So one day I wrote:
As a follow-up to:
A Word on Archetype
Dungeons and Dragons is fantasy in a medieval time period as a default setting. There are others, but this is the general world this is set in. This same setting would also have included the times that things like the crusades would have occurred in. The classes and their concepts are drawn from that time and with that we need to address two classes: paladins and clerics.
Moreso than other classes, these two are centered on a connection to the Divine. Divine Smite, Divine Health, Divine Intervention.
Which is to say: god(s), goddess(es), deity(ies).
That also means all of the baggage that comes with it on mechanic and conceptual levels. Mechanics like, “Displeasing your deities of choice means you will lose your powers until you please them or another.” Concepts like atonement that handle that journey to regain their favor as part of the narrative.
So let’s talk about the idea of philosophy in this.
What about Philosophy
This is where we go into the realm of belief and devotion to a cause that makes up the core of the paladin and cleric classes. Most of your oaths have ties to some divinity save Oath of the Ancients and Oath of the Crown which are your flex options in case you don’t want direct references to deity.
Could philosophies fit into this archetype? Possibly. Oath of the Crown would play out for devotion to a nation or a people. Oath of the Ancients only asks that you do good and increase the “light” in the world, leaving that open for interpretation by both player and DM.
However, we need to address that archetypical baggage above. When you serve a deity that is aligned to a particular moral and social axis, there is that struggle there as an adventurer to do things that adhere to those tenets because your deity is omnipresent and watching. What happens when you break them? Loss of your divinely-bestowed gifts until amendments are made.
Now let’s talk about philosophies in that light. When power is derived from what we believe, we have to stay aware that belief and power is changes over time. What is the consequence of changing a belief from which you generate supernatural power?
- You’re not a monk who derives power purely from inner strength.
- You’re not a warlock whose agreements require some belief in otherworldly power, but not allegiance.
- You’re not a druid whose power is derived from nature itself.
The underlying issue? Our views in the real world are ones that we often superimpose on the game. If you don’t believe me, ask how many times you’ve considered an idea for a game based entirely in fantasy and have been told, “but that’s not realistic.”
That applies here.
Our relationship to organized religion has a direct impact on the things we are asking of the game when it comes to paladins. On a level of game mechanics, can we have a paladin made purely on philosophy? Yes. Is that in line with the design of that class? By and large, no.
Why? Again, archetype.
The larger conversation here is summed up very well here:
To sum up: the way that the paladin and cleric archetypes are designed in such a way that doesn’t allow them to easily leave it or evolve with the many ways we currently relate to religion.
In addition, when you have a paladin or cleric with power, but with no attachment to a deity, it also fractures several things both about the game and narrative around them as a whole.
The current state of D&D isn’t equipped for this larger conversation which makes it difficult to translate to the game in any impactful way.
Without the concept of deity that a paladin need be devoted to, what other relationships to power do they have? Vengeance and nationalism. How is that characterized in the world?
For example, you swear your allegiance to a kingdom.
- What happens when the king dies?
- What happens if the kingdom is ever conquered?
- What happens if the kingdom becomes evil or unaligned to that which you swore allegiance?
On the subject of philosophy:
- What if trauma changes your mind?
- What if experience changes your mind?
Without deity to account for? How are we handling that?
But, Syn: Oath of the Ancients is a whole thing that exists?
That it does. A whole commitment to love and light in the world. But do you need to be a paladin for that? No, you don’t. You could be literally any other class in the game and have that commitment without any of the religious baggage here.
Being a barbarian is a better idea. Being a warlock is a better idea. Being a sorceror is a better idea. Being a bard – who can both heal and resurrect – is a better idea.
All of these come with fewer issues overall as well since the only thing missing would be the deity we didn’t want to include. Because that is the quintessential trait of clerics and paladins: their relationship to power via the channel of deity.
So where does this leave us?
In need of a better-prescribed way to handle these relationships to religion that is a bit more expansive and includes more than one perspective on what faith is, means, and looks like without having to homebrew it.
Those perspectives are lacking in the core game although supplements have been written to fill in parts of those gaps. Here’s an example from Mage Hand Press. A solid start, but we have further to go.
I think that means having conversations like these so that we can live in a world where everyone can be the characters they want to be and have that mean things at a narrative level without having to wrangle a number of concepts together for it to ultimately make sense.