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Hey, You Wanted to Play the Cleric; Now You’re Stuck with It!

Recently we lost the party cleric in our regular Pathfinder campaign. That left the cleric’s player, Pat, having to make another character. Losing a character is always rough, but one of the benefits is that you get to try something new. Pat began leafing through the classes and asked the group what they could use. Their answer?

You guessed it; the party needed a cleric.

Pat was upset; he didn’t want to get stuck playing a cleric for the rest of the campaign. While this may seem paradoxical (since, if Pat’s character survived, then Pat would be playing a cleric for the rest of the campaign), the truth is that Pat’s emotional investment was gone. He’d rather play something completely different and it seemed that the only way out of his dilemma was for another player to swap characters.

This dilemma exists in any game where characters need to fill certain roles. In a cyberpunk campaign, there may be only one computer hacker. In a pulp exploration campaign, there may be only one learned professor. In a Star Wars campaign, there may only be one Jedi Knight.

So how do you handle this dilemma? Here are a few ways:

This is the easiest way. If two or more players lose characters at the same time, then they can swap roles with each other.

This one goes all the way back to when I had to color in my dice; I even created a Gnomenclature entry [1]for it. The player basically uses her same character sheet under a new name “Bobbin is dead; his twin brother Throbbin is out for revenge.”

The player fills the same role, but plays it in a new way. This could be a simple personality transplant (Tork the gruff, rarely-speaking warrior is now replaced by Rel, the honorable, passionate warrior) or has slightly different abilities within the same role (Gord the fierce barbarian is replaced by Reynard, the flamboyant rakish swashbuckler). The latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons helps foster this with “roles.” The party needs a defender, so you can swap out your divine striker (Avenger) for a primal striker (barbarian).

The group was created with enough redundancies that the loss of one role will not cripple the rest of the group. This works best in campaigns with group character creation (“okay, if Sal goes down in combat who else can hack a computer”) or large enough groups that the role lost had a spare or two in the group. A group of Jacks-of-all-Trades [2], such as secret agents that are given a well-rounded field education, also creates a redundancy cushion.

The Player can play what she wants, understanding the consequences of an unbalanced group. This imbalance is accounted for in other ways (the GM de-emphasizes computer hacking and lets an NPC step in when necessary; the group buys up healing potions due to the lack of a healer).

Take One For the Team
Sometimes, another player may be ready to change characters (or simply isn’t as emotionally invested). In this case, the players can work with the GM to write out a character and allow the players to swap roles as soon as dramatically convenient.

The Substitute
The Player creates a new character that fills his old role with the understanding that, once another character death occurs, the Player will be allowed to walk the new character off and make a new character that fits the now-open role (and the other player will create something that fills the substitute’s role).

Obviously, all of these solutions have their strengths and weaknesses. Some solutions also work better than others depending on the type of campaign being run. What say you? Has this dilemma cropped up in your campaigns? If so, how have you handled it?

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Hey, You Wanted to Play the Cleric; Now You’re Stuck with It!"

#1 Comment By valadil On April 16, 2009 @ 9:36 am

I like unbalanced parties. Tank, healer, sneak, and caster has been done before – let’s see what three tanks and a bard can do! In all the games I’ve run, I’ve not once had a dedicated PC healer and it’s worked out fine. Players should play what they want and the GM can adapt accordingly. It’s not hard to throw less HP damage at the party or simply not use traps and locks if the party can’t handle them.

#2 Comment By Ameron On April 16, 2009 @ 10:14 am

When this happens at my gaming always encourage “Free-form” or in rare instances “The Substitute.” Ultimately you want every player to have fun and be happy with his character. If one guy is getting forced into playing a class or role then he’s less likely to enjoy it. Of course, you as the DM can certainly sweeten the deal by giving him something cool it he is wiling to “Take One For the Team.”

