So I have, uh, three tabletop RPGs in development right now. One's a little corporate sabotage game, inspired by Severance, Brazil, Paranoia… One of my mini horror games with poor long-term survivability, but neat premise, should be fun.
Second is my sword & planet RPG, still needs a lot of work for space & time & dimension mechanics; it works great for fantasy swordfighting but that's not the whole point. I considered using variant Traveller/Cepheus Engine for this, but the tone is not "grizzled vets play Elite", so I'm off in my own direction here.
Third is yet another in a long series of D&D house rules that become their own OGL game, and that's what I'm on about today. In replacement for my overly-variant and overly-3.x-mechanics Stone Halls & Serpent Men, or handwritten Olde House Rules. Name to be decided later.
I've been reading a lot of the very oldest games & magazines, and really getting in the space of "what does this game need instead of what Gary published?"
- New rules, basically OGL, spells & monsters are mostly stock from Swords & Wizardry White Box SRD, but some have partial to total rewrites. A handful of entirely new monsters, or takes on mythical/literary monsters. All new encounter table! I'm only using d20, d6 dice, and things you can do with those.
- Stats change Wisdom to Willpower (WIL). Stat bonuses are B/X-ish, -3 to +3, which works with a d20-based mechanic. Saves & skill rolls are all based on stats.
- HP start a little higher, Classed types get their CON score as base, but only d6 +/- 1 HD per Level. Somewhat like Arduin Grimoire. With limited healing, you need a bit more buffer between alive/dead. If you hit 0, you make death saves at penalty and probably die soon, but it's possible to be knocked out & captured like John Carter et al. do in every book.
- Species are Human, Dwarf, Wood Elf, Beastfolk. As previously noted in The Thing About Orcs, I don't do kill-on-sight intelligent beings. You can have wars against hostile tribes, but the Badger Beastfolk who runs the bakery is not at war with you. High Elves are, as usual for me, The Big Bad (as well as Serpent Men, because I'm a Kull fanboy). No "dark elves", "half-demon goth chick", "dragon scalyfucker", "hobbit", etc. species. As I noted in Orcs, Humans-only doesn't work well without cultural markers that are harder to explain.
- Classes are Fighter, Thief, Magician, and Spellsword (mediocre warriors with mediocre magic). No multi-class, no Clerics. Not doing anything fancy with career paths. Other than a few more experience options, and "Orgies, Inc" style pay-for-EP, it's a normal experience system! Who knew I could do that?! Should be interesting at least for this game.
- Magic has a number of hard limits, which will make you invest in traditional fantasy accoutrements like flying mounts and magic potions instead of being superheroes with pointy hats. It is Vancian, in the sense that I've actually read Jack Vance so it works like that. Minimized spell/item creation rules, but there is some support for stuck-in-a-tower research campaigns.
- Adventuring rules are simplified quite a bit, down to what I actually do in play; the more complex mechanics in SHSM rarely got used, the simple stuff does.
- I may just pull the Inspirational Media (aka "Appendix N") chapter from SHSM and post it as a page. That media list is what I mean by "pulp fantasy".
- Currently it's about 32 pages, not too densely packed, might be a bit more if I include more setting detail; certainly not above 48 pages, which seems a fine oldest-school size. Not bothering with art except the cover? I don't think so. Literature doesn't need interior art, use your imagination.
No Clerics Allowed
I don't see heroic Clerics in any of the pulp swords & sorcery I like. There's Priest-Magicians in Moorcock's Elric stories or Thieves World, and they're the baddies. New campaign world is more like Fritz Leiber's Nehwon, where at best the few priests seen are charlatans, at worst cultists. The only historical place they come from is Archbishop Turpin from La Chanson de Roland; even Le Morte d'Arthur has only knights who praise their god, not magic Clerics. The only fantasy Cleric I can think of that I like is Duncan from Deryni Rising, and he's a secretly-apostate priest who uses black magic to save his people from Christian Human genocide!
They don't appear in Chainmail (Heroes & Wizards), or Dave Arneson's games (Adventures in Fantasy has skill-based fighters, who develop faerry[sic] magic skills later). The only reason they were ever in the game was Gary had an annoying vampire PC, and rather than do anything OOC (unaware that Rousseau had published The Social Contract in 1762), he made a grudge class for someone else.
Getting rid of Clerics makes Undead terrifying, and I love the Undead but don't love turning the undead. You don't have a living body shield who can just turn Undead all day; a Magician's Protection, Area spell lasts a few turns and only delays your murder or waiting for sunrise. Healing becomes slow (high-Level Magicians can cast 1 healing spell per day) or expensive (potions and scrolls), which encourages you to creatively avoid combat, not wade in and heal later, unless you have superior power. No raise dead, resurrection, or restoration (tho "level drain" has a different meaning in my game).
The super weird part of Clerics in D&D is they're based very heavily on Medieval Catholic priests; they carry crosses (not "holy symbols") in OD&D, they use "blessed holy water", their miracles are all based on Jesus stories, their hierarchy is based on the Medieval Catholic Church (with some weird level titles). But then they do nothing related to the Church! Because they're just Van Helsing minus the science.
The thing that stands out to me most is they have no interaction with Faerie or other gods. Historically and in myth, The Church ordered Christians to mass murder any Pagans who wouldn't convert, and fought endlessly to genocide/unexist the Little People, the Fair Folk, the People Under the Hill, Trolls, whatever you call them; their worship barely survived at all in Iceland, Finland, Norway, they're just "fairy tales" now. The worlds of Law (Christianity) & Chaos (Faerie) are openly at war in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions. Clerics should be all carrying iron staves and fighting against the Fey. They do in Ars Magica. But it's never come up in D&D?
Blackmoor/Eldritch Wizardry/AD&D added Druids (historically, more Sage political leaders than lightning-throwing Poison Ivy/Captain Planet superheroes), who should literally be at bloody war all the time with Christian Clerics, but everyone's copacetic, it's an ecumenical matter. Church and Holly Grove are next door in the tiny village of Hommlett. They have Clay Golems, explicitly based on the Golem of Prague, made by Clerics instead of Jewish Rabbis (again, Sages, not magic Clerics except in some Torah stories). What. I do use Golems, I love "programmed clay/flesh/iron machine goes crazy" stories; but the religious issue is impossible to resolve.
If I cared one whit for religious ceremony and all that, well, you can still have religions without Clerics, as seen in our world. They can be non-Classed, Thieves (most appropriately), or Fighters, or even Magicians if you don't mind the cognitive dissonance. But the only old-timey-religions that have ever been in my games are demon-summoning cultists Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!, or fascist Templar priests, who are more political than religious.
So, the gameplay is better without Clerics. The world is much better (more like the pulp S&S I want) without Clerics. Even in a historical setting (which I very much do not do), Clerics shouldn't have superpowers.
Why Not 5E?
Because I don't need 1000 pages of corporate rules to tell me how to move down a corridor, check for traps, fight or flight. I really hate the superheroic power level. It's nearly impossible to disentangle the healing rules from it.