I have tough relationship with clerical classes in RPGs. On one hand I really like to play them. They give this clear unifying theme and set of tropes. On the other… this theme is usually overused. The problem is in players – well played cleric, cult or religion is a prize but someone has to work for it. I’ve seen too many caricatural, grotesque even portrayals of clerics, quickly devolving in fanatism characters, all these traits creating conflicts within the group. Today I would make it very clear for my players – you gotta get along with the rest of the group. I don’t care for reasons your character is with them, if you get into conflict so bad you need to leave – please bring another character. Players are responsible for their own fun and if they don’t deliver because “that’s what my character would do” then they just don’t play that character. And somehow fanatical cleric characters did this on my sessions the most.
In OSR and DnD in general there is also another bad thing about clerics. Their Christian based origins. I mean, we can argue about different tropes and cults and specific examples. But holy man exorcising evil and demons, taking care of the wounded and sick, praying for the dead… I mean, really? Warhammer Fantasy did it better in terms of polytheistic semi-ancient Roman/Greek religions because their clerics were different – only two had any healing spells, some were focused on combat, on death-adjacent stuff, on skill and wisdom or something. I mean, this is what polytheistic cults were. Athens had this part of town where all temples were situated and they did the biggest to Athena, god of wisdom and war (wise strategic war and not random manslaughter). And other gods had their temples and shrines there but no one cared for Zeus being the main overgod. Nope, they liked Athena more. There was no kind of Judeo-Christian vision of one transcendental overgod encompassing it all. They had temples of fertility where there were rituals of people having lots of sex so more babies be born. The myths, rules and virtues were coming from practicality and community, they were not some arbitrary ideas forced upon these people. They prayed for spirits of food for it to not spoil because it spoiled a lot and food was important.
Also Nordic gods. I mean, in popular culture there is the notion of Odin overgod of pantheon, father of all. But if you look closely most of these gods have warrior-ruler capabilities. There are at least three gods which were probably “the main one” – Odin, Thor and Tyr. Tyr was god of being honourable warrior, knightish even, selfless, one who sacrificed himself for community. Thor was god of being warrior and powerful force of nature, storm which could wreck your ship, destroy your home and incinerate your family – or your enemies for that matter. And Odin, the kinda-warrior but mostly trickster, cheater, one who sacrificed eye for mystical knowledge and power. Odin became main paternal god because societies believing in it were more focused on cheating, winning their raids on Britain, they didn’t care for honour, they wanted to rage and plunder and use any advantage they could to better their chances. They had female god warriors who could perform main role too. Total difference in relation to Proto-Indo-European religions where multiple gods were usually facets of the world and had specific roles. This is how religion works. Not because the gods are what they are but because people believe in whatever their communities value and need.
Also thing not helping clerics is their lawful (good) and chaotic (evil) alignement. I mean, all lawful clerics get healing spells. As if they believed in one god. And all chaotic clerics get the opposite – harmful spells. As if they all worshipped some satan figure or something. Oh, and of course all communities claimed to be uncivilised, which means chaotic, which means evil are always evil. They don’t heal their folk, they don’t light their homes. They know only harm and darkness. Not as we, the lawful (good?) people of the only one right way to live. I get DnD cleric was made as a metal christian priest fighting vampires and zombies. But it remained less metal but still Christian in nature. That’s probably why even though I like playing cleric-y classes I despise the notion of them as a base class. Or as someone using magic as well as wizards and other secular magic users.
Blah blah blah, ranting, venting, boring. What this article is about? It’s about design of clerics. I think the holy-mage cleric, holy-warrior paladin and holy-rouge monk should share a lot of things. If you are a cleric only then you choose how to use power granted to you by the deity. So choice of whether to focus on general knowledge and studies, defense and righteous combat or asceticism, martial perfection and meditation should be secondary. I think clerics should use powers than spells. Like Lay on Hands – basic buff of allies, either heal them, make them stronger, resilient or link to some special power of their sort. Limited use, per day, per sacrifice, per prayer, maybe believers get better bonuses or non-believers don’t even get the basic because the power is only for baptised? Next power – Turn Unholy. The religion designates what is unholy in it’s view. I think use is unlimited but has cooldown? And needs reliquary so if you lose it or it breaks then say bye to scaring vampires. Another generic priest-ine power? Simple divination – roll sacred dice, use holy cards, smoke special weeds or sacrifice small life to get vague vision and probably bonus to do something. Also some kind of holy aura to boost allies? Next things would be spells – draw circle on the ground to be warded of spiritual influences, sanctify weapon to deal bigger damage to cosmological enemies of your faith, say a rite to cleanse/contaminate place or object. And I think all of these spells and spell-like abilities should really work more like 5e Ceremony than Magic-User “clap hands and blaze enemies”.
