Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kill the Cleric, Keep the Paladin; or Measuring Classes by Characteristic Function

Many moons ago, back when the OSR was convulsed with whether or not the Thief class had any business being in the game, I declared a policy of Keep the Thief; Kill the Cleric.  That particular debate seems to have been rather settled now, with Thieves pretty comfortably ensconced in Ye Auld Game once again and I have been pretty happy without Clerics.  And then Fr. Dave and Roger the GS have to go muddying the waters again.

First, Fr Dave points out that the concept of the Biblical Prophet makes a good model for the Cleric.  Then, Roger picks up the idea and runs with it.  And it's all sounding pretty darn good if you happen to run a game in which there is some kind of good deity who gives miracles to his chosen ones.  Which isn't appropriate for a lot of the more Sword & Sorcery approach that a lot of the OSR favours, but I think Fr. Dave has shown how you can get the two to mesh if you want.

All of this made me remember what I was doing right before I killed the poor Clerics.  I was rather down on them, but hadn't yet erased them from existence when I started the Onderland Campaign and I had a player who wanted to run one.  So, I made a rather simple little change that worked wonders for me: I changed the name from "Cleric" to "Champion" (I chose Champion, incidentally, so that I could still use the abbreviation "C").  Having made the name change, the idea followed:

Certain individuals feel the call of the Higher Powers and dedicate themselves to becoming holy warriors for their chosen cause. These people are Champions. Examples include the original Knights Templar, the historical Assassins, the literary Paladins of Charlemagne, and the more romantic notions of the Round Table Knights. Their modes of action may differ – some Champions seek to convert the unbelievers, others attempt to aid the faithful (sometimes, even the unfaithful), whiles still others see themselves as defenders of some institution or ideal. 
A 1st level Champion is a person who feels that they are called by some Higher Power to embark upon a life of crusading. Upon reaching 2nd level, their calling is verified by the acquisition of miraculous abilities (divine spells). Thus, Champions can only be aligned with Law or Chaos, the two powers of the cosmos. Only humans can become Champions; other species lack the peculiar crusading zeal of humans. 
While some Champions are ordained priests, many are not. Conversely, the vast majority of priests are Normal Men. Champions appear from all walks of life: peasants, merchants, and kings. While many Champions join an order of like-minded peers, they need not do so.

My model was obviously medieval, rather than the Biblical, but the idea of the Champion is pretty similar to that of the Prophet as Fr. Dave and Roger are discussing (which is not me claiming any precedence or anything; they have done a much better job of it anyway).  I realize now I should have mentioned Joan of Arc in my description for a variety of reasons, such as illuminating the gender opportunities and providing a great example of a Champion who is at cross-purposes with the clergy.

What I still don't like about the Champion is the matter of clerical spells.  There is something conceptually off-putting to me about clerical spells.  It feels wrong on a gut level.  But, more than that, it feels wrong on a game design level.  To illustrate that, I'm going to engage in some analysis of class design in YAG.  What I'm analyzing is characteristic function; that is, what the class does that defines it.  How I'm going to analyze it is by measuring the characteristic function in two ways: variety and frequency.

Let's start with the Fighter.  In plain language, his characteristic function is hitting things (usually with weapons, but not always); that is his raison d'être from a design perspective.  Although one may hit something in a variety of ways with a variety of means, the Fighter's function nevertheless is low on the variety scale; it's all, essentially, of a kind.

The Wizard's characteristic function is to make magic (generally, though not exclusively, by casting spells).  And the essential nature of magic in YAG is that it is totally and completely incoherent.  What I mean is that you can't reduce YAG's spell lists into any kind of neat and tidy order.  It is what frustrates every attempt I have ever seen to render the spells via an effects-based (and thus logical) mechanic.  Spells do so many different things in the game and Wizards get access to them in no logical order.  Even spell level is a kludge at most: Charm Person is a ridiculously powerful spell that remains ridiculously powerful throughout the game.  Sleep is equally, if not more effective at 1st level, but quickly loses most of its utility in an adventuring environment.

It might not be too much to say that the Wizard's function is to be varietous; in any case, we can safely say that his function measures very high in that area.

