Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Making Clerics Work

The last couple days have been "Snowmageddon" up here in Seattle. Not really an issue (I've got four wheel drive these days, even if I wanted to go somewhere...and who needs to when the supermarket is across the street from my house?), but my kids have been out of school. Which is fun but means I've been "on duty" for four straight days without a break.

I hate this. I hate resenting my family, who I love. But my wife gets home from work and she wants my attention even (or especially) after the kids have gone to bed. Damn it, I need some time to myself! And sleep...some time.


Mainly, I just want to get back to my writing. Been working on putting Cry Dark Future together. It's been slow going, but it IS coming together...finally. Was working on it last week (till Thursday...Fridays are the wife's day off and, as said, she wants/needs some attention). Now, well, hopefully I'll have a couple hours tomorrow....literally. As of now, I know the school's going to be two hours late, which means I'll have from 10:30 till 12:30 to write before my preschooler needs to be picked up.

ANYWAY...while staying up too late last night (folding laundry), I got the chance to listen to Delta's most recent "livecast" video with the Wandering DM. I found myself (in my usual fugue state), nodding along with their ideas of chopping the cleric class from their D&D game, quickly eliminating (in true Gordian Knot fashion) all the multitude of issues associated with the class.

[if you' this moment...saying, "what issues?" then you might want to go check out the video. They do a good job explaining]

[jeez...while I'm taking a few minutes to type this up, my wife is in the other room watching CNN with the children, explaining what the State of the Union address is. My kids are eight and four. We are such crazy parents]

Anyway (did I already say that?) I was trying to drift off to sleep, sometime after midnight, I found myself thinking of all the ways to answer those clerical "problems" without cutting the class from the game. Despite the spinning wheels preventing my rest, I have to say I really appreciated my brain's efforts because I LIKE having clerics in my games (for lots of reasons), and I think it's easier to make minor tweaks that deal with the problematic aspects than defaulting to a "nuclear option."

And because I've been neglecting

[...whoops! Duty calls!]

[many hours later]

...because I've been neglecting my blog readers, I figured I'd share some of MY answers to the problematic parts of clerics.

Wizard or Evil High Priest
(or both)?
1) Sword & Sorcery world VS. Catholic Crusaders: this is an old complaint. D&D is an adventure game largely inspired by fiction based on the pre- (or non-) Christian worlds of Howard, Leiber, etc. yet features a class whose abilities are based off Christian scripture and (Christian) horror fiction. How do you reconcile a monotheistic theology in a polytheistic cosmology? The short answer is: you don't. Keep your Christian pantheon (or fantasy/fictional equivalent) and spurn the other pantheons (whether demonic, Norse, Mesoamerican, or whatever) completely. All "true" clerics worship (and gain spells/abilities) from the "one, true God" though different sects/religions might call that deity by different names (Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, etc.). Priests of "false gods" belong to other classes (magic-users or fighters most likely, depending on the emphasis of their training)...or are simply clerics that lack spell-casting ability.  In a world like Lankhmar or Aspirin's Thieves World where filthy, crowded cities have whole districts of temples and shrines, you (the DM) will need to determine which ones belong to a "true faith," which ones are demon-worshipping sorcerers, and which are simple hucksters of false gods. They don't all have to be "clerics."

2) Clerics ever-expanding spell list: another old complaint...every time a new clerical spell gets added, all clerics become more powerful (because clerics have access to every spell, unlike wizards). The easiest fix is to treat clerical magic as spells: each spell is a prayer that must be learned just like a wizard's spell formula, limiting clerics to a finite number of spells. This allows clerical spell research (not to mention clerical spell scrolls) to make sense. "But if cleric magic is just another type of spell, why are the spell lists different from a magic-user's?" For the same reason illusionists have a different list...or druids. They are simply different types of magic.

3) The importance of healing (and clerics' healing ability) forcing the class into the role of "medic": I have to say Delta's idea of simply populating his campaign with easily found healing potions really bugs me. First off, OD&D specifically limited spell use to one use of each spell per day (page 19 of Men & Magic), so for folks basing their game on the LBBs, there should be no issue with "lack of variety" of cleric magic (you can't use cure light wounds more than once per day anyway). Another idea I've used before (in Five Ancient Kingdoms) was to limit clerical healing to adventures only: as God-granted miracles, healing magic (or any type of clerical spells) are unavailable between adventures (i.e. "back in town"), instead only being granted when out on an expedition. Clerical magic is a plea of desperation for divine intercession when facing incredible danger...not some trip to the fantasy spa for a little R&R. Make characters heal the "old fashion way" (bed rest and chicken soup) once they've left the dungeon.

