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Helper Classes

At Wizards one year, I gave a short lecture to the RPG R&D crew about why clerics are impossible to balance. Since most of their power (healing) helps other characters, it’s power that doesn’t feel cool. To help the cleric feel cool, it needs a double-helping of power, and that’s what we gave it. In theory, one way to balance the cleric is to re-write every class so that a good deal of its power comes from helping other characters in the party. Druids and bards have “helper” abilities, and we discussed giving such abilities to all classes. For example, some folks talked about taking away the 5-foot step as a general rule and re-writing the fighter so that one of the class’s abilities was to allow party members to take 5-foot steps. That was too big change for the system and for fighters, and what actually came out of these conversations was a number of new “helper classes.” The D&D Miniatures Handbook included the healer and the marshal, the 13th Age system included the occultist, and 13th Age Glorantha included the trickster.

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The healer in the Miniatures Handbook was sort of like a cleric but even more focused on healing. Over previous decades, I had seen players occasionally create pacifist characters, and a healer class of one sort of another has appeared here and there. It’s a natural enough concept. Unfortunately, it’s a hard concept to get right. The healers from the fantasy world Glorantha, for example, are duty bound to try to protect even enemies from being killed. If a self-righteous paladin in a party can be at odds with the other characters, try a pacifist who tries to keep party members from killing their foes. When Rob Heinsoo and I later wrote 13th Age Glorantha, we balked at writing up a playable healer because the canonical healers in the setting don’t “play nice” with others—ironically because they play too nice with the enemy. As for the healer class in the Miniatures Handbook, it never got a lot of play and didn’t prove popular enough to recur in later iterations of the game.

The marshal was a non-supernatural class that had bard-like abilities to improve other characters’ performances in combat. Mostly, they provided specific buffs to party members, which represented the practical guidance they provided in the heat of battle. There was a lose fit between what the marshal was doing in the game world (barking out orders) and the magic-like bonuses in the game system. In design terms, it represented sort of a Magic: The Gathering approach, in which simple, useful mechanics evoke what’s happening in the game world rather than strictly simulating it. Years later, 4E would double down on the evocative and game-oriented approach instead of 3E’s simulations esthetic. Unlike the healer, the marshal was popular, and similar classes would appear later in the development of D&D classes.

For 13th Age, Rob Heinsoo did most of the classes, but I wrote up the occultist, one of the game’s first all-new classes. The occultist was my attempt to create the equivalent of a cleric, and in particular one that would feel more powerful in play without actually being more powerful. In combat, the occultist mostly observes the attacks made by the other characters and the attacks made against them. The occultist’s spells are instant actions that let another character reroll a missed attack, prevent damage from incoming attacks, or increase damage that their allies deal. In effect, preventing damage is “healing in advance,” but it feels gratifying to interrupt a monster’s attack to reduce damage to a friend. It’s proactive and even aggressive, while healing is more reactive. Likewise, helping a friend land a mighty blow is also a feel-good moment. The other player gets to feel more effective because it’s their character that’s dealing out more damage. The player running the occultist, meanwhile, also feels effective because the effect on play is more dramatic than after-the-fact healing. The occultist is ideal for the sort of player who loves to keep an eye on combat, to watch every turn, and to judge when to apply the right effort for the best effect. For the occultist, friends’ turns and enemies’ turns sort of feel like part of their own turn because the player is monitoring events and deciding when to intervene. Other players’ turns and monsters’ turns are more interesting when you have the option to instantly step in and alter the outcome. For an added touch of cool factor, the class description specifies that there is only one occultist. There are no occultist guilds or even higher-level occultists to make the occultist character feel unexceptional.

For 13th Age Glorantha, I wrote up another helper class: the trickster. As with the Gloranthan healer, the Gloranthan trickster has an iffy pedigree. The wild and unpredictable trickster character from the setting was an uneasy fit with the no-nonsense and gritty RuneQuest system that powered Gloranthan roleplaying. Andrew Finch tells a story of how the clever use of a trickster’s powers managed to defeat an entire temple of Chaotic cultists by tricking them into destroying themselves. The players at the table were geared up for a massive, running battle with the toughest enemies they’d ever fought, and on the enemies’ home territory. The trickster made all that planning and anticipation moot. No one else got to so much as make an attack roll. Thankfully, the trickster makes a better ally than the pacifist healer, and Rob and I were able to make a memorable, playable character that feels like no other class.

