Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Playing Clerics Wrong All These Years?

Live and learn, that's what I say.

I have never been a great fan of clerics.  In fact, arguably I am no great of fan of clerics or magic-users, and I must admit that to this day I don't know how to play those character types well.  But to be honest, I have known very few clerics, on either side of the gaming table; most of the people I played with growing up had preferences for fighters, thieves and magic-users, so even cleric NPCs were rare.  I guess clerics were kind of seen as boring healer-types -- in no small part because my early gaming groups rarely bothered with substantively addressing the issue of gods in the game-world.  I think I played many years in the hobby in fairly atheistic gaming groups, so there just weren't many clerics around because none of us found the concept of gods or divine power very compelling.  Adding to this was the fact that we were all heavily influenced by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, so we all wanted to be Strider (rangers) or Gandalf (magic-users).  I knew a few guys who were really into playing druids, especially as I got a bit older, but it is not until very recently (this year) that I have really began to look carefully at clerics and realize how BADASS they are.

I owe my newfound admiration for clerics to one of the players in my current campaign, who is playing Innominus the cleric.  In what turned out to be a very humbling and educational exchange for me, Innominus' player emailed me recently to ask a couple questions about how cleric spell acquisition works:

What's the deal with spells? I've always assumed (though I never really played a cleric before, because I mistakenly viewed them as too priestly and therefore uninteresting) that e.g., the first level cleric selects one first level spell and that's the one spell they know, period. They pray to have use of it one time each day. In contrast to elves and MU, they don't need a spellbook, etc. But the wording of the [Labyrinth Lord] basic edition (p. 19) is maybe vague enough to leave room for me to overthink this:

"Clerics do not study spells from books, but instead receive the knowledge of how to cast specific spells through prayer to their gods. For this reason, clerics have access to all clerical spells they are capable of casting when they pray for spells."

So does 'all the clerical spells they are capable of casting' mean that one spell as I had been thinking of it (in the case of Innominus,
Cure Light Wounds), or does that mean any of the 8 first level spells can be prayed for since Cleric-1 is capable in the abstract of casting any first level spell?

I dashed the player off a quick email response, saying that I

have tended to limit clerics to "knowing" one spell, so they pray for that same one back etc. and do not know a second one until they level up or get a scroll or whatever (I *think* AD&D set this in stone so that's probably where I got it from -- I will check my Player's Handbook for this). However, many DMs -- and note that I could easily be persuaded to play it this way -- interpret that passage you quote to mean that a cleric may pray for a different spell or spells every day, i.e., any of the any of the 8 first level spells that can be prayed for. Some refs. even add a twist to this and make the cleric roll *randomly* for his/her spell(s) each new day!

But then I read my Player's Handbook, and then went back once again to the Labyrinth Lord rulebook and read the spell acquisition passage very carefully, and realized that I HAVE BEEN WRONG ABOUT HOW CLERICAL SPELL ACQUISITION WORKS ALL THESE YEARS.  I think my early disinterest in clerics and personal tendency to avoid wizards and clerics has led me to assume that those two classes work more similarly to each other than they in fact do.  In my mind I overlaid the M-U spell restrictions (i.e., only the specific spells you memorize are castable) upon clerics, which is not how it reads in Holmes nor the AD&D PH!  I completely made this up, because of course clerics (in Holmes onward anyway) get access to all the spells they are capable of casting via divine caveat -- each day (or perhaps each adventure as per Holmes -- though that may also mean the same thing as "day") the cleric prays for an new spell or spells!  Combine this with their potent undead-turning abilities and now I see that CLERICS ARE BADASS!  And now I feel silly for not understanding them and for grossly overlooking their greatness all these years.


  1. ...

    Yeah man, that means at first level they can either heal 1d8 points of damage OR detect magic OR, I dunno, create water, or any of the other really boring crap that clerics have.

    Since a cleric's list of available spells is, in every "classic" edition of D&D I've seen, significantly shorter and far crappier than the Wizard's spell list, it only makes sense. It doesn't make them "badass", it just makes their low level spell selection suck a bit less than it could...

  2. Yep, that's right! My group never actually played it that way back in the day, but that's how it should work. This is the way I run it now, and I do think it makes clerics a little more interesting.

  3. Yeah, it underscores the differing source of clerical "magic"--for all the relatively limited application of clerical "spells" (and really you could as easily call them "miracles"), the flexibility is helpful.

  4. @Dan: So how DID you play it back in the day? The same way that Carter described his original take?

    FWIW, I've always viewed clerics as more or less Jedi-type guys with the ability to fight and use cool powers, not some mobile medical kit like so many others see them.

  5. I like this way of doing things (I don't think OD&D ever made it clear), but I also like the B/X & OD&D rule of zero cleric spells at 1st level. Makes those clerics have to work and prove their faith a bit before being granted the ability to work miracles, you know?

  6. I always liked that too, ze bulette.

  7. @Kilgore, yeah we used to treat clerics exactly like m-u when it came to acquiring and studying spells.

  8. @Badelaire: Yes, you're right, "badass" may not be the best word, at least not in terms of raw power. But "interesting" is a great word, or "versatile."

    I have never played with the zero-spells-at-first-level model from OD&D and B/X: I started with Holmes and went straight to AD&D.

  9. FWIW, Holmes had a zero spells at Cleric 1st level too.

  10. @Carter,

    Wasn't trying to poke fun at you too hard, dude. I'll definitely agree with interesting and versatile. I just wish so many of those classic Cleric spells weren't quite so situation-specific.

  11. Incidentally, we never played that clerics had a "spells known" list. Until now.

    We're once again trying a no-pre-memorization-required casting system, meaning that casters can use any spell that they "know". Since the presumption is that clerics "know" all the available spells, we're restricting them to a list similar to a magic-user's spellbook.

  12. We always ran cleric as having access to all the spells on the list.

    It still never made them very popular.

  13. One way to make Clerics more interesting is to let them be spontaneous casters. That's how they roll in a 1e/2e game I'm in right now. This lets them really take advantage of their versatility, and actually can make simulationist sense.

    Say that in the morning, instead of "praying for spells", the cleric actually is dedicating himself to the worship of his god. In return, the deity grants some number of prayers throughout the day, as the cleric asks. It makes more sense that the god who favors his worshipper will not begrudge creating water for his follower just because cure light wounds was memorized, instead.

    At first glance, it might seem like this makes clerics TOO powerful, but so much of their bailiwick is concerned with supporting the party as a whole, I don't think other players will have a problem with getting that cure light spell when they desperately need it.