4) "Weaponized" clerical magic: have to say I agree that I hate the idea of using clerical spells like light and silence in an offensive capacity (to blind an opponent or neutralize spell-casters); even B/X does this, which just isn't right (permanently blind someone with a targeted continual light? This should be the purview of the curse spell). The easiest fix here is (again) to go back to OD&D where there are no such use of these helpful spells (neither light nor continual light allowed targeting of opponents' eyes, and silence 15' radius was used to "move with no sound" or to silence "an object or thing" not an enemy spell-caster...see Greyhawk, page 30).

5) Providing parties with a "too easy" method of neutralizing undead: this is only an issue if you allow multiple turning attempts against the same opponent in a single encounter (I don't) and/or you're using undead in singular numbers like some cinematic horror antagonist. Mummies (as tomb guardians) should be buried in numbers, vampires should have their "spawn" with them (brides of Dracula?), and Ring-Wraiths (i.e. "specters") always travel in packs. Against multiples of undead a cleric is going to have a much lesser effect, given that no more than one 7 HD vampire can ever be turned/destroyed, even by a cleric of level 11+ (since a successful result only affects 2d6 hit dice of undead).

Drac and "Friends"
Oh, wait...I see this is a case where B/X is actually more limiting than OD&D (in OD&D clerical turning affects a number of undead equal to 2d6). Okay, so the fix here is use the B/X system instead of OD&D...and then make sure your undead are found in numbers greater than one. At least, the undead that you don't want to see turned/destroyed. One of the methods a B/X party has to overcome monsters is breaking their morale; the undead's fearlessness in this regard (which makes them even more dangerous than their special abilities) is offset by the cleric's ability to drive them away. I don't particularly mind that myself.

[okay, I ended up writing most of this post Wednesday morning. Sorry for the delay]


  1. My fix for the ever-expanding cleric spell list is to keep their spells known to whatever the default is in the edition of choice. So you'll know every spell in the PHB, but the ones from Unearthed Arcana or whatever have to be found or researched.

  2. On the Cleric again? Never get's old, does it. But then it's an odd fit, when wizards are all cool to adventure with, too - though given the magic system, this might me "saved" fluff-wise. That's not the topic.
    Reminds me of the years old pledge to muck up a max level battle showing how the raise dead ability quickly become irrelevant even against a "fair" opposition. Again, not the topic, and I'm sure you don't remember :D

    The idea of all true cleric's serving X-god/power works fine. You could easily claim that God sent angels with his guidelines to the people, but that understanding varied leading to doctrinal differences between cultures. Anti-Cleric's could come from cultures that actually started worshiping the angel sent to them - an angel accepting this shirk might well be allowed to channel power in a corrupted form.

    Targeting eyes with light and darkness seems unreasonable, at least without a roll to hit, though such are the rules. Seems as a bad use though. A 15HD monster having a negative 4 to hit is nothing. But I don't read the rules right now, so might have missed something. Of cause the surroundings are also hidden fro it, so that is beneficial in many arenas.

    I was thinking about rolling the spells the Cleric have for the day at the start instead of letting him choose them. it gives the feel of having them granted by God, and is much different then the wizard.

    Four vampires walking down the street is bad business any day. Especially with initiative, summoning them wolves. The cleric will be prime targeting for the drain attacks, and the wolves will be directed there too, right? Smart, them vamps. Victory will be bittersweet.

    This is a shit comment, but I also got two wee buggers (6 and 2) and don't have to tell you about it :D
    Imagine "having more free time". At what cost, brother. Be grateful for the hard times. Not that I don't forget that all the time ::)

    1. @ Janich:

      Of course, you're right. I was only being pathetically maudlin again with my whining (a long day and a couple cups of wine will do that to me).

  3. Follow up on the Vampires. Swarms of bats prevent spell casting. Would it be reasonable to say it prevent turning? It's undefined, I believe. Depends on the exact way turning work, I guess.

    1. @ Janich:

      I think that if I pulled this tactic (stating a turn attempt could be wrecked by breaking a cleric's concentration), my players would lynch me.
      ; )

      However, it wouldn't fly in my campaigns anyway: turning undead is a product of a cleric's innate holiness, not a spell-like ability.

  4. A couple of notes re: rules:
    OD&D does -not- anywhere limit casters to one of each spell type per day. I have no idea where this idea came from or how it got current on old-school blogs, but it isn't so. Rather, OD&D simply doesn't explain how spell memorization works; The Strategic Review does, and is quite clear about allowing multiple copies of spells.

    In B/X, turning undead affects 2d6 hit dice of undead… rounded UP. So if you're facing down some 7 HD vampires, all you have to do is roll 8 or better on your 2d6 "turning damage" and you turn two vamps.

