November 16, 2008

The New Cleric is the Old Cleric (Part 4)

The 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons represented (in my opinion) the first massive overhaul of the entire game system. Gone were all the familiar trappings of AD&D like THAC0, complex saving throw tables, and complicated, often conflicting, rulings about combat and conflict resolution. Instead, the game was streamlined and re-engineered anew with a completely new set of complex and often conflicting and vague rules. The core mechanics of D&D had fundamentally changed, and thousands of veteran players were forced to revisit the often overlooked pages of the core rulebooks to learn the game, as if for the first time.

The "re-training" that was required also included aspects of the game beyond the mechanics (the 'crunch' if you will). Numerous examples abounded (too many to list here) that suggested that this new, younger team of designers had not only reimagined the ruleset, but they had also reimagined what Dungeons & Dragons was. The core "fluff" had evolved far beyond that of AD&D and the last vestiges of wargaming that remained in AD&D were now nothing more than shadows.

In this series of posts, I am examining the evolution of the cleric character class through each edition of the game as part of my contribution to this months RPG Blog Carnival on Religion. In my previous post I presented my interpretation of the 2nd edition AD&D cleric and prior to that I examined the cleric in 1E AD&D and OD&D. By the time the cleric arrives in 3rd Edition, it has come quite far. In this edition, the cleric class stands on the shoulders of its predecessors but clearly establishes itself as being distinct.

In the 3E Players Handbook, the introduction of the cleric class is broken up into seven sections: Adventures, Characteristics, Alignment, Religion, Background, Races, and Other Classes. For the first time, right off the bat, players are presented with a sizable chunk of material for how to roleplay their character in the (then) new D&D game. The "fluff" came first, and the mechanics of the class followed. Careful reading of the introduction to clerics in the 3E Players Handbook sets this rendition of the class apart from previous editions.
"Clerics sometimes receive orders, or at least suggestions, from their ecclesiastical superiors, directing them to undertake missions for the church. They and their companions are compensated fairly for these missions, and the church may be especially generous with casting of spells or divine magic items as payment." -- 3E Players Handbook.
This further expands on the emphasis that was placed by 2E AD&D on the cleric's implicit role as a bridge between the adventuring party and the community in which they operate. The point is further echoed in the 3E Dungeon Masters Guide.
"Cleric: Most clerics have an organizational structure built right into their class. Religions usually have hierarchies, and each cleric has his place within the structure. Clerics may be assigned duties by their churches, or they might be free agents. Clerics can serve in the military of an aristocrat sanctioned by their religion, or within some autonomous church-based military order established for defense. A high-level cleric can hope to one day be the shepherd of his own congregation and temple, although some become religious advisors to aristocrats or the leaders of communities of their own, with the people of the community looking to the cleric for religious and temporal guidance..." -- 3E Dungeon Masters Guide.
Thus 3E clerics are (probably) part of a larger organization which could be a boon to a fledgling adventuring troupe looking for work (i.e. 'missions'). While this was no doubt a source of many adventures in previous AD&D games I ran, it was never anything codified by the rules-as -written. Using the cleric's church seems like an easy "out" for DMs looking to provide unneeded extra resources to a party and not having work hard for it. But, this trend (power creep galore) was one of my biggest complaints with 3E D&D; I digress. Either way, it is a significant emphasis, and the having clerics that are not part of a larger organization was the exception in 3E. Basically, the RAW is saying "Your Cleric Will Belong To An Organization Controlled By Your DM", and this could be a good or bad thing depending on how your DM runs it.

Another important change to clerics is clarified by the following:
"Some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to a cause or a source of divine power. These clerics wield magic the way clerics devoted to individual gods do, but they are not associated with a religious institution or a particular practice of worship." -- 3E Players Handbook (2000).
To me, this always seemed like a cop out, and I always have required clerics to choose a deity - even it was a very minor one. This is because choosing a deity prompts the player to ask "What does my character cleric represent? What sort of ethos does she actively work to uphold?" By leaving the requirement out, players might conclude they are not required to state upfront what they represent beyond being their alignment. It was also gold to any munchkin player who wanted to combine two powerful spell domains together and reap the benefits of both. It was weak, in my opinion, and they should have left this bit up to houserules and homebrew. Once something is included in the RAW - players will usually seek to exploit it. Of course, I'm a immersion / roleplaying guy - so I'm sure the hack'n slash crowd loved this.

