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The Problem of Clerics
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

Last week, I talked about the cleric class and how it’s changed over the years. Of all classes, the cleric has gained the most from edition to edition. And yet, the cleric has remained one of the least popular classes. Many players absolutely refuse to play one, yet most groups feel that someone has to be the cleric. Without the cleric’s healing magic, how else is the group going to recover from battles?

Nobody Want to Play Clerics… Except People Who Do

As D&D has moved from edition to edition, clerics probably gained more in order to encourage players to use them. After all, there’s no easier way to motivate players to pick an option than to make that option really, really good.

All that power, however, still doesn’t change the fact that—to many people—the cleric’s “job” is to heal the party. What good are powerful spells and a crushing mace if you spend round after round saving the fighter and rogue from death? It’s more fun to bash an orc or slay a dragon, rather than play the guy who kept the paladin alive long enough for him to defeat the monster.

4th Edition approached this problem by making healing something a cleric does in addition to casting a spell or attacking a monster. However, that still puts restrictions on a cleric’s tactics and options. For instance, a cleric has to keep close to an injured character and avoid taking too many risks, lest the party lose its access to healing.

This design approach begs the question of whether anyone even wants to play the cleric.

The truth is that there are people who enjoy playing a support role. They don’t need a class that’s more powerful than normal or other trinkets to convince them to give that class a try. They’re happy to serve as the supporting element, content in knowing that the group’s success is what’s important, not any specific individual’s.

The perception (and frankly, the reality), however, is that someone has to play the healer. If your group happens to have someone who likes a support role, then you have a cleric. Otherwise, you’re stuck either bending the game to account for the lack of healing or forcing a player into a role they don’t want.

4th Edition took another route, by creating more classes with easy access to healing. The bard, shaman, rune priest, and others can match a cleric in healing, or at least come close enough that the party doesn’t feel too threatened.

Why Do We Need Healing?

The cleric issue is, in my opinion, an example of attacking a symptom rather than a root cause. The party needs healing, only the cleric can provide it, therefore someone must play a character they might otherwise prefer to avoid. The simplest, though perhaps most difficult, solution is to make healing no longer mandatory.

Such a change would require a substantial examination of almost every facet of the game. Something like 4E’s second wind starts to point in a direction you could go, but you’d also have to look at monster damage, character attacks and spells, and the structure of a typical adventure. On top of that, you still have to figure out how healing fits into the game. There are people who like playing the cleric, and simply removing the class or its healing would anger the very players the class made happy.

The key to this change lies in making healing optional, so that players can embrace whatever role or class they like best. You want groups without any cleric-leaning players to be happy, and you want people who love the concept behind the cleric to still have an option they enjoy.

Oddly enough, one way to make healing optional might lie in figuring out how other classes account for it. For instance, you could imagine a world where a party without healing might kill monsters faster and thus take less damage. The opposite could also be true, where a party that replaces a healer with a fighter might be more durable, have better defenses, and thus could survive for a longer period of time.

This approach can yield some interesting dividends, but it also ignores one of the biggest benefits of healing. Healing is one of the best ways to deal with bad luck. If the DM lands a few crits in a row, or the rogue blows a skill checks and falls victim to a trap, a heal spell is a magic bad luck-eraser. It takes those bad breaks and makes their repercussions disappear. The psychology of that safety net is a powerful tool in the game, one that’s difficult to replace with higher defenses or a better offense. Both of those options are vulnerable to the cruel winds of fate that forever guide our d20 rolls.

Making healing potions and similar readily available items can mitigate this problem, but this calls into question the point of clerics. Does it feel fun and exciting to be the support guy if you know that the party can just replace you for a few hundred gold pieces? A party without a fighter can’t simply buy their way out of trouble—and while you could argue that the smart cleric also stocks up on potions and then uses his or her spells for attacks, that also flies in the face of an option for players who want and enjoy a supporting role.

Making healing an optional resource is a tricky proposition, one that offers many obvious routes that conceal follow-up problems. However, solving this issue would go a long way toward creating a game where players are free to create the characters they want.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 04/26/2011

What do you do?

  • Search the statues: 70.0%
  • Search the western wall: 25.7%
  • Head south: 4.3%

Poll Time

The statues show a level of expertise in their creation that is disconcertingly lifelike. Their details are expertly carved, and all three show expressions of fear and terror. Investigating the lantern, you find that it is easily removed from the statue's hand. Doing so causes it to spring to life, shedding a dull, white radiance.

With some experimenting, you find that the lantern's light changes color based on your position in the room. It glows a sickly grey when you bring it near the western wall, a light green when carried to the north, and remains a clear white when brought to the southern or eastern ends of the chamber.

What do you do?
Search the western wall.
Head south.
Return to the northern intersection and head north.
Return to the northern intersection and leave the dungeon.
Return to the northern intersection and head west.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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