Thoughts on Clerics, Hierarchy, and the Joys of ‘Levelling-up’

This morning I did something that I have not done for a long time: I disappeared down an internet rabbit-hole. I could not tell you how I got there, but I found myself reading the Wikipedia entry for Holy Orders in the Catholic Church.

What drew my attention is the fact that, from the third century right up until the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic Church had an internal hierarchy that included both higher and lower holy orders.

The higher holy orders were pretty much what we think of today when we use the term ‘Holy orders’: they start with Sub-deacons, then it’s Deacons, Priests, then finally Bishops. This structure is then complicated by the fact that in addition to those four levels, you also have offices (like Cardinal or Archbishop) and titles like Monsignor that started out as offices before becoming terms of address and honorifics that are kind of the Papal equivalent of a knighthood. Paul VI apparently tried to get rid of papal orders entirely before settling on this weird compromise whereby you only get to be called a Monsignor if you’ve distinguished yourself as career bureaucrat who has served in either the Curia (the sinister motherfuckers who administer the Vatican) or the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. Similar to the way that the British royal family only gives the title ‘Royal Highness’ to members of the family who ‘work’ by opening supermarkets or appearing in public whilst wearing a crown for the purposes of opening a new Lidl or whatever it is those parasites call work.

While I will never not be amused and fascinated by the way that the Catholic church manifests institutional power, what really got me was this Wikipedia graphic of the different colours of hats and number of tassels associated with the different orders:

The comedian Denis Leary once had a bit about how Catholicism is a religion of hats. The closer you get to God; the larger the head-gear and, quite frankly, where is the fucking lie?

I then moved on to reading the page about minor orders and noticed something fun. There were originally four lower orders: Porters, Lectors, Exorcists, and Acolytes. The Porters were literally the bouncers at the church door while the lectors were the people responsible for reading aloud excerpts from the scriptures or the liturgy. Things get a little bit more interesting once you reach Exorcist as Exorcists were people who had made it to the third level and so were granted the power to expel demons. Level up from being an exorcist and you became an acolyte who not only lit the candles in the church but also administered the Eucharist to the faithful. In other words: Every time you go up a level, you get fancier clothes, you take on more responsibilities, and you gain more spiritual powers.

Is it just me, or does this sound exactly like a cleric in D&D?

Nowadays, we often think of D&D levels as a way to handle abstract skill progression in a granular manner but if you look at the original 1974 White Box edition of D&D, you’ll find that there is a title associated with each level or each class. For example, a level-1 magic-user is a Medium while a level-7 fighting man is a Champion. Clerics progress from Acolyte at level-1 to Bishop at level-6 and Patriarch at level-8.

Level titles were a big thing in AD&D too but their use started to decline with AD&D Second Edition when a lot of the level titles were cannibalised for use either as character kits, or as the names of higher-order class categories. They fell even further out of use with third, fourth, and fifth edition as a lot of the level titles were re-invented as full classes in their own right.

This all sent me down a second rabbit-hole of trying to work out whether Gary Gygax had ever been a scout as I knew that he hadn’t grown up Catholic and so wondered whether he might not have got the idea of levels with different titles and powers from the Boy Scouts of America. For the record, I’ve yet to find any reference to Gygax being a scout, though he did some spend some time in the marines and his Wired Magazine obituary contains a photo, which suggests he might have spent some time in a militaristic organisation as a kid. Something that might go some way to explaining why a doughy nerd like Gygax wound up in the marine corps:

This got me thinking about the broader phenomenon of levelling-up and highly structured play. A few years ago, I decided to start taking Taekwondo classes and while I really enjoyed all of the running around in pyjamas and hitting people, I simply could not cope with the fact that I was effectively being set homework and expected to pass exams in order to progress up through a series of levels, each with their own name and set of sartorial trappings. I realise that this opinion places me squarely in the minority as humans seem to love the concept of levelling-up.

