Another 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!