As in a WWII battle scene with wounded soldiers crying out for "medic!", so have adventuring parties long cried out for "cleric!". This month sees the release of Divine Power, so D&D Alumni wanted to take a look back at the game's original divine class.
Origins of the Role
It may be argued that the earliest editions of the Dungeons & Dragons fostered a more save-or-die approach to gaming—miss that saving throw, spring that trap, take too great a wallop in combat and odds were fairly high you'd be rolling up a new character (or as some of us did, using the same character but adding a II, III, IV, etc., after their name). Falling past 0 hit points was all too easily achieved, so a character class that could slow or outright prevent this from happening became, quite literally, a godsend.
Enter the cleric, who has the distinction of being one of the game's three original classes, along with fighting-men and magic-users. The cleric fit somewhere between; from the 1E Complete Priest's Handbook: "Since the creation of the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game system, the cleric has been one of the most popular character classes. He has been a happy bridge between warriors and mages: Capable of armoring up and wielding heavy weapons, capable of casting useful magics, he was a very versatile adventurer and the favorite choice of countless players."
Thus as a class, clerics also fought (just not as well), used magic (just not as much), and also expressed certain unique concepts of a religious warrior. One of their biggest advantages wasn't immediately obvious: at low levels, clerics gained levels faster than any other class except thieves. For example, a cleric hit 4th level with just 6,000 XP, where a fighter needed 8,000, an illusionist needed 9,000, a ranger or magic-user 10,000, and a paladin a whopping 12,000. The situation evened out by the time everyone had reached 7th or 8th level, but that low-level surge gave clerics an advantage when it came to surviving long enough to earn 75,000 XP.
As stated in the 1st Edition Player's Handbook, "This class of character bears a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood in medieval times." These orders (as detailed in the 2E PHB) included the "Teutonic Knights, the Knights Templars, and Hospitalers. These orders combined military and religious training with a code of protection and service." From its earliest days, the concept for the cleric cemented fairly quickly—a class that served to heal others but could still fight effectively on its own, cast spells thanks to the direct bestowment by their deities, and turn undead.
The cleric's abilities derived from their relationship with their god. When it came to acquiring spells, for example, 1st and 2nd level spells were gained from a cleric's education, training, and experience; 3rd, 4th, and 5th level spells through the aid of supernatural servants of their deity; and 6th and 7th level spells through direct communication from the deity itself. This provided fairly rich roleplaying potential, as gaining spells (and favor) depended upon the satisfaction of the deity—in essence, as interpreted by the DM. A cleric who displeased his deity through his actions or behavior could not depend on receiving spells. Alternatively (and for any character), the 1E DMG suggested a minuscule chance that a deity would directly intervene if beseeched for help by a faithful character.
Naturally, the divine nature of clerics put them in direct opposition with necrotic undead, allowing them to turn any number of these foul creatures (literally forcing them to turn away and retreat from the cleric) or even shatter them into dust if the difference in their levels was great enough. The initial list, ranked in terms of difficulty, included skeletons, zombies, ghouls, shadows, wights, ghasts, wraiths, mummies, specters, vampires, ghosts, liches, as well as some creatures of the lower planes (night hags, minor demons, lesser devils, and mezzodaemons). Alternatively, evil clerics could also turn paladins (clerics of opposing alignments could not turn one another, but they could attempt to counter one another's turning effects).
In the 2E Player's Handbook, clerics fell under the Priest subcategory along with druids. 1E clerics were prohibited from using bladed weapons in combat, or those that drew blood, limited to the club, flail, hammer, mace, and staff (of course, hit someone hard enough with a mace and see if blood isn't in fact drawn); 2E clerics gained access to all weapons, restricted only by suggestion of the appropriateness to the cleric's mythos. A god of death might encourage his clerics to wield sickles, or a god of oceans promote use of tridents. Retaining the ability to wear heavy armor, this significantly improved the cleric's effectiveness in combat (especially since the random treasure tables in 1st Edition produced an 11% chance of finding a magic sword but only a 3% chance of finding a magic weapon usable by a cleric).
Still, the cleric's most essential role remained that of healer, in an era when characters healed naturally at a rate of only 1 hit point/day—and that with no strenuous activity at all, or 3 hit points/day with complete bed rest. Absent healing potions or other valuable magical stores, clerical spells were the most efficient means of getting a party up and going again after a major fight.
Clerical spells were also often the only means of removing crippling conditions—disease, blindness, curses—so that without a cleric, or the right clerical aid, PCs left the adventure unresolved in search of the nearest friendly temple. While these conditions made for more varied combat, without the means to reset them, persistent effects could grind the game (or at least the actual plot) to a complete halt.
