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3E/3.5 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

Staffan

Adventurer
The rules say if a bonus action spell has been cast you can only cast a cantrip. If you lead with a normal spell no bonus action spell has been cast yet so you can then cast healing word.
. If you cast healing word first you can only cast a cantrip or do something else with your action.
Jeremy Crawford disagrees on that point. The intent is clearly that you can't combine a bonus action spell and a 1st-level or higher spell on the same turn, regardless of order.

@Henry, please refresh my memory, 2e priests did, if I remember correctly, have a common group of base spells, with spheres added on based off their Divine Domnion.
Core 2e had something like 15 Spheres, with another half-dozen or so being added in Tome of Magic. One of the spheres was the All sphere which all priests had major access to. I don't recall exactly what spells were in it, but it was a pretty small number and primarily about the actual religious aspects of the class. Other than that, priests could have access to any spheres. In practice, particularly in Forgotten Realms, priesthoods usually used the cleric spheres as a baseline and added/subtracted from that.

The issue with 2e priests is that D&D is a class-based game, and relies to a large degree on having certain abilities available in a party. This is most apparent when it comes to healing (including condition relief), but also includes things like planar travel at higher levels. So your priest of the God of Serpents might be real cool and stuff, but if he can't plane shift the party to Gehenna he's not fulfilling the cleric's role. This is a place where game design and world design clash.

Which brings me to one of my main issues with clerics: their existence as a class warps all D&D world-building. Having the cleric as a core class where one of the class's defining traits is worshiping a deity almost demands that you build a pantheon with varied deities, ideally designed to provide PCs with lots of options for their clerics. You can swim against the current (for example, see Eberron with its mix of inactive-and-possibly-nonexistent Sovereigns, divine impersonal forces like the Silver Flame, and philosophies like the Blood of Vol), but the game design strongly pushes you in this direction.

This in turn often leads to a lot of attention being paid to these when it comes to the rest of the worldbuilding as well as adventure design, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Forgotten Realms where almost every major plot line is the result of divine meddling - starting as far back as the Moonshaes trilogy and moving through the Time of Troubles, the Cyrinishad debacle, the Spellplague, and in modern times we have at least four 5e campaigns being the result of plans of divine or semi-divine beings (Tiamat, the Princes of Elemental Evil, Annam, various demon lords). This is, all things considered, fairly dull, particularly when repeated as often as it is.
 

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Zardnaar

Legend
Jeremy Crawford disagrees on that point. The intent is clearly that you can't combine a bonus action spell and a 1st-level or higher spell on the same turn, regardless of order.


Core 2e had something like 15 Spheres, with another half-dozen or so being added in Tome of Magic. One of the spheres was the All sphere which all priests had major access to. I don't recall exactly what spells were in it, but it was a pretty small number and primarily about the actual religious aspects of the class. Other than that, priests could have access to any spheres. In practice, particularly in Forgotten Realms, priesthoods usually used the cleric spheres as a baseline and added/subtracted from that.

The issue with 2e priests is that D&D is a class-based game, and relies to a large degree on having certain abilities available in a party. This is most apparent when it comes to healing (including condition relief), but also includes things like planar travel at higher levels. So your priest of the God of Serpents might be real cool and stuff, but if he can't plane shift the party to Gehenna he's not fulfilling the cleric's role. This is a place where game design and world design clash.

Which brings me to one of my main issues with clerics: their existence as a class warps all D&D world-building. Having the cleric as a core class where one of the class's defining traits is worshiping a deity almost demands that you build a pantheon with varied deities, ideally designed to provide PCs with lots of options for their clerics. You can swim against the current (for example, see Eberron with its mix of inactive-and-possibly-nonexistent Sovereigns, divine impersonal forces like the Silver Flame, and philosophies like the Blood of Vol), but the game design strongly pushes you in this direction.

