Class Trouble II: Clerics

Here are some more thoughts from reading the Original D&D (white box) set for the first time, and the origins of the more troubling class types.

Clerics -- My trouble with clerics is more subtle than the trouble with thieves (see previous post). It's not a mechanical problem so much as a flavor-setting problem.

Every time I try to design up a D&D campaign setting I run into the following issue. I want to use the core classes as written, and I want to create a medieval-flavored setting, as indicated by D&D's level of technology, armaments, coinage, and political assumptions (smallish kingdoms, rising mercantile class, a history of an older broken-down empire, etc.). But then, I'm confronted with the polytheistic religious structure in D&D, and I come to a stumbling block -- for the life of me I can't imagine what the political situation would look like, to have a medieval Europe lacking the unified Christian Catholic church, and instead overlaid with independent polytheistic temples.

To me, this is a huge contradictory disconnect in standard D&D, in that you've got a medieval world with polytheistic religion. I can't even find any examples to compare to in the real world -- by the early middle ages, all of Europe (including Scandinavian countries at the last) were Christian, all of the Middle East was monotheistic under Islam, etc. Only in the Far East like Japan did you have Shogun culture with polytheistic religion, but the priests of shrines there were (to my understanding) not politically powerful in any way, like we assume a D&D church to be.

And as I think about a polytheistic setting, I'm further blocked by the fact that the D&D Cleric class looks almost uniquely like a Christian crusading priest (or Templar, or what-have-you). Apparently they belong to an influential church, but what church like that was polytheistic? What kind of hierarchical structure could be supported by that? If you think of either shaman-culture (independent wise men) or a polytheistic professional religious class (like Celtic druids or Indian brahmans, who service a unified pantheon of gods together), you think about them in robes, not wandering around in full plate mail. Again, I'd like to reduce Clerics to not use full armor, to look more like polytheistic priests, if that's what they truly are.

In short, the problem is this: D&D claims to have a polytheistic religion, but you've got both the politics and the critical Cleric class set up as in the medieval Christian world, and nowhere else.

Now, if you look at the OD&D set, the reason for this is pretty clear -- Clerics really were assumed to be Christian at the outset of the design. (As usual, it's not explicitly stated *what* the class is, but the standard usage of the terms involved makes it clear). (1) The class-level titles all come out of the Catholic Christian church. (2) The equipment list and turning undead sections mention the Cross and no other type of holy symbol. (3) The cleric spell list is almost uniformly based on famous Biblical miracles. And so forth.

It's only afterwards (I presume Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, and Heroes, although Supplement II: Blackmoor is the first one to mention non-cross holy items, p. 23) that the designers thought to use polytheistic deities as their mainstays, and glued this on after-the-fact to the existing D&D worldview and Clerical class. It's no wonder that still to this day the polytheism acts as a sort of strange extra appendage to the rest of the D&D ruleset (even contradictory, when I think about it fairly hard), as it truly wasn't there in OD&D. Perhaps the class would have looked different in its spell list and armor usage if polytheist priests had been in mind at the beginning (and perhaps the world setting would be presumed classical instead of medieval, who knows?)

One initial solution I can think of is to directly stipulate a monotheistic, powerful Catholic-like church for my medieval-style D&D world -- the problem there would be some dryness to the options of clerics and the political situation. A second solution would be to use a professional-class-style clerical establishment (like historical druids), where the priests all serve the same pantheon of gods as a single unit and teaching (some of the same drawbacks would apply). A third solution would be to find some historical pantheon of gods which best supports a combative, warlike Clerical class as found in D&D (perhaps Norse, Finnish or some other warrior culture which was Christianized as late as possible historically).


  1. The thing is that D&D isn't really the medieval Europe. It is a hodge podge in its own right.

    I like to play in fantasy-Europe of 1100, but I need to mod the rules a bit. In my 1100 campaigns, the pagan priests are sorcerers, while only the christian clerics are D&D clerics (and only a fraction of the clerics have the miracle abilities).

