Core Concept: It would be difficult to argue that the cleric doesn’t have a place in a game descended from D&D. Even if you go all the way back to the beginning, to the three little brown books which started it all, the cleric was there. When the thief class was naught but a gleam in Gygax’ eye, the cleric was one of only three classes available, along with the fighting man and the magic user. It’s hard to have a better gaming pedigree than ‘has existed as long as the game.’
That’s not to say that the cleric is necessary. Of the three original classes, the cleric is easily the least memorable. In a game about fantasy adventures, you need the person who swings the sword, so you can’t get rid of fighting men (or women. But we can cut Gygax some slack on that, as he was raised in olden times). And when I think of characters in fantasy who wield magic, my first thought is of wizards, not religious types. Even thieves, introduced in a supplement though they were, are more distinct and memorable than clerics are.
I’m not advocating we be rid of clerics. I like them just fine. But of the 4 most fundamental classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard), cleric is the one which needs the most work. I’m not sure what that work would entail, and figuring out what needs to be done is beyond the scope of this post. But were I to make an iteration of D&D, I think that game would feature much more distinct clerics.
Aura: This hardly counts as a class feature, really. Clerics of a god have a strong aura of that god’s alignment, which is, ostensibly, the cleric’s alignment as well. Though not necessarily, I suppose. This doesn’t seem very important to mention, but since it’s here I suppose I’ll give it my approval.
Spells: Pathfinder uses a single spellcasting system which remains consistent for each class, with only minor modifications. This has some important benefits, such as making the game as a whole easier to understand. It provides continuity between different classes, and prevents players from needing to spend excessive time learning new mechanics.
That said, I would rather see the game incorporate multiple types of spellcasting. Let the wizards keep vancian magic. It’s better suited to them anyway. Clerics, I think, should have an entirely different kind of magic.
Perhaps instead of a lengthy spell list which clerics prepare from each day, they could have a much more limited spell list. Only 1-3 new spells per level. And most of the spells have a much longer cast time, enough so that they can’t be used in combat. “Cure Light Wounds” is a 10 minute ritual spell which requires a lot of praying (and perhaps a random encounter check while the rest of the party stands guard over their injured companion).
In combat, clerics would have a number of spells which focus primarily on bestowing small blessings or curses. Each of these would have a short enough duration to keep the cleric on their toes. On the first round of combat they give the fighter a +1 to her attack rolls. On the next round, they run over to shield the magic user from incoming arrows–which leaves the fighter without their attack bonus.
In exchange for the reduced effectiveness of their spell list, clerics would be able to cast any of their spells at any time. No memorization, no limits. An instrument of the gods will does not tire! (I suppose some limitation might be called for to prevent over use of healing. Perhaps magical healing causes grogginess, causing a cumulative penalty on some of the player’s rolls for a few hours? I’m just tossing ideas out here.)
Channeled Energy: I’ve always thought turn undead was kind of a dumb ability. Why should clerics, alone among all the classes, have a primary ability which only works against a certain type of enemy? In most campaigns it’s alright, because undead are a relatively common type of foe. But what if the GM doesn’t want them to be? When playing most versions of D&D, I can’t simply decide to run a campaign with no undead in it, because that would severely gimp the clerical class.
Replacing turn undead with channeled energy is one of Pathfinder’s best innovations. It’s simple to understand (Cha + 3 times per day I can pump out xd6 of either positive or negative energy into a 30ft radius. Simple!), and is fits within the flavor of the clerical class. I also like how feats can be used to focus the channeled energy in different ways–such as into an optional ‘turn undead’ ability.
Domains: I never liked domains in 3.5, and I like them only slightly more in Pathfinder. They’re just too fiddly, with too little reward. Who really needs +1 spell slot each level which can only be filled with a domain spell? It just seems like a needless complication to me. I will say that domain powers are pretty cool, though. I like the idea that clerics will have different powers, based on the god they worship. But perhaps instead of domains, these different powers could simply be granted to the cleric directly from the god the cleric worships? This would have a twofold benefit: it would reduce the number of decisions a player needs to make (which god, then which of those god’s domains to pick from). It would also make the cleric’s actual religion much more important to gameplay, which is good. Too many players would just as soon be “generic cleric of vaguely [blank] alignment,” which doesn’t work for me at all.
Orsions: I see what they were trying to do here. The thinking is that magic using classes need to use magic, ergo it is bad if those magic using classes are in a situation where they have no magic to use. But they’re wrong, because running out of magic is part of the fun of being a magic using class. Managing your resources so that you don’t run out of spells at an inopportune time, as well as figuring out what to do when poor planning means you run out anyway, is part of the challenge of playing a magic user.
Of course, level 0 spells are pretty minimal in power, so clerics will still want to manage their spellcasting resource. All the same, I’d prefer to play a game where being out of magic for the day actually meant you were completely out of magic for the day.
Spontaneous Casting: Channeled Energy makes this ability redundant. As such, it only serves to confuse the game by introducing meaningless options. It ought to be removed.