Friday, June 10, 2016

Do You Want To Die? (Clerics)

I could devote a whole week to talking about B/X clerics. Hell, I've done it before (I've somehow written a ton about the class over the years), and new ideas and thoughts just continue to bubble to the surface. If I was so inclined, I suppose the subjects I'd want to address would include:
  • An alternate interpretation of "clerics"
  • Forget clerical alignment
  • Losing reverse spells
  • Priests in Tekumel
  • Turning and the undead
  • Warrior-priests of Phum
Plus a couple others that I don't have "catchy titles" for.

One of the game projects I'm currently working on is a D&D-style heartbreaker that doesn't include clerics as a class (there's actually a LOT it doesn't include, but we're just talking about clerics at the moment). It still has priests, of course, though of the Lankhmar, "let's-fleece-the-public" variety, NOT the adventuring type.

The problem with this kind of approach is that it ix-nays all those happy little "Get Out O Jail Free" cards the cleric has up her sleeve: cure disease, neutralize poison, remove curse, raise dead, etc. Having access to the magical repertoire of a cleric in your campaign setting takes a lot of the sting out of the D&D game. It may be inconvenient to raise your dead buddy and remove his "Mummy Rot" (or whatever), but at least it's possible, given time and (presumably) a large enough sack of gold.

The problem is that having ready access to a cleric of high enough level (i.e. a PC) any "sting" can be removed altogether, making the game feel far too easy for the players. At the lower levels, it's a little irksome to have the party exit the dungeon four or five times in a session in order to re-memorize that single sleep spell. By the middle levels, they're still engaging in this order to have access to those beloved healing spells.

The AD&D DMG gives guidelines for the buying clerical magic: 100gp for a cure light wounds, 350gp for a cure serious wounds, 1000gp for a cure disease or neutralize poison, etc. But what is the real cost for a party of adventurers with a competent cleric? In B/X play, a cleric has access to all these spells (yes, up to 4th level spells) by 6th level. Practically speaking, it's only a couple days wait (and consumption of iron rations) to have your party fully healed. A 7th level cleric in B/X has access to ALL clerical spells, including raise dead...your party need never fear death again, so long as you keep your bishop well defended. And clerics reach that lofty level faster than any other class, save thieves, needing only 50,000xp to do so.

That's pretty lightweight to hold the power of life and death in your hands. Peanuts, really. AD&D more that quadruples this requirement (upping the level of experience needed as 9th for a whopping 225,000xp), and all later editions (other than BECMI) follow suit.

It's been a long time since I've had a player who made it to those heights of holy power in actual play. I've allowed pre-gen clerics of 7th level on a couple (that is, two) occasions in recent memory, but they were packing spells other than raise dead, and they were killed before they had a chance to repose themselves and use such necromancy. However, I can remember old AD&D campaigns that featured high level clerics (both PC and NPC), and the access to such powerful healing magic made it far more difficult for me (as a DM) to challenge the players. In true adversarial fashion, I struggled mightily to find canonical creatures and adventures that would circumvent the party's ability to recover from wounds and make the sting of those things have impact, to strike fear in the players' hearts.

D&D should not be a cakewalk, after all.

But it still needs to be fun, and removing clerics and their magic from the game has the potential to make it less fun. Frustrating even. If a blown saving throw means the end-of-the-road for a PC...because there's no counter...the game becomes one of paranoia and waiting for the axe to fall. Will this be the week my character gets bitten by a spider or giant rat, or is flattened by one swing of the cyclops's club? The week that I need to roll up a new character because I had a single instance of bad luck?

Over the years, I haven't voiced all that many complaints about the B/X cleric. Fact is, I find the class as written to be pretty darn good. I like the lack of a spell at 1st level...I like the (slight) delay of gratification as the character needs to "earn her spurs" (or whatever). She's still plenty competent with good armor, turning ability, and saving throws. I like how the cleric (in B/X) can receive bonuses to melee from a good strength, which allows her to be even more effective in melee.

I think the cleric's HPs in B/X are modeled perfectly (D6 every level to nine with +1 per level after). The class's XP rate of advancement is just fine up through 8th level, though I wish there was a slowed rate beginning at name level (similar to the B/X thief). And I like the concept of clerical magic being different from arcane (magic-user/elf) magic, even if there is little difference in the mechanics.

But there is room for balance at the top end of the scale. I'm just going to put this out there: I've spent an awful lot of time with Holmes Basic over the last year or so...reading it, dissecting it, digesting it. And I've done this because I am extremely enamored with a couple-few things, and two of those things are Holmes's presentation of the cleric and the fighter. Unlike the thief and magic-user, there are no issues of scale with these characters at the low levels, and I find the de-emphasis on mechanical advantage (bonuses for ability scores, variation of weapon damage) to be a refreshing change of pace.

