So you want to play a Cleric in 1st Edition? Let’s talk about what to expect, how to use it, and how to make it your own (besides personality, of course).
As written, the Cleric has the most strict racial limitations of the four basic classes, at least for PCs. Certain settings (such as Rick Stump’s Seaward) change this to allow your classic dwarven cleric to be available to player characters, but the general design seems to be non-human clerics remain with their people rather than go adventuring. This limits PC clerics to Humans (as always), Half-Elves, and Half-Orcs. Half-Elves and Half-Orcs are limited to level 5 and 4 respectively, meaning they never reach level to make a chapel or temple. They do, however, get exciting multi-class options like the cleric/ranger for half-elves and the cleric/assassin for half-orcs, as well as of course fighters, thieves, and magic-users. If you happen to roll a high wisdom, it’s worth considering a human cleric or multiclassing into cleric with another race.
To be a Cleric, the character must have at least 9 Wisdom, but 15 Wisdom or more buys you a 10% XP bonus. A cleric really wants more than 12 Wisdom, as there is a 5% chance of spell failure at 12 with another 5% per Wisdom below 12, but you can of course get away with less. At 13 Wisdom and above, the cleric starts getting extra spell slots. At an 18 Wisdom, the cleric has two extra level 1 spells, two extra level 2 spells, an extra level 3 spell, and an extra level 4 spell. If I ever roll an 18 Wisdom, I’m going to be looking to play a cleric.
Since the cleric does tend to get stuck in in melee combat, he of course benefits from a high Strength for bonus damage and accuracy, but not until above 15 and with no penalties until below 8. It’s a similar story with Dexterity where there are penalties to AC below 7 and bonuses above 14, and with Constitution where there are penalties to HP below 7 and bonuses above 14. This leaves a wide range in the middle where there’s no need to be concerned, but bonuses are bonuses where you can get them.
While clerics have a smaller variety of spells, relative to the magic-user, they don’t have a spell book limiting their spell options. Except for spells excluded by his particular deity, the cleric can prepare spells from the whole spell list (smaller though it may be). As mentioned above, the cleric can actually get extra spells with a high wisdom. This is no small thing, at various points in the characters growth doubling or even tripling this resource depending on wisdom level. This gives the cleric significant access to protective and supportive spells for the party.
On top of having spells, clerics are nearly as capable as fighters in melee combat: they get the same armor options and nearly as good HP and hit chance. This allows them to hang near the party members who need their support (protecting the mage so fighters are free to advance on the enemy or accompanying the fighter in case he needs healing) and deal damage when they are presented an opportunity. Also in line with their defensive role, the Cleric has some of the best saving throw chances for various types of save.
And let’s not forget the clerical ability to turn undead. This resource has no use limits (except against a particular undead if it fails) and provides escape from or advantage over many enemies and even destroys them as the cleric reaches higher levels.
If you’re coming from later editions of Dungeons and Dragons, you may be surprised at how standardized the Cleric is in 1st edition. On the one hand, this enhances the focus on character personality as a differentiating characteristic. On the other hand, you probably want something mechanical. Let’s see what we can come up with.
First of all, the deity your cleric draws power from will affect his behavior, what spells he has available, and what requirements there are to qualify to have those spells. Mostly this doesn’t have to impact your play, but it probably will, as your DM will probably take into account the god’s expectations in order to receive power in the form of higher level spells (3 and beyond).
Speaking of which, the types of spells you choose when you have a slot without a destiny in the mission greatly impacts how your character feels as a cleric. Are you full of healing by default? Utility spells like light and detecting magic and traps? Strengthening spells like bless and remove fear? Combative spells like hold person and spiritual hammer? There are lots of options and many of your slots will be filled with things you need for the mission, but what you choose when you have an extra slot or two to fill will say a lot about your character.
While you don’t control the loot you obtain from your adventures, magic items are as much a part of character growth in 1e as leveling and class features, sometimes more so. The magical items you obtain will help set your character apart mechanically. Clerics get some items particular to their class and many of the stories I hear of them include a Mace of Disruption or a Staff of the Serpent or some other item that was a defining feature of the character. This isn’t a character component you have very much control over, but it is something you will remember.
If your DM is using the Wilderness Survival Guide and/or the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, then like all classes your Cleric can present a wide variety of expertise in survival proficiencies. The cleric starts with the maximum (3) proficiencies to choose and gets new ones at a regular rate. Whether you dive further into healing with these proficiencies or pick some other things to set your cleric apart, they are one way to make your character feel unique.
And I know I said was going to focus on mechanical things, but I get goosebumps when I read Rick’s section on historical examples of clerics, maybe this can inspire you:
“The Latin priest stood along with 12 other men in the midst of the battle. These knights alongside him were replaced as they suffered wounds but the priest, although he, too, took many a sore blow, held firm and fearless as he streamed with his own blood.
“For the priests of the West do handle sacred things with their shield in their other hand, and put down the Body and Blood of the Savior to pick up the spear.”
-Princess Anna Comnena