Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Clerics: What You Get

So let’s start this off with a good hard look at why you need a cleric in your game. Actually, “why” is not really the right question…I mean, you don’t need any particular class really (you could have a classless RPG and just pick a number of “add-ons” or “skills” for your character, right?). What I mean is, let’s discuss what it is that the cleric provides to the game.

Now, there’re a couple things we need to throw out, right off the bat. First off, we need to throw any thought that the cleric gives us “variety.” Sure, of course it does. All classes provide variety or options, and if your sole priority is having more options you end up adding a gazillion new classes and races to the game (see D&D post 1999, or even 2nd edition AD&D “kits”). If that's your main reason for keeping the cleric in your game, then you might as well stop reading now ‘cause there’s no reasoning with you.

After we throw that out as a reason for keeping the cleric, we need to also throw out any reason for keeping it based on self-perpetuating expectations. This is any line of reasoning that runs “well, the cleric class has always been in the game” or “even World of Warcraft has a priest class.” Just F that noise, okay? This is deconstruction, and we’re looking at REAL CONCRETE PLAYABLE ASPECTS OF THE CLASS. If we decide we can live without the cleric (which we might), that might lead us to creating different expectations down the road. Certainly there are a lot of expectations that have been attached to fantasy RPGs over the years that (IMO) need to be reexamined anyway…like the stupidity that WotC holds up as the “foundation” of D&D.

No, what I want to look at is what does the inclusion of the cleric class give you that its exclusion would cost you? Variety? No: you can always add more classes (maybe a beastmaster!). Expectation? No: we’re doing this in part to change expectation. I’m looking at the direct impact the character class has in-game; how does the cleric’s inclusion (or lack thereof) affect game play?

And since I want to make this a POSITIVE exercise, I’m going to try to look only at POSITIVE EFFECTS. For example, some might say “including the cleric makes the game cheesy,” or “forces at least one player to take up a support role as the party medic,” or “wrecks any chance of a gritty sword & sorcery feel to your game.” These phrases are not positive and thus not helpful. When I say I want to look at what the cleric gives you by its inclusion, I mean the positive, “thanks we needed that in the game” things.

Okay…everyone groks the ground rules? Let’s start.

For my purposes, it’s not all that helpful to look at the later iterations of the cleric class…that is, it’s not useful to look at the class as it’s changed over the years (whether you’re talking D20 or 2nd Edition or even B/X). Why not? Because by the time those later iterations of the cleric came about the cat was “already out of the bag,” so to speak. The cleric was in the game from the get go, and as a major player (one of the original three classes) so any changes/variations in class abilities or spells or whatnot can be viewed simply as “tweaks” to bring the class more firmly in-line with the present edition of D&D and/or balancing certain aspects of an already existing class based on feedback from actual play/players.

*whew* That last bit was a mouthful. What it means is that I’m only looking at OD&D, where this whole cleric mess started.

Now the origin of the cleric class as a playable PC type is fairly well-documented (or well enough for my purposes): in the primordial soup days (before OD&D was actually published), the wargamers who were playing this “thing” were sometimes placed in adversarial roles to each other. This isn’t all that strange to me (as I saw a lot of adversarial relationships between PCs back in my early AD&D days), but for youngsters raised on the “let’s all cooperate together” versions of D&D (basically, any version from Mentzer to the present) this may seem pretty alien. Nowadays, the most you hear/see is some light ribbing at the table and the occasional paralyzed PC being teabagged by a companion…but it was different in my youth when high level play often meant pitting (PC) political powers against each other, or when rivals clashed (over love and/or loot) and vendettas were enacted against each other.

ANYWAY…back in the primordial ooze days, one PC managed to get turned into a vampire (I assume in the usual fashion, but perhaps he’d been allowed to start play as one), and used his brains along with his vampiric powers to excellent effect against the other PCs of the campaign. Sir Fang was, apparently, a nightmare in the hands of this particular PC, and as a method of “balancing” his impact on the campaign, a Van Helsing-style holy man was introduced as another PC’s character. This “anti-vampire” character was the basis for the cleric class…at least once it was mashed with a couple historic figures and given some typical holy powers similar to what one finds in the Bible (especially the New Testament). The cleric as a class was included in Book 1 of the LBBs, and has been with us ever since.

Of course, by the time of OD&D we actually have something that looks like TWO classes: a “cleric” and an “evil priest” (which becomes an “Evil High Priest” or EHP and appears to have been a major villain type in OD&D). We’ll be talking about the EHP, too, since including “good” clerics mean including their reverse as well.

So what are the attributes of a cleric in OD&D?

1.     Their prime requisite is Wisdom.
2.     They have HPs and attack ability nearly equivalent to a fighting man of the same level (and thus a little better ability in this regard than the magic-user).
3.     They have the ability to wear all armor and use shields.
4.     They are restricted in their use of edged weapons, and specifically precluded from magic swords and arrows, the purview of the fighter (and generally more important with regard to Chainmail).
5.     They have the ability to turn undead which, in OD&D, includes the following monsters: skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, wraiths, mummies, specters, and vampires.
6.     Beginning at 2nd level they have the ability to cast spells, using a substantially different list than the magic-user (i.e. most spells are new, and many of them modeled on Biblical accounts of prophets, saints, Apostles, Moses, and Jesus). EHPs have the ability to reverse certain spells to cause evil effect (it is stated that Lawful clerics will do so only in direst need).
7.     A high level cleric receives divine aid (“extra funds”) when building a stronghold and attracts legions of “faithful” followers assuming they’ve been “true” to their faith.
8.     They have some alignment restrictions, being forced to choose between Law and Chaos…i.e. “good” and “evil”…in order to advance beyond a certain level.
9.     They are restricted to the human race (no elves, dwarves, or hobbits).

