Sunday 20 October 2013

Kicking the Cleric Out of the Niche

Here and here are Talysman's posts where he hates "niche protection." It's a question of who-can-do-what in a role-playing game. I agree that the rules should be based on a view of what characters can do that has its own integrity, not manufactured to create some outcome at the player level.

And yet - especially when it comes to magic - there's such a variety of plausible ways of doing things that we can't help but choose among systems. In that case, why not choose wisely? As I argued a while ago, a good game will strike a balance between making a given skill set useful while not making it strictly necessary.

One example: the cleric. Many experienced players, depending on their D&D-like system, consider the cleric to be an indispensable member of the group. Let's look at the most extreme version of this, in AD&D, where it is easy to get a cleric who starts with two first level spells(1 bonus spell due to 15+ wisdom), almost always Cure Light Wounds.

So you get a slightly less effective fighter with one less hit point on average, worse attack and limited weapons, BUT:

Average HP restored from those two Cure Light Wounds: 9
Average HP of a first level fighter: 5.5

That's right, a character who not only fights in their own right, not only turns undead and can do miscellaneous other things with spells, but provides a force multiplier in the course of play (assuming damage is not taken in huge lots) equal to almost two fighters.

The decision in OD&D and B/X to not give clerics ANY spells until 2nd level in hindsight seems reasonable, although Labyrinth Lord climbs down from this with 1 spell at 1st level and so on. Even without bonus spells this is still a pretty nice force multiplier, that lags behind the fighter's hit dice at middle levels but perks up with the ability to cure serious wounds and raise dead at higher. The choice, still, is not ideal; between a game where clerics have to prove their gumption by spending their first level as a sucky fighter who can turn undead, and a game where clerics are seen as mandatory to the point where people will play them even though they don't really want to.

I've seen first-hand in my gaming group the dismay with which players face the prospect of adventuring without a cleric (my 52 pages version has a healing power that likewise is a pretty big force multiplier). The obvious fix is to do what I did with wizards to stop the "sleep/magic missile" fixation; allow only one example of each spell to be cast a day. Because my system lets spells become available at every character level, I could even give a very minor healing spell at cleric character level 1 and the Cure Light Wounds equivalent only at cleric character level 2.

This might be the last major change to the 52 Pages, but I think it achieves the goal of letting clerics feel useful at Level 1, but not indispensable at higher levels. Hell, I might even give them their at-will turning back.


  1. The "we need to have a cleric" thing is another one of these things that I've never once actually seen in play, either during my 10+ years of 2E play, or during my time since 2011, making me think that it is an artifact primarily of the 3E time.

  2. I never encountered the "Sigh, I'll be the cleric" mentality but saw the need for it in 3E. Given the number of melee heavy parties I've run they are quickly thrashed in early levels and that CLW force multiplier can go a long way. In AD&D we always had a cleric (willingly thanks to Kits) but if we didn't an NPC sidekick was always available. Rather than niche protection I prefer to have the cleric fun to play on their own rather than cornered as a mandatory heal bot.

    If killing sacred cows are on the table then I vastly prefer to let the Paladin be the only source of divine immediate healing and show cure spells the door. In contrast a Cleric in the party allows for better healing in-between combats. You can't be overly reliant on clerical healing if there isn't any. That said I do like your distinction between HP and Miracles in the 52 Rules.