I was quite excited to get The Complete Priest’s Handbook when I first found it. From what I had gathered, it was a bit of a… controversial book. Not in topic (though in hindsight maybe it should have been), but rather in something very near and dear to almost every tabletop RPG player:
Balance (or lack thereof).
Let’s take a look at The Complete Priest’s Handbook, then, and see what’s going on. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn why it is generally speaking not a good idea for a single book to include over sixty new character options.
Reading this was a slog.
The Complete Priest’s Handbook was published in 1990 as part of D&D’s series of class-or-concept-specific add-ons. We’ve reviewed several by this point, including The Complete Thief’s Handbook, The Complete Druid’s Handbook, and most recently The Complete Book of Necromancers (which, despite being aimed primarily at DMs, was presented similarly to the class handbooks).
My interest in The Complete Priest’s Handbook is a bit different than those past ones, however. It primarily stems from the opening of the “Priests” chapter in Player’s Option: Spells and Magic – a book I planned to do a Late Review for until I saw its references to this other handbook.
The priest mechanics of Player’s Option: Spells and Magic entirely replace everything from The Complete Priest’s Handbook (as well as Legends and Lore and Monster Mythology). I can’t really think of any other time that a single book has made obsolete so much existing content from the system, aside from the new edition sourcebooks of course. And the problem that Spells and Magic was trying to solve was that the priest class had over a hundred specialists, none of which were very balanced with one another.
Now, The Complete Priest’s Handbook may not seem to deserve sole blame for this. After all, Spells and Magic mentioned two other sourcebooks too, right? Well… yes, it doesn’t deserve sole blame. But the mere fact that over half of the problematic priest specialists come from this one book by itself qualifies it, in my mind, as the source of the problem.
So let’s take a look, shall we?
If we took things chapter-by-chapter, we’d have a post with three sections, one of which was 5x longer than the other two combined. So we aren’t going to do that – instead, we’re going to look at specific topics:
- The central problem of Balance and why making over sixty character options in one single book is not a great idea.
- The tendency of the book to prioritize the desires of priest character players specifically over those of the rest of the party or the DM.
And with that, let’s begin.
A Balancing Act Featuring No Balance
The relationship between The Complete Priest’s Handbook and the concept of “Balance” is… complicated. I’ve never seen another 2e book so openly concerned about making sure that various character options are evenly balanced as this one is. But when it comes to actually balancing things, the book just… doesn’t.
The book’s basic claims are simple:
- The Player’s Handbook cleric subclass of the priest (equivalent to the wizard’s generalist option) is overpowered and broken.
- The Complete Priest’s Handbook priest subclasses (all sixty of them) are correctly balanced and an example of what the class should be.
Neither of these things are really true.
Before we begin, though, let’s do a quick review of the AD&D 2e priest – which includes two subclasses by default, the druid and the “priest of a specific mythos.”
The former is, obviously, a druid and is thus essentially a separate class. The latter is meant to evoke the same concept as 5e’s cleric subclasses – you would be a “priest of Thor” or a “priestess of war” or similar. The primary difference between these in the base Player’s Handbook is their spell access.
Rather than schools of magic, priests use Spheres of Access. These don’t map directly onto the wizard’s schools of magic, and many spells belong to multiple Spheres. Any given priest can have either Minor Access (low level spells only) or Major Access (all spells) to a given Sphere. There’s also the Sphere of “All” – equivalent to the wizard’s “universal” spells that are must-haves for every priest in order for them to function. Needless to say, all priests have Major Access to All.
The cleric gets to use 12 of the 16 Spheres of Access. Specialized priests get far less. This is the center of the book’s argument that the PHB cleric is overpowered – it gets more Spheres of Access than any other subclass. Which is true, but that isn’t really the reason the cleric is unbalanced.
Priests in general are a little overpowered, but I’d argue that is a function of their ability to wear armor while still having access to magic. Normally the “price” you pay for magic (which is highly useful and powerful) is that you’re physically weaker and can’t effectively attack or defend nonmagically.
The priest breaks this by having a larger hit die than the other spellcaster, the wizard, alongside proficiency with armor, the ability to wear armor while casting spells (remember, even if a wizard had armor proficiency, they couldn’t use it and still cast spells), and access to functional physical weapons. A wizard in melee combat is dead, a priest is fine.
If the priest’s generalist subclass is broken, that’s because it adds a wider variety of spell choices onto that already-powerful package. The cleric isn’t any more “powerful” than the priest at base, it can just manifest that power in more situations. A specialist priest might only have spells to deal with healing and defense, leaving them less suited to attack. A cleric doesn’t have that same limitation. Which is stronger, yes, but not because there’s something wrong with the cleric subclass. There’s something wrong with the priest class.
