"Because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other."
- – C.S. Lewis
In D&D, the cleric is a healer, spellcaster, and sometimes melee fighter. It is a fantasy reimagining of the holy orders of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller of medieval times. As the game has evolved, much of its power now comes through the specific focus of its worship, which is represented mechanically by the Cleric Domain system.
Clerics debuted in Original D&D. This class could wear heavy armor and use a shield. He was forbidden to use weapons that were not bludgeoning since clerics were said to desire avoiding bloodshed, even if they were evil clerics, with the only missile weapons being the very feeble sling or the
bizarre staff-sling godly fustibalus. The cleric wore a holy symbol, which he could use to turn away or destroy undead creatures. He could cast spells to mend wounds and cure ailments. He also had spells to protect and buff up the party, some spells to afflict opponents, and some utility spells. The cleric didn't get a lot of ranged attack spells, the exception being the very overpowered Flamestrike. Many of the 1st edition cleric spells were patterned after legendary religious miracles. His excellent armor, good saving throws, and fair hit points made the cleric a decent front-line battle healer.
In spite of, or rather because of this, most players didn't want to play a cleric, because most of the time he was the only means of healing, and so he became nothing but a walking first aid kit. Really we should say "she" because, parties often "volun-told" female gamers to play this class. Helloooo nurse!!
(The 1980s, man.)
Clerics were likewise present as a "Basic" class in the BECMI branch. A generation of D&D newbies grew up on Frank Mentzer's Aleena with Larry Elmore's wide anime eyes... whom that edition killed off. The Companion Set posted the Druid as a kind of "prestige class" for that but - another story.
Initially, clerics were restricted to humans, since race functioned as class in these versions of the game. However, subsequent splatbooks would add clerical versions of demihuman or monster PCs; The Dwarves of Rockhome debuted the Dwarf-Cleric. Most non-human clerics were called Shamans, with even Elves and Shadow Elves using this. However, issue #178 of Dragon Magazine featured the Elf-Cleric as part of the serial The Voyage of the Princess Ark.
Not much to say about AD&D that wasn't said already, except that their clerics got d8 hitpoints where the Moldvay / Mentzer sideline went with d6. And that AD&D allowed other races to branch out to whatever character-class right off the bat.
In 2nd edition AD&D, "hybrid" healer classes became more interesting to play than the baseline cleric, already a hybrid as we've noted.
The druid class got buffed, with several new powers not least shapeshifting (Da Bears!). Using ranged and powerful attack spells like Fire Seeds, Call Lightning, and The Creeping Doom, a druid could run your clerical Elders all the way back to Salt Lake City. If you wanted to focus on the undead-battling aspect, which druids don't got, you could play a paladin, who had obtained a few upgrades not least better healing powers.
Many players chose to play one of those other classes, where their combat clout or attack spells let them be somebody, instead of being Nurse Hello, R.N.
To staunch the mass apostasy, TSR released optional rules for "Priests of Special Mythoi", which allowed you to handpick your spells and new, otherwise unattainable buffs, right from the Players Handbook. By using the rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide for creating a new character class, a player could create a lean but tough priest of a special mythos that advanced in level at a decent pace. In contrast, the baseline cleric only received a buff common to all priests, extra "bonus" spells per day for having a high Wisdom score.
A cleric can blow all the non-fullcaster members of the party away by self-buffing his stats (to the point where a single hit from his mace will hit with the fury of an angry god's fist) while shooting meta-magicked irresistible fire out of his eyes. They are awesome, though still behind Druids who, in the 3.5 "up"-grade, got Natural Spell aka GRROAAWWWR!!!. Most of the 3rd edition spells were in the 2nd edition spellbook, but there were limitations that made the cleric more of a curiosity than a decent party contributor. But in 3rd edition, if you don't have a cleric or druid in your group, your group tends to die. See: CoDzilla. On a side note, Clerics get proficiency in simple weapons (unless they get the War domain, then they get their deity's favored weapon). While the obvious upgrade is they get some slashing options (dagger and sickle) and a slightly better ranged option (crossbow) their best melee weapon is the longspear.
This is where the d20 system comes in; so, in this context, Arcana Unearthed ain't got 'em. There's religion in the Diamond Throne setting but that setting strongly implies all the priests are humbugs unless they take the Mage Priest prestige-class, meaning they've contracted out their souls to Cthulhu.
