In the world of role-playing games players typically take on distinct character Classes, a fundamental idea that was spawned at the outset with the release of the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set way back in 1974. The game came with three separate Classes known as the ‘fighting-man’, the ‘magic-user’ and the cleric.
The basic purpose behind these Classes was to give players a way to specialize in different roles within the larger framework of the fantasy settings their characters were going to inhabit. And with these separate roles, players could embody personas that had distinct strengths, weakness, and capabilities allowing them to personify these fantasy archetypes; enter the fire-ball hurling wizard.
In one of the early supplements to the original Dungeons & Dragons Eldritch Wizardry, a rule-book, two other playable character Classes were introduced for addition to the core material. One of these Classes, the Druid, has become an iconic figure in the landscape of the role-playing world.
Described in the supplement as a sub-Class of Clerics who serve nature in the way their parent Class serves a particular deity, Druids were presented as being devoted towards more earthly affairs than the goings-on of mankind, and were loathe to do harm, or allow harm to come to the natural world and it’s inhabitants. Like the other Classes Dungeons & Dragons employed in their system, the Druid was based heavily on a modern sense of ancient and medieval European history and mythology. The Class itself however, though inspired by the actual orders of these pre-Christian religious figures who were also called Druids, has very little in common with their historical counterparts.
In the description attributed to them by the supplement, Druids are much more similar to the modern concept of Paganism, or the worship of the natural world, inclusive of concepts like animism, polytheism and the belief in an eco-friendly attitude towards all things non-human. In these respects the traditional role-playing Druid has much more in common with the archetypical personage of a witch; a hermit whose connections to nature and distain for humankind generally gifts them with supernatural boons that are tied to their withdrawal from civilized life.
However, the ideas that the original Druid sought to embody, chiefly a love for the earthly world, the use of flora as symbols of spiritual power and their forte with fire, natural forces and living things are typical characteristics of most religions of the world where societies typically still revolve around tribalistic beliefs.With the exception of their aversion towards helping their fellow man, an oddity one might even ascribe as a self-loathing characteristic in and of itself, the tenets and attitudes of the typical fantasy Druid shares a lot in common with one such form of traditional spirituality; the Native American religious experience. Indeed the quintessential image of what constitutes a shape-changing Druid according to D&D lore is found in rich supply through the mythology of many Native American myths; enter the supernaturally initiated shape-changing Navajo skin-walkers or yee naaldlooshii.
In the tribal cultures of pre-Colonial era Natives, spirituality was tied indelibly to the specific geographical locale where a practicing figure was born. Land was believed to posses a religious character, and terrestrial elements like mountains and trees and even simple rocks were ascribed with specific powers and thought to be inhabited or utilized by deities or a Great Deity who moved through them and manifested in them at will. In addition to natural phenomena being ascribed with sacred spirituality, the symbols adopted by their culture encompassed a wide range of flora and fauna that had both abstract and tangible meanings, with items like corn, tobacco, squash, beans, the eagle and the bear, all carrying both spiritual truths about the interconnectedness of all things, and practical lessons about how the natural world functions and mans place within this order.
In setting up the particulars of the religious way of life the boundaries of a tribe, those being a river or a marshland or a valley, in turn determined the particulars of the rites and rituals that a tribes holy practitioners, typically called medicine men or shamans, used in the performance of their observances. These healing specialists, those who applied a blend of magicoreligious power through objects or totems, dances and hymns were doing so in an attempt to make the tribe coincide within the larger tapestry of nature itself. Thus to a Native American Druid, the land and the tribe were one and the same, and their belief structure sought to balance the two.
In order to implement this harmony these shamans, a Class which would eventually see itself grace the world of Dungeons and Dragons too, would also commune with spiritual entities both human and animal, through psychic trances, many-times induced through a plant with hallucinogenic properties called the lophophora williamsii plant. What is important to note was that the belief in a natural world possessed of spirits who could be communed with was inextricably linked to the concept of a reverence for nature and whereas many role-playing paradigms seek to separate a reverence for spirits from a reverence for nature, in fact, this duality of spirit and nature was in actuality inseparable within the traditional Druidic religious perspective.
But aside from the spiritual quests that these shaman pursued in private, they were also leaders in public life and oversaw the forms of worship practiced by the community on the whole. Through ritualized singing, dancing, drumming and fasting dances such as the Sun Dance, the Green Corn Dance, the Ute Bear Dance, along with hymns like the Mountain Chant all incorporate celebration of natural events like the coming of Spring or the emergence of bears. And they do so within a context of the natural world and in ways that facilitate mankind’s understanding of its order and champion a respect for its workings.
