Friday, September 11, 2020

Old School Cleric Class - Atheist/BOSR/Folk Horror Variant

Bishop Odo on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Look at him, not shedding blood as he lays about him with a big stick.

Description: You already know what a Cleric is; this is my variation on a BOSR theme. The starting point for this Cleric would be the Canterbury Tales, rather than the Song of Roland - it pre-supposes a less heroic, less magical setting.

A Cleric either belongs to the hierarchy of the Universal Church or is a devotee of the True Faith - the two are not mutually exclusive. 

This class assumes that the Church, Faith and God are significant background features of the setting - I'm starting from a medieval/early modern Eurocentric perspective.

XP, Saving Throws, Attacks & Hit Dice: all as Cleric.

Prime Requisite: equal chance (roll d6) of Charisma, Intelligence or Wisdom, and usual benefits/penalties - but you do this after you've rolled your Ability Scores and chosen Cleric as your class.

Whether you truly believe in the Church and in God or not is immaterial to being a Cleric - it's whether or not God believes in you.

Armour: Any.

Weapons: You are forbidden to shed blood Any.

Alignment Restrictions: None, but whatever you do is always Lawful Good.

Peter Cushing as Gustav Weil in Twins of Evil (1971).
Just as much a Cleric as Abraham Van Helsing.

Special Abilities.

Authority/Influence (Preaching): As long as you can be understood by your audience, you can attempt to sway them by the power of your words, the force of your personality, your training in rhetoric, the promise of salvation, the threat of damnation: they must save vs. paralysis (take an average for a group) at -1 for every 3 levels you have, or move one step up or down the Reaction Roll table in your favour. 

You can't normally attempt this during combat - too noisy, no-one's listening, they've already made up their mind. 

Those who are already hostile to the Cleric make their save with advantage, or any adjustments deemed appropriate to the subject and situation. Depending on your setting and play-style, some audiences may never be susceptible to the Cleric's words. You can't use this on other PCs, and to use it on their followers could be taken as an insult or attack.

You can use this three times in a row on the same audience. If it's three successes, you might gain a convert/follower; three failures, and they might run you out of town (or worse).

Be creative with your interpretation of this ability - it's not just about making people better disposed towards you.

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General (1968).
Absolute arsehole.

Recognise Evil: A Cleric will be able to recognise the gross and subtle works of Evil, either through arduous study, by unshakeable belief, or from luxuriating in corruption. 

However, unlike a spell or Paladin's detect evil, this is a narrative rather than mechanical ability - sometimes the Cleric just needs to point and say "That's Evil" for that thing to be so. 

For example, Brother Cadfael will diagnose a mere mundane pimple and troubled minds, while Matthew Hopkins will diagnose the teat with which ye suckle that which come by shroud of night.

Clerics do not, as a group or as individuals, mutually agree on the things that are Evil - sometimes with campaign-upsetting consequences. As a rule, their definitions of Evil usually include elves, spells, Magic Users, and significant differing cultural/religious/social beliefs.

Edward Woodward as Sergeant Howie in The Wickerman (1973).
He knows Evil when he sees it.

Warding (Turn Undead/Supernatural): Present a holy symbol, trace a circle of power, scatter holy water, swing a smoking censer, chant prayers of exorcism - you can do this against any supernatural entity, not just Undead.

Roll 2d6, and on a 7 or better, the entity will not approach closer than 10' and cannot attack the Cleric or anyone within 6' of them, for d6 turns (during which you must maintain the ward). Do it three times in a row, and they must depart (min. 6 hours). Fail three times in a row and you can't ward again that day.

If the entity has a score of 9 + (HD x0.5) greater than the Cleric's Prime Requisite, the 2d6 roll is made as 3d6D1 to the Cleric's disadvantage.

You can't do anything else while you're warding, except slow movement, cautious or guided - and you can be interrupted by unaffected creatures. You can ward in combat, but you can't fight while you're doing it.

You can also create a static protective circle/pentacle of warding, which is effective for a full hour without maintenance, at the end of which it must be recharged. This, however, reeks of sorcery and demonism as it can keep things in as well as out.

Summoned monsters are susceptible to warding, even if they are normally otherwise mundane. It is uncertain if warding would function on other planes. 

Some staple D&D non-human character kindred might be affected by warding, depending on the setting: elves, half-elves, tieflings, aasimar, genasi, possibly dragonborn.

Patrick Wymark as The Judge in Blood on Satan's Claw (1971).
He knows to bring a magic sword and hirelings when facing a demonic cult.

