Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clerics and Alternate Classes in D&D Next

One thing that I couldn’t help noticing in our recent D&D Next Playtest sessions was that my wife’s cleric character, Melora MacGonagal, was vastly more powerful than the other characters in our game--at least when I was playing her.  That continues a trend that I first noticed in the 4th Edition but which is probably a lot older than that, i.e. since it seems like nobody ever wants to play a cleric, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has gone to a lot of trouble to try to make the class ever more attractive in order to keep it relevant.  And by more attractive, I mean more powerful.  
  1. Your Cleric can cast spells.  In fact, the cleric’s spell progression chart is virtually identical to that of the wizard.  And some of those Cleric spells are really, really good.
  1. But where the wizard has to wear robes and carry a staff, a cleric can wear armor and carry a shield.
  1. Also, where a wizard has to add spells to his spellbook in order to learn them, the cleric automatically has access to all clerical spells of his or her spell-level.  Granted, the cleric can only cast the spells that he has prepared, but that restriction exists for the wizard, too.
  1. And if necessary, your cleric can also fight in the front lines like a fighter.  This may or may not be ideal depending on the way you’ve built your character, but the fact is that it’s possible--and in many cases, that’s even the intent.  Certainly, if the battle becomes a mad scrum, your cleric’s odds of surviving are better than your party’s thief’s, and the thief doesn’t even get spells.
Now, I learned to play D&D back when it was called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, and my recollection of it back then is that no one wanted to play the cleric because the weapons that clerics got to wield all kind of sucked.  My memories suggest that the cleric was an underpowered class, that the vast majority of the cleric’s spells were defensive or healing in nature, and that when that was coupled to the weaker selection of weapons, it made the class seem somewhat wimpy when compared to the fighter or the wizard.  That may not be objectively true, but that’s what I remember.  However, I also remember that over time clerics began to accumulate more and more offensive spells, making the class lack less and less in terms of offensive power, until eventually the differences went away.
That said, the sea-change came with the 4th Edition.  That’s when WotC made a serious effort to balance the classes all across the board.  Suddenly the cleric had offensive At-Will spells and weapon attacks that were at least the equal of the other classes, and while the melee weapons restrictions remained in place, they were largely negated by an adjustment of the damage output that a cleric’s weapons could do.  Which is to say that the cleric is less attractive than a fighter when he’s forced to wield a mace that deals 1d6 weapon damage while the fighter can use a longsword that deals 1d8.  But if you bump the mace’s damage output up to where it also deals 1d8, suddenly that difference is cosmetic rather than real.  Unless you really had a hard-on for edged weapons, by the time 4e rolled around, there wasn’t a good reason for not wanting to play a cleric.
And yet, still no one wanted to play a cleric.
After Proletariat Comics closed, I spent a lot of time playing D&D 4e on Play-by-Post forums.  I’m a writer, and I like telling stories, and without a small-press comic company in place to facilitate my hobby, I decided to use D&D as the primary outlet for my desire to stay creative.  When you play online, and you run a good, consistent game, it is not at all hard to find good players.  Over the years, I ran maybe a half-dozen games, one of which lasted for nearly four years.  In that time, I saw scores of players, some good, some not.  I played lots of characters, too, and one of my favorites even was a cleric, albeit an evil one, and still, I never saw anyone whose favorite class was Cleric.  In fact, if I had a hundred different player-characters run through my games over the years, I’m gonna guess that there were at most three people who played clerics voluntarily, as their first choice, during that time.  Maybe.  There were maybe three clerics in something like four years of rotating 4e games.  That’s my guess.
This was not about power or powers.  This was not about weapons or spells.  This was about role-play.  Bottom line, I think it’s a tough sell to get someone to really commit to playing the priest of an imaginary god, even when we all know that it’s not real, even when the hypothetical character in question can, mechanically speaking, kick freakin’ ass.  And 4e clerics kicked ass.
But the awesome thing about 4e was that you didn’t have to play a cleric.  With 4e, WotC designed roles for each character-type, and then they filled each role with a variety of options.  What that means is that, yes, you needed to have someone onboard your party who could cast healing spells or otherwise hit people with healing effects.  But starting with 4e, that person no longer had to be a cleric.  Starting with 4e, the guy who was gonna play the healer could still be pretty much anything that he wanted to be.  
What I’m telling you is, that was a good thing.
So here’s the deal: my experience with this is that players don’t mind playing combat medics.  And yes, there are some players who will really get into the divine nature of whatever fantasy-setting you’re using for your game, and for those players, playing a cleric can be a blast.  For the rest of us, though, I think I can speak for a lot of players when I say that I hope that WotC will consider leaving classes like the Warlord and the Artificer in the game.  Because wanting to play the team doctor is not at all the same thing as wanting to play the team’s spiritual leader and/or off-the-hinges religious zealot.  Yes, those characters can be fun, too, but in a long-running game, continually seeing things through the lens of the imaginary faith of Bane the Conqueror or Melora the Nature Goddess can be a Hell of a slog.

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