have bought into the forgiveness message as well. Or perhaps they’re using it as an infiltration method. The DM must decide and the party must try to work it out.
A split within the humanoid ranks could be very interesting to play, especially as there will now be nice orcs and nasty orcs – both visually indistinguishable. Humanoid missionaries? Humanoid clerics of peace and forgiveness?
This won’t make the “only good orc is a dead orc” militants very happy either. Such subtleties are perhaps a little beyond them.
3) The new hierarch of the church is determined to stamp his mark on the faithful and that means rooting out corruption and venality lock stock and barrel. However, his latest scheme has raised more than a few eyebrows. To obtain closure on the previous incumbent, the new hierarch wants to put him on trial and condemn him formally by the church’s rules. Unfortunately, he died at least two years ago. This does not seem to bother the hierarch – he wants the man resurrected so that he can face justice. The party is hired to track down the body and bring it back for the ceremony to take place.
(such a thing really happened – google The Cadaver Synod to find out more and check out the picture!)
4) A very rich man has had a spiritual experience and decided that he needs to go on a pilgrimage to a distant shrine. He needs the party to provide escort. However, his family (or at least certain elements of it) are worried that when he gets there, his spiritual renaissance will be confirmed and he will tithe large sums of money to the church. They want him dead before he gets there. The church, on the other hand want him to arrive in one piece but wish to ensure that he is not disenchanted by the time he does. They will pay the party to keep the spiritual flame alive by staging some minor miracles or fortuitous happenings on the way and then making sure that something life-affirming and significant happens at the other end.
5) A miracle has occurred in the city – not only did a petitioner become cured at the shrine of the Goddess of Healing but a surge in spiritual energy has cured everyone within a mile’s radius of all that ailed them and as that area included at least two cemeteries, the dead not only walk the earth but are looking warm, vibrant and healthy.
All of this has led to a flock of pilgrims and new worshippers to the shrine and a surge in power for the Goddess of Healing. Cure spells work with double effect, the dead can be raised to a state of spiritual bliss and none of the new worshippers seems to be sick or ill in any way.
Surely this can only be good news for the city?
Er, well, no, not exactly. At the same time as the Goddess of Healing became Number One, the Gods of War and Valour slid down the chart. Denuded of followers who now view any violence as heretical, they can no longer provide holy powers for their clerics. Added to that is the fact that a war has been threatening for some months and seems ever more imminent and this means the city is wide open.
The clerics of War and Valour need to redress the balance somehow before it’s too late and that’s where the party come in. They may need to find a new disease which the Goddess cannot cure or perhaps work out a way of strengthening the hand of the Gods of War and Valour. Either way, it’s a tough call.
6) The party is hired by a bunch of mystics and astrologers who have heard that a long-lost deity is due to be reborn in a distant land. They need to get the mystics there, wait around while they authenticate the birth and – if it turns out to be true – protect the child from the insanely insecure potentate and his crack assassins who will doubtless be on the warpath.
The mystics are a bunch of otherworldly hippies who refuse to believe that anyone could wish harm to the child and will frown on shows of force, weaponry, etc, believing in their pseudo-philosophical arguments to win the day.
7) A relic of the church has been lost for centuries but now clerics believe that they have found clues as to its resting place – right under the main temple of a rival religion. Faction within the church have been struggling over what to do and now the “attack it, take it, burn it, level it and then start digging” faction is edging ahead. The more subtle elements within the church need the party to break in, find the relic and get out without starting a major religious war. Needless to say, the temple is protected by some fearsome safeguards.
8) The gods have spoken – their church is corrupt and the hierarchy must abase itself and go on a pilgrimage clad in sackcloth and ashes to atone for its greed and venality. Except that they’re not going to do that and need the party to discredit the revelation which says so. Unfortunately, the person to whom the revelation was vouchsafed is a very pious and well-liked individual whose reputation is more or less impeccable.
9) Someone has appeared who claims to be the long-awaited Chosen One. Miracles seem to be in plentiful supply but is he who he says he is, and if not, how is he doing his stuff? The party must try to find out for the established church whilst avoiding the zealous mobs and running the risk of being converted themselves.
10) Gold has been found in the lands inhabited by a confederation of tribes. To shift them would take a long military campaign and a lot of expenditure so the King has turned to the church to see if they can move in, convert the natives and somehow appropriate the lands. However, the natives have some quite impressive gods and shamans and the church is going to have its work cut out to convert them. So the party needs to come up with a solution – kill the shamans, eradicate the gods or just discredit them?
11) A suspiciously large amount of relics are issuing forth from an area recently conquered by the military. The vast majority are fake and are undermining the credibility of the church. However, some seem to be real; the party are hired by the church to head into the area and find out where the fakes are coming from and also to see what the source is for the real relics and if it can be secured by the church.
