D&D 3E Design: The Unbalanced Cleric

What do you call a D&D cleric who can’t heal? A 1st-level 1970s cleric. The original first-level cleric could turn undead but had no spells. Skip Williams says that the original conception of the cleric was sort of a Van Helsing figure, someone who bought the wolvesbane, belladonna, and garlic on the equipment list and who contended with the undead. The original cleric couldn’t cast cure light wounds or other spells until 2nd level, but they could turn undead at 1st. In terms of combat and spellcasting, clerics were intermediate between the other two classes: fighting-men and magic-users.

Aleena-by-Larry-Elmore_grande.jpg

Aleena the Cleric by Larry Elmore

With AD&D, the cleric’s role as a healer was established from 1st-level on, and they even got bonus spells for high Wisdom scores. They went from having fewer spells than magic-users did to having more. In 2nd Edition, the rules talked about clerics without healing powers, but that sort of cleric was not popular. Someone had to play the cleric, and that meant a cleric who healed party members. The poor cleric had to memorize healing spells, limiting their access to all the other cool spells that clerics have. Some spell levels lacked good healing spells, which was reportedly intentional. Since healing spells pushed out most other spell types, giving clerics no good 2nd-level healing spells meant that they were free to pray for spells that were more fun to cast. For 3rd Ed, we addressed that problem with spontaneous casting, letting clerics swap out any prepared spell for a healing spell of the same level.

One thing we decidedly did not fix in 3E was that somebody had to play the cleric, or something close. In the RPGA’s Living Greyhawk campaign, my barbarian picked up a level of cleric at 2nd level just so I would never again play in a party with no cleric. Then for the next two levels I continued with cleric because I was not a fool. The 3E cleric ended up so unbalanced that at Wizards I gave a presentation to RPG R&D on why it’s more or less impossible to balance the class. To understand why the cleric is hard to balance, it helps to think of the cleric’s opposite, a “berserk” class.

With a “berserk” class, the barbarian-type character deals an oversized amount of damage, which is balanced by damage that the character sometimes deals to allies. The “berserk” is cool to play because it deals lots of damage, and it’s the other players who really pay the cost that balances this benefit. Variants on this idea have appeared a couple times, but I consider this sort of class virtually impossible to balance. For its distinctive feature to be powerful enough to appeal to the player’s sense of power, the damage to allies has to be high enough to annoy the other players. If the “berserk” is fun to play, it’s at the cost of other players’ fun.

The cleric is the opposite of the “berserk.” The cleric’s combat ability is penalized in order to balance its healing capacity. This healing power, however, benefits the rest of the party more than it benefits the cleric itself. Unlike the player who likes playing berserks, the cleric player gives up some of their power in order to benefit the party as a whole. The cleric’s trade-off is something like, “Well, you’re not as combat-worthy as a fighter or wizard, but that drawback is balanced by all the healing you provide to other player characters.” How do you get players to play an altruistic character class like a cleric? How, as game designers, could we make clerics interesting to play when so much of their power benefited other characters instead of making the clerics themselves cool? We never framed the question that clearly to ourselves. Instead, we intuited a balance that seemed right. The answer to the trade-off was to make the cleric pay a small cost in terms of reduced combat abilities for a large benefit in terms of healing. Players would play them because they’re almost as cool as other classes in their own right (small cost), and they offer a significant amount of healing, which makes them valuable (big benefit). What do you get when you give a class a significant benefit and balance it with an marginal penalty? You get a class that’s overpowered.

On the plus side, I’m pretty happy with how the clerics turned out in terms of flavor. The 2E clerics were sort of generic. Since the 2E Player’s Handbook was world-agnostic, the rules for clerics were based on their Spheres of Influence rather than the identities of particular deities. In my personal AD&D experience, I liked playing clerics because one’s connection to a deity and religion gave me plenty of material for how I would roleplay a character. In 3E, the gods of Greyhawk gave default 3E clerics more world flavor than default 2E cleric had. Short descriptions in the Player’s Handbook were all players needed to hang their imaginations on these gods.

The puzzle of the altruistic character class intrigued me, and I came at the concept with two new classes for 13th Age. The occultist is a spellcaster who breaks the laws of space and time to protect allies and to make their attacks more effective. Most of the occultist’s spells are interrupts that get cast on other characters’ turns. For 13th Age Glorantha, I designed the trickster class. Their default attack deals literally no damage, but it sets up allies to hit the target for additional damage. Tricksters also have various ways of drawing bad luck on themselves to benefit other characters. The trickster class is so altruistic and masochistic that it has, I think, only niche appeal. It might be a class that’s more fun to watch being played than to play.

Another issue with the cleric is that it’s impossible to balance classes with mostly per-day abilities (that is, spellcasters) against classes whose abilities are at-will, such as the fighter or rogue. That issue, however, is a topic for another day.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

The unlimited access to an entire spell list was also one of the major breakdowns for the cleric. "Limited to what's in my spellbook" at least limited wizards some (assuming the DM exerted some control over how spells were found and added); sorcerers were much more restricted. But with the unlimited cleric list, the cleric could simply pick spells that worked around any constraint, and then fill in other party roles. Need a rogue? There's a spell for that!

