The Trouble with Clerics

I have a bit of a love-hate thing going on when it comes to the Cleric class. Of all the core classes, this is the one which I have most difficulty playing, yet at the same time I’m vey happy when I’m DMing and there’s a Cleric in the party. Here’s why.

To a DM, a Cleric is like a “get out of Jail free” card. If one of your monsters wipes out a hero, hey – it’s not your fault. The Cleric should have been there to heal him. And let’s face it; everyone blames the Cleric.

The Cleric is the goalkeeper of the team. He’s the one who exists to save the party and stop the other heroes from reaching 0hp. If he fails and they fall, then it’s not the DM, it’s not the teamwork, and it’s definitely not the fault of the hero who took the hit: it’s the Cleric. “Dude!”, they’ll cry, “Why didn’t you heal me when I asked you to? This sucks! You never heal me!”.

You, as DM can just sit back, your work done. Without a Cleric on the team they would be blaming you right about now so you tip the Cleric’s player a knowing wink and a few extra XP in thanks while the other players aren’t looking. Oh yes, he’s in on it too.

Ok I’m exaggerating just a tad, but I’ll bet there’s a fair few DMs nodding right about now. You know what I’m talking about.

So how come I just can’t play them? I mean, it’s only fair that I man up once in a while and carry out the same self-sacrificing (yet pleasantly XP earning) role which I applaud in others, right?

I think a part of the problem is the duality of the Cleric’s nature. On the one hand, they Heal. But put a mace in that hand, and they Hurt. All this Heal/Hurt, Heal/Hurt, Heal/Hurt rubs me the wrong way. Can’t they just pick one and stick to it? I’ve tried playing a Cleric as more of a Field Medic role who entirely swore off violence and hid in the background with his medical kit ready to aid his comrades as required.

Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Maybe next time I’ll play the pack mule.

The one time I had a blast playing a Cleric was for a one-shot game where I played Melissandra, a kick-ass Raven Queen Cleric who was essentially a nun with a halberd. Oww. She emphasised the Hurt side of the class, bigtime, and was really stingy when it came to offering healing. “Are you sure you wish these injuries healed?", she would ask, “Each wound brings you closer to the Raven Queen’s Blessing. Do you deny her, believer?”. Watching the other heroes squirm was priceless :D

With that one notable exception, my Clerics tend to fall flat, and I end up feeling like I should have picked the Paladin class instead, if only for the cooler armour and weapon selection.

Any suggestions Cleric lovers?

If you want to post your own the Trouble with… article and link back here, I’d love to read ‘em. What classes (or races) give you difficulty, and why?

14 Comments on “The Trouble with Clerics”

  1. If you want to play a cleric, pick a god and further his or her agenda, smite the heathens and the enemies of your faith and protect those that honour it. That’s a great way to play a cleric and have a blast in the process. In other words, forget the mechanics, forget the gameplay driven by abilities approach, instead, drive it by the agenda of the god your cleric is supposed to have devoted his life to.

  2. Personally, my problem with the cleric is its role. I really don’t like the “heal bot” mechanic of the cleric, regardless of the game. “Oh, we have to have a cleric to survive.” Really??? What fantasy movie includes a heal bot? None, because it’s lame. The heroes in a fantasy movie make do without the heal bot, because it makes for a better story. Why can’t we have a fantasy game that relies on the heroes themselves to get them through tough times, instead of always having a cleric to save their hide?

    Ah, ok. I just realized that I’m tired and ranting. Sorry. Good post.


  3. I played a cleric of Lathander up to 16th level in 2e back in the day and had a lot of fun with him. The trick is not to let yourself get roped into doing nothing but heal while on adventures – you have downtime for that crap. If your party comes up with a stupid plan that will get them injured, tell them it’s a stupid plan. That especially holds true in 4e, where your healing doesn’t slow you down much and the other characters can better fend for themselves while you are busy. Even if you worship a god of happiness, sunshine, and puppies, your job is not “Human first-aid kit”. A cleric’s job is “Badass slayer of unholy abominations for the glory and righteousness of the gods.” Think of your cleric as less Saint Francis and more Archbishop Turpin or Doctor Van Helsing. There are dark things out there, and your sacred duty is first and foremost to wreak holy vengeance all over their blasphemous faces.