Casting Out (Exorcism): Casting Out can be done in a single round, but is often accompanied by a short prayer/ritual, and will restore an individual possessed by a spirit or demon. It is also effective against certain conditions, such as fear, hopelessness and confusion. 

Casting Out will temporarily relieve the distress and symptoms of mental illness, but cannot cure it unless possessing spirits of disease & madness are canon in your setting - even then, it may require an Exorcism (see below).

Roll 2d6, and on a 9 or better you have cast out the evil spirit or affliction. 

Use the same formula as for warding if you feel the condition or spirit is particularly powerful or deep-rooted, or allow success only on a 12.

Casting Out always fatigues a Cleric if successful. Only one attempt at Casting Out can be made per incidence.

If you fail to Cast Out on your first attempt, you may then attempt an Exorcism. This is mechanically the same as Casting Out, but takes exploding d6 hours (check for success or failure at the end of this time).

During this time, the subject must be restrained/ the site must be secured. The Cleric will keep up the ritual while still being able to issue instructions, receive news, eat & drink etc., and can even suffer damage - you can make a single weapon attack in retaliation per hour of the ritual, if appropriate, but must otherwise rely on others for support and defence.

Exorcism causes ongoing fatigue because of the mental and physical strain it puts on the Cleric. You can keep on making attempts at Exorcism until you are successful or give up.

Jane Wiedlin as Joan of Arc in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).
Her Prime Requisite is also her highest Ability Score, but she eventually rolls three 6s.

Deliverance (Divine Intervention): Essentially a wish. Your miracle may not be approved by the Church and can leave you open to suspicion of sorcery. 

Roll 3d6. On triple 1, God (or good fortune) answers your prayer. 

As soon as you are able, you must make an incredibly big deal of thanking God. Just a big cash donation is not going to cut it this time (though it doesn't hurt, as the Church still claims to be intermediary and interpreter), it's got to be a dangerous adventure, or a costly and complicated undertaking - crusades, founding religious houses, world-crossing pilgrimages, giving up all your lands and retainers to the Church in perpetuity.

On triple 6, God is extremely upset or you have attracted the attention of Great Unholy Powers.

It doesn't necessarily follow that you don't get what you asked for, but the consequences and the reparations are significantly more disruptive - up to and including the death or enforced retirement of the PC.

If your Prime Requisite is also your highest Ability Score you can reroll Deliverance if you wish, either to avoid upsetting God or as an extra shot at redemption.

Use it at your peril and no more than once a month. You never get any better at calling for Deliverance.

Further Elaboration.

Benefit of Clergy.

This was originally going to be a core special ability, but I decided Clerics were not necessarily members of the Church hierarchy. Historically, however, there were times when you could claim Benefit of Clergy by proving yourself literate and reading from the Bible, or even just by reciting certain parts you'd committed to memory - anyone could chance it.

Simply put, Benefit of Clergy means you don't have to submit to secular courts and justice when you commit or are accused of a crime. It's not quite a Get-Out-of-Jail card, because other factors may intervene - politics, relative social standing of perpetrator and victim, lawlessness, mob justice, the foulness of the deed.

The Church rarely hands down sentences of death (it's forbidden to shed blood, remember) - though there is the risk of being stripped of office and handed over to be tried as a layperson - but you may be excommunicated, banished, stripped of office, stripped of treasure, ordered to a monastery, ordered to do penance etc. In a fantasy setting, the Church may be able to deactivate your special abilities, or lay a curse, quest or geas on you.

Clerics Aren't That Special.

If you read the Priest living in Maelstrom, you will discover, in the section on holding evil spirits at bay, that anyone can do this - Priests are just better at it, represented in terms of them suffering less loss of Will (holding at bay is automatic, but has a cost).

By this logic, anyone could try Warding. However, I would suggest a higher target number, and/or require a non-Cleric to roll 3d6D1.

Even if a Cleric doesn't believe in the supernatural, they may still have received some kind of instruction in rituals or examples of Warding etc. - they know it's part of their perceived armoury. 

Casting Out and Exorcism should probably be restricted to Clerics only - as they either require a much greater belief in one's ability or reference an organised canon of ritual, but Deliverance might be available to anyone in the right circumstances.

With this in mind, it is possible to have Clerics who don't know that some of their abilities actually work - which maybe offers a character development arc.

Clerical Spell-Casting.

The BOSR Cleric doesn't get normally spells, because there might not be a God to grant them.