The flavor of spheres/domains needed a bit more focus and restriction to prevent clerics from being masters of everything.
 

Kramodlog

Naked and living in a barrel
But being masters of everything is only useful when the party doesn't have everything. No rogue? The cleric or wizards have spells for that. Have a rogue? If the cleric or wizards waste spells on rogue abilities it is bad management of resources.
 

JeffB

Hero
Personally I enjoyed the 4E Warpriest (Essentials) best out of any edition as well as some variants from other games like DCC RPG. Both address the issues of being the healer while also allowing the player to have the full amount of wahoo fun with their powers/spells.

in DCC RPG- The Cleric's healing/curing abilities are carved out as a separate function/mechanic from spells. The Cleric makes a casting roll and either does so many dice of healing, or cures one affliction (paralysis, disease, etc)- The afflictions are given an equivalent worth in dice. Alignment also factors in- if the person being healed is of a different alignment than the Cleric/Deity (Law Chaos Neutrality in DCCRP), the spellcheck will result in less healing dice than if the person being healed is of the same alignment as the cleric/deity.

As another variation/alternate- I'd be fine with the class being removed as a PC from the game- healing would be another type of spell for Wizards/Sorcerers ala Tunnels & Trolls. The Cleric as written has never really fit the fiction the game was based on (Classic S&S literature- though I do love Hammer films). And if you wanted a dedicated healer type in the game- they are an NPC Class- healer, witch/wise-woman/village elder, etc.

Not to mention- the Cleric & Healing spells just drive the whole "What do HP represent?" argument.
 

Banesfinger

Explorer
Great insight into 3e game design! I love these articles.

In 3e, it was quite common in our group for someone to just take a 1-level dip into the Cleric class, just so they could use a Cure Light Wounds wand, which was used to refresh everyone's HPs between encounters. Half of the party's loot was used to purchase stacks of those wands...

D&D 5e somewhat limits the need to have a dedicated 'healer' in the party; with short-rest/HD healing and so many classes have access to the Cure Wounds spell.
I've read that 5e's Short Rest mechanic was designed to have everyone's HPs refreshed between encounters, similar to the 3e 'curing wand' tactic, mentioned above.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I think the issues of the overpowered cleric were pretty minor if you were looking at just the class in 3e, particularly looking at the Players Handbook. It was many of the other issues in 3e that broke things down. The broad utility of wands, the addition of night sticks as magic items, the proliferation of feats that could then benefit from a cleric loaded down with night sticks, and the bloating of the cleric's spell list in later books were significant boosts to the cleric's power that, with the exception of wands, weren't there at first publication.

3e did a lot to make clerics interesting to play whereas before they tended to be the class other players resorted to because the party needed a healer.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
On the plus side, I’m pretty happy with how the clerics turned out in terms of flavor. The 2E clerics were sort of generic. Since the 2E Player’s Handbook was world-agnostic, the rules for clerics were based on their Spheres of Influence rather than the identities of particular deities. In my personal AD&D experience, I liked playing clerics because one’s connection to a deity and religion gave me plenty of material for how I would roleplay a character. In 3E, the gods of Greyhawk gave default 3E clerics more world flavor than default 2E cleric had. Short descriptions in the Player’s Handbook were all players needed to hang their imaginations on these gods.
This is not how I remember it.

Don't get me wrong, having a selection of Greyhawk deities right there in the 3E PHB was a cut above how the 2E PHB had no deities at all (expecting the GM to either develop their own or use ones from an existing campaign setting), but I seem to recall the 3E PHB explicitly making it allowable for clerics to simply have no god - cherry-picking two domains (and a favored weapon of their choice, if I recall correctly) - while losing nothing for the trade-off. That allowed for a lot of "genericism" to flourish where clerics were concerned. Even the 2E Complete Priest's Handbook had said that clerics needed to worship a "faith (i.e. a god), force, or philosophy" to access divine spells and powers.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
This is not how I remember it.

Don't get me wrong, having a selection of Greyhawk deities right there in the 3E PHB was a cut above how the 2E PHB had no deities at all (expecting the GM to either develop their own or use ones from an existing campaign setting), but I seem to recall the 3E PHB explicitly making it allowable for clerics to simply have no god - cherry-picking two domains (and a favored weapon of their choice, if I recall correctly) - while losing nothing for the trade-off. That allowed for a lot of "genericism" to flourish where clerics were concerned. Even the 2E Complete Priest's Handbook had said that clerics needed to worship a "faith (i.e. a god), force, or philosophy" to access divine spells and powers.
As someone with a strong dislike for D&D style henotheism, I found this to be more of a feature than bug when I played 3E.
 