The other problem, of course is that the specialist priests in this book are completely and utterly not balanced at all.
The book seems to be aware of the “martial combat problem” that I detailed above. It tries to tie the number of Spheres of Access a priest gets to how capable they are in martial combat. And that’s a good start! Theoretically, this should lead to having some priests that are warriors, some that are casters, and a few that are middle-of-the-road.
Yet despite attempting to define clear guidelines for these concepts, the book mostly makes arbitrary choices with no explanation of how (or even if) they fit the previously established guidelines. Instead it relies on phrases like “we’ll consider it balanced” without really bothering to prove that – given the book’s repeated struggles with balance, I just came to not believe them.
This is most notable when considering the issue of relative Sphere value. Not all Spheres of Access were created equally – a few of them have only a dozen spells at most. The book seems to be aware of this and weights the Spheres accordingly, but it never actually explains any of these decisions. It’s up to me and my flawed memory to think “oh right, isn’t Plant a weakish Sphere? maybe that’s why this subclass gets an extra Sphere, because Plant is weak?”
The central conceit of explaining the balancing guidelines behind these subclasses is to allow DMs to create their own subclasses that fit with those included in the book. But if you don’t fully explain why these choices were made… what’s the point? To be honest, it spends all this time classifying martial combat potential when that’s the easier part to understand innately. If you were going to skip explaining one part of your balancing act (which is something you should not do), then you’d think it would be the one saying “higher hit dice is good” and “longswords are better than slings.” That doesn’t need exhaustive explanation. But which Spheres of Access are strong and which ones are weak does.
So alright, the book does a poor job of explaining its decisions. That doesn’t really mean those decisions are wrong. But because the book never explains anything, it isn’t forced to defend its decisions, which leads to imbalance – namely, the Granted Powers.
Greater Granted Powers
Essentially, The Complete Priest’s Handbook replaces what it calls an “overpowered” cleric with specialist priests with overpowered Granted Powers. It doesn’t help. Yes, these priests (and the book’s suggested “fix” for the cleric) have fewer Spheres of Access. But they make up for it with their overpowered Granted Powers.
These are meant to be similar to the classic priest’s Turn Undead or the paladin’s Lay on Hands – both of which appear in this list. Those two are fine. The others… Not to spoil the ending, but if a given character option allows a PC to do something that literally no other character can do, there’s a good chance it’s overpowered.
Granted Powers are broken into High Powers, Medium Powers, and Low Powers. The Low Powers are the first place where the book’s new powers begin to feel reasonable. And you might think that High Powers are only for extremely unusual circumstances – they aren’t. In the subsequent sixty new subclasses, you’ll find the High Powers show up a lot.
Here’s a short run-through of some of the Granted Powers, with what tier of power they are listed after the name.
- Charm/Fascination [High]. You can cast the 3rd level wizard spell suggestion three times per day with no spell slot. It affects only one person if used in combat, but otherwise affects multiple.
- Immunities [High]. You gain immunity to one entire school of magic. The book claims this isn’t always positive since immunity to Necromancy spells also means you only get half effect from healing spells. But you know what? Automatically passing saves against finger of death might be worth it. And besides, what if the school isn’t Necromancy? Half damage from all Evocation schools is… yeesh.
- Inspire Fear [High]. You can cast a 4th level wizard spell twice a day without using a spell slot.
- Shapechanging [High]. You gain the druid’s shapeshifting ability and none of the drawbacks that are theoretically supposed to make the druid balanced.
- Immunities [Medium]. You automatically succeed on saving throws from one specific type of magic, narrower than a School. Like, perhaps, all fire spells or maybe literally every single source of paralysis in the game.
- Incite Berserker Rage [Medium]. Give a free +2 to hit and damage to as many fighters as you want for 6 minutes. A fighter can only benefit from this once a day, but there’s no limit on how many of these you can hand out. You can do this to an entire army of people.
- Language and Communication [Medium]. You know what’s balanced? One extra language per level. You know what’s even more balanced? One extra nonweapon or weapon proficiency per level. The book recommends a “sensible” limit of six bonus proficiencies, but that’s still a lot.
- Soothing Word [Low]. Basically, you can cast calm emotions for free up to three times a day. More limited than the others, sure, but still.
There are others, such as Defiance of Restriction or Obstacle, which is the worst misspelling of freedom of movement I’ve ever seen. But the ones listed above are the worst of the bunch.