If the occultist is ideal for a player who likes to pay close attention, the trickster is good for a player who likes to mix things up and maybe get the snot beat out of them in the bargain. (Can you guess? I enjoy playing both classes.) As with a typical class, the trickster’s abilities work on the character’s turn, but as with the occultist these powers typically help the other characters. With powers such as the Dance of Blood and Slapstick, the trickster helps allies make extra attacks on enemies while provoking attacks from those same enemies on themselves. No one knows what’s going to happen when the trickster takes their turn. For me, the less I know about how my turn is going to end up, the more interesting the dice rolls are. Sometimes the trickster ends up just taking damage for nothing—hey, that’s a trickster for you! To balance the possibility of costly failure, these powers have big upsides when everything works out right.

The trickster’s standard, at-will melee attack deals no damage at all. In the game world, the trickster might be using a chicken carcass as a weapon, and how much damage would you expect that to deal? Instead of dealing damage, “feckless strike” curses the target with bad mojo, so the next time an ally strikes that foe, the ally deals a lot more damage than normal. In a sense, the trickster’s damage is delayed, waiting for an ally to hit that foe and apply the “damage” done earlier by the trickster. Again, the player with the trickster feels effective, and the other player is happy to deal more than normal damage.
 

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Jonathan Tweet

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish

CapnZapp

Legend
Thank you for your fascinating insight, Mr Tweet.

But I have questions.

Hm. I read that link and it's all over the place. First question, what is a "balanced" Cleric to you? (Mixing answers does not help design - are you striving for fun, for the at-will/daily dichotomy, for the bonus/voluntary cleric vs the mandatory cleric, or what? The small-reduction-in-combat vs the large-increase-in-healing? But to answer that last question you must first take a stance on the other questions! Or perhaps you mean "all of the above" in which case I agree, yes it's impossible to achieve perfection.)

To treat "clerics are impossible to balance" as a truism without explanation, this article feels unmoored. What is the problem it is addressing?

This article also feels a bit wonky in that it does not appear to discuss the 5E cleric at all. That game attempts to provide a solution where significant healing is generally not needed, thus trying to make Clerics voluntary rather than mandatory without overpowering them.

There are other solutions that too feel relevant and that I would love your analysis of. Many video games provide very strong and plentiful healing potions, or even give all sorts of characters regenerative powers in some form, so dedicated healers aren't a must. Pathfinder 2 provides a very strong Medicine skill, meaning any magical healing can be focused on in-combat (emergency) healing - the Cleric doesn't generally need to spend spell slots on out-of-combat hit point replenishment.

And then there's the World of Warcraft trinity (I'm sure it wasn't the first game using this model): tank, DPS, healer which D&D has never even attempted. We can say whatever we like about that, except "it's impossible to balance". If MMORPGS are anything, it's that they're balanced.

Best Regards,
Zapp
 


jmartkdr2

Adventurer
"tank, DPS, healer which D&D has never attempted"

4th edition would like to have a word with you. True it did add a 4th pillar (controller) and did hybrid roles but it has a very clear distinction between the 4 combat roles and what each could hope to achieve.
4e also tried to make each role voluntary via Healing Surges, and was at least moderately successful there. Plus the 4e cleric tends to have powers that heal while also doing something else, so that the cleric's player doesn't feel like a healbot the way a lot of MMO healers can (of course, in an MMO timing and pure speed are also very important, something that can't be replicated in turn-based combat.)
 

Mannahnin

Explorer
4e also tried to make each role voluntary via Healing Surges, and was at least moderately successful there. Plus the 4e cleric tends to have powers that heal while also doing something else, so that the cleric's player doesn't feel like a healbot the way a lot of MMO healers can (of course, in an MMO timing and pure speed are also very important, something that can't be replicated in turn-based combat.)
Timing was key, though. Especially since you only had 2-3 Healing Words (the encounter-based baseline healing effect) per fight, so distributing them at the right moments was definitely a skill.