As far as being forced to play the Cleric, check out how my group’s been handling problems with their Cleric in [3] If the Cleric dies, this is one circumstance where they’ll gladly go without a replacement Cleric for a while.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On April 16, 2009 @ 10:22 am

It sounds like the player’s big mistake was asking his fellows what was needed. 😉 If the group doesn’t have redundancies, then it sounds like it’s time to consider going short the one role and changing the adventure design/etc. to make it work. If you’re running through a module then that’s a lot less likely to work without increasing the burden on the GM– who is probably running the module to cut down on the prep burden!

For 4e, I suspect that picking a new class that fits the same role would allow for a huge change in play style, personality, and powers, while still covering all of the bases. So the cleric could try out Warlord, or Bard, or any other leader spot… maybe even an Artificer.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On April 16, 2009 @ 10:27 am

I’m always a fan of mixed parties that don’t necessarily fulfill balance requirements. I generally try to accommodate in other fashions if there is a definite need missing. No cleric and its absolutely necessary by game mechanics; then I try to make sure there are lots of healing potions or an after battle heal recharge NPC. I once had a party of 2 fighters, 1 thief and a bard with no healing magic. They “recruited” a Woody Allen-esque neonate cleric who would hide in battle and heal afterwards, always with some kind of snarky comment or witticism about the situation. I think they left him behind in a dungeon somewhere . . . .

#5 Comment By MadmanMike On April 16, 2009 @ 10:48 am

My response in the same situation would be to create a neutral cleric that spontaneously casts inflict spells, never memorizes cure spells, and requires the party to contribute to the purchase of cure wands.

That’ll learn ’em.

I’m kind of jerk that way.

#6 Comment By Bloodwin On April 16, 2009 @ 10:54 am

Another option would be to retain the role but choose a different class. clerics have changed a lot so they aren’t healbots anymore. That idea has fallen by the wayside even though people might still unconsciously cling to it. Why not try another leader like the warlord who can get up in someone’s grill and still provide the same team need but in a different way? Bards and Shamans also have unique takes on the role of leader.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On April 16, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

All good comments, thanks!

@Bloodwyn – I lumped your option in with “re-skin.” Originally I was going to separate “cosmetic changes” and “class changes” but decided that they were in the same mold.

Since ye olden days of subclasses, there have been roles that are easily swapped: A druid for a cleric, a paladin for a fighter, an illusionist for a magic-user/mage/wizard, and a monk for a thief (I used “monk” instead of “assassin” for shock value, IIRC 1e monks had thief abilities). All of these substitutions required adjustments (druids weren’t the warriors that clerics were, paladins (pre-UA) were more powerful than fighters but advanced more slowly, etc).

#8 Comment By Meat Shield On April 16, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

My previous campaign had all warriors of short or long range plus an arcanist of some sort (depending on the stage of the campaign). Nary a divine class to be seen.

I compensated for this somewhat by giving a few more healing potions than i would have normally, but never too many, and creating a friendly NPC cleric of the god of healing back at the town that was their base who had grown up with one of the characters.

Of course that NPC cleric ended up actually being ‘The Shade’, a high level priest of the god of trickery and thieves, and was taking all the donated charity from the nobles and enriching his own pockets with it, as well as running a gambling, arms, and prostitution racket, AND spying for the Big Bad Guys over the mountains, but that is besides the point. He healed them when he had to, or they had something he wanted.

Gawd I loved that NPC, played with their minds soooooooo much.

#9 Comment By lady2beetle On April 16, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

My group always has trouble with clerics. They hate playing clerics. I like the divine spellcasters, but being a heal-o-matic makes me feel more like an NPC than a PC.

In the end, that’s exactly what we did – we hired an NPC. Since we have started hiring NPCs, our game play has opened up quite a bit. In one compaign, we hired a rogue to pick locks. In our current one, we hired an NPC cleric who does nothing but heal. It’s enough of a relief that I am almost tempted to play a cleric just to see what else a cleric can do when someone else is healing!

#10 Comment By Rafe On April 16, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

I tend to agree with most comments here. He made a cleric, the group was balanced, then his PC died. It’s his time investment (and fun investment!) as much as anyone else’s, so he can make a character he wants to play. If others don’t like it, one of them can retire their PC and make a cleric.

