Clerics in Fantasy Gaming 6

A long while back, I posted a comparison of the treatment of religion, divine magic, and worship in seven different settings. This is relevant in that today I want to talk about the problems I have with clerics in fantasy gaming, particularly the various editions of D&D. These problems, I readily recognize, have as much or more to do with my shortcomings in running tabletop games as anything else. The D&D 2e and 3.x rules, at least, do carry some responsibility, since the cleric is the best healer in the game to such a degree that we often felt we didn’t have a team without one. Most groups have at some point had the “okay, who’s going to play the cleric?” issue; fortunately it wasn’t something my gaming groups seemed to find especially burdensome.
This led to odd problems in the games I was running, because as I see it, the cleric class carries a whole category of default assumptions about the setting and the cosmology that has no parallel in other core classes, aside from possibly the monk. The problem that I run into:

  • All PC-friendly religions come across pretty much the same in-play. The PCs can’t really tell one temple with acolytes and low-to-mid-level cleric NPCs from the next.
  • With a cleric in the party, it becomes utterly convenient to make the conflict between that PC’s deity and that deity’s most hated enemy god the centerpiece of the campaign. Clerics are, after all, presented very strongly as crusading holy men and women.
  • Therefore the cleric winds up being the crux of the climactic conflict.

Spending the first decade of my gaming career running Forgotten Realms far more than any other setting had a lot to do with this. Obviously, it’s not inappropriate to the feel of FR to base a lot of the conflict on the gods and their servants, but I did start to feel like the games I was running were too samey. This is a subset of my strong tendency to make all of the major villains be spellcasters.
It isn’t actually that I dislike the cleric class. I think it’s typically done a pretty acceptable job of doing the thing that it set out to do: crusading holy warrior (as distinct, in an often nebulous way, from a paladin). The problem that I have with the class can be summed up by saying that crusading holy warrior and the best source of healing and buffing are conflated into one class, so that the latter is stuck with the baggage of the former, and vice versa. It’s easier to create a crusading holy warrior that isn’t a primary healer (by choosing different spells/domains or by playing a paladin) than it is to create a primary healer that isn’t a crusading holy warrior. Druids and bards – the other core classes with substantial healing ability even at low level – can’t keep up with the cleric’s healing. I never got to see archivists in play, but the theme and rules behind this class are pretty much my ideal (within their edition, anyway).
My solution to this problem was to stop running core 3.5 D&D and start running material of my own creation with heavily re-written classes. For my Six Elements setting, I created an elementalist class somewhat related to the Oriental Adventures spellcasters. Of the eight different elementalist Orders in the game, one was definitely the best healer, but three others were viable healers. The two parties that played extended campaigns in this rules hack both had one elementalist of that best healing Order. If they were ever particularly dissatisfied with their ability to do things in addition to healing, I don’t recall hearing about it.
The other 3.5-ish game I’ve played is, of course, Arcana Evolved, in which only one prestige class includes even a nod to religion per se, and the best healer in the game is the greenbond. We had a greenbond PC for the first few sessions, but the player quickly became very dissatisfied with the class and started a witch instead. Ever since then, our joke about greenbonds has been, “But they’re the best healers in the game!”, with the implication that they can’t really do anything exciting other than hand out healing. For a very long span of the campaign, our healing supply was everything the witch could cast, plus the one spell per day that my warmain could generate with his magical tattoo. When we finally got a magister, that was close to the same time that another character multiclassed into champion of Life, so we suddenly had very deep healing reserves. I’ve liked the fact, though, that the campaign hasn’t needed to involve crusading holy warriors – again, just because it’s different.
Making warlords, bards, artificers, runepriests, and ardents pretty much the full equals of clerics in healing output is another candidate for the best change made in all of 4e. As a result, I’ve seen the bard and warlord played far more often and extensively than the cleric, even though there’s really nothing wrong with the cleric as a class. Correspondingly, my 4e game never involved plotlines about conflicts between the gods; there was one battle that took place in a healing shrine, but that campaign could have been completely devoid of all religious influence (other than some pseudo-Lovecraftian stuff, which scanned as Primordials in D&D parlance) without significant changes.