This in turn often leads to a lot of attention being paid to these when it comes to the rest of the worldbuilding as well as adventure design, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Forgotten Realms where almost every major plot line is the result of divine meddling - starting as far back as the Moonshaes trilogy and moving through the Time of Troubles, the Cyrinishad debacle, the Spellplague, and in modern times we have at least four 5e campaigns being the result of plans of divine or semi-divine beings (Tiamat, the Princes of Elemental Evil, Annam, various demon lords). This is, all things considered, fairly dull, particularly when repeated as often as it is.
I don't use twitter nor do I rush out to dig up errata.

Rules not clear anyway I see a lot of groups casting two spells a round anyway if they have bonus action spells.
 


Hurin88

Explorer
More like your local priest IMHO. With spells.
Yes, more like the local priest (or better yet, bishop) than a Templar or Hospitaller.

What's the difference? Well, the local priest/bishop has 'care of souls' -- he does all the priestly things like baptize, marry, and bury people. A crusader is just a monk or even layperson who does other things with his day (like fighting for the Church), even if he has taken on some vows to live by a set of religious rules.

In addition to taking care of souls, medieval bishops often also fought, as a feature of the feudal system. This was because they were not just spiritual leaders: they were often given lands and castles and real military/political authority, because they held fiefs. I have read that the model for the cleric was the real-life Bishop Odo of Bayeux. He was the brother of William the Conqueror, and Bishop of Bayeux in France. So when his brother William invaded England, Odo was summoned to the army, and led a contingent of troops from his fiefs onto the battlefield. That may seem odd, and that sort of thing did come under criticism increasingly from the 11th century on. In some interpretations, Odo tried to serve both masters (God and King) by not using an edged weapon (so he wouldn't actually shed blood). You can see him depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry wielding a club: Odo of Bayeux - Wikipedia . That idea was present around the time the DnD Cleric first appeared. More recently, though, some historians have suggested that this is a mistake: that Odo was actually wielding a kind of rod that symbolized secular power, of the sort that rulers had been using since the time of the Roman Emperors and Pharaohs.

TL:DR: the Cleric is based on the medieval fighting bishop, which was really a thing, even if the whole 'don't use edged weapons' trope might be historically inaccurate.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Which brings me to one of my main issues with clerics: their existence as a class warps all D&D world-building. Having the cleric as a core class where one of the class's defining traits is worshiping a deity almost demands that you build a pantheon with varied deities, ideally designed to provide PCs with lots of options for their clerics. You can swim against the current (for example, see Eberron with its mix of inactive-and-possibly-nonexistent Sovereigns, divine impersonal forces like the Silver Flame, and philosophies like the Blood of Vol), but the game design strongly pushes you in this direction.
Agreed. In my platonic version of D&D I have floating around in my head, clerics would just be warlocks that had gone respectable, and had made pacts with beings that had cozier relationships with civilization.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Yes, more like the local priest (or better yet, bishop) than a Templar or Hospitaller.

What's the difference? Well, the local priest/bishop has 'care of souls' -- he does all the priestly things like baptize, marry, and bury people. A crusader is just a monk or even layperson who does other things with his day (like fighting for the Church), even if he has taken on some vows to live by a set of religious rules.

In addition to taking care of souls, medieval bishops often also fought, as a feature of the feudal system. This was because they were not just spiritual leaders: they were often given lands and castles and real military/political authority, because they held fiefs. I have read that the model for the cleric was the real-life Bishop Odo of Bayeux. He was the brother of William the Conqueror, and Bishop of Bayeux in France. So when his brother William invaded England, Odo was summoned to the army, and led a contingent of troops from his fiefs onto the battlefield. That may seem odd, and that sort of thing did come under criticism increasingly from the 11th century on. In some interpretations, Odo tried to serve both masters (God and King) by not using an edged weapon (so he wouldn't actually shed blood). You can see him depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry wielding a club: Odo of Bayeux - Wikipedia . That idea was present around the time the DnD Cleric first appeared. More recently, though, some historians have suggested that this is a mistake: that Odo was actually wielding a kind of rod that symbolized secular power, of the sort that rulers had been using since the time of the Roman Emperors and Pharaohs.

