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RPG History: The Cleric Class

Happy November, fellow clerics or otherwise! Last month, I wrote an article about the origins of Ravenloft and its creators, who also made another little campaign setting called Dragonlance. I also alluded that the drama behind that little legend had enough juiciness to put even the rarest of steaks to shame…

Meat cleric. That is all.
I mean it looks good, but did it blow company money on a platoon of company cars before sacking one of its founders?

So, naturally, we won’t be covering it just yet. For reasons outside of my sick desire to cause misery in an already miserable world, of course. And is November not the season of special meals?

…Well, okay, and grown adults screaming at TVs like children. And grown adults screaming at store workers over turkeys and smoked salmon platters like children. Or screaming at the dinner table because that one aunt/uncle brought up something they saw on Facebook and- Okay, look, I was going to try to loop around to the cleric class via something about dinner prayers, but…Yeah, Thanksgiving actually bites.

Anyway, this was originally going to be a look at the history of Dungeons and Dragons character classes. However, as it turns out, the history of classes in general is an absolute unit of a subject. An article wouldn’t have properly covered all the interesting nooks and fascinating crannies; which is a phrase I didn’t expect to say today. (And also, the ensuing article would’ve made War and Peace look like a nutrition label.)

So, expect an article on a class-by-class basis. And due to my personal bias, let’s jump right into the cleric class.

Fighting-Men & Magic-Users

Thinking about the very first run of Dungeon and Dragons is enough summon the smells of musty basements. Oh, and images of topless amazon women. (Which is, of course, the closest thing 1e had to strong female characters.) But as you can imagine, 1e had as many bells and whistles as the world’s most depressing clownmobile.

NO. NOT because it's pink.
I can only assume that this car belongs to Amy Schumer.

In the very first iteration of Dungeons and Dragons (working name Men & Magic) had three choices for character classes: Cleric, Magic-User, and, the best named one of them all, Fighting Man. These three, of course, making up the DNA to the classes we all know and spend a solid two hours building a character around while the DM’s eyes glaze over.

At first glance, it would be easy to assume that clerics were the same healers we know today. Prepare to be surprised.

Let me ask you something, fellow clerics in the audience: have you ever wondered why we have an ability that effects undead specifically, regardless of the domain we choose? Well, it’s because the cleric class was less about healing idiots who try to disarm traps with their faces, and more about turning vampires to dust.

Oh, and summoning biblical-styled plagues and bashing enemies on the noggin with blunt objects. Definitely a far cry from healing the party’s barbarian after he tried charging a Gelatinous Cube for the fifth time.

Raising Hellsing

When 1e was first released, three supplements followed, one of which being the game’s first setting– Blackmoor. Written by D&D co-creator Dave Arneson (who has an…interesting history with the game), Blackmoor was a testing grounds of sorts for D&D. And one of the threats running around was Sir Fang, a vampire inspired by the Hammer Horror run of Dracula.

But man, if there was a death battle between the two...
I was gonna make a “We have Curse of Strahd at home” meme joke, but it’s scientifically impossible for anyone to even imply that Christopher Lee isn’t one of the Gods of Coolness.

Much of the cleric’s origins can be traced back to one of the playtesters- TSR editor Mike Carr- and the character he designed for the campaign. According to Carr, his character wasn’t initially too robust, having only a few spells at the time. (Didn’t help that his interest laid more in historical games, rather than fantasy.) But then along came Sir Fang, a villainous vampire character run by playtester David Fant. (AKA “David Fang” or “David Want,” because my autocorrect thinks it knows better.) Fang also revealed what an unbalanced mess this iteration of D&D, due to his sheer audacity to not die.

Wanting to rebalance this issue, they opted to design a vampire hunter character. (Allegedly taking inspiration from Peter Cushing’s Van Hellsing, opposite of Christopher Lee.) Ultimately, the need to heal and cure disease lead to that becoming the cleric class.

Questionable Investigation Skillchecks

Gygax and co built on the cleric archetype from there, taking notions from historical recounts of holy folks.

