Pathfinder Class Analysis 3: Cleric

Paizo's Iconic Cleric
Paizo’s Iconic Cleric

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.

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18 thoughts on “Pathfinder Class Analysis 3: Cleric”

  1. 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).

    I like this a lot. Ritual versus immediate makes a nice distinction, and has some game benefits too (like the time cost you mention). Maybe an escalating time cost for something like healing based on number of times per day per target? For example, first time a character is healed: 1 turn, second time: 2 turns, etc. Theoretically unlimited, but not practically so. Would be a good alternative to some other form of “healing surge” type mechanic (or proliferation of healing potions, whatever).

    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?

    Turning undead, for me, is actually more core to the cleric class than spell casting. However, I do conceive of it rather broadly, as an ability to combat the forces inimical to the cleric’s patron or faith. For the traditional cleric, being a demon/vampire hunter, this is undead, but it could easily be something else, to fit in to the specific faith or campaign. ACKS, for example, calls this ability “turn unholy” (man is that an awkward term) which is a little better than turn undead in terms of generality but misses the bigger picture. Note also that the trad cleric gets turn undead at first level but needs to wait until second level to start casting spells.

    Channeled energy seems to be a reasonable game system, but the atmosphere of the name doesn’t work for me. It feels too mechanical or even scientific, as opposed to reflecting the fickle power of some powerful entity. In my head I picture the cleric sucking in “power juice” from the air around and then blasting it out at enemies, like Mega Man powering up his arm blaster.

    … domains …

    Why bother with both god and domain? Does that mean, for example, that someone could be a cleric of Thor [lighting] or a cleric of Thor [strength]? Does that extra complication add much? Seems like the choice of god would be enough customization (much like specialization for wizards).

    1. Good thoughts as always. I like the idea that magical healing takes N+1 turns, where N is the number of times the character has been magically healed already today. It’s a much better idea than the “grogginess” thing I threw out there.

      Regarding turn undead, I definitely prefer the idea that it is more of a “turn anything whose existence is abhorrent to my god.” (undead, demons, so forth.) And I agree, the ability is more strongly rooted to the cleric mythos than spellcasting is.

      Perhaps channeled energy could be re-dubbed “Divine Presence?” In my mind I picture something not unlike turn undead. The cleric presents their symbol strongly, and a shockwave of either holy or evil energy shoots out around them. Almost like their god stepped into the room for the briefest of moments.

      It’s not a perfect mechanic, but I like it better than the extremely specific ‘turn undead.’

      With regards to domains, I think perhaps I was unclear in what I wrote. Because what you said is exactly what I meant to express.

      The way it’s handled is that most gods have 3+ domains, (Thor might be–I dunno–War, Strength, Weather, Law). Each cleric selects 2 domains or their god. Like you, however, I see this as a pointless step. If the devs really want this mechanic to exist, make each god simply grant powers directly to their followers. That’s more flavorful, and makes the selection of which god to worship actually important.

  2. What about something along the lines of: The number of dice of healing an individual receives in a 24-hour period cannot exceed their hit dice? That keeps the lethality of lower levels while still limiting the potential of abuse at higher levels.

    I love the idea of domain powers as it harkens back to the crazy “create-a-priest” days of 2nd Edition. Having a smaller selection of spells can be easily compensated by inherent abilities based on your deity. (e.g. rage as a barbarian, permanent speak with animals/birds/fish, treat undead as neutral, immunity to natural fire/cold/electricity, back stab and stealth as a thief). That’s essentially how the Druid played in 2nd Edition.

  3. I’ve never really liked how domains worked either. Actually, I wished they worked more like a wizard’s school of magic. There could be a small number of domains that relate to each of the commonly found deities in most fantasy worlds. At character creation, the cleric would choose the domain granted by their deity and gain the powers for that domain to further customize their cleric. This would make a cleric of Pelor different from a cleric of Ehlonna. You could also link armor & weapon proficiency with domains as well, but that might add a level of complication that could be off-putting to some.

