Cleric - religion in fantasy games

[Update 18-04-2020]
This class has been renamed Priest to better reflect it's unique nature in comparison to the classic D&D-ish Cleric.
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A long tradition of roleplaying games has defined a set of unspoken but clear assumptions on how the Cleric class should work in play, and by extension has shaped how such games deal with fantasy religion in general. Fantasy World defies these expectations. In this article I would like to explain how and why. Obviously anything I say about religion in the real world comes with a big glowing IMHO on top of it; I’m talking about my personal experiences and observations, and how they shaped the design of the Cleric in FW.

Religion -vs- Politics

Belief in an unknowable divine presence is religion.

Belief in a person is politics.

The approach to religion found in the vast majority of fantasy games is that gods are unequivocally real and very much vocal in expressing their divine will. You never doubt that your god exists. You never doubt what your god wants. You never doubt how to worship your god. If you have access to the magic juice bestowed by your god, then you have tangible proof that whatever you are doing must be ok and according to divine will. When you do wrong, your god will express displeasure in no ambiguous terms: games abound with gods that communicate clearly and directly what they want and how they want it done. Normal people in general (NPCs) can, for cosmetic and plot-device reasons, fall temporarily into patterns of belief and doubt more similar to those of our real world, where they "doubt" and "don't know" stuff about the deity they worship... but eventually they will get proof and clarification, either by the deity themselves or by one of the people with a privileged line of divine communication, such as the Cleric protagonist.

Because of this structure the Clerics in fantasy games are not religious figures but rather, for all intents and purposes, political supporters, doing propaganda for their chosen brand of divine leadership. Faith and belief are only involved in the choice of one religion over another, exactly like we do for political parties. It is a matter of core values, convenience, shared goals and credibility. Not faith. Not belief. Not religion. In the Fantasy World wiki page where the Cleric class is introduced I briefly analyse the gameplay effect of this approach:

In most fantasy games playing the Cleric is comfortable: you as a Player want to do X or portray Y, so you choose/create a god that fits, encourages and supports that line of action. Your Cleric never questions or doubts their faith, as every step of the way they find reassurance and confirmation that what they do is (in their god's perspective) righteous and just.

This is ok. This is valid. This is good, solid, escapist fun.

But this... this is not religion as we know it. In our real world, in our real life, we have no tangible and conclusive proof of the existence of any divine entity. Belief is a choice that get tested every day:

  • do I believe that [insert deity] exists?
  • do I believe that what the books and priests say is actually [insert deity]’s will?
  • do I believe that what I am doing and how I am doing it meets [insert deity]’s approval?
  • do I see the hand of [insert deity] in the events of my life? The good and especially the bad ones?
  • do I believe in [insert deity]’s plan and accept even the worst things that come my way?

I find this internal struggle to be deeply human, dramatic, and fascinating. That’s why the design of Fantasy World makes a deliberate effort to offer (a pale shadow of) this kind of experience, rather than a traditional power fantasy. The tool I use for such purpose is the careful crafting and wording of the Cleric’s moves.

The architecture of doubt

On the one hand, the Cleric wields undeniable power.

Some of it is of a social nature, as the Cleric is part of an official religious cult, a church with followers, resources, dogmas, allies, enemies, etc. And of course the charm and allure of rituals and traditions grant to the officiant a certain degree of personal clout and authority. But then the Cleric’s power is also supernatural, allowing them to work miracles and perform prodigious acts. The catch is that magic exists already in the world. It doesn’t take a “god” to cough up a spell-like effect. Do the Cleric’s powers come from their deity, or from within, or from some other arcane source? The game does not say, it is a point left open to interpretation and debate. Miracles? Eh, not a proof of anything.

Another important detail is that no Move ever brings into play the deity in a direct and unambiguous way. 

The deity never “speaks”.

The deity never “acts”.

The deity never “judges”.

At every opportunity the text turns the question towards the Cleric: what do you think? what do you believe? how do you feel? The Cleric has to actively look for signs, patterns, meaning in the events happening around them. Let’s look at a few practical examples...

Signs and Portents is at the core of the Cleric class, literally asking the Player to find their divinity’s touch in the world around them. The World player is not telling anything to the Cleric, there is no external voice whispering at the Cleric's ear.

Anathema is another perfect example. The Cleric wields real power, it is obvious and tangible... but often their violence will be questioned. Is this their god’s will? Or are they harbouring doubt in their heart? Can they see why their actions are good/bad? Or do they hear only silence? And if so, what does this mean for their faith?

By God Anointed offers protection to those who pray to the Cleric’s god but the actual effects, although real and concrete, will often look like a fortuitous coincidence and only sometimes they will look like divine intervention. Again the text never states that something IS divine, just that it LOOKS LIKE. Mechanically it makes no difference, but the play experience is influenced by the lack of "official confirmation".

Guidance makes the Player reflect on their character’s fears and asks them to formulate by themselves a way forward. It also offers a hefty reward in exchange for bringing personal spiritual drama to the table. And yes, it also allows them to get genuine guidance from outside but, given the context established by the rest of this Move (and by all the other Moves), it should not feel the same as it would in a more power-fantasy-oriented game. It's more of a reminder that, at any point in the game, if a Player is at a loss for words they could and should ask other Players for suggestions and help.

Good intentions

I am aware that this design could be seen as a harsh criticism of religion, where the “believer” is a person hallucinating a divine imaginary friend. But this is only one way to look at it, and it is definitely not my intention. I am sorry if the way I convey my ideas is not adequate to touch this subject with the care and diplomacy it deserves.

Instead I hope to make clear that this design is not a critique, but rather a tool to evoke at the table a specific feeling and play experience. My aim is to help Players play a deep and multifaceted character, with a vibrant relationship with the things they believe in. Not a passive follower, not a brazen “religious wizard”, but a person of genuine faith, a person that can get great strength and hope from their beliefs but has to daily choose them over doubt and despair.

By questioning and obfuscating the very existence of whatever gods might be present in the (implied and emergent) Fantasy World game setting I hope to actually give them back the aura of awe and mysticism that many “squabbling immortals” from other games have (to my eyes) irremediably lost.

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