    A priest’s job is to interface with the divine. He interprets the will of the gods. Divination spells give him holy insight into what’s going down. He can ferret out demons, monsters, and unbelievers like nobody’s business. He can root out their weaknesses, find their lairs, unearth their schemes, blasphemies, and plots. Evil can’t hide from him. He knows what demons lurk in the shadows, and he is prepared to throw down with every single one of them. Vampire? Let’s go cut some stakes, boys. Necromancer? Zombies scatter at your merest word. Rakshasa? One Dispel Magic slices through all his deceptions and lies, and a barrage of Blessed crossbow bolts mean poor kitty’s a pincushion the next round. Doppleganger? Detect Evil and you can smell that putz from a mile off. Drow? Continual Light cuts right through that darkness garbage; try and hide from the fury now. Heathen? Command, Hold Person, Blindness, Bestow Curse; you have divine authority – make them fear it. Summoned Demon? Protection from Evil, Exorcise, Dispel Evil, Banish. The cleric is a font of supernatural face-wrecking.

    Personally, I think the reason AD&D had no 2nd or 3rd level heals was so people wouldn’t rely on the cleric as a band-aid. He’s got so much more to offer. A lot of that stuff may not look like it applies to 4e, but it totally still does. But it doesn’t work if the DM won’t cooperate. The most important things to remember when DMing for clerics:

    1) Don’t gimp the boy’s divination rituals. Knowing what’s up at all times is his bread and butter. Did some wizard tell Jonathan Harker what Dracula was all about? Hell no. He called Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and then they proceeded to rain holy water all over his parade. You want to talk to a cleric because they know what is wrong and they have the tools to put it right.

    2) If your party has a cleric, the DM should capitalize on it. Hit them with monstrous ungodly horrors at every turn. If the guy is playing a cleric, its a pretty good hint that he’s not just here to loot and plunder. He’s got abominations to put down. And he wants to put them down *hard*.

    3) Don’t deny the man his connections. If he’s like most clerics, he’s got an organization at his back that goes back a thousand years. That’s practically like being a government operative. Don’t let him call in stronger clerics – the *player* is the badass the church sends when they get a call for help – but if the guy wants holy water, or blessed wooden stakes, or to consult the world’s foremost scholar on werewolves, or access to the Forbidden Archives where rests the Black Book of Belgarresh, you can bet your ass he’s got the connections to get it.

    4) In a fight between him and virtually any evil creature, the cleric will win. It’s should not even seriously be in question. What that guy came up with the phrase “deus ex machina”, he was talking about the cleric. Ghouls, shadows, imps, minor demons, creatures of the night: The cleric will absolutely tear through them. This is how things should be. The only evil creatures that should scare the cleric are elites and solos: Vampires, dragons, major demons, or best of all: evil priests. And at that point? It is *on*.

    5) And most importantly: when it is, in fact, on, the masters of darkness physically attack the cleric only as a last desperate resort or a distraction. Physical attack would be too easy for him: the cleric will wreck the forces of darkness *and they know it*. If the Lord of Vampires wants to ruin a cleric’s day, he won’t touch him. He’ll go after the things he cares about. He’ll go after his friends, his family, his faith, his followers. Any encounter will be rife with subtext and metaphor. It’s like a lightsaber fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. The swords are just there for show. Evil beats a cleric by tearing down the thing that make him strong, and giving the knife a final twist when he’s at his weakest.

  4. We’re experimenting with some new limits for our group. As the cleric, I have to choose who to heal based just on what I observe. (We do use markers for “bloodied” status.) No one is allowed to talk about their status in metagame terms. This has encouraged players to stick closer to me, and fight smarter. I’m also more involved as the cleric, because I’m in the thick of things (I’m pretty much playing as a paladin, but chose cleric for the arsenal of healing options.)

  5. My first character ever was a cleric of Lathander that I played up until level 16 under AD&D 2e (this may color my advice a little). I speak from 17 years of experience on both sides of the screen when I say this.

    There are two main kinds of people who play clerics. The first kind wants to wield his Writ of Ultimate Divine Authority to bring ruination upon the enemies of his holy cause – with extreme prejudice. The second kind doesn’t know what class he wants to play, and settles on a heal-bot because the party doesn’t have one. The trouble with clerics is that everyone expects you to play the second kind. But that first kind of cleric – the crusader – is a character to be reckoned with. Think Samuel L. Jackson playing Dr. Van Helsing. The crusading cleric represents the lords of creation themselves and God help any foul demon, evil spirit, dark magician, or creature of the night he stumbles over. Except that He won’t. Ever.

    Clerics have a whole lot going for them. They are direct agents of the gods, which is a bit like being a Mafia enforcer, except that the Dons are the lawful lords of the entire universe, you know that you are always right, and you never have to worry about the cops. You have inside information on the workings of the very cosmos. You know what evil lurks in the shadows of the night. And you have at your disposal an arsenal of holy terrors able to drive those monsters back into the lightless void that spawned them. The trouble is, your damn group expects you to heal someone. Every round. Forever.

