Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How to Handle Clerics (and other troubling shortcuts).

So as I GM higher and higher level games I discover certain things about how disappointing certain
Iconic Pathfinder Cleric - not bad.
abilities can be.  Specifically there are certain spells and abilities that ruin some of the best things in D&D: traps, tricks, doublecrosses and undead monsters.  Many of these abilities are lodged in the cleric, this isn't the cleric's fault - it seems reasonable that clerics have these abilities, but they still tend to make things less fun. Player's sometimes don't realize it's not fun to not have to think, or realize that spotting and avoiding traps is more rewarding if it's a product of actual player skill - but it's true.  Ok that's not fair, players want to survive without too much trouble and many support spells allow this, it's the GM's job to deal with these spells in a way that's interesting. Below are several ways I propose dealing with certain abilities that players have.  I don't think these are improper GM behavior, railroading or GM fiat and I don't suggest removing player abilities, only means of limiting or interpreting them it to keep challenge in place.  It's also worth keeping in mind that powerful opponents and dangerous places in worlds where miraculous spells exist may have their own divine protectors or other means of dealing with the interventions a Cleric or mage can call up.

General Thoughts: Most of the abilities of the Cleric (or magic-user - which is almost as bad) are single use spells.  The obvious way around this is to make sessions longer, so that the party faces an increased number of challenges and need to burn spells.  Yet most games I'm involved in are 2-3 hours maximum and spells conservation (especially when there are several casters as their always seem to be) is less of an issue. A similar option to long games is to pile stuff on, more traps, more tricks, more invisible monsters, or combinations like invisible traps.  This is the classic Gygax method, but I along with many other players of tabletop RPGs hate the sort of heavily protected adventure where every wall cannot be bypassed, every NPC has a slew of magical protections from charms and mind reading and divination and such.

The solutions I propose I think fit better with my game.  The key to keeping Clerical abilities interesting is remembering that while the deities wish to aid their servants, the gods are also distant, inhuman and easily annoyed.  As such a cleric who doesn't use her magic in the way that her chosen deity wants is likely not to get it. No god wants to be involved in a continual light flashlight assembly line, or to be constantly be used as a trap detector/predictor of what's around the next corner. Additionally even when the deities want to help they aren't always good at providing it.  What's a trap or dangerous to a divine being with strong moral opinions may be different then what's dangerous to an adventurer, and I can see a casting a detect traps spell finding things that present danger's to a cleric's purity or religious well-being while missing stuff such as precariously balanced boulders.

Turning: Turning the undead is fine, turning undead automatically and annihilating everything undead is dull.  Since this is the function of the cleric I don't want to come down hard on turning, but it can certainly make undead challenges less exciting for a party with a strong cleric or several clerics.  Yet the classic answer of gimping clerical ability (so very popular in early modules) is equally dull.  I don't think tossing out -2's to turning rolls for every gang of undead that the GM wants the party to fight is much of an answer.  Let the Cleric demonstrate thier power, turning skeletons to ash and driving off wailing spirits.  The party may have a hard fight, but the other players should realize that without their cleric it'd have gone much much worse. Still, it's not just number that can make turning less overwhelming, recognizing that turning is a limited effect that harms only a certain number of targets and that undead aren't all mindless attackers goes a long way towards solving the issue.