Pathfinder is modified 3.5, right? I’m therefore assuming that there aren’t many other substitutes for Cleric and playing a Cleric still means that you’re a walking medkit, more or less. (?)

When my Fighter died in our 4e Norse-themed campaign (started when only the 3 core books were out), I opted for Wizard because we had a Fighter, Warlord, Rogue and Ranger. I was tempted to have my Fighter (a two-weapon type with a homebrew feat) come back as a Barbarian (the playtest article came out two days after the “death session”). Everyone thought that’d be cool, but I opted to round the party out with a Wizard because 1) I thought a 4e Wizard would be fun and 2) the group could use it. However, had I wanted to make a Warlock or another Fighter, they’d have been fine with that, too. I was investing my time and playing the game for my enjoyment, so it was my decision.

#11 Comment By Throst On April 16, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

Avenger is a Divine striker, not Arcane.

#12 Comment By Sarlax On April 16, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

It seems to me that if a group lost it’s healer and recruited a barbarian (or whatever), it’s methods would change. Maybe the party invests in more consumable healing. Maybe they learn more about tactical withdrawals. Basically, they can adapt their behavior to compensate for the change.

I’ve never believed in the “balanced party” idea. There’s no such thing as a balanced party – just a party that is more or less optimized for certain kinds of adventures. If you have a wizard, cleric, fighter, and rogue, that’s the assumed optimization for a dungeon crawl. If you have 4 rangers, that doesn’t mean the party is unbalanced – it’s just optimized for 3.5 wilderness genocide. If the player wants a new character, I’d say let him take what he wants and the adventures can be a little different.

I’m assuming that the demand for the cleric in the party is about healing, but it may be more than that. The cleric is 3.5’s most versatile class. The cleric can blast, heal, tank, and support – sometimes all at once. With a day’s notice, they cleric can prep any spell from any book ever (minus certain domain spells). A powerful cleric with the right domain can instantly and permanently dominate dragons with only a look (and ignore SR).

The party might be losing more than healing here. All I’d say to the players is that they consider all of the consequences of the change, but that the group ultimately does *not* have the right to decide what one player will be doing.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 16, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

I agree with Scott that Pat shouldn’t have asked what the party needs; he should have made what he wanted to play. (Or he should have asked, “I’m tired of playing the Cleric, what else does the party need?”)

That said, a lot of gamers want a balanced party. I’ve ridden the pendulum on this a few times, but there’s no arguing that a balanced group has far fewer weaknesses, and much better balanced strengths, than an unbalanced one.

I think you covered all the bases pretty well, Walt. As a GM, I’ve always been ready to help the party shore up any weak spots in the lineup, either through NPC clerics or Wands of Healing, specific magic items, or what have you. There are a number of ways the GM can facilitate the fun for the players.

#14 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On April 16, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

@Throst – Noted.

#15 Comment By Barvo Delancy On April 16, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

I think the necessity of a healer is one of the problems with 3.5 and earlier versions of D&D in general. That said, the gaming groups I spent my formative years with never considered a cleric a necessity, just something really damn useful to have. Games will continue if there’s no cleric, and a DM can tweak things so that although the party may feel the pinch, it’s not as necessary. Unbalanced games require far more creativity, and fear of injury makes the games more exciting. No clerics can be a good thing – no class should be mandatory.

#16 Comment By rekenner On April 17, 2009 @ 12:13 am

A) Eww, Pathfinder. It’s even worse than 3.5 for balance and that says a lot.

B) Meh. Clerics were the best fighters in 3.5. Just go for a Divine Meta Magic cheese and he’ll make the fighters look pathetic in melee. And then still be a good caster. So, essentially, making the fighter entirely pointless. (Man, I love 3e/.5/.75)

#17 Comment By Rhamphoryncus On April 17, 2009 @ 12:20 am

Out-of-combat healbot is annoying, but surprisingly easy to fix. You just need a couple wants of Cure Light Wounds and under pathfinder anybody can become quite proficient at Use Magic Device. Bards, Rangers, and Paladins don’t even need UMD. Cheesy but very effective.