    The first step is to change that expectation. If the group comes up with a stupid plan that will get everyone hurt, tell them that their plan is stupid and is going to get everyone hurt. Then come up with a better plan. There is always a better plan.

    But how to pick one? Fortunately, the cleric is tailor-made for that sort of thing. Your *job* is to understand the position of Man to the greater universe. You know hierarchies of demons, endless lore about the restless dead, volumes upon volumes about unholy beasts that plague the nights, how to placate the gods that control the weather, or travel, or esoteric secrets of arcane lore. Clerics are monsters of divinations and omens. Use that shit to your advantage.

    And once you know the nature of the problem you face, you have a comprehensive arsenal of tools to Get It Done. Vampires? You just start sharpening some stakes. Rakshasa? Let me just bless those crossbow bolts for you. Necromancer? Please – zombies can’t even come close. Drow? Watch those sissy elves try to hide from the fury once you cast Continual Light. Demon? Protection from Evil, Exorcism, Banishment, Dispel Evil; you name it, you got it. Heathens? Command, Hold Person, Blindness, Bestow Curse. You have the authority of the gods, and woe betide those who will not kneel before you.

    Now, some of that stuff may not seem as applicable in 4e. But it is. The core of the thing does not change. Divination rituals. Religion, Nature, and Arcana skill. Radiant damage for wrecking the faces off your terrible foes. This is what clerics are made of.

    But you do need some cooperation from the DM to make it all happen. There are a few things that make a campaign much more friendly to non-boring clerics:

    1) Don’t gimp divination or the knowledge skills. Don’t just use them to throw the priest a bone when he’s stuck. Let him use them often, and reward him for using them with delicious, delicious information. There’s a reason people talk to priests to make sense of their lives. The cleric is a lifeline to the supernatural, and it is their job to know how the world is meant to work.

    2) Don’t gimp their church. Usually, clerics have connections. This doesn’t mean they can pull a more powerful cleric out any time they want – really, the PC should be the badass who *answers* that kind of distress call. That said, if the cleric needs to turn the city’s water supply to holy water, or consult the world’s foremost scholar on werewolves, or gain access to the Forbidden Archive and the Black Book of Belshagore, his church should totally be willing to hook that up.

    3) Use evil monsters. If the guy is playing a cleric, he wants to tangle with the forces of darkness. He’s practically begging you. Give him evil spirits and twisted horrors of the abyss at every turn. And when you do use them, do not be surprised when the cleric routes them again and again – he eats garden variety evil for breakfast. Only the masters of darkness themselves should inspire genuine fear in our cleric. Vampires, powerful demons, evil sorcerers, dragons, or best of all, priests of opposing gods.

    4) When the lords of evil do come a-knocking, don’t let them oppose the priest directly. The priest is the strongest point in the metaphorical wall. Strike where he is weakest: his friends, his family, those he has sworn to protect. Make him doubt his power to save them, and then his power to save himself. Get all Star Wars on his ass. Darth Vader never tries to kill Luke outright, and for good reason. Like a Jedi, a cleric doesn’t fail by losing his life. That’s not what defines him, and the forces of evil know that. A cleric fails only when he loses his *faith*.

    So yeah. That was way too long, but the bottom line is this: The problem with clerics is not a problem with rules. It’s just all about the attitude.

    1. Big McStrongmuscle, you are one of the most awesome defenders of the concept of a cleric as a kick-ass character that I’ve ever run across. Your rant (both versions) was inspiring and evocative, and has fired me up to play a cleric again. I haven’t played one since about 1993, mostly because nobody else had the same vision I have had of clerics as something Special; to most GMs and players, they’re basically people who can do a little fighting, wear a little armor, cast a little magic, and heal a whole lot.

      Given the right GM, I would love to play a cleric again, because I could cut loose and play one as the Gods intended: full of the fiery, righteous wrath of the Divine, both counselor in time of need and warrior of the faith in time of *real* need. I’d love to add you to my pool of GMs and players and just cut you right the fuck loose.

      I do actually have two GMs in my life right now who I think would be great for a campaign in which I played a cleric. I’ve just shied away because of the rest of the ass-weasels in the meantime who’d never consider letting a cleric off the leash. The real problem is mostly of GMs afraid to say anything but “no” when players want to do anything that isn’t strictly defined in the rules. Well, fuck that shit. I have one GM who entered my life four years ago that I think would be great, and another who re-entered it about a year ago who is, coincidentally, the last guy under whom I’ve enjoyed playing a cleric. It’s time for shit to get real, and I thank you for reminding me of the possibilities inherent in the class when the person running the game isn’t a grade-A pansy-ass.

