Saturday, 10 March 2012

Clerics & cosmic powers in Old Aalia

When I was initially thinking about running a Labyrinth Lord campaign, in around December 2010, one of the original conceptions which I wanted to include in the game world was that of "petty gods". (Actually I was originally thinking I'd use the book of that name as the list of deities in the world. I had to come up with my own in the mean time ;)

The concept was that the entities which people name "gods" are highly localised, in no way omniscient or omnipotent, generally alien or non-benign, and that while they may be immortal and may command miraculous magical powers, they are not the kind of beings which can grant the powers which a standard D&D cleric wields. There may be an entity which can bestow gifts of healing, curing diseases, or even raising the dead, but that same entity will have no ability to grant blessings in battle, create light or food or water, detect evil or magic, and so on. In that context the cleric class, with its grab-bag of miraculous biblical abilities, makes no sense whatsoever. So at the dawn of my imagined world it was clear that there would be no clerical adventurers.

Since that original conception it's been a long road of back and forth where clerics are concerned. When the first characters were rolled up I made it clear: the cleric class is out -- you can worship cosmic entities, but there's no concept of a priestly adventuring class. Then for a time I allowed clerics, initially due to not being able to think of a decent way of handling PC healing in the absence of the class. Recently it became once again clear to me however (after there having been two major cleric PCs in the campaign) that the class still really didn't make sense in the setting, that it was preventing me from properly portraying the world I had imagined*, and that I should have stuck with my original feeling -- the clerics had to go!

Now I would never be so dictatorial as to tell a player "your class doesn't exist any more so your character will have to change or retire". I told the cleric's player that his character would not be affected by any changes I might decree, even if it made him the "last of his kind".

However as fate would have it (and it really was fate, lest I be accused of deliberate PCicide!), the party's cleric died a horrible death last session, so the coast is now clear, so to speak. Old Aalia is free of clerics once more!

Now, I realised, I just have to give the players some nice details about what these petty gods of their world are like, and, in the absence of clerics, what they can do for adventurers. I'm going to be using the impetus of the April A-Z challenge to produce a bulk of material to this end. I've also written a short introduction to this topic, which you can read below.

* Pretentious DM-speak, I know :) But when one puts in so much effort to run a weekly game, things like this are important (they are to me anyway)... I want there to be some kind of integrity to the imagined world in which the games are set.

About Cosmic Powers
Commonly given titles such as “gods”, “demon lords”, “arch-devils”, “elemental princes”, “lords of nature”, “animal kings”, “saints” and so on, a vast number of cosmic powers have influence in the world. (When describing these entities and the influence they have, the word “cosmic” is used to imply a connection to vast and fathomless dimensions beyond mortal comprehension. Some cosmic energies also do indeed originate in outer space, but the majority have a terrestrial root.)

The total count of cosmic powers which are worshipped or known to have influence in the world is, despite extensive study, unknown. It certainly reaches into hundreds of thousands. Every known nation of men has many dozens of gods whom it appeases. Every race of demi-humans has its cosmic masters. Great cities are often home to thousands of shrines to different cosmic entities. Powers of limited local influence are venerated in towns, villages and wayside shrines throughout the world. It is thus that even the most favoured of gods in one nation may be completely unheard of in the next.

The variety of nature of cosmic powers is also vast, ranging from cruel and bloodthirsty to abstract and aloof, from benevolent and magnanimous to alien and unfathomable. They typically have an extremely specific and narrow area of interest and dominion, and their range of influence in the mortal world is often very localised, being centred around a location or series of locations in the physical world.

In many places where such beings are found, mortals gather to worship or appease them. Thus, shrines, temples and oracles abound, along with the attendant ranks of priests, cultists and devotees. Such worship takes many forms, as the whims and desires of cosmic powers are many. Some powers are adored for the miraculous blessings they can bestow upon their followers. Others are worshipped rather out of fear of their wrath.

At locations on Earth where only a single cosmic power has influence, this entity is typically worshipped universally by the inhabitants of that region – an example of such a place is the town of Holt, to the south of Harln, where a single cosmic power known as “Vardilli, the spinning god” has dominion. On the other hand, in places – such as the great city of S'raka – where there exist a multitude of cosmic powers, mortals commonly make offerings to a large number of these beings throughout their lifetimes. However in either case, those who devote themselves loyally to a single cosmic power are often promised a great reward upon death – a special paradise being set aside for the faithful.