But, when we turn to frequency, the tables are turned.  Wizards are severely limited in the number of times they may use their spells; they are similarly limited by scrolls, wands, etc.  Fighters, on the other hand, can theoretically hit things all day long.  There are some common-sense limits to that, of course, and Hit Points provide a sort of practical limit (assuming the thing being hit can hit back), but, in theory, the hitting can go on forever.

So the two classes, Fighter and Wizard, measure on the extremes of the two scales being used.  This suggests that one way to design a third class would be to have one that measures near the middle on both scales.  That's not the only way to do it, but if you crave symmetry in design the way I do, it makes sense.

Traditional Clerical spells certainly fit somewhere between Wizard spells and hitting things on the variety scale, being much more limited in scope than sorcery, but wider than the Fighters options.  Still, I think they hew closer to the Wizard than is symmetrical.  And they are, depending upon the edition you play, at least as limited in frequency as Wizards.

But leaving the Cleric where I had already consigned him, we come upon his successor, the Paladin. As I wrote in that original post, "I’d argue that the role [of the Cleric] is so nebulous that even Gary and folks didn’t get it, because the Paladin came about very quickly and that class is much more aligned with Archbishop Turpin and the Knights Templar and whatnot."  When I wrote that, I was advocating dumping Clerics rather than using Paladins, but now I'm reading it differently.  The nice thing about the Paladin is that his powers are less varietous than the Wizard's spells, but can be used more often.  The bad thing about the Paladin as written, is that he has no real characteristic function, being more of a Fighter-Plus than his own thing.

But we don't have to go that way.  Look at Roger's One-Sheet for Priests and substitute "Paladin" or "Champion" or "Prophet".  And things begin to look mighty symmetrical to me.  Also, notice the beauty of Roger's Abjure Evil ability.  I think that is the best iteration of Turning that I have ever seen, being infinitely more representative of the source materials (Peter Cushing never disintegrated any vampires with his cross in the films I saw) and subtly asking the Referee to think I a bit about his world (what constitutes an "evil being"?  It will vary from campaign to campaign and that's good).

Finally, it occurs to me that all of the above may have even wider application.  Because if you are hewing to the measurements I have used above, nothing actually requires that your third class be a spiritual warrior.  On the one hand, many iterations of the Thief fit into this scheme just as well (more characteristic variety than the Fighter, but less frequency, albeit due more to practicalities than game mechanics); but, on the other hand, so could something like a Jedi (somebody posted a B/X Psychic Knight class, once; I thought it was JB, but I guess I misremembered so no link).  And nothing says you can't have all three - Thief, Champion, and Jedi - in your game.  That's still symmetrical, so it's cool.


  1. Thanks for the tip o' the hat. My one point of disagreement here is, I think Prophets are also a good approach for a Sword & Sorcery version of a monotheistic religion. If you don't see that whole statement as an inherent contradiction, then Prophets are individuals with a clear link to the divine and miraculous, but are not necessarily goodly, pure or sane. In fact, examples to the contrary abound. And just imagine a whole town square of Prophets, each one demonstrating, prophesying, and claiming that all the other prophets' gods are frauds and demons. That smacks of S&S to me.

  2. I get what you're saying and agree it can work. Although I don't think I'm the man to do so. To me, the nature of the Prophet's powers (healing, abjuring evil) imply that he is plugged into something good with an active interest in human beings; and an active, morally good deity is, to me, a contradiction in terms in an S&S cosmos.

  3. Grant it, I am going to have a morally good deity in my own games, and the following work best if understood in that context, but you can still take biblical examples that can justify something that gets close to what you might be after.

    Remember, there is Balaam, a Gentile prophet who was wiling to be paid in order to prophesy against the people of God. In addition, there is the girl possessed of a spirit that follows around Paul shouting at him while he was in Philippi. Paul eventually exorcised the spirit, meaning it was a kind of demon. There are others...

  4. "How does he cast out demons, except by the Prince of Demons?" That passage indicates a prevailing, cynical view of prophets in New Testament times, that could certainly be true of some. And healing doesn't have to be morally good any more than medicine does ... it all depends on who you heal ... who you don't heal .. and how much you charge for the service. A very interesting character could emerge out of a prophet who isn't plugged into an "active, morally good deity."

  5. All fair. Again, Lost Colonies shows that you can put S&S with a morally good deity, but there's no way I could run that game. I guess I could see morally-neutral healing if you play up the "healing as inspiration" idea. But, you guys go nuts on it; let's see it in play!