Religion in Gaming—Types of “Priest”

In previous articles I’ve somewhat simplistically used priest as a standard term for a religious leader. It’s not the best option by any means but it’s a functional one at least in terms of “person who is leading the religious community in some way”. But even that is a very broad category and the role of any “priest”—be they an Imam, Shaman, Vicar, Rabbi, Abbot etc—in any faith is usually very different to that of their peers. Using any title always comes loaded with inferences and assumptions of both faith and culture so there isn’t really a conveniently neutral version.
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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

But the problem did remind me that it is worth breaking down some of what any religious leader is expected to do. There are myriad different responsibilities and each faith can demand very different things of those who serve their community. So, in this article I’ll attempt (again painfully simplistically) to break down the various things any religious leader can mean to their community. To define terms here, when I use “priest” I’m referring to any religious leader of any form, and “adherent” is anyone who follows that religion as a lay member of the community.

Any particular faith might expect such leaders to be all of these things or even just one of them. There might be a whole series of roles covering each of these options within their faith. But you may create some interesting roles by simply combining two or three as the responsibilities of a priest of any particular faith. In some faiths all these responsibilities might be parcelled out in different ways to a variety of different roles within the faith. How these roles interact within the faith and draw lines between these responsibilities will create a more interesting and individual background for your faith.

Ritual Leader

One of the most obvious roles is for someone to lead religious rituals. This might be grand occasions like a wedding but also the day-to-day rituals of regular worship like a mass. There may even be sub-qualifications for what type or level of priest can perform which types of ritual. The position the priest takes in such rituals can also be varied. Some might be considered a manifestation of the deity in some way, but might just as easily just be someone to start the singing or guide people on when to sit or stand. Much of this job will depend on the rituals themselves. If they are especially grand the priest might be more like a conductor directing a variety of lay members and adherents in a variety of tasks. In simpler rituals they might just be handing out a songsheet.

Speaker

It is common to many religions for the priest to offer some form of sermon to the adherents at regular worship. While this might be part of a job of guiding ritual this does require a bit more work on the part of the priest. Instead of following the set ritual plan, as a speaker they need to come up with a speech.

It is worth noting that this is one of the main times the adherents can see the personal character of the priest and hear their personal interpretation of the faith. A good speaker might draw new adherents, and if their words are reported far and wide their personal view of the faith may gather people to them specifically rather than the faith as a whole. In some ages this power has led some priests to play a significant part in politics. They guide the faith of their community and speak openly for or against the rulers of the day and if their policies are in line with the faith (or at least how they see it).

Advisor

A more personal version of speaker is as an advisor in not just religious but also personal matters. The most common advice is for how to follow certain aspects of the faith and resolving and conflict with daily life of inconsistencies within the religious lore. But it is also common for priest advisors to offer relationship counselling, discuss the best way to raise children or deal with teenagers or even offer career advice.

So while most adherents want to know how to lead their best life according to the faith, they might come to the priest for advice on major life decisions, whether or not they impact their faith. In some cases a priest might be sought out by people outside their faith if their advice is always known to be helpful.

Fortune Teller

People often want to know the future, although some faiths may consider it a heresy to try and predict the plans of the Gods. Even so, many priests, especially in the ancient world, were regularly asked to act as oracles. This might be on a personal level or in grand augurs to the assembled populace. It is also possible such insight might be reserved only for particular people, such as leaders or high ranking members of the faithful. The nature of the predicting will depend on the religion in question. There are as many ways to predict the future as there are religions, from tarot cards, to tea leaves, to fire reading to investigating entrails.

Healers

Whether they use magic or not, priests are often also healers. They might offer full medical aid or work within the domain of their faith. So a priest of fire might only heal burns, a priest of war might be a battlefield medic etc. Even if they are not full physicians, priests will often serve as midwives and nurses for their community and offer their places of worship as hospital facilities. Some faiths might offer healing for more than the body. They might have techniques to deal with mental illness as well as magical or demonic diseases.

Charitable Donations

Part of ministering to a community is ministering to its poorest members. Many priests collect resources for the underprivileged in their community. In some cases it might only be within the faith community but few check the beliefs of those in need. While money is an obvious donation, food and clothing are also commonly given and shared. Some faiths offer a simple meal to anyone who comes to their temple.

In general, priests are considered figures of trust, so even if they don’t collect money they might be considered the best people to take care of it. If the church is also an active donor to the charity the priests may more of the collecting and distribution. Some faiths also encourage their adherents to donate regularly, which would also be administered by the church.

Defender

While not especially common outside martial faiths, a priest may be called upon to physically defend the places and people who follow their faith. In a high magic game they might be expected to maintain blessings and wards to keep people safe. But they might just as easily be expected to pick up a weapon and fight. While this is the classic” cleric” it might easily be a role suited to adherents. In ancient Japan, warriors of the Samurai caste often retired to life as a monk. Should their monastery or the community it served suffer an attack they were expected to take up arms. Even in their twilight years, most were lethal fighters.

