Wednesday, 13 June 2012

AD&D Clerics - Where Did It All Go Wrong?

"They're blunt bullets, Mr Wiseguy Vampire"
The AD&D cleric is by far my least favourite class in the game both in terms of roleplaying and the mechanics of the class. The main problem is the lack of a clear archetype, and that comes down to a fairly long list of muddled ideas that make up the foundation of the class:
  1. Firstly there's the name. "Cleric" is not "Hobbit" or some other made-up word. It's a real word which was fairly common to non-gamers (which we all once were) and it comes with a lot of baggage. In particular, it had a strong Christian undertone for most of the early players and it was of no particular note that OD&D's clerics bought a "cross" and not the later "holy symbol".
  2. Next, the actual origin story of the class is as a vampire hunter. Not even a general vampire hunter, but a class created with a specific (player-character) vampire in mind - Sir Fang of Blackmoor. This introduces the whole bit about the undead. This aspect is okay with me as one thing that can be said of most priestly types is that they have deities and deities have always had a strong association with the afterlife. As such, having the generic cleric take an interest in those things which refuse to "pass over" seems a decent fit to me.
  3. Then we have the AD&D PHB text that tells us that the cleric "bears a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood of medieval times."
  4. But, unlike knights - religious or otherwise - "All are likewise forbidden to use edged and/or pointed weapons which shed blood."
  5. And then we have the paladin class. If that's not a class which "bears a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood of medieval times" I don't know what is, which leaves the question of what the cleric's doing then.
  6. Meanwhile, in fantasy stories (particularly pulp) the evil high priest so often mentioned in early D&D materials was generally a wizard who happened to worship or summon demons and the like and very rarely did much in the way of weddings and bar-mitzvahs.
  7. Finally, there is the gamist origin of the class's mechanics. In the roots of the genre there's really only three common classes: the fighting man (or woman), the sorcerer, and the thief. In the early days we didn't have thieves in the game, before even OD&D there was the fantasy supplement to Chainmail and it had heroes and wizards. The cleric is clearly informed by a design decision that a third class could be squeezed in which was a bit of both. This has little to do with any sort of thematic or roleplaying goals.
What a mess of sometimes conflicting influences. Indeed, on top of that there was the biggest conflict of all in the early days: the total lack of God (capital G). The class was obviously Christian or at the absolute maximum stretch Abrahamic - I could just about squeeze Saladin or King David into the AD&D cleric, I think - yet there was not a mention of the obvious deity they served.

This problem got a little less pressing as settings and supplements were developed and sold which expanded the idea of the cleric to polytheism but this in turn threw several of the other problems into even harsher relief: a cleric of a healing god who trains in the use of armour and weapons? A priestess of Diana who enters combat but can't use a bow? What the hell?

Not D&D
The early RQ rules throw a harsh but useful light on this mess, I think. In RQ2 (the only copy I have), each cult has Rune Priests and Rune Lords. To be generous, the AD&D cleric is the analogue of the Rune Lord and there is no actual equivalent of the Rune Priest at all. AD&D actually has religion without priests; a true sham.

Even looked at this way, there are still several problems with the class - the specifics of weapon limitations, for example but also the spell lists. But I think there is some mileage in emphasising the idea of the standard cleric class as being a "champion" class for their various religions.

Which still leaves the paladin. Well, I have a solution in mind for that which we'll come back to later.

The RQ Rune Priest represents the "other path" - the ones gifted especially with powers from the god to go out and alter the world and take their culture to other lands and prove the superiority of their gods.

A Cheap Solution
I hate houserules, but I hate clerics more. So, here's my thinking.

Firstly, the cleric as we know it gets a boost. In addition to the thematic problems it has, the class is weak in other ways which leads to real problems from about 7th level onward, when the fighter has gained multiple attacks. Already 2 combat levels behind, the cleric gets an additional ⅓ penalty to his/her effectiveness in combat. The pigeon-hole marked "healbot" beckons ever more strongly.

I suggest
  1. That clerics get bonus attacks at the same levels as the ranger (8th and 15th) and the fighter's multiple attacks against <1HD based on combat level (ie, 3 at 4th level, 5 at 7th, 7 at 10th etc).
  2. That clerical HD be increased to d10, but without the fighter's additional hp bonus for 17+ CON.
  3. Minimum STR of 9.
  4. The cast spells as a PHB cleric of one level lower, thus they get no spells at 1st level.
  5. May be proficient in any weapon, but retain -3 penalty for non-proficiency and 1/4 rate for new slots.
and that a new class - priest - is introduced. It is based on the current cleric class (ie not on the above modifications) but with these changes:
  1. Free casting. Any spell on the cleric list OR on a single (picked at character generation, if there's a choice) spell list associated with their deity (ie, listed as used by them in DDG) may be cast subject to the restrictions of the normal PHB class spells per day. This would allow magic user spells (for example) to be cast but still none higher than 7th level.
  2. Weapon list reduced to that of the magic user but otherwise combat remains as per PHB. Proficiency as per magic user in all respects.
  3. Armour as per magic user.
In both cases, the character should be allowed to have proficiency in 1 (and only 1) melee weapon which is strongly associated with their deity, if any, and 1 (and only 1) missile weapon strongly associated with their deity, if any.

As regards experience points, until I've had a chance to try this out I'm going to hope that the changes balance out and we can use the cleric table for both. Free casting is a big boost, but losing armour is a big penalty.

Oh, and the paladin becomes a sub-class of the new cleric (the fighting guy). The paladin's powers are as given in PHB with the exception that they get spell casting from second level. XP costs are increased by 10% from the PHB paladin.

A More Expensive Solution
Rebuild the class completely for each deity. There's fun.


  1. I like the way Stormbringer 1e handled this issue. There is no distinction between priests or sorcerers in the way magic is run. There is also no special healing ability of the priest. They're both off cavorting with demons most of the time.

  2. I liked the Stormbringer approach, but it's certainly not a generic solution to, say, Greek priests or indeed any sort of overtly good-aligned/intended priestly sects.

  3. I can't believe I forgot the biggest problem of all with the class: there's no archetype outside of the game! That's what I get for not keeping my notes handy when I post.

    Apart from Father Shandor there, there's not a single "typical" cleric in per-D&D literature, TV, movies, or stage. Unless you count Van Helsing, in which case you're reaching.

  4. I love clerics, no idea why. Maybe because they are one of the few almost wholly new things D&D brought to the table. In particular, evil, plate armoured, demon summoning clerics really say "D&D" to me. For instance, I love this Goodman Games illustration: Evil Cleric

  5. "Magic User" was the name that irked me. So dry and generic, anybody who uses magic is a magic user. Including Clerics! Shoulda been Wizard, Warlock, Sorcerer... anything.

    1. Well, all those terms are used in the game for various degrees of ability in "magic use". The issue then is what is the generic name? Which is why "magic user" is so generic. You are not a wizard from the get-go, you are trying to become one.

    2. I think that it is more than just generic, as it is purposefully newly coined at the expense of the obvious etymological alternative, which is to say "magician". That could be just a misstep, of course, especially considering the decision to redefine "cleric" as a game term, but it is very "Dungeons & Dragons", if you see what I am saying. A unique marker, like AC, THAC0, HD, or Dungeon Master. Undermining that view are classes like the "thief" and the "fighter", but lack of consistency is not necessarily indicate lack of intent.

    3. "lack of consistency is not necessarily indicate lack of intent" should have been printed in the inside cover of each rulebook. No. On the front cover!