Friday, 18 November 2011

The First Level Cleric's Survival Guide

I've been putting-off this final old-school survival guide for quite a long time. Not because I didn't know what to say -on the contrary, the cleric is my favourite character class -but because of the high degree of variation seen in first level clerics from one set of rules to another. 

In some of the earlier D&D box-sets the cleric didn't get to cast spells at first level at all. In the original D&D and AD&D games clerics who used non-blunt weapons could expect to lose their clerical powers. But there are rules in use today that, while they do not to permit clerics to take proficiencies in non-blunt weapons, do still allow clerics to use them without divine censure. The only penalty suffered being the standard negative modifier to attack rolls for using a weapon without proficiency. The situation is further confused by the ability of clerics in some settings to use any (or only) weapons favoured by their deity, not neccessarily just blunt weapons. Deciding what assumptions to make in this guide proved something of a headache.

In the end, I've decided to base this guide on the assumption that the cleric in your game is restricted to blunt weapon proficiencies and can cast spells at first level. This seems to cover most of the old school retro-clones in common use. At least measured by the yard-stick of the old school blogging community.

Without further ado, here is the guide:

The First Level Cleric's Survival Guide:

You're a brand new cleric. You've got your bludgeon, your holy symbol, more hit points than anyone except the fighters and you've got an armour class that equals theirs. Time for your cleric to go down that dungeon. Heal wounds and kick ass! Right?

Hell no!


Sure your cleric can strap on plate mail and a shield with the best of them, and given your starting money in most old school systems, there's a darn good chance that you'll be boasting AC5 or better before the first time you even leave town. Top that off with your D8 hit points and you've got a good chance of surviving at least one hit before you need healing. Time to take your place in the front rank of the marching order?


That armour isn't there so you can wade into combat. It's there to keep you alive long enough to help keep everyone else alive. And not just with your healing spells either. Consider this: you might have the second highest hit points in the game, but a goblin wielding a longsword two-handed can still drop you with one hit. And if you go down, the whole damn party goes down. TPK. Campaign over.

Moreover, have you actually seen your weapon damage? Using most old school rules, the cleric is limited to blunt weapons. Blunt weapon's which typically (again depending on rules-set) do a lot less damage than anything the fighters are carrying. A fighter might drop that goblin with a single hit. In fact, with a weapons specialisation, he might drop two of them! But there's a good chance that all you're going to do (even to Mr 1/2 hit-die goblin) is make him mad. And if he's busy battering away at you with his sword, how are you going to heal the wounded party members when you're too busy defending yourself? Furthermore, being on the front lines means that any wounded characters who need healing have to stay near the enemy in order for you to heal them. Unless you want to turn your back on the monsters while the wounded guy stands behind you.

Come to think of it, do I have to mention just how many monsters there are out there that laugh at blunt weapon damage? Zombies, for example?

Consider then, the benefits of being in the second (or even third rank) of the marching order. From the second rank, you can heal a wounded fighter simply by reaching out and touching him on the shoulder. He doesn't even have to dis-engage from combat. Moreover, from the second rank you can still fight. Especially if you've chosen a proficiency with slings or the lucerne hammer. Or even a spear if your playing a system that won't strip you of your powers for using a sharp weapon. Even with a negative modifier for using a weapon you lack proficiency in, you'll still land the occasional hit. If you're lucky enough to find yourself in a party with an abundance of fighters and/or hirelings, you might even prefer to stand in the third row of the party marching order. This prevents any canny monsters from using their own pole-arms to strike over the heads of the fighters in front with the aim of killing you. You can still heal effectively from the third rank. Any-time a front line fighter needs healing, he simply switches places with someone in the second rank while you heal him. You don't even have to move.

Finally, the fact that you are almost as good at hitting things as a fighter at first level (assuming the fighter has specialised in a weapon) combined with your fairly high AC also makes you a good choice as the party rearguard. Especially if you've exhausted all your spells for the day. Just remember that, as rearguard, your job is to shout the alarm and hold off the monsters until the fighters arive. As soon as they do, make sure you place at least one of your fighter or hireling buddies between you and the bad guys. Don't throw you're life away. They'll need you to heal them when you recover your spells.

