I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, February 04, 2022

The strange clerics of original D&D (and B/X, OSR, etc.)

In the original D&D, the cleric is a very peculiar class. Not only thematically (see "additional reading", below), but mechanically too.

At a first glance, the cleric casts spells exactly as a magic-user or elf - only starting a level later than both, and having a lower cap (5th level spells) when compared to the magic-user (6th level).

Once you dig a bit deeper, however, you will realize the clerics are completely different from other casters – most importantly because they can choose any spell to memorize, not being limited by a grimoire. However, there are other relevant details.

First, the cleric’s spell progression is very peculiar when compared to the magic-user and the elf. For example, a level 6 cleric gets access to spells of level 3 and 4 simultaneously for no obvious reason. Compare this to the magic-user: despite requiring a lot more XP to level up, the MU does not have access to level 4 spells until level 7. 

And by level 7 (50,000 XP), the cleric can raise the dead! And, unlike the magic-user, he does so automatically, without needing to choose a spell to add to a grimoire.

From the OSE SRD:

This progression is in Moldvay's Basic (1981), identical to the one is OD&D. However, it is "fixed" for something more streamlined in both BECMI and AD&D.

Second, spell levels few almost arbitrary. Cure Light Wounds (healing 1d6+1 HP) is a 1st level spells, while Cure Serious Wounds (2d6+2 HP) is a fourth level spell. With a 5th level spell, you can raise the dead... or create lots of food.

Then there are deities, which will punish clerics that stray away from their path – or that cast reversed spells, making these kinds of spells a bit less versatile than they appear.

In practice, these things combine to make a more or less coherent whole. Spell levels are all over, but it does not really matter because the cleric can choose any spells every day. The cleric is very useful and versatile, but never a better fighter than the fighter, nor reaching the same destructive powers of a magic-user or elf.

However, there are some downsides. 

For example, the game allows clerics to research their own spells, but there seems to be no obvious parameters on how to do so, since their spells vary so much in power. It also makes creating new classes who have access to both spell lists a lot harder, for the same reason.

Likewise, turn undead uses a strange progression that ALMOST makes sense if you take into account the creature's HD, as OSE does:

As you can see, there is almost a very easy formula to be found ("roll 7+ or more to turn undead of the same HD as yours, 9+ if higher", etc.) that gets "broken" because of the addition of "HD 2*" monsters (which are ghouls, BTW; they seem to be important for some reason, giving the elf an special ability that looks almost pointless to me). OSE suggests adding higher HD monsters if desire; this is really easy to do if you follow a simple formula.

You might think that there is some unseen balance behind this reasoning. But this is not necessarily true. As someone else mentioned, in The Keep on the Borderlands - reviewed as "a good introduction to D&D" (source) - there are dozens of undead with amulets that prevent turning!

So, what can we do with this?

If you're playing B/X, OD&D, BECMI or OSE, you don't need to do anything, if you don't want to. In practice, as we've said, the cleric is not necessarily overpowered (especially if there are few undead in the campaign), and doesn't even heal that many HP (relying basically on CLW; which is good if you're healing 1d3 per day otherwise), despite being able to raise dead quite soon.

However, if you are writing your own house rules or OSR game and want to create a cleric more to your liking, you might consider:

- Streamlining spell progression and spell levels.
- Streamlining turn undead, especially if you don't need a column to accommodate ghouls.
- Giving more healing options if you want the cleric to be a healer.
- Change "raise dead" if you want it to be less common.

This is what I did in Dark Fantasy Basic (making the cleric a weaker spell-caster than the MU and making turn undead a skill) and what I'm working on for my next supplement (an "Alternate Magic" book for OSE - let me know in the comments if you like the idea!).

UPDATE: Alternate Magic is out, with an alternate cleric, ready to use!

Recommended reading:


  1. Nice post. I need to re-read Dark Fantasy Basic, I remember digging it so much that I said, 'if I ever run something other than my game, I'll run DFB.' I have hundreds of other choices available. It's that good.

    Just out of curiosity, have you ever read the For Coin & Blood RPG? 1st Edition has more likable characters in a dark milieu, but they went full villain PCs in 2nd edition. I think you may get some inspiration from the artwork, if nothing else.

    1. Thank you, I'm very happy to hear that!

      Haven't read For Coin & Blood... looks quite cool indeed! And right up my alley! Might check it out!

  2. Clerics in D&D seem to also have a very particular relationship with SNAKES, which is a topic that is not talked about enough. I made my own interpretation (shill: https://alchemistnocturne.blogspot.com/2021/11/a-note-on-clerics-and-review-of-tomb-of.html). The cleric is a really weird guy. I ended up taking him out of my games because its so weirdly specific

    1. Nice! I think sticks to snakes is because of the bible, but Snake charm is an odd spell indeed!
      BTW, if you like snake-themed cults, you MUST check this one out lol (well, especially if you like grim stuff!):

  3. One option I've considered to further differentiate the Cleric from the MU is spontaneous casting, but with a lower number of "effective spell slots" (or spell points, or magic dice, or whatnot).

    1. Yup, sounds like a cool idea! I'm cooking something similar for this book...

    2. I know I've mentioned this before, but if you are happy to pillage from 5e, I think it would be neat to make the Clerics have invocation/auras/Unarmoured defense (Wis) (basically all the oddball features) so that Fighters, MU, and Thieves slot into the Combat, Skills, and Spells spheres, with Cleric being a bit more....eldritch in comparison.

    3. Swords/skills/spells is a pretty good way to divide things. The cleric are indeed a bit hard to fit into one of these boxes, but defensive capabilities DO fit very well with the cleric...