  2. Most Catholic Churches are dedicated to individual saints.

    Saints can serve the same functional purpose of distinct gods in D&D.

    Real-world Catholicism had many heresies. Different Churches [or networks of Churches] could be rivals, heretical, or openly antagonistic.

    Evil Clerics could belong to heretical branches espousing devotion to fiends (read: demons) instead of celestials (read: angels).

    Many others have used these ideas for campaigns. I do not relay them to use as my invention.

  3. I ran an AD&D 1st Ed. Campaign and had only the PHB, MM, and DMG... I didn't have any other sources but the three original hardbacks (wish I still had them,) no suppliments, no Deities and Demi-Gods... The Cleric really didn't get anything special back then from their god or whatever... I didn't want to use the Christian Church so I used Bahamat and Tiamat. Both seemed to be almost mythical legendary examples of dragons... the good people... the average person recognized Bahamat as the "creator" and temples to Tiamat existed in secret... the chromatic and metallic dragons themselves were seen as Avatars to the gods (whether they were or not... and were revered and feared appropriately.) I mention this only because the campaign worked really well for me ... And I was looking at what "the_myth" has said about "saints" in the Catholic church and realize that certain famous metallic dragons or infamous chromatic dragons could form religious off-shoots and actually exist in the world being almost "worshiped" in their own right.


  4. I found this little rant while insomnia-digging for an online list of D&D clerical spells. Hope you dont mind some friendly disagreement.

    D&D is a fantasy construct that was never intended to specifically mirror the Earth. The basic setting was *loosely* based on medieval Europe because the game is a western inception. But in fact since the entire world exists in the imaginations of the DM and players, then coinage, weaponry, technology and so forth were *always* subject to customization over individual table tops. The basic D&D rulebook is, always has been, and always will be a template for the imagination - no more, no less.

    The illustrations showing clerics that resemble early crusaders unfortunately limited the imaginations of players learning about D&D. Debunking polytheism based on one artist's sketch for the rulebook is like using a dictionary's woodcut illustration as the definition. Mentions of crosses and clerical ranks were exemplary - take them into your own hands and invent a religion with it's own ranks and symbols.

    A polytheistic world makes perfect sense when you consider all the monsters, races, magic spells, and other details that are a complete departure from Christian mythology. (I dont recall anything in Genesis about the day God created elves, dwarves, halflings, or orcs... so someone or something created them...)

    In a world where the gods have direct involvement with men, you can be certain that *any* religion could rise to epic proportions. After all, every following could not only prove their god exists, but demonstrate that he grants miracles at the behest of his holy men! That's some recruiting call...

    If your D&D world exists in an Earth-similar paralell universe where one dominant monotheistic religion with a cross-like symbol reigns supreme, that's entirely up to you. But I think it's a bit egocentric to say that the game contrasts itself by acknowledging polytheism. I can't imagine the D&D concept without it. To be blocked by any conception of a feudal world without Christianity... that makes me a bit sad for your imagination, though I wonder how you've overlooked Norse mythology and culture.

    Personally, I prefer a world of colorful adaptations and imagination.

    Happy gaming,
    Jorah, Shaman of E'luug, the Bananna God ;)

  5. God, this brings me back.

    Well, there's a good example, and that's the world depicted in Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books, where there are endless quantities of minor religions and their two-bit clerics.

    The story "Lean Times In Lankhmar" discusses the religious ecosystem quite clearly.

    Now Issek of the Jug, whom Fafhrd chose to serve, was once of the most lowly and unsuccessful of the gods, godlets rather, in Lankhmar. He had dwelt there for about thirteen years, during which time he had traveled only two squares up the Street of the Gods and was now back again, ready for
    oblivion. He is not to be confused with Issek the Armless, Issek of the Burnt Legs, Flayed Issek, or any other of the numerous and colorfully mutilated divinities of that name. Indeed, his unpopularity may have been due in part to the fact that the manner of his death -- racking -- was not deemed particularly spectacular.