And that’s still most of the bunch.
There Are Seriously Sixty Different Subclasses In This Thing
Anyway, I’m definitely not going to list out every subclass here, or even most of them. I mean, for one thing there’s the basic problem that as you get further into the section on subclasses, the complexity and “effort” put into each subclass declines. Almost like sixty subclasses is too much.
But the defining problem is that whenever there’s a question of balance, the book responds with “just trust me.” And I don’t. I really just don’t.
To give an example, we can look at the Arts priest and the Crafts priest. No, there is no glitter glue, just don’t.
Arts priests get one more Major Access Sphere than normal, and four less Minor Access Spheres. The book states this is “nearly balanced” and adds some Granted Powers on to “fix” it.
Crafts priests get one less Major Access Sphere than normal and two more Minor Access Spheres. The book states “we’ll consider it balanced” and just moves right along.
My issue with this is that it does nothing to either inspire faith in me that these subclasses are balanced, nor to teach me how to balance my own subclass like one of these. I think the issue might be that the Arts priest’s Major Access to the Astral and Plant Spheres is being weighted less heavily because those Spheres aren’t as good. And the Crafts sphere only gets three Major Access Spheres (in addition to All), but they’re Creation, Divination, and Healing – three much more powerful Spheres (I think?).
But the book tells me none of this. To accurately judge the balance of this, I’d just have to pull out a copy of the Priest’s Spell Compendium (which is a pain to find these days) and manually review all the spells in each of those Spheres. This isn’t helpful!
And I’m not saying that you have to include a full balance breakdown whenever introducing a new subclass or character option. But, normally, character options are limited enough to judge easily. In addition, you generally only have a dozen or so new options for each book, not sixty.
In the end, though, my real complaint is just the self-assured certainty with which the book asserts its view of balance. You’re repeatedly expected to simply trust in the author’s sense of balance despite the fact that they never once even bother to explain anything.
Plus, this all wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that the book practically opens by saying the base PHB cleric is overpowered. This is a book which contains subclasses based on a fundamental claim that “balance” is important and this book does it right where a different one does it wrong.
What, you want evidence of that? Stop being silly.
There Are Like Five Other People Here
My other big issue with the book concerns how it focuses on the priest class. It isn’t bad that it has this focus – that’s the whole point of the book! But rather than trying to make the class function well in the group activity that is Dungeons and Dragons, The Complete Priest’s Handbook instead wants to make sure that in every group, the priest is the most important, most special-ist, most “main character” of all. And that is baffling.
I mean… there’s like five other people here, man!
The Complete Priest’s Handbook is a book which believes that the DM has a responsibility to bend over backwards to accommodate whatever cursed idea a priest player comes up with, and to make sure said priest character is the center of the campaign.
DM Acceptance and Reluctance
In my mind, a DM should, whenever possible, avoid arbitrarily limiting players’ choices when creating characters. However the important part of that is the “whenever possible” qualifier – because the very nature of D&D means that there will always be some times when you have to set restrictions.
Dungeons and Dragons is a group activity. Try as you might, you can’t play “true” D&D by yourself. And, as a group activity, the goal of any game of D&D is for everyone to have a good time.
To me, the DM is the one ultimately responsible for making sure that happens.
Back when I first started DM’ing, I had a player in my group who didn’t quite “get it.” He liked to play antisocial loners who were treacherous to a fault and obsessed with economics. He would repeatedly derail encounters and sessions to fuel his character’s plans. And he believed there was nothing wrong with this – it was all in-character for his PC, after all.
Initially, I tried to be accommodating. It was more effort for me, but it was necessary (or so I thought). Over time, however, his antics decreased others’ interest in and enjoyment of the game. It made the game more stressful for me, and so that uncomfortableness passed on to the rest of the group.
So I kicked him out and never played a game with him ever again.
This book, The Complete Priest’s Handbook, feels… haunted by that player’s spirit. I can almost hear him reading from it, that’s how strongly alike to his mindset it is. Much like him, it cares only for a single player’s enjoyment. And, much like myself initially, it doesn’t realize that the DM’s enjoyment is also important.
One of the central places you can see this is in how little authority it wants to give DMs. It feels like the author had a feud with his own DM and is essentially venting about it here. When introducing the sixty subclasses in the book, it states:
"For each of these priesthoods, your DM will ultimately have to supply the campaign-specific details of what the deity's name is, what his family and relationships are, what his history is, etc. However, players don't have to know all these details to create priest characters: just use the priesthood class descriptions below, and, when options are provided (for skills, requirements, powers, etc.), the players can ask the DM which options they should take."
