Content of the article: "Things You Should Know About: The Cleric Class"
I'm trying to start a series of articles about different topics in D&D and similar RPGs. Specifically, I want to bring some context to terms that have become really common in these kinds of stories, but it feels like we might not know much about in reality (words like paladin, monk, lock-picking, pirate, barbarian, etc). And while I'm at it, I have a number of thoughts about a lot of these topics which I would bring to my players to shape how they view their characters and the setting they're playing in.
Quick shoutout, but a lot of my inspiration for this stuff comes from Gm Word of the Week. It's a podcast I've been listening to for a few years now, and it's full of insightful stuff like this from Fiddleback. And if you want to branch out from that, one of the collaborators on the early episodes of that podcast is The Angry GM, who writes a lot of articles on the subject of playing D&D. I'll probably get my research from other sources, but I already know that a lot of the stuff I bring up will come from these guys, so I figure I'll go ahead and source them (plus, if you aren't already checking their stuff out, they're pretty great even after several years of content).
This time, we're going to talk about the cleric class, and what they're all about.
The Cleric in 5e
The 5e PHB has this to say about clerics:
Arms and eyes upraised toward the sun and a prayer on his lips, an elf begins to glow with an inner light that spills out to heal his battle-worn companions.
Chanting a song of glory, a dwarf swings his axe in wide swaths to cut through the ranks of orcs arrayed against him, shouting praise to the gods with every foe’s fall.
Calling down a curse upon the forces of undeath, a human lifts her holy symbol as light pours from it to drive back the zombies crowding in on her companions.
Clerics are intermediaries between the mortal world and the distant planes of the gods. As varied as the gods they serve, clerics strive to embody the handiwork of their deities. No ordinary priest, a cleric is imbued with divine magic.
Healers and Warriors
Divine magic, as the name suggests, is the power of the gods, flowing from them into the world. Clerics are conduits for that power, manifesting it as miraculous effects. The gods don’t grant this power to everyone who seeks it, but only to those chosen to fulfill a high calling.
Harnessing divine magic doesn’t rely on study or training. A cleric might learn formulaic prayers and ancient rites, but the ability to cast cleric spells relies on devotion and an intuitive sense of a deity’s wishes.
Clerics combine the helpful magic of healing and inspiring their allies with spells that harm and hinder foes. They can provoke awe and dread, lay curses of plague or poison, and even call down flames from heaven to consume their enemies. For those evildoers who will benefit most from a mace to the head, clerics depend on their combat training to let them wade into melee with the power of the gods on their side.
Not every acolyte or officiant at a temple or shrine is a cleric. Some priests are called to a simple life of temple service, carrying out their gods’ will through prayer and sacrifice, not by magic and strength of arms. In some cities, priesthood amounts to a political office, viewed as a stepping stone to higher positions of authority and involving no communion with a god at all. True clerics are rare in most hierarchies.
When a cleric takes up an adventuring life, it is usually because his or her god demands it. Pursuing the goals of the gods often involves braving dangers beyond the walls of civilization, smiting evil or seeking holy relics in ancient tombs. Many clerics are also expected to protect their deities’ worshipers, which can mean fighting rampaging orcs, negotiating peace between warring nations, or sealing a portal that would allow a demon prince to enter the world.
Most adventuring clerics maintain some connection to established temples and orders of their faiths. A temple might ask for a cleric’s aid, or a high priest might be in a position to demand it.
Mechanically, clerics in this edition have the following traits and abilities:
- Clerics are proficient in light and medium armor, as well as shields. And they are proficient in simple weapons, and in the sacred weapon of their chosen deity. From this, we can infer that clerics aren't meant to be a pure combat class.
- Clerics cast spells of divine magic, which is separate from the arcane magic that wizards and sorcerers cast. Divine magic tends to focus on support, healing, and status effects. Divine magic has always been given a significant amount of respect in D&D, as it's one of the most effective ways for a party to heal damage in the middle of a fight or in an extended adventure.
- Clerics can Channel Divinity, an ability that is specifically focused on fighting undead. The cleric also gets additional applications for this ability based on their chosen deity.
- Clerics get a domain, which is a theme partly shaped by the deity they choose to worship. Their domain grants the cleric additional spells not on the standard cleric spell list, as well as certain abilities as they level up.
