D&D Next: Healing and the playtest Cleric

There isn’t a cleric to be seen amongst the current players of D&D Encounters at my FLGS. There has been in previous seasons, but this season is heavy on the rogues, rangers, paladins and mages for some reason. As a result, the groups are struggling somewhat to heal between encounters. It’s a dynamic that is unfamiliar to the 4E players of the group.

Of course, someone playing original Dungeons & Dragons would be quite familiar with the scenario. Healing in the original set was also dependent on the cleric, but the cleric was a lot different in those days. A first level cleric had no spells at all, being basically a fighter who could turn lesser undead. (Interestingly, the prohibition against using edged weapons only applied to magical weapons, although I’m sure that there would have been players who ignored that rule). The cleric gained spells at second level, and so a group with a second level cleric in the dungeon had access to all of one cure light wounds spell, which would heal 2-7 points of damage.

At fourth level, the cleric could now cast two of those spells. Cure serious wounds was a 4th level spell healing 4-14 hit points; the cleric gained that spell at fifth level. It should be noted that hit dice in the original game were d6s, and progressed in a different fashion that what came later. For instance, a sixth level magic-user had 3d6+1 hit points. So, the actual effect of the curing spells was more than might first be apparent, but the cleric had very few spells of that nature.

Otherwise, the cleric had access to a very limited spell list. There are four spells on the second level list: Find Traps, Hold Person, Bless and Speak with Animals. As I mentioned in my last article, there were no thieves in this release, so Find Traps may well have been a very useful spell.

Honestly, for good healing capabilities, it made a lot more sense for the magic-users of the group to brew potions of healing – at 1 week’s work and 250 gold pieces. All they need to be was 11th level. Ah… perhaps the cleric was still the best way of being healed.

AD&D slightly increased the number of spells available to the cleric, and later supplements to 2nd edition increased the availability of healing spells at other levels, but the cleric really changed in nature with 3rd edition. The designers of that edition had noticed that clerics weren’t exactly popular, so their solution was to hugely increase the spell capabilities of the cleric. Apart from everything else, the cleric had the option of spontaneously changing any of their prepared spells into a cure spell. The amount of damage cured also increased significantly – and even more so if the proper feats and prestige classes were used. This had some interesting effects on the dynamics of play.

The major one, at least from my perspective, is that in-combat healing became a real possibility, and then a necessity. Creatures often dealt enough damage to take a character down in two hits, even a high-level character. And so the cleric was needed to heal that damage, and they had the ability to do it. So, playing a cleric in 3E could turn into “Barbarian charges into combat, kills a monster, is reduced to 2 hit points. Cleric’s turn heals the barbarian to full health. Repeat”. The Castle Greyhawk game that I played in, as a Radiant Servant of Pelor, definitely followed that format.

Against that, other players ignored the healing side of the cleric and worked on all the support spells, casting multiple spells on themselves and their friends to turn their cleric into one of the most powerful combatants in the game, leading to the term “Codzilla”, as both druids and clerics could turn themselves into unbelievably powerful melee combatants, outshining the fighters.

The other big addition of 3rd edition was the wand of cure light wounds, which could be crafted by the cleric in the group for the low cost of 375 GP (and some XP) for 50 spells of cure light wounds. This cost was negligible once the group reached 7th level or thereabouts, and meant that any group worth their salt would be fully healed after each fight, and just their spell slots (for big offensive spells) would stand in the way of them going forever. The limitations on these big spells gave rise to the “5-minute workday”.

So, the changes to the cleric in 3rd edition radically changed how the class worked and how the adventuring party worked in the game. Ability drain and level drain, which could only be healed by a cleric and not any other type of caster, meant that you pretty much had to have a cleric in the game or you just couldn’t deal with a lot of encounters. All in all, I tend to categorise the cleric of 3rd edition one of the biggest failures of the game’s design.

The legacy of the 3rd edition cleric can be seen very much in 4th edition, which often worked as a reaction against the problems of 3rd edition. Clerics too necessary? We’ll give everyone healing surges so they don’t need a cleric to heal between combats. Clerics too powerful? We’ll limit their powers significantly to be more supportive in nature. Clerics only healing in combat? We’ll give them a healing ability that can be used in addition to their attack! Everyone fully heals using wands of cure light wounds? We’ll remove the wands, but allow everyone to heal overnight!

The fascinating thing about these changes is that although they were – in my opinion – brilliant solutions to the problems of 3rd edition, they weren’t based on how things worked in the original game. 3rd edition might have had wands of cure light wounds, but it was easy enough for the DM to ban them and the game moved back closer to its origins. 4th edition hard-coded in the solution to the 3rd edition problem, and moved the game away from traditional D&D as a result!