In Game Fixes: First, not all clerics turn undead.  It just doesn't make that much sense that every empowered religious figure would have dominion over the undead, sure the walking dead an an abomination, but some deities have axes to grind with other things, and their Clerics should reflect this.  Nature deities may turn aggressive animals, elemental deities turn elemental foes and I can even envision a god of thieves whose priests can drive off the forces of law (or at least make them ignore the god's servants).  Of the HMS Apollyon's three indigenous churches only one turns undead.  The Ship Spirits can instead drive off creatures of decay such as fungus monsters, demons and rogue automatons, while The Church of the Leviathan empowers it's clerics with the ability to turn devils and control sea creatures.
Most import though is to remember what turning does, it simply drives creatures off, holding them at bay.  Trying to capitalize on this effect and destroy the retreating undead is likely to make them aggressive again.  Intelligent undead are should have a chance to fight off the effect of turning if they have to, and should get a saving throw after if the turning persists for too long. Even reanimated bones and other simple creatures are likely to flail out at melee attackers while turned and even a skeleton should be allowed to counter attack if attacked while under the effect of turning.  Secondly it's important to think of turning as having a range.  The undead are likely only to retreat outside of that range - perhaps for dramatic effect this is the radius of light around the cleric, so the zombies will wait patiently beyond torch range for the turning effect to stop.
Additionally, undead aren't all dumb. While mindless undead might be herded into a pit or up against a wall where they can be smashed at range, even semi-intelligent monsters are going to try to negate turning's effects. Ghouls will throw rocks and bones from the shadows and run off if they can't do any damage, while wraiths and other immaterial creatures will likely hide or flee to return to their haunts once a Cleric is gone.  This becomes a greater problem when a wraith returns to find its crypt despoiled and treasures gone.  Intelligent undead like vampires or ghosts are even more likely to have ways around turning - perhaps they themselves have deities and can turn the servants of the gods of the living, perhaps they will send a wave of thralls or lesser undead to hold the clerics attention and perhaps they will simply retreat and bide their time - undead of course have an abundance of patience and time.  It is also equally certain that intelligent undead will both guard their lairs with unholy glyphs and similar protections from good, and that they will single out clerics for any surprise attacks or hit and run attacks.
Finally, lesser undead are still dangerous at high levels, not individually, but because they roam in huge numbers.  A party with a 6th level cleric should be able to handle 200 skeletons, or at least not be surprised to face them.  Why wouldn't a lich or necromancer have amassed armies of this size, and use it mercilessly to stop intruders.  The cleric may be able to account for 2D6 skeletons a round, but that's not enough to stop a huge swarm.

Continual Light: Quite possibly the lamest spell.  Continual Light isn't horrible because of what it does, it's horrible because how it does it and the feel it provides to the game. Every player thinks they are incredibly cunning to have a pouch full of small stones with continual light cast on them, or a headlamp, or some other contraption that makes the use of magical light into a boring gadget that one could find at the adventurer's version of REI. It's this cheapening of magic that annoys me mostly as an aesthetic matter. Sure I can see it being fine if one played in some sort of high magic setting, but I like my magic creepy and wondrous.
There's not really anything wrong with a mid-level party having access to steady light sources without tallying torches and lamps.  The problem as a technical matter is that a satchel of continual light rocks makes magical darkness trivial.  Magical darkness is a powerful effect, and creatures of the underworld should use it more.  Getting rid of it should also take some effort and the use of a light spell.  Stockpiles of continual light objects make darkness useless.  One solution is to have those casters of darkness carry around a satchel of continuous darkness objects, making a contested area flash like a strobe light until one side's satchel of light effects is gone.  This is terrible.

In Game Fix:  (Stolen from Brendan at Necropraxis) - Continual light, unlike light, cannot be cast on individual objects, it's an area effect.  One casts it in a room or location and it stays their, filling the air with divine or mystical illumination. It also either slowly decays without elaborate and costly rituals, or an individual caster may not maintain more than one continual light at a time.  This makes the spell useful for setting up protected areas within a dungeon or preparing a battlefield, with constant magical light to keep the underworld at bay, but prevents it from becoming a mundane fix for any vision related difficulty.

Find Traps: A spell that usually makes thieves feel fairly useless, and can be frustrating.  Clerics develop the ability to detect traps at third level, and while many will opt for Hold Person to improve their effectiveness in combat, Find Traps is also extremely popular.  Now I can see the value and use of Find Traps in a classic old school dungeon crawl, where traps are everywhere, deadly and well concealed. Personally I don't run my games this way, as my dungeons are not funhouses where installing a moving wall, animated statute or explosive runes is a regular weekend activity for the residents.  When traps are themselves puzzles, rather than simple skill checks, find traps becomes both irksome and at the same time easier to deal with.  Find Traps has a very minimal description, but many players seem to think that it allows the Cleric to discover and also figure out how traps work. I don't agree, I think Find Traps is best approached as an imprecise means of divine intervention to detect danger.