Also to be noted is the Midnight setting. Like Dark Sun and, when you start it, Dragonlance, both post-apoc worlds themselves: most true clerics are Legates who serve the darkest powers.
Pathfinder played give and take with Clerics. It reined them in somewhat by taking their heavy armor proficiency (Though they could spend a feat to get it back and as non-arcane casters they won't suffer for it while casting) and nerfing several of their key spells (For example, Divine Power no longer sets their BAB to full and only gives a typed to-hit bonus), but also gave all clerics the favored weapon of their deity and buffed domains. They're now "only" mostly on-par with the other casters, if a little more melee-capable than the average wizard, but that's still awesome. They still get domain powers, but turn undead is now channel energy, which basically lets them heal living creatures and hurt undead in a big radius with positive energy, or vice-versa with negative energy, making them superior healers at the cost of an ability that only did anything if you were evil (and sucked at healing as a result) or the GM threw hoards of weak undead at you (or you had feats to trade its uses for broken stuff). They can also learn to channel those channels into other buffs and benefits too or burn them for single-target damage.
On top of the changes to casting through Spheres, the Cleric gained a slower Magic Talent progression, gaining talents every even level rather than every level like other High Casters. Instead, the Sphere Cleric gets two useful tools to help them compensate: Domains now provide a specific bonus sphere and talents at 1st, 5th, 9th, 13th and 17th level, and Clerics can obtain the Life or Death sphere (Life if they Channel Positive Energy, Death if they Channel Negative Energy) and talents at 1st, 3rd, 7th, 11th, 15th and 19th level.
The Faithful Shepherd archetype turns into a midcaster, with the normal progression that entails (3/4 of a talent every level). Additionally, they only gain access to Channel Positive Energy, and gain the Protection and Life Spheres upon first obtaining the archetype. They even gain a series of special pseudo talents, "Divine Works", to improve their capabilities.
Pathfinder Second Edition
As any neckbeard can attest, Clerics have always had their toes in two worlds, focused on either being a front-line caster or being a holy wizard. Pathfinder Second Edition attempted to address this by splitting Clerics into two subclasses. By default, they lack any proficiency in armor and are only proficient in simple weapons and the god's favored weapon. Clerics have a rather limited skill list, with all clerics needing to take Religion and whatever skill their god confers (as well as any skills from their background) and then letting them pick a number of skills equal to only 2 + Intelligence modifier.
Clerics have access to the divine spell list (the worst spell list) and whatever spells their god confers (Yes, gods actually confer spells - it kinda is to offset how Domains are cut down). Beyond that is also access to either the Heal or Harm spell - it's an amalgamation to the old class' constant access to Cure/Cause Wounds and Channel Energy. See, depending on how many actions the cleric spends on the spell, it can range from just a mere heal/hit with a touch to a full-on burst that both heals and harms. By default this only works on living beings and the undead, but there are feats that let this also affect fiends and celestials as well as those that boost its effects and applications. Feats are also how clerics gain access to their gods' domains - these domains are now a feat chain that gives special spells using focus points, giving you the choice on focusing on only one or on being diverse on domains.
Now comes the division: At level 1, clerics choose between two doctrines: Cloistered Cleric and Warpriest. The Cloistered Cleric gains domain for free and gets the better casting save progression, making them more effective at blasting and debuffing. The Warpriest, on the other hand, gains the better combat proficiencies - this is the only way for clerics to start with armor and shield proficiencies (as well as a feat necessary for making shields actually effective for soaking damage) and gain martial weapon proficiency without wasting a feat (as well as the Deadly Simplicity feat, which lets those gods who prefer simple weapons make their weapons more deadly).
The 4th edition designers, driven mad by how absolutely mandatory clerics were for any long-term party, decided to reshuffle roles in an attempt to give everyone the means to survive to some extent without needing a cleric: for the short-term, there are now rules for resting that included non-pitiful amounts of healing outside of a battle. However, when inside a battle, there would be the need for more immediate healing - this is where the "Leader" role came in (Warlords, Bards, Shamans, Ardents, Artificers, Runepriests, and, naturally, Clerics). All classes of this role had a means to provide more on-demand healing, and of course the Cleric was among the frontlines of this.
Even among other leader classes, the Cleric has a very open list of playstyles. Between full-up melee, divine lasers, healing, or something in between, it was easy to have multiple clerics who were dissimilar to each other. Your only constants were Healing Word (your healing power), your cleric lore (Either add your Wis modifier to heals when they spend a healing surge to heal or +2 AC, scale armor, and let you and allies you heal get +2 to attack when you heal them), and Channel Divinity (A once-per-battle power that involved beseeching the gods for something, with feats offering equivalent powers from gods and domains).