  4. As far as Domains go, I think it helps to have a hand in the creation of a Cleric in one’s game. Too many of my players try to take the “Oh I want to get divine power from my IDEALS!! Uhhh.. what ideals? Uhm, that is.. Freedom and Murder?”

    Yeah, no.

    I mean, ideals are great but if you want to play a servant of divine will, pick a deity. They’re there, their religions are detailed on the appropriate wikis/SRDs if you don’t have the associated books, etc. etc.

    For me, I try to make sure I know every PCs religion so I can make sure to both emphasize it and add plothooks involving it.

    As for the spells as rituals thing, 4E had a (rare for me) moment of brilliance in that regard. I liked the ritual magic they presented even if I didn’t want to make it into the cleric’s primary casting ability. As clerics are now they’re versatile without being wholly reality breaking like a wizard can (will) be.

    Maybe if you wanted to remove the whole selecting spells process you could tailor a spell list based on the god/domain choice of the cleric in question, assign d%s to the spells and roll each day. It gets tedious at higher levels but eh, it’s a nice fix in the shortgame (and it gives you time to make a little deck of spell cards for the cleric to draw their spells from in the longterm).

  5. The cleric is definitely my favorite class to play, and of all clerics I must say I’ve enjoyed the “crazy create-a-priest” of 2e the most, and adapted those for use in the first edition games I’ve run. In fact, one player of mine used them to become a cleric of Banjo the clown (yes, from Order of the Stick; I’m lenient on backstories). The cleric I play is a AD&D1+2 multiclassed cleric/ranger who worships Freyr, wears magic plate, and kills things with his Blessed Holy Water Sprinkler. We do have a house rule that allows for spontaneous casting of heal spells, and I rarely cast much more than that outside of _very_ difficult fights.

    That said, I’m a fan of turn undead, as it makes sense thematically to me that those who serve the creators of the races of the world would seek to destroy pale imitations of life. Conversely, I do not like domains because it shoehorns clerics into worshipping only one aspect of their gods.

    WARNING: Explanation contains potentially annoying religious content
    I consider myself a Christian, and love my faith. This is not at all saying anything negative about people who aren’t -or do not like- Christians. But basically, I see God as having many different aspects to Himself. While some say he is only a God of judgement, I disagree. While others say he is only a God of love, I also disagree. Being monotheistic I believe that God is the god of all things, and that I should worship all of him, not just the parts that I like most or give me the best benefits. While yes he is a god of both love and judgment, I see him as encompassing so much more than just those two ideas that to put him in _any_ domain box would be a disservice to him. So when my cleric character is forced to choose just one (or two in some games) domain(s), I feel like I am being forced to ignore part of my character’s god, and therefore be playing Simone who doesn’t truly understand what his god is all about.

    Just my 2cp.

    1. Yes! I’ve been trying to figure out what powers/feats a cleric of the christian God would have but I am realizing that is near impossible. While there are many possibilities as to things that God has done for people sticking to the bible or even just one testament He does not give his people feats/powers based on experience or if you make it through something. Sometimes God will heal somebody when they ask, or raise someone from the dead but He was the one actually affecting the physical change. The thing is there are countless stories of God protecting someone, preventing them from a terrible and painful fate, or bring about a miraculous healing in our modern age but they are the result of a continuous day by day relationship between a person and God. The main point I’m trying to make here is this God is limitless, and only he can change the world in the way clerics and other magic classes tend to in Fantasy RPG’s. I realize this seems like pointless repetition but I believe the world of fantasy RPG’s is completely different than our own and we should be able to tap into the limitless potential of the One Maker in any other world as easily as we can feel his presence here.

      1. Coming up with a deity to represent those present in our own (that is, real world human) faiths is as simple as recognizing that generally they’re All Creator type entities who encompass everything in the world.

