Wednesday, July 31, 2019


I have a problem with Clerics.

At a purely game level, they don't add a problem-solving strategy to dungeon-crawling. While there are certainly approaches to game design that encourage a huge range of available classes (3rd Edition, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and GLOG, for example), I contend that classes revolve more about generalized player strategy, with a secondary element of game-interaction preference. The more general the structure of classes in the game, the greater the amount of the game open to participation by all players: hyper-specialized niches leave players with naught to do much of the time. Given that, the classic trio of Wizard, Thief, Fighter provides a range of strategy and interaction:

Maximilien Robespierre
Famously not a fan of
clerics either.
  • Fighters provide a simple, brute-force approach to problems. They are best equipped to tackle situations with violence, in the sense of both dealing and resisting. Because of their greater toughness, they can take more risks than their companions. Their abilities are always "on".
  • Wizards are for lateral thinking approaches. Their toolbox of spells opens them up to possibilities beyond the purely mundane. While later editions (and, to be honest, their origin in Chainmail) situates them more as artillery, they ideally serve to create new opportunities for the adventuring party. Their powers have finite uses.
  • Thieves (which is a bad name, more on that later) are the finesse problem solver. They show up to the dungeon with a broader collection of skills than the fighter but less diverse than the wizard. In a sense they are a middle ground between two extremes, something made explicit in 1975's Tunnels and Trolls' Rogue class. More recent iterations have turned this archetype into an "Expert" with less attention granted to breaking-and-entering-type skills.

So where does the Cleric fit in this continuum? She classically can wear armor like the Fighter, although her attack bonus and weapon selection are reduced in comparison. She can cast spells like the Wizard, but her spell list tends to focus on resolving problems currently plaguing the party (dead, injured, poisoned, de-leveled, etc) as opposed to problems that can be approached proactively in the dungeon. She doesn't even fit thematically since her spell list, weapon restrictions, and inspiration are largely drawn from Christianity while she mostly exists in a polytheistic, Christ-less milieu.

On the other hand, a lot of problems in the dungeons seem like they might require a cleric. Healing aside, the cleric is the primary means of curing various ailments including disease, level loss, ability score drain, and death. She is often responsible for dealing with special foes like the undead or the infernal. Since undead, in particular, will not break off and flee and often arrive in great numbers, the magical power to provoke them into fleeing can be particularly potent.

Painting of Destruction of Religion Images (Icons) in Zurich, 1524 / Creative Commons
i·con·o·clas·tic (adjective): characterized by an attack on cherished beliefs or institutions.
I'd like to jettison the cleric. It usually fails to be evocative while at the same time needlessly gating the opportunity for other classes to Get Weird through devotion. You can even see it in other people's Cleric classes: Paladin is a devoted Fighter, Inquisitor/Vampire Hunter is a devoted Specialist and Warlock is a devoted Wizard, leaving the Cleric as a devoted...all of the above? Delete cleric, let everyone get the chance to worship the Above and/or the Outside. And those party problems that Cleric helps resolve? I have a post I've been working on about that. Hopefully, I'll have it done soon. But first, something others might find useful.

To ensure that there really isn't something of value lost I've produced a survey of OSR cleric classes. At some level, I find all of these interesting and valuable even if I don't want an explicit "priest" class in my game. Partially what has made them interesting is that they've focused on some specific element rather than being a generic healer class, a great example of addition by subtraction. Enemy mostly focuses on the turn undead element. Historical are more low-powered and less supernatural and thus tend to be more social. Beholden are more often instead called "warlocks" but really a warlock is just a cleric whose church isn't tax-exempt. Altered are most like Dungeons and Dragons clerics but or distill it differently. Finally, there are a couple Alternative classes that sorta fit the role of a cleric but aren't really "priest-like".

Enemy of The Adversary

  • Nick's Antimagic Cleric makes explicit their nature as agents of Law, in opposition to Chaos' manifestation in the form of magic. They can identify, dispel, and resist magic.
  • Sabers and Witchery's Hunter is fictionalized around hunting down the unnatural. She can smite evil, gather information, and Turn the undead and the infernal, but casts no spells. The magus class can also turn and gains access to traditional clerical magic.


  • Dan's Priest gains a diverse Bless, the ability to Turn Undead, use relics (clerical consumable magic items), and specialization via holy order.
  • Box in a Box of Box Full of Boxes wrote an ascetic that leans a little towards Sufi-ish non-Western holy men even as it very clearly is inspired by the D&D monk. It nonetheless has a lot of appropriate flavor for a more historically-based divine character than the extremely-specific crusading priest archetype.
  • Courtney Campbell's notion of bonds for divine abilities to represent a connection to the Classical greek gods. Tsojcanth does swaps out Turn Undead for a different power depending on god.
  •  Jeff Marches' Priest is a GLOG cleric that's far more historical and subtle than most. It only gains miracles as its 4th template, before that rebuking the unholy and tending the flock.
  • Hawk of Store Brand Danger has a GLOG Acolyte that is an engine for generating Boons for the party through various means, plus a few plausibly-not-supernatural gifts.  