And that’s it…nothing else distinguishes the cleric from either of the other adventurer classifications presented in Original Dungeons & Dragons.

So of those nine attributes, which ones are pertinent to the discussion at hand?

#1 No. In OD&D the three prime requisites (STR, INT, and WIS for fighters, magic-users, and clerics respectively) have NO MECHANICAL IN-GAME EFFECT, save that they describe how good a class is at its “profession” (a high prime req gives a character a bonus to earned XP, thus facilitating rapid rise in level, while a low prime req carries a penalty to the same). Without the inclusion of the cleric class in OD&D, you might as well remove wisdom as an ability score. It serves a mechanical purpose solely for the cleric class; it can be surmised that it was only added as an ability score because of the inclusion of the cleric as a class. It adds nothing, so is not pertinent.

#2 Not particularly. In a way the cleric sets a “baseline” for PC combat ability (HPs and attack chance) with fighters being “a little better” and magic-users being “a little worse.” Without the cleric class, one of these other classes serve as the baseline with the other being exemplary (if the MU is baseline) or hopeless/pathetic (if the fighter is baseline).

#3 No. There’s nothing special about the ability to wear armor. The fact that magic-users cannot is notable…it indicates a restriction of some sort based on their magic. In another game, if being unable to wear armor was “the norm” than the cleric (like the fighter) would have an “exceptional ability.” However, such does not appear to be the case here (there are no armor restrictions for other humans in the monster section)…the magic-user class with its LACK of armor is exceptional (i.e. exceptionally bad). This isn’t worth mentioning.

#4 No. Similar to the magic-user’s lack of armor, the restriction on weapons is a lacking on the cleric’s part as other humans are not so penalized. This is a restriction; one purported to be based on a historic figure (a crusading priest who did not use blades as he did not want to “spill blood”), but is more likely included in aid of “game balance” (allowing fighters a certain niche protection when it comes to magic weapons). This is more important with the use of the Chainmail combat system as magic swords and magic arrows have specific rules. Likewise the inclusion of other magic weapons AND an alternative combat system in OD&D renders this a useless restriction for the most part…a magic mace or hammer (both useable by the cleric) has the same attack ability as a magic sword and does BETTER damage (in OD&D, magic swords do not add their “+” to damage and they top out at +3 just like the cleric weapons; ALSO, in OD&D there is no variable damage by weapon type…all weapons do D6 damage). Since this is a RESTRICTION, probably done in the name of game balance, it does not add anything to the game. It thus doesn’t bear as part of the discussion.

#5 Yes. We will discuss turning undead below.

#6 Yes. We will discuss the cleric’s unique spell list below.

#7 Yes, this should be included in the conversation, though its value is dubious. Clerics require less XP to advance in level, and thus achieve a higher level with a lesser acquisition of gold than the fighting-man. Having a rule that allows them to increase their funds for strongholds allow them to build castles at an equivalent level, even with a lesser treasury. By the same token, the cleric’s attraction of loyal followers cuts down the costs associated with hiring mercenaries to stock said stronghold. It may be hypothesized that some of this rule was included to give a newly created character class (in the primordial days) a “leg up” when it came to catching up to the baronies of longstanding, existing PCs of the campaign: the newly minted Van Helsing character getting a boost when it came to building a stronghold in opposition to that of Lord Fang’s evil barony. However, what it also adds (which I find more compelling) is a ROLE-PLAYING REQUIREMENT not found in either of the other basic classes. The player must pay attention to the tenets of his faith/alignment in order to receive these benefits. This is a marked departure compared to the other classes (who have no such strictures) and encourages role-playing “in character” for the cleric PC. That being said, I’d prefer to have some sort of “role-playing reward” system in place for ALL character types, not just the cleric(!) and it’s difficult to pin this as a “pro” of including the character in the game. It only affects/impacts the cleric PC (and only if he’s pursuing endgame action) only indirectly impacting game play for other (non-cleric) PCs.

#8 A very hesitant yes. As with #7, this actually encourages role-playing and sets up potential drama and conflict in the game. However, it impacts other players at the table even less directly than #7, especially in light of the lack of mechanical consequences/effects of alignment. If I say, “all clerics must have blue hair” or some other cosmetic difference, it DOES distinguish the PC from other classes, but it really doesn’t add anything, nor impact game play.

#9 No. As a restriction (and another one tied mainly to a stylistic choice), this attribute adds nothing to game with the cleric’s inclusion.

So there. As suspected there are only really TWO things the cleric class really brings to the table that have a real impact on game play, both for themselves and for others. Those things are:

-        The ability to turn undead.
-        A unique spell list with a divine theme.

We’ll talk about these in the next post.

[to be continued]


  1. Hi this is nice post. Thanks for provide the helpful information.

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  2. Great post. This actually helped me clarify some thoughts on my own "Priest" class for my own game. The distinguishing feature is solely the Priest's access to "Prayers" -- a Divine-themed Spell list -- as I've completely stripped the game down.

    I'm actually creating a "Persona"-like (the JRPG) Spell system for Priests where they attune themselves to "Saints" (immortal uploaded quasi-consciousnesses) for access to certain abilities, so it will end up looking very different from Magic-user Spells.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Spells and Turning. Cheers!

  3. How about: a way for a human spell caster to wear armor? Prior to the thief, the cleric is the jack of all trades class for the human. (Assuming you keep the elf fighter/magic-user or elf single class ).

    That's what I see mechanically.
    I rather like them for their roleplaying aspects, which I agree are not so explicit. I have some disagreements with your ground rules, but it's your game :)