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Monday, February 11, 2013

The Void Around St. Cuthbert

During a discussion about clerics and religion in D&D, someone complained about St. Cuthbert. He's a saint, obviously, but where are the other saints, and what church is he a saint of?

I don't know if the person asking was aware that St. Cuthbert, regardless of any Gygaxian embellishments, was a real historical figure. Let's assume he *was* aware, and that he's only asking about the in-game Cuthbert. Let's also assume that he's aware of the possible answer "default clerics were more or less Christian monks in Gary and Dave's games" and that answer isn't good enough, because Cuthbert survived in later books and was turned into a god, but other Christian trappings were eliminated.

I'll argue that the lack of context for St. Cuthbert is a feature, not a bug.

St. Cuthbert, because he's called a saint and thus evokes an image of a medieval Catholic setting, creates sketchy details about the setting without making anything explicit. There's a void around St. Cuthbert, but it's a pregnant void; players have a vague idea what else is going on in the world. If they want to explore that, they can, and the details get filled in as they play.

The other way to approach this, the way I suspect some people are expecting when they complain about that pregnant void, is to detail all the information about the church in the campaign: when was it founded, how far has it spread, what's the hierarchy like, where are the internal conflicts.

The problem with that approach is: making up all that stuff can be fun. Yeah, that's a problem. Because one person making up all the details might have fun, but when that's finished, the fun is all "used" up. There's not much left to do when the material hits the table.

So leave the pregnant void alone. It will bear children in plenty of time.


  1. I was thinking about Saint Cuthbert the other day and his odd nature. Especially as his Mace was spirited away to modern-day (well, 1980s) London to hide it.

  2. That was pretty much the approach of World of Greyhawk, at least for its first five years as a published setting. The accretion came later, but started with Gary's supplemental articles in the Dragon, which seem to have gone beyond the material generated organically through play.

  3. Children of the Pregnant Void ... that's one of Raggi's modules isn't it?

  4. Poor Cuthbert never gets any love, he was left out of both 1st Editions of the DDG.

  5. I thought it was kind of weird that Gary Gygax, when asked, said that the fictional D&D St. Cuthbert was inspired in no way, shape or form by the historic St. Cuthbert. If I interpreted his comments correctly, he said that he didn't even take the name. After we played 'Hommlet' in middle school, over-zealous priests of St. Cuthbert (who would try to 'beat sense into the heads of unbelievers') became quite a fixture in our games... partially because at the time I attended Catholic school and some of our teachers (whe were also clergy) could be a bit, ahem, enthusiastic in their methods.
    We had a lot of fun with Cuthbert as 'Lawful Asshole' whose priests and nuns would ceremonially slap the knuckles of children with a ruler, etc., and ten tell them that suffering was for their own good. It was the perfect antidote to those teachers we had at the time who were excessively invested in reminding the pupils who was in charge. SO I didn't get it when Gygax pretty much disavowed any connection between the two, even to just admit, "Yeah, I thought the name 'St. Cuthbert' was interesting but I made up a Greyhawk deity that had more in common with 'Sister Mary Elephant' from Cheech and Chong than the historical Cuthbert."
    And, more to the point, I didn't believe him. No way that naming a Greyhawk deity 'Cuthbert' was just a coincidence.
    In memory of my early gaming group, there will always be monks and priests of St. Cuthbert in any game that I run... and they will whacking the heads of the unbelievers with sticks, screaming, "Do you accept the teachings of Holy Cuthbert now? No? (WHACK!) How about now?"