Perhaps not surprisingly, I am very interested in clerics. I am a clergyperson in real life, serving a small congregation affiliated with two progressive denominations. In some sense, then, I, too, am a cleric! However, my interest in the character class goes all the way back to the B/X (Basic/Expert) Dungeons and Dragons that I played in the '80's. That was WAY before I did anything churchy. If you wanted your PC to live, a cleric was a nice choice. Playing a cleric I had solid armor and weapons, reasonable hit points and (at second level) spells to get those hit points back. I was attracted to the class because of the mechanics. The whole religion thing came later.
In a sense that "original" cleric stayed with us. It is a martial archetype, a sort of pre-paladin off to the crusades. However, as the game developed I--and a ton of other people--found that archetype limiting. After all, when we look at today's religious landscape there are all kinds of religious leaders. There are sequestered monks, scholarly rabbis, and dynamic, entertaining pulpiteers just to name a few. Then, when one adds in the fact that many--probably most--traditional fantasy settings are polytheistic, the range of clerics increases. When we look at the vast array of religious experience--both real and imagined--that strangely medieval "high church' knight of the early years knocking out heathens starts to make the least sense of all.
Now, I have played a variety of clerics of the years. Also, for our church youth group game (no "Satanic Panic" here) I tried to develop an order of clergy loosely based on my own tradition (Congregationalism). What I ended up with was an order of druids and bards who all run taverns and debate the existence of their deity who--strangely enough--occasionally drops in for drinks in the guise of an anthropomorphic lizard.--Sometimes the ministry feels like that.
Thanks to these experiences, I have decided to focus on two big challenges when roleplaying a religious leader. However, before we get to these challenges it is worth mentioning an overarching dynamic. Certain character classes in games like D&D or Pathfinder, for example, have clear real-world analogies. For RP purposes you can be (or know) a cleric, a bard, or any number of rogues. One could make a real-world argument for fighters and rangers as well. However, none of us actually knows a wizard or warlock or monk. They have fantasy hard-wired in. That said, I do believe that RP'ing clerics presents another special hurdle or asset, depending on how one looks at it. So on to the challenges...
The first of these problems comes from our own relationship with religion and our general lack of understanding about how it works. Because we don't know that much we bring our own biases into the game. This is not a shocker. Of course we do. However, it is limiting. If we do not know a fair sample of religious professionals (regardless of their religion) how can we make a fair assessment of our options? Certainly not by watching movies. More often than not--if there is a religious figure in a film at all--that person is a shorthand stand-in for the judgmental establishment. So many of the clerics I know in real life are non-judgmental and decidedly counter-cultural. I am not saying that hideous clergy don't exist--I know a lot of those folks too! However, It is worth remembering that Fred Rogers was also a minister..
Also, when we think of religion we often exclude the internal experience of our own naturally agnostic selves. This is too bad. After all what we see imperfectly outside ourselves should not be prioritized over our own thoughts and reflections. From a psychological or sociological perspective, we all have religious tendencies because we all want to make sense of the world we live in. This fact includes atheists. I actually know a large number of atheist clergy and they are some of the most religious people I have encountered. They are faithful to their world view and their beliefs.
Religions can be very toxic or they can be a blessing. Often one tradition can be both. Also, they can be organized or disorganized. Life is messy, after all. In its "purest" sense, though, faith isn't something you have permanently and all the time. It is an ideal that can be "lived into" even as we fall short. It is a path leading to a dimly conceived goal. It is an adventure of the mid and heart, which makes real-world--or RPG world-- adventures possible.
When we think of RP'ing a cleric, though, we often narrow our scope. even though that crusader image is increasingly a thing of the past, we often start with the idea that our character possesses theological certainty. Paladins have this problem as well. We think that they never have doubts or that they will want to "convert" everyone to their way of thinking (more about that in a minute). I have been a minister for 20 years and I have to tell you that I have doubts every single day. I also have never tried to "convert" anyone. Your clerics (and paladins) can be a hot spiritual mess sometimes while still being good people and being faithful to whatever divine entity they serve.
This brings us to the second problem. We bring our understanding of clerics into a world that is fundamentally different from that of our own. There is a wide variety of worlds that we game in. However, the default--certainly in the popular worlds put out by popular companies--is to take a polytheistic system of faith and put it into a Western European setting without making making all that many adjustments. In a lot of settings (like the one for my youth group that I mentioned earlier). The gods just wander around, dropping in on their followers. In others there is no clear religious system and instead a smattering of cults. The challenge for our brains is to separate these different systems from the one we are familiar with. It is a hard thing to do.
Naturally we look at these worlds through our own lens and can forget to make adjustments. In a world with tiny cults, for example, conversion makes total sense. In a world like ours--with a few large "world religions"--it makes less sense. In both of those cases what religion you identify as frequently has massive cultural implications. Think of all the people who don't go to church but do celebrate Christmas and Easter! A smaller cult would probably have even more intense cultural markers to separate themselves from others.
In a polytheistic world with "teams" of gods, conversion doesn't make much sense at all because someone else's deity might be besties with yours! Also, the existence of gods is not really questioned. They are right there...at the other end of the bar. Cultural markers will be different too and while it may not take a lot of thought it does take some. There might be some clues in Hindu practices if your world is one of these.
OK, I am running out of steam but there is so much more to say! Every once in a while I will come back to the topic of religion in world-building and roleplaying. I would like to talk about building realistic church or temple governance structures for fantasy worlds, for example. One can have a completely fantastic game without thinking about these things but if you want to think about them, they will enrich your world.
Bonus link of the Week:
Here is a sermon I gave a couple weeks ago about the deep welcome I have found in nerd culture over the years: NERDS!