What about cleric template? I like it. You either start as cleric and choose the regular class like warrior, mage or explorer or you get the class and at some point of adventure maybe dedicate life to ideological supernatural servitude. So the fighting cleric is this paladin type or maybe holy avenger, savage zealot? And instead of some “spells” you get divine fighting styles as you spend more time fighting and training. And magic cleric knows most spells, can use divined regular spells maybe, searches for supernatural knowledge and power and ways of utilising them in the name of their religion. And cleric skill monkey would be this humble cleric of the people, no armor, barely any items, probably just a stick and robes. Probably tons of special abilities, either combat-monk and anchorite-monk, super resilience, mad acrobatics and stealth, living without food and water for days.
- Ymjarr, warrior-god and ice giant
- Lay on Hands: reroll next failed save vs poison, mitigate X fire damage
- Turn Unholy: turn creatures of fire like elementals, fire breathing dragons, fire djinni etc.
- Divination: crush block of ice and take a look at a person of your choosing as long as there is ice or water next to them
- Holy Aura: every ally within 30′ radius of you gets half damage from cold
- Bonus spell: Frosty Hands deal damage and additionally slow enemies
- Bonus strike: If you use crushing weapon you may choose to immediately break enemy’s shield/armor instead or doing damage
- Bonus skill: Climb on frost – like climb sheer surface but with ice, snow and frozen objects
- Nature Worship
- Lay on Hands: heal 1d3 hp and deal same amount of additional damage with next attack
- Turn Unholy: turn undead
- Divination: throw thorny weed into fire to see in the smoke what was happening next to it a day before
- Holy Aura: every ally gets additional 10′ of movement as long as part of their movement is within 30′ radius of you
- Bonus spell: thorn growth but better
- Bonus strike: deal 1d4 damage less to enemy but they cannot regain hp in any way for next turn
- Bonus skill: Hide in Overgrowth – like Hide in Shadows but in tall grass, bushes or on a tree
- Ancestral Worship
- Lay on Hands: reroll next failed save vs Wands or Spells/rods/staves
- Turn Unholy: undead
- Divination: chant name of your ancestor three times in dark night and you’ll dream of them answering one of your questions
- Holy Aura: every ally within 30′ radius has all saves better by one point
- Bonus spell: shield but for multiple people
- Bonus style: If you don’t make any action one turn you may attack twice in next one
- Bonus skill: when you fall after climbing take half damage of the impact
- Eternal Fractal Scheme
- Lay on Hands: give X*2 temporary hit points which change at next dawn or dusk into same amount of damage
- Turn Unholy: planar outsiders and artificial life (oozes and cubes, invisible servants, constructs)
- Divination: draw a part of the fractal and look into it for few minutes, you’ll get a vision of person in similar situation
- Holy Aura: every ally in 30′ radius gets +1 to attack and +1 to damage
- Bonus spell: Hypnotic Pattern but better
- Bonus style: after successful hit you may add 1d6 damage but receive 1d6 damage yourself (rolls are separate)
- Bonus skill: as Move Silently but sound of your steps is coming from random location instead of yours
These are very unbalanced and totally unplaytested clerical portfolios for OSE type game. But they give very different and very fun options to play. Ancestral-cleric is ducking tank making sure you’ll survive the dungeon. Ymjarr-cleric can mess up fire-based enemies and gives passive protection from cold. “Druid” is a handful of things from heal and harm combo, making everybody around swift and fast to hiding behind every bush. And alien template weird god is the lawfullest of them all and imagine the tension when you got healed by them and you know if you don’t regain HPs other way till evening you are going to die because you don’t have enough. Each of them can give different feeling. Some may not have certain option like no paladins or no monks. And parts of a pantheon could have one ability the same to signify gods community. I don’t know, anything but the priest of generic paternal One God or God of Gods or whatever.
Recently I was inspired to try creating characters and setting around OSE. And I have found that spellcasters are a chore. Like I even like alien weirdness of vancian magic. But making homebrew classess based on them… Usually it is something akin to fighter or thief or mix. Sometimes mixes with magic-user. But cleric is so specific – even as one of four baseline broadest archetypes – it rarely gets in the mix. Because of reasons above. I will probably at some point share these ancestry classes based loosely on Dungeon Town from Heroes of Might and Magic III but suffice to say – cleric-based homebrew is the hardest.