Priests may also be expected to fight less physical enemies as well. They are often the front line against demons and evil outsiders. As such, their skills in warding and protecting, as well as exorcism, might be in high demand if demons are commonplace.

Example

While it is implied in the job description, many priests might also serve as an example of leading a virtuous and holy life. This is more evident in faiths seeking enlightenment. There the monks walk the hard path to enlightenment to prove it can be done as long as you have dedication and commitment. But even if the faith doesn’t insist on casting aside all material possessions or constant meditation, it is reasonable to assume any priest will keep the laws of the faith. Having said that, it is possible they are expected to live a more “worldly life” so they might remain close to the ordinary people they serve. Such priests might be expected to give up their chance for enlightenment in this lifetime to help others towards it.

Serving as an example might not just relate to peace of mind or good moral character. Some faiths believe that honing the body is as important as honing the mind and that your body is a gift you should ensure is always in peak condition. This is very much the ethos of the Shaolin monks whose physical regime through martial arts is mainly practiced to help them reach physical perfection as they also work towards enlightenment. It just so happens to also make them exceptionally skilled combatants.

Caretaker

There are often a lot of buildings and shrines owned by a faith and someone needs to look after them. Gods rarely offer their power to perform basic building maintenance and the last thing you want is for the roof to fall in during worship. So it is common for priests to be charged with the responsibility to take care of one or more faith buildings. How this works will depend of the nature of the faith’s buildings. The most common is for a priest to take care of the central building of worship that serves their community. But a travelling priest might spend their time walking between roadside shrines and maintain them as they travel around. Some might even be charged to take care of ancient shrines hidden in dark and dangerous places where they might need a party of adventurers to help them reach it.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine



maceochaid

Explorer
This is a great list! I think some left off are:

intermediary acting as a conduit between the physical and spiritual world. Whether to send messages to loved ones/ancestors who have passed on, or to ask Gods and spirits for favors

redeemer when people are seen as "polluted" either through sin, or coming in contact with a spiritually impure substance or situation the priest could specifically remove this condition. This is similar to ritual leader, but especially for fantasy games removing curses or absolving fallen heroes could be engaging plot hooks
 


diceexmachina

Explorer
Teacher is another important function of a priestly character, especially if the religion values education in some fashion. Whether it is educating the faithful in tenets of the faith (which has overlap with the "Speaker" function) or providing instruction in things like reading, writing, rhetoric, or even what we might consider "STEM" topics. Most institutions of learning today are derived from religious institutions of learning, either as models or being literally the same institutions.
 

There's the type of Priest of the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar who sort of is a courtesan/sex-worker. Though trying to keep the concept in a more friendly-family terms, in some ways you could say they're entertainers (though I guess they could be advisors).
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
There's the type of Priest of the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar who sort of is a courtesan/sex-worker. Though trying to keep the concept in a more friendly-family terms, in some ways you could say they're entertainers (though I guess they could be advisors).
Ritual/Advisor/Healer. Also at times intercessors between man and diety.
 

So fun little detail: classically, priest meant someone who could perform sacrifices. This is why rabbis aren't priests - kohenim are. (but there's no temple to perform sacrifices at so that's sort of a theoretical position.) Eucharist is considered a sacrifice so many types of Christianity have proper priests.

Monks and other ascetics are not on the list - Christian monks perform a sort of cosmic function by isolating themselves they can focus on more holy duties like pray seven times a day. They do work, but the work is incidental to the real function of prayer.

Buddhist monks, though, are something else entirely - they seek only for their own enlightenment, which has minimal community benefit beyond showing that through enough incarnations you, too, can escape samsara. (Enlightened Compassion means they'll do a lot of good in the time between achieving enlightenment and dying, but that might not be a lot of time)

I'm not sure how to define it, but there is a link where some clerics separate from the world and focus on purely religious concerns, and this is somehow o the net benefit of society/the world even if it's hard to see those returns.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
So fun little detail: classically, priest meant someone who could perform sacrifices. This is why rabbis aren't priests - kohenim are. (but there's no temple to perform sacrifices at so that's sort of a theoretical position.) Eucharist is considered a sacrifice so many types of Christianity have proper priests.

not entirely, in English the word Priest is used both for presbyter and hiereus/sacerdos. Presbyteros is an Elder, one who leads the adherent community, whereas Hiereus are those who offer sacrifice and other rituals.
Hiereus in english is seen in the term Hierophant - one who reveals the sacred mysteries.
 
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Yaarel

Mind Mage
LOL. I know the term "priest" is wrong, but I am going to use it anyway, because ... I dont care about being ethnocentric to misrepresent other cultures especially with regard to what they hold sacred?

"Clergy" is a somewhat more ethnically inclusive term, to include shamans and so on, and happily D&D happens to use this term in the form of "Cleric".

Drop the term "priest", already. It really is inappropriate.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
The list of sacred vocations in the original post omits "Scholar".

