Clerics, Run Away!


Clerics bridge the gap between life and death for an adventuring party, yet finding people to play a cleric can be a monumental task. It has been my experience that most gamers shy away from playing a cleric. In many ways, clerics are seen as the servant to a party rather than a full member. Cries of "Band-Aid" and calls for healing can ruin the experience of playing a cleric. No one wants to play a character who can never shine.

Clerics bridge the gap between life and death for an adventuring party, yet finding people to play a cleric can be a monumental task. It has been my experience that most gamers shy away from playing a cleric. In many ways, clerics are seen as the servant to a party rather than a full member. Cries of "Band-Aid" and calls for healing can ruin the experience of playing a cleric. No one wants to play a character who can never shine. However, I believe the true trouble with clerics stems from misuse. Gamemasters, GMs, and the gaming industry have trouble writing material for clerics. I do have a few suggestions which could help when running a cleric.

The Church
A GM must make a place for religion in her campaign. Tiptoeing around the issue will not lead to better game play. A cleric is tied to both a god and a church. The character does not live in a vacuum. A GM should provide opportunities for a cleric to interact with her church and with those people who follow the cleric's god. A church will have holidays and events important to the god. It should be a place where a cleric can interact with those who follow her beliefs. It also provides a place where a cleric can feel important. A cleric should never spend an entire campaign without encountering her church or members of her faith. In addition, many small towns may not have a cleric that follows a specific faith.

For example, Devyn, cleric of Grendel, enters the small village of Hamlet. The only priest in the village follows Zod. Suddenly, Devyn becomes a major figure in the village, as those who follow Grendel have not seen a priest of their deity in years. The villagers would probably want to hear a sermon from Devyn, or have him perform marriages, burials or bless those followers who have passed beyond the veil. Those who follow Grendel would see the party in a more favorable light. They may give the party discounts on merchandise or needed information that would have been far more difficult to earn without Devyn. A GM needs to portray a cleric as more than a healer.

The god
I have found many GMs skimp when it comes to a cleric's deity. It is easy to pull a god from mythology or a shrink-wrapped game world. However, how many GMs research religious holidays, clerical vestments, and duties of the priesthood or the appearance of the holy symbol? What animals, plants, minerals or items does a deity hold sacred? It surely would not make sense for a cleric to kill a dragon if their god deems dragons to be a sacred being!

A god can be more than the domains she grants. Like the church, a cleric's god should be fully fleshed out. It does require a fair amount of work from a GM, although I believe it worth the work. A person would be much more enthusiastic about playing a cleric if you provide her the details she needs to have fun. Flesh out the god!

Here are a few questions I ask myself whenever I flesh out a deity:

  • What is the alignment of the god? What domains does she grant?
  • What does the holy symbol look like? How do people perceive the appearance of the deity?
  • What items, animals, plants and minerals does the deity hold sacred?
  • What are the main beliefs of the deity? Goals? Desires? How should a cleric of that deity act?
  • What type of people worship the deity? Farmers? Craftsman?
  • Do differing sects exist within the church? Are there different interpretations of a deity's holy word?
  • Are there any traditional rituals, ceremonies or holidays associated with the faith?
  • How do other religions perceive the deity? Does the god or church have enemies?

Answering those questions can define both the god and the religion. It makes worshipping a deity far easier and a player is not left wondering how to perceive certain situations. For example, if the deity finds divorce to be a sin, then the cleric would not advocate it as a course of action.

My worst experience in playing a cleric had to do with many of the problems discussed in this article. The GM had not bothered to really flesh out the deity. When I wrote up my own comments about the god, the GM said the god would not fit his world. Needless to say, I was angry. The rest of the campaign was spent with my cleric healing the party whenever they got into a fight. In fact, the GM asked me to stop using my spells until after the healing was complete. Of course, the worst part of playing that cleric had to do with NPC reaction. Apparently, people thought of my god in very unfavorable circumstances. I never encountered anyone who shared my faith. It was not a good experience and it took me years to warm up to the class again.

