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The Isomorphism of Clerics

Medic and Cleric.pngTwo years after purchasing it (mostly because Portal was on the same disc), I have started regularly playing Team Fortress 2. My delay came from my general lack of enthusiasm about first-person shooters. My writing about it here comes from surprising insights about my own relationship with games that struck me soon after I began to play it.

On the surface, TF2 is an intentionally silly online-only shooter where players, after choosing one of nine character classes, leap into a battle whose goal is one of the time-tested multiplayer FPS standards: capture the flag, king of the hill, or base attack/defense. Sometimes I mix it up with whichever random folks happen to be online when I'm feeling scrappy. My "real" games, though, occur on Sunday evenings with a group known as Clan Elysium who operate out of the web forum Geezer Gamers, a haven for grown-up Xbox Live fans. These times have proven to be some of the most fun I've ever had sitting on the couch with a controller in my hands, and friend, I'd logged a lot of hours under those conditions before this.

There have been three major effects of this experience. First of all, it's reignited my interest in online digital games, both as a player and a ludeaste, and led me to reconsider what kinds of video games deserve the treasure of my attention right now. It also threw some wood under Planbeast, the project I soft-launched last year and then all but ignored; a subsequent post I made to the Geezers' forum unexpectedly led to a small boom of use for that site, and I spent a happy week responding to bug reports that resulted in several significant improvements to the service.

But what I want to write about here comes from the surprising insight this game afforded me regarding the play style I favor, and what this teaches me about unexpected connections between very different kinds of games.

You will not be shocked to learn that I spent much of my youth playing Dungeons & Dragons, and various other games like it. I still manage to sneak a quick session in once every few years, just to touch base. And both then and now, when it's time to create a character, I roll up a Cleric (or whatever the cleric-analogue is in the RPG system at hand). That is, I choose to play a character who, tactically speaking, is perfectly decent at combat, but whose real value in a fight lay in their ability to heal and "buff" (cast ability-enhancing spells on) their allies.

I have always preferred the particular rhythm that Cleric characters enjoy. In combat, rather than primarily focusing on how to mash the most damage onto the enemy in the shortest time, Clerics instead keep their eyes on their friends. They must actively manage their limited resources (such as the limited number of spells they can fire off) to not just keep their allies' health topped up, but apply the most appropriate buffs to the right combatants at the best times. As an RPG campaign wears on, a good cleric learns how their friends play, and optimizes their strategy to best complement them. The rest of the party, in turn, learns to put a lot of trust in their Cleric. Over time, through communication and repeated play, the team can become a truly formidable force, with the Cleric at its hub.

Clerics are the support units of real-world combined-arms strategy, transformed and abstracted into individuals on the fantasy battlefield. They are perfect for players like me, who get more of an emotional lift from the feeling of helping to drive the whole team forward and keeping it glued together, rather than being part of the front-line offense that's actually putting the smack down on the assembled orcs or whatnot.

Come back to this year: I am not a hardcore fan of shooters. So, while learning Team Fortress 2, I initially messed around with the Heavy and the Pyro: two big sloppy damage-dealing classes that are friendly to beginners because of their general disdain for subtlety. (I would suggest their doubles in D&D to be the Fighter and the Mage, respectively.) After a few games, though, I had gravitated towards the class that has become far and away my favorite to play: the Medic.

This character has some fighting ability, armed with an oversized bonesaw and a gun that can burp out a stream of deadly hypodermic needles. (If you didn't already know, TF2 is not a game that relies on real-world practicality in its achievement of goofily hyperviolent cartoon combat.) The Medic's main armament, however, is a "Medigun" that shoots a magical healing-energy ray at teammates. A few seconds' worth of zap can restore a grievously injured friend to the pink of health. All players can press a button to call for their team Medic's aid, causing a directional indicator to appear on the Medic player's screen. As such, one of a Medic's main jobs involves scooting around the battlefield, patching up his allies as needed.

