Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lingering Innovations: The D&D Shaman

Its no secret that I like the idea of having a shaman class in D&D. But I will reveal another secret: I've been updating the wikipedia page on the Shaman.

Now, its not perfect. My update probably still violates a lot of wikipedia good form and such, but the information is significantly improved. I'm trying not to go overboard with including shaman information everywhere since many of the other class pages (the whole section in general) needs some significant revision. But when I finish, it should be much more useful to people. Its hard to do this type of research though when you're not in the US with access to large piles of D&D books though. Feel free to join in on the work. Wikipedia is always a collaborative effort.

I should also note, maybe, that the shaman was listed as one of the 15 or so core D&D classes before I started messing with it. But I think wikipedia had that one right. The shaman has a long and interesting history in D&D, and I've learned a few quite interesting things thus far about the Shaman.

First, the shaman is probably the most re-introduced class of all of D&D. If we restrict ourselves to full-on (human) class presentations, I've found two basic D&D shamans, three second edition, two third edition, and one in fourth. I'm not counting the Dragon Shaman 3.5 class, as its not really a spirit-based class despite the word shaman in its name. Nor am I counting the 1st edition Oriental Adventures Shukenja class, though perhaps I should. Even by my conservative definition though, there were at least 8 independent shaman character classes introduced over the history of D&D. That's a lot of different shaman classes! I think it also testifies to the fact that the shaman is a concept that ought to be included in the game from the beginning, rather than tacked on via any number of expansions later.

Second, despite the prevalence of shamans in D&D, the shaman PC class comes relatively late in the game. For the 70s and most of the 80s, the shaman was basically an NPC type, a primitive or tribal priest who was probably a member of one of the humanoid races (orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, etc). In 1989, however, the basic version of the game gets two shaman classes in the gazetteer series: first in The Golden Khan of Ethengar (GAZ12) and, as the Shamani, in The Atruaghin Clans (GAZ14).  I prefer the Golden Khan version since it actually gains more spirit-based powers.

Third, despite the appearance in the late 1980s, the shaman is probably the longest standing non-core basic class in the game. The shaman's inclusion as a basic D&D class in 1989 roughly coincides with the bard's release in the second edition AD&D players handbook. While the bard was an optional class for a decade before that, it wasn't a complete, stand-alone class until the shaman was! So despite being a little tardy to the party, the shaman still came long before the sorcerer, warlord, or warlock.

In my opinion, its a shame that the D&D Rules Cyclopedia didn't pick up the shaman class but instead just repeated the use of the shaman as a monsterous spellcaster while the druid got prestige class treatment and the monk was included as a stand-alone class. In the effort to maintain simplicity, I can understand why they'd focus on the basics though. Also, to be fair, 1989 was the start of the "dark ages" of TSR, and you can see how including all the options found in the Gazetteer line really begin to muck up the system. Elven wizards and Dwarven priests make their mark here alongside merchants and merchant-princes. So introducing a new class wasn't a rare event at this point in time. They didn't introduce warlocks, sorcerers, or warlords though.

Now, the portrayal of shamans in D&D is a little offensive to our modern sensibilities. I've discussed race and cognition before, but the idea that some races or religions are simply 'primitive' is not one I want to really delve deeply into here. It is interesting, however, to see the D&D shaman evolve from a stereotyped primitive priest to an animist or spirit-priest on-par with other classes in the game. This goes for the mechanics as well. The BD&D shamani (and to a lesser extent the shaman) is basically inferior to the cleric, and the shaman don't even advance quicker to make up for it like the Shukenja does. In 2nd edition, the Shaman shaman and the Spells & Magic shaman are very different, but I think they probably stand a bit more equal to the cleric, though I have my doubts about the Complete Barbarian's Handbook shaman. The shaman class tends to have less overt and flashy spells than the cleric does, though there are a few here and there. This trend continues into third edition, and culminates with the 4th edition shaman who gains a constant spirit companion.

I think some of the reluctance to include the shaman in the game stems from a problem of in-game cosmology. Since the cosmology of D&D is so western and deity-oriented, there's not a lot of defined space for the spirits that a shaman deals with. Animal spirits, spirits of the dead, elemental and nature spirits... none of these have been part of D&D's general cosmology. Even in 4th edition, the primal spirits weren't prominently featured in the original three core books. This isn't a small change either. Spirits need a place to live in the great wheel cosmology, and they may not fit well with every concept of the game. We shouldn't exclude the shaman or spirits, however, just because it won't fit in every game, just like we don't exclude the paladin (except for specific reasons, like in Dark Sun).
I really hope to see a shaman class in D&D Next. I think the shaman class fills the role of the tribal animist priest, but we also see animistic religions elsewhere in the modern world. In particular, this might fit concepts based on Shinto priests or the Onmy├┤ji in Japan. I can even see the shaman class serving as a type of mystic priest in a D&D faith based loosely on some aspects of Christian or Jewish mysticism, where specific angels or aspects of god may be invoked for different purposes.

Mechanically, I can imagine a system where the shaman gains a number of spirt followers, and each one has different powers it can bring to bear. This is most similar to the shaman's spirits from the Spells and Magic second edition version, but perhaps could include aspects of the Shaman shaman as well. A shaman might summon an animal spirit to help in battle (akin to monster summoning spells) or to spy for you (akin to clairvoyance or clairaudience). Elemental spirits might grant any number of elemental-themed spells. Ancestors or spirits of the dead might have divination powers or imbue characters with additional strength. This basically works by tying a number of spells to each spirit, and then limiting the shaman by how many times he can call on each spirit per day. The shaman may even share some mechanics with the warlock if the warlock can call upon his patron for assistance once in a while ("Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!").

If there are no spirits in the game, there's not really a place for the shaman. You can see this in the old use of shaman as any monstrous spellcaster. Human (and demi-human) or PC versions of the shaman class all have spirits as a basic element. To quote the 2nd edition DMG:
What is a Viking but a fighter with a certain outlook on life and warfare? A witch is really nothing but a female wizard. A vampire hunter is only a title assumed by a character of any class who is dedicated to the destruction and elimination of those loathsome creatures. The same is true of assassins. Killing for profit requires no special powers, only a specific reprehensible outlook. Choosing the title does not imply any special powers or abilities. The character just uses his current skills to fulfill a specific, personal set of goals.
So a shaman without spirits is just a priest with a different hat. Just like a warlock/witch without a patron is just a type of wizard. D&D has the precedent for including the shaman as a viable PC class and also including a richer cosmology to go along with the class.

I really doubt we'll see a shaman in the core 5th edition books, but a man can dream. The designers have suggested that they're primarily considering all the classes that have appeared in the first players book of any edition, and the shaman doesn't meet those criteria. The class does have a long history with D&D though (longer than the sorcerer, warlock, warlord for sure, or even the psion if you aren't counting dragon magazine articles from 1983). I don't know of any other "non-core" class that has such a long history with the game. It fills a unique niche in the game, despite (or perhaps in spite of) being non-western: I don't think an animal- or ancestors-domain cleric quite does the trick here, nor are those likely domains that would be included off the bat (we certainly didn't see them in 4e). Furthermore, unlike some other classes that have been developed (Avenger, Dragonfire Adept, Hexblade, Lurk, Seeker, Warden...) there is a clear archetype behind the shaman, which is evidenced by the inclusion of the shaman as a optional PC class since 1989. Now, there's only about one or two other classes that I think warrant inclusion as core basic classes (the invoker as prophet/oracle is next on my list probably), so I'm not suggesting that any old class gets the core treatment. I think the shaman, however, ought to be raised to the status of a full-fledged class in the new edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment