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Wizards Watch: Cleric Class Confusion & Designer Dismay

clerics prayerAnother Legend & Lore article by Mike Mearls was posted today, and the topic once again has come around to the Cleric Class.  I say once again, because this is the SIXTH article or blog regarding the Cleric Class and its development in D&D Next since April 2011!

We’ve had L&L: Who Wants to Play the Cleric? on 4/26/2011 which touched on the evolution of the class and its powers.  It was quickly followed up on 5/3/2011 with L&L: The Problem of Clerics explaining why the class is both unpopular and necessary.  Then things were pretty quiet until 3/15/2012 with a blog by Bruce Cordell entitled Iconic D&D Clerics, then The Cleric, The Paladin, and Multisysteming by Tom Lapille on 3/29/2012.  Both these blogs seemed to be searching for what makes the cleric class unique unto itself, and in the latter article, what differentiates it from the Paladin.  Monte Cook wrote his own thoughts on defining the uniqueness of the Cleric class in Paladin Versus Cleric: FIGHT! .  And finally we have today’s article in Legends & Lore discussing The Cleric Design Goals in D&D Next, setting down yet more ideas on how this iconic class will appear in the new edition.

I think what worries me a bit is that we’ve been exploring the nature of the Cleric Class now for a full calendar year, over numerous articles, and yet it feels like the D&D Next design team is no closer to nailing down the fundamental nature of the class yet.  While there appears to be some accepted features that make a Cleric a Cleric, somehow it doesn’t seem as though anyone on the team is happy with those qualities.

So what’s the problem?  Why is the design team having so much trouble defining an iconic class like the Cleric in a new edition what touts itself on getting back to the “basics” of D&D?

Defining is Easy…

What is strange about this whole series of articles, is that from first to last, there doesn’t seem to be any problem with the team defining the basic features of the iconic D&D Cleric.  We know that Clerics cast divine spells and heal fellow adventurers.  Clerics use heavy armor and simple blunt weapons, like maces, and have decent hit points.  Fighters and Paladins are better at melee fighting than Clerics, but Clerics can generally hold their own in a fight.  And Clerics can turn undead, or control undead, depending on which side of the alignment fence you happen to hail from.

All this seems incredibly basic to me, and I would imagine it does to many other D&D gamers who have played or adventured alongside Clerics.  So why has it taken us a year of skull-sweat and hand-wringing to get us to the same point we were at last April when we started asking what D&D Clerics are made of?

I theorize that part of issue stems from how Clerics affect the pacing of the adventure.  There is obviously a direct correlation between the Cleric and to party survival during an adventure, not to mention how it affects the tedious issue of the “15 minute workday”.  The healing power of the Cleric must be a major factor in determining the potency of monsters’ attacks and on the viability of heroes to get through an encounter.  Considering that prior to 4E and the addition of the Second Wind power for all heroes, the Cleric was absolutely essential to whether or not the party would survive even a single fight, let alone a whole adventure.

Of course, the other major problem is undoubtedly one of the popularity of the class.  In the L&L: Who Wants to Play the Cleric?, Mearls discussed the trouble with attracting players to a class who has such a narrowly defined role in the party – healing and support.  Until 4E, Clerics had to spend their entire action either healing a member of their party or swinging a weapon at a foe.  That meant that most times, Clerics did little except sling healing around a combat, while everyone else hacked monsters to bits.  The only time that a Cleric really got to shine was in the face of undead, when they got to step boldly out front and send the undead horrors scurrying for the corners of the room.  This meant that only certain players would be interested in this role, which is clearly a small fraction of the D&D gamer base as a whole.

And this also rather begs the question of just who the Cleric Class Hero is on the D&D Next Design Team?  And by Class Hero, I mean the designer that loves Clerics so much that he dreams of casting Cure spells in his sleep.  I don’t doubt there are more than one Wizard Class Hero, constantly throwing out nifty ideas for what will make the Next Wizard something special.  From the intensity of some other blogs, I’d hazard to guess that there are few Class Heroes for Fighters, Rogues, and Paladins as well.  But who has got the Cleric’s metaphorical back on the Next Design Team?  Who’s advocating cool things for this class, when so many blogs have come out telling us how uncool the class is, and why it needs to keep the heck off the Fighters’ and Paladins’ schticks?

…But Designing is Hard!

Personally, I think the design team needs to be awfully careful when it comes to nailing down the features of the Cleric Class.  Clerics have their own schtick, and while they might be considered “boring”, there are ways to fix the boring aspects without losing the overall nature of being a Cleric.

Taking a cue from 4E would definitely be a wise decision, in my way of thinking, and let Clerics do a little healing effect or grant temporary hit points when they fight in combat.  Or just make some healing spells minor/swift/free actions in combat, so that a Cleric can heal and still run over and whack a monster with his mace.  Either of these functions will make playing the class more fun by offering the ability to function as both support and as combatant, without making the player choose between one or the other every round.

Another thing that the Cleric must not become is some sort of doppelganger of other classes.  We saw this particularly in 3.5, when a Cleric could stack so many buffs on himself that he could out-damage the Fighter and Rogue in melee combat, and hold his own against the Wizard for spell damage – and still heal!

In today’s article, Mearls mentioned that one of the natures of the Cleric Class was that “Clerics Reflect the Gods”.  He mentioned his own experience in a playtest where he made a very un-Cleric-like Cleric:

For instance, in a playtest I created an elf cleric of Apollo who was a skilled archer, woodsman, and scout. My character wore leather armor, carried a bow and a dagger, and spent the session sneaking ahead to spy on monsters, climbing a tree to escape an enraged ogre’s reach, and hiding in a dark corner to ambush a gang of monsters drawn out by the rest of the party.

Sure, that’s nifty and all, but what he sounds like he’s describing is a Ranger and not a Cleric.  And that sort of thinking is fairly troubling, because now we have a Cleric not being a Cleric just to try and make it appealing to people that don’t want to play Clerics.  How about you just go play a Ranger, and leave the Cleric to someone that wants to play one?

Sure, Clerics should reflect their god’s power, but that was discussed in the third point of the article with “Divine Magic Is Subtle and Indirect”.  Absolutely right, although there is nothing wrong with a god or gods granting their Clerics a few nifty perks now and then.  We’ve been doing that since a few Dragon articles came out in AD&D days, discussing offering Clerics a weapon proficiency of their god’s weapon, or a once a day power that matches their god’s major attack form.  Mearls’ article touches on that issue in the article by stating:

A cleric of the god of shadows should have different abilities than a cleric of the god of storms. On an adventure, they should have different approaches that are supported by divine gifts given to them by the gods. We should expect a cleric of the god of shadows to excel at hiding—even in heavy armor—while a cleric of the storm god can call down thunder and lightning.

Personally, I agree on the latter but not on the former example here.  Absolutely, the god of storms would grant some kind of storm power to a Cleric, but Clerics stealthing around in plate I’m not so sure about.  Divine magic is miracles, and as such they should show off the power of the god to an audience whenever possible.

  • Storm god Cleric blasting foes with thunder and lightning – Miracle!
  • Stealth god Cleric sneaks off – Not Miracle!
  • Stealth god Cleric making whole party vanish momentarily to avoid a pack of orcs – Miracle!

I think Domains and Domain powers are definitely all a Cleric needs to make the power of their god felt, by giving them some a few alternate powers that reflect their god’s might and bailiwick, but without altering the basic form of the Cleric as a Class.  Like I mentioned previously, offering Clerics little perks from their god has been around since AD&D, and Cleric Domains finally gave it a structure and form in later editions.  If you’re going to keep the iconic cleric around, then simply adding Domains as a class feature is all you need to make a Cleric feel special and different than other Clerics.

And one thing I would remind the D&D Next Design Team is that not all deities are best represented by Clerics!  Traditionally in D&D, a great many gods were served by Druids instead of Clerics, obviously those deities with strong ties to nature, forests, and animals.  So the task of divine service should be reasonably divided up between at least those two classes, which will make it easier to just let Clerics be Clerics, and not all things to all deities.

In fact, taking it a step further, some martial and war-like deities might not have Clerics at all, and just have Paladins (and Anti-Paladins?) as their designated front-men.  Sure that would mean less healing for a party if you only had a Paladin along, but it might help to keep the various divine classes more distinct that way.

So obviously, there are still some major issues with the Cleric Class, despite it being one of the most original and most iconic class in the history of D&D.  For your consideration, here are some questions I’d very much welcome some feedback about:

  • Do you like to play a Cleric, or do you play them out of necessity with a party?
  • Is this a “class of last resort” for players?
  • Why do you think that the design team is still working on the Cleric Class for D&D Next?
  • What features would you like to see for the Cleric Class in the Next Edition?

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


13 Responses to “Wizards Watch: Cleric Class Confusion & Designer Dismay”

  1. AK says:

    You make good points. One thing I disagree with though, is the idea that some gods use druids instead of clerics. The same disagreement applies to paladins, but to a lesser extent since they’re at least divine.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that clerics get their power from gods, and druids get it from nature. The specifics don’t really matter, whether it’s “Primal Spirits” or whatever, the point is that it’s the natural world, not the divine one.

    Sure, a druid might revere and worship a nature Deity, but so does a fighter and a war god, or a farmer and god of harvest. Does that mean the god of the harvest has farmers instead of clerics? I hope not.

    I do agree though that we shouldn’t try to make clerics everything to everyone (or all gods). But it makes sense that the clerics of a wilderness god will behave differently from the clerics of a shadow god who will behave differently from the clerics of a war god, etc.

    Just like in the real world, a catholic priest is different from a rabbi is different from a priest of Juno is different from a priest of Osiris. And the more different the religion and/or Deity, the more different the priests. So, it stands to reason that this would apply to D&D as well.

  2. Mantriel says:

    I think the problem is, that while they can grasp the essence of a fighter, or a ranger, or a warlock etc. and tweak them to fit any campaign world in general, clerics are way more fun, and way more cooler if they are God specific, and have their minor tweaks, like: clerics of Apollo wear only leather armour, but have a free “Martial Weapon: Bow” feat at lvl 1.

    Stuff like that makes the class better, more compelling, but also more complicated.
    Should each cleric be a class on its own? Should we balance three core classes (fighter, thief, mage) and 10+ cleric classes with each other?

    Fun, compelling:
    The servants of the snake god have special poisonous spells, inflicting poison dmg.
    The servants of Moradin are great fighters, almost equal to a fighter, while still being able to heal the wounded.

    Sure you can keep the original spells, abilities and mechanics of the basic (”vanilla”) cleric and change the “name” and the “feel” of the spells, but you would have to do that in your own campaign world with each cleric type. Which would involve a lot of micromanagement which isn’t really worth it for many groups.

  3. Great post! I wholeheartedly agree with what you’re saying here and worry why (a) the D&D Next team can’t just look to 4e for how healing should work and (b) why Mike Mearls thinks the elf cleric he describes is anything like a cleric. No one in my group wanted to play the cleric in 1e or 2e but in 3.x they became over the top buffing machines which attracted a few players. In 4e I had a couple of players enjoy playing one because of the way healing was handled and the decent array of combat powers including turn undead. The one bit that was poorly done was the deity specific flavour, later added in the Essentials builds for a handful of domains. The design team just need to put these in from the start next time round but also keep these fairly restrained so the core concept of the class is retained.



  4. @AK – Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Druid become a divine class, but rather that for certain deities, the druid makes a bit more sense for the god’s representative in the world. Just looking at Realms deities, gods like Silvanus, Chauntea, Selune, and Meiliki would have a greater relationship with Druids than with Clerics just because of their strong affinities to the land, forests, growing things, and the lunar cycle.

    But honestly, the big thing I want to see is Clerics that remain true to their class, and don’t get metamorphosed into another class just because they worship one god or another. I still think Domains are the best way to bring in a particular god’s influence, offering a few bonus spells or god-specific powers which represent the deity’s nature, and maybe a weapon proficiency, and that’s all the changes you need to make to the base class. If you start redefining class abilities, skills, armor proficiencies, and everything else just for choosing a particular god, and you’re going to rip the heart out of the core of the class and create an amorphous schmoo.

  5. I think the problem is that everyone knows the mechanical definition of the cleric, but it’s harder to sum up the concept or archetype in a way that makes people want to play it. It’s much harder to distinguish the cleric and paladin mechanically than conceptually. Both fight in melee with heavy armour, heal, cast spells, and destroy undead. But conceptually, the paladin is the knight in shining armour, the crusader for his god, while the cleric is… a priest, I guess?

  6. @Dominic – Personally, I think the archetypes are quite separate, particularly when you note that Paladins (and also Rangers) were designed as Fighter sub-classes. In early D&D, the Paladin and Ranger were hybrids, each containing a little Cleric and a little Druid in their class powers, respectively. Early edition class designs made Paladins as better fighters than their Cleric kin, but weaker in healing and turning undead. They were poor casters, with only a smattering of spells, no Wisdom spell bonus, and maxing out at Level 4 spells tops. However, they got increased attacks per round, fighter weapons, and later, access to fighter feats. And also consider that Paladins used to be a VERY restrictive class – it required certain ability score, a lawful good alignment, and only a human could be one. The class features and perks were huge for Paladins, including the Protection from Evil aura, the ability to detect evil, bonuses to saving throws, an immunity to poison, and a free magical warhorse.

    So Paladins really were designed to be knights (before the Cavalier popped up in a Dragon Magazine), whereas Clerics are simply armored fighting priests, like the Hospitaller Order from the Crusades. So while I agree that superficially, the Paladin and Cleric might look the same charging down the hallway at you, there can and should be plenty of differences between them in what they can do once fighting gets underway.

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    One issue I’d like to bring up is the articles talking about themes and backgrounds. This sounds like an excellent way to make clerics of different gods feel different on both the crunch and fluff levels. We also have 3e-style multiclassing, which allows a cleric to dabble with a couple of levels in an appropriate multiclass. If each god writeup lists appropriate themes, backgrounds and multiclass options, then you don’t need to do a lot of tweaking to the actual cleric class. Domains could be themes, or a separate level of customization.

    I agree that I’d like to see some healing be available as a free/minor/swift action. That will help keep it from being a “class of last resort”.

    I’d also like to have the flexibility to have other classes provide healing that is roughly equivalent to the cleric. 3e/3.5 never made it that far. Other classes could provide hit point healing but weren’t as flexible in healing other conditions. (I once had a character fail a save to Blindness in a party using a druid as the primary healer. Guess who doesn’t get Cure Blindness?) In older games, you often had somebody play a cleric because the party needed healing, and not because they actually wanted to play a cleric. By having other options for your healers, then we’ll get richer clerics. People will play them to explore the religious issues and the meaning of faith.

  8. Dave Wainio says:

    First, your questions -
    •Do you like to play a Cleric, or do you play them out of necessity with a party?- Two of my favorite characters are clerics and I occasionally play clerics just for fun rather than “somebody needs to”

    •Is this a “class of last resort” for players? Actually my 4E campaign players did not take on ant divine class (paladin, cleric, avenger, etc.). I think it’s mainly because the experienced ones don’t like having a deity that ‘restricts’ their actions and the new to D&D made characters similer to a favorite fantasy MMO / computer game class.

    •Why do you think that the design team is still working on the Cleric Class for D&D Next? They can’t see the forest for the trees. I contend it’s not a big deal, see below for more.

    •What features would you like to see for the Cleric Class in the Next Edition? Maybe institutionalized main domain themes. War, Nature, Death, Healing, Knoweldge, etc.

    I personally don’t understand why people are fixating on this. Design a cleric that fits into the presumed non adventure roles and duties of the fictional world. Make a second or third avenue of healing. (Druids for example, upgrade healing skills, etc.) Let people play who they want to play and don’t worry if few pick the cleric.

    If people like the rules, but and play the game, then what does it matter is there is an “under used” class or two. As long as it is not obvious that one or two classes are far superior to all the rest, the idea should be to let a player create the alter-ego that they have in their head.

    In other words: design, create and sell “fun”, not a “rationally balanced gaming experience”.

  9. Svafa says:

    I’m somewhat in agreement that Clerics and Druids and Paladins could all perform similar functions for different deities. A Cleric of Chauntea, for example, just makes me wince- it should be a Druid, not a Cleric. At least in my mind, Clerics have always been tied to civilization and by extension lawfulness, so anything that strikes too much of wilderness or chaos leaves the realm of the Cleric.

    On the other hand, a lot of people prefer that the Druid not be considered a divine class, regardless of its real-life origins, and I can agree with them as well. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two different views or that they can be reconciled.

    I do think domains are key to giving the Cleric the flexibility it needs while keeping it a consistent whole. I think domains need to offer a basic package that fits their deity, but that there also needs to be optional extras as well. Whether that’s done like the 4E themes (the best way imo), through feat selection (not my preferred way), or by some other means, there needs to be support for the player that wants to go overboard on their Cleric’s theme/domain.

    As for healing, I’m hoping that Clerics won’t be the go-to class for all your healing needs. Since 4E came out I don’t think we’ve had a single player roll a Cleric. We’ve had a Bard, Druid, Warlords, and now a Runepriest, but no Cleric. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the 4E Cleric, but that I think this sort of variety for support classes should be continued in the next iteration. The 4E skill utilities take it a step further even, allowing non-leader classes to turn a trained Heal skill into a viable support option.

  10. James Geluso says:

    I think one key here is that Mearls insists that the iconic cleric, the one represented by the picture in the Red Box, is an armor-wearing mace-wielder. That makes the cleric shade toward the paladin. If armor and combat were optional and based on the god, not integral, then I think there wouldn’t be such a conundrum.

    My preferred solution: Pull out the Second Edition PHB and look at the flexibility and options the priest had.

  11. @Philo – I agree with the idea of other classes picking up the healing role, and certainly 4E did that by offering alot of variation. But sadly, I don’t think that’s going to work in Next if they are truly “getting back to basics”, which may be why the Cleric continues to be a conundrum – he’s going to be the only major healing class.
    @Dave – Again, I think the reason its such an issue, is that there is no class “hero” or “champion” on the Design Team, and everyone wants the class to be as “fun” as a Wizard, Rogue, or Fighter. Ironically, the class will be fun if they add some decent cleric options, and not try and screw up the class and make it into something its not.
    @Svafa – I’ve seen a few of the other 4E healers tried out, but none have had the awesomely potent healing that the Cleric. I hope that Next’s Clerics maintain that healing superiority, and not get shunted to the side by some other healer with powerful secondary powers.
    @James – I was a fan of the 2nd Ed Priest, and for sure, I think they need to dust that class off as a Cleric alternative! After hearing how they talked at PAX East about modules, the designers might end up starting with the base Cleric, and with add a module, some few tweaks, and bam! – turn it into a Priest (ala 2nd Ed).

  12. [...] tearing the issue apart in D&D Next terms – check out some great posts by @Neuroglyph (post) and @EmbraDM (post) – who point out some of the flaws with the current direction Wizards is [...]

  13. I agree that six L&L articles on this seems excessive. I understand the need to review all aspects of the game and to gather feedback, but as some of the commenters have pointed out it was the cleric archetype that finally became a fully fleshed out character type once 4E was released.

    Ya know, Mike Mearls et al can just run a scan on their DDI database of player generated characters to determine the number and type of clerics and cleric-types that are actually used by players today? Maybe they have and have determined that something about Clerics is broken. Perhaps on the average are there “too many” healers per party and that has some affect on expected game play results.

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