29 April 2011

God, I hate Clerics

Please, bear with me. 

I'm not talking about the image of the holier-than-thou, plate mail wearin', forced converting, mace-slammin' cleric. I love that guy. Look at that guy. You see that moustache? He's about to cleric the hell out of some orc tribesman, and not even feel bad about. All in the name of Pelor, my friend. 

What really bothers me is, well, three things, I guess. They make me have to define and regulate religions in my game, to the point where without a complete cosmology and set of rules and strictures for each deity that I'm not using all the design space. Clerics use divine magic, which is exactly the same as arcane magic except the spells are different and they know all of them, and clerics, well, are weird. 

Lemme start with the last one. Clerics are crusaders. They are paladins without the name (and one the reasons I never saw the need for the Paladin class, to be totally honest.) They're holy warriors with the literal powers of the gods. Their spells are all healy, they believe in one god above all others- they're bizarre monotheistic warrior-priests in a world with ten thousand gods. At least by default there's ten thousand gods. I quibble.

The point is, now I have to sit down and write at least a couple of blurbs about each god. They've got to have names, and stuff they cover, and relationships, and rules, and regulations, and I hate it. I don't like coming up with names, and I don't like designing an entire pantheon from scratch to have a cleric pick one guy and go "ok, that's my guy, now he's giving me powers, right?" Now, look. I'm not a religious guy. I've never had any sort of god talk in my ear, or give me magical healing powers. But it seems like this is taking all the mystery away from the world. There's no "we interpret the will of Zeus through oracles and the entrails of sheep." It's all "Shit, just talk to the guy! He's right there. We got a scroll of Commune right here, bro!" Not satisfying to me in the least. 

I mean, seriously. There goes the entire world's moral dilemmas. You can't say that what you were doing was right when the representative of the god of good stuff phoned him up and says to you, "Actually, that wasn't morally justified in the grand scheme of things- see, you actually caused more evil for future generations by dealing harshly in this instance, etc etc etc." Awfulness.

The real reason I dislike the, though, is that clerics feel like wizards. They have Vancian magic from the gods. Just something about that rubs me the wrong way. I don't like it. In my mind, clerics should have their own thing going for them. They shouldn't be a fountain of heals, and they shouldn't be a walking pile of useless. Part of the big problem is giving clerics an identity. There are plenty of minor horror stories about people playing clerics and then being expected to use all of their casting slots on heals, to the extent that their character's entire role in the game is running around and healing people until they're out of spells. It's not a whole lot of fun playing a role because somebody has to do it or we're all going to die. But it's also not a whole lot of fun to play a class that doesn't bring anything to the party. 

Between Fighters, Thieves and Wizards, you have the big strong guy, the sneaky subtle guy, and the guy with a lot of magic. What else is there, really? You've named the Holy Trinity of character roles. It's big enough that there's at least one system that defines your characters entirely by that, and you can still have cleric surrogates in it. 

I think Monte Cook puts it about the same way I do, except maybe better:
(...) I tried to step back and say, "What kind of characters do people want to play?" Well, there's the skillful guy, there's the guy who uses magic rather than physical force, and there's the big tough guy with a sword. D&D addresses these roles by providing the rogue, the wizard, and the fighter. 
As an aside, although I know there are plenty of people who like to play clerics, I've seen that many players consider playing a cleric a "necessary evil," rather than their first choice. I think this is because, while D&D pretty much requires a cleric's presence, it's not one of the basic roles people like to play. (Cleric lovers, please don't send me angry emails! I like clerics! But we all know that cleric lovers are a minority.)

I think that, if anything, wizards are going to wield god-given magic, and maybe stick the healing spells in with the arcane spells. I've seen it done before, and it seems a whole lot cooler than having "utility wizard" and "healing wizard with armor and maces". At least in my mind. There's nothing wrong with Clerics, they're just not really design space I'm interested in.


  1. This is why you should be playing Errant

  2. My interpretation might help you: I think of cleric powers being due to spirits compelled by the cleric's faith in The True God, in much the same way that the undead are compelled to flee. "The True God" is different for different sects: let the players invent their own gods or pick one from mythology and invent all the rituals and other details. The players have no way of knowing if "The True God" is really the True God, or even if that god is real; all they know is that their faith has an effect on spirits. If they lose faith, they lose their powers.