The Scouts are an organisation with an incredibly rigid and conspicuous set of hierarchies. Aside from the fact that a lot of the day-to-day business of scouting involves passing exams in return for patches that are then worn on your person as a means of denoting both expertise and status. The Boy Scouts of America have patches for rank that go from simple scout all the way to eagle scout and then there are a variety of badges and patches for those scouts who stay on beyond the age of 21 and so become professional scouts. Professional scouters are primarily in the business of administering the organisation so their rank badges are comparable to the Monsignor tassels handed out to members of the Catholic Curia. I don’t know if you’re supposed to address a Professional Scouter as ‘Monsignor’ but I will certainly be doing so at the next opportunity that presents itself. The fact that both organisations have a lengthy history of institutionalised child abuse speaks to my anarchist’s conviction that, given enough time and money, all human institutions ossify into collections of elderly men sitting in gold houses using vast reserves of cash and good will to defend themselves against accusations of sexual malfeasance. The only reason the RPGA never got there is because it was starved of resources and dissolved in 2014.

Nor are these hierarchies in any way the reserve of corrupt Western institutions. For example, the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident involved a group of Russian kids dying on a hike through the Ural Mountains. Watch any Youtube video about the incident and you’ll note that commentators always stress that the people leading the expedition were not just experienced hikers but hikers who had achieved different levels of accreditation as part of the Soviet Union’s Sports Ranking system. Known as the Unified Sports Classification System of the USSR, this system imposed a set of requirements for both athletes and coaches that extended all the way from complete amateur all the way to international champions who changed the face of their given discipline.

While my chaotic nature compels me to balk at this level of structure, it’s easy to see why these kinds of structures prove so popular. For starters, there is a sense of empowerment that comes from existing in a hierarchy whose levels are, in principle, accessible to all. A kid starting gymnastics at the age of four could look at that structure and know that world-famous gymnasts had once stood where they stand. Aside from the fact that the various patches, ribbons, belts, tassels, and hats all provide their owners with a little endorphin hit that compels them to start reaching for that next level, there’s also a sense of ordered progression at work here. As someone who has tried to develop new skills by himself as an adult, it’s interesting how difficult it can be to determine whether you are good enough and what you need to work on next. Having a set of levels with associated skills removes a lot of the ambiguity and provides you with a clear path of personal development.

Sure… you might reach a level of competence and awareness where you start to become aware of the failures of the system and so start going hors-piste as you blaze your own trail through your chosen discipline, but a lot of people run into trouble when the rails disappear and they are forced to make their own decisions. I’m mindful here of the grade-based system used to provide structure for people to learn a musical instrument: The final grade does not denote artistry but competence. The hard bit comes when you want to move beyond technical competence and begin expressing yourself as an artist. There are no tassels and levels for that though one could argue that those upper levels are awarded by conservatoirs.

These kinds of highly structured environments provide not only a pathway to personal development but also a set of extrinsic motivations for people who might struggle to motivate themselves. Most people like being part of a group and the only thing that is better than being part of a group is the knowledge that your enormous hat, sequin-encrusted belt, and array of colourful tassels allows you to lord it over people with an inferior set of accoutrements.

Despite instinctively hating and mistrusting these kinds of structures, I very much see their appeal in-game. Indeed, for a long time I was quite frustrated by the fact that while D&D seemed to support really long-term play a lot of games seemed to fizzle out after a few sessions. For a long time I assumed that this was because D&D games start you as incompetent boobs while games like Call of Cthulhu start you out as competent professionals but in truth I think that D&D’s perceived longevity is actually a function of its internal hierarchies and granular approach to skill acquisition. Most games allow you to play a priest with magical powers and most games allow your magical priest to slowly acquire more powers, but adding a skill point or an extra spell every couple of sessions is nowhere near as satisfying as going up a level, getting a new title, and acquiring those exact same skill points and spells. Without levels and their associated titles, people are forced to look either within themselves or within the game’s narrative for the motivation to continue playing and the efficacy of those is very much dependent first upon the individual and second upon the ability of the GM to tell a good story. Not everyone can tell stories and not everyone can become emotionally invested in a fictional reality but everyone understands bigger hats and tassels.

It’s like the people who go on Steam to give games the thumbs down because there aren’t any achievements: The process of conspicuous levelling-up makes various parts of our brain light up with pleasure. As humans, we want bigger hats as well as the power to look down our noses at the hatless. Why else would monkeys choose to forego food in order to look at images of higher-status monkeys? Why else would the British Conservative Party make frequent use of the term ‘levelling up’ and receive very little scrutiny or criticism when it was revealed that the term was nothing but a set of empty promises? We are suckers for this stuff and that’s why levelling up keeps being re-invented by different institutions. Large institutions are nothing more than cognitive biases with headed writing paper.

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