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Who Wants to Play the Cleric?
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.


The last two installments of this series have looked at the fighter and the wizard, specifically the balance of power between them, how it took shape, and what it’s meant over the history of the game. This week, we turn to that other spellcaster, the cleric.

In the original D&D rules, the cleric’s role as a divine spellcaster is so muted that you can easily miss it. While there are a number of obvious nods, Gygax largely seemed to assume that a gamer would understand the cleric’s place in the world (for instance, the text makes reference to “faithful” men who turn out to garrison a high level cleric’s stronghold). Avoiding all topics of religion, Gygax instead makes oblique references to law, neutrality, and chaos as a cleric’s ethos. The text also refers to anti-clerics, evil high priests and whatnot, though it does not make a definitive link between a cleric of chaos and such villains.

Even in the earliest days of the game, clerics were largely tasked with support and healing with their magic. A 1st-level cleric even lacked spells, with access to weapons and armor presumably enough at that stage for a viable character. A cleric later gained access to a limited number of spells, few of which were useful as attacks. Employing the deadliest cleric spell, finger of death cast as the opposite of raise dead, forced the caster to become an anti-cleric.

The most attractive cleric spells were the various cures, such as cure light wounds. Presumably to balance that spell against other options, such cures required a full turn (10 minutes) to take effect. Thus, a cleric who wanted to employ a spell in the context of a battle had to turn elsewhere, as these spells were of little use for restoring lost hit points in the midst of combat. Unless you had access to potions of healing, fights were deadly.

The Cleric Evolves

In AD&D, the cleric received perhaps the greatest leap in power compared to other classes. A 1st-level cleric not only received a spell, but a high Wisdom score granted bonus spells. A cleric with a 14 Wisdom or higher started with three 1st-level spells. An 18 Wisdom granted two more 2nd-level spells plus bonus 3rd and 4th-level spells.

Most important of all, the casting time for cure light wounds dropped from ten minutes to five segments. In other words, a cleric could now (with some risk of losing the spell due to enemy attack) heal his or her comrades in the midst of a fight.

In 2nd Edition, the cleric received even more goodies. Spheres allowed a cleric to customize his or her spell list to match the specifics of a deity. For instance, a cleric of a war god would have access to a different list of spells than a cleric of a weather god. Furthermore, 2nd Edition’s Player’s Handbook saw the incorporation of more attack spells for clerics; spells that allowed a cleric to hurl attacks at a foe had shown up in AD&D supplements before 2nd Edition, but now they were a core part of the game.

3rd Edition toned down spheres, replacing them with a set of domains that provided a limited expansion to the cleric’s spell list as well as a special ability. 4th Edition deemphasized the concept of a cleric defined by their deity (although Heroes of the Fallen Lands brought this back); however, it introduced the concept of allowing the cleric to heal and attack during the same turn. Healing word in 4th Edition requires a minor action, allowing a cleric to blast a foe and heal a comrade at the same time.

As you can see, the general trend follows two basic paths:

  • Healing magic became easier to use, transitioning from something cast outside of combat, to an option in a fight, to a rider placed on top of attacks or used in addition to an attack.

  • Clerics gained more spells, presumably allowing them to carry more healing into the dungeon.

  • Clerics moved away from pure support in their magic, gaining access to attack spells or special abilities derived from their chosen deities.

Some of these additions link to the concepts of increased options and customization. Fighters, for example, gained weapon specialization in 2nd Edition, allowing them to create an identity based on a weapon. By the same token, clerics customized themselves by choosing a deity.

However, no other class shows the same jump in options and abilities. Magic-users—from the original D&D game up to 2nd Edition—had the same basic spell progression. Even 3rd Edition, viewed by many as a massive upgrade for spellcasters, gave 1st-level wizards a bonus spell based on Intelligence and a few cantrips. In comparison, clerics in 3rd Edition gained a domain spell, a bonus spell based on Wisdom, and two abilities based on domains.

Clearly, something beyond giving players more options was at work here.

The Cleric: Loved By Millions, Played by Thousands*

Realistically, at the end of the day we see that lots of players would rather not play a cleric. The cleric’s primary responsibility is to the rest of the party, to a divine power, and to some holy order. That’s a lot of people to answer to!

If you look back throughout the history of the game, time and again you see reluctance to play the cleric. This piece of gaming folklore is taken as a given, but at its heart I think it says a lot about the game, why we play it, and what motivates us to come back to it. All of that, unfortunately, has to wait until next week….

*Guess the movie that provided the inspiration for this quote and receive glory and honor in the comments field!

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 04/19/2011

Which way do you go?

  • South: 59.7%
  • North: 20.1%
  • West: 14.7%
  • East: 5.5%

Poll Time

You head south, pushing open the door to find three statues in the chamber beyond. The statues are made of stone, but the one in the middle holds a metal lantern that reflects the light of your torch. They have their backs to you. The one to your left depicts a male human in chain armor, carrying a sword and shield. The middle one is a male human wizard carrying a lantern, while the one to the right is a dwarf in studded leather carrying a crossbow.

In the middle of the southern wall opens a passage that heads into the darkness. To the west, square white and red bricks, each 2 feet on each side, form a checkerboard pattern on the wall.

What do you do?
Search the statues.
Search the western wall.
Head south.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.

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