The Medigun can also act as a buff, and in practice (at least in the games I've played) this tends to be its more common role. When used on a healthy character, it increases their health past its usual cap. Furthermore, by keeping their medigun trained on a ally and following them into battle, a Medic make them a much more fearsome combatant, with their wounds healing as soon as they receive them.

This feature leads to some interesting tactics, on both sides. A smart opponent, seeing a foe approaching with a tethered Medic - the bright glow of the Medigun's beam is a dead giveaway - will focus all their fire on the Medic before engaging the primary threat. A smart Medic anticipates this antipathy, moving constantly and seeking cover will still keeping that crucial health-beam connected with their friend. The friend, in turn, needs to both dish out the damage to the bad guy while also keeping the Medic, his meal ticket, safe from harassment.

All told, I find it a fascinating microcosm of the teamwork that defines the whole game (it's right in the title, after all), and one that's entirely and elegantly emergent from the simple rules that define the Medigun.

Much as with the cleric, a Medic's player starts building strong relationships with their teammates. In one recent game, I was finding a lot of mutual success teaming up with my team's Pyro, repeatedly breaking up enemy positions with our Medigun-enhanced sweeps of flame. At one point, after I had broken off to go tend to an injured ally, the Pyro noticed some more enemy activity, but then saw that I had left. Over our team's voice channel, she asked, "Where'd my medic go?" We all laughed about her asserted possessiveness, but I accepted the accidental compliment as well: were making a fine team-within-a-team.

It occurred to me that the particular joy I felt after a really solid game full of highly silly yet emotionally intense battlefield medicine - and joy really is an appropriate word, here - was the same that I'd feel after an eventful D&D session where my priestly character got to show his stuff, knowing without a doubt that his divine incantations had proved instrumental to the whole party's success.

More interestingly, I hadn't felt this way since the last time I'd played a paper-and-pencil role-playing game around a table with friends. This despite the fact that I'd played any number of digital RPGs where I controlled characters with "Cleric" printed on their stat screens, casting pretty, particle-effect-laden spells labeled "Heal".

Like a lot of post-collegiate RPG lovers, I sumblimated my loss of access to regular tabletop D&D sessions by playing computer games that emulated their rules. In games like Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights, you begin play by creating a single D&D-style character, and once again I would always create a cleric. Why wouldn't I?

But I overlooked a key difference: in single-player games were you control an entire party of adventurers, they are all essentially "you" (even if some are AI-controlled to some degree, a la Mass Effect). Casting a healing spell on an ally carries all the emotional urgency of choosing to move one's rook rather than a bishop in a game of Chess. It's a matter of cold tactics based on seeing all your pieces as entirely under your control, rather than the improvised, trust-driven play one can only find in multiplayer games. The reward for playing your clerical powers well drops from "Wow, guys, we make a hell of a team" to "OK, I have overcome yet another designed obstacle, and can advance to the next chapter".

I did not truly realize what I was missing until I slipped on the TF2 Medic's ridiculously large rubber gloves, despite all the superficial differences this character has from my beloved faux-medieval warrior-priests. While being quite different in both medium and genre, TF2 benefits from exactly the same sense of dynamism that one finds in a good D&D session - albeit writ in triple-time. This kind of team play involving other humans is the only environment that the clerical archetype flourishes in, no matter what kind of container it's been poured into. Whether the pace is a measured turn-by-turn affair with miniatures on a tabletop, or a real-time computer-moderated finger-twitching exercise, I find both my motivation to favor this play style and the rewards I take away from it identical.

When I started playing Team Fortress 2 on a lark last month, the last thing I expected to happen was a rediscovery of a particular kind of ludic joy I didn't even know I'd lost. It's a surprise testament to the way that a common spirit can unite two games with wildly disparate play mechanics, and one that drives me to spend more time investigating online games to see what else I can unearth. With luck, I'll find spaces to explore outside of the American obsession with first-person shooters - but that is a story for another time.

Image credit: Picture-frame photo by D Sharon Pruitt; Medic image yoinked from the TF2 Wiki, who in turn got it from the game itself; Cleric illustration from the 1st Edition AD&D Players' Handbook by correct-me-if-I'm-wrong David C. Sutherland III.

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