Potions in combat help too, but that’s very situational, easier to work around. Healing after combat is much more arduous (who wants to trek back to town after *every* encounter?)

Trapmonkey is actually much harder to replace, and has been causing more stress in our group. You pretty much need Rogue’s Trapfinding, even if you’ve got +40 in Perception. Bleh.

#18 Comment By Michelle On April 17, 2009 @ 9:34 am

This one of the problems I have with 3.0/3.5 and why I’m not enamored with 4.0 at all.

Balanced party? Screw that.

1. Players should play what they want and not be pigeon-holed. That’s what board games are for.

2. Rpgs are fluid games (any gm who says differently is smoking his koolaid). Players are going to go left when you planned for right.

3. The best characters come from left field. Have you ever played a game with a cleric who couldn’t heal? It’s hellava lot of fun when your cleric spends his time building lightning powered carriages rather than healing.

4. Really, parties without a thief make it through traps and can sneak, parties without warriors can smash stuff and plan, parties without magic figure out how to kill magical beasts, and frankly parties without healing figure out how to live.

We’re starting up a Serenity game and we’ll have two medics and a lot of people with leaky brainpans.

Just go with it.

#19 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 17, 2009 @ 11:21 am

[4] – I’ve seen the “Clerics make better Fighters” argument in a number of places, but I haven’t seen it actually play out like that at the table (except in very specific circumstances).

A number of rounds are lost buffing yourself, during which a ‘straight’ Cleric would be a far more effective group buffer. And you can only flex your divine power so many times a day, while a Fighter can swing a sword (sing it!) all night long… (all night)…

#20 Comment By Nicholas On April 17, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

It sucks when someone gets stuck in a class they don’t want to play, but cleric is probably one of the best it could happen to. I think it has more versatility than any other class. There’s a world of difference between a cleric of Pelor who sears his enemies and heals his friends with holy light, a battle hardened cleric cleric who bolsters his allies to fight on and a cleric of a death god who heals his companions simply because it is not yet their time.

#21 Comment By Peter K. On April 18, 2009 @ 9:25 am

[5] – I agree with you on three points:
1) Clerics are pretty versatile.
2) It’s not the end of the world if the party doesn’t have a cleric. Of the three long running D&D campaigns I’ve been in, only one had someone playing a cleric.
3) Losing a cleric will mean the characters have to reevaluate their planning and tactics.

This brings up another gripe of mine about clerics in general though: Few people I know seem to ever be interested in playing a cleric. The only person I can remember who did played the character as sort of a eschatological prophet rather than a warrior-priest.

The D&D cleric seems to have something for everyone to dislike: Athiests can dislike it because it involves belief in gods giving power. Monotheists can dislike it because it involves serving gods other than their own. Polytheists and animists can dislike it because it’s a ridiculous caricature of the real thing. People indifferent to ideologies, creeds and spirituality can dislike it because it forces them to take a stance on these issues.

Of course these are broad generalizations. Players can obviously overcome or ignore their real-world inclinations when playing a given sort of fictional character, or play a character as satire. But I still think these are reasons clerics are less likely to inspire some players than other classes might.

I have no solid evidence, but my suspicion has always been that the abilities heaped on the cleric (spells (including healing), fighting, armor, undead turning, and granted powers) weren’t so much necessary to make the class “balanced”. But instead to make the class attractive in some way to folks who could care less about the underlying concept.

Personally I’ve always wished there were a different core class that provided a wide range of healing abilities but without the other conceptual baggage thrown in. Psionics can do this pretty well, though as an alternative I’ve occasionally toyed with a sort of holistic magician patterned generally after the Sorcerer but substituting the clerical spell list for the arcane one.

I’d rather have any holy or devout characters in a campaign be defined more by their actions than by their powers, generally acting as non-combatant stewards or inspirers of the faithful first and maybe scholars or healers second. But without the whole armored warrior deal heaped on top of it. Paladins already cover that angle anyway.

Anyway, that’s my two cents.
(Heads off in search of grumble cakes.)

