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


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Nice write up and comments. But with one detail missed. Clerics (or priests) in a fantasy world have nothing in common with their real life counter part.

Not only are they talking to their gods through their prayers, but they are actually empowered by them through spells! Yes I have seen the argument that in a world where arcane casters are existing the appearance of a divine caster might viewed as a different focus to use/conduit to make magic. But this is both reductive and deny the fact that a god can make a real physical appearance through an avatar if needed. After all, any priest of 10th level can ask for a miracle...

This make the cleric a true and proven representative of the god(s) he/she is championing. Hard to argue with the guy that can call down angels and asks for help. He is not forcing them, he is asking and they are doing it out of respect for the guy. Just that should mean a lot.

So the churches in a fantasy world do exclusively one thing, they promote their god(s) and the ethos to exclusion of everything else. The means of doing it might be varied, but the goal is quite clear, to enhanced their god's status and to fight the enemies of their gods. They might do charity work or guard duty and even wars. But they are not there to service the people but to service their god and the ethos of the god.

And in exchange, depending on the power of the god, the people receive healing, rain, protection from the undead and their enemies through the power of the priesthood. All this for their devotions and maybe a bit of money from donations. But contrary to real world, the rewards are tangible and quite real.
 

Ixal

Hero
I assume by religious leader you mean someone who leads a group of people through religious rituals, for example the village priest, and not THE leader like the pope.

What could also be added

Lead.
Not in the religious sense but worldly realms.
Not all religions practiced a separation between church and state. Sometimes a religious leader was also a ruler.

Ritual Participated
That might already be included under Ritual Leader, but not in all religions do priests lead the normal people. Instead rituals are so important that they must be performed by professionals.
That also has the effect that should the ritual fail and it doesn't happen what the ritual was for there is one person who is to blame...

Another problem with the term priest is the lack of hirarchy except high priest.
But most religions, especially the larger ones, can't manage with just one or two levels. Instead they have more titles representing not only different steps of the hirarchy but also special functions within the religion, each possibly having different requirements of what they need to perform.
 

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.
I think there’s a lot of room to make new religious titles in your home game, even just using common words.

From Christianity, we could use the examples “Shepherd” (of the flock) or “Fisher” (as in, “fisher of men”) as titles, and the scriptural analogy would be clear to Christians—despite Christianity not being overly focused on animal husbandry nor fishing. They’re just references to notable verses.

For a pop fantasy example, Game of Thrones/ASoIaF gives us the pantheon religion The Seven, whose priests are called “Septons” and “Septas” (gendered; it just means “seven” either way). The same religion also has its fanatical militant ascetics called “Sparrows”, led by the “High Sparrow” (similar to my Christian examples, this title is used despite that their faith is not focused upon birds at all).
 

Another problem with the term priest is the lack of hirarchy except high priest.
But most religions, especially the larger ones, can't manage with just one or two levels. Instead they have more titles representing not only different steps of the hirarchy but also special functions within the religion, each possibly having different requirements of what they need to perform.
Pretty large religions like Islam function adequately with only two levels; heck for Sunni Islam there's really just imams and maybe sheikhs, but they're parallel to each other - sheikh don't outrank imams. So one level for over a billion adherents. Hinduism is even less organized and likewise has a billion adherents.

It depends on the presence of a central authority over individual congregations - Baptists have Conferences but they have no real authority over local churches, (the minister or the church counsel makes all the decisions about resources and the minister is pretty free to interpret theology as they see fit) - unlike Catholics who are the reason we have the word "hierarchy"(literally priest-rule) to describe these sorts of structures.

In a DnD setting with active gods, celestials, etc... the local cleric's boss might well be the angel assigned to that region, who communes with the priest magically, rather than a pastor or bishop in the nearby city.(Depending on how you want to run it.)

Anyways, my point is religions can be organized or not a lot of different ways.
 


Ixal

Hero
Pretty large religions like Islam function adequately with only two levels; heck for Sunni Islam there's really just imams and maybe sheikhs, but they're parallel to each other - sheikh don't outrank imams. So one level for over a billion adherents. Hinduism is even less organized and likewise has a billion adherents.

It depends on the presence of a central authority over individual congregations - Baptists have Conferences but they have no real authority over local churches, (the minister or the church counsel makes all the decisions about resources and the minister is pretty free to interpret theology as they see fit) - unlike Catholics who are the reason we have the word "hierarchy"(literally priest-rule) to describe these sorts of structures.

In a DnD setting with active gods, celestials, etc... the local cleric's boss might well be the angel assigned to that region, who communes with the priest magically, rather than a pastor or bishop in the nearby city.(Depending on how you want to run it.)

Anyways, my point is religions can be organized or not a lot of different ways.
There are also various levels of religious scholars or things like caliph or regional titles like mufti, ect.
Same for Hinduism. Pujari, Pandit, Yogi if you want to count them as religious leader and that is on top of the caste system.
 

Thanks for this. Right, in some D&D contexts (specifically AD&D 2E), “priest” is the universal term. In the “real world” of Earth, “minister” would be a more universal term.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Thanks for this. Right, in some D&D contexts (specifically AD&D 2E), “priest” is the universal term. In the “real world” of Earth, “minister” would be a more universal term.
Um, minister is very specific term not even used in all Christian sects.

Priest is generally accepted as a neutral anthropological term, if you wnt to be even more generalised then Worship Leader or Religious Specialist work.

terms like shaman and druid are to be avoided as they are culturally specific and often given derogatory associations
 

Um, minister is very specific term not even used in all Christian sects.

Priest is generally accepted as a neutral anthropological term, if you wnt to be even more generalised then Worship Leader or Religious Specialist work.

terms like shaman and druid are to be avoided as they are culturally specific and often given derogatory associations
Though the term “minister” arose in a Protestant context, in the modern US and UK context, “ministers of religion” refer to faith leaders of any religion, though the term may sound rather bureaucratic. There’s also a similar term “ordained minister”.

As you suggest, terms like “faith leader” may have more currency outside of the governmental context.

I believe you that anthropological literature uses different terminology. Yet these are all generalized words for what the OP is speaking of.
 

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