    (As the author later notes, it's as if the inhabitants of the local desert spent all their time coming up with inventive ways to torture people so they could become martyrs and hopefully gods...)

    (I should add that this is one of the funniest stories every written...)

  6. It's worth noting that the "Polytheistic Christian" cleric works a lot better if you take your cues from, say, Reformation-era Germany rather than Medieval times. You still have a patchwork of feuding little states equipped with all of the high-end combat technology assumed by D&D (such as crossbows and plate mail). Just replace "Catholic", "Lutheran" and "Calvinist" with whatever polytheist divinities you like, and you're done!

  7. Sorry to comment on this so late -- two years after the original post -- but the Cleric was originally a vampire-hunter, apparently devised by Arneson. Gygax claimed medieval inspiration, but that claim is contradicted by Mike Mornard.

    See also

  8. Sorry for another super-late comment. I can understand some of the frustration with the cleric class and the polytheism featured in many campaign settings (even the default setting). While I never worried about it too much in actual play, things like cities with shrines/temples/churches to 20+ deities never sat too well with me. (Seems that in the real world, not even places where just two religions are important can be peaceful for very long.)

    I think the "rise of polytheism" in D&D came with the rise of campaign settings. As long as you're just rummaging around dungeons, the gods are maybe not that important. As soon as you want things to get "more real" you have to ask basic political and societal questions, and religion pops up. Now as the designer of a setting, you can either do a lot of research and try to be very "realistic" with your religions. Or you can try to not worry about offending this or that real-world religion but going for something that's far from historical, but useful for certain game mechanics: polytheism. So the choice may have served a dual purpose for all we know, at least that's my theory.

    However, don't forget that it's your own campaign setting, so you can tweak it. If you really want a more monotheistic setting, make it so. I remember the Moonshae Isles in the Forgotten Realms setting roughly like that (but it's been a long time, so my memory may be off): You have two cultures clashing, the native folk with their druids, and the "invading" northmen with their (Tempus?) clerics. That creates a situation where you have two religions clashing more realistically and each being relatively monotheistic in itself.

    Can you imagine a campaign constrained like that Delta? Does it help your "imagination"? Or does it still seem too fake to bother?

  9. ^ Hey Peter: Good thoughts, and I can totally see a campaign like that working very well.

    For what it's worth, sometime after I wrote this particularly blog entry, I just disposed of Clerics from my D&D game entirely (see "House Rules Redux" sidebar for additional reasons). Personally, it did feel like a deep breath of fresh air, and several players I've had have said the same thing (and started to use similar tropes like always giving healing potions at the start of an adventure).

    One thing a lot of people bring up as an example is Lankhmar with its "Street of Gods" and multifarious priests. The thing is: They're all frauds, and none have miraculous powers. So my games now look a lot like that (and PCs are just fighters, thieves, and wizards, which looks very nice and pulpy).

  10. The Shinto and Buddhist priests did have quite a large amount of political power depending on the particular historical era. IN fact the capital was moved in 794CE to reduce the influence of two Buddhist temples on the local politics. Also a later school of Buddhism bears similarities to Christianity with respects to afterlife and salvation through prayer. All this while still having the multitude of Shinto kami being revered and the multitudes of Buddhas. There were also large numbers of militant Buddhist monks.

  11. While this won't be of direct benefit to you, as you've discarded clerics entirely, I solved this same problem (which vexed me equally) in the Greyhawk setting by creating a unified church with different cults attached. The Church of Keoland is a single entity with several cults, the most important of which are the chief cult of the church, the Cult of Light, which venerates Heironeous and Pholtus (the latter being essentially the chief god). Under the oft-used rule that clerics must be within one alignment "step" of the god worshipped, clerics of this cult (which venerates two gods of different alignments) could be Neutral Good, Neutral, Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, or Lawful Evil. This allowed me to have a single church AND to have corrupt - even evil - priests within it!