But there is still room for improvement at the "top end" of the least with regard to the cleric. B/X shows the pitfalls inherent in the extrapolation of the character class from its "basic" roots (the Cook/Marsh expert set was written to be somewhat compatible with Holmes, after all). It's not that I'm dissatisfied with the class as a's the execution in play (at least at the mid- to high levels) that I dislike. But going to the opposite extreme...removing the class altogether...makes for some tough row hoeing in your usual, dungeon-delving campaign.

Balance. Death in the game should be a setback, an should give the players an interesting choice (do we spend the time and resources to bring this character back to life? or has the character 'run its course?'). It shouldn't be impossible...this is a fantasy world, after all. But neither should it be incredibly easy. And finding that middle ground needs to be applied to other "penalty effects" (poison, disease, level drain, etc.) in D&D.

Balance. The rules regarding petrification (and restoration of a petrified character) are just about perfect in my opinion. It's a rarely encountered effect (and one that has a save), but it is difficult to reverse requiring both A) a wizard that knows the spell, and B) has the willingness to burn a 6th level spell slot. Even a 14th level magic-user only knows a total of three 6th level spells (in B/X), and there are so many other good ones to choose from...disintegrate, invisible stalker, anti-magic shell, reincarnation, death, etc. Clerical magic doesn't require such hard choices...and that's a pity.

All right, enough rambling. Got to get back to something.
Hard not to tip the scales.


  1. So just keep the cleric and modify the spells? Edit, add or remove them.

    1. Mmm...not quite so easy as that. Modifying the rate at which spells are gained isn't even that want clerics to HAVE the spells, but there needs to be a limit to their application.

      In Five Ancient Kingdoms, the system for "clerical" (holy) magic remains largely unchanged, except that instead of the spells being "per day" they are "per game session;" placing a hard limit on just how many times your divine supplications will be answered.

  2. The general breakdown for MU/Cleric has always been offensive spells vs. defensive spells. Can't you just make a distinction between offensive and defensive MUs? Give them two separate lists of spells and you're done.

    The fluff could be explained by a warmage versus heal-mage, or university trained versus hedge mage.

    1. @ Warren:

      Some folks have taken this tact ("white magic" versus "black" or "grey magic" is often how it's phrased). However, I think it's fun/interesting to have different magical paradigms within the game.

      Moreover, I wouldn't break it down as "offensive" and "defensive." Certainly the standard MU spell list has its share of defensive spells...shield, dispel magic, remove curse, anti-magic shell, etc. And there are clerical spells that can only be classified as "offensive" (striking and sticks to snakes, for example).

      Instead, consider that clerical magic deals (more often) with returning the world to its "natural state:" healing broken bodies, removing curses, abjuring evil. MU spells are about pushing the boundaries of reality, shaping it to the wizard's will. It explains the reason for the MUs disdaining armor and weapons: they need to have complete belief and faith in their magic to warp reality.
      ; )

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Too bad wolfsbane is that no cure poison that wipes you out in six hours for having simply weeded your garden otherwise I'd be all for a switch to charisma 'kill the heretics' based clerics in my d&d.

    1. @ Sean:

      I actually like the "priests" one finds in the film Beastmaster...bald, sword-wielding fanatics of few words.

      Hmm...that actually sounds a bit like the "faith militant" guys in Game of Thrones.

  5. I quite like how ACKS handles things like raise dead, with possible consequences and side effects, makes it a bit risky and there's a chance it simply won't work.

  6. A lurker.  Enjoy your blog...

    I am enamored with the concept that a powerful spell, such as raise dead, demands that the lifeless form requires attribute priming.  Perhaps 1 point each of the the major attributes, donated freely and without compulsion(typically from fellow PCs, or extremely enthusiastic NPCs/henchmen-with a very good reaction/morale check). Add a fame mechanic, and perhaps the local/regional heroine who is struck down can benefit from the greatful populace(1 attribute equivalent for each 1000 0 level donors?). Suddenly, we have a mechanical reason to play nice with your party members/henchmen as you want them to have your back, even after you have been killed.

    Maybe coerced/unwilling/unknowing PCs/NPCs can be used for the spell, but cosmic forces set the price x times higher.  

    What cost then for a scroll of Raise Dead? A Rod of Ressurection with 3 charges(and where the attribute cost is x times higher)?

    This can't be an original idea, but I have not seen it in the OSR blogosphere.

