The Roving Hospital
It seems that whenever someone plays a cleric, they end up acting as an on-site hospital, healing the other characters after every battle and never really teaching or preaching to others about their religion or following their own religion's creed. This is rampant throughout the gaming industry, both in tabletop and electronic gaming.
A friend of mine read the article that I wrote about thieves and pointed out that Clerics and Priests, especially of the D&D persuasion, were far more likely than thieves to be played cookie-cutter style, by that I mean the same way, every time. It seems that whenever someone plays a cleric, they end up acting as an on-site hospital, healing the other characters after every battle and never really teaching or preaching to others about their religion or following their own religion's creed. This is rampant throughout the gaming industry, both in tabletop and electronic gaming.
Here's a not atypical example:
"So you're a cleric, huh?"
"What does he do?"
"War and stuff."
"Cool: Hey, can you fix my arm? It's broken in six places."
"Sure, hold on a bit:"
Have you ever seen a person play a priest that acted as if they truly believed...
Have you ever seen a person play a priest that acted as if they truly believed in whatever religion they were (supposedly) devout followers of? How about a cleric who didn't have the motivation or ability to heal people? What about a priest who actually preaches religion, or tries to influence people by words or action? In the fifteen years of roleplaying that I've been privileged to, I have seen one person play a priest as the epitome of the religion he served. He played a Shaolin Priest (as opposed to a Christian variant or pre-made fantasy one) and took the time and effort to study the religion and talk to me (the GM) about my views of the religion before playing the priest. He did an awesome job and played one of the most memorable characters that I've ever had the pleasure of running.
Now, I know a lot of you don't like to take the time or effort to create and play a memorable or unique character. As always, my article will piss you off, so either move on or deal with it. If you want to try playing something new, or if you want to play a cleric who is more than just a mobile hospital, then please, read on.
Lets try something. Let's try making up (or picking up) a religion. I'll use examples along the way. First we have to make up the Basic Belief System. This is the idea or basic belief of the religion, some of it's tenets, and some (or all) of it's god(s).
For example, in Christianity the belief is that there is one God, but only through belief in and acceptance of his son Jesus Christ, and Christ's teachings, can one reach heaven in the after-life. The teachings of Christ are told in stories and parables written down in a book called the Bible. The teachings boil down to the following: do not steal (life, property, spouses), respect others, and treat other people as you would like to be treated. If a person obeys these rules (and others) then they will go to a paradise in the after-life referred to as Heaven. If they don't then they will be tortured for eternity in a placed called Hell.
In my sample I want a "good" religion, but I want it centered on death. I'm going to loosely pattern mine off of Norse Mythology and the Mexican Day of the Dead. We'll take Odin, Thor, Hel and Loki as gods and use Valhalla as a heavenly reward. Odin and Thor are the "good" gods. Odin is the God of wisdom, knowledge and the sacrifice made to gain either. Thor is the god of war, battles, and honorable death. Loki is the god of mischief, trickery, and luck. Hel is the god of the underworld, death, and the end of all things. The dead are divided evenly between Odin and Hel. In order to get into Valhalla one must die in combat. Only the best, most honorable warriors will be chosen to go to Valhalla. All the others will be given to Hel to serve her in the underworld. Valhalla is a heaven for warriors. Every morning its inhabitant arise and fight a daylong battle. In the evening all those who have fallen arise and all injuries disappear. Everyone then goes to a mead hall where they feast and boast of their exploits in that day's battle. They are served by warrior women angels called Valkyrie, who also serve as escorts for the dead to reach Valhalla.
Next we have to make up the Religion's Demands. These are the daily and periodic rituals that the faithful must observe. These are also the limitations that the religion places on the worshipper. Muslims have to pray to Allah while facing Mecca three to five times a day. Once during their lifetime, the devout Muslim must journey in a pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslim women are not allowed to show much more than their eyes while in public, to do otherwise is indecent and punishable. They wear veils and baggy clothing to disguise their looks.
In my world, combat must be in close quarters, no missile weapons allowed. Bows and other missile weapons can be used in hunting but not in combat. Armor is for the clumsy, a skilled warrior has no need for armor. Everyone knows how to fight. The people are trained in the martial arts and religion from childhood. Only those who die in combat have a chance to go to Valhalla.
Religious Services are next. This includes church and holidays. The most important holy days in Judaism are the weekly Sabbath, the major holidays of Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Simhat Torah, Passover, and Shavuot, and the minor holidays of Hanukkah, Purim, and Tisha B'Av. I apologize but I couldn't possibly tell you what they do in church or on their holidays, as I don't personally know any practicing Jews.
In my sample however, let's say that daily worship is through prayer. There are no churches although there are schools that teach about the gods along with other things. The minor holidays are the summer and winter solstice, and the first of spring. The one major holiday is based on Mexico's Day of the Dead festival where the worshippers celebrate the memory of their dead.
The last things to make up are the Priests.
The last things to make up are the Priests. These are the teachers of the religion. They teach by word, deed, and example. Jesus told stories called parables, which illustrated his teachings. Mohammed spoke to Muslims in much the same way. The American Indians have Shamans who tell stories of their gods, heroes, animals, and the earth.
In my world I want the priests to be like the Nordic Skalds. Skalds taught their people the history of their race and religion through stories, chants, and song. They also acted as mediators and advisors. I want to give my Skalds total legal enforcement powers. In other words, they act as judge, jury, and executioner in all capital crime cases. I'll also say that although they teach about all the gods, they specialize in one and are granted magical powers from that god. So a Skald for Loki would be granted powers like move silently, luck, and the ability to affect large areas with small acts (like throwing a stone into a still pond).
A character made with this religion would have to be a singer/storyteller, probably be able to play a musical instrument or two, be handy in combat (because they must die in combat in order to go to heaven, but they aren't suicidal), know and understand the laws of their country and have the ability to enforce it, and are granted magical powers based on how much like their god's ideals they act on a day to day basis. Nowhere in the description of the god's, religion, practices, or beliefs does it state that healing is part of this religion.
So you see, your priest is (or can be) much more than a mobile hospital, healing all the other characters for nothing, not doing much else other than turning the occasional undead (although that usually requires true faith:). Your cleric can be a complex, thoughtful, multi-layered addition to your group. As long as you are willing to take the time and effort needed flesh them out. Give it a try and see what happens. My bet would a truly memorable and fun character.
"There was also something panicky and desperate in Usires' high pitched voice, and the puppet's painted, upturned eyes seemed unutterably sad. She turned to find Cadrach looking at her somberly. 'So we labor to build our little dams,' the monk said, barely audible above the shouting throng, 'while the waters rise all around us.' He made the sign of the Tree above his gray vestments." - A scene from Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, Thorn trilogy. A puppet show is being enacted in which the characters of Crexis and Usires (parallels of Satan and Jesus) are symbolic for the struggle of Osten Ard between the mortal population and the Storm King, Ineluki.