This part really irked me. Specifically the way it implies that players should make their character before asking the DM – as well as the way it totally ignores the possibility that the DM may not have a suitable god in their campaign world. That’s why you should ask your DM first – if this world doesn’t have a God of Animals, then your priest of the God of Animals just isn’t going to work. Hopefully you’ll be able to work something out with the DM where your basic character concept survives, but that’s the reason you need to ask first.
Now, should a 5e DM disallow certain cleric Domains? I’d argue that they should if they need to, but the more important thing here is that there are only like a dozen of those in the game. The Domains in 5th Edition are all fairly central concepts that aren’t going to be missing unless you’re doing something very odd with your worldbuilding (a planet without storms, for instance).
But with sixty priesthoods in this book… there are bound to be some that don’t make sense. Some of the priesthoods worship “Philosophies” or “Forces” instead of deific entities – what if only distinct gods can grant magic? There’s a God of
Racism Humanity, but what if the cultures of this world aren’t based on race?
The issue is that by suggesting players make their characters before checking with the DM, you’re putting a lot more pressure on the DM if they have to deny it. If a player comes in with a concept that won’t work in the campaign, the DM can fairly easily inform them that the concept isn’t workable before suggesting alternatives. But if a player comes in with a fully created and fleshed-out character that doesn’t work, suddenly denying that feels so much more difficult. They put in all this work, after all!
However, as a group activity, it’s up to the DM to make sure things stay on track. Demanding the DM change all their plans just to accommodate whatever random concept a priest player has come up with is just… selfish.
Speaking of Selfishness…
And now we get to the real stinger – namely that if your character isn’t a priest, you do not matter. What’s that? This D&D group has four or five other players in it? Irrelevant.
To illustrate this, I’ll share a few snippets from the book’s discussion of level-based advancement through church hierarchies. I also just want to note… don’t do this. It doesn’t make any sense. The primary way to gain experience in D&D is through adventuring. Adventurers do not make good bureaucrats or spiritual advisors. Just don’t do it. The reason your priest, who can kill liches, is bureaucratically subordinate to some other priest who can’t do that is because they are an administrator and you are not.
Killing liches does not (generally) involve managing financial records or making judgement calls on legalistic issues. The High Priest (2nd Level) orders your Hero Priest (17th Level) around because they are better suited for the position than you are. Plus, this is a church – presumably they also have the blessing of your shared god in which case, well… what, are you going to say your god is wrong? Have fun killing liches without any spells, then!
Anyway… let’s continue on, shall we?
Under this (bad) system, 1st and 2nd level priests should be assigned to a small village. This obviously doesn’t work with an adventurer, so the book suggests “assign[ing] the character to a third-level priest (especially a physically harmless one, who won’t contribute much combat ability to a PC party) who travels.”
Firstly, priests are spellcasters. It really doesn’t matter how wimpy the 3rd level priest is, he still has higher level spell slots that can dominate encounters balanced for a party of 1st or 2nd level character. Not to mention theoretically infinite healing, since the number of cure spells a 3rd level priest can cast almost definitely adds up to more than a 1st level party’s combined hit points.
But also, note that we’ve just designated the party’s main accompanying character (what I often term a DMPC even though that isn’t what it is) based on a single character’s class.
Let’s move on – “at eighth or ninth level, when the PC is supposed to be ‘settling down’ and building a stronghold, he should do so.” I’ve never understood 2e’s obsession with the stronghold and follower system, but fine. It’s a standard for this edition.
“The DM should work up a whole series of adventures centered around the stronghold, its construction and defense.” Alright, okay… so I guess the whole party shares a single stronghold? That could work.
“As the priest reaches higher levels, the DM may wish to orient the campaign around him and the concerns of his faith…”
Okay, alright, let’s stop. There are like five other people here.
I just don’t get it. I know it says “may wish to,” thus implying this is advice “just in case” that’s what the DM wants to do. But the book continues down this same path later on. It doesn’t talk about “priest-themed” adventures, it talks about campaigns centered on the priest player character specifically. I’m currently in a game that you could say is “priest themed” since it has a religious focus to the main plot. And none of us are clerics! You have a reformed ex-bandit paladin and me, the airheaded aasimar gentleman dandy, and that’s it as far as “divine magic-wielders” goes! Also our sorcerer who constantly tries to convert people to worship her phoenix deity/mentor, but that doesn’t count.
