November 18, 2008

The New Cleric is the Old Cleric (Part 5)

This series already covered the influence of how the rules-as-written shaped how clerics are roleplayed in OD&D (Part 1), 1E AD&D (Part 2), 2E AD&D (Part 3) and 3E D&D (Part 4). Yesterday I took a short break from this series to ask for volunteer Anthology Reviewers, but now in Part 5 we return and finally take a look at clerics in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. After a long, strange road, 4E clerics have arrived home again as dressed up, flashy versions of their OD&D predecessors. In my opinion, the designers have done a decent job of "reseting" the cleric back to a class that embodies the 'spirit' of what Gary Gygax intended while still appeasing those players who want it with the option to play back-row healers.
"Clerics are battle leaders who are invested with divine power. They blast foes with magical prayers, bolster and heal companions, and lead the way to victory with a mace in one hand and a holy symbol in the other. Clerics run the gamut from humble servants of the common folk to ruthless enforcers of evil gods." -- 4E Players Handbook.
In terms of combat, which is the general focus of 4E (like its OD&D predecessor), we can see that the cleric is no longer 'just the healer'. Instead, we are given a cleric who fights powerfully both at range and in melee, who's powers can deal damage while providing numerous beneficial or woeful secondary effects to friends or enemies alike, and who fight as a leader capable of delivering spot healing and other aid in times of trouble. The player whose character is the cleric is now free to focus on crushing skulls, smashing down doors, blasting enemies at range with scorching radiant lights, or even acting as an "off-tank" (to borrow a term from MMORPGs). The 4E PHB even suggests two archetypal 'builds' that players might play, each of which embody once face of the split-personality the cleric has suffered since 1E AD&D: 'The Battle Cleric' or 'The Devoted Cleric'.
"Battle Cleric: If you choose to concentrate on melee, you find a good assortment of strikes to your liking... Devoted Cleric: With this build, you choose to stand back and concentrate your abilities on keeping your fellow adventurers healthy and optimized" -- 4E Players Handbook.
Thus, in 4E your options are limited and gone are the multifaceted, endless possibilities (and endless power creep) for clerics that was the mode du jour for 3.5E D&D (not that it was necessarily a bad thing though).

Gone too are the requirements that clerics are the only ritual casters capable of raising the dead, removing curses, curing the sick, or relieving the diseased. The powerful ritual casting system in 4E allows for any character class, even fighters or barbarians, to fill those roles. Some might even argue that this sort of (Vancian?) magic is also in line with the original creators of the game - that magic was fantastic and there for the tampering by anyone so inclined to do so, regardless of 'class'. It also, more importantly, implies that clerics themselves are no longer shoehorned into being "priests". Community and parish priest NPCs can now easily be played by any character class (or even non at all) and not "break" the RAW. A priest of the God of Thievery does not need even a single level of cleric to be "believable", all they need are the right skills (e.g. Religion) and the right feats (e.g. Ritual Caster) and that's about it.

In terms of roleplaying, this aspect of 4th Edition blows down 20 years of building up the cleric as both a Holy Knight and a Priest and puts them back into the intersection between martial arms and spiritual mysteries.

I started this series with the aim of going in depth into the evolution of the cleric class through every major edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The title was chosen based on a feeling I had - the new 4E cleric just seemed like the OD&D cleric to me, but I couldn't put a finger on exactly what it was that convey this to me. Then it hit me...

