Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why I don't use Clerics

For some reason I've been thinking more about Clerics lately, and why I don't use them. I thought I'd jot down my reasons. Feel free to comment.

Miracles and Levels: Probably my biggest beef with Clerics is that their God/gods will help them, but only so much. I don't see why, if it's the deity's power and not the Cleric's, the power should get stronger and more effective as the Cleric levels up, unless we've got a really fickle deity here. It seems like a deity would say "hey, there's this guy that's much more dedicated to me than the average person down there, and I usually help him out when he asks, so why not grant whatever it is that he's asking me, seeing as how it totally aligns with what I'm about?" If spells and turning undead are really just the power of the deity, why does this change as the character changes?

I realize that a lot of this thinking comes from my Christian background. While a lot of miracles in the Bible are the inspirations for D&D miracles, in the Bible miracles don't tend to get more amazing as the person they are associated with gets more experienced. Instead, miracles tend to meet the needs of the moment, demonstrate the unquestionable power and reality of God and also tend to be unique, as opposed to the reproducible formulae of D&D magic. Even in, say, Greek polytheism, though, miracles are questions of the god taking on the problem and aren't based on how "good" at something (or however we want to analogize levels to Greek myth) the character the miracle is done for is.

I also realize that there are mechanical reasons why this is the way D&D Clerics work. It just doesn't make sense to me so far as setting goes. Vancian magic and spell levels that go up as you level up just don't seem to fit the idea of a Cleric nearly so well as they fit the idea of Magic Users, in my opinion. Also, for mechanical reasons, having the Cleric able to get whatever miracle is asked for is out. For non-railroady reasons, making up my own miracles and making them happen whenever I see fit is also probably not a good idea, though it might be a possibility if it was done really well.

Undead: I don't use undead in my campaign, largely because it seems to me to make the divine in the setting inept. That is, why would a deity that doesn't want undead to exist need a mortal and a little piece of metal or wood to be present in order to keep something dead? I suppose that the undead might make sense if the setting's cosmology is strictly dualistic, with Good and Evil equally powerful, and I suppose the argument might be able to be made that much of D&D, especially AD&D and later, actually does have that dualistic cosmology, but I've no particular interest in running a game like that. Most people throughout history haven't held to a cosmology of Good vs. Evil, and especially not to an even match-up of Good vs. Evil, instead holding to the concrete personhood of whoever they worship and in that deity's dominion over however much of the world they believe their deity controlled. Good vs. Evil as THE story of the universe is a pretty rare way to look at the world, and one I'm not interested in, both because I don't believe in it and because I've seen some of the evil (yes, I do believe in good and evil, just not that they are THE lens to see the world through) that can occur when people do see the world that way and I don't want to encourage it.

Healing: This is really more of a mechanical disagreement than a question of me "getting" the Cleric. I don't like healing being the exclusive domain of any one class, mostly because I don't want either that class to be seen as a "healbot," nor do I want players to feel that one of them needs to be that particular class so that healing can occur. That's why I've let classes like Barbarians and Rangers in the past and Scoundrels in my current game be able to heal. It's also why I use the rule that minor healing can occur for every character immediately after a combat is over, by way of first aid. This doesn't exactly make the Cleric worthless, as Clerics could be just another class that has healing abilities, but it also makes them less special.

So, in conclusion, if I have a problem with divine magic being tiered with levels, the existence, as well as the turning, of undead, and have given healing to other classes as well, the Cleric ends up looking like a really pious Fighter who doesn't fight as well as the Fighter, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to include them in my games. I know this is a very minority opinion, though, and I am truly interested in comments from people who do like and use clerics.


  1. Well I do go back and forth on clerics but I have never discarded them.

    I do use the undead. The gods in my campaign are not all-powerful/all-knowing/all-good, so there can be evil, and things they don't want, in "their world." :)

    Clerics in B/X don't get a spell at first level so they spend the first few adventures UNABLE to heal people. This gives them a chance to learn more roles, like throwing holy water, turning undead, backing up the fighters or defending the mages, and so on.

    Regarding the gods not always helping their faithful...that happens even in the bible, and I guess if you really believe in a god or gods you would have to admit that they do not always seem to be intervening for their faithful. In D&D, higher level can also mean 'closer' to the diety, better able to communicate one's needs/desires in a way the god likes, and so on. to some extent you need gods to be a little aloof so that they don't always answer prayers.
    You could look at clerical levels translating as skill at communicating with the gods. In my own game, clerical levels tend to approximate divine favor ... the gods like their more successful servants more than the failures and newbies.

  2. I do like clerics (though I don't generally like how they are played). I prefer clerics to be either holy knights or demon hunter types. The cleric is also a good class for representing "dark lord" or necromancer type characters, or other spellcasters that need to also have some direct combat strength.

    The issues that you brought up mostly don't bother me. For example, I generally leave the ultimate metaphysics of my setting murky. If there are actual gods that are in any way similar to the way people in the campaign world assume, they certainly are not consciously responding to individual prayers. Instead, the cleric is tapping into the diety's aspect or whatever.

