“Vatican II led to many changes in the Catholic Church, notable ones being the use of mother-tongues – instead of Latin – for parts of the mass, the empowerment of the laity, and allowing priests to use bladed weapons in combat.”

Critical Miss #8

I suppose I’d know who the cleric was, if I’d started with her. I understand girls you can’t save, no matter what god they work for.

Aleena, D&D Red Box
You couldn't save her. Just like all the others, a million little boys who couldn't. Forgive yourself.

As it happens, though, I didn’t. I started here.

Ultima 3: Exodus Character Creation
Ultima 3: Exodus Character Creation

Actually, let’s zoom in a bit…

Ultima 3: Exodus Cleric
Ultima 3: Exodus Cleric

There. See. Now, what I knew in… 1988… sounds right… was that a cleric was another word for priest, and a priest was someone who worked for God.

Just one problem. Fantasy didn’t have God. Oh, sure, there was a cross on Link’s shield, but there’d been one on He-Man’s armor, too, hadn’t there? Just a device, a heraldic symbol.

Now, in 1989, someone conveniently introduced me to the pagan gods1, and they found their way right into my world of magic and elves2. My carefully envisioned narrative-driven side-scroller had elves and Greek gods.

But those gods didn’t have priests, did they? I mean, you read the Bible, there are priests all over the place, and usually mucking things up. Got Jesus hanged, I’d been told, and that’s why we couldn’t let the Church have undue influence on the state.3 But the Greek myths, nooo… people prayed, maybe there were some burnt offerings, but pagan gods didn’t need priests. They did things themselves.4

Yet, Ultima had priests. Briefly. I was very glad when the next Ultima came around and got that fixed. Shrines, virtues, no gods. Very sensible, and I could continue being a bold maverick having Zeus meet the elves. I’d played Hero’s Quest by now, too, and read Lloyd Alexander, and while there were certainly hints of greater supernatural forces5, there was hardly a celestial hierarchy.

Even King Arthur, well, God occasionally popped up in his life, but no priests. I’m not sure what they were all doing at the time, but he had a proper wizard to cast his spells for him, just like Pharoah had had.6 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had gods, and Lankhmar had a whole street devoted to them, but both the priests and the gods were more than a little silly.

The holes filled, gradually — I was a weird kid, but hardly a dumb one, but my fantasy worlds never really had need of magic priests, even as they developed pantheons of their own. Even reading Moorcock and Lewis, the gods all took care of their own business.

The idea that a whole class of adventurer might need to be priestly never really occurred to me until I got my hands on the Rules Cyclopedia. Even since then, I’ve never been sure why clerics weren’t just a sort of mage, and seeing fantasy through the eyes of D&D hasn’t really helped that at all. In gaming, I came to understand, clerics were somewhere between fighters and wizards… but so were elves, and for that matter, there were paladins. And some paladins had gods, too.7

But in the better sort of fantasy video games, there never were priests. The Ultimas were neatly atheistic, and when they got around to coping with gods, in Pagan, it was in a very Star Trek way. Gods, fantasy said to me, better off without ’em, and their priests are all liars and idiots and just occasionally Theleb Kaarna.

D&D Arcade Cleric
Badasses, like this guy.

Yet, for some reason, there was always someone who wanted to play one in my games. Sometimes, they weren’t very serious — I’d heard of Bob, the God of Donkeys out there in another campaign. But all too often, they were devout worshipers of gods who never seemed good for anything except a daily spell allotment. Sometimes they were badasses.

D&D Arcade Thief
And he hung out with this hottie. Just saying.

And there seemed to be roleplaying games that shared my indifference. Tunnels & Trolls had no clerics, and Stormbringer certainly didn’t go out of its way to suggest the idea.8

The first time I ever encountered a proper cleric adventurer was in college, as it turned out. Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish officer who got lost in Florida, made his way to Mexico casting out demons and disease in the name of God, gaining and losing fellow soldiers and native adventurers along the way. And around that point, through that lens, the cleric started making sense to me.

The cleric? He’s Moses. He’s Samuel9. He’s Martin de Porres. She’s Joan of Arc.

And don’t worry. Someday Aleena will come back.10


  1. The Greek ones, and boy did that set me up for some issues on down the line.
  2. Where’d the elves come from? Not sure. I’d only read The Hobbit at that point, so elves should have been assholes. I think I picked up from a friend that link and Zelda were elves on account of the ears, so elves were cool.
  3. Got that from my grandparents. Very good Catholics and fearlessly determined liberals. Did I mention my upbringing was weird.
  4. Well, apart from that Trojan War mess.
  5. Who was Baba Yaga? And Arawn, he was certainly a suspicious character.
  6. There’s that Bible again. Colored my whole view of the genre.
  7. Or, in dear old Paksenarrion’s case, a saint.
  8. Notably, it suggested priests got their magic powers by sorcery, same as everyone else.
  9. David was a rogue. Don’t let the instrument fool you, he was just playing at multi-classing while waiting for the next big score.
  10. Just don’t be surprised if she has two kids and is married to some 3rd level IT Expert AND DOESN’T LISTEN TO ANY MUSIC THAT’S COOL.

3 thoughts on “The First Estate

  1. The Cleric is an odd one, about four ideas bolted together to make a major class. Fighter, Thief and Wizard all make a fair amount of sense apart from odd things like wizards liking darts. Healing is obviously useful, and being able to ward off vampires with a cross is always nice, but I can’t think of characters who make a habit of doing both, and could argue about why the cross works depending on the setting…

    And I’d have said Joan of Arc was a Vampire Slayer Paladin.

  2. Interesting that Craig should mention the Paladin. The original D&D made it clear that the Cleric was not “just” a priest, but a warrior-priest and explicitly mentions the Templars as inspiration. Other “fighting priests” like Bishop Turpin and Odo of Bayeux (incidentally, the man attributed with originating the “no edged/piercing weapons” legend) are also commonly cited.

    When the Paladin becomes part of the core rules (AD&D 1e), I feel the Cleric loses his post as the game’s archetypal divinely inspired warrior, and — while still a respetable combatant, mechanically — becomes “the priest” and little more.

    But if you’re willing to use both, and keep them distinct, I can see how Joan of Arc ends up the Paladin, being a peasant girl with no formal religious training and no ordination, who claims to be inspired directly by God.

  3. This is one of the reasons I need to get around to writing the class article about Tunnels & Trolls, because T&T carries many of D&D’s gameplay assumptions without most of its class design assumptions.

    For example, T&T also derives a class from the Mouser and Cugel… but this is a fighting man with a smattering of magical ability, rather than a wall-climbing, lock-picking thief. It has a warrior-wizard… but he’s explicitly a warrior-wizard, not a paladin or elf.

    T&T has combat healing… but it’s a choice available to wizards, not part of an extra class.

    As for the separation between the cleric and paladin… man, I don’t even know where to start with this one, except for weapon aesthetics.

    However, the paladin works fine for me as a quasi-secular champion of Law (Supplement I – Greyhawk) or an implicitly atheistic champion of Honor (Ultima IV+, Quest for Glory II+).

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