Many parties need a cleric. A GM should do everything in her power to make the experience fun and interesting. The player should not have to feel forced into playing the class because a party needs a cleric. If they do, this is a sure sign the GM is not making it fun to play a cleric. A person should feel as if any class they choose would be fun to play. Clerics get a bad rap, not because the class is uninteresting, but because the GM has usually not done their homework.

No offense, but I have a couple of gripes with this.
First of all, you refer to domains in this article, indicating a strong 3e bend. However, I find clerics to be one of the most played classes of all in 3e. This might be just a bizare coincidence or some local Dutch mentality (though I doubt it), but clerics are a real powerhouse in this edition.

Second, while the suggestions for fleshing out gods and religions are sound ones, it would not reduce the cries for "Band-Aid." When you character's life is on the line, minutiae about one dogma or the other is of very little importance. Woe to the PC cleric who could've saved the party's mage but didn't!

Finally, you say the gaming industry has trouble writing material for clerics. Is this really true? While Faiths & Pantheons is from a "shrink-wrapped" game world and certainly not exhaustive, surely it details what the gods of FR are like?
I also quite liked the Book of Hallowed Might from Malhavoc Press, which had some excellent suggestions for fleshing out religions (and some very inspired creatures to boot. The Blessed Children as a sort of anti-undead was an original twist I quite liked.)

"This is a cool sig."


While I don't share your discontent with the cleric class, I do agree that clerics are more than healers, especially those who aren't good or those who are of a less toterant faith (Helm and St-Cuthbert, or pre-times of trouble Torm are prime examples of this).
I've played clerics in all three editions and while I admit that the "core" books were pretty thin on the religious details, the Forgotten Realms religious sourcebooks have always been quite nice. Still, way to many GM's manage clerics like they do wizards or even worst as walking hospitals.
Fortunately, I've ran and played in games where churches are present both politically and socially. The campaign I play in at the moment is centered around a second times of trouble. All characters must have some religious background or class. ie: you either have to be a religious class (cleric or paladin) for at least one level or aim at becoming a religious prestige class (holy liberator, templar, arcane devotee, etc).
Religions and the interaction between the clergies is very important.
You had a great idea about the reaction to travelling clerics and other divine heroes (weddings and funerals), I'll use it thanks. That is a great way to have them become involved in the game's community.

Holidays, festivals and calendars are (for me) very important ways to flesh out the campaign world and make it a living place.

About band-aids… well if my DM were to tell me how to play MY character, I'd tell him to shove it. I mean, he/she decides what my character's faith demands of him and how the church is organised. I get to decide how I want to fit in it or not. While a cleric of Illmater (to take a well known god) would have much explaining to do if he let the wizard wounded, it would be quite acceptable for a cleric of Helm or Tempus to cull the weak (especially if said wounded wizard keeps taking stupid risks and soaks up most of the healing magic from the party).
Furthermore, divine magic, if used properly can boost a party's fighting power soo much that healing magic might not even be necessary. Shield of faith, bless, chaos hammer, mace of odo and other mass affecting spells will make your party much more effective than simly healing them of a few wounds.
When I played in the evil party for the present campaign, I played a cleric of Talos. Not much of my magic was kept for healing, so the party (well some of them at least) had to learn to be prudent, they also discovered that some spells are way more usefull than healing magic.
Think of Silence, Wyverne watch and spiritual weapons for instance. The first will give the party a chance to strike at sentries without them being able to raise an alarm. The second will make for an almost unfalable sentry and the third while king of weak allows for distance strikes, even against flying or otherwise unreachable foes.
And let us not forget invisibility purge…

PS: I really think you had a very very bad GM.

Well, we do seem to disagree on some issues; however, two products do not show that the industry suports clerics. Hallowed Might had not been published when I wrote this article and I do not see the FR book as supportive to the class.

Personally, I do not run a shrink-wrapped world. The FR book is useless to me. Not one published 3E/d20 product has been of that much use for a GM running a homebrew campaign. After all, the industry does not make money when not selling their own worlds.