So I mentioned "domains" above. These new domains of power (each cleric had two) opened up a vast array of additional spell-like powers for the characters. In addition, it provided a means to finely tune your characters development and "image". With a real need to choose a deity or religion, the two "best" domains were always chosen. Usually this choice was made at level 1, with the aim to meet the qualifying requirements of some Super Badass prestige class. By the time 3.5E D&D was closing shop, there were literally dozens of prestige classes for clerics to choose from. DOZENS! It was a min/maxer player's dream come true.

Spell acquisition was relaxed even further from 2E AD&D, where we saw the removal of 'face time with your god' for high level spells. In 3rd Edition, clerics merely pray for a short time and its done.
"Clerics do not acquire their spells from books or scrolls, nor prepare them through study. Instead, they meditate or pray for their spells, receiving them through their own strength of faith or as divine inspiration. Each cleric must ... spend an hour each day ... to regain his daily allotment of spells ... Time spent resting has no effect on whether a cleric can prepare spells." -- 3E Players Handbook (2000).
So, 1 hour is all that was needed, and the preparation could only happen during a specified time during the day (e.g. in the morning) although there was no requirement for rest before hand. Note that spell books are specifically mentioned as out of the picture; quite a long walk from OD&D where clerics memorized spells just at Magic-Uers did.

The other big change to spell casting came from the introduction of "spontaneous casting" of healing spells. This new mechanic for 3E allowed clerics to focus on other things, like being a cleric in the game world instead of just a heal-bot (which is what AD&D clerics were often relegated to).

It is also importarnt to draw attention to something that was completely omitted in the 3rd edition Players Handbook - the issue of stronghold building. In every previous edition of the game each entry in the PHB that described a character class included a detailed synopsis of the types of strongholds the character could construct. Clerics, in particular, were always particulary good at attracting followers and recieved a discount on the costs for stronghold construction (as you might expect they would). In 3E D&D, these "rewards" were relegated to the backwaters of Chapter 9 in the PHB under a section titled "Other Rewards". This was very surprising to me - mainly because in all the previous editions of the game this was the goal of character advancement. In addition to being a do-gooder hero type, each PC was expected to build a stronghold for themselves at some point. The 3E Dungeon Masters guide does present rules for acquiring followers (Leadership feat) and some vague info on strongholds for high-level characters, but it seemed obvious to me that the newer, younger game designers did not think this was an important aspect of the game. They may have had a change of heart when The Stronghold Builders Guide was released late in the 3.5 development cycle, but it still fell under the umbrella of optional. Oh well...

In summary, the background and campaign role for the standard cleric also placed them solidly as one person that was part of a larger organization. The clerics church was not intended to be some vague institution that could be whatever you wanted it to be when you called upon it - but it was supposed to be given nearly as much background development as the character themselves. Whereas, the mechanics of the 3E cleric seemed to be all about min/maxing abilities and having tons of character options options options - the spirit of 3E D&D aimed to limit those options and abilities based on the players design choices for his character's church and religion. For example, just because there might have been a very cool prestige class
"The Faithful Lazer Cleric" - this prestige class should only be available to the character if it is part of their church or religion's design (oh, and there's this Order of the Lazer that I could join later in my career). I guess what I'm trying to say here is that although 3E is often thought of as a min/maxing carnival for power gamers, the narrative aspects of the game were intended balance this by acting to limit which options were available to player characters and thereby limit power gamer abuse.

So, that's about it for 3E clerics. In the next post in the series, we will finally arrive at 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and take a close look at clerics intended role in this latest reimagining of the game. Until then, game on!

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  1. I don't really have anything interesting to say, except I really like this series of posts. You should consider doing them for other classes too.

  2. I wouldn't say the "cause or a source of divine power" is a cop out. It would cover something like animism (if you arent going the Druid route), ancestor worship, a Buddhist-based religion (whose cause may be enlightenment or something other). My 2 coppers.


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