- At later levels, the cleric can pray for divine intervention, an open-ended ability that involves their deity directly aiding them in an adventure.
Other Editions of D&D
The cleric was one of the three core classes used in the original 1974 Dungeons and Dragons. In practice, the cleric became a hybrid class of the other two core classes: it wasn't quite as good at fighting as the fighting-man, and it didn't have the raw magical power that the magic-user had. But it blended the two to be a character who could hold their own in a fight, and got its own list of divine spells which mostly stood apart from the magic-user's arcane spells. Divine spells were still focused mainly on healing and other support utilities. The cleric got more use of magic items than the fighting-man did, but they were limited to blunt weapons, instead of swords or other edged weapons.
The original cleric was based roughly on the image of a vampire-hunting priest, such as Van Helsing in the 1958 Dracula: they were powered by their god, but also were men of faith who controlled their violent impulses. Gary Gygax seemed to have an issue with the image of a blade-wielding cleric, basing his inspiration off of images of priests carrying maces or clubs in religious art. While there are depictions of holy men with spears and swords, it seems that Gygax preferred to frame the cleric as someone who can fight, but does not condone bloodshed.
In AD&D 2nd Edition, they added mechanics for different faiths. Clerics would choose a specific mythos or religion, which themselves had different spheres of influence such as healing, protection, weather, death, etc. The spell list was expanded, and certain spells were delegated to specific spheres of influence, the precursor to the domains used in later editions.
In 3rd edition, clerics were allowed to be followers of a cause or ideal, not just a religion or deity. New developments in the alignment system came with the rule that a cleric had to be within one step of the alignment of their chosen deity. Domains were expanded to grant specific powers to a cleric, as well as unique spells in that theme. They were finally given access to all simple weapons-blades included- and proficiency in all forms of armor (for wading into the battlefield to heal that front-line fighter). Lastly, clerics were given the ability to spontaneously cast a healing or damage spell (depending on alignment) by sacrificing a prepared spell slot for the day. This was done to facilitate more versatile cleric builds: you didn't have to prepare a ton of healing spells at the start of your day. Instead, you could prepare various utility and support spells, and if you needed to heal someone later that option was still available.
Clerics in Historical Context
When we use the word "cleric" in reference to the real world, a cleric is a formal leader in an established religion. So we can see where the special connection with a deity or faith comes from in this class. Titles vary based on the faith: a bishop, priest, rabbi, imam, etc. are all clerics by definition.
However, when we think of the cleric in D&D, we want examples of priests who are combat-ready. And there have been a number of tales of holy men who have taken up arms for a holy cause, both in real wars among humans and in supernatural tales of monsters.
The AD&D cleric was stated to be based, in part, off of Tilpin, the bishop of Reims in 748 CE. While his historical life is not the most fantastic, he is mentioned in the chansons de geste, a series of 11th-century French poems of heroism and valiant deeds. In particular Tilpin is mentioned in The Song of Roland, which details the title character and a holy army fighting with a Muslim army in Spain.
In Ireland and Scotland, there are stories of Saint Columba, an Irish abbot who travelled to Scotland to convert the peoples there to Christianity. Along the way, legends suggest that the man had an encounter at the River Ness with a "ferocious water beast" which some interpret to be the Loch Ness Monster. The legend says that Columba banished the creature after it had killed a native Pictish man.
One of the classic examples of religious heroes is Saint George and the Dragon. In the story, George is a devout Christian and a mounted knight who tames and defeats a poison-breathing dragon who demands tributes from a nearby town.
Military chaplains have a history of serving dual roles in times of warfare. Often such men are strictly medics, devoted to tending to the wounded in their own armies. However, many a chaplain has been pressed to pick up a weapon and fight alongside their men when the situation demanded it.
A Word on Polytheistic Religion
There is a troubling practice with the divine classes in D&D where the players of these characters would play their faith in an aggressive manner, refusing to offer help to characters who worship a different god or who were atheist. In general, this stems from a misunderstanding of how polytheistic faiths worked.
Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, are all monotheistic faiths, in that they believe in only one god who presides over all aspects of the world. However, in other cultures their faiths were polytheistic, in that the faiths each had a pantheon of gods, who were delegated different roles in the world. Some of these polytheistic faiths are still fairly well known: in ancient Greece, for example, Hades was the god who presided over death, while Demeter was the goddess of harvests and new birth, while Ares was the god of war and conquest.
