As tempted as I was to skip right to Druid and then claim it as a “clerical error,” I think I’ll spare you all the pain of that today. Instead, let’s get right down to business…
By the way, acceptable listening for today’s article includes ‘Losing My Religion’ (which you shouldn’t do) by R.E.M., ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ (which you should do) by Journey, ‘Playing God’ (maybe do occasionally?) by Paramore, and ‘Do It Again’ (which is just a good song) by Steely Dan.
Read on for all about the Cleric!
On the Origins of Religion
Let’s just not, shall we?
On the Origins of Clerics (Specifically in D&D)
Anyway, the base idea behind the cleric doesn’t need explanation – it’s a priest, they’ve been around since the beginning of human history, and if you want to learn more there’s like 17 different degrees that are focused specifically on the subject. So, instead, lets look at them in a vacuum.
Storywise, clerics serve as the gods’ agents in the mortal realm. One thing to note is that not all priests are ‘clerics’ per se, and don’t have to be. So what then is the cleric? It’s the adventuring priest, or the higher-ranked clergy. Basically, the cleric is the person the gods go to when they need something important done, while the regular priests handle weddings, holidays, and other ceremonies.
In gameplay, the cleric serves as the designated healer. In the earliest version of D&D, there were only three classes to start with – fighting-man, magic-user, and cleric. Thieves weren’t added until a later publication (at which point the game became playable).
Ever since then, the Cleric has been one of the four basic fantasy archetypes. A master of divine, restorative magic, the cleric also differentiated itself from the magic-user (or wizard) by its martial ability. Clerics could actually use some weapons, though they were extremely limited.
Further editions have changed the cleric bit by bit over the years, mostly towards loosening its stranglehold on healing in the game, but the class has remained mostly intact through all that time.
A Cleric’s Features
Next, lets run down the basic features of the cleric. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment.
|1st||Spellcasting, Divine Domain #1||11th||Destroy Undead ++|
|2nd||Channel Divinity, inc. Divine Domain option||12th||ABSI|
|4th||Ability Score Increase (ABSI)||14th||Destroy Undead +++|
|6th||Channel Divinity +, Divine Domain #2||16th||ABSI|
|7th||–||17th||Destroy Undead ++++, Divine Domain #4|
|8th||ABSI, Destroy Undead +, Divine Domain #3||18th||Channel Divinity ++|
|10th||Divine Intervention||20th||Divine Intervention +|
Here’s where we start to see our first real pattern emerge. Notice how, all told, the cleric has only three features besides Spellcasting. Even then, Destroy Undead is a modification of Channel Divinity… so they actually only have two features.
This will be important later for every subsequent full caster I talk about, as they all share this oddity.
So how do we talk about clerics if they have so few base class features? Well, one good place to start is with the biggest of their features – Spellcasting.
The cleric is a class defined by its spellcasting. The spell list for clerics is wildly different from that of any other class except maybe druid (which I would note was originally a cleric subclass in older editions). There are several spells that no other full spellcasters get besides cleric, and much of the spell list is support-focused.
That’s how we arrive at the following conclusion – I’m going over two support classes in a row, thanks to the alphabet.
Just like bards, clerics are support characters. Unlike bards, however, clerics support their party not through skills and positive effects alone, but by using protection spells, healing spells, hindering spells, control spells, and practically any type of spell you can think of.
Spellcasting is the key.
The cleric’s other features don’t even play in to much, all things considered. The most important of them is Channel Divinity, but that’s almost completely determined by subclass, not the base. Destroy Undead is a nice effect, but not defining in a traditional sense. And Divine Intervention… well, I’d call it a ribbon if it weren’t for the slim possibility of it being the most overpowered and broken ability in the game… occasionally.
And that’s where I’ll end the discussion of the base class. There just isn’t that much to say, ultimately, and so we should move on to the important part… subclasses.
Surveying Your Domain(s)
Clerics have the second most subclasses of any class in the game, just behind wizards. There are a lot of cleric subclasses to choose from, and to look at when we’re discussing things.
I’m going to skip the comparative table this time, since cleric subclasses are both too varied to boil down so far, and oddly systematic enough that it’s barely necessary.
At 1st level, a cleric will gain a few bonus proficiencies from his or her Divine Domain. These can be skill proficiencies (plus a cantrip, sometimes) or weapon/armor ones. They’ll also get a small defining feature for their subclass.
At 2nd level, a cleric will gain a Channel Divinity option from the Divine Domain.
At 6th level, a cleric will either get a second Channel Divinity option or another feature that builds off of their 1st level feature.
At 8th level, a cleric will either get Potent Spellcasting (bonus damage on cantrips) or Divine Strike (bonus damage on attacks). Which one a cleric gets is determined by the proficiencies they got at 1st level – if they were skill proficiencies, then the cleric gets Potent Spellcasting; if they were weapon/armor proficiencies, then the cleric gets Divine Strike.
And at 17th level, a cleric will get their subclass capstone.
So what does this all mean for homebrewers?