Giltonio_Santos

Adventurer
As I see it, 2E gave bonus spells to priests because they were expected to share their magic with the party, but 3E not only freed them from the burden of having to prepare their healing spells, it also extended the bonus spell mechanic to wizards, who were never balanced around the idea of a supporting role in the first place. I've seen people deem spellcasters broken even in 4E, but 3E probably went the extra mile there.
 

schneeland

Explorer
As another variation/alternate- I'd be fine with the class being removed as a PC from the game- healing would be another type of spell for Wizards/Sorcerers ala Tunnels & Trolls. The Cleric as written has never really fit the fiction the game was based on (Classic S&S literature- though I do love Hammer films).
Yes, that has increasingly bothered me over the years (despite playing a number of clerics in 3e). I haven't made up my made yet, though, on whether I would prefer to have healers as NPCs or as part of some other magic-user class.
 

Hurin88

Explorer
4th Edition D&D had the best solution. There, I said it.

The solution was to make the healing a minor action inherent in the class, so that the healer didn't have to waste his/her whole action, and could do other fun stuff at the same time as healing. I've never liked playing healers, but playing a healer (Warlord, in my case) in 4e was some of the most fun I've ever had playing D&D.

Another solution is to make the healing in the system mostly out-of-combat. There again, the altruistic class can keep the party alive but still do fun things in combat. If you really wanted to go this route, you can make non-magical, out-of-combat healing effective -- Rolemaster for example does this with herbs (ok, they're magical, but they don't take spell slots/points). Then the healer can save her spell slots for combat spells.

But just going retro and returning the cleric to the healbot who often faces the pressure to sacrifice his/her turn for the good of the party, as 5e does, is not really a solution at all imho.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
Playing a 3E cleric was certainly fun, which was the design intention.

I miss the 4E approach in this aspect. Having a leader type and many routes to healing made for more interesting party composition.

I don't mind 5E clerics, but Druid of the Moon is just too great. We've managed play without clerics and 5E works as long as the DM is on board. Pretty happy with it.

DCC healing was interesting, especially coupled with the bonkers spell system which made any caster a potential squid-monster in training.

Personally I like the Adventures in Middle Earth for 5E variant the best. Healing is rare, barely anyone can do it (and not a huge amount of it), and it is the most potent out of combat. It really flavors combat while leaving more on the table for a healer class to fill other niches.
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
I seem to be in the minority, but I like the 5e version the best. It feels to me that the domains are more distinctive and have a bigger impact than the 3e ones did. A more restricted base spell list means that clerics are more thematic rather than having access to almost all types of spells. And the proliferation of healing access in 5e means you can easily decide up front with your group that you aren't playing a medic, and the party should still be okay.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
4th Edition D&D had the best solution. There, I said it.

The solution was to make the healing a minor action inherent in the class, so that the healer didn't have to waste his/her whole action, and could do other fun stuff at the same time as healing. I've never liked playing healers, but playing a healer (Warlord, in my case) in 4e was some of the most fun I've ever had playing D&D.

Another solution is to make the healing in the system mostly out-of-combat. There again, the altruistic class can keep the party alive but still do fun things in combat. If you really wanted to go this route, you can make non-magical, out-of-combat healing effective -- Rolemaster for example does this with herbs (ok, they're magical, but they don't take spell slots/points). Then the healer can save her spell slots for combat spells.

But just going retro and returning the cleric to the healbot who often faces the pressure to sacrifice his/her turn for the good of the party, as 5e does, is not really a solution at all imho.
As a 4e fan, I would argue that 5e has mostly taken that approach anyway. In-combat healing is present, but the best way to actually do it is to wait for someone to drop to 0, and then use your bonus action healing word to stand them back up. Preemptive healing via temp hit points is far more effective.

And as for out-of-combat healing, the designers have made it quite clear they don't think small expenditures of spells for large amounts of out-of-combat healing is at all problematic. That goes back to goodberry being boostable with one level of Life Cleric for 40 HP of healing for a 1st level spell, the addition of spells like Healing Spirit in Xanathar's, and now the addition of incredibly efficient healing spells like Aura of Vitality to the Cleric and Druid spell list in the UA class variants.
 

Rhylthar

Explorer
Well, I really would have liked to play a dedicated Healer for a party (I and several others did this job in WoW for several years) when (In-Combat)-Healing would have been really needed in 3E.

At the gaming table, reality was like this: Buff up everyone to deal out as much damage/crowd control as many enemies and get as less damage as possible. Be faster than your enemies in terms of ending the fight!

Afterwards, get your Wand(s) of Cure Light Wounds and bring everyone up to full HP. Sure, some things were needed now and then ((Lesser) Restoration e. g.), but most of the times it came up to this pattern.

To make a Healer really be needed, the damage had to be much higher and the game a lot more Grim & Gritty. Dual/Triple-Heals/Group Heals had to be available at an early level to counter-heal the incoming damage. Would have been a completely different game.
 

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