In Game Fix: The simplest way to amend Find Traps is to reduce it's duration to the two turns described in OD&D.  Two turns rarely allows the examination of many rooms, but with the fifty minutes found in later editions, parties often try to scout an area and then have a cleric dash about looking at everything that is trapped. In either case remembering that Find Traps has a duration and takes time to work (Cleric must stand in place and let the divine presence radiate outward searching for danger perhaps - basically it takes a turn to do a room.) if important.  However, I don't think reducing the time on the spell is necessary, four or five rooms is fine, because like all Clerical spells it's important to consider how the deity will interpret a petition.
What does the divine consider a trap?  What does a god consider dangerous to its followers?  Simple mechanical and magical traps, like spear trap or explosive runes, are undoubtedly detected, but one must wonder what else is.  I don't allow find traps to detect environmental hazards or items that are incidentally dangerous.  For example, a pool of toxic sludge is not a trap, nor is a weak floor, a roaming green slime or a cursed altar.
Additionally, just because players realize something is trapped doesn't make it easy to deal with.  Good traps often announce themselves anyway. Prying the gemstone eyes out of the Orcus statute, a series of holes in the walls, a silver grid inset in the floor? Is Find Traps really necessary to realize these are likely traps?  What the party needs is to think of a way to bypass these traps or to ignore them and move on.  This is really the key with traps, they are puzzles to figure out - not simple gotchas for failing a dice roll or not saying the magic words "we search for traps" every time a new room is entered.

Augury/Commune:  Potentially total game killers.  Along with Find Object and spells or objects that allow mind reading these things ruin any kind of mystery or treasure hunt if they are used in a cavalier manner.  The real problem though is that Commune and Augury create railroads.  A player gets to basically ask the GM "What should the party do?" This is boring and should be antithetical to the spirit of open world exploration so beloved in the OSR.  The issue then is really how to separate GM knowledge for in-game deity knowledge.

In Game Fix: When dealing with these spells it is key to remember that these are the result of the Cleric speak directly to their deity.  Because of this an augury of commune shouldn't be some sort of simple "is the door safe" kind of question.  Deities are petulant at the best of times, and presumably interrupting their ambrosia and nectar time for petty questions about dungeon layout and where the treasure is hidden will really annoy them.
A second issue if that deities aren't all seeing and all knowing in my games, and really in the sorts of polytheism that most games embrace they shouldn't be.  Each deity has a narrow set of goals and interests and anything outside of that is likely to be of little interest so an commune spell will get some kind of general platitude or vague answer that conceals the extent of what the god doesn't know. For requests that involve a need to know things that are sacred or dangerous to the worshipers of other gods, the cleric's deity's indifference may not be the only obstacle, a rival god may actively interfere, preventing the clerics deity from knowing things or making learning them hard for the deity to do without risk and effort.
Finally deities may not see things in a way that's helpful to players, and in myth and legend always enjoy giving incomprehensible riddles rather then straight answers to questions. It seems perfectly reasonable that a god would only communicate through omens and portents that the cleric will still need to figure out.  All these tactics can be combined to make spells like commune and augury goads to player action and puzzles to be solved rather than road maps, railroads or solutions.  It may take a little effort to determine what the deity will say, but when dealing with a party that can cast divination spell it's worth putting a little time into figuring out what information a god will provide and how they will provide it.


  1. I'm pretty happy with how the 10 minute ritual for find traps has worked out in Pahvelorn. Also allowing one zone to be examined per turn and rolling a random encounter check during each turn helps with adding a cost. It becomes a specific, more reliable form of the search action that can only be used to find one kind of thing (traps), whereas the 1 in 6 search can also find secret doors, concealed treasures, and so forth. I would definitely change the duration to be in line with OD&D as you suggest. The image of a cleric running about like crazy to find all the traps before the duration runs out is particularly unpleasant from an atmosphere point of view.

  2. I like to think about augury/commune as subjecting the cleric to a reaction roll with a god (or emissary of the god for truly elevated deities). Modified by the relationship of the question asked to the god's own priorities. I think that's a nice way to make the chance of annoying a god objective while staying within the spirit of spell as written.

    1. I'm not so concerned as "staying within the spirit of the spell as written". Gygaxian spell descriptions are all about mechanics and the mechanics of divination spells seem to be basically a way to get answers directly from the GM mediated by 1)Spell component cost 2)Arbitrary time limits 3)Yes or no answers. Rather than making it a semantics game I perfer to make it a what does the god know? What does the god care about? and How good a servant has the cleric been. Something more akin to a rumor table roll perhaps?

      I like the idea of a metric for deity reaction, but it seems to me that simple reaction fails to account for clerical past actions and the appropriateness of the questions. A reputation system might work (points of reputation are burnt for asking divine favor, and gained for doing divine work) where these modify the roll.

      At higher levels I think prophecy and commune (or a higher level spell even) might allow some story game style player intervention?

    2. I would just apply modifiers to the reaction for past actions the same way as I would for any NPC interaction. A full on reputation system would be even better, but I think it would be beyond my feeble organizational skills.