True support would be to publish pro-cleric adventures or novels. The indutrsy needs to fight the stereotypes that shove clerics into the same role over and over again.


Ok, more than two products... Uh, Defenders of the Faith, The Quintessential Cleric, and Deities and Demigods? Just to name a few?

"two products do not show that the industry suports clerics."

By the same token we can say it does not support fighters or paladins. Not much products aimed specifically at them either, or at least not significantly more than clerics.

"Personally, I do not run a shrink-wrapped world. The FR book is useless to me."

Nonsense. Change a name here and a holy symbol there and you've got yourself a dandy little god or goddess ready for use. With so many gods in there, there simply has to be something you can use.

"Not one published 3E/d20 product has been of that much use for a GM running a homebrew campaign."

The Book of Hallowed Might has been invaluable for me thus far. While it may not have been around when you wrote the article, it is most certainly around now.

"After all, the industry does not make money when not selling their own worlds."

Malhavoc Press does not have a world of its own I believe, and neither do Green Ronin or Mongoose Publishing (I could be wrong of course). Even Wizards of the Coast -while it has FR- is not using it as their standard world. Most of their products are "vanilla".

"True support would be to publish pro-cleric adventures or novels."

I haven't seen any "Fighter Only" adventures, or "Exclusive for Druids" novels. If you know where to find them, please do point them out because I've completely missed them.

"The indutrsy needs to fight the stereotypes that shove clerics into the same role over and over again."

Enemies and Allies had some very interesting religion-oriented characters that were definately not healers of any kind.
But ignoring that, suppose the industry took a fanatical shine to clerics and promoted them beyond reasonable limits.
If your party's mage was on the verge of death, would you expect the one class that has ready access to healing spells to cure him? I bet you still would...

"This is a cool sig."

Yes, we do have several books out that focus on the crunchy aspects of playing a cleric. While I do find Monte's book refreshing, the others are more crunch than use when playing a cleric. We have to educate GMs in how to run a cleric.

As for stealing an FR god for my homebrew world, I prefer to write my own rather than rely entirely on someone else to do the creative work for me. Besides, a GM needs to know the Gods of the world intimately. The god needs to fit the world.

Stealing a god from someone else shows that the GM really does not care about that aspect of the world. Hence, the GM could care less about promoting religions during the campaign. Personally, I work with my players to craft a god that fits the their type of worship, yet molds perfectly in the world and story that I am creating.

As for your mage, it sounds as if you had a bad experience with someone playing a cleric. The focus on a dying mage makes it appear as if someone let your PC die. Would I expect the cleric to heal the mage? That depends on alignment. A good character should do all in his power to save a comrade. Saving a person really depends on the situation. Right now I have a mage and a cleric in a group together. The cleric goes out of his way to NOT heal the mage. The mage constantly makes fun of the power of faith, the cleric and anyone who would follow a god. They are both friends and consumate roleplayers and they are mature enough to handle the situation.

Now, let's get to your other arguments. As for books on fighters or other specific classes etc. Where should I begin, ok I will just list of characters. Fighters: Tanis Half-elven, Caramon Majere, Alias, Drizzt....
Mages: Elminster, Rand al'Thor (sorry fighter/mage), Raistlin....

In almost every book written by TSR/WOTC, religion takes a back seat. Clerics are always written as support characters and take a background to the fighter- mage- types in the stories. I will not say every, but almost every book takes that stance.

The reason that 3E clerics received such a power boost in the new edition was an attempt to combat the 2E curse. Try polling a group and finding out all the people who chose to play a cleric only for the need of healing in a party.

In most cases and in my experience, clerics are the hardest to get someone to play.

"a GM needs to know the Gods of the world intimately. The god needs to fit the world."

Aren't you making a mountain out of a molehill now? Not all games have such a great focus on religion as yours seem to do. Just as some games are devoid of any puzzles, or some are just monty haul hack&slash excersizes, some games simply aren't all that god-oriented.