      As you say, it is *on*.

      1. LOL, I hadn’t meant to post both, actually. I was having trouble with my connection. Couldn’t get the post to go through, and then I lost the post and had to rewrite it. Glad to hear they were helpful to someone. :-P

  6. You need more interesting gods. My most recent cleric was a devotee of the God of War AND Peace. She was a blast to play, because she took both sides of the dichotomy seriously. She would push the party to negotiate peaceful solutions that would make both sides better off whenever it could be done honorably, and deploy her full resources to defeat the enemies where no accommodation was possible. This was a 3.5ish campaign, and she mostly used her spells to buff the party at the beginning of combat with things like Mass Enlarge Person or Bull’s Strength, and then wade into the fight herself. Healing she’d take care of with wands or potions; she seldom was reduced to heal-bot or party medic.

  7. It’s all about attitude. Cleric is my favorite class, hands down. One 4e campaign I’m in, I’m playing a goliath cleric of Pelor who is also a pacifist (to a degree). I don’t think anyone is “reduced” to being a heal-bot — I’ve had an absolute blast making sure that no one ever dies (several times, they would have TPK’d without my help). I have no powers that actually do any damage to anything, I just have heals and saving-throw granting things and buffs for the party, and a bunch of really useful rituals. It is so much fun to have all the tools at my disposal that I do — if someone dies, it isn’t because I didn’t heal them, it’s because they were being stupid. If anyone ever blames the cleric for their own death, than they clearly have a skewed view of what happened.

  8. I hate clerics.

    I hate them almost as much as I hate elves.

    Drow clerics are the worst, because they worship bugs.

    If only wizards could cast healing spells, then we wouldn’t need whiny, self-righteous clerics or their damned gods with their organized religions and their tithes and their do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do morality.

    Of course they do have their uses. When undead show up, you can toss in the Cleric and shut the door and see just how much favor he has with his god.

    On the two occasions where I had to play a cleric I died. But before my character’s died I remember being really, really bored because I was useless in combat. Clerics are just no fun for me. I don’t mind of other folks play them or if I am a DM and they show up in my party. But man, I won’t ever willingly play a PC cleric again.

  9. Great replies, all. I thank you.

    @The Recursion King You’re right of course. The problem is that few of the standard D&D deities appeal to me from a PC perspective (much as I love them as DM plot hooks, but that’s a different thing entirely!). There’s The Raven Queen and Erathis, and that’s about it. I can see great potential in running a Cleric of either of those. Hmmmmmm. See, now you’ve got me thinking.

    @Tourq The thing is also that a Cleric is much less essential in 4e D&D than he was in any previous edition. PCs are made of tougher stuff in this edition and while a Cleric is still a very useful guy to have around, he’s certainly not the key party member he once was. I’ve run numerous Clericless sessions and not once have the heroes commented that he’s missed.

    @Big McStrongmuscle Welcome to my blog! You make great points in defence of the humble Cleric. Inspirational, in fact – especially about the divination element. Hadn’t thought of that. Ok, just maybe I’ll give them another chance. A divination Cleric of Erathis maybe. I can see this starting to take shape…..

    @Anarkeith Ditto for your comments. I think that the Cleric has been somewhat crowded out by the Warlord class in 4e (at least in our games) as the leader of men to whom the rest of the party defer, and maybe that’s a part of the problem – they’re just not respected for the divine authority they possess. Yet more food for thought.

    @Joshua “You need more interesting gods.” Lol! Quite so. That dichotomy that you’re talking about is the main problem I have with clerics. I’d much rather they be one thing or another. But that’s just me, I guess.

    @Kevin You’re exactly the kind of player I love to have at the table, even though it’s not something I’m able to play myself.

    @by_the_sword So no Drow Clerics for you then? #i can relate to this. Clerics and me just don’t get on when I’m the player.

    Thanks for all the great input, again!

  10. You know what i do like – the Bard and the Warlord. I like that they have some minor “heals” – which are nothing more than, Bard: “Come on heroes! you guys can take that guy!” and, (Warlord): “Get your ass in there and fight!” I can totally see getting a few hit points (surge of energy) after hearing that in a battle.


  11. I’ve had a problem with players. It’s seems that I’m just too liberal for them. I need players willing to use the Advanced d20 Magic rules set. :) I’m sick and tired of players who run away from simple add and subtract operations.

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