In my previous post about clerics in the 3rd Edition D&D I mentioned that the lack of requirement for a deity was a cop-out. Here, to save you time, I'll even quote myself:
"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?"" -- me, A few days ago.
Without the need to have clerics be the ceremonial purveyors of divine magic (i.e. ritual casters), there's also no need for them to be priests at all. In fact, Cook, Tweet and Williams had it right in 3rd Edition - but they were stuck with all the baggage of "clerics as priests", so the assertion that clerics did not need to choose deity seemed out of place in the 3E PHB (at least, from a 2E AD&D point of view). However, when this assertion is repeated in 4th Edition it seems completely appropriate:
"You have been invested with the authority to wield divine power on behalf of a deity, faith, or philosophy." -- 4th Edition Players Handbook.
Because clerics are not priests in 4th Edition and they do not need to choose a deity nor do they even need to be the sole purveyor of divine rituals. Of course, many cleric characters still do and are, but it is also perfectly natural in 4th Edition for cleric to simply draw their power from some inner force of 'divine' inspiration (e.g. a philosophy). In fact, you might even argue that, once invested with this divine source of power and conviction, it is internalized and becomes something that in inextricably part of that character. Something permanent.

This last point is supported by the fact that in 4th Edition cleric powers can not be stripped from the character, even by their own deity (if they have chosen one), once they have been invested with these divine powers.
"What you do with your powers once you are ordained is up to you, although if you flagrantly and openly defy your deity’s tenets, you quickly earn the enmity of the faithful." -- 4th Edition Players Handbook.
So clerics who are abusive of their powers will have to deal with the priests and their congregations - but they run zero risk of loosing their abilities. Compared to previous editions of D&D, where the DM was encouraged to laydown the law and enforce "correct" roleplaying and behavior for player clerics lest they loose their abilities, this seemingly subtle shift has deep implications. The prime effect is that it, once again, positions the 4E D&D cleric to be more similar to a holy knight than a parish priest. It mirrors the Templar or other crusading knights in medieval Europe - they are vested with divine authority to do whatever it takes to smite the infidels and whomever gets in their way in potentially in for a fight. As a result, they are feared by both the enemies of the Church and by the priests and congregants that make up its body.

Keeping all this in mind has a profound effect on the way clerics should be roleplayed in 4th Edition. They may be unable to rely on their own church for support. They very well may have official support, but be at odds with the local parish priest due to their "violent ways". They are no longer necessarily these pillars of the community that bridged the gap between the party and the people (as I suggested was the focus in 2E AD&D and 3E D&D).

No. The 4E D&D cleric is a bad-ass, and he doesn't take no for an answer.

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is still relatively young and much still remains to be seen. On July 29th, 2009 we will see the release of The Complete Divine - and presumably leading up to that release date there will be an outpouring of Dragon and Dungeon articles to support it. It will be interesting to see if the 4th Edition Cleric continues to be portrayed as a blazing fire-brand of conviction, or if the game designers will bring new "character builds" to the table that only serve to continue the cleric's 30-year identity crisis. I hope, instead, we may see a new class (such as a Mystic or a True Priest) that breaks from the mold of the militant priest and picks up where 2E AD&D was headed in remaking the cleric into a wise font of divinely inspired power. The true priest class would benefit from being much more like a Wizard (from any edition): armorless, yet someone not to be trifled with. If this turns out to be the case, then my original assertion will hold true (which I hope it does):

-- The New Cleric is the Old Cleric --

And with that... this series is finally at an end. I hope you enjoyed it.

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  1. While I have no love for the 4ed Dnd, I have found this series to be fascinating and some of what you have said could be applied to earlier versions.

  2. I'll echo bonemaster's above comment. You've put together an excellent series. While I'm not sure I completely agree that the new Cleric is the old Cleric, I can see that the spirit of the OD&D Cleric has, in many ways, been raised from the dead in 4e. That in and of itself is a good thing in my antediluvian view.

  3. I love 4e, and I think this series was great. You should do other classes too, in a similar style, though perhaps not with the same thesis statement. But yes, I agree with you for the most part.

  4. hey all! I'm glad you liked it! Honestly, I think it is the largest single body of writing I've contributed to my blog thus far (if you put all parts together into one). The cool part for me was how much i learned about the history through reading all these older works with a critical eye - instead of my usual munch-kin power gamer eye.

  5. Excellent stuff. It is very interesting to go back through the earlier versions of the game to see how the classes have changed.


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