D&D Class Roles – The Cleric

Next up, clerics. This is a class which spent decades as the legendary “everybody needs it, nobody wants to play it” class, then spent a decade as one of the most potentially powerful classes in the D&D game. Another one of the original three D&D base classes, clerics are the standard divine caster, acting as the hands of their deity to channel their power on the material plane.

Older Editions

Older edition clerics couldn’t use edged weapons to represent the Catholic church’s decree to use weapons that “did not shed blood;” ironic, as a blunt weapon can crack skulls just as easily. At higher levels, clerics used to be able to use their turn undead features against demons and other evil outsiders, while evil clerics could turn paladins before being able to rebuke undead. 2nd Edition broke cleric spells into “spheres,” which combined with the cleric’s dogma, determined what they could cast. It’s interesting to note that high-level AD&D clerics got a cathedral full of followers that they had to take care of; rangers got a motley crew of animal followers, fighters got troops, and clerics got a church.

Worth noting: spells were limited depending on what the cleric worshiped, with a demi-god allowing up to 4th level, and a god up to 7th. And there was a chance of divine spell failure, based on the cleric’s Wisdom; how wise they were determined their degree of connection to the divine. Also worth noting: AD&D clerics could only be of an alignment that wasn’t True Neutral; TN “clerics” were a sub-class called druids, and were clerics who followed the balance of nature. This was changed up in later editions, though even today you should be within one step alignment-wise to follow a deity.

Newer Editions

Clerics spent a lot of their life as the class every party needed but nobody wanted to play: the heal-bot. 3rd Edition came up with the idea to “spontaneously” cast heal-spells, freeing up the cleric to prepare their other spells, which made the class much more playable. Domains replaced the spheres process, giving the cleric a list of options to choose from, which boiled down into choosing one of two domain spells, and receiving two domain powers. With its solid BAB, good saves, d8 hit die, and heavy armor proficiency, clerics became very effective beatsticks. Particularly with their own buff spells and assortment of domain powers. Oh, they could also cast spells up to 9th level.

Pathfinder upped the ante on domain powers, and also added in the ability to channel energy, healing (or harming) all living or unliving targets for xd6 per level. This healing boost wasn’t offset by any major nerfs; clerics lost their heavy armor proficiency, and that’s about it. 4th Edition put clerics in the Leader role, which does exactly what clerics have always done: buffed and healed allies, focusing first on healing and protection backed up with some melee capabilities.

Prime Attributes

Wisdom is the cleric’s main attribute, which influences spellcasting. Charisma has traditionally been a secondary attribute, which things like turn undead are based upon. Strength and Constitution are always useful for a more combat-centric cleric.

Role within the party

Clerics don’t exactly fit with most peoples’ idea of the medieval priest, but it’s pretty clear that Gygax based these “defenders of the faith” on divine crusader-knight orders, such as the Knights Hospitalers or Knights Templar. Going with that mindset makes clerics make sense: divine warriors who protect their deity’s flock, guiding their wards through the deadly wilds to reach the holy land.

Clerics serve with both spiritual aid and martial combat, but not pure battlefield crusaders (we call those paladins, who are more a representation of goodly Arthurian knights). Clerics are wardens of the faithful, the defenders of their chosen faith, which reflects in their abilities: they have enough martial training to act in battle if necessary, an assortment of abilities to fight back the evil tides of darkness, and a wide array of protection- and healing-based spells.


First and foremost, they are spellcasters. While their spell list isn’t as flashy as their arcane counterparts, clerics have a wide range of versatile spells. Clerics have a wide range of stackable buff spells, starting with bless and protection from [alignment] at first level. They can summon creatures, invaluable for giving the party another fighter and setting up flanking. They can turn and destroy undead, one of the more common foes, with many spells and abilities. What few damage-dealing spells clerics get are utilitarian (inflict x wounds), albeit many are best used against evil foes (holy smite, undeath to death). They’re one of the few staple classes that can heal. And most importantly, unlike wizards they get every spell for free.

Second, even as a spellcaster, clerics are great second-line fighters. For most editions they can wear heavy armor, though they are restricted in what weapons they can use. They have solid attack progressions and health, which combined with their armor and weapon choices, makes them a serious combat contender. Clerics are the best spellcasters for someone who wants to wade into combat, particularly in their wide array of buff spells: magic weapon, magic vestment, divine favor, shield of faith and the like can give the cleric beefy “magic” item bonuses before the party’s fighter has his first +1 longsword.


Clerics have few disadvantages, and many are the same as the fighter. While fighters could justify the lack of skill points, clerics have far too many skills to put ranks into—know (religion/planes), heal, diplomacy, and perform (oratory) if the GM is anal about skill checks when the cleric performs holy rites like I am. Clerics are only proficient in simple weapons and their deity’s favored weapon, limiting their combat options, and unlike fighters they don’t get any abilities to off-set heavier armor’s movement penalties. Lastly, they have terrible Reflex saving throws, which doesn’t always make up for the two good saves they have.

Class Comparison

Clerics are somewhat divergent, a class that can easily become either the most or least powerful in the party. They have the option to out-fighter the fighter by focusing on their buff spells and tactical summoning, but can also stay as pure healbots who exist to drop healing spells on wounded party members. Their high-level spell list has some phenomenal choices that nobody else gets (blade barrier, planar ally, holy word, righteous might). Clerics also have higher survivability rates than wizards due to their ability to wear armor while casting. Without the right spells, equipment, or attributes, a cleric can’t compete with either the fighter or the wizard, but clerics start in a good spot to dominate.

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