Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Broken Faith: Why the Cleric is Flawed by Design

The optimal adventuring party is composed of a Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric. You could also read that as the optimal adventuring party is composed of a Tank, Skill Monkey, Mage, and Healer, as plenty of classes fill those same roles without leading to a "sub-optimal" party with one exception. While you can easily swap a Barbarian for a Fighter, a Ranger for a Rogue, a Sorcerer for a Wizard, it's hard to find any other class that does what the Cleric does just as well, and that's a problem.

The first issue is that it means one among your group needs to play a Cleric if you are going to have any chance of surviving. Healing in D&D tends to come from magical sources (see: Cleric's spells) most of the time. RPGs should never force the players into a corner in terms of character options as the entire point of tabletops games is to offer player choice in ways that video games and board games cannot. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the Cleric's other abilities weren't competing for those same spell slots. They have access to some great buff spells and, at higher levels, some powerful offensive spells, but will find few opportunities to use them.

Beyond their spells, Clerics do not have much in the way of utility. Their martial skill is generally adequate, but, due to their role as party healer, they will not want to be on the front lines. Their ability to Turn or Rebuke is nice, but it only affects one type of enemy. Clerics are not generally known for having many skills, and the unique ones they possess are likely to be knowledge skills, which are of varying and situational use.

And then there's the business of keeping your god happy. This is the part of the character that appeals to me as a player, that you have a direct, if somewhat vague relationship to a deity of some sort. The problem with this is that it's tied to the terrible alignment system, and is almost always punitive in nature. If you deviate from your path, you may be stripped of powers. What happens if you're exceptionally devout? Usually nothing. I think the struggle to maintain one's faith would be a great campaign, but that is likely only to appeal to one of the four characters in the party.

I've moved away from more traditional games in the past few months, and this kind of bad design is why. The Cleric is essential to making the game function well, but no one wants to play it. Being your party's healer is a thankless job (which is great gristle for RP purposes), but, more importantly, it's not fun, which is really the point, isn't it?


  1. I must disagree. There is no "there MUST BE a Cleric in the party". That is a mind-set, that is an option -- but it doesn't have to be that way.

    Tons of fiction do not feature a medic, healer, Cleric or whatever-you-want-to-call-them, running side by side with the hero or heroes, patching them up. In fact, I can't think of any fiction I'm familiar with that DOES have such a thing.

    Not all that long ago, I ran a campaign for two-and-a-half years with no Cleric in the party (the closest thing was having one Paladin). I've played many, many one-off or two-parter type games with no Cleric. Play may or may not be different than when there *is* a Cleric present -- but the game is by no means harmed by it, if you are adaptable.

    I've seen plenty of Clerics on the front line, too.

    1. ...I could also say, that maybe you should examine if it is the *mind-set* of "Cleric=healer" that makes for a "broken class"...

    2. I'm not talking about the Fiction though, I'm talking about actual play. I don't own Pathfinder or 3.5 anymore, but I do remember reading that the book assumed you had a Cleric (or someone with access to regular healing). That's a design problem, because, despite the fiction, you do need someone to provide the means of recovery.

      I don't think I'm making any logical leaps in asserting that the Cleric fills a Healing role, especially in the "optimal" party.

    3. The Cleric can heal. That doesn't have to be the definition of the Cleric.

      And I *don't* remember the core rules of any edition I've played assuming that you'd always have a Cleric in the party. Many published adventures assume a "well-rounded party", but then, that's the nature of a published adventure -- appeal to as many situations as possible (if I publish an adventure for a campaign that only has Fighters in it, I can't expect many sales).

      Cleric as Healer, as a concept or mind-set, is restricting. If the style of play dictates that without a Cleric to heal everyone, the party is hosed, that is restricting. But it just may be that the style of play is what is broken, not the concept (nor design) of the Cleric.

      I'm talking about actual play. I'm talking about games I've played in or run myself. I'm talking about Clerics I've played myself. I'm talking about about 12 years of gaming before I'd ever heard the concept of "Cleric = healbot" (which sounded *really* strange at the time). I'm talking about bumping into that "healbot" concept more and more over the years.

      I'm talking about the *perception* stifling that character class, not the design. That healbot concept is a straight-jacket, and I'm trying to slip your mental Houdini the key...

    4. From the AD&D PHB, Page 20:

      "A study of the spells usable by clerics. . .will convey the main purpose of the cleric. That is, a Cleric serves to fortify, protect, and revitalize."

      From the 3.5 PHB, page 30:

      "Clerics are masters of divine magic, which is especially good at healing."

      From the 3.5 PHB, page 31:

      "Role: The cleric serves as a typical group's primary healer."

      From the 4E PHB, Page 60:

      "Role: Leader. You lead by shielding allies with your prayers, healing, and using powers that improve your allies attacks."

      The books pretty clearly outline that cleric is meant to heal (among other things).

      The fact that you're arguing for a shift in play style to accommodate the lack of a Cleric speaks to one its main benefits: the ability to recover. From the 3.5 DMG, under the section "Difficulty Factors":

      "Multiple combat encounters are more difficult to survive without a Cleric in the party"


      "The Bard and the Cleric make good group support characters. Their presence makes practically every encounter easier".

      (The Bard offers much of the same benefit of Clerics, healing and buffs).

    5. Should I reply? Interested in one?