After D&D Essentials showed up, the cleric was rebranded as the Templar and a new, non-AEDU System cleric Variant Class, the Warpriest, came into being. The Warpriest had their domains baked into the class' progression, though it's limited in scope with half of them being deities from Forgotten Realms. More than any other class before or after it, however, this class is absolutely crippled in the field of diversity. Once you select a domain, you are forcibly stuck into that domain's specific playstyle.
In 5th edition, they realized that clerics were the primary divine spellcasters the way wizards were the primary arcane spellcasters and decided to throw the clerics some firepower at lower levels, even adding a domain called the Light domain that turns the cleric into a laser-beam-firing machine of death and radiant damage. So at this point, looking at the cleric and seeing nothing but a heal dispenser is like looking at a wizard and seeing nothing but a fireball dispenser. They also used a nerf bat to break the kneecaps of all the buff spells, making them much less OP (and therefore less aggravating) than they were in 3.5. The end result is clerics that can do whatever they want, thanks to Domains actually doing something now, from healing-focused to investigation-focused to I-wish-I-was-a-druid focused. Oh, and they can use a "channel divinity" class feature which has several functions: the first is shared by all subclasses, and is the "turn undead" feature of old. Each individual archetype also adds at least one additional function.
Since there's literally no other mechanical support to a cleric outside of their domain, cleric players are perhaps the one 5e player type who would best be advised to look at older editions for character development ideas. AD&D and even 3e are both the premier source to look up symbols, vestments, ceremonies, beliefs and other details to flesh out what makes their Cleric specifically tied to a their chosen patron god. Even 4e's Divine Power is worth checking out because it actually has a pretty solid run-down of how Domains work as something separate to Alignments and how things like an Evil God of Freedom or a Good God of Destruction are possible.
Arcana Domain (SCAG)- This domain is kinda all over the place, doing lots of things that wizards are normally able to do. If you can tell us what role it's meant to play in the party, be our guest. Its additional channel divinity is a turn undead that works on extraplanar beings (celestials, fey, fiends and elementals) instead of undead. You also get to take some spells from the Wizard spell list, so you can do worse.
Death Domain (DMG)- Pure DPS. No seriously, this subclass doesn't grant even one ability that does anything other than dish out necrotic damage. Its additional channel divinity function lets you slap 5+(Cleric level x 2) points of necrotic damage onto a successful weapon strike.
- A note on roleplay: this domain was printed in the DMG because it was designed for BBEGs rather than players, and it really shows. However, a good aligned PC Death cleric could be justified quite easily if they worship a "holy slayer" type deity - basically, a god whose divine role is specifically to murder the fuck out of the forces of evil, chaos, corruption or whatever other insert bad shit exists in your cosmology, either specifically or in general. You might think this is odd, but there have been examples of gods just like this in real life, and the Hindu goddess Kali is one of the most widely acknowledged and recognized today. She's basically the panic button the other gods hit when up against some major shit (such as a Demon Prince whose every drop of spilt blood turns into another smaller version of him, as in her origin tale), and is more or less a hardcore version of batman. She doesn't really have a holy symbol, but "a fanged maw with a long coiling tongue lapping up drops of blood" should work fine. (If you're weirded out by the idea of using the gods of an *actual* religion in D&D, then please remember that a) you can create your own deity to fill the same archetype, and b) the Hindu gods were outright statted in the 1e Deities and Demigods book - D&D has a long history of taking real-world deities and using them as cleric options. Although we'll all agree, these days, that the Thugee-British consensus on Kali as murderous terrorist goddess was Bipartisanship in its truest definition: both Stupid and Evil.)
Forge Domain (Xanathar's Guide to Everything)- Item-crafting and tankiness. You can imbue weapons and armour to make them temporarily magical, and you gain fire resistance (later immunity) and you become so tanky while wearing heavy armour that you may as well be wearing a forge. Its additional channel divinity function lets you create small metal objects.
Grave Domain (Xanathar's Guide to Everything)- One of two domains for those who embrace the healbot stereotype. Unlike the life domain, the grave cleric heals by bringing the party back from the brink of death. You also get the ability to NEGATE CRITICAL HITS. Its additional channel divinity function let's you designate one creature to take double damage from whatever next attack hits it, regardless of who the attack comes from.