Iconoclasm by Calvinists circa 1525-1527
Really though churches and gods are great in the game. It's clerics that are the problem.

Beholden to Strange Powers

  • BrianDM's Marked for Whitehack gain shifting Marks (glowing eyes, horns, etc) from their patron that work with the games Group system, more or less getting advantage on a particular ability score where it might help. They can beseech their patron for information, and they gain several supernatural gifts as they level.
  • Logan Knight's Mystic was the first set of rules I saw for clerics that diverged radically from the crusading knight archetype. They are quintessential theurges, gaining power from worshiping weird corrupting beings. They gain a handful of thematic abilities but most of their puissance comes from asking for miracles and hoping. Using their patron's power is risky, and Logan detailed a handful of creepy beings in his unique gross style.
    • The author of the Swords and Scoundrels adapted it for the GLOG.
  • Mateo, formerly of gloomtrain, now hex culture created a warlock that is quite similar. He explicitly uses the reaction roll for the PC's bargaining with their patron.
  • Brendan's Shaman predates Logan's Mystic but is similar conceptually. Each patron has several special powers it bestows if the shaman can meet the DC. Essentially a more structured and reliable mystic.
  • James Young recently wrote a cleric that can access several different patrons, each with a set of observances and a few miracles.
  • Oblidisideryptch wrote up a GLOG Warlock that has seen several additional patrons. It gets its magic dice from the patron, accruing debt that has to be repaid via various tasks but can sacrifice health to boost their spells far above everyone else.
  • red_kangaroo at Library of Attnam posted the Cultist of the Thousand Gods Heresy and a sequel. The cultist is a GLOG class that worships one of several weird evocative beings each of which bestows different gifts or rituals.

Altered Spell Mechanics

  • Arnold's GLOG cleric focuses on ritual and divination. It contains an expansion of his previous Faith Dice idea. It fits this category least but it doesn't really fit in any of the others.
  • Talysman of Nine and Thirty Kingdoms proposed Clerics without Spells some time ago. It breaks down all Cleric spells into 6 categories of effect (Healing, Protections, etc) and using the reaction roll to manifest the effect.
  • Skerples' Generic Cleric for GLOG doesn't do much new but it effectively captures the archetype.
  • Lexi's GLOG Cleric is a bit more like WotC clerics, with godly domains that grant a suite of powers. Hers explicitly involves creating splinter heretic sects.
  • Josh at Rise Up Comus has a Devout class that has a pool of Faith points used to smite, heal, or perform a miracle. Each miracle is chosen by the DM at casting from a list associated with each god but which is identical to a Wonder and Wickedness specialty.

Alternative Attempts to Resolve the Cleric Problem

  • Arnold's Poet works more like a bard or skald but could fill the role of support caster in a pinch. It was inspired by the notion that it should be the PC in need of healing that spends the action to reduce the use of cleric as healbot.
  • FT&F's Humans are the strangest thing on this review. The PC race represents the metaphysical Mundane. Large groups of humans cause magic to stop working. They can Turn Supernatural as a racial feature, and they gain access to miracles, a small chance for anything to happen. These are all explicitly traits of all Men and correspond to their position as creations of divine Law.

First Circle by Shahab Alizadeh
Everyone should get the chance to be changed through the worship of the unfathomable.


  1. It all well and good until Dave Fants manages to get his character turned into a Dracula style vampire and the good guy players are hard pressed to stop him until somebody asks "Hey if Dave can be Dracula, why I can't be a Van Helsing." Shake in a few other things like Charlemagne's Paladins and healing and out comes the cleric.

    Humor aside, the point of the original cleric was as a counter to the more powerful creatures in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor Campaign mainly the more powerful undead like vampire. It was a specialized but needed niche. All the elments you noted where added in to make the class more useful than just a Van Helsing type. As a side benefit it addressed the role of religion in adventuring. A middling fighter, a middle spellcaster, but very useful against undead.

  2. I appreciate the comment, Rob.

    I've heard that before about the cleric's history and while it worked at Arneson's table for its intended purpose, it's not my table, but we in the hobby seem to have gotten stuck with it as one of the basic classes anyways. I hate, too, that in many games it feels necessary to bring one along, regardless if anyone actually wants to play one.

    I'm slowly putting together a suite of tools to replace the cleric with something I like better. I don't think the solution will be as easy just shoving all the answers into one class. Brendan's recent Dark Souls-inspired post ( is part of it, for example. I think that religion in games should be more like that of Rogue-likes: while there may be a dominant religion that PCs subscribe to from the get-go, they can find cults and shrines and artifacts that allow anyone, of any class, to become devoted to a deity. The default religion will probably look more like the cleric's assumed faith for simplicity sake, but others would be weirder.

    In Europe historically, religion was a major factor in everyone's life. Sequestering off the "religion-stuff" to the cleric fights against that. I want to see more faithful fighters calling on their god because players can expect something to happen, sometimes. I want players to hunt undead by gearing up and attending mass, not rolling up a cleric. I don't see why Abraham van Helsing isn't just a devout Specialist.


    This is a late comment as I somehow stumbled on this page. I replaced the Cleric with a supped-up Paladin for my system.