Saturday, 18 January 2014

Alternate Clerics

When it comes to house rules that signal a particular flavour and reinforce atmosphere and genre conventions true of a setting, Clerics and the workings of divine magic are one of the most often reworked parts of D&D. In most first and second generation OSR rules sets, Clerics work almost exactly like Magic-Users, except they do not need spell books and their spells come from a higher power, which also implies the existence of gods (or at least creatures with godlike capabilities) who are willing to grant power to their followers.

In this post I talk about some alternative ways of handling Clerics and their magic. In no way it is intended to be a detailed analysis or comprehensive list of options; nevertheless, I appreciate links and others ideas posted in the comments, for this post is not about inventing something new but appreciating the richness of house rules people have shared.

Game Without Clerics

The easiest and probably most radical way of "altering" the class is obviously not including it in the game whatsoever. It may imply either the non-existence of gods, their unwillingness to grant spells, or even their lack of sufficient power.
  • Hulks & Horrors (and most other sci-fi games) do not have a Cleric class for magic (neither arcane, nor divine) plays no role in the game and is entirely excluded. Even such games that include powers of the supernatural (such as psychic powers in Stars Without Number) usually ignore divinity and faith.
  • Carcosa has no Cleric class either, although the setting is not without entities that could serve as divine patrons of some sort. However, these entities are way too alien and malign to grant spells in the traditional sense, plus magic is also seriously reworked so that daily divine spells would not fit anyway. 

Clerical Spells Without Clerics

There are games where there are clerical spells but not Clerics per se. For instance, in Platemail any character may acquire such powers with the right ability choices. In -C's Numenhalla camapaign, the Sage class has two specialisations (Diviner and Healer) whose powers resemble the Cleric's. A third example could be Crypts & Things, where traditional Cleric spells belong to the White Magic spell list.

Clerics Without Spells

Talysman proposed a very interesting variant of divine magic. Instead of the Vancian tradition, Clerics have access to a very limited number of powers or effects (such as defense, command, heal, etc.), ones that are traditionally linked to miracles or D&D-esque image of Clerics. To use their powers, Clerics need to make a Reaction roll, but instead of Charisma, their level and the difficulty of the desired effect modify the result of 2d6; they succeed on a result of 9+.

Priests in Helvéczia

In Melan's new game, Helvéczia (sorry folks, it is available only in Hungarian), Priests can memorise a number of spells based on their level, just as in regular D&D. However, they can do so only in churches, monasteries, or other locations in connection to God. Furthermore, the exact spells available also depend on the location; for instance, cathedrals generally offer more diverse and higher level spells than little village churches. Perhaps Wormwood will have a similar system.

Another important mechanic is the Virtue subsystem; Virtue ranges from 0 to 21 and is generated like every other attribute at character generation. Based on the character's action, however, it may go up or down. If it is below or above average, a small bonus is given (+1 to attack and damage or +1 to saves, respectively). Priests with a low Virte score cannot memorise new spells. It is a lot less forgiving mechanic than Talysman's Piety system; the main difference is, however, that it affects non-Priest characters, as well.

Brendan's Competency System

Brendan once proposed the mechanical term spell competency meaning the highest level spell a character can cast (in the post linked he also describes other ways this stat can be used for non-spellcasters, as well). In another post he described an alternate Cleric that works different to the Magic-User. To put it simply, Clerics succeed at spellcasting if [1d6 + competency - disfavour >= 6]. Each successful attempt increases disfavour by 1, which resets to 0 once the party return to civilisation. Another fundamental difference is that clerical magic is ritualistic, meaning each casting attempt takes 10 minutes (that is, a full exploration turn).

This particular approach succeeds at clerical magic feeling different from arcane magic. I also quite like how casting interacts with the time management aspect of the game. However, it should be noted that in exchange for the increased casting time and non-certainty of success, Clerics gain no compensation.

Culturally Different Clerics

Clerics in vanilla D&D are tightly tied to pseudo-Christian and -medieval assumptions; another approach is associating the same (or roughly the same) game terms with another culture, such as Pearce Shea's Wandering Shinto Doctor based on Asian premises or Jack Mack's pagan Summoner. Undoubtedly, this approach may result in radically different clerical classes both in style and game terms, thus it may not belong to the same category of methods as the other options presented above, which may be used either because of balancing reasons or creating culturally diverse clerical classes.

UPDATE (140705): Changed outdated Untimately links to Necropraxis ones.


  1. I believe there's a lot of potential in the cleric as class and I tried to explore some of the options here:

    The long and short of it is that I try to encourage the players to formulate their own individual version of a faith and give them some house rules that emphasize the impact a god should have on a setting (rituals, claiming territory and believers, granting wonders, etc.) and the duties a cleric should have (in my opinion).

  2. Personally one aspect I've always disliked of Clerics (which existed even before 3e) is that all clerics are, by default, a hybrid fighter/caster class. Even in a fairly 'ISO Standard D&D Setting' I always found this fact quite strange for those clerics who weren't affiliated with a war-like God.

    Must be some leftover of their crusader inspiration. And yes, I know, this is a really old post to answer.

    1. There are a couple games that do away with the militaristic cleric. One is the aforementioned Helvéczia (of which there's an English translation in the works). One is Mazes & Minotaurs, where all caster classes are worse in direct combat than any specialist or warrior class. The third that comes to mind is AS&SH, which has a Priest class next to the Cleric (a "less fighting, more casting" variant, basically). I'm sure there are others out there.