    If you don't like Vancian magic for clerics, use the Turn Undead mechanic to cast spells, with spell level equal to undead hit dice. They can cast an unlimited number of spells, but failures represent either a loss of faith or growing divine displeasure. Too many failures means loss of spell powers. That lets you avoid creating an ethical system, too; let the clerics be judged by the dice.

  3. I remember Earthdawn having these guys called, I think, "Questors", Questors were not a class. If your character was a real gung-ho religious person, and if he did things to prove it, he would gain specially abilities from that god. There was a god whose one portfolio included "movement", so if your sword master worshiped him, that kinda made sense. If your sword master lead a charge during a big battle, and held the standard for your army and kicked all sorts of ass, that god would recognize it and say "cool beans, kid. Here's some cool shit you can do until you piss me off".

    I would love to adapt that to any d&d campaign, and get rid of the clerics as a class, and I actually LOVE clerics.

  4. I usually put the mystery "back in" by saying that nobody actually knows where the powers of the clerics comes from. Is the cleric really channeling the power or deities, or merely accessing the raw power of belief in said deity. Likewise, is he actually communing with a deity, or the popular(or even personal) idea of what the deity is supposed to be like. This way I can still have holy schisms and devout madmen accusing the organized church of corruption while both sides have clerics to the same deity.

  5. Let me get something out of the way: You guys are awesome. These are all brilliant ideas, seriously. I'll start with the first comment and work my way back:

    @2eDM: That's pretty cool, actually. It gives clerics and wizards their own niches, where the cleric believes his way into magic, whereas wizards study and understand it. It could even lead to snarky wizards saying that clerics are wizards without the brains, and that they're kludging their way through magic. Plus, like you said, I love holy schisms and devout madmen and corruption- a society without those is so unlike our own as to be starkly unbelievable. Seriously, it's a huge source of change in real-life society.

  6. @Pozatonic: That is EXACTLY what I would like to see. Anybody can be a, for example, holy warrior and holy wizard IF (and it's a huge if) they can prove it by their actions. You can't be like "I'm a cleric of X unless I really mess up, and then he excommunicates me", it's "I have proven my faith a thousand times, Crom, and still you bring me nothing," or whatever you like. Makes gods feel more human, too. The local Duke isn't going to give you a damn thing until you've proven yourself, so why should the gods?

  7. @Talysman: I like it. It makes more sense for all clerics to have the Turn Undead ability when they're all, basically, shamans dealing with spirits of divinity.

    It leads to, perhaps, a counter intuitive catch-22, though, where inquiry into the nature of their powers or the actuality of their beliefs can lead to a loss of powers and, ultimately, a loss of belief. But that's not so unnatural- a lot of people who critically inspect their own real life beliefs often lose faith in what they once held to be absolute truth. Why should it be any different for a game dealing with religion?

    Very thought-provoking.

  8. @Greg: I've honestly been tempted. It's certainly in the rotation, once we finish up our hastily abandoned game of Donjon (something came up and my out of town buddies had to go back home sooner than they'd expected, so we dropped it where it was and are going to try and resume it when they come back up in a week or so.)

    When I do so, I'll be sure to write an actual, coherent review and do my best not to write something in five minutes about it and say, "Eh, good enough," like I do too much. Commercial reviews are one thing, but reviews from people making stuff out of a love of the subject are another thing entirely. Gotta support the authors of free stuff!

  9. I'm coming out of deep orbit to say that Clerics can be whatever you want them to be.

    Make Clerics (and Paladins) the only character class with an organization that actually requires them to be subordinate to an order--which also backs them. Make them specially equipped in a spiritual sense to deal with the horrors of undeath and demonic/diabolical possession. Make it so that Clerics are different than Magic-Users because their spells are NON-Vancian (i.e.: let them call upon whatever spell they want--give them spell points--but make the player utter a prayer for it). Increase the frequency of healing potions or herbs in your game world so that clerics are de-emphasized as a source of healing. Make it so that clerics can only heal people who are actively promoting the god's agenda. But don't allow them to be monotheistic warrior-priests in a world with ten thousand gods--because it's manifestly apparent that there are other gods.

    Anyway, just because you posted this nine years ago doesn't mean it's still not provoking thought. I bet you've cracked this nut by now.


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