Knowledge Domain (PHB)- a Skill Monkey who isn't as stealthy or squishy as the Rogue or as big a horndog as the Bard. Bonus language and skills is meh, but later on you get the ability to read minds and see visions of past events. It's additional channel divinity functions gives you 10 minutes of proficiency with any single skill or tool.
Life Domain (PHB)- One of two domains for those who embrace the healbot stereotype. Unlike the grave domain, the life cleric works in the traditional healbot method of keeping everyone's HP topped off. Its additional channel divinity function is a pool of HP you can spread out across as many creatures as you like, but which cannot take them over half their maximum. Paradoxically, because you always have some healing in your back pocket ready to go, it frees up some of your slots for offensive spells you might not otherwise get the chance to use.
Light Domain (PHB)- Lots of flashlights, lasers, and flashbangs. Its additional channel divinity function lets you deal 2d10 plus cleric level in radiant damage to every creature of your choice within 30ft of you.
Nature Domain (PHB)- Despite the intent of being a pseudo-Druid, in practice getting a Druid cantrip and heavy armor means it's a melee smasher that abuses the Shillelagh to use wisdom in place of strength for maximum single attribute dependence. It's additional channel divinity function lets you charm every animal or plant of your choice within 30ft.
Order Domain (GGtR)- Command and Control. It's additional channel divinity function lets you charm each and every creature of your choice within 30ft of you, and you can make them drop their weapons. It was later reprinted in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything.
Peace Domain (TCoE)- Support. It lets you make a divine bond between multiple creatures that effectively gives them all the Bless spell, and later lets them teleport to each others' sides. Its additional channel divinity function lets you move up to your speed without provoking opportunity attacks, healing every ally you pass by.
Tempest Domain (PHB)- You're a walking bug zapper, or you are Marvel's Thor. Martial weapons and heavy armour, lots of strong offensive spells, and its additional channel divinity function lets you, when you deal lightning or thunder damage, deal max possible damage instead of rolling.
Trickery Domain (PHB)- Stealth expert/illusion expert hybrid. Its additional channel divinity function is a shadowclone jutsu. You also get the ability to make a weapon poisonous, turn invisible for a brief moment, and you get a pretty nice bonus spell list out of the deal too. Decent but overlooked.
Twilight Domain (TCoE)-
being OP Support. You can give your allies Darkvision and advantage on initiative, and also fly for some reason. Its additional channel divinity function lets you cast dim light in 30 feet that gives all allies in range 1d6 + Cleric Level temp HP per turn, which is rather overpowered at lower levels.
War Domain (PHB)- Following in the footsteps of all those "My god is a war god so I'm actually just a fighter who can use cleric spells." clerics from 2e, the war cleric is a barbarian who can cast cleric spells. Its additional channel divinity function lets you add a +10 to your attack roll, and you can do this after you know what you've rolled, but before the DM tells you if it would've hit. A few levels later, you gain yet a third channel divinity function that's identical to the second function, save that you can use it on other people instead of yourself.
|Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Classes|
|Player's Handbook 1:||Cleric - Fighter - Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Warlock - Warlord - Wizard|
|Player's Handbook 2:||Avenger - Barbarian - Bard - Druid - Invoker - Shaman - Sorcerer - Warden|
|Player's Handbook 3:||Ardent - Battlemind - Monk - Psion - Runepriest - Seeker|
|Heroes of X:||Blackguard - Binder - Cavalier - Elementalist - Hexblade - Hunter|
Mage - Knight - Protector - Scout - Sentinel - Skald - Slayer - Sha'ir - Thief
Vampire - Warpriest - Witch
|Settings Book:||Artificer - Bladesinger - Swordmage|
|Others:||Paragon Path - Epic Destiny|
|Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Classes|
|Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Warlock - Wizard
|Tasha's Cauldron of Everything:||Artificer - Expert - Spellcaster - Warrior|
|Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft:||Apprentice - Disciple - Sneak - Squire|
|The Classes of Pathfinder 1st Edition|
|Core Classes:||Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
|Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
|Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
|Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|
|The Classes of Pathfinder 2nd Edition|
|Core Classes:||Alchemist - Barbarian - Bard - Champion - Cleric - Druid |
Fighter - Monk - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
|Advanced Player's Guide:||Investigator - Oracle - Swashbuckler - Witch|
|Secrets of Magic:||Magus - Summoner|
|Guns and Gears:||Gunslinger - Inventor|