4E was also arguably the only edition to ever truly balance all the classes against each other (though a few of the later ones like Seeker were underdeveloped and a bit weak).

Single classed Cleric and Fighters were both amazing and just as fun as any other class in that edition.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . Since most of their power (healing) helps other characters, it’s power that doesn’t feel cool. To help the cleric feel cool, it needs a double-helping of power, and that’s what we gave it. . .
There's a test you can do to see if your character is needed, and/or if you're feeling uncool:

Spend an entire session at the tavern.

If your party does just fine without you, you're not cool. If they need you there or fail their quest, require them to pay homage to you on a regular basis, otherwise you'll remain at the tavern.

jerry maguire money GIF
 

"tank, DPS, healer which D&D has never attempted"

4th edition would like to have a word with you. True it did add a 4th pillar (controller) and did hybrid roles but it has a very clear distinction between the 4 combat roles and what each could hope to achieve.
That maps very nicely onto EverQuest, in fact, where having a controller (almost always a mind-controlling enchanter) was seen as an essential element.

If anything, WoW has actually loosened things up a bit by only having three pillars and giving most classes the crowd-controlling abilities of the enchanter.
 

Also, I miss the marshal.

And while the double incentives built in the cleric are obvious, it's still not enough for anyone to want to play them in any of the games I'm running, which says something about the appeal of that role.
 

Warpiglet-7

Adventurer
Ok so we got a big shot game designer with an opinion. Now we got me, some doofus who just plays. My take?

Stop trying to make people play a certain way. Throw the options out there and let people run with it.

if it’s not compelling to me, I will pick something else. If I want to be a pain in ass pacifist, let my party deal with me. They should expel the character and look for someone who is biased and on their side.

i am not big into story games. I like to crack skulls when I play and have done so back with 1e clerics. I did less damage but I healed, turned undead and dropped flamestrikes and not because “someone has to play cleric!”

I wanted to play a crusading holy man with divine powers and to cast out/down evil.

the idea of parity and balance is fine but if it is that important maybe checker or chess or go is closer to the ideal.

i think the idea is for characters to have some options. 5e allows for clerics to be what I always wanted. A war or tempest cleric could do fine with no healing and just preemptive butt-kicking, miracle working and making war or peace with adversaries.

balance is fine to think about but if you take it too far you end up with samey samey powers and characters.

Tweet seems like a really smart dude but I think he is missing some of these other considerations.

mans so are others. If someone expects healing and I want to cast spiritual weapon and spirit guardians they can get mad and lump it.

my character my choice of how to contribute.

do I choose to stabilize and save others? Of course. Will I play into expectations of merely upping hit points so their character can do fun things? Nope.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
I feel the real secret to balancing the Cleric is to do what Rolemaster does: make healing more of an after-battle thing. The article touches upon this tool for balancing the Cleric, of course, but I think the Cleric works better as someone who can handle himself reasonably well in battle (not Codzilla level, just decent) and heal after it. Getting away from the idea that you need lots of in-battle healing solves the problem of having to make the Cleric too powerful, while also making a Cleric more fun to play (she doesn't have to choose between healing and attacking).

5e seems to have addressed this partially by making healing a bit less necessary, and more accessible to more classes, but in the end, because of 5e' 'whack-a-mole' approach to combat, you usually need someone to be casting in-combat healing spells at some point, whether it's the Cleric or the Druid or someone else, to get the moles back up when they're down.

Separate healing from combat, though, and the problem of balancing the Cleric or any other healer class largely disappears. Players don't really complain much that the healer is too powerful when they are healing them out of combat, and Clerics don't have to choose between doing something cool in combat or saving the Rogue's life when he's gotten in over his head.
 

Stop trying to make people play a certain way. Throw the options out there and let people run with it.

if it’s not compelling to me, I will pick something else. If I want to be a pain in ass pacifist, let my party deal with me.
It's not like the fully fleshed out 5E Healer, for instance, is just sitting on the shelf and WotC is withholding it from you.

