Understanding Fantasy Classes: The Cleric

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On my group's recent camping trip, after we had stopped gaming for the night the Professor and I were up just talking about gaming.    I recently read some really eye opening articles on the Ranger posted on other sites that really challenged my notions of what the class really is.  We discussed the issue for a minute and then he posed a very interesting thought, "If the Ranger is bugging you then stop and consider the cleric.  That will really blow your mind."  

I found that a confusing thing to say, the Cleric had always seemed one of the most straightforward classes to me, so I asked him what he meant.  He replied, "Well, he isn't a priest, that's for sure."  I opened my mouth to reply, but then got what he was saying.  A normal priest, even in medieval times, was not a soldier trained extensively in warfare including the use of any number of weapons and all different types of armor and shields.  Why would a run of the mill priest train in the use of plate armor when chances are he could never afford it, and would have little or no use for it?  

So if I accepted that the Cleric wasn't a priest, then what was he?  Well clearly he was more.  He has the piety and devotedness of a priest with much of the same martial training that the Fighter receives.  Knowing that Gygax and Arneson must have drawn their inspiration from somewhere, we discussed possible sources both from history and from the various works of fiction that inspired Dungeons and Dragons.  We had a strong belief that Crusade era catholic priests were the strongest influence on the class, but we had no way of confirming our suspcions. 

As it turns out all we needed was our trusty 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbooks.  There it specifically states, "The Cleric is similar to certain religious orders of knighthood in the middle ages: the Teutonic Knights, the Knights Templar, and the Hospitalers."  So this confirmed our suspicion that the Crusade era was the the period of time that really defined the Cleric.  Further confirmation of this can be found in the following paragraph where it says, "...Clerics, being reluctant to shed blood...are allowed to use only blunt, bludgeoning weapons."  This is in line with the Catholic church's policy at the time that discouraged the shedding of blood (something of an irony given the time period).

The confirmation that the main inspiration for the Cleric were knightly orders of the middle ages creates another problem the Professor and I had discussed, The Cleric vs. The Paladin.  Because the Cleric is clearly so martial, he is essentially a divine warrior, but then so is the Paladin.  I've always been a proponent of each class having their own Shtick, their own thing that makes them special from all the other classes.  When classes start getting too close together they start stepping on each other toes.  That is what seems to be the case here as both the Cleric and the Paladin are based on Christian Knights.

Obviously I'm not saying that the Cleric and the Paladin are the same.  Even though they are based on Christian Knights, they are not based on the same Knightly order.  Paladins are based on a religious Knight archetype like Galahad and Percival while Clerics are based on the three above mentioned Crusading Orders whose primary job it was to protect and care for pilgrims making their way to the holy land.     Yet still these are Knightly Orders that held similar values and similar motivations.

To compound the problem Clerics and Paladins are given very similar powers.  Now obviously each edition of the game is different but Paladins typically get two of the Clerics principal abilities, albeit in diminished form, Turn Undead, and Divine Spells.  Healing wounds, something of a specialty of the Cleric, is another ability that overlaps into the Paladin's list of skills.  To give a recent example, Pathfinder gives Clerics the ability to use turn undead attempts to burst heal in a radius around him.  The Paladin can use his lay on hands attempts to do the same thing and because his Charisma is far more valuable to him than to a cleric he will likely have a higher score often allowing the Paladin to have more of these "burst heals" than a cleric.

These overlaps in mechanics are as big a problem as the overlap in overall character concepts described above.  So the question is how does one resolve these issues and give each class a its own clear character concept and it's own mechanical advantages.  It seems to me that the key lies in making the Cleric a Priest rather than Warrior Priest.  That isn't to say that the Cleric need to have no warrior skills whatsoever, but certainly they should be scaled back.  Eliminating heavy armor is one step that Pathfinder has already taken to scale back the Cleric's martial power, and though I was somewhat shocked at the same time, I am beginning to think the move was perhaps a good idea.  Clerics in most games have spellpower that rivals arcane spellcasters so even though it may seem unbalancing in many games to scale the Cleric back into a more traditional priestly role, the fact is that in many games the Cleric is an overpowered class.

Certainly we see this is the case in 3rd edition D&D (3.0, 3.5 and even to a lesser extent Pathfinder).  Game developers have said that they went out of their way to make clerics great because few players have traditionally wanted to play them.  Give the fact that their healing magic makes them almost vital, game designers wanted to make sure that players would want to play them.  In other incarnations of D&D, and other games like it such as Hackmaster, the Cleric is always among the best classes that a player has to choose from, and no less vital than in 3rd edition. Hackmaster posses a unique ability among fantasy games that I have played in that it can deliver the changes to the Cleric that I want without a single house rule.  In the new edition of the game Clerics of different gods are almost a different class onto themselves.  Each religious order has its own specific information like armor allowed, weapons allowed, special powers, etc.  Even if one needed house rules to get some separation between the Cleric and the Paladin I think it would be worth it. 

 The pious priest is a classic fantasy paradigm, and one that deserves to stand on its own.  By making small alterations in both the flavor of the class and in its mechanics I believe one could create a Cleric that is far less martial and far more priestly.  This would give the Cleric his own niche separate from the holy warrior Paladin and allow each class to have very different moments in which to shine. 

This entry was posted on Monday, September 27, 2010 at Monday, September 27, 2010 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I've always liked playing clerics but I can see why folks tend to stay away.

First is the image: I'd wager what most westerners picture when they hear 'priest' is an elderly gentleman in a black coat. He's soft spoken and used to teach Sunday school. Not the kind of person one would associate with high adventure.

The other extreme is the image of a raving zealot who wishes all to convert or die. Granted the Paladin gets this too but at least he gets a cool horse and a fighter's base attack.

Another problem is a cleric's power doesn't stem from him. A fighter is a deadly weapon, a thief is cunning and quick, a mage has his own arcane might, a cleric has. . .piety? His strength is clearly not his own. Without his god he is nothing. Many gamers don't want their character's powers tied to something other in such a way.

Then there's the whole 'your character worships another god' thing. For my part, when I was a more devout Catholic I stayed away from the cleric because I didn't even want to pretend to worship something else. Mages were fine because I was manipulating a great neutral power but clerics? Even for just pretend I didn't want to praise any other deity.

I know better now but I also understand how other's would find being the cleric uncomfortable.

These days I like clerics. It brings with it a lot of roleplaying potential. What better character to have a crisis of faith? What better way to explore a foreign philosophies? If done right I think our fine D&D priestly orders can offer us much in the way of epic RP.

September 27, 2010 at 7:20 PM

I love playing clerics, but I have always thought it a failing of D&D that there isn't a class in the main game who is by design a more typical holy man.

September 27, 2010 at 9:31 PM

+1 or the Red DM's comment.

Any time PCs go to a temple, whether it be on the out fringes of civilization or a major metropolis in the heart of a mighty empire, those who tend the temple are clerics, though they should be more of a holy man than a warrior.

This is a great post and really made me rethink the cleric. I wonder if I should be rethinking other classes as well.

September 28, 2010 at 2:43 PM

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