Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Clerics Live by Other Rules"

Over the years, I've given the thief a lot of flak, but it's actually the cleric who fits in least well with the literary origins of D&D. The cleric looks not to pulp fantasies for its inspiration but to medieval Catholicism by way of Hammer horror films and, while I have a great fondness for the class, there's no question that it isn't a perfect fit for the world D&D implicitly describes. I'm not alone in thinking this, which is why the cleric is probably the class that gets reinvented the most (though the thief might be a close second).

Every edition of D&D has put its own stamp on the cleric, in the process rendering the class more incoherent than it was to start. Gary Gygax contributed further to this mess in his article "Clerics Live by Other Rules," which appeared in issue #92 (December 1984) of Dragon. To be fair, Gary's article is actually pretty good, but it laid the seeds for much mischief later. His intention was to suggest that individual referees, for the purposes of fleshing out their campaign settings, could change the rules under which clerics (and, by extension, druids) operate, either restricting their opportunities or expanding them (or, preferably, both).

In the article, Gygax gives an example of a sect worshiping the woodland deity Ehlonna, from his Greyhawk campaign setting. Owing to tragic events in the past, this sect operates differently than others of its kind, having a unique selection of spells, armor, and weapons, in addition to having certain ritual taboos placed upon them. Thus, for example, they're not allowed to use fire-based spells of any kind, but clerics, after proving themselves -- gaining levels -- can wield broadswords and druids can wear elfin chain.

Normally, I loathe this kind of stuff, in large part because I think it contributes further to the dilution of what the cleric class is -- and it's already pretty diluted as it is. What makes Gygax's approach work, though, is that a) it's solidly grounded in the setting and b) he's limiting these changes to a particular sect, not establishing it as a baseline. That's how I think things like this ought to be done. Unfortunately, players (and later designers) didn't care for these nuances, instead using them as a template for "fixing" the cleric class. This led, in my opinion, to a variety of changes over the years that have rendered the cleric one of the least coherent classes, both mechanically and as an archetype. But I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority in feeling this way.

Interestingly, Gygax himself warns against taking what he wrote in this article as an official, universal change. In his concluding paragraph, he says some very sensible things:
Now when you hear someone, DM or player, mentioning something about "unknown" cleric spells or similar difficulties, don't panic. It could well be a cleverly planned campaign where difference and the unexpected are desirable -- and who can fault that?! Perhaps you might wish to try it in your own campaign, too. A cautionary word is necessary, however, for there is a problem with such variations. Unless the full and complete details of the differences are known to other DMs, they might well not wish to have clerics or druids of such nature participating in their games. This is their right, and skepticism on their part is justified. Players of these clerics and druids must be forewarned that such characters might be "one-campaign-only" adventurers who are not welcome elsewhere
It's good advice, but it's also, I think, advice rooted in an older style of play that was already on its way to dying out by the time this article was published. Campaign hopping of the sort Gary envisions was already rare in the early '80s when I was most deeply immersed in the hobby and I have a hard time imagining that it was any more widespread on the cusp of 1985. Ironically, the advent of the Net and online play make well lead to a resurgence of the Old Ways in this regard, in which case Gary's advice might well prove useful again.


  1. For me, the thing a lot of this ultimately boils down to is using spell lists to balance classes. Which may sound like it comes from out of left field, but! If clerics are the "partial casters" as they are in some settings-- wielding some weapons, wearing some armor, casting some spells, with an emphasis on healing or necromancy-- then that would work fine, if there were, say, one master spell list. Done & done! Or, if there were two master spell lists-- say, Divine & Arcane-- then Clerics could be your epitome of the Divine caster. Instead we get...well, what DO we get?

  2. In my setting clerics are the leaders of the church mostly.
    In this world a cleric goes to the battlefield rarely.
    If it happens he will supports the fellows with his or her presence. (some kind of aura) They can heal a little bit and they haven't turn undead ability. (But they can learn it as spell.)
    Because paladins are missing or disappeared.

  3. I've been reading Le Morte D'Arthur and thinking about the implicit Christianity of D&D, as you've discussed here many times. It got me wondering whether a game of just Fighting Men + Clerics would work. Part of this approach would be to expand the conception of the Cleric to include anyone who commands power from gods and spirits. This would then encompass all "magic" as generally understood to the medieval mind: animists (Merlin), diabolists (Faust), necromancers (Morgan Le Fey), doctors of the church (Faust again), and holy men (St. Francis) would all use the cleric template and spell lists (including reversed versions).