For more evidence… later on, the book introduces a potential plot hook and says “you have a situation where the priest character is the center of attention, and has ample reason and opportunity to invite his non-priest friends in on the action.” Man, thank god the priest is inviting me, a non-priest scrub, to come along on his super special best boy adventure.
There are like five other people here!
In a good D&D campaign, there should be no “main character” or “center of attention.” It’s an ensemble cast – all of the player characters deserve more-or-less the same amount of time in the spotlight. Getting things exactly equal is hard, so there’ll be some variance. But the goal, the ideal scenario, should be one in which each character has an important part to play.
Some players enjoy being secondary characters – the goofball, the mascot, what have you. But they still need to be remembered. One of my friends is amazing at character writing, and so her characters often end up important to plot – that’s not really on purpose though, she just makes good, interesting characters that are easy to use.
And even if a given adventure does focus on one character more than the others, you can’t just ignore them! Sure, we’re on an adventure to avenge the paladin’s dead dad. But ideally we’d have parts of it that connect to the other characters too. The party rogue needs money or they’ll be killed, so the antagonist tempts them with gold. The runaway nobleman’s strained relationship with his father is contrasted with the paladin’s loving relationship which leads to a desire for revenge. The psion is fighting their own inner demons, but seeing the camaraderie and togetherness of the party helps convince them to ask the party for help.
There are like five other people here!
I get it. This is The Complete Priest’s Handbook, so it’s going to be about priests. But as we’ve already seen, these class handbooks don’t have to be so limited. Both The Complete Thief’s Handbook and The Complete Druid’s Handbook include sections talking about campaigns entirely focused on their respective classes – because those are one-class campaigns. They’re talking about a situation in which all of the characters are the same class. It’s a bit of a gimmick campaign concept, but still – the books acknowledge the existence of a greater party beyond any one single player and thus suggest that a “druid-focused” campaign should be one in which everyone is a druid.
But this isn’t a selection of “all priests” campaign hooks. Nor is it particularly focused on building and fleshing out the NPC side of a priestly order, for use as a focal point of a campaign that doesn’t even need to have a priest PC in it. You could use the thieves’ guild generator from The Complete Thief’s Handbook in a campaign with no thieves! Easily!
Here, though, each and every suggestion is entirely founded on the central defining quality of being all about the priest and just the priest. And let me just give a piece of advice – if you build a campaign around just a single player’s character, with all others as afterthoughts, well…
There were five other people here.
But they got bored and left. Because your campaign sucks and the only guy enjoying it is the player of the antisocial loner who, and let’s be honest here, would just as readily be playing Civilization V instead of D&D.
A Priestly Conclusion
When Spells and Magic mentioned superseding other books, I was inspired to start looking for The Complete Priest’s Handbook. It had been on my list previously, of course, but not very high up. Clerics aren’t one of my favorite classes, so I was far more interested in finding books on rogues, necromancers, wizards, and so on.
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And I sure see it now.
One last note, just a single one, is that this book is not formatted well. Outside of the chapters on subclasses and kits, all the other chapters rapidly bounce from one concept to another with little sense of organization.
The clearest example of this is the second chapter, “Designing Faiths,” which rapidly oscillates between vague narrative advice and crunchy game mechanics discussion with wild abandon. I get that the two are innately connected, but I still would like a bit more… structure.
It isn’t a damning issue, it just contributed to the difficulty of reading this book.
And, in the end, The Complete Priest’s Handbook is not worth reading. None of the sixty subclasses are possible to port to 5e because of how unbalanced they are. There are priest kits in here too, but they’re all dull – the effort clearly went into the subclasses and the subclasses alone. There are no new spells and no new magic items.
And, most importantly, the book gives no useable advice on creating your own priest subclasses. Nor does it contain any narrative elements that are particularly interesting or exciting. It occasionally mentions real-world mythology, but never in a way that isn’t fairly well understood. When it does offer novel commentary on mythology, it’s generally wrong.
It isn’t even really that funny. At least The Complete Druid’s Handbook is a bit silly, and Lords of Darkness can be baffling in a humorous way. Reading through this thing was an ordeal.
I’ve now run through my current slate of Late Review topics, so I’m unsure what will be next. I have nearly all of the class handbooks, so more of them is always an option. I also have Player’s Option: Spells and Magic which I had started working on before getting distracted by The Complete Priest’s Handbook.
Or perhaps I’ll branch out again and review another adventure module, like with “The School of Nekros” – I’ve got several of the classics, though my collection there isn’t as full as with sourcebooks and supplementals.
I guess we’ll just have to see! Oh, and as always – let me know what you think!