An Apology for Clerics

I’ve seen this around the ‘net before. I’ve had this discussion many times. The ideas are persistent, pervasive and downright insidious. And in each and every case, they are dead fucking wrong. They are based on laziness, pure and simple.

So let’s not be lazy.

1) D&D has always had clerics.

Yes, this is a shitty reason for keeping clerics. No aspect of the game should be held onto simply because it’s a sacred cow. That being said, it’s important to note the historical roots of the class if only because…

2) The players expect clerics.

Again, not the best reason in the world, but players are accustomed to having the cleric as an option. Sit down with a new player – one who is new to your game but not the game – and there’s going to be preconceived notions about how things operate. If you want to buck the status quo, you have to be prepared to offer a valid reason for the difference. Especially since…

3) The game needs clerics.

Yes, you read that right: D&D needs clerics. More specifically, the game needs the powers and abilities that a cleric brings to the table. The first and foremost of these is the ability to heal. The game has always been rather harsh on natural healing (and it should be, considering how difficult it is to recover from damage in real life). Clerical healing gives the players an option that helps keep the fight going.

More than that, clerics are the moderators, the mediators, the social characters, the politicians and lawyers and leaders of the community: they are the foundation that holds a group together.

Seriously, have you ever thought about where the cleric comes from? And I don’t mean those fucking “references” from Appendix N (besides, there’s a rather significant lack of cleric-like figures in fantasy literature). I’m talking about the real world for a moment. If we strip away the magic – because real priests don’t have spells – clerics are little more than priests operating within a structured religion. Structured religions arose from two driving forces: 1) our need, as a species, to understand the world around us and 2) our need to organize into larger groups. Religion helps with both these needs: it gives us an answer to our questions (whether the answer is right or wrong is immaterial) and it gives us individuals who are skilled at managing people.

Now, certainly, we may argue that any of the other core classes have a need to manage people and can, therefore, fill that need within a society at large. Fighters are warriors and it’s the older, more experienced fighters that are often leaders in war. If you’re going to fight a war effectively, you need to organize and mange your troops. Similarly, thieves have a need to organize and manage people toward one or more goals, often with the acquisition of wealth or power in mind. Even wizards can do more with a team of skilled artisans, scribes or collectors. But it is the cleric that best represents the real world analogue of a skilled manager with a vested interest in the survival and success of an entire town/city/nation.

4) The reasons for not having them are lazy.

This will require another list…

  1. Clerical healing is too powerful.
  2. Clerics do nothing else except heal.
  3. In games where clerics can do more than heal, their powers are unbalanced.
  4. The proliferation of pantheons in the game encourages special, unique clerics for each god, which requires special, unique abilities for each cleric.
  5. Clerics require gods and gods encourage alignment, which sucks.

I won’t be able to address all of these issues in this one post, but I will address them all in due time.

The last one, the argument for ridding the game of gods (and therefore, clerics) because alignment is a pain in the a$$, is just plain stupid. If you’re having such a hard time dealing with alignment – and to be fair (a rare thing, so don’t get used to it), alignment can really suck the life out of a game – just get rid of alignment. It’s not hard to do. Change a handful of spells/abilities so that they don’t deal directly with alignment, and you’re done. For example, instead of detect evil you can have detect malevolence. There, simple. No need for alignment and you didn’t have to gut the entire game of a quarter of its rules.

I’ll skip back to the first reason for getting rid of clerics: that their healing is too powerful. This often shows up in discussions about the impact of magic on the world.

Yeah, I’m not sure how to properly address this other than to say… if you believe these arguments, you’re a fucking moron.

The player character classes are meant to be used as written: by player characters. Yes, a DM can (and probably should) use these classes for NPCs, but they are not standard representations of the general public. They are specialists. They are experts. They are the heroes and villains of the world. Each requires special training, which takes time and resources that your average denizen does not have access to. Yet in all the arguments I’ve heard, it’s assumed that everyone in the world has an equal chance of being a member of the elite. So the assumption is that magic is far more common than it really should be. This is the result of lazy thinking and people need to just stop.

Further, these arguments assume that simply because something exists, it must exist despite the cost involved. I’m not talking about the literal cost of casting a spell. I’m talking about the investment of time. Whenever a cleric casts a spell, she has to give up some of her time to get that spell back. She also has to give up the opportunity to use that spell for other clerical effects. Instead of casting animal friendship or charm person, she casts cure light wounds. Then she has to wait until the next day and she has to devote a portion of her day to prayer in order to get that spell slot back.

Now, just in case I’ve lost you, let me remind you that we’re talking about NPCs. See, these arguments – that clerical healing is too powerful and inevitably results in a sort of “free healthcare system” where no one dies, ever, because there’s so much healing available – these arguments ignore the fact that there’s no incentive for a given NPC to heal someone. None. At all. NPCs are not one-dimensional entities that exist for the sole purpose of a single task – especially one assigned by some random chum-guzzling internet troll. They are supposed to be people, in their own rights, who live and die in a fantasy world in order to make that world seem more real to the players. So even if your fantasy world has enough clerics – of any level or power – that you could provide one to every single household, there’s still the problem of motivation. Why should a cleric dedicate herself to just healing people all the time? What if she seeks out evil and destroys it before it can hurt anyone? Wouldn’t that be a more effective approach to healing, to end suffering before it can start?

Really people, it’s the 21st century and critical thinking has been around since the dawn of our species. Just try it once; I promise you’ll like it.

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