Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Clerical Domains

Clerics seem extraneous in most games I've played. It seems more often than not people play them to fill out the role in the party for tanky support guy, or a stockier wizard.

And this doesn't really feel satisfying to me. I feel it needs something more distinct.

I think what can best define Clerics is that they are a go-between, a middle man. They are a medium between People and that which is inaccessible to them. This can encompass everything from history to the divine to the un-explainable to science.

The Cleric, more so than other classes, is defined by how they interact with other people. This is also what differentiates them from other magical ilk - say, an ascetic, or a wizard, who don't need (or want) to mediate their knowledge for the advancement of others.

After all, what's the difference between a Cleric who doesn't share their talents, and a Wizard? Spell selection? Armor and weapons? How they acquire their magic? The first two are subjective on the game system, and usually there's enough overlap to muddy the waters. The third one happens "off screen" and has virtually no impact on play.

My point is that there should be a more concrete distinction.

To that end...

Divine Domains are how the gods of the campaign interface with the world. Clerical Domains are how the Cleric interfaces society with the unknowable, the complex, or the divine.

Clerical Domains should be more important for play than Divine Domains, because Clerical Domains describe how the Cleric interacts with NPCs and the other Players.

Divine Domains are great and all, but they don't really tell you what your cleric does, only what their god lords over. So here's a table for what your cleric does.

I wanted to make this a d12 or d20 table, but failed. Some of these domains can be endlessly split or combined, but I said 'fuck it' and stopped worrying halfway through making it.

What Is Your Cleric All About?
(Clerical Domains)

Clerical Domain
The Cleric Mediates Between People And...
Cleric Examples
1. Judgement
Proper Morality
Judgin' stuff
Asshole Paladin
2. Divination
The Not-Present, Not-Here.
Augury, scrying, foresight
3. Diplomacy
Other People
Mediating, negotiating
Neutral Arbiter
Heretical Turncoat
4. Conversion
The Virtues of Orthodoxy
Coercion, persuasion
Fallen Paladin
Alignment Jockey
5. Purification
Their Disgust
Being clean and making others so
Heretic Purger
Mr. Clean
6. Oathkeeping
Their Logical Lack of Trust
Upholding and remembering oaths and oathbreakers
Friendship-Is-Legally-Binding Cleric
7. Scholarship
Other People Across Space and Time
Record keeping, cataloging, library diving
Library Navigator

8. Ritual
Knowing and utilizing rituals
Secret Society Leader
9. Communication
The Unfamiliar
Talking to ghosts, animals, rocks.
Speaks With Literally Everything Cleric
10. Politics
Rhetoric, propaganda
Religious leader
11. Pilgrimage
Spatially-Bonded Holiness
Knowing the way and the journey
12. Funerals
Interment of corpses, cremations, funerals
13. Initiation
The Community
Initiation rituals, education
Hazer Cleric
14. Bureaucracy
The Endless Machinations of Man
Record keeping, loophole engineering
Spirit Lawyer
Divine Tax Man


To facilitate this role of the Cleric as a medium between the unknowable and the layfolk (all non-Clerics, essentially), I think the best procedure is to subtly encourage in-character dialogue between the Cleric and everyone else. Some ideas to do this without being heavy-handed:

Secret DM Communication
This is why I think secret communication between the DM and the Cleric player is critical. When everyone at the table has access to what the Cleric knows (usually by the DM telling the results of the Cleric's doings in front of the whole table) it shortcuts the interaction between the Cleric and the other players. This translation of information is valuable to the Cleric's role as medium.

This can be applied to all classes, of course, but I feel it's more important for clerics than others.

More than the other domains, I feel like this is where the Cleric shines best, especially in OSR games with a high PC drop rate. Taking care of the recently dead is a responsibility best done with a focused light at the table. It can have a functional impact on play, too. Like:

  • Character who had a proper funeral don't rise as undead the next full moon.
  • Those who witnessed a death are physically stained until they reconcile with it by purification.
  • Funerals are great for networking with NPCs.


  1. Good point! Also, good reminder that I should make a bigger deal out of character deaths via funerals.

  2. I find the problem with most Clerics is that the OSR is kind of set up in a way that makes them almost seem like an afterthought, too much of the OSR is set in the "implied setting" of a post-apocalyptic, atheistic fallen civilization Lovecraftian Warhammer type world where there either are no Gods (LotFP) or the Gods don't matter (most OSR settings). But that's just my opinion.

    Although part of the problem could also be the lack of a consistent idea of what the Cleric does. Unlike Arnold Kemp's GLOG casting system, there is no consensus among the OSR on how a Cleric works.

    I took my best stab at it with my Prophet class (which I will link below) but the best solution I found was one of Kemp's, in that Clerics are a combination back-up spellcaster and fighter. The difference, however is that Wizards have to gamble their souls and lives to use their spells, Clerics can use their spells as much as they like, with few restrictions. Additionally, thanks to the ability I borrowed from one of Kemp's side-notes: God With Us, the other players can also use the Cleric's spells, so the Cleric can focus on smiting stuff instead.

    1. I think the best way of dealing with the cleric is either keeping it as is and letting it reshape both the gameplay and the setting (and that's when posts like this come in), or cut it completely and replace it with divine boons (cf. The Nameless Grimoire or Perdition).

    2. Yeah, I always got that 'cleric as afterthought' sense too. It's almost like the entire concept of the class was the result of a lost bet... (Which, if the tales about Gygax or true, it more or less was)

      Anyways, I've never really encountered this lack of mechanical role consistency for clerics. Every experience I've had for them has clearly defined them in a support role, with a few weird exceptions.

      What I really wanted to define was what the Cleric *does* on a core level. Like: Fighters fight. Thieves sneak. Wizards cast spells. And Clerics... Do what, exactly? They pray? They sometimes hit things? They heal?

      None of those answers were satisfying to me, so I figured the most all-encompassing thing that Clerics do is mediate.

    3. That's because a character class doesn't exist to fill a shot in the party. It's there to embody a character archetype; in this vase the holy warrior who crushes evil and mends the harm that evil has done.

  3. Also, if you end up not using clerics, I recommend this:

    Just replace them with plants.