However, the 1st ed. AD&D DMG (p. 38) notes that 1st and 2nd level Cleric spells are not granted by  external agency but by 'education, training and experience', so there's no particular reason that the BOSR Cleric shouldn't be able to cast a few.

But only from 2nd level onwards, as tradition requires - and to hold back the magical industrial revolution.

If you want to be even more generous, a Cleric may cast spells per week as if they had bonus spells for high Wisdom, as per Wisdom Table II.: Adjustments for Clerics (1st ed. AD&D PH, p.11) but based on their Prime Requisite. 

Note that the 3rd and 4th level spells are granted by 'supernatural servants of the cleric's deity', and this should be a more-or-less direct exchange with otherworldly beings. This could definitely be interpreted as a demonic pact or devil worship, even if you believe/claim it's all the lovely saints in heaven. 

Clerics also have the some of the best access to books of instruction in dark magic, and should be allowed to dual-class as Magic Users. They should keep it secret, though.

Holy Relics for Cleric Spell-Casting and Turning Undead.

Let BOSR Clerics use holy relics to cast spells and Turn Undead as a RAW Cleric.

All holy relics allow BOSR Clerics to Turn Undead as a RAW Cleric of the same level. The Cleric must be touching the relic to do so.

If your setting doesn't normally give BOSR Clerics spell-casting, possession of a holy relic does: 1st and 2nd as a Cleric of your level, plus daily bonus spells for high Prime Requisite/ Wisdom. Some relics may be imbued with specific additional spells, which the Cleric may cast if of sufficient level. Spells can only be cast when in physical possession of the relic.

If you do give Clerics basic access to spells in your setting, a holy relic allows them to advance as a RAW spell-casting Cleric. Spell memorisation must be done in the presence of the relic, but it need not be on the Cleric's person. 

Only one Cleric can benefit from a relic at a time - it cannot be passed round.

The Church jealously and zealously keeps its relics close, and will not let just any Cleric stroll in and borrow one. Buying a relic is technically possible, but will be an enormous sum in treasure and obligation. The loan of a relic will often come with a hefty cost, and be accompanied by guardians with a responsibility to protect the relic, and to retrieve it rather than rescue you should your quest fail.


The religious context of the Cleric was explicitly disavowed in Mentzer Basic:

In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs.This game does not deal with those beliefs. All characters are assumed to have them, and they do not affect the game. They can be assumed, just as eating, resting, and other activities are assumed, and should not become part of the game.

This, I think, was a disservice, but makes some sense if/when you know that the archetype was Van Helsing from the Hammer films, rather than historical/legendary European figures (eg. Odo, Turpin, Joan of Arc).

Dragonwarriors, while there was no Cleric class (the nearest equivalents would be the Mystic, who might be a pagan, or a Knight with a holy relic), made it clear that religion was as much a part of Legend as it was of medieval Europe. And I also liked the disconnect, in that pagan gods and sorcery had a clear, objective reality, but the True Faith was as real or not real as IRL - holy relics notwithstanding.

The Cleric class, RAW, didn't feel like it had the space for the Clerics I was imagining - there wasn't the room for Joan of Arc and Matthew Hopkins and Brother Cadfael and Urbain Grandier and Hildegard von Bingen. 

My Cleric is based heavily on the Priest living from Maelstrom - apart from Benefit of Clergy (which is from my A-level Medieval History), all the special abilities come from that source. Based in 16th Century England, the milieu was closer to what I mistook for the implied world of D&D. I also drew on the 2e AD&D supplement A Mighty Fortress, which covers the same time period.

I call it the BOSR Cleric because I think British Old School attitudes to religion ranged from mildly agnostic to virulently atheist, with a streak of environmental/apocalyptic paganism running all the way through. And there's the old joke about not needing to believe in God to be part of the Church of England.

There's also a wide streak of bigotry running through the source material for the BOSR Cleric (see all of the above, plus Ken Russell's The Devils, and The Name of the Rose, book or film), but you don't have to play a cruel, misogynist hypocrite to have fun, do you? Despite the Gothic possibilities, not every Cleric has to be a monster.

Post-Script: Bard as Cleric.

The 2nd edition AD&D Bard only needs a light treatment to be reskinned as a Cleric variant: influence reactions (preach), inspire allies (bless/preach), countersong (vs. rival prayers and chants), literacy, history, identify magic items.

Even the Magic User spells and Thief skills can be justified as forbidden learning and general sneakiness.


  1. This is super rad. I'd love to play this sort of cleric.

    1. Thanks. If you get the chance, I'd love to know how it turns out.