I like healers, in concept. I like playing healers quite a lot. Sometimes I just need something with less built-in theme so that I can do something else with it. That something else might be in the style of a Shattered Isles sorcerer, wielding light spirit energy and shunning dark spirit energy; such a character is distinguishable from a classic wizard only in the general thrust of the spell list. Given how much I love spell research, hunting down lost tomes, and the like, I’d be happy to see healer characters have to do some amount of work to learn new spells. The cleric has always (as far as I am aware) immediately learned all new spells of each level as soon as the cleric gains access to spells of that level. I’m not exactly sure why it worked that way for them but worked so differently for wizards, but I assume that it’s because the cleric belongs to an organization that has an interest in sharing those spells freely with its members.
I like what I’ve seen of the 5e cleric so far, though it’s still definitely a crusading holy warrior. That might take on the form of either a melee brute or a laser cleric, from what we’ve seen; to be clear, I don’t intend those terms as pejorative. I like that clerics of different kinds will look and fight more differently than they really did in 3.5 and prior editions, and I hope that there are more available versions than those two. Even so, I still want a variety of healers that aren’t religious in nature. “Divine magic is (almost) the only magical healing” was a D&D world law up until 3.0’s launch; I am pretty sure that The Simbul’s Synostodweomer was about it in 2e. (I don’t have books in front of me, but I’m 95% sure that spell existed in 2e.) I don’t yet know where 5e is going with some of the other classes, though they’ve said parties won’t have to have healers. I assume – hope! – that the bard and warlord will still have significant healing output, as they did in 4e, though the commentary on the bard thus far has been deliberately abstruse, and the warlord reveals even less. I would also like to see more significant healing output at least be an option for druids, even if it isn’t a core assumption. I’d even like to see a metabolic option for psions that made them fully capable healers.
I’d also accept a published setting with a different approach to religion and the gods, such as one in which most clerics serve and speak about universal forces of good and evil without specifically naming deities; named entities are recognized as paragons of those universal forces, and might bargain with powerful clerics, but are not otherwise essential to worship.
Kainenchen and I have also spent a good bit of time discussing a strict four-class model; the cleric with the Guardian theme is such a convincing paladin that one wonders exactly why a new paladin class would be necessary, especially if the cleric has the option of class-dipping into fighter for some extra staying power and weapon training. On the other hand, the thematic baggage of the cleric is my main problem with this idea; I’d like healing magic that isn’t explicitly tied to religion or the gods, so that a character could class-dip into the support-magic class without “crusading holy warrior” becoming a dominant part of the character’s concept. Everything in this post comes down to what a particular class, or classes in general, mean to a character outside of combat. Does a character’s class dictate social role, party role, character goals, and so on? My problem is that, for me, the cleric class has dictated these things, but it was also the one indispensable class.
I’ve been all over the place in this post, but what it comes down to is wanting to be free of more of D&D’s core setting assumptions that don’t apply to many of the settings in my mind’s eye. I don’t yet know what I want to do with the clergy in Aurikesh, for example, even though my notes in recent posts about the setting have made some pretty sweeping assumptions about all of the classes. I probably want divine spellcasting to feel more like pursuing the mysteries of the gods than leading their worship, since the needs of the story are not often (I won’t say never) well served by focusing on pastoral work or proselytizing.

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6 thoughts on “Clerics in Fantasy Gaming

  • Brandes Stoddard

    I was always pretty happy with how Constantine Southlight's ancestor worship worked, though I still wish I had gotten around to creating custom names for every spell to make it clear that he was invoking a different ancestor for each. It meant that Constantine's driving goal was to represent his family honorably; instead of conflicting evil deities, he had conflict with a rival family that eventually resolved itself into cooperation, or something like it. Politics was just part of what he had to do. =)

  • Stephen

    I've never really had a problem with clerics stealing focus from the campaign based on their religion. Maybe because I'm not religious, or maybe just because the players I've had play clerics haven't been pushy about it. I have however had huge problems with people getting stuck as healing batteries.

    I wonder if, with healing surges/hit dice, you could take a page from GW2 and just drop "healer" as an archetype. Every class gets some interesting and varied ways to expend their healing surges (which, for some classes that are the most healerish, may involve giving them to other characters).

  • Rev. Dr. G.

    "…I assume that it's because the cleric belongs to an organization that has an interest in sharing those spells freely with its members."

    I think the original idea (and at least my "mental take" on it)is not so much that a cleric "learns a given spell, but rather the cleric is channeling the power of his god, and at a given level, the spells represent the powers that god is willing to entrust with someone of that degree of importance in the greater worship organization. [The (relatively recent) change that allows a cleric to sacrifice a given spell to channel healing seems to re-enforce that.]

    Maybe I'll get around to dusting off/ updating a class/system that I had developed for another game system (that was not chosen to be included in the publication)- the general idea was that the character was a holy man who had a limited amount of guaranteed powers/spells, but had a chance of invoking more potent "miracles" based upon situation and level. So while the level 1 cleric might be able to lay on hands for healing, he could also pray that is god would heal the party's fighter of an even greater amount of damage, and it might succeed.

    It worked ok in the playtest, but it would need some serious work to get it up to speed in DnD and still maintain the flavor I intended.

  • Brandes Stoddard


    I know that our playtests of 5e so far have shown that the cleric might as well not have any per-day spells other than healing at first level. We'll see if that stays true in later levels or iterations of the rules.

    I certainly expect to see a rules module for 5e that cuts out healers completely. The designers are on record as saying that they don't intend for parties to need healers.

  • seaofstarsrpg

    Yes, Constantine worked quite well, with the interaction of politics and religion proving interesting.

    Also, ancestor worship really should be more supported as a faith in so many systems.