    1. 3rd Edition requires a fat expenditure in the form of a 5K diamond and a resurrection spell in AD&D cost a caster three years off her life (and aging can result in attribute loss). Having a "cost" for high level magic isn't especially new, though it isn't something usually found in B/X play.

  7. One of the things we used to do back in the day when a character died was determine if the "Gods" would allow the character to be raised (or resurrected), by simply rolling a d20, and subtracting the character's level. If the result was a positive number, the character in question was judged as having more to do in the world (that is to say they were FATED to do more) and were allowed to be brought back. It was quirky, but it worked.

    1. @ Trailblades:

      Not much different from a CON revival check, except that it's level dependent. Doesn't help much with the other issue (removing the "sting" of curses and such).

  8. Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday. I'm delighted to meet you. I have not played RPGs in probably 30 years but I dearly loved them at the time. You should check out my pal Cygnus over at He is way into them.

    1. @ Squid:

      You're welcome. It's never too late to give gaming another try, just BTW.
      ; )

  9. This is a big thing that I love about AD&D (either edition): the addition of a "resurrection survival" roll - and the corresponding crop in Constitution - means that not only is there always a chance that Raise Dead, et al. might not work... but that chance gets smaller and smaller over time. If I ever had a B/X party get up to the higher levels (unlikely), I would probably drop this rule in there, although I might simplify it to a Constitution saving throw rather than a percentage chance.

    1. @ Fuzzy:

      The only issue I have with the CON % thang is that...while it does limit the effects of resurrection magic...the limitation is one of random chance, rather than player choice. Folks fortunate enough to have a high CON score get better chances of coming back (which of itself is rather arbitrary seeing as how your CON score is randomly determined and not adjustable), but even so everyone becomes subject to the whims of fate.

      Which is okay...I mean, that's one way to handle it. Just not totally satisfying to me.

  10. So...the goddess isis?

    My recommended change to spell progression is:

    Level: spells
    1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6
    01: - - - - - -
    02: 1 - - - - -
    03: 1 1 - - - -
    04: 2 1 - - - -
    05: 2 1 1 - - -
    06: 3 1 1 - - -
    07: 3 2 1 - - -
    08: 4 2 1 - - -
    09: 4 2 1 1 - -
    10: 5 2 1 1 - -
    11: 5 3 1 1 - -
    12: 6 3 1 1 - -
    13: 6 3 2 1 - -
    14: 7 3 2 1 - -
    15: 7 4 2 1 - -
    16: 8 4 2 1 - -
    17: 8 4 2 1 1 -
    18: 9 4 2 1 1 -
    19: 9 5 2 1 1 -
    20: 10 5 2 1 1 -
    21: 10 5 3 1 1 -
    22: 11 5 3 1 1 -
    23: 11 6 3 1 1 -
    24: 12 6 3 1 1 -
    25: 12 6 3 2 1 -
    26: 13 6 3 2 1 -
    27: 13 7 3 2 1 -
    28: 14 7 3 2 1 -
    29: 14 7 4 2 1 -
    30: 15 7 4 2 1 -
    31: 15 8 4 2 1 -
    32: 16 8 4 2 1 -
    33: 16 8 4 2 1 1
    34: 17 8 4 2 1 1
    35: 17 9 4 2 1 1
    36: 18 9 4 2 1 1

    Raise Dead: its fundamental to the game but if you want to make it harder...require the raising of dead to occur at a shrine, church, or temple of the cleric's immortal or god, or vaders cave deep in the swamp for neutrals.

    1. @ Sean:

      ; )

    2. Just got my comment deleted... Trying again.

      "If a blown saving throw means the end-of-the-road for a PC...because there's no counter...the game becomes one of paranoia and waiting for the axe to fall."

      So is the first few levels as few have the gold to pay for resurrection magic, and might not even have local access to it. And at higher levels both saving throws and hit points are higher, so it's “easier” to get out of a bad scrap. As long as the players are free to chose what to tackle then there should be no problems with perma-death, though I believe it's quit possible to challenge a 14th level party with henchmen in tow without going “hay, two hundred dragons in the sky” or similar stupid shit – I will have to run some numbers on that. Total party kills do occur for those not wise, and if only the Cleric dies none can say there is anyone but a “Normal Man” Priest to tend the local Flock.
      The fluff is a problem, but one that can be solved, I believe. That'll have to wait, though.
      My first comment were a bit better written*sad face* but such is electronics *hmf*

      I like the Cleric, so I won't advocate for it's removal. Just saying it shouldn't be a problem. Don't charge in at 1st level, don't charge in at 14th level...

    3. @ Janich:

      Thanks for taking the time to retype your comment. : )

      I hear what you're saying.