    Has anyone thought about eliminating the MU? I actually think this approach might work better for both "medieval/chivalric" and "sword and sorcery" settings. Maybe mix it up with the "spells as turning roll" mechanic over here: http://9and30kingdoms.blogspot.com/2011/05/clerics-without-spells.html

    1. There are a couple of campaigns out there that have dabbled with the idea that divine magic is inherently Lawful (as it comes from the implicitly Christian God) and arcane magic is inherently Chaotic (as its source is demonic) — http://thebastardsblade.blogspot.com/ for example. Thus, MUs and clerics will not willingly go on an adventure together.

      My own campaign has come awfully close to eliminating the MU as a character class by default. There has never really been a regular MU that shows up at our table. It has worked out just fine. In fact, I'd say a party populated with a bunch of clerics might very well be more potent than a party with a good mix of clerics and MUs...

  4. There needs to be more love for the cleric out there.

  5. I've taken a stab (or should it be swing?) at reworking clerics, myself:


  6. I get bored to tears by homogeneous clerics... I definitely prefer that clerics are tied to their god for significant differences in spell selection or special abilities. Preferably something like 25% in common and 75% dependent on god. Real uniqueness in flavor is my preference, and clerics are the easiest class to do that with.

    The cleric isn't just another spellcaster, after all - they are irrevocably tied to their god. If someone wants to play a non-religious healer, then maybe add healing spells to the wizard class :)

  7. Something Gary mentioned reminded me of an idea that seemed to show up more in the old days than now, the idea of taking a character from one gaming group to another. That's something that has always been an alien concept to me. Possibly because I've never been a convention-goer.

    How common is, or was, it to carry over a character from one gaming group to another?

  8. Alright, time for my soapbox speech!

    In comparison to the magic-user and fighting-man, the cleric is too specific. There is no logical reason that the midpoint between magic exlcusive and fighting exclusivecharacter classes would be a priest. I think it is merely accepted because of tradition but it really breaks the classification. By extension, the thief is guilty of something similar because it adds a third endoint on the line - specialized skills - AND has a specific descriptive title (thief, as opposed to something like "skilled-man" or "skill-user"). I therefore blame the inclusion of the cleric for the plethora ever more specific classes that followed (bard, illusionist, barbarian, cavalier). Otherwise we might have just had slight variants rather than full blown classes.

    And this is not even addressing the Christian/Muslim/post-Temple Jewish biases of the cleric class which really put it out of line with many of the so-called pagan religions we use in the game.

    To be in line with the spirit of the OD&D fighting/magic paradigm, the cleric must be elimiated or greatly generalized.

  9. I jettisoned the polytheistic nonsense and clerics work fine as written.

    It really does boil down to metaphysics and anthropology, even in a game world.

  10. I'm of the belief that the spells, strictures, and requirements of the cleric class should be tied heavily to the god in question a la RQ, hence Gary's approach in this article greatly appealed to me, while the standard cookie-cutter DnD clerics are boring. (For me, of course. And I recognize they can still be played in interesting ways.)

    Regarding Picador's comment, I was thinking of something similar while reading CAS and REH recently: why not remove the separation between clerics and mages and determine the spells received by the being or beings with whom the spellcaster makes a deal?

    James: I have a vague memory of you doing something different with "evil clerics" (those aligned with Chaos) in your Dwimmermount campaign. They weren't "clerics" by the DnD definition, as I recall?

  11. Actually, John Jakes "Brak the Barbarian" is Pulp S&S and has Medieval style clerics...

  12. I made a few cleric characters in this fashion, although mine were built with the "Specialty Priest" rules from 2e, which built on what Gary discussed in this article and offered further examples of Gods and alternative weapons/armor. Mostly though, when I made a cleric, I stuck to the core class.

    As for players jumping from campaign to campaign, I recommend checking out FLAILSNAILS and ConstantCon via Google+. For anyone who hasn't heard of it, FLAILSNAILS encourages not just moving your character from campaign to campaign, but from game system to game system.

  13. My first-ever PC was a cleric and I have got some great memories, but the class has always rubbed me the wrong way. Far more than the thief.

    I decided early on that I saw them more as "mystic warriors" (akin to Jedi, perhaps) more than fighting priests. I usually handwave religious aspects in my campaigns, anyway.

    And their XP requirements are ridiculously low.

    In OD&D without variable weapon damage I say let them use any weapon.