12) A local cleric has started to preach heretical doctrines but oddly enough his powers have not dried up. Church investigators sent to stop him have disappeared without trace and now the church wants the party to find out exactly what is going on and put a stop to it.
(the cleric may have been seduced by another god who is ‘spiritually funding’ him so that he does not lose his powers. The cleric is trying to win followers over to the heretical sect he aims to start and then use their backing to strengthen his god and mount a take-over bid for the church)
13) A senior cleric has declared that anyone bearing arms except in the service of the church is a danger and must be eradicated. The party have two choices – convert or disarm. The church has several practices and doctrines that are going to make a party’s life tricky and of course they would then be at the beck and call of the church and sent off to fight holy wars. There is also the constant threat of being denounced as heretics.
14) Either a kidnap or robbery has put a person or precious object in the hands of a cult which controls a city in a foreign land where things are very different and strangers would stand out like a sore thumb. The party is offered large sums of money/coerced/blackmailed into travelling there, going undercover and infiltrating the cult, rescuing the person/object and getting out again.
15) The Queen is distraught – her beloved husband has just died. Into this sad situation, a mendicant priest of a formerly unknown god has come, claiming that he can bring the king back to life but in order to do so, he will need human souls to pay off the God of the Dead. The queen is willing to try anything, as are the supporters of the old King, who fear being ousted by the Crown Prince. The established churches are a bit concerned, to put it mildly about the human sacrifice bit, but they are soon to be put under house arrest by the Queen’s troops as her mystical friend says their services and rituals are interfering with the chances of getting the King back.
The party may find that its cleric is drafted by the church hierarchy to try and work against the mystic, or they may be hired by the Crown Prince and his friends to investigate and put a stop to the goings-on.
16) A king has had a miraculous epiphany on the battlefield and now believes that a particular god saved his life. He is determined to impose this god’s worship on his population. The other religions that previously held sway are very upset by this and are determined to bring the king back to the old ways (they don’t want him dead since he has no heirs as yet and the chaos of a civil war could provoke a take-over by forces unfriendly). They aim to finish off the king’s new spiritual advisor, who is a young ex-slave and follower of the new religion. However, she is protected by some serious spiritual magic and the party are needed to break through her defences so that a gang of assassins can finish her off. This, so they hope, should discredit the new faith in the eyes of the king and leave the way open to restore the old ways.
17) A villain the party are chasing decides to head into the temple of a local deity and claim sanctuary. The clerics refuse the party entry as they are unbelievers. Even if they do manage to get in, powerful magic prevents all acts of violence on the premises.
18) The party is hired to track down the heir to a big estate (or even a noble title or kingdom). However, he’s got religion and has turned his back on the world and entered a religious order. Even if the party can get into the HQ of this order (a tricky job in itself as the entry requirements are quite demanding on ordinary adventurers), they will find that the heir has been sent off to some out-of-the-way place, the jungle, the wilderness, Craggy Island or wherever for spiritual work that the order has deemed good for his soul. The party’s backers need the heir, the order don’t want anyone to leave its ranks, and the heir is still wholly happy-clapping and does not want to go. He may even try to convert the party to his way of thinking.
And there is of course the threat of the wilderness/jungle/island to contend with as well.
19) The High Priest of the church has started behaving rather oddly. He has announced a review of the church’s doctrines, is preaching a message that seems to be undermining the church’s teachings and certain clerics have either been relocated to distant parishes or have ‘gone on a spiritual retreat and cannot be contacted’. New priests who nobody recognises have assumed positions of power. The party and their cleric need to find out what’s going on.
In fact, the High Priest has been replaced by a doppelganger, working for a rival mythos who want to discredit the church and use the resulting chaos to move in. Because of the authoritarian nature of the church, few are questioning the High Priest directly and those who do are falling foul of the inquisitorial courts. Into this atmosphere of fear and paranoia come the party, far more used to killing orcs and taking their stuff.
20) The party is hired to escort a band of rather irritating and obnoxiously pious pilgrims through dangerous territory to their shrine, a temple burrowed into the side of a cliff (again, very hard to get to, although this difficulty is held to be good for the soul). Deductions will be taken from the party’s pay for any pilgrim who doesn’t make it.
This, however, is not the main threat. When the party arrive, they find that other pilgrims already at the shrine are packing up and leaving in droves. The word is that the effigy of the deity has fallen on its face in the holy of holies and other artifacts and relics have become defaced or disfigured by pox or blemishes.
The pilgrims are a hardier bunch than those who are fleeing and try to persuade the party to go with them into the depths of the temple and find out what has happened. If the party seem reluctant, the pilgrims will go in anyway.
The temple has become infected with an evil presence which wants all the pilgrims’ souls and will ‘seal off’ the entrance once they are all in. If the party voyage in with the pilgrims, the presence will view them as a tasty hors d’oeuvre.