    1. @ John:

      I haven't read the SR article you cite, though I believe you...certainly the rule was later incorporated into AD&D.

      The rule in OD&D comes from page 19 of LBB1 (Men & Magic), where it states:

      "A spell used once may not be reused in the same day."

      That seems pretty clear to me. As there is never any mention of memorizing duplicate spells in the rules, I'm not sure why anyone would default to the assumption that one CAN memorize duplicates of a particular spell...unless you're coming to the LBBs armed with information picked up in later editions.

      RE B/X turning: Sorry, but you're mistaken on that absolutely do NOT "round up" when determining the number of hit dice turned. The examples in both the Basic book and Expert books are crystal clear:

      Page B9: "The result of 9 means that 4 ghouls (a total of 8 hit dice worth are turned away (extra hit dice have no effect)."

      Page X7: "At best, Antonius will only be able to Dispel 2 of the mummies (10 hit dice total). He rolls 2 dice and obtains a result of 9. Only 1 mummy is dispelled (9-5=4; the remained is not enough to dispel a second 5 HD creature)."

  5. I am increasingly attracted to Delta's idea of erasing Clerics as a class. I might consider the idea of a deity granting special powers to a devout follower, as a Saint or some such thing, but the idea of Clerics really doesn't fit the worlds that I see D&D presenting. Healing potions should be easy to find, or even buy from herbalists or whatever. But then, I'm also in favor of the Holmes idea of making scrolls extremely easy to make (100gp and 1 week per spell level, as long as you know the spell).

    1. Oh, and the last few days may have sucked, but I am definitely not looking forward to this weekend.

    2. @ Faol:

      I wouldn’t say Delta’s ideas are without merit...quite the contrary. Having strange, adventuring priest often feels very, well, Vancian to me (in a Dying Earth, weird-ass society, kind of way), which is not the usual type of campaign I run. But I have a couple ideas on how to re-skin the class.

      I like the Holmes scroll thing, but only at low levels. Consider how cheaply a magic-user could stock up in high level spells later! It costs 30,000 to craft a wand of fireballs in B/X, but a 5th level MU in Holmes could rattle off five fireball scrolls for 1500 gold!

    3. Yeah, only 1500gp, but also 15 weeks of work! I think that being largely unplayable for 3+ months of the game is a pretty big cost for being able to use a whole five fireballs. It's a small thing that gives a low-level MU some small bonus, but is hardly worth the effort for a higher-level one.

      I don't have an actual copy of B/X, only the RC. so how many charges does a Wand of Fireballs have in that one? In RC, that cost would give it 90 charges, which is probably a better use of that much money than spending 270 weeks—more than five years—making 90 scrolls, even if there is a small cost savings.

      It's not so much that it's a priest, actually, since there can still be priests in a no-cleric universe. It's that they are Hammer horror heroes rather than sword & sorcery ones. It's like some people are unhappy with Monks—"Mystics" in RC—and claim that they break the feel of the setting because they are Shaw Brothers film heroes instead of S&S.

    4. Sorry, missed this comment...wands have 20 charges in B/X.

  6. I used to think that there were no real literary examples of clerics until I started to dig into Appendix N, where I found all kinds of examples that can be seen as direct influences for the cleric class. The Averoigne Cycle is an explicitly Christian fantasy world. REH has an explicitly Christian character in Solomon Kane who is depicted driving off an undead creature through sheer will and faith. In Leigh Brackett's "The Black Amazon of Mars" the hero drives off a hoard of underworld creatures using a powerful artifact of light in much the same way a cleric Turns undead. If one looks at the books of Scripture in a literary light rather than as SCRIPTURE, one finds a rich tapestry of literary heroes and fantastic stories with all kinds of cleric-type characters.

    Thus, this whole line of argument is bunk. I have no problem with Delta or anyone else getting rid of clerics from their games, but I wish they'd stop using this line of reasoning.

    1. Would you call St. Joan a cleric or a paladin, padre?
      ; )

    2. FrDave: I can see Solomon Kane, but I think that you're reaching with Eric John Stark in Black Amazon of Mars/People of the Talisman, and Averoigne might be Christian but it doesn't seem to show much in the way of Clerical magic that I recall offhand. The way Clerics are portrayed in (A)D&D is pretty clearly drawn from the Hammer horror films, with a leavening of powers drawn from the Biblical Prophets and Saints' Lives. And, I mean, that's fair and a fine thing, but can be taken to intrude on some of the themes of sword & sorcery to a degree.

      JB: That brings up the possibility of a setting with Paladins instead of Clerics, which would emphasize the concept of such extremely rare and holy characters as Saints, rather than the magical workmen of the Church that Clerics have become. The power to Lay on Hands would also remove the (perceived) need to stock up on Cure Wounds spells and give them more flexibility, especially if combined with the no-clerics option of making healing potions common.