    I went one step further by making the Church of Furyondy a monotheistic church that worshipped most of the same gods, with Pelor standing in for Pholtus and all the other "gods" being regarded as saints or angels. The Furyondese church thinks of the Keoish church as heretical, and vice versa. Both are essentially like the Catholic Church is organization and cultural niche.

    1. I think that's on the table of pretty good solutions, and it has the same overall flavor I get when reading some works by Gygax (or like the Holmes D&D novel "Maze of Peril"). If you're going to keep clerics, then I think that's among the best ways to make sense of it old-school style.

  12. Nice discussion! (perhaps late to contribute?)
    I have "solved" the issue of clerics in my B/X games in two different ways (bearing in mind that I tend to prefer S&S-ish themes). These are essentially the way I handle magic in the Hyborian Age and Lankhmar settings.

    1- (Howard-inspired) If a cleric's spells are given by an outside agency, then clerics are strictly NPCs, and are always Chaotic. They are essentially demonologists, and acquire their spells by pacting with demons. These religions are essentially cults, and a cleric need not be a priest. So while evil DOES exist and can be tangible in its manifestation, good tends to be more abstract, and only found in the actions of (some) men. Magic-users on the other hand acquire spells by studying. Some good magic-users might even be considered priests of some religions, using their sorcery to help people or stamp out evil cults.

    2- (Leiber-inspired) If a cleric's spells are not provided by an external agency, then they acquire spells simply by meditation. In this case, clerical magic is considered White Magic, and clerics are always Lawful. While gods do exist, they cannot grant spells or powers. Again, one might be a priest and not be a cleric. In this framework, magic-users are always Chaotic, and their spells are Black Magic.

    1. Never too late -- and actually next Monday I'll have another post on generally the same subject.

      I really like your #1 option, Howard-inspired, of making clerics NPC-only and powered only by demons. I think it's also suitable for a Lovecraftian setting (of course, wizards could fill that role too). Secretly I allow just that in my D&D games for NPCs when I'm running classic adventures. Don't tell my players.

  13. Looking forward to Monday's post!

    I have found good use of the standard cleric in a few campaigns I have run in the Averoigne setting, as described in Smith's tales, and partly implemented in the X2 Castle Amber module. I abstracted from the actual module, and just used the Averoigne described there as a mini-setting. It worked perfectly.

  14. I like both the Coins and Scrolls and Goblin Punch solutions:
    C&S: Cleric is a job, not a class. It comes with social benefits and obligations, but no magical powers. Mix and match with whatever class you want.
    GP: There is one church, but many gods. Everyone belongs to the Hesayian church, but only royalty can pray to the king of the gods. The other gods are all his subjects. Gods are numerous and insignificant enough that players can make up their own. Some gods have only a single priest.

  15. Delta, this is great. W

    First of all, IMC only chaotic clerics are "polytheistic." Lawful clerics are all members of the "Church of Law," a fantasy (no theological argument) version of the medieval western church. They worship the "King of Heaven," but they have different saints as patrons who grant them their "boons."

    I think the original intention behind the cleric was that they were crusaders, and that is how we approach them. I believe this is obvious from the rules with things such as crosses and driving away undead and vampires. As you point out, the whole polytheistic thing came through the supplements and into AD&D.

    If you assume a roughly dark ages setting, and slightly anachronistically push back crusaders (not too crazy, as they are much like Carolinian paladins) into that time, then you can grab the silk route: There were all sorts of religions along the silk routes. Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and the church name a few. But there was also India with its strong combination of philosophical monotheism with ritual polytheism. And chaos is always pluriform and contradictory: just make it many demon cults. Just change some names and you have a perfect 0e setting for clerics.

    Anyway, I hope you can add clerics back in in some future campaign!

    Fight on!

    1. That's a wonderful analysis and set of real-life examples. Sounds like you have a great campaign structure. Thanks for sharing and the kind words!