For example, the Rabbi of Rabbinic Judaism, is first and foremost a scholar, a "sage". Originally, the rabbis were political leaders, members of a parliament (the Sanhendrin), that represents the indigenous descendants of Yisrael in their sacred ancestral Land. The duties of a rabbi evolve over centuries, but being experts of the indigenous legal system (halakha) remains central, even when the rabbi serves pastoral duties for the congregation and presides over ceremonial celebrations and commemorations.
 
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Yaarel

Mind Mage
There's the type of Priest of the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar who sort of is a courtesan/sex-worker. Though trying to keep the concept in a more friendly-family terms, in some ways you could say they're entertainers (though I guess they could be advisors).
It depends on each culture, of course. In nearby Mideast cultures, the "sex worker" is often understood to incarnate the sex goddess (such as Ashera, etcetera). Thus she is a manifestation of fertility blessings, who brings the sexual ritual participants larger families, more cattle, larger crops, and more wealth.
 

Teacher is another important function of a priestly character, especially if the religion values education in some fashion. Whether it is educating the faithful in tenets of the faith (which has overlap with the "Speaker" function) or providing instruction in things like reading, writing, rhetoric, or even what we might consider "STEM" topics. Most institutions of learning today are derived from religious institutions of learning, either as models or being literally the same institutions.

The boundaries between what we consider different disciplines used to be a lot more porous--science used to be called 'natural philosophy' because it was part of philosophy. The Church was basically the only source of education in medieval Europe. 'Clerk', meaning someone who writes things down and handles written tasks, derives from 'cleric'--tasks involving literacy were much more prestigious when nobody could read!
 

The list of sacred vocations in the original post omits "Scholar".

For example, the Rabbi of Rabbinic Judaism, is first and foremost a scholar, a "sage". Originally, the rabbis were political leaders, members of a parliament (the Sanhendrin), that represents the indigenous descendants of Yisrael in their sacred ancestral Land. The duties of a rabbi evolve over centuries, but being experts of the indigenous legal system (halakha) remains central, even when the rabbi serves pastoral duties for the congregation and presides over ceremonial celebrations and commemorations.

DMs with a taste for world-building could pick and choose the specific clerical duties to match the culture. (Rabbis being primarily scholars does fit the Jewish love of education, for instance.)

I do like the idea of going back to 'cleric'--it's familiar to most gamers if only through osmosis and doesn't really fit common usage for any currently used religious specialist.

Elsewhere (posted in one of our many witch discussions) I found the work of Michael James Winkelman, who distinguishes between shamans, priests, healers, witches, and mediums, each with their own list of supernatural abilities (is this not perfectly set up for gaming?)

Here's a link to an open-access article with his work:

 
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MGibster

Legend
LOL. I know the term "priest" is wrong, but I am going to use it anyway, because ... I dont care about being ethnocentric to misrepresent other cultures especially with regard to what they hold sacred?
In anthropological terms, a priest is religious leader authorized by an organization to perform rituals that influence the supernatural and to lead their followers in religious practices. Priest/priestesses include rabbis, mullahs, Imams, the Pythia, the sacerdotes of Proserpina, swamis, mobads, and many, many more from a variety of faiths. Using the word priest isn't a slight on anyone.

"Clergy" is a somewhat more ethnically inclusive term, to include shamans and so on, and happily D&D happens to use this term in the form of "Cleric".
It's really no better than priest.

Drop the term "priest", already. It really is inappropriate.
It's really not. Folks, go ahead and keep using it.
 

Staffan

Legend
I've concluded some years ago that most fantasy games have plenty of gods, but not actually any religions. There rarely is any kind worldview or much in the way of morals and dogma specific to different gods.
I tend to see it more as the other way around. There are lots of gods, and each has their own religion and views on what things are good and moral. So instead of praying to Chauntea for a bountiful harvest, Tempus for the courage to defending it from bandits, Waukeen for getting a good price at the market, and Sune for luck in wooing that lady you've been eyeing at the harvest festival, you will have adherents and priesthoods of all four deities each trying to sell you on The One True Way. Life is complicated, and polytheistic deities can't provide guidance in all walks of life, because each one is inherently limited to their own aspects. They only work when treated as a whole pantheon, where different gods are celebrated in different circumstances.

The only major setting that's really caught on to this is Eberron, with its Sovereign Host as the pantheon of Civilization and the Dark Six as the gods of those parts of the world you can't escape, but would rather not deal with. In addition to these you have other religions, but mostly non-theistic ones, each of which provides a different view of the world and how to deal with it.
 

I try to be as generic as possible when making for titles for religious leaders, whether normal NPCs or those with actual spells and powers, because if I used more specific real-world titles, they would get used for the Evil religions too. That would mean Evil Bishops and Evil Rabbis and Evil Imams and so on. So I will keep using the very generic Priest/Priestess or Cleric in my settings. Besides, the ancient Pagan religions and their Priests/Priestesses predate the Judeo-Christian-Islamic belief systems.
 

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