    3. And now I'm thinking of a less combat-oriented but still difficult to qualify for class of Saint, with more non-combat abilities but otherwise as potent as a Paladin.

      Also, a setting where anything other than a Fighter or Thief (and maybe some new non-magical classes, too) is a difficult-to-qualify class, but now I'm getting off-topic…

    4. JB: I have never understood the need for the paladin class because the cleric does the job much better...

      faoladh: I mentioned Averoigne because the complaint about clerics is often coupled with a complaint about the Christian-themed spell list and the cross wielding Hammer Horror heroes. You can have an awesome fantasy world AND Christianity at the same time. I mentioned Breckett because in the same way Vancian Magic is inspired by Vance's magic system but does not duplicate it, the image of Stark driving off life-hating creatures with an artifact that sheds light can easily inspire the Turning system of D&D.

      BTW, one of the reasons I mentioned Scripture as a literary source is due to all the stories of the OT, where the image of the contemplative monk isn't as predominant as it is in the hagiographies of later Christian writing. More commonly, you have fighting cleric-types driving off the enemy of God's people, which could easily inspire the image of clerics-as-warriors protecting Civilization from the forces of Chaos.

    5. @ FrDave:

      RE Paladins - I once thought the same, but I've come around a bit to the other side (has to do with one character's foundational training over the other).

      RE Everything Else

      I am in complete agreement with you that you can run some kick-ass fantasy with Christian (or fantasy equivalent) clerics. I've done it in multiple settings (published and not) myself: 5AK, Goblin Wars, Comes Chaos, etc. Heck, you can even do it in a post-apocalyptic Gamma World/Mutant Future type way pretty easily: look at the Canticles of Leibowitz for solid inspiration on the power and importance of faith in a post-nuked world!

      I think that one of the difficult things to reconcile, though, is the idea of the frontline-fighter type of cleric when the archetype is based on a helpful, healer (possibly pacifist!) archetype. Wouldn't a "true Christian" be trying to proselytize to the orcs instead of slaying and looting them? And if not, wouldn't she be losing her God-granted miracles? And if not...because the baddies are all Satan's minions and put on Earth to "test" the Faithful, etc...well, the more you start probing the theology, the less your game feels like that pulpy grim adventure that first inspired you. I mean, you CAN make it work...I just see how some folks would rather chuck it than grapple.

      Which, of course, is why I bothered to write this post.
      ; )

    6. @ Faol:

      In any setting where I replace "clerics" with "paladins" I am most likely going to use the exact same system as clerics to model paladins:

      In my opinion, the only reason to change up the class (making it fighter-based) is to distinguish it from the cleric...which I like to do in some instances. Otherwise, a paladin is just a cleric with a horse.

    7. JB: It depends upon how you define what an orc (or other humanoid monster) is. If an orc is created according to the image and likeness of God, then, yes, there would be some Christians called to preach the Gospel to them; however, it is well within the scope of fantasy to characterize them as personifications of sin. According to Tolkien, the word is equivalent to "demon" and is related to the name Orcus, which is used for one of the most well-known demon princes in the game. With this understanding, clerics are out there fighting the Demonic Wilderness, and are therefore well deserving of their spells.

  7. Regarding Clergymen that fights, here is the founder of my capital, Copenhagen.

    He was a Bishop named Absalon, and a real person - though actually founding Copenhagen rather then just have the village handed to him by the King might be half myth.

    A cleric, with a hand held axe, no less. I guess thats why he didn't heal everybody. Cleaving peoples heads instead of crushing them just piss the big guy off, see. No magic for you!

    1. @ Janich:

      I kind of assume any saint of Denmark is going to wield an axe at SOME point.
      ; )

  8. I do as you suggest for cleric spells... each one is a specific prayer, and clerics have to research evidence or reports of these "miracles" to be able to acquire the spell ("Oh, great St. Cuthbert, as you granted the miraculous healing of mortal wounds to your lowly soldier Sir Sirius at the Battle of Tumbledown Hall, so now do I beseech you to grant the same grace to my comrade, Sir Paul...").

    As clerics being walking medics.... I am toying with the idea of every time a cleric uses a prayer more than once a (day? week? month? probably will vary with level), there is an X% chance that the divine entity he is entreating gets annoyed at what he considers to be a request beneath his station, and the spell fails... or, even worse, if you have besseched St. Cuthbert for the Miraculous Healing of Tumbledown Hall too many times... it is no longer effective, and you have to research ANOTHER miracle performed by St. Cuthbert in a similar manner before you can cast the prayer again.