Dungeoneer’s Diary #16 – Wizards, Clerics and Systems

Posted: July 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

One of many representations of Circe, a named corespondent herein…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Spurred on by the repetition of at least one of my defining whines, not reading nearing as much as I wanted in the past few weeks, I finally read The Rat Queens Vol. 1 (see review). Ironically, this graphic novel about a quartet of plucky femme dungeoneers also touches on my other great whine, not playing enough tabletop RPGs, but I digress. Anyway, my point. There was a panel (picture omitted for surprise value) that when you get past the NSFW goriness that got me thinking about the relationship between the magic that wizards cast and that of clerics. Simply put, I have a lot of recent trouble telling the difference between wizards and clerics in my fantasy RPGs.

First off, definitions. A wizard, sorcerer, magic user, illusionist, witch or warlock refers to any character that casts magic spells that doesn’t come through the auspices of the campaign’s local deities. The repertoire includes all the classics inspired by Gandalf or the Dark Witch in the Woods: Fireball, Lightning, Sleep, Open Doors, Charm, Persuade, or Love (or the appearance thereof) and many more. Healing spells are definitely off the menu, probably the Inter-dimensional Brotherhood of Adventuring Clerics filed a grievance.

The cleric is a holy one, shaman, priest(ess), imam (ardent Islamists might freak here the way ardent Christians have already freaked abouteverythingRPG), or spirit guide that derives power from worship of and, let’s face it, evangelism for one of the deities provided by the DM/GM. While the spell list is actually more varied to mimic most of the cool miracles that come to us from the Bible and a few other sources, in practice the cleric bulks up on heal spells…the team medic. According to most game systems, when it comes to wizards and clerics never the twain shall meet, except at the Prancing Pony just before the beginning of the adventure. Define arbitrary for the next ten generations.

In the specific example of Dungeons & Dragons, the RPG system of which awareness appears nearly universal, both classes are kept in check using the leveling system common to all character classes. Reading the The Player’s Handbook, you’ll see charts telling how many spells/divine miracles a character gets per day/rest period. There is a chart for wizards and another for clerics; the restrictions are generally similar. A beginner gets one spell per day or rest period and experience characters get more according to the progression on the chart.

In D&D, the wizard or cleric memorizes or prays for spells up to the limit of his or her class level. A player with a wizard character has to guess what one, two, three or more spells will be most needed for the next session (characters sometimes die guessing wrong). A cleric could have this problem, but in practice the party only needs the medic so Heal spells every time. A spell is lost until the next day or rest period (typically four hours per spell level) and spells can’t be switched out on the fly.

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog column, you may have read my previous post (see post) highlighting my confusion about how dungeoneering, as seen from the characters’ perspective, actually just takes too long and that after three rooms cleared no set of monsters or other foes should everbe surprised. Part of this dynamic results from the party needing to stop after every three or four rooms to recover spells. What happens to wizards and clerics in the state of – “My energy’s spent at last. And my armor is destroyed. I have used up my weapons. And I’m helpless and bereaved.” – depends on the character class.

The wizard, generally drawn from a studious librarian archetype, suddenly becomes an arrow sponge. They have the worst hit dice (D4) of all the player character classes. They still carry the staff, pointy hat and visible talismans the pretty much advertise the – WIZARD, KICK ME – sign so frequently taped to their backs. Until the next rest period the wizard hides behind the more convenient of Big Rock or Even Bigger Warrior.

By contrast, the cleric has more immediate survival prospects. The generic cleric of the early editions couldn’t carry swords, but maces and hammers aren’t too shabby. This is an homage to the ordained brothers and fathers that fought with the various crusading militant orders (Templars, Hospitalers, Teutonic Knights and Knights of Malta), who lawyered a proscription against swords by being amazingly literal. Clerics get D8 hit dice, swing a bashing weapon that helps a lot with skeletons and wear decent armor…they’re almost warriors.

As a side note, it took a few editions for clerics to gain rules that allowed them to adopt the weapon most associated with their chosen deity. In part this touches on the subject of another possible future essay on the push-pull tension with Christianity built into the game system from jump (but not today). Suffice it to say, worship a deity associated with swordplay, carry a sword. Simple logic.

There are other RPG systems available that arrive at the same general place of controlling how much magic inexperienced characters get to throw around by different means. Most of these use some form of exhaustion rules that deduct the magic as a temporary cost from a running health tally. You can cast any spell you know switching on the fly and you stop when you can’t stand up to fight. To the best of my knowledge and understanding, GURPS Magicand the card game Magic: The Gatheringused variations of this system. Clerics are still handled separately, it seems.

Up to this point, the need to explain how things are has precluded discussing the arbitrary distinctions between the character classes. Here goes…

Are wizards also not healers in some form? When the NSFW image from Rat Queens crossed my eyeballs, I certainly was inspired to ask this question. I also thought back to the literary antecedents in fantasy literature. Doing so broadened the question to – aren’t wizards also not clerics, to the extent that cleric and healer aren’t synonyms?