  3. Create water is also lame. For example, my PCs are currently traveling on the seas and running into situations where water would realistically be an issue. It would be so much more fun for everyone if they had to find some fresh water or face the consequences. (Nice non-railroady, sandbox compatible motivation for poking around.) But no, cleric has that handled. :(

    1. I don't really find create water such a bad spell - not that I don't see what you're getting at, but I am loathe to kill players with environmental effects like heat, starvation, cold or thirst. Also it never comes up in the campaign I am currently running as it's megadungeon as opposed to sandbox.

  4. occasional anti magic zone might be handy to put skills on map
    trap spell detonated by magic cast in presence
    i use divination to suggest my sandbox players extra options
    have seen adventures ruined with detect lie
    make huge winding complexes with sparse traps hundreds of yards apart - should me more of these and less 10 foot grids anyhow
    had a precog pc in superhero game once that was a bigger problem and changed whole adventure style

    1. Konsumterra wrote: have seen adventures ruined with detect lie

      Can you expand on that?

    2. Yeah detect lie and similar spells make running a mystery pretty hard. Only thing I'd say is remember that good liars often believe their lies to be at least partial truths.

    3. Detect lie is one of the things that make D&D magic very much like technology, a polygraph, in this case. But polygraphs work based on physiological signs, making psychopaths quasi immune to such devices. Perhaps it could work the other way around: not by finding ways to make spells less reliable but by exploiting their resemblance to technology and using its natural limitations.

  5. A more mechanical solution might be to allow faiths to "mark their territory". I saw this a few times hand-waved, but I believe it could actually be a handy tool on higher levels (or in general) to add another layer to those abilities. Instead of rendering them useless by DM fiat, a clerics abilities could simply be blocked by another deities influence. The information in itself is useful, the solution is an opportunity for adventure (find the shrine responsible and destroy it). Say a graveyard is heavily infested with undead, but protected by a shrine of some power. I'd make turning and using spells (at least) a struggle for power on the graveyard itself, turned undead outside the graveyard would flee there for protection and the only way to really deal with the problem would be to destroy the shrine responsible. Traps near a shrine would get some protection as well, etc..

    One more idea in that direction would be to allow "true believers" of a faith certain protection from other gods. I try to give the option to reverse every spell a cleric might memorize, so Protect Lie is a possibility. A combination of the above could mean a devotee of some god (not a cleric) had invested in an expensive amulet (some sort of mini-shrine) to protect himself and Detect Lie is forced upon him, I'd give him a good chance to be protected by his god (as per the reversed version of the spell).

    Commune is quite restricted in the Rules Cyclopedia. Only allowed on special days in a week, with an option to make it once a month or even only once a year (if used to often). Six Yes/No questions once a year (and on a special day, no less) doesn't seem that game changing. Are later versions that different?

    Although I prefer a mechanical solution, before I start making restrictions in a setting, I really like your solutions, too.

    1. I think I mention many of these potential solutions, but I do feel strongly that the penalties for turning undead is a dumb scenario clutch designed to 'balance' undead scenarios. To my way of thinking numbers work better. A mid level party with a cleric can blast apart a good sized battalion of weak undead and tussle with several wights or wraiths. Without the Cleric they're in trouble, but frankly adventurers that don't have anti-undead tools or a cleric on call for scenarios like "loot the lich skull tombs of the walking dead" deserve what they get.

    2. Maybe I made my point wrong. what I tried to show was that changes closer to the rules may produce similar effects and add layers to the game without being "dumb scenario clutches". Giving a penalty to balance an encounter is stupid, I agree. But giving a penalty with a reason is giving the player something he can work with. "-2 on turning because there is an evil shrine near by" is as legit as "-2 to all hits because of the heavy rain". Both give an additional problem that can be solved is all I'm saying.

      Giving clerics different entities to turn, for instance, is a very nice idea, it just fixes the "problem" at another place. It wasn't my intention to copy your statements. Sorry if you got that impression. Just wanted to add to the discussion.

    3. JD please do copy anything you find on here. I wasn't thinking I'd mentioned the protected places issue and contrary gods as a way to say you were somehow 'stealing game concepts' - because really everything I do here is stealing game concepts. My point was that I don't think these changes are really closer to the rules or more mechanical. Also I wasn't really sure if they came through, it's a kind of dense stream of consciousness post.