Now, historically in D&D, at least in the third edition on, the gods mentioned in the core materials of the games were members of such a polytheistic pantheon, and that meant that followers of those faiths didn't pray to only one god. Whom you prayed to depended on what you needed the gods to do: if you were traveling over the sea, and wanted to pray for safe passage, you would ask Umberlee or Talos for her assistance. But if you wanted to pray for a bountiful harvest, Umberlee would have no way to contribute to your plea. Instead, you would need to pray to a god like Chauntea, who presides over agriculture, for help.
We see this in play with the domain system: most of the time the gods in D&D are part of a collective unit, and seeing someone pray to more than one god is not a sign of them leaving their faith. A temple to a faith such as this may have several altars dedicated to different deities, so that the faithful have the ability to ask each god or goddess for their assistance where it is appropriate.
When you play a character for a specific god, that character follows the faith of that pantheon, not just of their chosen deity. But they have, for some reason, chosen to pursue a special relationship with this one deity above the others. Often this can be related to their domain: perhaps your character lives in a seaside town, and the community wants to build a relationship with Umberlee to bless their community with safe waters. Or a cleric to Oghma or Mystra wants to devote themselves to a closer understanding of magic and its uses.
The nature of the gods in your game will vary depending on the GM. Some games will use a homebrew set of gods, and some may even have monotheistic faiths where this distinction is less important. But as a rule, when you roll a cleric, it's important to understand whom you pray to, when you pray to them, and why.
References for Clerics
The historical figures mentioned above can be a good foundation for a cleric as a religious adventurer. But here are some other examples from fiction that you can use:
In Robin Hood, we have Friar Tuck, who was a member of Robin's Merry Men. He played multiple roles as a bandit and thief, as well as a moral compass and a holy man for the group.
If you're a fan of the works of Stephen King, I strongly advise you look to Father Callahan of Salem's Lot, who also makes an appearance in his Dark Tower series. Callahan spends much of his novel hunting vampires, and he really comes into this roll in the Dark Tower, playing the role of supernatural hunter as well as a religious hero.
For a more modern approach, you may look to the protagonist in the movie The Book of Eli. The character is deeply religious, but doesn't allow that to stop him from fighting when he needs to. And his actions are always driven by his faith. You can also look to Shepard Book in the TV series Firefly: a mysterious character first shown as a holy man, but with a past that implies some serious military history. His line from one of the last episodes of the show rings strongly for a faithful characters, that God definitely doesn't approve on killing a human being, but "he's specifically vague on the subject of kneecaps".
For some characters in a more fantasy-oriented setting, you could try the Game of Thrones novels. Thoros of Myr and Aeron Damphair are both priests who take roles in the ongoing war that the books revolve around. Thoros in particular is an active combatant in part of the war.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________Questions for a Cleric Character
If you are building a cleric character, or if you're a GM with a player rolling a fighter, you may want to consider these questions:
- What drove your character to devote themselves to venerate this particular deity? Did they recieve a special calling to this deity? Did the deity seem particularly relevant to their lives before they became a cleric?
- How did your character join the faith? Were they raised in a religious background, such as a devout family or educated in a church or school? Did they find their faith in a more unorthodox manner?
- While many faiths have images that represent their deities, the faithful often have their own images that come to mind when they picture their god or goddess. What does your cleric see when they picture their particular deity?
- How does your character practice their faith? Do they devote a specific day of the week to venerate their deity? Or a specific time of day? What rituals are involved when they worship? For members of a polytheistic faith, how much attention is paid to the other deities in the pantheon, compared to your particular deity? Are members of the pantheon excluded from your worship?
- Many faiths have strict regulations of the behaviors of their faithful, to keep them spiritually healthy. Does your faith demand that you act in a particular way? What does your character do when that path is challenged (say, a cleric who does not drink alcohol is pressed to share a round of drinks with a king)?
- Many clerics carry religious icons as a token of their faith (usually, this is their holy symbol). What does your cleric's icon look like? Is it a symbol of your deity? A carved figure of the deity themselves? A scale model of their holy weapon?
- Omegaphallic’s Guide to Cleric/Priest: Roleplaying in the Forgotten Realms.
- I can’t get out of my head the idea that clerics should be charisma casters and sorcerers should be wisdom casters
- Shit-talking the gods
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