Gandalf, pretty much everyone playing a wizard takes a few cues from Tolkien; it’s union bylaw. Delving deep into the supporting works, the five wizards were basically the lowest level of bad ass angels that could be sent to Middle Earth without breaking the delicate balance of the universe. And since Tolkien, in linking his work to C.S. Lewis’ Prelandra books, decreed Middle Earth as one type of fictional pre-history, similar to Atlantis, Lemuria or the Hyperborean Age of Robert Howard. All spiritual outcomes in Tolkien’s work then leads into the Modern Age and the new name for  Morgoth is Satan.

Five hundred years prior to The Final War of the Ring the wizards get off the boat sent from the people across the sea to help with Sauron, actually a second rank fallen angel like Beelzebub. They live forever or until the war is over. They provide wise counsel and when that fails they bring enough magic firepower to even things up against a bad guy that doesn’t feel any restrictions using magic for his own gain.

So is Gandalf a pure wizard character? We can argue the leap that he’s a massively ripped angel probably at least three levels below Archangel on the assumption that sending Michael probably has the unintended consequence of knocking planets out of orbit. Could an angel figure also take on traditional cleric roles due to being an angel and the fuzziness describing from where he gets his power? Wise counsel and moral leadership? Could be.

On the healing front, Gandalf isn’t depicted doing his own healing magic. But, he traveled through a world that also had Elrond and Galadriel in it. These elf lords and ladies lived in Middle Earth for far longer and knew all the medical tricks at the level where medicine and magic might be indistinguishable. Gandalf could safely delegate curing Frodo to Elrond in the hopes of the best care possible. The movie versions accomplished elf healing with a lot of super bright white lighting that could be mistaken for a cleric asking his gods (the Valar in this case) for the grace to heal someone. A spell.

Additionally, Gandalf might have wanted to delegate the more normal healing, herbs, setting bones and such to Rhadeghast the Brown. A forest protector would, as a matter of character design have more immediate access to the herb knowledge, especially Kingsfoil, that he might do better. But, is anyone someone operating under the impression that Gandalf couldn’t do anything magical if Tolkien wrote it so?

The most telling example of the Gandalf arc that muddies up the argument about him purely being a wizard is his treatment of Theoden King of Rohan. Grima Wormtongue speaks in the apparently dotty old man’s ear. Gandalf talks somebody  at the door into letting him keep his staff. First, he beats up Grima wiping the floor with him. Then, he points his staff at the king and ejects the part of Saruman holding tight to the king’s nightmares.

Sure looks like an exorcism to me. Clerics in games typically have exorcism in their arsenals but they don’t ready the spell until they know that they need it. Yes, gamers have also seen The Exorcist. The first blurred line between wizard and cleric.

Bringing this out of the fictional works of Tolkien, there are other traditions in our common sociological/anthropological/mythological database that give rise to our fantasies about magic. For instance, an author/DM/GM has the tried and true myth of Hecate the goddess of magic. All wizards using this Greco-Roman concept are all by definition also priests and priestesses of Hecate. Circe from The Odysseywas depicted as Hecate’s star pupil and high priestess. Cleric or witch? You decide kids.

Similarly, many pagan faiths, some of which have survived into the present, all seem to blend the distinction between wizard and priest even further. Many call upon a goddess. And in the specific case of Black Magic, it’s a name that tradition associates with Satan. And when you read the accounts from all of these traditions, the spell caster is actually able to do anything desired from both the spell lists of the RPG wizard and cleric without regard to the alleged difference. People fly and heal at the same time.

I realized all of this when I also recently started serializing a story appropriately titled – Who Needs a Cleric?(See post). I was originally going with Dungeon Hospital, but I hadn’t thought up enough characters to make it a soap opera.

I drop a Hispanic first-year surgical resident in media res on a tough case of open-heart stab surgery on a dwarf. She comes from the La Brujeria subculture and was sent to the fantasy realm to acquire a magic battery to return home to Earth. She gets the dwarf on a hand-cranked version of a heart bypass machine, but has to deal with the embolism that many times follows successful surgery. Her dormant magic kicks in to help.

Using a variation of See Through Walls she sees the blood clot lodged in the brain as if looking at real time MRI imagery. Then, she warms up a Focused Heat spell to broil away the mass to clear the nerve cluster and blood vessel all without opening the dwarf’s skull. Both pretty much use straight up wizard magic to replace key pieces of equipment common to real world surgery.

Is she a witch/wizard because she uses traditional wizard spells in a creative way to heal a patient? Or because she comes from a female bruja bloodline that is just as likely to call upon a goddess, angel or something else to get things done, do we call her priestess? I wrote her and even I can’t fully answer the question. I suppose we might lean towards witch/wizard simply because the heal spells of a cleric or Tolkien elf seem to cast the messy business of diagnosis upon the named deity – “Take the wheel, Athena!” Too subtle a difference for most readers and players, for sure.

So there you have it, a lot of words about how some things endemic to role playing games and the accompanying literature have logical flaws that few care enough about to argue. Am I advocating for some kind of rules change? No, it is first and foremost a game and playing is a social contract to agree to a set of rules. Really stupid rules can be jettisoned but the rest, you just go with them. For example, Football still has many odd rules remaining from Rugby Union made moot by the shape of the ball. And let’s not go there with those highly variable Free Parking rules in Monopoly. That causes fights. And let’s get back to the rest of our day.

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