What’s a “Cleric”?

I haven’t been following the discussion of “D&D Next” particularly closely, but I’ve liked much–but not all–of what I’ve seen. I finally read Mike Mearls’ discussion of their founding principles for the cleric class , and I think my response to it sums up my feelings, pro and con, towards the whole endeavor.

In general, it looks like the next edition of D&D is making much better choices than D&D4E–or D&D3E–did, at least for my tastes. Specifically, capitalizing on what people like D&D for while fixing problems, rather than making significant changes to the core of it or trying to make it into a different sort of game. Of course, reasonable people can disagree on which parts are the “core” of D&D, so I don’t claim this is a universal answer. After all, while D&D3E failed to fix many of the problems I had with AD&D1&2, and introduced some new ones, it was obviously wildly popular. But I think I have some idea what I’m talking about, given that those who eventually were turned off by D&D3E seem to have been because of exactly the problems I had with it, and D&D4E was, in part, an overreaction to those same problems.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about skills–that’s just an example. I want to talk about the cleric in D&D. I started roleplaying when AD&D was still relatively new–I don’t believe Monster Manual II had been released yet–and was relatively happy with it. Partly, I hadn’t been exposed to any other RPGs. Partly, it did what I wanted. However, over time, there were 2 obvious flaws: alignment was an uncomfortable syncretism of utilitarian morality and philosophical ideology, and characters weren’t customizable enough. The first problem wasn’t as much of a problem as it might be, because we were pretty lazy about our alignments, with most people choosing something inoffensive like Neutral Good, and most of our roleplaying based on personality traits other than alignment.

At the time, I only half recognized the latter problem, in part because we actually did lots of customization, in the form of roleplaying, background, and magic available. But, except for the last of these, they didn’t really have any mechanical impact, so one thief was the same as another. And, other than spellcasters, that still boiled down to luck and GM whim in acquiring magic items.

When playing AD&D1, I don’t think a single person played a cleric, ever. Which matches the observations of the designers of D&D3E that “no one wants to play the cleric”. We had multiple druids, at least one druid/rangers, and a couple paladins. And we even had someone play a healer (an alternate class in Dragon), so it wasn’t just not wanting to be a supporting character. It was that, for reasons I am now surmising (if anyone said it in so many words, the intervening 25+ years have wiped the details from my memory), the specific combination of abilities and obligations that made up the D&D cleric didn’t appeal. Those who wanted to kick ass for god played paladins (even moreso after the “Plethora of Paladins” article gave us champions of every alignment); those who wanted to be a support character played someone who wasn’t so combat-oriented (in addition to the healer, we also had a scribe, a sage, and a couple other definitely-support classes as PCs over the years).

But then something interesting happened: AD&D2 came along, and introduced “specialty priests”. Instead of playing what is essentially a Knight Templar with some magical abilities, people could now play a “cleric” of whatever sort they wanted. I embraced this, and started working out spell spheres and alternate class abilities for all the gods of my campaign world. The players loved it, too. Now, some of this was just plain being able to customize a character–if someone wanted to play a priest of a god before I’d come up with their abilities, I’m sure I tailored it somewhat to their suggestions/requests. I’m only human. But I think some of it was being able to make a character that fit their conception of a representative of a god who wasn’t a particularly Abrahamic god.

A couple of the specialty priests I/we devised ended up pretty much the same as the default cleric–in fact, I’m sure one of them was exactly that class (hey, it’s one less class I had to invent). I don’t recall anyone ever playing it. (The reason I have a fair degree of certitude is that I distinctly recall the players wishing that someone were able to turn undead on the rare occasions when they ran into them. Though, over the years, we had more than one PC with the ability to control undead.) However, other sorts of priests–priests who did things other than heal, turn undead, and swing maces–became quite popular. I think at one point I counted and over a third of the party were priests of one god or another.

Aside: Time for a little context. When I started playing D&D, I was, as far as I knew, the only game in town amongst our age group (which means anyone from my age to 3 years younger–my brother’s age). We knew some older players but didn’t initially play with any of them. This changed, as several of the folks I gamed with broke away to form their own groups. And then in highschool we finally met some more gamers, but they were comfortable with the group they had. I always had a “welcome all comers” policy (well, at least provided someone in the group invited them), and this meant I was typically GMing a large group. A typical night was 10+ players, 6 was a slow night, and the highest number I definitely counted was 18. But we had started with 2 players and a GM, so we had started out with multiple characters per player. Due to being a softy, I continued the policy–it was only fair–and so at its peak (those 18 players) there were 30 PCs in play. About that time was when I decided it had gotten out of hand, and everyone had to go back to playing just one character. For some, they wrote their other character(s) out. For others, we kept them in play by splitting the group, keeping the primary game on Saturday nights, but running smaller weekly or biweekly games at other times–so, these 5 characters would leave the main group, and the players would get to keep playing them.

Anyway, the point is not to brag about the big group, or anything like that–though, at some point, I really should write up some of the things I learned from the experience, positive and negative. My point is that, in the span of ~8 years, about half with AD&D1 and half with AD&D2, I played with, I’m guesstimating, 30 players (only counting those who played for a year or more), many of them present for 3 or more years of weekly gaming, and probably over a hundred characters, most of them played, similarly, for quite some time. I just want to be clear that, while my sample size isn’t exhaustive, and doesn’t include any convention gaming, it also isn’t “me and my 4 friends” or something like that.