TL:DR: the Cleric is based on the medieval fighting bishop, which was really a thing, even if the whole 'don't use edged weapons' trope might be historically inaccurate.
There's an old AD&D spell called Mace of Odo.
 


Marandahir

Crown-Forester
Agreed. In my platonic version of D&D I have floating around in my head, clerics would just be warlocks that had gone respectable, and had made pacts with beings that had cozier relationships with civilization.
This is my take as well. And it’s something that the D&D designers have explored too: Dark Sun Templars went from being Clerics of the Sorcerer-Kings in 2e & 3e to being Warlocks with a Sorcerer-King Pact in 4e.

For a fun exercise, you could remove the Cleric class, and play using Celestial-Pact Warlock instead and say that they make pacts with what are called “Gods” by the common folk.

I guess an alternative scope would be to try to make a second Pact Magic class representing the gamut of what Clerics do (you could also do it for Druids, and maybe use such a system as a substitute magic system for Paladins and Rangers).
 

Salthorae

Imperial Mountain Dew Taster
I guess an alternative scope would be to try to make a second Pact Magic class representing the gamut of what Clerics do (you could also do it for Druids, and maybe use such a system as a substitute magic system for Paladins and Rangers).
I don't know that you'd need a second class, but you'd want to write out a BUNCH of new invocations to reflect different things the domains can do currently.

Also maybe Channel Divinity or Wild Shape becomes based on spell slot expenditure rather than a separate mechanic?

It's an interesting idea. I think it would probably work for some games. I think Druids especially would make a nice warlock re-skin.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I don't use twitter nor do I rush out to dig up errata.

Rules not clear anyway I see a lot of groups casting two spells a round anyway if they have bonus action spells.
It's a rule I'm ignoring because it feels clunky. Currently I'm letting my players cast any spells they want with action and bonus action. It's led to our sorcerer moving, casting misty step, and then using burning hands on a bad guy which is quite epic. Soon I will no doubt be seeing him lay waste to encounters with a double fireball combo.
 

cbwjm

Hero
This is my take as well. And it’s something that the D&D designers have explored too: Dark Sun Templars went from being Clerics of the Sorcerer-Kings in 2e & 3e to being Warlocks with a Sorcerer-King Pact in 4e.
That's not actually what happened in 4e. While there was a sorcerer king pact the templar actually became a theme that could be applied to any class. I feel like the sorcerer-king pact was more representative of defilers that worked for the sorcerer kings.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Had a though on a warlock as Templar.

Since the spells are stolen elemental energy and they cast priest spelks how about a warlock that doesn't get warlock spelks but cleric ones instead similar to the divine soul.

They would also get hexblade type weapons, a warlock cantrip, and their pact spells can include some arcane type spells since in the fluff.

Makes sense for the setting, honours 2E and 4E. Gets elements of hexblade, celestial Warlock and divine soul.

Still casts cleric spells but can get a few arcane type.

Not an arcane caster either. This pact replaces the phb ones which are unavailable.

They can't defile as they're not arcane powered and the SKs don't need to worry about them defiling in the cities which should be a major no no.
 

Superchunk77

Explorer
Out of curiosity @Superchunk77, how do you know you are “a bit more experienced” than DWChancellor?
You misinterpreted my comment. I wasn't comparing my experience to DWChancellor, nor would I as I don't know him at all. I was simply stating that I have lots of experience with RPG's and that I, nor my players, need overly simple rules to enjoy an RPG.
 

Matchstick

Explorer
Sounds amazing....er… I … um....I have got to find a copy of 13A Glorantha (or is it just pdf?). I remember vaguely hearing it was coming - wow, the best D&D-adjacent system combined with the most intriguingly mythic setting ever? - but then, nothing....
It's PDF and physical (got mine at my FLGS) and it's EXCELLENT.

 

Retreater

Legend
It seems a little backwards logic. The class is so instrumental in the success of the design of the play experience. But it's also such a thankless and unfun role that the designers knew they would have to encourage players to take the class by unbalancing it compared to other classes.
Granted, this design was over 20 years ago, so I hope the lesson has been learned.
 