But remember this: when the clerics in the party have all run out of cure spells, it's time to go. Don't give into the temptation to explore "just one more room". There's always the possibility of a random encounter while you're making your way back to a place of safety.

If your group only has one proper fighter and no henchment or hirelings, or, in a real emergency such as when you're out of healing spells and your fighters are going down like pitchers of ale at a dwarven wedding, that's when you might need to fight toe-toe in melee. Hopefully by that point the party bruisers will have mown down or wounded enough of the enemy that you and your piddly D4 damage warhammer will be enough to save the day.

Of course, that being said, if things ever get that bad it might just be time to run. That is, of course, assuming that the big heavy metal-suit you were so proud of a few paragraphs ago doesn't slow you down enough to get you killed.


The weapon proficiencies available to a cleric vary between different rules-sets more than with any other traditional D&D class. Some systems allow the use of slings and flaming oil. Some don't. Some allow the use of lucerne hammers ( a warhammer mounted on a pole), some don't. Some allow clerics to use weapons not on their proficiency lists without losing their powers and angering their god. Some don't.

Given such a wide variation on permitted weapons, I can offer only two pieces of advice: Choose a ranged weapon at first level (if you can) and if you happen to see the lucern hammer on the list of permitted weapons, TAKE IT! TAKE IT! TAKE IT! After what we discussed earlier, I shouldn't have to explain the value of a blunt weapon long enough to let your cleric fight from the second rank. It does mean giving up your shield bonus to AC while you're using it, but are you going to need you're shield that much when your in the second rank? Probably not. Not unless you're fighting orcs with halbards or you're party likes to use the Tetsudo formation.


The cleric's role is to provide a supporting role for the party in all it's forms - not just through healing. The clerics divination spells make him the best investigator in the game. His morale boosting spells (such as bless) make the entire party more effective in combat. His abjuration spells and ability to Turn Undead help keep demons, devils and the un-dead at bay.

The cleric's job is not only that of party medic. He's also the party's intelligence officer, face-man and source of inspiration all in one. At first level (assuming you're playing a system that allows you to cast spells at first level) you're probably going to want to load up with Cure Light Wounds spells. Particularly if you're the group's only cleric. But  please don't discount the battle-winning possibilities of a timely Bless spell or the value of a simple Sanctuary spell while scouting a dungeon or impressing the local peasants with the power of your faith  (“may Thor allow this axe-man to slay me if I lie”). Finally, when you're expecting to encounter the un-dead, Protection from Evil can protect you from the terrifying prospect of being level-drained at first level (though depending on your system, the mileage of this spell can vary). Who do you cast it on? Why you, of course. You're the only one who can turn the damned things and heal the party. Who do you think those undead are coming after first?

Clerical spell selection during a dungeon delve is -and always will be- a matter of personal taste. Any advice I can offer on the matter is complicated further by the award of additional spells per day for high wisdom scores (in some systems at least). When planning how many Cure Light Wounds to memorise, it can help to look at the total number of clerical spell slots available to all the clerics in the party and work from there. Each cleric should have at least one cure light wounds spell memorised at first level and ideally at least one cleric should have memorised two. It's preferable have at least one Cure Light Wounds spell in the party per fighter, ranger or paladin. Only then should you consider picking other spells at first level.

Even when in town or resting in camp, it's a good idea to keep at least one Cure Light Wounds memorised per cleric. You never know when violence will find you. But when you're between dungeon delves, don't discount the utility of other, non-combat spells. Create Water can be a life saver when crossing deserts or barren lands. Detect Evil can come in handy when meeting a potential patron or perspective ally for the first time. Casting Purify Food and Drink is a sensible precaution when eating food offered by someone you don't fully trust or when your rations are in danger of going off.

The cleric's greatest advantage and appeal as a class is their versatility -and the single most versatile thing about them is the number and variety of the spells that a cleric with a good wisdom score can cast at first level. Don't stick to one standard spell package. It might seem less hassle in the long-run, but in actuality this is a lazy and foolish option. Unlike a magic-user, you know every single one of your classes first level spells at character creation. Why play a cleric at all if you don't intend to take advantage of all the options?