Maybe this has something to do with the players as well. Not because they dislike clerics in D&D, but because they dislike religion in general. No matter which religious dogma or mythology you introduce, if a player dislikes all forms of religion, he'll dislike those as well. Just a thought.

"As for your mage, it sounds as if you had a bad experience with someone playing a cleric."

On the contrary. My groups tend to be excellent team players, cleric no exception.
It was just an example, seeing how low-level wizards tend to die the easiest (low HP).

"Would I expect the cleric to heal the mage? That depends on alignment. A good character should do all in his power to save a comrade. Saving a person really depends on the situation."

I disagree. Unless there is some sort of overwhelming Greater Evil around that needs to be dealt with, saving eachother is priority #1.
Would you, realisticly, trust your life to a person whom you know to be perfectly capable -yet unwilling- to save it when the need arises? If the answer is 'no' (which I expect it to be) then you shouldn't be in that particular band of adventurers and find another one.

This is why we always sit around the table first and think ahead a bit when making characters. There is no invisible rope that binds all PCs together, so we come up with our own reasons why they travel together and as such they usually like eachother.
Which brings us back to the original problem:
In a reasonably functional party, if the cleric can save somebody's life, do you expect him to? I know I sure do. Allowing somebody to die while you could've stopped it is akin to murder.

"The cleric goes out of his way to NOT heal the mage."

By any standard of mine, this is a disfunctional party and I'd refuse outright (as a PC) to travel with such dangerously hostile people into hazardous areas. Your standards seem to be oddly different, so we'll have to agree to disagree.

"As for books on fighters or other specific classes etc. Where should I begin, ok I will just list of characters."

Any Dragonlance character you mention is sort of cheating, since religion has died out a bit in that world and is only very recently on the return, IIRC.
FR on the other hand is focused very much on magic. (ie. archmages and drow.)

To be quite honest, though, novels are indeed not very much focused on religion. As I stated above, the average gamer is not a very devout person. Even if they were dominant in the novels though, we'd see another gripe of yours: the gods and clerics in question would be from "shrink-wrap" worlds, so I doubt you'd be satisfied either way. :P

"Try polling a group and finding out all the people who chose to play a cleric only for the need of healing in a party."

No need to, if you read my very first post:
"I find clerics to be one of the most played classes of all in 3e"

I have found groups without mages, without rogues, or without fighter-types (though they had a hard time I admit), but I haven't seen any group without a cleric so far.

"This is a cool sig."

Well, you are supremely lucky to have served in a group that always has a cleric. My experience has been completely different.

As for using the argument that most gamers are not religious, I would agree. I am not that religious either. However, I do my best to incorporate all aspects of religion for people who want to be a cleric.

The point of my article was to help GMs who have little experience running clerics and to aid in roleplaying situations. A few simple guidelines can be quite helpful when a young GM is uncertain about how to handle a situation.

It seems that we can agree to not agree in this instance. We have come from different backgrounds. In my experience and that of gamers I know, clerics are difficult to come by.

This article is intended to help those who have also found it difficult to get people to play clerics. Lucky for you that you have never seen a party without a cleric.

By the way, you're great a pulling quotes out of context. I salute you!

Oh yes, I certainly think your suggestions are sound ones (said so in the first post), and for a first-time DM they're probably very useful for making a well-detailed religious facet in their world. I am just not certain it makes the problem go away.
(A problem I thankfully don't have, but you do have my sympathy.)

"By the way, you're great a pulling quotes out of context. I salute you!"

Though I'm not completely certain which quotes that would be, I'll take your word for it. That is a habit I might've picked up on the numerous flamewars on the WebRPG forums when 3e was first released, so don't take it personally. Those wars were rather *ahem* shall we say fanatic? Those that participated (and god knows I did) got rather experienced at this sort of thing. My apologies for that.

"This is a cool sig."

Hi Belph.

Not to chime in on an already-burning flamewar, but I've been running 3e for more than a year now, and I too see the cleric chosen as a common class.

