Philosopher-Priests and Other Anomalies

Philosophers and the Power of Belief

The rarest and most controversial aspect of spirituality in the world of Tolrea is that belief in a deity is unnecessary for some people to manifest the ability to channel magic in the same way as a cleric. On extremely rare occasions, a philosopher-cleric arises spontaneously. These rare individuals formulate new ways of viewing the world, and their belief in the validity of the paradigms they espouse grants them the same kinds of power that a priestly cleric would attribute to the gods. Clerics who gain their power from the strength of their personal philosophies choose two domains to represent the general direction of their beliefs. Good-aligned philosophical clerics channel positive energy, turning or destroying undead and spontaneously casting cure spells. Evil philosophical clerics channel negative energy, rebuking or commanding undead and spontaneously casting inflict spells. Neutral philosophical clerics choose which sort of energy to channel. Once they make this choice, it cannot be unmade.

Most philosopher-clerics are the only adherents of their personal philosophies. On rare occasions, such a cleric becomes the founder of a persistent system of belief, and like-minded individuals begin to gather around him or her. In these extremely rare scenarios, other philosopher-clerics with similar powers to the founding cleric rise amongst the founder’s disciples.

Some atheists take the existence of such godless clerics as evidence that no gods exist. Other more radical thinkers suggest that godless clerics and their activities are the ultimate source of religions, and that the gods are no more than the legacies of particularly successful philosopher-clerics and their ideas, distorted and magnified by the passage of time. Still other theologians hold that demons, angels, and other powerful outsiders collude to manipulate the mortal world by empowering clerics in competition with the gods.

Sidebar: Designing a Philosophy

The decision to play a philosophical cleric requires the Dungeon Master’s express permission and cooperation. Once the Dungeon Master approves a player’s request to create such a character, the player and Dungeon Master should work together to establish a philosophy which meets the following criteria.

  1. The character’s personal philosophy must be internally consistent.
  2. The domains to which the character gains access must be clearly related to and consistent with the character’s personal philosophy, whether at a literal or symbolic level
  3. The character’s personal philosophy must be distinct from the belief system of any existing faith detailed in the base campaign setting material for Tolrea.

In general, the player should be respectful of the Dungeon Master’s and the other players’ enjoyment of the game. If the rest of the player’s gaming group is playing paladins, good-aligned monks, and similar lawful good character types with the expectation of a campaign with a serious tone overall, it would be unwise to ask to play a chaotic neutral philosophical cleric whose belief system hinges on the idea that only the cleric’s self is real, and that all other beings are imaginary and hence lack not only rights, but even thought and free will. Such a character would logically treat everyone he encounters as little more than a particularly interactive piece of furniture, and would likely prove disruptive to other players’ enjoyment of the game. Worse still, a philosophy based on solipsism is unlikely to provide meaningful guidance about how to approach a major decision.

On the other hand, in the same group as described above a player might reasonably ask the Dungeon Master to consider giving permission to play a chaotic good philosophical cleric whose belief system turns on a central idea that sacrifice and adaptation are the root of good fortune. Such a cleric might gain access to the Destruction and Luck domains to reflect her belief that without letting go of possessions, loved ones, and past experiences, it is impossible to genuinely embrace the goods offered by the future.

In designing a sound personal philosophy for your character, it is important to consider how your character’s alignment supports her personal philosophy, how your character’s philosophy affects her decision-making processes, and whether your character can give a clear explanation of what she believes and why she believes it. You should also consider what effect the character’s philosophy has on her interactions with others, and whether the character tries to evangelize to win converts. Other important questions to answer have to do with decisions about what your character swears by, and what your character does when a traditional cleric is praying for spells. If asked for an oath by whatever she holds most sacred, what does she say? Does she meditate, or pray to a concept? Finally, it may be helpful to think about how the character feels about established religions, and why.

The State as God

A variation on the phenomenon of philosophical clerics appears in the sporadic rise of belief systems featuring the veneration of a nation. Especially powerful, enduring, and prosperous countries can become the focus of patriotic feelings of an intensity commensurate with other peoples’ experience of religious faith. Unlike philosophical clerics, who arise spontaneously when an individual pursues his personal beliefs with unusual zeal, clerics of a national cult usually arise in gradually increasing numbers as a culture becomes more stable and prosperous, increases its military power, and establishes a rich heritage of distinctive culture and tradition. National clerics of a particular country lack the individual variation which is typical between philosophical clerics, since their powers are an extension of their shared patriotism.

Not every state becomes a focus of the degree of fanatical patriotism which gives rise to a national cult. Even an extremely powerful, wealthy, stable, and cultured empire may never develop the level of patriotism necessary to give rise to national clerics, and not every state suffers from a loss in its citizens’ devotion to it if it experiences military defeat, economic troubles, or political instability. An example of a state which has become the focus of a religious system is the kingdom of Zenthar and its state cult, the Faith of Zenthar.

Heresy and Heretics

When someone holds a religious belief that is against the orthodox, or “correct” teachings of his or her church, that person is a heretic. Heresy is a significant problem in the eyes of most priests, since a heretical cleric’s powers throw doubt upon the validity of orthodox beliefs. An example of such an heretical cult is the continuing belief that Oceus and Herenus of the Celestial Court are not separate entities, as the orthodox clergy of both faiths maintain, but that they are aspects of the same divine presence. This heresy is usually called Terinism after Ubertus Terin, a notable cleric and preacher who was responsible for its spread through the Aureshan Empire approximately 300 years ago. The Terenist heresy is widespread, and draws considerable attention even from orthodox clergy outside of the churches of Herenus and Oceus because it suggests that the two gods share the same basic substance. Orthodox clerics consider that this belief opens the door for people to believe that all of the gods are one god. If such a belief were to take root, they reason, people would lose their grasp on the moral compass provided by the gods, and vacillate willy-nilly between serving the interests of Agon or Welerus, at a whim.

Designing an heresy relies upon the same criteria as those used to design a philosophy. In cases like the Terenist heresy, clerics should choose their domains from the lists associated with either god or both gods. In other cases, the cleric might gain access to a single non-standard domain to represent his or her difference from orthodox clerics—for example, an heretical werebear cleric of Derena might decide that lycanthropy is a call to serve the goddess. Such an heretic might access the Animal domain to represent the lycanthrope-centered viewpoint of his heresy. He would choose his other domain from Derena’s usual list.