By 3rd Edition, the cleric had retained its class concept of warrior, spellcaster, and healer. And while natural healing had modestly improved to the rate of 1 hit point/day per level of the PC with a full night's rest of 8 hours (or twice that with a day and a night of rest), the cleric's healing role remained essential to keeping the adventure moving forward. In fact, 3E clerics could also employ spontaneous casting, exchanging unused spells for equivalent healing spells.
So by 3rd Edition, the cleric's powerful role of part-fighter, part-spellcaster and essential party healer resulted in what became the game's single most powerful class (prestige class-kit bashing aside). So much so, that "cleric" essentially became the correct answer to the R&D test given out to candidates, as shown in one of our earliest Design & Development columns:
What is the most powerful class in the Player's Handbook, and why is it the most powerful?
Mike Mearls: The cleric is the most powerful class. Aside from its mechanical advantages – its access to divine spells, ability to wear heavy armor, average base attack, turning/rebuking undead, and two good saves – the cleric's role within the party is perhaps the most vital to the players' success. The cleric is responsible for keeping the other players active with its ability to heal. While magic items can cover this gap, most items that a party can afford don't provide enough healing on a round-to-round basis. The person playing the cleric can exert a lot of control over the party's decisions. For example, during a battle, the cleric moves away from the monsters and announces that if anyone wants healing, they have to move back to his position. The players must follow the cleric if they want their characters to survive.
While the cleric is the strongest class, I would argue that it is not unbalanced. Its abilities are fundamentally passive – they remove conditions rather than inflict them. The cleric needs to be powerful in order to attract players to the role. I think the cleric illustrates that mechanics must sometimes be judged according to criteria other than pure mathematical analysis.
Jesse Decker: Correct answers to this question depend much more on analyzing the chosen class rather than producing a correct answer. For this question, there’s reasonable justification for most of the spellcasting classes, depending on the accuracy and completeness of the analysis. Mike identifies some, but not all, of the reasons that the cleric is powerful. A perfect answer for the cleric would need to address the cleric’s abilities through feats and buff spell selection to meet or surpass the melee ability of just about any class, while preserving the spellcaster’s hallmark versatility in the face of nearly every encounter.
Here we come to 4th Edition—where one of the design tenets was to not limit the adventuring fun due to resource management. So when the resources in question are PCs' very hit points, what does this mean for the cleric? When PCs have their own healing surges, is the cleric still powerful as a class? Still necessary?
The contention, strongly stated around these hallways, is yes—while the game no longer stumbles due to a party's lack of a healer, a 4E party is that much stronger still with one. The current version of the cleric maintains its original identity—religious and militant, healer and divine emissary of their chosen god—and now, perhaps better defined then ever in the role of leader.
As a final comparison, we present first the cleric's original spell list, as well as the heal spell as it appeared in 1st Edition and now as a 4th power in Divine Power:
1. Cure Light Wounds
2. Purify Food & Water
3. Detect Magic
4. Detect Evil
1. Find Traps
2. Hold Person
4. Speak with Animals
1. Remove Curse
2. Cure Disease
3. Locate Object
4. Continual Light
1. Neutralize Poison
2. Cure Serious Wounds
3. Protection/Evil, 10'r.
4. Turn Sticks to Snakes
5. Speak with Plants
6. Create Water
1. Dispel Evil
2. Raise Dead
5. Insect Plague
6. Create Food
Heal (Necromantic) Reversible
Area of Effect: Creature touched
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 round
Saving Throw: None
Explanation/Description: The very potent heal spell enables the cleric to wipe away disease and injury in the creature who receives the benefits of the spell. It will completely cure any and all diseases and/or blindness of the recipient and heal all hit points of damage suffered due to wounds or injury, save 1 to 4 (d4). It dispels a feeblemind spell. Naturally, the effects can be negated by later wounds, injuries, and diseases. The reverse, harm, infects the victim with a disease and causes loss of all hit points, as damage, save 1 to 4 (d4), if a successful touch is inflicted. For creatures not affected by the heal (or harm) spell, see cure light wounds.
* A cleric had to be 11th level before he could cast a level 6 spell, and he needed a Wisdom score of at least 17 to do it. Stat scores of 17 were harder to come by in those days, too.
Bowing your head in prayer, you restore a desperately injured comrade to complete health.
Divine, HealingStandard Action Melee
Effect: The target regains all his or her hit points.
And finally, we end with the following question on the divine. If you'd care to elaborate on any of your own tales of divine intervention, be sure to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.