@Superchunk77, I actually considered that, but failed my Wisdom save to resist making a Jimi Hendrix gif joke.

Admittedly, a bit of bad form on my part, you have my apologies.

You did call D&D, basic though 👹, ( which is your right).

I’ve reached the opposite conclusion from my experience, I do not need a complicated or complex ruleset in order to have fun.
 

It seems a little backwards logic. The class is so instrumental in the success of the design of the play experience. But it's also such a thankless and unfun role that the designers knew they would have to encourage players to take the class by unbalancing it compared to other classes.
Granted, this design was over 20 years ago, so I hope the lesson has been learned.
The lesson really dates back 40+ years.

4e came closest to learning from it, with 5e the runner-up, but even so, it's just …

… hps do work nicely as plot armor, and the come-back dynamic where monsters come on strong, maul or even drop PCs, who bounce back and win through is very genre (even broader action-genre) and fun...

...but, somehow, the mechanism for that always ends up rankling someone, in some way. The band-aid Cleric was as despised as it was vital. 3e CoDzilla and cheap healing items, were, at best, incongruous, at worst, game-breakers. 4e Surges & Warlords and 5e 'fast' overnight healing, though they work, are incurably controversial.

It's like, I know the fanbase is incorrigible and really doesn't want to be pleased, but, c'mon, cut a game some slack....
 
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Superchunk77

Explorer
@Superchunk77, I actually considered that, but failed my Wisdom save to resist making a Jimi Hendrix gif joke.

Admittedly, a bit of bad form on my part, you have my apologies.

You did call D&D, basic though 👹, ( which is your right).

I’ve reached the opposite conclusion from my experience, I do not need a complicated or complex ruleset in order to have fun.
Cool beans!
 

HarbingerX

Rob Of The North
The lesson really dates back 40+ years.

4e came closest to learning from it, with 5e the runner-up, but even so, it's just …

… hps do work nicely as plot armor, and the come-back dynamic where monsters come on strong, maul or even drop PCs, who bounce back and win through is very genre (even broader action-genre) and fun...

...but, somehow, the mechanism for that always ends up rankling someone, in some way. The band-aid Cleric was as despised as it was vital. 3e CoDzilla and cheap healing items, were, at best, incongruous, at worst, game-breakers. 4e Surges & Warlords and 5e 'fast' overnight healing, though they work, are incurably controversial.

It's like, I know the fanbase is incorrigible and really doesn't want to be pleased, but, c'mon, cut a game some slack....
I recently wrapped up a 24+ session B/X campaign with no cleric and it worked just fine. Players would get low, retreat and heal up before venturing out again. I can't really speak to 1e or 2e, but it was 3.5's math that required a cleric to make the adventuring day work.
 

I can't really speak to 1e or 2e, but it was 3.5's math that required a cleric to make the adventuring day work.
Oh, 3.5 just needed a WoCLW to make the adventuring day - CoDzilla would break it. ;P

And 1e/2e, they gave the cleric enough healing to see the party through a rough patch or two, even at 1st level. Without one? Good luck.
I never got the impression B/X was /that/ different (the way people talk about it, you'd think it bore no resemblance at all to the rest of D&D), though if it err'd on the side of 0e with even the Cleric not bringing you any healing at 1st, or if it had more rapid natural healing....

...but, this discussion also gets into campaign pacing. For you 'just fine' might include backing off from a dungeon or other dangerous challenge for days or weeks of recuperation, prettymuch as a matter of course, without excessive spoilsport consequences, I assume. For other DMs, 'just fine' means they keep time pressure bearing down on the party so they don't dare pause more than an hour in their adventure lest everything explode in the their faces...

...and that's "fine" - I mean, you run the edition with the system artifacts you're accustomed to and the party composition that fits your style, and your campaign cruises along at 6-8 days per encounter or 6-8 encounters per day, or whatever other knife's-edge it all comes together and works at, and you wonder how anyone else gets those other games to work.
 
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