When I got to college, I ran a small D&D game (3-6 players) for a year, then played in someone else’s D&D game for the next 2, both using AD&D2. The former, I honestly have no recollection of character classes–I remember the players very well, and the characters for reasons other than class. The latter was another big game, I think it started with 5 players (plus the GM), but rapidly ballooned, and I believe was around 10 players for most of its run. I’m a little fuzzier on character classes for this than when I was the GM, but I remember a couple druids or rangers, including at least one using some weird kit from the Complete Druid’s Handbook or Complete Ranger’s Handbook. At least 1 paladin. And, to the best of my recollection, only 1 cleric in that whole time–a very memorable dwarven cleric, who was very much more there for the kicking asses and taking names than for the healing. Though I seem to recall the player taking quite some delight in turning undead, when the opportunity arose. And now back to my point.

So, then, along comes D&D3E. And what do they do? Roll back that wonderful avenue for both character and world customization, and replace the wonderful variety of the specialty priest with the standard cleric, now differentiated by only a couple spells per level. I played in a D&D3[.5]E game for, I dunno, 3 years? Longer? I remember a big fracas because a player and the GM had very different notions of proper paladin behavior. I know we had a cleric at first, because I recall his failed roll to turn undead the 1st time we encountered them. But once Ken moved away, I think that was it. Of course, that was a smaller group with both less player turnover and less character turnover, so it’s not as much of a sample. Between that, however, discussions online, and the comments of the game designers, I think their solution of “go back to the roots”, but give them more power, didn’t do much to salvage the cleric.

Which, finally, gets me around to Mearls’ 5 points that they are founding the cleric on for the next version of D&D:

  1. The Cleric Is a Healer
  2. The Cleric Is a Divine Spellcaster
  3. Divine Magic Is Subtle and Indirect
  4. The Cleric Is an Armored Warrior
  5. Clerics Reflect the Gods

This is a prioritized list, and I think it goes wrong right from the start, and puts the 2nd-most-important criteria last on the list. In fact, arguably, “clerics reflect the gods” is the most important criterion, and “the cleric is a divine spellcaster” stems from that, but I can also see how the divine spellcaster part is the most central, as that’s what differentiates paladin (who isn’t much of a spellcaster) and cleric.

Based on my experience, the cleric, as described in OD&D, is a sacred cow that should be slain–or at least put out to pasture. Keep it as an option–or, much like the druid/ranger of old, provide a way to play the armored warrior divine spellcaster through multiclassing, or feats, or class ability options, rather than requiring all divine spellcasters to also be armored warriors and healers. (It’s similar to the problem that AD&D always had, and D&D3E made worse, that playing a skillful character necessarily made you a fairly effective fighter–no con artist who takes pride in never resorting to violence for you.) 

If I ran the zoo, the core elements of the cleric class would be

  1. The Cleric Is a Divine Spellcaster
  2. Clerics Reflect the Gods

And, after that, it gets fuzzy. Specifically, I think that, while the default for divine magic should be “subtle & indirect”, should that apply to a priest of Thor? And if not, should she be a glaring exception, or should there be a spectrum of obviousness in divine magic, just as there is in wizardly magic?

If the cleric is an armored warrior, then what is a paladin? When I was creating specialty priests for every god, I was also creating specialty paladins for all of them. It seems to me that the paladin is precisely cleric+warrior, so there’s no need for the cleric to be a warrior, necessarily. For some gods, sure, but a priestess of Aphrodite?

Which finally gets us to Mearls’ point #1: the healer. When explaining some of the choices made in creating D&D3E, the designers said that they’d found that “nobody” wanted to play the cleric, because they felt that being the group healer was no fun. I never ran into this problem, and I think it was precisely because of the specialty priests. And, as I said, we even had someone who specifically wanted to play a healer–and they didn’t choose cleric because they wanted a non-combatant character. They instead used an alternate healer class.

So, my thesis is that the reason the cleric is unpopular is two-fold. First, there’s the fact that, as designed, it tends to be a largely supporting character, with lots of healing and buffs that are often more effectively applied to others (plus, it’s easier to continue buffing your fellow party members if you stay out of the fracas as much as possible). And, it’s a schizophrenic class, that lumps together three things (healing and other support, combat (including self-buffing), and divine spell casting) that don’t inherently go together. In fact, there are lots of fictional and historical tropes that use one or two, but not all 3, of these, and really only 1 or 2 that actually fit that entire model, so there’s a good chance a player will be looking for something that doesn’t fit the class. 

If I’m right, the way to fix the cleric isn’t to go back to the original version even more strongly. It’s to create a better system to enable diversity, and provide the tools to do that in a way that is both fun and doesn’t break the game. I’m thinking of something like the guidelines Monte Cook provided for creating new variants for the witch, totem warrior, and champion classes in Arcana Unearthed. And then either create a separate way to make a supporting/healing character–perhaps a feat chain that any class can take–or obviate the need to have such a character by changing how damage and healing work in the first place, or altering the assumptions of how quickly characters need to get back to healed once hurt.

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