Well, the first step of any cleric homebrew has got to be deciding on whether or not your subclass is going to be a melee one (that gets weapon/armor proficiencies and Divine Strike) or a spellcasting one (that gets skills, cantrips, and Potent Spellcasting).
I really wish this wasn’t true, but that rule is consistent as far as I’ve seen.
The next step would be to choose out two key abilities that the subclass needs. One will become the 2nd level Channel Divinity, and the other the 1st level feature. But what should those be?
If we look at the subclasses from the Player’s Handbook, you’ll see that there’s two real patterns for cleric subclasses.
In one, the 1st level feature of the Domain makes you better at something. This is true for the Life, Trickery, and War Domains. Each one makes you better at something. Life makes your healing spells stronger; Nature gives you a more druid-y feel; Trickery lets you enhance others’ stealth capabilities; and War gives you a weakened version of Extra Attack. This all stays true up through the subclass capstone. These are all things the cleric can do already, the subclass just makes you better.
In the other, the 1st level feature of the Domain gives you a totally new ability to use. This is true for the Light, Nature, and Tempest Domains. All three give you something new to use in gameplay – Light gives you a protective flare, Nature gives you druid stuff, and Tempest gives you lightning bolts out of every cell of your body. For these subclasses, the higher level features and capstone either improve this original feature, or add even more new abilities. Clerics can’t do any of these already, so they’re totally new abilities.
The Knowledge Domain doesn’t really fit either category exactly. Its 1st level feature falls more into the first category – it makes you better at your skill checks. Then its 6th level feature falls into the second category – it gives you a new ability.
The Ability to be Better, and Better Abilities
The way I see it, this breakdown between subclasses is essential to making a good cleric Domain. Once you determine whether your subclass makes the cleric better or gives them a new ability, everything falls into place.
When your subclass makes the cleric better at something, you need to identify a thing that the cleric already does that you could improve. The cleric can already hinder foes with magic, but you could make it better by making them into a full-on curse-based subclass.
And when the subclass gives the cleric a new ability, you need to identify a thing that the cleric can’t already do. Clerics have no ability with ranged weapons, so you could give them one with some sort of holy-arrow ability. Then, boom, they’re a ranger-esque type of thing.
I like that about the cleric. It simplifies things a lot. Domain Spells, another important part of the subclass design, are also way simpler with this attitude. If your subclass makes the cleric better at something, then the Domain Spells should mostly be spells the cleric already has – the Domain just allows you to prepare different spells in addition to the ones you need. If your subclass gives the cleric a new ability, then the Domain Spells will often add in new spells that complement that ability or theme of the subclass. It all feeds back into itself, making the cleric one of the tighter classes as far as design goes.
Ultimately, the cleric is one of the classics. There are four classic fantasy archetypes, and cleric is one of them. The quintessential healers, the paragon of support… but clerics have changed over the years, and are now one of the most diverse classes in 5th Edition.
The cleric has very few base class features outside of its Spellcasting, which defines it the most through what spells are and are not available on the cleric spell list. Instead, the cleric’s biggest defining features all come from the cleric Domains, which either make the cleric better at something it can already do, or give it a new ability that it doesn’t have otherwise.
Subclasses play a huge part in cleric design for that reason, and work to define the class more than any other base class feature. And clerics have a lot of subclasses, more than any other class besides the wizard, making for a very diverse class of possibilities.
In the future, I think I’m going to do a general post about spellcasters of different kinds, to try to determine the design choices that define them. I hadn’t really realized it before this post, but most of the full spellcasters have little to no base class features, while half-casters like the paladin and ranger have far more.
But for now, that’s the cleric – fantastical classic, healer supreme, and way more varied than you’d think.
Check in next time for what has to be, naturally, the most wild class of them all – the Druid!
Thanks for reading!
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4 thoughts on “Don’t Stop Believing (in Homebrew!)”
Love your breakdown here, it’s really helpful for subclass development.
Thanks! Glad it’s helpful!
Man, you’re breakdowns are really good. To summarize, when designing a cleric subclass , we need to decide whether the subclass is melee or ranged spell focused & whether he gets new abilities or enhances his current abilities.
I noticed what I think is a typo. When listing which group each subclass is in, you mention nature in both groups.
I’m definitely interested in your breakdown of the druid, ranger, sorcerer & warlock.
After going through the core classes & subclasses, are you going to lookat some of the expansion subclasses just for the sake of having extra data points? I imagine that subclass design must have gotten better over time after all.
Hey, thanks for pointing out the typo! I actually did intend to list Nature in both groups (its a weird one), but then forgot to actually discuss that part… oh well.
Anyway, I’m glad you like the series and I hope you can check out the Druid post I just put up. My long, unplanned hiatus is over, so things’ll move along a bit more smoothly now.
Oh, and as for going over the expansion subclasses – I’ve been considering it. With these first articles I’ve gone for inclusiveness over data points so people don’t feel they have to own all the books. But I think going over XGE subclasses and things would be a big help in the discussion (especially for one-subclass classes like barbarian).
So we’ll see – I definitely won’t get to those until I’m done with the current classes though.
Thanks for reading!