November 11, 2008

The New Cleric is the Old Cleric (Part 1)

For this months RPG Blog Carnival (the topic is "Religion"), I've been collecting a list of old DRAGON articles, source books, supplements, and other resources that all deal with religion, clerics (and other healers), and how these things all fit into Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying. While I haven't finished reading everything as yet, an excellent post over at RPGCentric has more or less prompted me to "get off the pot" and get this series started.

One Part of the First Trinity
The Cleric class was included in the original Dungeons & Dragons game (i.e. OD&D). They were one of the first three classes: Fighting-men, Clerics, and Magic-Users. I never played OD&D, but my reading of those booklets suggests to me that Clerics were intended to be a hybrid between the Fighting-Men and Magic-User classes. Cleric characters could only be human, and must choose either Law or Chaos once they reach 7th level. Furthermore, Clerics were expected to be excellent stronghold builders as they received a 2-for-1 special on building costs from their deity.

I guess, you might even say that Clerics were the first multi-class player character type.
"Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!), plus they have numbers of their own spells." -- Gygax & Arneson, Men & Magic (1974)
Thus, from the start they were conceived as a mixture of the two extremes of character types and provided players with options.

It was not until "Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes" (1976) that any official additions were made for religion or pantheons of gods. Even still, there was no mention of how any of these fantastic religions might influence the roleplaying of clerics. It is left entirely up to the DM and the players (as maybe it should be). Moreover, there is absolutely no connection between a cleric's spells and any supposed religious or philosophical belief held by character. Gods did not grant them. They just had them, like a magic-user. They even employed spell-books like a Magic-User did. For some DMs this may have seemed counter intuitive. I suspect those DMs, players, and game designers likely followed the advice du jour that was reiterated in the Forward of Supplement IV:
"From now on, when the circumstances aren't covered somewhere in the books, wing it as best you can. As we've said time and time again, the 'rules' were never meant to be more than guidelines; not even true 'rules.'" -- Timoty Kask, 1976.
Kask implicitly asks that the players of the game fill in the gaps, to make the the game work how they want it to work. The focus in this early edition of the game still seemed, however, to be on the mechanics of the game (the rules, the "crunch") and not so much on the roleplaying or storytelling aspects of roleplaying games (the "fluff"; /yawn). Looking back as an outsider, it seems that D&D at this point was still evolving into more of a game of roles and slowly becoming less of a war game (as it predecessors were). What is interesting to me is how the game evolved in the 30+ years that followed these seminal works. And, in terms of Clerics, how the game has always presented them as a core class, but the relationship between how the rules and the roleplaying of Clerics has changed. Are we now back to the beginning with 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons? The new edition seems to reemphasize combat de-emphasize roleplaying. In this regard, I am starting to think the new Cleric is really the old Cleric all dressed up.

I plan on continuing this series throughout the month and taking a close look at the various 'faces' the Cleric class has held throughout the years. Hopefully this will make a solid contribution to this months blog carnival.

Post Publish Edit: Sham just posted a similar, albeit more general, retrospective titled "D&D By The Book 1". Check it out for another view of the good ol'days.

Nominate your favorite blog post from any RPG blog to The 2008 Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs! Also, if you fill out our survey - you can win a free copy of the Anthology! For more information, please visit the Open Game Table working group.


  1. Great article. :)

    It points out one thing that has definitely changed. The original "rules" are bare bones and the new "rules" are much more thorough. The old rules don't mention gods, as you pointed out, and the new rules spell out the decision.

  2. I'm looking forward to the posts as you continue this series, Jonathon.

  3. To me, 4e has more of the feel of OD&D than other editions, which I liked immediately. Clerics are part of the reason and I find myself liking the cleric much more now.


By submitting your comment below, you agree to the blog's Terms of Service.