Thursday, 16 April 2015

Building a Sandbox Part Three: Classes

Following on from previous posts on this series, I'm going to once again use Rich Burlew's excellent articles on building a campaign setting as a guideline for my own paracosmic activities. Taking a lead from Burlew's article on character class decisions, I'll be discussing how the classes from Dark Dungeons will be utilised in my campaign setting.

Rich's article riffs principally on how divine and arcane spellcasters are distinguished in his campaign setting, and I shall pick things up there before spiralling off on my own tangent. The Fells campaign takes place in a magical region of an otherwise mundane world: in the mundane realm, magic is far from an everyday commonplace occurrence yet in the fey-world of The Fells it is very real. So how does this affect choices concerning character classes?

Druids as depicted by 18th century romantics, 21st C WotC artists and and 20th C Belgian cartoonists...
My relationship with the Dungeons & Dragons cleric class has always been conflicted. I like the idea of magical powers being granted by divine powers to their devout followers and I recognise the historic precedent of men-of-the -cloth also being men-at-arms (and the precedent set by the bishop in chess). But I've always been uneasy with the idea of character levels corresponding to position in a church's (or other religious order's) hierarchy, at least with regard to NPCs. Think about it: characters mainly accumulate levels by killing other beings. Is the all-powerful yet gentle patriarch of generic lawful good church really a mass murderer? Furthermore, do all members of the priestly caste (or profession) receive training in arms?

The mundane world that complements the magic one of The Fells is modelled loosely on an early medieval, Celtic society. I envisage a medieval Scotland, Wales or Ireland (or maybe even Brittany or Cornwall) where there was no Roman invasion, and no subsequent "christianisation". It would therefore make sense to extrapolate the pagan practices of Celtic cultures into a feudal setting. Much of what we know about the religion of the pre-Christian Celts is drawn from three sources: the piecemeal archaeological record, the unreliable accounts of classical scholars and romantic medieval literature (principally Irish in origin). The latter of these sources was also the inspiration for much of the 19th century Celtic (and pagan) revival, upon which contemporary lay understanding of Celtic culture is founed. As unreliable as these sources may be, the are to be an inspiration for an interesting backdrop rather than an historically authentic reconstruction.

What is at least partly clear is that a significant figure in the religious life of the Celts was the druid. By all accounts druids represented an educated class occupying positions as divergent as priest, doctor, advisor, astronomer and sorcerer. The conceptualisation of druid in D&D as some kind of magical guardian of nature was most likely inspired by the aforementioned 19th Century romanticisation of Celtic culture. Having said that, it could be postulated that historical druids may well have evolved from a prehistoric shaman-type figure closer more akin to the familiar figure in D&D.

Pseudo-intellectual conjecture aside, let us contextualise this in terms of the campaign world of The Fells. In my brief outline of the mystical origins of the campaign world, the druids may have acted as ambassadors from the human world and that of the magical fey, and played an integral role in bringing about the ultimate liberation of both parties from the tyranny of their as yet unidentified masters. The Fey may have granted them magical power (or guided them in how to access the power of "nature i.e. the fey world" ), as well as knowledge of herbs, medicine and perhaps things like writing (ogham runes) and primitive crafts. This would have made the early druids important figures, as well as guardians of occult knowledge.

Unlike their RW counterparts, the druids of the valleys/fells never experienced persecution by a imperial power (i.e. Rome), nor were they sidelined by a militant new religion (i.e. Christianity). As such, it can be envisaged that the druids would have assumed a more secular role within society, alongside those sacred duties (the sanctification of marriages, births and deaths; confirming divine approval to rulers) that would otherwise be accorded to a priestly caste similar to the medieval Christian church. Note that this evolution would have been parallel to the decline of magic in the Valley kingdoms, as the fey withdrew to The Fells.

The druids in the Valley Kingdoms function as a unified order with a hierarchical leadership structure. Though they originally venerated nature and the mystical power of the Otherworld, this has evolved into a polytheistic religion, whereby heroic figures from the near-mythical past have been conflated with the lords of the fey and worshipped as gods. There is still a loose association with nature in rituals and philosophy, but perhaps it is symbolic, similar to the pastoral motifs (the lord as shepherd to his flock) found throughout the new testament.

Because all technical knowledge is considered to be of divine origin, provision of this knowledge is controlled by the preistly caste, i.e. the druids. Everything from mathematics to metallurgy, literature to lore, medicine to masonry is managed by various orders of the druidic council.

Phew. If you're reading this as an OSR or sandbox-play enthusiast and are thinking "what the fuck is all this special snowflakery bullshit?", let me explain myself. This post is very much a journal of the thought processes that are helping me to make decisions about the role and "flavour" off clerics in the campaign world of The Fells. I have no intention of shoving this down the throat of prospective players. Instead, a brief series of bullet points on the classes restrictions and background would suffice. I promise.

Druids Inciting the Britons to Oppose the Landing of the Romans, Cassell's History of England.
Now: resisting the urge to make a comprehensive list of druidic orders (complete with Gaelic-inspired name, colout-coded hood/cloak combos and area of responsibility), I'll return to the issue of how this affects the cleric character class in The Fells. It stands to reason that the druids are keen to preserve the exclusivity of the knowledge that they hoard. If their secrets entered the public domain they would lose their position of power and privilege. There would need to be a martial order to serve as custodians of the ancient teachings, an order whose loyalty was beyond doubt. What better way to ensure loyalty than to sanctify their duties? These warrior-druids would therefore be amongst the most devout, a facet that I will use to justify their uncommon spellcasting abilities. Furthermore, the oaths of the druid-warrior might also preclude the use of certain weapons (or necessitate the use of traditional or ceremonial weaponry), a parallel to the conventional rule of clerics being unable to use blunt weapons.

In the mundane lands of the Valley, being a druid does not automatically confer magical powers. Pragmatic druids may privately dismiss belief in magic as superstition, and concentrate on their area of mundane responsibility. The warrior-druids (and I will need a better name for them- let's say katadru, from proto Celtic) believe in all the myths. They honour the gods, but recognise the gods as emanating from the Otherworld. They know most of the great myths of the The Fells, and truly believe in the power of the fey. For this reason, when a katadru first prays to the Otherworld when entering The Fells, they find that they have been granted spellcasting powers. These powers are not manifest in the mundane realms. 

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