  16. What an odd thing to be so hung up on. The medieval world was polytheistic. My homebrew campaign is set, geographically and politically speaking, in Britain and Europe of the 1800s. I've deleted Christianity in all it's forms, since it's just one boring, all-knowing, all-powerful entity, and replaced with the full abundance of Deities & Demigods. It doesn't mean every hamlet has ten dozen churches. And powerful NPCs such as high level clerics, mages, etc, are few and far between. Most that chose the adventuring life are just bones amongst the ruins and dungeons. I've replaced Oriental-styled monks from 1e with my own Benedictine-inspired type; the Oriental monks are variations of Japanese iconic archetypes such as samurai and ninja, all as NPCs.

    I read your list of reasons to delete the entire class and much of those reasons seem to be simply to make your life as a DM "easier" somehow, or quite strangely idiosyncratic to your thoughts - seriously, having a cleric in armor takes away from the thrill that the fighters might otherwise have?

    I'll keep reading through the blog and maybe my point of view will soften, but for now it looks to me like you have an obsessed vendetta against the class and have grasped at straws to find a reason to be rid of them.

    What did you do about Druids? At higher levels they may be the most powerful class of all.

    1. I guess I won't have much comment if you've deleted Christianity from medieval Europe and claim it was polytheistic.

      Original D&D doesn't have druids as a playable class -- at least not until Supplement-III, but I don't generally use anything from those later supplements.

  17. You make some interesting points about Clerics, but here are some counters!

    1) Clerics are actually very good in gameplay terms - it works to have a support class that can also take a hit. You have wizards who stand at the back throwing spells, but what clerics can do is act as a 'wall' as they can wear heavy armour, but also heal and buff party members while not being quite so good offensively.

    It's quite important to have a role like this I think.

    2) The multitude of Gods is acutally a good thing for DnD, as it allows a lot of player creativity. By keeping everything very wide open, players are free to make up almost anything about which God they serve.

    3) Alternatively, you can have a God similar to the Greyhawk St Cuthbert who becomes the main Deity of the Human based campaign world, and all Clerics are devoted to him or one of his aspects. This keeps the Christian flavour, but allows you some coherency to the setting (I do something like this in my games usually, and allow Elves to only be Druids, and have a few Evil Gods / Demons / Cthulu like entities for the monster races. Dwarves I allow to be clerics of 'old god', similar to the difference between the Old and New Testament in the bible.)

    1. Thanks for thinking about that! Good stuff here, although one thing that's probably not going to click with my gaming sensibility is #2: I'm from the "DM is auteur who makes the world and provides play options" camp. As a rule, I don't let players make up world-building details (incl. faiths). There's matters of theme and cohesion around that for me. YMMV.

  18. Hmm. I tried to design a D&D campaign world decades ago as a teen based in the classical world. I love the classical world and the history of it all, but as a D&D campaign it just fell flat. However, the concept of polytheism merged into a medieval European setting is no more jarring to me than the concept of wizards casting spells in that era. Ancient Rome had a plurality of gods, of their own make as well as foreign gods (Isis became popular at one point), and they were fine with it as long as temples paid their tithes and taxes.

    While I've made a comprehensive campaign world of my own, 90% of my game time has been spent in Greyhawk. With Native American-like Flan, Oerids like ethnicities of the Mediterranean basin, Suloise reflecting somewhat the Nordic, and Baklunish the Persians/Arabic ethnicities, I included South American ethnicities in the Amedio and Africans in Hepmonaland, with judicious blending in the Flanaess of all of them. Combined with demi-humans, these ethnicities and cultures all have their own pantheons of gods, too...in fact, the very concept of monotheism is alien to my campaign world. It is fantasy, after all :)

    1. Nice! Agreed that Greyhawk is probably the thing I've spent the most (and first) mindspace in myself.

      On reflection, it's maybe a bit ironic how Roman political disintegration was vaguely concurrent with the rise of religious monotheism.