Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Picking Nits With Mike Mearls Latest - Cleric Design Goals

A few weeks ago, I shared with you a high-level overview of the design goals for the next iteration of the D&D rules. Starting this week, I'd like to show you some of the targets we've set for different elements of the game. This week we'll take a look at the cleric. (the cleric has been a popular target on the WotC site recently)           (original article can be found here)

The cleric was one of the three original D&D character classes. Oddly enough, although healers are common in most fantasy RPGs, many games cast such characters as unarmored spell casters (oddly enough, as D&D was the first RPG.  If any game should be consider precedent setting, D&D would be it).  D&D is fairly unique in that its divine caster wears armor and totes a weapon (is it really that unique tho?  or maybe every MMORPG of a fantasy bent has created healers and clerics just like D&D out of coincidence?)

When looking at the character classes in general, we've taken a few basic points as a starting foundation:
  • The class should be recognizable to anyone who has played D&D. No matter what edition you've played, you should be able to identify the class based solely on a summary of its abilities. (this is a good thing)
  • The class should have an element that makes it unique. Playing one class should feel different from playing another one. (all of the core classes are unique.  maybe less so the sub classes, but that is why they are sub classes)
  • The class should relate in some way to archetypal characters, stories, legends, and myths that form modern fantasy (uhm, they should relate to how the classes have existed over the last 38 years in D&D.  Every fictional world is different.  They are fictional worlds, not gaming worlds.  Trying to shoehorn what works in fiction into an RPG will make for some awkward fits). Someone who has never played D&D should understand what the class represents within the fantasy genre. (Cleric - Fighting Priest - do we need to say more?  Doesn't really exist in Middle Earth, which is ground zero for most fantasy fiction fans)
I doubt that those three points will be outlandish or strange to anyone. They're listed in order of importance, though it's rare that these three points come into direct conflict with each other (I can see them coming into conflict fairly often depending on how close one stays to the above definitions). Then, with these three general points in mind, we can then take a look at how the design goals for the cleric class primarily concern its role as a healer and support character, mixed with a dash of the elements that make it unique to D&D.

1. The Cleric Is a Healer

This one should seem obvious, but it's worth making it clear that we assume that clerics can heal and that their abilities should reflect that. A player new to D&D who creates a cleric could focus on keeping the rest of the characters on their feet, and the mechanics would make that easy to understand and do. (I'm guessing many of the "new crop" they are expecting to gain will have some experience with MMORPGs and grasp the concept of a "healer")

2. The Cleric Is a Divine Spellcaster

The cleric is our divine spellcaster, the iconic wielder of the gods' power. There might be other types of divine magic-users in the world of D&D, but the cleric is the most common such spellcaster among adventurers. The cleric's spells form the most prominent portion of his or her capabilities. (i'm assuming healing spells fall into this category too, or are we retaining "healing surges" from 4e?)

3. Divine Magic Is Subtle and Indirect

Divine spells are rarely naked displays of power meant to smite and blast the cleric's enemies. Instead, the cleric's magic lends strength, support, and durability to both the cleric and his or her allies. Spells such as blesscure light wounds, and neutralize poison are iconic divine spells (as are command, hold person and flame strike). They lend aid to the cleric's allies and help reverse the efforts of the cleric's enemies. A cleric might help overcome an ogre berserker by healing the party's fighter, allowing the fighter to survive long enough to deal a deadly attack.

4. The Cleric Is an Armored Warrior

The cleric is a warrior, though not as skilled as a fighter and typically armed with weapons linked to his or her deity. Clerics fight to defeat their gods' enemies, to enforce their ethos, and to root out heresy or threats to the faithful (wait -  they don't fight to gain treasure, gain experience and protect their friends?  what kind of cleric is this anyway? ;)  Clerics use their magic to support and strengthen their allies, and they wield their weapons to defeat their enemies. They wear armor and carry shields to withstand their enemies' attacks, which allows clerics to use their magic to protect their companies rather than needing it to save themselves. (yeah, sure - trust me, they'll be using magic to save their own ass too)

5. Clerics Reflect the Gods

A cleric of the god of shadows should have different abilities than a cleric of the god of storms (definitely - there should be a handful of spells or abilities that help link them to their faith.  AD&D 2e did this okay - 3e went a bit too specific and restrictive). On an adventure, they should have different approaches that are supported by divine gifts given to them by the gods. We should expect a cleric of the god of shadows to excel at hiding—even in heavy armor—while a cleric of the storm god can call down thunder and lightning. (kaboom!  my kind of god!)

