Friday, January 23, 2015

A Small Change, a Very Different Cleric

I've been thinking a good bit about the cleric lately. On the one hand, I feel like the cleric as a class remains an awkward fit even after 41 years of Dungeons & Dragons. If you really wanted a more sword & sorcery vibe, cutting the priest would seem to be the first order of business. But there are models for the cleric that I find unobjectionable: the Knights Templar, Stoker's Abraham Van Helsing, and Howard's Solomon Kane. Each or all of those would make a magnificent template for what the cleric ought to be, but unfortunately it's not what the Dungeons & Dragons cleric winds up being in play. Once the dice hit the table, and in original and classic once he hits second level, the cleric becomes a healer, and the rest goes away.

The healer role has become entrenched in D&D play over the years, and contributed to a combat-heavy game. By the time of the AD&D 1e Player's Handbook, the first level cleric with a Wisdom of 14 or better can cast Cure Light Wounds three times per day. Armed with this heavy rotation of healing spells, is it any surprise that D&D went from being exploration-first to combat-first? And the cleric's supply of healing spells forms a big part of the basis for the "15 minute workday" problem.

All of that could be adjusted by removing two spells from the cleric's spell list: Cure Light Wounds and Cure Serious Wounds. Without them, the cleric is a much more interesting spellcaster. Rather than running about curing others, he is a front-line combatant who has the ability to augment other characters or cast an occasional in-combat spell. Turning undead and fighting are his biggest attributes.

Once you've done this, healing can go a couple of ways. An "ironman" option is to simply cut the healing down dramatically. This will certainly discourage the combat-first mentality of more recent versions of D&D, as PCs go into a dungeon with pretty much exactly as many HP as they will emerge with. Variants of D&D more or less like this have generally worked.

If that's too extreme, one option might be to take a page from 5e D&D and make healing potions something that can be bought normally for a GP cost. While I generally object strongly to the idea of buying and selling magic items, it's possible that such potions in your setting are not "magic" but simply alchemy or herbalism. It also gives the referee the option of including, say, a chart indicating the efficacy of such potions; a few might be more potent or less so, and a rare few may go bad and turn to poison. (I generally like this approach, of making some of D&D's "common" magic items actually nonmagical; the same logic works for making +1 swords masterwork or mithril or adamantine instead of enchanted.)

A third possibility is to give magic-users the ability to research the healing spells, but at 1 level up. I'm not fond of this, because it just restores the "healer" and moves it over to the M-U, and imperils cool 2nd level spells like Invisibility, but if the players absolutely insisted, I'd certainly allow them to use the magic research rules on analogs to the Cure spells.

There is a second, parallel shift I'd consider for the cleric. Basically, narrowing the scope of the weapon restriction to magical swords. It never made sense to me that clerics can't use swords; the templar certainly wasn't restricted to the mace, which was a specialized spiked weapon mostly used for punching through armor, and after all the image in this post has a knight drawing his sword. Also, if we want more Solomon Kane in our clerics, he certainly was a sword man.

I've thought a lot recently about whether clerics have a place in my D&D going forward. I'm thinking that they might, but with this small change that makes that a very different place.


  1. It might not be a problem to give such Clerics the Paladin's "Lay on Hands" ability as well, in recompense for losing the spells. Once per day is not a big deal, and still fits the Templar/Van Helsing/Kane vibe, I think.

    Another option is the idea I've seen other people try, which is to disallow any spellcaster from memorizing more than one instance of any particular spell at a time.

  2. I like the second option. Not the potion part, though. I'm a fan of skill systems, and I like the idea of mutually-reinforcing Healing (or Medicine, etc.) and Herbalism skills.

    I'm thinking specifically of LotR, Aragorn and athelas here: the only "magic" involved is knowing the right special plants etc. and how to prepare them (which to be honest is how I imagine a lot of "magic" actually works). By all means, turn the cleric back into a spiritualist/warrior, and let the burden of healing 1. be relegated to down-time instead of a quick fix in combat, 2. be spread out among anyone willing to invest the skill points, and 3. not tie up or use up spell slots that would otherwise go to something more interesting.

  3. Option #4: The referee takes-up his clear authority and seldom grants requests for spells of curing. A cleric can pray for whatever spells he wants. What he actually gets can be a very different matter.

  4. 1) make turn undead an action which holds undead at bay from the turner only, and make it a concentration ability (eg no fighting or spell casting
    2) allow anyone to do it
    3) provide some mundane but minor healing options- bandages, poultices, salves.
    4) name the Paladin the "divine" default option.
    5) allow hedge wizards/alchemists and actual priests to use some of the higher-level restorative effects in small amounts for great cost in money and time- stone to flesh, restoration, maybe raise dead.

    That's one way to exorcise the weird cleric from the game.

  5. Actually, the cleric isn't any weirder than anyone else in 3.5... It's my favorite class to play when character builds are paramount because they can do everything.

    But when character is what matters, the cleric is just a weird mashup draped in the cloth of a church. It really doesn't make any sense.

  6. We played B/X and later classic D&D so the cleric doesn't get spells till level two. By then he was fully entrenched as the undead fighting tank. I hate how 5th edition moves turn undead to level two and gives spells at level one.

  7. Yes, by all means remake the Cleric into something other than a mobile trauma unit in combat; make dressings, poultices, and other "first aid" type stuff common to all classes; make healing potions a little more common.


  8. I wonder if it's something in the air? I am just now trying to wrap my head around how to have a Cleric style character that makes sense in SPI DragonQuest.

    There my take have been do focus on the domains from 3rd ed D&D. They grant talents based on the style of god you support. Then you can have the spells be focused along the same line, but take the spells from the list the Mages have. Clerics are just god supported magic users. I think that would be cool in D&D as well.

  9. Or hit point damage doesn't represent blood and guts injury, and everyone automatically heals half their hit points on a short rest/overnight.


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