Those of a less devoted outlook still find dealings with cosmic powers to be beneficial, on occasion. The miraculous energies which emanate from these entities are often sought out, and are, as is the way of things, equally often monopolized by the surrounding priests and cults. Thus, many shrines and temples, especially those found in larger settlements, offer a variety of miraculous services for a price. These services usually take the form of some kind of ritual, wherein members of the priesthood perform certain sacred rites in order to bring forth the power of their cosmic master for the benefit of the paying customer. The price demanded varies greatly, based on the nature, magnitude and rarity of the effects of the ritual. Commonly the price is a simple sum of gold or silver given to support the temple and the priesthood, but some cults may have other demands in addition to or instead of money.

Rituals bring about one-off magical happenings with immediate effect. Rituals of curing, raising the dead and removing curses are some possibilities which are commonly sought by adventurers.

An alternative form of boon can be granted by many cosmic powers – a blessing which has no immediate effect, but which can be called upon at some later date. Again the means of payment and the process involved may vary depending on the whims of the cosmic power involved, or those of its priesthood. Examples of some common blessings which may be of benefit to adventurers are blessings of curing, detection of enemies, success in battle or protection from harm – all to be activated when needed.

Due to some cosmic law which is not fully understood, each person can receive only a single blessing at any one time, which lasts until it is called upon. If a second blessing is sought, it will simply have the effect of nullifying and replacing the previous.


  1. Sounds great Gavin, I am very sympathetic to your prejudice, I look forward to watching this unfold across April. :-)

  2. Awesome. This perfectly summarizes my proto-thoughts on gods for the world i'm running my kids through. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting for me.

    Now if there was just a book compiling a list of petty gods...

  3. I really like the direction your going with this!

  4. Here is an idea that I've been using in my game:

    The cleric class is out, but a holy caster is in. They take the place of a holy man, healer, or prophet while worshiping any god that the player wants. I normally use Roman deities as starting points but in my campaign players can be a part of any number of "mystery religions". Using an example of your's, The Cult of Hegg would be a neat little mystery religion that a player could catch on to and base their character concept on.

    In my campaign, the holy caster works very similarly to your vivimancer. They are a type of Holy mage that shares the same stats as a normal caster but use holy magic (a modified cleric spell list) instead of arcane. They aren't the tradition crusader that an osr cleric, but a more support based class.

  5. I like this approach very much. I've been thinking about small gods also, prompted by the spirits in the Loviatar hexes. This also reminds me of Shinto and Japanese kami.

    The cleric can still work in this environment (though I understand why one still might not want them) if you focus on the itinerant demon hunter aspect of the class. Or, they can be remnants of a one true church, wandering the land and attempting to reclaim souls.

  6. Thanks for the encouraging comments everyone :)

    @brink: "Now if there was just a book compiling a list of petty gods..." Ah indeed... Well, by the end of April I'm gonna have 26 of them, at least! :)

    @Jake: A holy caster is something I've considered in the past as well. This certainly addresses one of the aspects of the class which I'm not keen on, namely that it feels overpowered compared to the other core classes, being more or less a multi-classed fighter/magic-user, and having a very fast XP progression at that. The other aspect I don't like though (and the main thing in this case) is that in this campaign I really want to emphasise the non-omnipotence of the "gods", you know. Each cosmic power can only grant 2 or 3 different blessings (and then only to those who pray at its shrine, not "remotely"), so a full blown cleric class with its complete range of spells and long-distance deity access is out.

    @Brendan: Aha yes you spotted one of the hidden influences in my thoughts here: kami! The campaign has no Japanese / Asian flavour whatsoever, but I do like the shinto concept of worship of localised spirits very much, and felt inspired to run a campaign where that was the focus of deities, rather than the more standard D&D Euro-inspired pantheons etc.

    Yeah a demon hunter cleric would be awesome in a properly Asian setting (possibly with a few of the weirder spells stripped back). In my campaign however we then come to the third thing I don't like about the cleric: their implied goals, morals and social status. It feels like clerics will always have an external goal which isn't shared by the other characters in the party.

  7. Re: kami, some years back I spent 6 months travelling in Japan, and the shrines and temples with their localised spirits were one of the things which impressed me the most and has stayed with me. And now comes out in a D&D campaign... who'd have thought :)


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