Or rather, “historical” recounts, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Seriously, though. CanNOT watch "Idiocracy" anymore without getting depressed.
But I will say that this is the sort of “historical” I’m implying. (Also, bonus points if you know which movie this is.)

Almost from the get-go, Gygax decided that clerics should only use blunt objects in battle. More specifically, a mace, such as the one wielded by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who TSR folks had apparently mistaken for Archbishop Tilpin. Things you won’t be tested on aside, this design choice had roots in the general idea that monks didn’t shed blood during the Middle Ages. Which, erm, wasn’t true. (Like, by a lot.)

Interestingly enough, the whole plague-summoning thing clerics rock actually has origins in Hebrew/early-Christian lore. Mostly owning to a cleric’s devotion to a singular god and the whole ten plagues-styled magical attacks. (And what was that about D&D being anti-religious?)

Spheres of Influence

Cleric domains didn’t come into play until Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, specialty clerics first appearing in Dragonlance Adventures. However AD&D 2e is when things started to really kick it up a notch. Clerics could pick a specific dogma, and by extension a specific sphere of spells to pick from.

Spheres were porto-domains of sorts, dealing with specific types of spells such as summoning or weather. The idea was that this allowed players to better flavor their character by relating to a specific god they chose. Furthermore, a cleric could actually have access to more than one sphere depending on their deity’s schtick. For example, a healing god can grant unlimited access to the healing sphere and limited access to the divination sphere, but offensive spells would be off limits. Also, power levels were apparently a thing, greater gods allowing up to 7th level spells, while demi-god worshipers could only hope for 4th level spells.

I like to think that Lyle Rath would be a war or tempest cleric. Unless WotC invents a shouting domain.
What do you mean “what kinda god is this?” Clearly he’s a demi-god related to the charm sphere, with partial access to healing.

Unfortunately, its was about as balanced as a seesaw in a tornado. For example, the summoning sphere didn’t have any spells below 4th level, meaning that a cleric of lower level could only hope to summon the nearest rock to throw at an enemy. And also, obviously, it was confusing as heck.

Which is around the time 3e rolled around with the much more simplified domains. (In addition to now-extinct domains such as animal and strength.) However, it’s in 3e that alignment comes into play. For example, with spellcasting. Good and neutral clerics can cast spells they haven’t prepared ahead of time, while evil clerics can only do this with spells that have the word “inflict” in it. Morally-neutral clerics have free reign to pick whatever spell they want to cast. (As if problem players needed more reason to claim chaotic neutrality…) In addition, a 3e cleric could forget casting spells opposite of their domain. And if they go against their deity’s ways, they would be stripped of their powers entirely. (Funnily enough, a cleric could actually pick two domains if they weren’t dedicated to a specific god.)

So, yeah. A lot of rules and regulations within 3e clergy. Which 4e decided to patch up by…only giving clerics two subclasses to pick from. Battle Clerics were more about melee and strength, while Warpriests were your spell snipers. (Granted, you had paragon paths as well.) 4e clerics could still channel divinity, but also saw more of a focus on healing/protection/support. Far less emphasis on domains…

Until 5e, of course. Domains made a comeback, while keeping things such as the Turn/Destroy Undead and Channel Divinity features. Not perfect, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have liked to see the immense customization or forgotten domains from back in the day. But I’m happy to play my trickery cleric that can also summon ash moths and fire pillars any day.

Let Us Close With A Prayer

So, there you have it. The cleric class was one of the original three D&D classes, and went from being an anti-vampire countermeasure, to a confusing bureaucratic monstrosity, to me playing a porcelain doll monster girl who prays to the gender fluid god of tomb raiding and illusions. And as we dine on the two good dishes that aren’t overcooked (because someone was watching the game instead of the oven like they were nicely asked to), let us be thankful for the holy warriors we can play as…

And, of course, also wonder how Uncle Walter genuinely thinks 5G and mutated frogs are related to each other.

About the Author
Went to film school instead of real college. Writes stuff, animates things, and programs whatchacallits. Currently playing a rogue/cleric (trickery) warforged that's basically a life-sized Victorian porcelain horror doll. You can find more of her stuff at kerahildebrandt.com, including D&D modules/such!

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