If no one is interested in an option, the man hours not spent on working up a new version of that option can be better spent on something that will be more widely used.

That's not trying to make you play a certain way, that's them recognizing they have limited resources and spending them wisely.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I feel the real secret to balancing the Cleric is to do what Rolemaster does: make healing more of an after-battle thing. The article touches upon this tool for balancing the Cleric, of course, but I think the Cleric works better as someone who can handle himself reasonably well in battle (not Codzilla level, just decent) and heal after it. Getting away from the idea that you need lots of in-battle healing solves the problem of having to make the Cleric too powerful, while also making a Cleric more fun to play (she doesn't have to choose between healing and attacking).
I'll second all of this!

In-combat healing, while occasionally necessary in emergencies, should never be the default option.
5e seems to have addressed this partially by making healing a bit less necessary, and more accessible to more classes,
True; the question then becomes does this kill the Cleric's niche?
Separate healing from combat, though, and the problem of balancing the Cleric or any other healer class largely disappears. Players don't really complain much that the healer is too powerful when they are healing them out of combat, and Clerics don't have to choose between doing something cool in combat or saving the Rogue's life when he's gotten in over his head.
Well, that choice is still there and always will be if it's life or death, but if she wants to try casting in combat there needs to be much greater risk to the Cleric than 5e provides.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
I believe there are conflict between the idea of "Helping as a requirement" and "Helping as an unnecessary bonus".

If "Helping" is a requirement then you have to make up for the negative of it being a requirement.

If "Helping is a bonus" then you must balance making it stand out and it not being so good that it becomes almost a requirement.

Both can be done well individually. However doing either requires a being honest which want it says about the system and the settings within. The inclusion or exclusion of helper classes can easily become even more defining that the active action classes.
 

Warpiglet-7

Adventurer
And then get yelled at for bloat. What’s with the attitude?
No attitude intended. I have no cred. This gentleman is published and influential. Nonetheless I expressed my unvarnished opinions and reasons why I might value his over mine.

no it’s not about bloat. I am against it. In fact I felt we did a lot of what ‘kits’ did on our own before 2e by role playing and showing what our characters were. Even as a teen, I thought it was not good to have too many defined options.

My idea is that as in days of old players should create and not have to be told how to fit all things together. Surely they should decide if they are a pacifist. They determine if they get pigeon holed as a healbot or not.

5e has done a good job of leaving it open. The only cleric I have played in 5e went in other directions and rarely healed unless to actually save a life right now.

so if my tone seems cranky it was not intended to(not how I felt while writing it). But I do think people should decide how to play and rage against roles others impose against their will.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I believe there are conflict between the idea of "Helping as a requirement" and "Helping as an unnecessary bonus".

If "Helping" is a requirement then you have to make up for the negative of it being a requirement.
Why is it a negative, though?

For a Fighter, fighting is a requirement. For a healer, healing is a requirement. In either case, it's what they do; and if that's not what you want your PC to be doing you're playing the wrong class/role.
 

Horwath

Hero
As many stated, lot's of people see healing as boring for them and cool for others as it gives more chance to do cool things before they drop.

Maybe most of cleric(support caster) buff and healing spells could be Bonus actions or have some rider effect that benefits the clerics offensive abilities. Like 4E did in some situations.

I.E.
Cure wounds:

option 1: when you cast Cure wounds, you can make one weapon attack with the same action. Add +1d4 radiant damage per spell level to that attack.


option 2: morph Cure and Healing word into same spell and raise it's potency depending on casting action and range:

Reaction: 1d4/spell level at 100ft range, 1d6/spell level touch

Bonus action: 1d6/SL at 100ft, 1d8/SL at touch

Action: 1d8/SL at 100ft, 1d10/SL at touch

1 Minute: 10 HP/SL at touch

after casting it, your next weapon attack within 1 minute will do extra 1d4 radiant damage per spell level used.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Why is it a negative, though?

For a Fighter, fighting is a requirement. For a healer, healing is a requirement. In either case, it's what they do; and if that's not what you want your PC to be doing you're playing the wrong class/role.
Problem is that it's D&D: everyone fights.
 



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