It should be said that although I’m dubious about the overall effect these changes had, there’s no denying that the 4th edition cleric was a lot of fun to play: good in melee combat, able to heal their friends without stopping, and with a moderate amount of support magic, they were able to contribute to the game in a fantastic manner. My friend Greg played one to 30th level, and loved every moment of it, and as his DM, I didn’t feel that he was overshadowing the rest of the group.

D&D Next, at least in the form of the September playtest packet, has a number of unusual features in its handling of the cleric. It keeps the idea that you don’t need a cleric from 4th edition, with characters having “hit dice” that can be used to restore hit points during breaks in the action, and all hit points being restored by a night’s rest. However, the cleric being able to heal at the same time as attacking or casting spells is gone – at least in this version of the rules.

It also uses the form of spell-casting I’d discussed briefly in my article on the Playtest Wizard, where a cleric prepares a small number of spells at the beginning of each day, then uses their slots to cast any or all depending on desire or need. There’s no need for different versions of the Cure Wounds spell – it adds extra dice of healing dependent on what spell slot is used. Otherwise the spell list is relatively limited, and the rules on maintaining concentration spells limit the abuses that were possible in 3rd edition. It feels a lot more similar to the original cleric, especially as the length of a short rest is 1 hour, not 5 minutes: getting such a long break is a lot harder.

I’m uneasy about the current form of the cleric, but with six months of development since the last update to the class, it’s quite possible that a lot of the details will have changed – we saw quite a bit of change in the class during the open playtest period. The cleric, along with the rogue, has always been a problematic class. Although I’m happy with how the rogue went, let’s see what happens with the cleric!


  1. alphastream

    Very thought-provoking, Merric! I especially had to think over the concept that the 4E Cleric may be just a 3E-focused solution. I’m not sure I agree completely, as we did have those issues in 2E – especially if you didn’t have a wizard to solve ‘all the problems’ with spells. Two fighter going into a dungeon had to retreat and healing took eons… the 4E changes solve all those problems too. It also solved the 5-minute adventuring day, which was a problem for all previous editions. I recall running ToEE with AD&D where I spent all this time detailing Hommlet and coming up with cool plot threads and RP, then the party goes to the Temple… and a single fight sends them right back to town! It was horrible for the narrative. I had the same issue with the first version of Next, though there have been improvements since then.

    Next is still too cleric-dependent for me. Hit dice are very limited as healing solutions. The cleric had some ability to attack and heal, but it could edge further toward the 4E model for my tastes. I also wouldn’t mind having more ‘leader’ classes, including a full warlord over it being a fighter subclass.

    Still, I’m mulling those thoughts over. Cool stuff, thanks!


    • merricb

      Yes, I don’t insist that everything in 4E was because of 3E – some of them are just solutions to the game in general. 🙂

      I think there’s a difference between the 5 minute day which is caused by the party running out of resources too quickly because the encounter is tough, and that caused by them going nova because they can. The second is a problem that can’t be dealt with by the rules (except by excising dailies entirely), but by DMing and adventure design.

      I’ll write more on that presently.


  2. Symatt

    I to do not want my game sessions ruined if i play a cleric. I like the way 4e ran for me. it meant i wasn’t just running after other party members just so they could get up and continue fighting.
    clerics need to feel like they matter other than being a florence nightingale


    • merricb

      Absolutely. AD&D mostly has the clerics fighting and only healing if absolutely necessary; in some ways, Next allows this with the cantrip Spare the Dying which works as a minor action.


  3. Pingback: Changes from the D&D Playtest: More Starter Fighter changes | Merric's Musings
  4. James

    I think the resting rules are terrible. Somebody cuts you to ribbons (even if you say only half the damage is actual bloodied /meat damage which is hard to explain when someone has been hacking you) and you go to bed that night and Zappo wham….. you wake up feeling fine and refreshed with full HP. I know the game needs to be fun etc but I want to play pen and paper not pen and paper based on video game culture and this takes the fun away. I know this is hotly debated but I think this fundamentally breaks the game world rules…….they said for a long time that magic or special abilities (often magical) could heal OR that real rest and recuperation over time could heal. I hated 4E for this reason (surges etc) and although I do like 5E (have players manual) I am going to have to do something with these rules to make the game work for me and the old school guys I play with or hope the DMG has a version I can swallow. Maybe I will create some half way position that is believable in terms of game world reality.


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