Even a low level priest is still a representative of his church, his faith, and his deity. In a typical party of fighters, thieves and magic-users, you are the respectable one. You represent an authority greater than your own. In a highly populated area you might be just one low-level-cleric of your faith among many. But in a typical small village or isolated hamlet you might very well be the only spell-casting cleric anyone has seen in months!

Don't forget it. In fact, use it. Imagine how grateful a small hamlet or village will be if, when passing through, you pause to conduct a short service, bless crops or a newborn or even perform a short marriage ceremony for a happy couple. Even if the nervous villagers shoot glances at your disreputable looking companions, they'll still be falling over themselves to share news and gossip with you. Only bards are likely to receive a better reception in such places than you are. And while bards might expect only to be given sleeping space on the common room floor, a reputable looking cleric (one who embraces his spiritual role as a leader of the faith) is likely to wind up sleeping in the village elders own bed.

A cleric of an openly evil or illegal faith might not be able to expect the same reaction in your typical village, but his status might still open doors for him in a pirate town (like the infamous Nulb from Temple of Elemental Evil) or in the more evil realms (such as the Horned Lands of the Greyhawk setting).
Regardless of whether your deity is loved or feared, of all the character classes (unless one of your companions happens to be of noble birth) you are the one most likely to gain an audience with a figure of authority, whether than be with the village elder or the mayor of a small town. While a first level cleric might not be able to gain direct access to a King or Duke by his own efforts, it's a fairly safe bet that, if he's been known for his diligence and respectability, he can at least arrange for an introduction from someone who can (such as the local bishop).


With the likely exception of the party magic-user, you may very well be the most educated member of the party. Indeed, in some settings -especially those which closely resemble the real life dark-ages- there's a very good chance that you and the mage are the only PC's who can actually read and write.

Make good use of this knowledge. Monks and lay-brethren used to make good money (and learned a great deal of gossip) by writing and reading letters for other people. When you're not adventuring, earn some extra coin (and possibly some kudos with your superiors) by using spells on behalf of the faithful in return for “donations”- and not just from cure spells either. Who wouldn't pay for a quick “detect evil” spell in the presence of their future mother-in-law? You also might be surprised at the things a Cleric might learn while making a house-call on a wounded or sick parishioner. The things people say in a fever....

  •  A good AC, 8 hit points and blunt weapons do not make you a fighter.
  • When you've run out of spells, it's time to leave the Dungeon.
  • You can't heal them if you're dead.
  • You're not just a walking bandage. You have other spells. Choose them and use them.


x said...

Thank You! Huge props.

The weird delay in response was due to a call from the wife telling me she was headed home with the final parts of the puzzle-5 Arkham Horror expansions. I have been breaking down tokens and cards and such.

If you would like to add any commentary just post it or email me so I can included it, an overview or thoughts, inspiration for the series, whatever you think might be appropriate.

Now to find a few authors who are MIA. I must find them! The hunt is on! :)

Unknown said...

Of course, in Labyrinth Lord, you'll have d6 hp... So even less inclination to mix it up with the melee dudes.

Dangerous Brian said...

Arkham horror! You lucky man. Thank's for the feedback. I'll send you a paragraph or two later tonight, if that's alright? Good hunting, by the way.

@Fabian, you know, I wonder if that's one of the reasons why they made it D6. To discourage clerics from getting stuck in?

x said...

That'll be great man.

Yeah, Elder Sign is a gateway drug to Arkham Horror. I played 6 sessions of ES and bought AH and all the exp blind.

Being a Lovecraft fan(atic) I am in heaven. Always wanted to have a go at CoC but nobody was ever into.

The magic word: Solo. Both ES and AH. So if nobody else wants to step up, smack down some alien gods and go insane I guess I'll just have to DO IT MYSELF!


Chris C. said...

A great post! I've got to go back and read the others in the series.

Dangerous Brian said...

Cheers Bard. Hope you like them.

Ragna said...

I have been looking forward a new Survival Guide since you posted the last one.


Dangerous Brian said...

Cheers Ragna. Sorry I kept you waiting so long.

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Dangerous Brian said...

Thanks 7/6/1dad, you've greatly cheered a man confined to bed with man-flu. I'll start listening to those pod-casts right away and sign myself up to the forum. Thanks for the referral.

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