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Keeping the Faith - Priests in Dungeons and Dragons
D&D Twitter is a bit of a mystery to me. The latest "hot take" and "hill to die on" appears to be USING AN OPTIONAL RULE!
The optional rule in question is that priests / clerics can get their magic from somewhere other than a god. To be clear, I'm fine with that, if one of my players wanted to be a priest whose magic didn't come from a god we would roll with it.
However, for all the talk of story games and role playing, worshipping a deity is ROLE PLAYING GOLD. There are so many great RP elements to priests just waiting to be developed in the game, I find it surprising that people are so willing to give it up. One of the parts my players look forward to the most when they create characters is thumbing through the Deities and Demigods to pick a god for their PC.
I think that part of the reason for this is that DM’s haven’t figured out how to make the priest’s deity into anything more than a line on a character sheet. If that’s all they are then of course it isn’t interesting to pick a deity or play a priest of a particular god.
I thought I would go through a few of my “house rules” on priests to show how if you lean into the deity concept it can be a rich and rewarding one for game play. Some of these are BTB 1e, some are optional, some are added.
1. Pantheons versus Gods
We tend to apply our monotheistic perspectives to D&D, and forget that there are other ways of looking at gods. So IMC, there are clerics and priests, clerics worship a pantheon, priests worship a specific god. This can be fun as the cleric can invoke different gods in the game, and even sacrifice to gods with opposing domains. It makes for some fun role playing.
2. “Temple Dressing”
If you go to the back of the D&DG there are “Clerical quick reference charts”, this sort of thing is great fuel for flavor. No other class in D&D has this sort of information given, so it adds a dimension to the PC from the get go.
A priest of Anubis for example should wear onyx jewelry, black clothing and have an uncovered head. Also, the cult of Anubis allows men and women priests, some gods don’t, so your RP hook could be that your priest is the first woman priest of a cult that normally doesn’t allow them.
Each god also has an animal and a domain associated with them, Anubis is the god of the dead for example, so there are a lot of situations in the game where a priest of Anubis would be called on to give blessings, etc.
Anubis’s animal is a jackal, as priests get the spell, speak with animals, many priests IMC seek out their god's animal as a companion. I’ve also had an animal companion show up when the PC has done something that their god would favor.
Priests of Anubis have the full moon as a holy day, and they make sacrifices in the form of valuables, this is another great source of RP inspiration. The party priest has to make a proper ritual sacrifice to their god on a regular schedule. If they don’t, then perhaps their prayers for spells don’t work for a while...
3. Conversion - AD&D doesn’t have any formal rules for this so I wrote up rules based on the encounter reaction tables. In short, the priest can preach to a group of people and you use the encounter reaction table to determine if they make converts. Any reaction of “enthusiastically positive” means some conversions have happened. You can add modifiers for situation (the priest just saved the village), charisma and any factors which would cause opposition (e.g. the worship of another god is entrenched in this place).
Converts are 0-level followers and fall under the standard morale rules.
4. Feats for your god - There are existing mechanisms in AD&D for a PC to make a “god call” in dire circumstances. The odds are long, but it can happen. And certain gods have domains and interests that make it more likely to happen. Anubis for example hates thieves and grave robbers, so intervention in situations like that would be more likely.
And of course this becomes role playing gold, as an intervention on the part of a deity, whether directly or through intermediaries, should be pretty impressive.
5. Special abilities and restrictions - I have added a few special abilities and restrictions to priests to reflect their choice of god. It’s one of the things that 2e did particularly well. One is that I give them access to spells from other classes that are appropriate to their god.
I generally give them one low level spell from 1st to 4th level, one mid level spell from 5th to 8th and one high level spell from 9th onwards. Usually a certain number of times per day. A priest of Thor for example could cast shocking grasp once per day, upon reaching 5th level they can cast lightning bolt once per day, and upon reaching 9th level they get to cast a version of conjure elemental that summons lightning para-elementals once per week.
There doesn’t need to be a bunch of these, but a few to add flavor.
And I balance them with restrictions. So for example, IMC ONLY priests of death gods can use animate dead, it’s a special privilege. Priests of gods of courage can’t use the spell sanctuary, priests of gods of fire can’t use water spells, that sort of thing.
When a priest is rolled up we go through the spell list and restrict a handful of spells based on their choice of deity. It’s a small thing, but it fleshes out the characters so they differ from other priests. This is a bigger deal for priest PCs as in 1e they get their pick of spells rather than having to find them, so 1e priests can become very similar in play. This helps to distinguish them.
It also means you could in principle end up with a priest who doesn’t heal all the time. For example, a god of courage in battle might not heal a fellow PC who is dying from wounds sustained in combat. If you choose to do this however, it is IMPERATIVE that you tell your players that this is a restriction YOU placed on the character, so that they don’t blame the player for not healing them. D&D comes with it’s own set of gaming expectations, no need for a player to suffer for doing something that adds to their PC’s role playing flavor.
6. Weapons. 1e priests have a very minimal weapons list, I expand this to include any weapon that is appropriate to their god. So for example a priest of Odin can use a spear, as Odin is often shown with a spear in hand. Again, you don’t have to open up the whole weapon list, but adding a “flavor” weapon can make the class more fun and ramp up the RP elements of having a god.
7. Source of Magic - The spells a cleric casts are from their god or emissaries of their god. You can play elsewise, but assume for the moment that you aren’t. Since the spells are essentially beseeched from the god, it is within the power of the DM to decide that the PC hasn’t been serving their god particularly well, so perhaps that spell might not happen.
Of course you shouldn’t be a jerk about this, it shouldn’t happen randomly, but if, for example, the party has a PC priest of Anubis who participates in a tomb raid, then it would be entirely within the scope of the rules to deny them spells until they atone, as Anubis is specifically noted to hate thieves and tomb robbers.
Also, in 1e you need to worship a god (not a demigod) to get access to 6th and 7th level spells, so the choice of god makes a difference to your ultimate character advancement options.
This is one reason why I like having gods for priests, it allows more vectors for role playing goodness.
8. Resources. Thieves have guilds, magic-users do as well, but priests have temples. When the party comes to a new area if there are temples to their god or to gods of their pantheon they should be able to tap into those resources like a thief would to a guild. Going to the temple for aid combined with some positive encounter reaction rolls should produce some in-game advantages for a priest PC.
9. Bennies - Deities and Demigods has a wealth of information about the gods, but if you zoom in on particular entries there are examples of ways in which the gods can intervene directly in PC actions and activities. So for example the write up for Horus indicates that if a “good” character seeks righteous revenge the god might temporarily bump all their stats to 19 to accomplish the task. There are dozens of these in the write ups for the various gods, indicating that the DM has latitude to intervene in the game in this way any time they want.
You can use the write ups as a template for any deity intervention. Obviously you don’t want to do this too often, but it has the potential for epic role playing flavor for your PC priest.
10. Omens, Visions and Quests - Myth and fantasy literature abounds with prophecies and omens directing the heroes in various ways. Having a PC priest in the party is a direct vector for the DM to introduce this sort of thing to the game. Deities and Demigods mentions this idea in the introduction, and it is well worth mining in the game.
Your party PC priest is a direct line to some higher power, why not leverage this into some in game direction for the party?
A priest PC has the potential to add a ton of role playing flavor to the game, worshipping a specific god can add to that flavor. Priests don’t need to be second class fighters and magic users, or just healbots, they can do so much more. I would suggest leaning in to the idea of your priest worshipping a god, as it can add a ton to the game.