#22 Comment By Aramax On April 18, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

3.5 Clerics have huge versitility,and yes I have played one of those ‘better than fighter ‘clerics.2 or 3 rounds of power up and you are an incredible tank/striker.Still able to heal,wave of grief or Doom.Another option is the mystic thurge,using PHB2 and Spell Compendium I made the ultimate
swiss army knife able to do anything spell related, and I had a ton of instant spells.

#23 Comment By Rhamphoryncus On April 18, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

[6] – I think you’re on to something. Barbarians make you think of Conan. Wizards make you think of Gandalf. Clerics make you think of Pat Robertson.

Clerics have no personal power. They’re just the forward observer for whatever god-of-the-week wants to smite. Might as well be a 10th level Commoner employed by a powerful entity.

They need to shake that image if they want to be respected. Come to think of it, if you change the description to say they gather power from other followers of that religion, rather than indirectly through the god, that might be enough to do it. Even if the god still has veto power, it’s your personal ability that makes it work.

#24 Comment By rekenner On April 18, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

Typically involving divine metamagic extending spell length or the amount of buffs you cast per turn.
That and you typically have at least a bit of warning on combat or know when you’re in a dangerous situation.
After all, if you have 5 seconds before combat (Which is a very short amount of time), that’s a buff and another buff that’s been quickened.

#25 Comment By GribbletheMunchkin On April 24, 2009 @ 5:01 am

I think balance is over weighted and the way 4th Ed has its “roles” feels gamey and contrived. Mind you, most of 4th Ed feels gamey and contrived after playing many other roleplaying games.

As for doing without a cleric. In 3rd ed i’d say you can get away with it. In 4th Ed if you don’t have a cleric or warlord, you might be in real trouble. I’m a player in a 4th ed game and we’d have had several TPKs if it weren’t for the cleric.

In 3rd ed we never had to worry about this quite so much. I played and GMed in two games where the party consisted of 1 wizard, 1 sorceror and 1 druid, and 1 wizard, 1 sorceror and 1 bard. These games were great and we never had to sit around wondering how we’d cope without a “leader” or “Tank” role.

Mind you, my groups have always tended to be low on the dungeon crawl style of play for more narrative, urban campaigns.

#26 Comment By Bercilac On April 25, 2009 @ 5:28 am

My favourite method is probably redundancy combined with free-form. While most groups I play/DM for usually have a cleric who’s “the healer,” it’s common to have a druid, a paladin, a ranger, or just a character with the heal skill knocking about. If all you have to replace the cleric is a ranger with the heal skill, and insufficient levels for healing spells, it’s probably a good idea for another party member (perhaps the new character, but not necessarily) to get a few ranks. But in low-heal situations, the GM just needs to give the characters more opportunities to take refuge and recoup.

#27 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

I like the image of a team of mountain-climbers. Maybe one of them is a doctor but probably not – they’re just adventurous people. with generally good outdoor survival and climbing and first-aid skills. They even distribute their equipment so if one falls into a crevasse the group can still survive.

So the problem here is the nature of the game system. In 3E you had many people who could fulfill the various roles: a Cleric, Druid, Bard, or Paladin could heal. A Rogue, Monk, Ranger, or Barbarian could sneak. Of course you’d be better off with the Cleric or the Rogue. But a smart party would make sure there were some backup people for each activity.

In 1E / 2E it’s more of a problem. At 3+ levels you really need Fighters because they quickly outstrip the others in combat. You need a Thief because the Magic-User and Cleric can’t always get together for a Silence + Invisibility. And nobody but the Cleric can really heal – Druids and Paladins can heal a little but nowhere near as good as the Cleric.

I haven’t played 4E but I’ve heard each role can be filled by a few different characters.

But I’m in favor of players playing what they want – after all, you only get one character. If the party doesn’t have any healing ability, oh well. They can rest outside. Maybe use the nonmagical healing skills. Maybe pay out the money for potions. That’s their choice.

And it’s not the selfishness of the player of the former Cleric causing the lack of healing. If it is, then it’s equally the selfishness of the other players who aren’t willing to “take one for the team” and retire their Wizards and Barbarians so the party has some curative mojo.