I see a lot of clerics played really, really badly, regardless of system or alignment. It pains me to see an entire class maligned over and over. Whether a cardboard super villain or a wooden do-gooder, it’s as much about the role-playing chops of the player as it is knowing what you’re playing—and not making everyone else wince at you under-utilizing your stats.
Be the Bishop
I suck at chess. I have faith I may be capable of sucking less at it, but it’s going to be awhile. Till then, I appreciate how awesome the pieces look like while my family kicks my butt across the board. Divine class characters have things they’re amazing at. And the stuff they are not so amazing at. I have seen more cleric characters try to be everything but the class they are than be actual clerics. I’m good with character growth. I do not scorn multi-classing. But there’s a line between that and needing to ask yourself, “Do I want to play a Barbarian more?”
Clerics and other divine characters have a pipe line to the Powers Upstairs (or Way Below The Stairs), a complex relationship with the undead, and walk a pretty bad ass path through the world. They have their strengths (and a variety of supernatural weaknesses.) Their life on the dusty roads of the world or among the stars are touched by their faith—even imperiled by their chosen godly allegiances. The stats on your sheet are a reflection of what clerics are put in the world to do and face, as well as the ways you wish to excel or risk failure the day your cleric’s path against their foes come to head. The first steps in playing a cleric well is
- accept your stats
- strategize how to put them to use for your character and your party
- figure out the story behind those numbers
We’re On a Mission From the Lord
Clerics are people, a particular attribute I see a lot of people forget at the table. How they interpret their Divine calling and powers is influenced by their deity, the company they keep, their personal ethics. One of my favorite write ups on clerics is in the first edition of Dungeon World. One short paragraph, but it leaves the distinct impression of being impossibly confident and stubborn. Whether good or evil, clerics have the capability of being secure in their faith.
But faith is different from religion, or how religion runs its house, as it were.
If a priestess of an order hunting unsanctioned witches harbors doubt that their witch hunt is just, she hasn’t necessarily rejected her deity or her alignment. But she has demonstrated that the feelings, opinions and actions of a cleric are not necessarily rigid. It’s easy to watch rigid slide into caricature, which is why I encourage you to explore just what your cleric’s limits are when you have the opportunity. Will she obey her order, or will she start a secret underground to help these people escape to a safer country? Climb the ranks to change the order from within? Or does she rebel, and start a holy war against her own order?
In Dark Heresy, there’s that potential of being seduced by the siren call of darker powers in the universe—and the beautiful faces it may wear. For better or worse, being good doesn’t mean perfect, unyielding or one-note. Clerics carry the potential for incredible inner strength; whether they choose the sword or a prayer, clerics of deities perceived as fair and good walk a very hard road.
One of my favorite Divine character types are the Blessed, in Deadlands. In a Wild West full of nightmares, they are a holy-touched force capable of turning back the tides of Hell itself—or a militant scourge against anyone they see as against their Blessed mission. The Blessed faith is both a strength, and a big fat target on their back’s.
Under Darkest Skies
The deities written as dark, morally ambiguous or outright merciless get characterized opposite of the unyielding Goody Two-Shoes cleric. They get the innocents-sacrificing, murder thirsty adherent in black robes with the nearly unending cup of mindless cultists.
Some of the most fascinating villains started as “the good guys.” In one of the oldest examples, the concept of the Fallen, angels who rebel against their Heavenly master and are cast down, have been fertile ground for centuries. They see a reasonable amount of play in role-playing games as well. (In Nomine, and They Became Flesh are fun examples.) The Fallen from the grace of the Divine don’t stop being important players in the world—they just stopped being on the Divine’s side.
Serving a Dark Master doesn’t necessarily equal a campaign to end the world. Toppling the status quo, placing your Powers Below The Stairs into #1 on the Gods ladder, or spreading the painful wisdom of your religion across the realms are all on the table. If you’re playing a character that you can hold up to the average morals of the world, and say “Yeah, she’s a villain,” there’s something else to keep in mind.
Every villain is the hero of their own story. They have reasons for what they do, and as a Divine character, feel called to pursue that destiny.
Now, on the less ‘call ‘em evil’ side are deities that sow chaotic elements or throw unpredictable champions into the world.
One of my favorite gods that isn’t pure as driven snow is The Traveler, in Eberron. Journeying among the races of Eberron in ever changing guises, his gifts are ones to be wary of. Unrelated to the other Gods, he is One Shifty Dude, but a deity with many faithful among those who accept change: be it of their shape or their world. The Traveler isn’t the kind of deity to just tip his hand, even to his faithful. He’s not the kind of deity most people want to invite in for tea.
If you play Eberron? You should invite him in for tea. You’ll never what gifts he’ll bring you.
Moral of the story: ponder your stat, attributes and connections. Consider your place in your party and the greater world. Regardless of system or alignment, the Divine has reached out its hand and touched you with a finger.
It’s up to you to figure out which one.
Have a favorite divine class, deity or pro-tip on playing those touched by greater forces than their world? Want to give a shout-out love to a favorite divinely touched character (good, evil or otherwise) in fiction? Tell me about it in the comments!