The fact that good priests can "burn" a spell for a healing spell in a pinch really made them flexible again as opposed to healing hospitals - especially with the easy availability of Potions and Wands of Cure Light Wounds at low level with the new magic item creation system.

But I definitely agree with Starfury's concept of fleshed-out gods and roleplaying crunchiness. All clerics should have to deal with their religion, its followers, and other members of the religion's hierarchy on a regular basis. This can be a chore and a challenge, but can provide a lot of bonuses as well - not to mention letting the player of a cleric feel important once in a while.


Here’s my experience with clerics in the group, gleaned from decades of successful and unsuccessful examples with different DMs.

***On withholding healing duties within the group***

If this happens, this is evidence of a disfunctional group (though it isn’t always the cleric’s fault.) It’s time to take a time out session, get a burger, and discuss what you all want to get out of the game session. A group should be designed to work together and cooperate, both from a crunchy standpoint, and from a story standpoint. For story and game reasons, players should be looking for excuses to work together- not for excuses to disagree. Unless your DM and adventure really suck, they will always be more interesting than fighting within the group.

This is why I STRONGLY recommend the DM getting involved at the character generation stage, making sure everyone fits together, and no inherant gamestopping conflict is built in to the party structure to prevent them from working together. To withhold healing for a story reason is akin to a fighter refusing to fight. Not that the Cleric must always choose healing over other spells (there are many tactical reasons to choose otherwise), but when the fighting is over and resting has begun, it’s time to heal up if you have the opportunity. Now, this also means that other players must take care to work with the Cleric too. It doesn’t do well to have other characters doing things that are clearly and deliberately in violation of that Cleric’s beliefs.

***On belief in more than one god***

The story settings of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms are polytheistic. This means that all the people within them believe in many gods at the same time, similar to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans. There is no need for ‘conversion’ – the people of the world believe in the god already. Acts of divine magic reinforce that belief, and provide inspiration and influence in the real world. This is very important for the setting of the world. It is ridiculous and distracting (and all too common) for players to introduce character traits that cause them to disbelieve established pantheon gods, or to follow only one god. In that setting, it would be like us not believing in electricity, or in choosing to believe in radio waves, but not gravity. They are all real – they all work, and every character in those settings knows and accepts that. Making characters that stray from that point only serves to undercut the religious texture that makes an important part of the setting. Just as a Catholic today might ask a blessing from the patron Saint of Travelling before she goes on a road trip, so it is with the characters in most D&D fantasy settings.

***On incorporating religion into the texture of the world***

I have always found that it greatly adds to the richness of the setting to acknowledge religion in many forms. My clerics and priests don’t merely pray. They have certain times they must pray, and have rituals and foci that are tied to their sphere’s on influence. Dirt, sun, morning, evening, dust, water etc. They don’t ‘cast spells’; they invoke their gods in combat. The players at the table actually gesture and say the words, invoking the power of their patron. The idea behind it is that through the player cleric, the pantheon is represented at least slightly, so that the god’s divine influence is there, almost as if it is another character in the group.

I incorporate religion into the writings in my dungeons, and into roadside shrines, and festivals at town. I put these reminders everywhere, so that players are always aware of religion and its place in the world. I vary the flavor of each of the religions so that they appear different, and I DO NOT attempt to throw “curves” at the stereotypes (ie. Have a bloodthirsty priest representing a goddess of love and sunshine). I also don’t allow players to bend the stereotypes much either. While a few players balk at such interventionism, I point out that for the world to seem real, it is important that it adhere to certain basic expectations. If players stray too far from expectation, it makes the story seem incongruous, the setting less important. If they want to be bloodthirsty, then it would be reasonable that a bloodthirsty character would be called to follow a god with similar interests.

Whenever DMs have strayed from those tenets, I’ve found that the cleric class, in particular, suffers the most. Too often, I’ve seen clerics treated like magicians, with the only notion of religion being a momentary pause as the DM humors the cleric player as she mentions that she “mutters a prayer.”