Keep in mind that these goals are guiding principles for the typical expression of a class. One of the concepts we've embraced is the idea of creating starting points, but then allowing a lot of room to maneuver for players who want to tinker with mechanics or who prefer to craft their character's story first, then find mechanics to match that story second. As I mentioned at our PAX East seminar, our battle cry is "Don't get in the way." The basic idea behind that approach is that we create a starting point, but then give players the options and tools to modify their characters as they see fit. (i guess I need to find time to watch the PAX video... or just find a transcript)

For instance, in a playtest I created an elf cleric of Apollo who was a skilled archer, woodsman, and scout. My character wore leather armor, carried a bow and a dagger, and spent the session sneaking ahead to spy on monsters, climbing a tree to escape an enraged ogre's reach, and hiding in a dark corner to ambush a gang of monsters drawn out by the rest of the party. You can easily create a cleric with a mace, healing spells, and plate armor, but you can also use the character customization options to sculpt your character. Keep in mind that I created this character before we had god-specific mechanics in the game, so this level of customization exists for all characters. I didn't gain access to it only by picking a domain or set of spheres for my character's god. (not sure I'd ambush anybody in leather and a dagger, but whatever floats your boat)

By the same token, we aim to make sure that players can choose a set of options that match their preferred tactics. You can imagine having a set of healing spells that allow you to aid your allies while still attacking, while also having different spells that take your entire turn (i'm not sure what his means - take your entire turn - entire turn to cast or lasts an entire turn - is a turn the same thing as a round, or equal to 10 rounds?  or some other number). As a player, you can decide to focus on serving as a healer, choose to straddle the middle ground between fighting monsters and helping your allies, or even opt to pick spells such as bless or lance of faith and then emphasize the warrior aspect of your character.

At the end of the day, our design goals represent the primary goals for the archetypal expression of a character class. They're the starting point that we're aiming to bring to life while leaving room for players to tell their own stories and craft their own unique characters.  (which is a fine and lofty goal.  so, when can we expect an updated collection of "Complete Hnadbooks" ala 2e?)


  1. I don't expect any of this D7d Next Coke crap to get me away from 1e AD&D, but what it fails to do is even interest me in buying the rulebook (while the DCCRPG makes me want to grab a copy so I can check out the variants and wacky magic bad mojo tables).

    It also doesn't make me feel like I am going to be able to easily adapt adventures published for 5e to my 1e game.

    How is a game where clerics can heal, fight and play a xylophone while tap dancing and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic going to something I can join with a 1e character?

    This is all pretty ludicrous stuff. Just reprint 3.5 D&D for the masses and 1e or even 2e for the old bastards like me and actually sell some product.

  2. Maybe instead if picking nits, you should call this picking corn lol JK

  3. Just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying this series of posts. Keep picking those nits!

  4. @kiltedyaksman - I took some flak from my "picking corn kernels" comment at the start of these 5e posts - i'll stick with nits for now ;)

    @ravencrowking - glad you are enjoying it. I just put into words what many others are thinking, or at least, I think that's what some others are thinking

    @jasonzavoda - sometimes classic coke is best. the pepsi throwback with real sugar was even better. authentic. real. maybe WotC should think about that for a bit. sometimes folks just went the REAL stuff, not the flash.

  5. hang on. Clerical magic is subtle, and "a cleric of the storm god can call down thunder and lightning."

    Think about this for a moment.

    Also, cleric is first and foremost a healer? Not in my campaign.

  6. @keith davies - when you are working the class, or any class, from multiple angles, you are going to make some awesome contradictions.

    mike is working so many angles he can't keep it straight anymore

    as for healing, its a role they can fill, but not the only role. my cleric in C&C was primarily a warrior and front line fighter - healing was very much a secondary role.

  7. In my group the Cleric is usually a slayer of undead and general evil. He doesn't have time to heal when he's banishing the demons back to whatever pit spawned them.

    Besides, wasn't there a healer class somewhere? The one no one uses?

  8. I love options, but I want them to be sort of open. A big sack of codified options aren't really options. They're splatbooks. As an OD&D referee, I would rather have a player say "This is how I see my guy" and we hash it out together, unique to that character. Codified options aren't options at all; they're rules.


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