        Generally call it “God” or whatever you want, then allow your players to play priests. Since DnD worlds are magic heavy, one can assume that the whole “Powers from God” thing is more common in the faithful as opposed to here on Earth where we don’t have all that much in the way of magic, so powers manifest fairly rarely. (Pretty sure the last recorded instance is in the Bible anyway).

        God’s portfolio is “Everything that is and shall be”, so s/he/it has access to all Domains. God’s Clerics can choose two of those (same as normal, not conflicting ones like Good and Evil) to represent what aspects of God they feel most attuned with in their faith. This allows God to be a singular entity, but with warring factions of believers whose opinions vary and cause strife amongst the faithful.

        That’d work, right?

  6. I’m confused about your analysis of domains. Isn’t that how domains work?

    From a design standpoint, domains allow a cleric to gain special abilities directly from their god in a way that’s mechanically setting independent. A DM doesn’t have to make new abilities for each god. All a god needs to be compatible with the game is an alignment, a list of domains, and a favored weapon. Want to be a cleric of a god of fire and healing? You take the Fire and Healing domains.

    1. My concern isn’t with the work the GM must do, but rather, with the work the player must do. The few times I’ve played a cleric, I found domain spells to be an unnecessary complication.

      1. Huh, they don’t seem that complicated to me. I get bonus spells to my list and a bonus slot that must be one of those spells. For classes like the cleric that can prepare any spell on their list, I usually only write down the ones I like to prepare, so those domain spells strike me as one of the only book keeping a cleric has to do. When I helped a friend with their cleric character, I was so used to wizards that I was surprised how little book keeping a cleric has to do. Then again, I never played a cleric, so my view on that could easily change.

        I do agree they could have designed domain spells to work more elegantly. Maybe instead of getting an exclusive spell slot for them, a cleric could sacrifice an appropriate spell slot to cast a domain spell spontaenously, similar to doing so with cure/inflict spells. It’s more elegant, stays consistent with other cleric abilities, and makes more sense thematically that your god allows you to convert the magic of one of your spells into one within their sphere.

  7. Good analysis. Couldn’t disagree with you more on the Orisons, as magic being basically an extra item inventory was always the worst thing about being a casting class to me, but solid reasoning on everything you went into depth about. You didn’t get much into it, and I’d be curious as to why magic users running out of magic enhances the game for you. To me it’s like saying fighters would be more fun if their weapons broke after hitting successfully.

    1. I think spell management is part of the challenge of a spellcasting class. The decision of whether to cast all your spells early, or save some for later, is an interesting one to me.

      Plus, when a magic user runs out of spells, they’re by no means useless. They just need to start thinking creatively.

      Not every game needs to work that way, but I think that way of doing things does have value.

      1. 100% agree with unlimited orisons being a terrible idea. A first level caster has gone from untrained – no magic, to being an unlimited font of energy.

    2. “It’s like saying fighters would be more fun if their weapons broke after hitting successfully.” No, it’s like saying a ranged weapon should only be able to be fired when you have ammunition.
      The change was made because a lot of groups have selfish players that refuse to rest when the caster(s) run out of magic, and apparently the player(s) of the caster(s) don’t know how to be creative with gear/surroundings or firm with demands. Washes out class differences = boring. If you ever played in the old days, it was the job of the whole party to protect the wizard until he unleashed terrible magics, then you needed to rest. The thief would hide and pick pockets constantly, climb behind enemies in combat and drop down to backstab for similarly terrible damage. The fighter was a juggernaut that never stopped unless his friends needed him to. The cleric was almost as good a fighter, could nearly double the group half-life with heals, and whose faith could repel the most awful of beasts.
      Now the classes are: I am an X level X class character that can do Xd6 damage per round, unless I augment that with X (feat/spell/rogue ability). This is not balance, it’s just blah.
      I blame organized play (and the aforementioned selfish players).
      —sorry for the huge post, feels good to get all that off my chest

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