    I just (as in, a couple of days ago) posted a draft version of a 1e-style paladin class that combines the AD&D cleric and paladin into one holy warrior who gets spells at 3rd level (similar to how Basic clerics don't get a spell at 1st level) and replaces both the original cleric and paladin. Druid becomes a sub-class of paladin. I don't (and probably won't) use this because I'm trying to stay as BTB as I can, but it resolves most of my issues.

    It's at http://www.lordkilgore.com/paladin-variant-post if anyone feels like taking a look. I'd appreciate some more feedback.

    My other preferred "solution" is to do more or less meld all the spell-casting classes into five color-based wizard classes. The styles and spell lists of each class is based on the colors of the dragons in D&D and also on that one collectible card game.

  14. Great post! I agree (no surprise). The line about "This is their right, and skepticism on their part is justified", is really interesting -- that's not a tone that gets hit much today or yesterday, I think.

  15. I was never really a fan of the Cleric class - or classes an specific archetypes. I would rather have them as Fighters or Magic-users, but with the benefits and restrictions of the deities they worship (treated as a silent NPC). Basically, a character can call for some minor divine intervention, but gods are weary of misuse or overuse, and can deny or punish for whatever reason. Having to follow dogma and preforming strange rituals is a normal thing for these characters, but going into the deeper "Mysteries" (rank within a cult or temple) would provide greater power, as well as heavier restrictions.

  16. I also made a variant Cleric class, but it was simply a paladin who could cast healing spells, and against undead or demons, any hit by a paladin automatically scored maximum damage. There were a few other wrinkles, but that was the gist of it.

  17. IME 4e D&D with fixed point-buy for stats, fixed hit points, and a standard set of magic items, has resulted in a renaissance of campaign-hopping PCs. I'm guessing the main impetus was Organised Play in the RPGA. Once a 4e PC is 'built' at a certain level, they are freely transferable by default to other campaigns, without much fear of disruptive over-powered magic items etc.

  18. The 1e AD&D Cleric class works great as priests of the monotheist quasi-Christian Great Church in my Yggsburgh campaign - http://smonsyggsburgh.blogspot.com/

    I agree it is generally a very poor fit with fantasy polytheism. It can work ok with Sol Invictus, 3e-4e D&D Pelor, and similar quasi-Christian gods, or with tweaking it can be used for heavily Christian-influenced paganism such as early-medieval Norse godar. It also seems to work ok in 4e D&D, which has a dualist mythos where Lawful Divine power (Clerics) opposes Chaotic Elemental/Primordial chthonic power.

  19. Clerics are the hardest class to to re-construct because every campaign potentially has a different mythology and cosmology.

    The whole tone of the class is slanted towards the good guys and it doesn't make sense for neutral and evil priests. Lately, I've been wondering if part of this isn't because the original alignments system was law vs chaos, rather than good vs evil.

    This is an issue I'm pondering for my own house-rules setting. While most of the "good" gods in my campaign would work with traditional clerics or druids, the neutral gods would just be ridiculous turning undead and throwing spells around.

    For example, one of my neutral gods is the god of trade and commerce. These guys are merchants, traders, bankers, financiers, etc, but they are not magical priests in my game.

    I've also got another neutral god that is the god of knowledge, history, and rational thought. These guys are scholars, librarians, scribes, historians, and philosophers, but they're not crusading warrior priests.

    Evil gods are even trickier. It's always bugged the hell out of me that evil clerics use the same rules as good clerics. Why the hell would an evil god care if you used an edged weapon? This gets particularly silly when you're using Lovecraftian deities.

    In my campaign I've completely divorced them from the traditional goody-two-shoes cleric. Many of the spellcasters are witches, witchdoctors, and shamans who have sold thier souls in exchange for power. Some of these evil priests are in charge of evil churches, but thier powers and limitations are different.

    I've decided that evil or black magic offers a faster track to power, but it requires dangerous dealings with otherworldly forces and/or the life-force of sentient beings to fuel these great magics.

    Good clerics, for example, have better access to healing, and can even donate their own life force to heal someone else.

    Evil clerics, on the other hand, have a much more limited degree of healing. They can cast minor healing spells at reduced potency, but the only way they can get large amounts of healing done is to drain the life force from others.

    Sometimes a particularly fanatical follower will offer himself to the high priest for this purpose, but usually it's somebody they've kidnapped or captured.

    Not only does this feel more naturalistic, but it also makes evil priests really despicable villains.