      Spell descriptions are kind of strange - especially for these spells. They are way too short and lacking in substantive rules in the manuals I use. I think the place I've gotten to on divination spells is that these are world content, they aren't really mechanical effects at all. In designing dungeons for 3rd level PCs one should anticipate the use of Find Traps, and in designing ones for 6th level anticipate Augury. It becomes the GMs job to seriously consider what the PC's god knows and thinks about things, as well as the Cleric's relationship with that god - not simply allow the spells to be used as a GM check to see if something is safe. I feel like the way AD&D at least handles divination spells "you could make commune only work every month" are fairly weak and actually miss out on what's interesting about being a cleric.

      As to protecting undead with evil shrines and amulets. It's totally cool (even unturnable dead are cool)if it's story derived but it has gotten used so much in early TSR products, when more often "more undead" is an equally efficient answer. I am more perturbed by the spell proof NPC, though I suppose there's reasons for that is well.

      For me it's a balancing act and I wanted to share some of my balances.

  6. Oh, I see... I had feared you were thinking I just rephrased your post without saying anything else. But yeah, I think I understand now what you mean. Thanks for the detailed answer! I also realized that you couldn't possibly know what I was trying to say or at least that there were several possibilities to interpret what I was saying. I'll try and explain why I believe this approaches to be more mechanical.

    When I'm tinkering with the rules I try to avoid changing the written word, keeping the "original" rules as a reliable source for the players. So when I change something, I try to change it on a layer where the solution is either a fringe or a transfer benefit. Please consider this, for instance:


    I tried to build this subsystem so close to the basic assumptions of the game, that the result would easily translate into it. It was not so much a direct, but an indirect influence on how the subsystem affects the game, while producing hard data for the DM without too much bookkeeping. So when I was talking about giving shrines (or holy sites) a territory that might be able to protect a graveyard, I was not talking about something derived from a story, but emerging from the mechanics. I'd exchange "Settlement" with "holy site" and take the HD for the territory as indicated to have a general scheme. If I want a graveyard protected, I look what level the holy site needs to have (or, as easy, the other way around). All information I will get from this will be usable for the game in any situation involving a holy site.
    Ruling this on a case-by-case basis might lead to the same result, but was, as you already pointed out, often enough misused by official publications and does not constitute a change closer to the rules.
    So I'd keep the cleric as-is and would influence his surroundings with subsystems that support certain reactions within the game. Same goes for the spells. When reversing them, I don't change the original set, but expand on it (using precedence) and the change is, again, on the mechanical side.

    Shit, this is already too long. I believe we approach this from somewhat different directions to achieve the same balance. That's why I read your blog to begin with, you have an interesting way of looking at things (and your concept for a megadungeon is just awesome!).

    1. JD - yeah that could work well especially in that it's a very transparent system - as one takes one's cleric further from the seat of his religion power decreases. It's a reasonable way to solve turning and nice in that it give a feeling of law v. chaos in the world that a player can predict. It's less an issue with divination spells.

      I like following text as much (ok less) than the next guy, but with a lot of these powerful divination spells the description is so vague as to be almost useless, or as to promote a really meta game sort of use. I want to break free of that meta-game use without requiring any elaborate subsystems. Perhaps a reputation system (as Brendan sort of gets to above) but less mechanics for dealing with a cleric's relationship with the divine and more in game world building.

  7. Sorry for the thread reanimation but these issues which Gus has identified definitely influence location/adventure design and lead me down a different path. Abolish the cleric! I gave a few staple Cleric spells to my mage class, cure light wounds, neutralize poison, remove curse etc. I also allowed Turn Undead but only as a spell that was thematic for the mage (in line with your concept of turning different creatures). I thought Lotfp had the right idea with Turn Undead in making it a spell. I also really like presenting resource problems for the party like no food, no water (which is very nasty in a desert campaign), even no bedrolls (when it is cold or wet). So there is no create food or water type spells.

    The effect has been interesting. Firstly dungeon exploration is much more old school than new school, due to the lack of information and easy spell shortcuts which the cleric had. Resources are prized the party even stoops to cooking and eating its foes which adds to a gritty realism. My mages can be book scholars, wild men of the desert or devout priestly types whilst still casting and aiding the party so real loss of effectiveness there. I would definitely keep clerics out of future campaigns.

    This campaign is set in the Bronze age but this could even work in medieval campaigns as you could split the church away from the spell casters. The church being full of non spell casting priests. The best thing is that this involves one less thing to track like reputation/divinity score with a particular God and dungeons can still be designed normally without tailoring it for the D&D info++ cleric.