**On witholding healing and other considerations.

Although I am one who believes each character should support the rest of the party as a whole, the mage and cleric example from way up there is an example of a situation where a cleric clearly is in the right to withold spells.
Just as a wizard would be in the right to withold magical aid to another party member who constantly belittles his magic.

**On conversion

Actually conversion is quite important, especially in a polytheist world. The many gods compete for worshipers, it's no longer a question of One True Faith, but who MIGHT become the One true faith.

In FR the spell Faith Healing, gives an incentive for people to convert to the cleric's faith. Whatever their alignment, clerics in FR select Faith healing spells as some of their spells (even if only to convert them to regular healing for the heathens)

In our present campaign (set in the FR) Bane and his church are converting many people (through deceit and coercion) as are the churches allied with Bane's.

Clerics are central to this game for more than healing.

Churches are political entities in FR, much like they were in mideaval Europe (with all the various orders, the catholics-orthodox-protestant schism).

The FR sourcebooks (especially Faith and Pantheons) do cover this very important aspect of the game.

Even if you don't use a shrink wrapped campaign, there is nice material in there on healing, resurection, ceremonies, burials and how differing churches deal with "heathens". As someone else put it, just change the name Tyr and you have the archetype for any God of Justice (like Heroneous is for Greyhawk).

**On "pro-clericism" from the industry.

Well I don't know, if we need that. I mean, the industry seems well ballanced in its focus on the several classes (as far as core books are concerned).

Also, I've found that many products, while not specifically aimed at the religious classes, incorporated them quite nicely into their fabric: "Evil", "Book of Vile Darkness", "Manual of the Planes" and "Lord of Darkness" to name a few.

**On the cleric's role.

While I do believe that certain faiths and prestige classes demand of the player to act as a healer, others do not.
Deities of War, Mischief, Knowledge, Magic, Nature, Evil, Vengeance, Justice and others might actually demand that the weak, foolish, ignorant, wicked or foolhardy be left to suffer and die. A deity of Death (Vecna, Wee-Jas, Myrkull, Kelemvor or Cyric) would definitely look badly on a cleric who would continually go against the "natural" order of things by bringing back people from the dead and preventing them from dying (especially those who flirt with death).

Many faiths demand of their cleric to be keepers of knowledge, law bringers, avengers, warriors or pranksters (to name non-evil roles). I imagine that a cleric of the deity of war and strength would more likely cast Bullstrength and Endurance on allies than keep them to cas Cure Modererate Wound on fallen comrades. The use of these spells might also make the allies more efficient and remove the need to use healing magic. But then I already said that in my first post, sorry for repeating myself.

*** on withholding spells ***

I don't mean to say that it is never an appropriate clerical response from a RPG perspective. But if another party member deliberately and consistently acts in such a way as to be entirely incompatible with the cleric's goals, then it is reasonable for the group to call a time-out to talk about what they are playing. At that point, the role-playing aspect is interfering with a vital component of the tactical game, jeopardizing everyone. To put a fine point on it, it's interfering with the story too: why would a cleric travel with such a group?

***on conversion***
I'll grant that my message was too dismissive of it. In the 'default' FR and Greyhawk worlds, the gods are motivated to get more followers - but recognizing that these are not EXCLUSIVE followers. In polytheism, the people pray to whatever god or saint is appropriate to the task at hand - growing a crop, healing, going on a journey etc, may all have a separate god.

My last cleric was a fairly tactically oriented one - can't remember his patron diety in Greyhawk, but damn, he was good in a fight. Frequently, I found the tactical advantages in powering up the damage potential for the heavy hitters, to bring a fight vs a boss to a close very quickly, rather than burning spells on healing while an enemy continued to attack. It's a fine line.

In the campaign I run, the cleric is the character who does all of the groups planning and thinking. I suppose I'm fortunate to have a player who enjoys playing that way, but our cleric has carved out a niche for himself by loading up on divinations and hold person. He may not personally get to bash heads or fling fireballs, but he gets to tell all the other players where and how to bash heads and fling fireballs.