Whereas the Druids of D&D would in theory never kill a living being of nature, necessitating a vegan life-style by default, the traditional shaman or Druid in the real world would understand the animal’s sacrifice for the benefit of the tribe and for the people who needed it for sustenance. This fundamental appreciation for the necessity of all aspects of nature, including the incorporation of man into that paradigm, is the ultimate essence that drives the worship of nature, both in the traditional histories of Native Americans, and the through the sustainability ideas propagated by modern-day preservationists and eco-friendly movements the world over.
To them the idea that all life and in fact all things are natural and are in essence possessed of Godhead, means that it is a conscious beings duty is to respect and acknowledge this fact. Hence the Neutral alignment of the D&D Druid if it wishes to mirror its real-world inspiration should concern itself less with the belief in the abject glorification of a purely Natural order of things, and rather a wish for the continuance of and incorporation of all aspects of life itself both man and nature, by preserving a balance between the two. To a Druid, a hunter and a fox both need the rabbit to survive, the difference though, and where the Druid draws the proverbial line in the earth is when a hunter becomes a trapper or a fur-trader and takes the life of the rabbit without regard for the entirety of the animal being sacrificed, and for reasons beyond simple sustenance.
So it was that Native American worshipers had a deep understanding and connection to the idea of creating a harmony between the natural world and the world of man because they were seen as one. Unlike their counterpart in the pages of the original D&D supplement, and the iterations throughout the Gaming world that have since followed, the Native American shaman, or ‘Druid’, truly did and still does perceive the Earth as possessed of a spiritual temperament, one that commanded respect and worship, but in a context that included in that reverence a place for the man, and his various tribes or their modern day guises of nation-states.
In this respect, the Native American shaman, and the historic Celtic Druid who were also leaders of their ‘tribes’ shared much in common. And in looking at these ‘traditional’ Druids, there emerges a personage of a being who is a lover of nature, but understands that man himself is but one aspect of this tapestry, and thus allows for the idea of a truly believable adventuring member of a party to in fact be a wandering Druid. Whereas the traditional D&D druid could conceivably be seen as an individual who by taking up an adventuring life with humanoids, thus clearly at odds with the idea of a being who seeks to flee from civilization and all its trappings, the actual historic Druids and shaman of the world make for much more sympathetic characters to be portrayed.
The transition of this type of Druid into an adventurer is an easy one to make and allows for their original tribe to be in essence replaced by their adventuring party, but with their beliefs still striving to produce a harmony between this new ‘tribe’ and the natural world around them. What’s more, a background by this character, one concerning the loss of their homelands to a larger tribe, perhaps encroaching orcs or goblins or simply being a refugee from a war between two border states allows for a very strong correlation between the motivations of actual Druidic and shamanistic tendencies to follow more closely with fictional ones.
To incorporate just such a unique Druid in your Gaming experience, why not model your character on a tribal figure with specific tenancies governed by their native lands and tribes. A reverence for marshes could necessitate their affection for specific animals, choosing to adopt guises of lizards, crocodiles and cranes over more traditional shape-changed creatures like bears and wolves. Rather than quiet contemplative spell preparation, why not incorporate specific hymns and chants into how your character chooses to study their arcane and primal abilities, with unique names like the Long Reeds Hymn, or the Submerged Frog Dance being nightly or morning rituals. They should also have certain reverence for certain plants either wild or domesticated, perhaps carrying them with them at all times and seeking to seed them when they can. And rather than playing an aloof and stand-offish nature-minded character, true Druids wished to be involved with the affairs of the tribe, actively contributing to its decisions in ways that promoted harmony and balance. This interest should extend into attuning themselves with the ceremonies of their fellow ‘tribe-mates’, applauding their nuptials, inquiring about their families and generally looking to promote the health of those around them. This concern should extend to their foes as well, with death being an averted outcome if possible, and the respect for the dead taking on an important part of their outlook on life- ‘looting’ a body should be accompanied by a prayer or hymn to the departed, even if bitter rival. In this respect a Druid should generally strive for conservatism, not wishing to take more from the land or from others than what is actually needed, hence a Neutral alignment that changes based on the situation at hand.
Ultimately the world of role-playing is a fantastic and imaginary one where players can embody the troupes and persona’s they desire. But by expanding upon the traditional makeup of things like what it means to be a Druid, and its real-world connotations, more meaningful and in-depth characters may take shape. And by widening this base of what it truly means to be a Druid, from whatever culture they happen to be from, the role in role-playing can encapsulate a variety of individual perspectives and traditions, while at the same time falling under the wide umbrella of Druid.
- A Modern Day Native American ‘Church‘.
- A Modern Day Druidic Order.
- A book with a brief overview on the Native American religious experience in America.
- Super Genius Games take on a Pathfinder ‘Shaman‘.
- A unique and holistic view of Druids in role-playing.