    Really, I like to think of the cleric as someone who derives power from some other powerful entity. This entity can be a polytheistic-style deity, or a demon, or a cthuloid monstrosity, or a Dark Sun type sorcerer king, enlightened bodhisattva, or something else. I agree there is a problem if gods in your campaign setting are anywhere close to omnipotent or omniscient, but mine generally are not (though they may be far beyond the capacity of any mortal creature). (Side note: the "gods" in ASE1 have a fun concept: they are orbital AIs.) More than anything, I think these higher beings (with the exception of examples like sorcerer kings) are just not all that interested in mortals the vast majority of the time.

    The progression of the cleric abilities I've never really thought about. I guess if I had to explain it, I would say it was growing insight into the nature of the aspect in question and increase in the "bandwidth" of the connection between the cleric and the power source.

    As I don't conceive of gods as anywhere close to omnipotent in the christian sense, the existence of undead does not pose a problem for me. I also love using undead, so no problem there.

    The one that I do agree with is healing though. Clerics who are just walking repositories of cure light wounds are really boring. I think this goes more to the archetype problem mentioned in the first paragraph. That's why I'm playing around with the idea of renaming the cleric to demon hunter or something like that in the house document I've been writing, but otherwise leaving the class pretty much the same. This can be easily handled by making healing potions more available.

  3. @mikemonaco

    Great point about the B/X cleric not getting a spell at first level. I started playing with second edition, so I'm used to a first level cleric having access to cure light wounds. Making it so clerics have to solve problems without spells for an entire level is a great way to pull them away from the medic role. Definitely playing that way the next time I run a B/X or similar game.

  4. I dislike undead for the same reasons you cite (my murderhobos are already filled with righteous indignation that monsters should have access to treasure, they don't need the universe agreeing with them) and because the standard types are pretty tired cliches by now. I also dislike the idea of a "healer" class - it's generally not a dramatic action, unlike climbing, housebreaking and fighting.

    OTOH I love clerics, because they're the only class that's automatically tied to some larger social entity - they have a society and a hierarchy and a place in the world.

    So I have an idea that just might appeal to you (or might not: it's resolutely unchristian) - what if clerics were part of a Chinese-style bureaucracy of heaven? Representing some sort of Celestial Emperor? There's no built-in good or evil, but there is order and disorder (or if you side with those barbarian horsemen scum then there's "other orders"). There can be a celestial-political sort of "alignment" - with the Emperor or against him, or with one or another ancestor or advisor or competitor. And leveling up encompasses both earthly and celestial orders - beyond a certain level you get initiated by boddhisattvas or angels or what have you, rather than clergy. Clerical magic is not miracles direct from the godhead but a certain delegation of power among the Emperor's representatives, because after all, heaven is high and the Emperor is far away.

  5. ...you've set me thinking that I should write an "alternative theologies" post - or maybe ask someone better informed than I am to write one - to open up some different ways of thinking about what clerics are and how they could work.

    (ditto the other classes. It might not be easy to get ciminals and carnies to open up about the thief skillset, though...)

  6. 1: Cleric power scaling. If you have Cleric PCs, their powers must scale, otherwise Clerics would be immediately omnipotent. That makes everyone else lame in comparison. You could say that a diety's power is limited, and needs to be split up among its followers. Or, the deity is omnipotent but demands that its followers do their own hard work and prove themselves before being given more power. Such a diety would be more of a "sit back and let them succeed or fail" type. Start the reactions but watch the outcome without interfering too much. It absolutelt makes sense to me.

    2: Undead. These are the adversaries of the living, perhaps the adversaries of the Cleric's diety. Maybe they are numbered among the forces of the enemy dieties. If the diety is not omnipotent, then it would need mortals to find and root out such undead. If the diety wants its followers to succeed or fail against their environment, maybe the undead count as a special test that developed over time and the diety decided to not quash. In a Christian example, why does God permit the existence of the Devil? Again, the existence of Undead is only a problem if you specifically go about making an omnipotent unopposed diety who meddles personally and continually in mortal affairs.

    3: Healing. Mechanically, there are types of magic some classes get and others do not. A specialist wizard is forbidden from using certain magic for example. Early on the D&D designers decided to split off Cleric and Magic-User spell lists. You could just as easily make four elemental spell lists, or a biological / inert matter / immaterial split. Healing could be seen as a form of repair, so why not give it to the spellcaster who can shape stone and mend a torn tapestry? The second complaint you gave was game balance and player satisfaction with a heal-bot role. I think 4e solved that by giving people self-heal abilities and healer-types get better healing abilities. Some people enjoy that and others don't. Healing is really just recovery of a resource. It has attributes similar to a spell that creates light, or one that replenishes a quiver of arrows, or cures fatigue so you don't have to sleep. In that sense, it would be better to have a spellcaster that specializes in resource recovery and one that specializes in destruction, and one that specializes in modification (buff/debuff). Or your single spellcaster must choose where to improve.