Monday, July 17, 2006

The Cleric Conundrum

My fellow player Doug and I have both decided to retire our current World of Alidor PCs. Doug was playing a Paladin/Cleric and my guy was a Favored Soul/Bard. (Favored Soul is a divine spontaneous caster, the clerical equivalent of Sorcerer.) Both of us are interested in playing fighters of one stripe or another, but that leaves the responsibilities for healing in the hands of the Ranger/Druid. Going from three healers to one will certainly affect our operational tempo, so I've been giving some consideration to playing a Barbarian/Cleric instead of my earlier plan of Barbarian/Scout. (For the moment I've tabled the elf Duskblade/Ninja concept. I'm not sure the world is ready yet for Obiwan Shinobi to make the leap from Encounter Critical to D&D.)

Now, Barbarian/Cleric has its advantages. Few people will dispute the fact that the Cleric is one of the most powerful base classes in the game. And the good Will save makes the proposition of playing a Frenzied Berserker all the sweeter, as the chance of an accidental freak-out is greatly reduced. But really, I don't think I want to play the cleric. In fact I pretty much don't dig playing the cleric at all. I know some people out there like playing the team cleric, but those people are moral degenerates in the same metaphysical gutter as guys who don't like mustard on pastrami. This whole situation points to what I see as a fundamental design issue that mainstream D&D has never satisfactorily addressed: clerics are generally needed but not wanted. You gotta have a healer in the party if you want to kick optimized quantities of ass. And having someone who can turn undead ain't too bad either (though turning has become both more complicated and less useful in recent years). Each new iteration of the game has tried to sweeten the pot by making clerics more powerful, to the point where on sheer power alone the cleric is now my first pick as a class.

But that raw power has not made the class any cooler. For the other members of the "Big Four" (fighter, wizard, rogue) I can name lots of awesome role models from myth and fiction. For the fighting man we have Conan, John Carter of Mars, every Knight of the Round Table, El Santo, Hercules, Fafhrd, the Knights of the Round Table, Zatoichi, and many more. For magic-users we have Prospero, Merlin, Gandalf, Thulsa Doom, Sparrowhawk, Doctor Strange, and others. I can't name quite as many thieves but even for them we have Subatai, the Grey Mouser, the Saint, Bilbo Baggins, and some others. How many pre-D&D clerics can you name? Bishop Odo clubbed people with a mace back in 1066, so I guess he kinda counts. And one of Charlemagne's companions was a priest, but I can't tell you his name off the top of my head.

Do you see my point? Describe the basics of D&D to the uninitiated and, assuming any interest whatsoever, what kind of character would they like to play? Some will want to play mighty-thewed barbarians or armored knights. Some will yearn to be a master of kung-fu or a cat burglar. Others will seek to play mighty wizards or witches. Has anyone gotten the pitch for D&D and responded "I like the concept of a fantasy game of magic and dragons. Can I play a vicar?" In the computer game Ultima IV wizards could heal and 'Turn Undead' was a spell. Do you think anyone missed the cleric? I sure didn't. Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed/Evolved uses a unified spellist, making clerics completely unnecessary. Huzzah, I say!

And then there is the issue of PC autonomy. There are lots and lots of players who do not want their character to be answerable to anyone. But for many campaigns playing a cleric means you are answerable to a particular deity and/or a church hierarchy. It's baggage that many players don't want. Getting a god involved in your adventure is almost always a bad idea, even when you're character class choice doesn't automatically make you a loyal follower.

You know what? I'm gonna play that Barbarian/Scout. We'll be underpowered in the healing department but maybe a few PC deaths from now I'll be ready to compromise on this cleric thing.