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In many versions of D&D, clerics can't use bladed/edged/pointy weapons, and are instead restricted to things like staves, clubs, maces, etc. Why is this?

Is there some historical reason? Is there some fantasy prototype of this sort of cleric? Is this just for game balance, to prevent them from being fighters+magic?

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Should we merge this on the one about the slingstones? –  Canageek Jul 6 '12 at 14:27
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@Canageek, I think they're similar, but separate. Knowing the answer to this question (about sharp weapons) wouldn't be enough to know the answer to the other question (about slingstones). –  Joe Jul 6 '12 at 16:45
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@Canageek Merging is only for exact duplicates, not variations on the theme. The idea is that variant questions are valuable because they garner different answers that don't entirely overlap, and we can see that in these two questions. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 6 '12 at 18:07
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4 Answers 4

up vote 27 down vote accepted

According to a regular in Gygax and Arneson's early Blackmoor and Greyhawk games, the cleric was largely draw from the priests in 70s vampire movies, with the prohibition against edged weapons inspired by legends and fantasy fiction:

Ahem. I was there.

In CHAINMAIL there were wizards that functioned as artillery.

Then there was Dave Arneson's first miniatures/roleplaying campaign. Some players were 'good guys' and some players were 'bad guys' and Dave was the referee.

One of the 'bad guys' wanted to play a Vampire. He was extremely smart and capable, and as he got more and more experience he got tougher and tougher.

This was the early 70s, so the model for 'vampire' was Christopher Lee in Hammer films. No deep folklore [stuff].

Well, after a time, nobody could touch Sir Fang. Yes, that was his name.

To fix the threatened end of the game they came up with a character that was, at first, a 'vampire hunter'. Peter Cushing in the same films.

As the rough specs were drawn up, comments about the need for healing and for curing disease came up.

Ta da, the "priest" was born. Changed later to 'cleric'.

The bit about edged weapons was from Gary's reading the old stories about Archbishop Turpin [ed: later clarified to be Bishop Odo], who wielded a mace because he didn't want to shed blood ("who lives by the sword dies by the sword").

In other words, it came about the same way that 90% of the D&D rules came about :

WE MADE UP SOME [STUFF] THAT WE THOUGHT WOULD BE FUN.

As he says, clerics were partly inspired by stories and misconceptions about historical warrior-priests, such as Turpin from the Song of Roland and Odo, a prominent figure in the Bayeux Tapestry. The idea of fighting clerics vowing to avoid spilling blood with their weapons is not at all historically accurate, but it's a popular image in some legends and Victorian pseudo-history, and featured in fantasy fiction of the 60s and 70s as well (e.g., according to Wikipedia, The Once and Future King).

As far as I can tell, there was no original rationale other than flavor. Maces are generally a bit weaker than swords in most editions of D&D, but OD&D used straight d6 for weapon damage rolls; I think at that stage the game had other "balancing" mechanisms so weapon damage wasn't a big one. I can't say whether Gygax actually believed the image of the cleric fighting with only blunt weapons was historical — remember, D&D's chief goal was always to emulate the creators' favorite fantasy fiction, not real history — but he clearly liked it enough to make it a part of the game.

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My understanding is that OD&D really didn’t have a balancing mechanism for weapon choice. Small weapons got to attack faster and large weapons attacked slower, but they all did the same damage so ... daggers for everybody? This was one of the things fixed very shortly after the initial release, though, as I understand things. –  KRyan Feb 2 at 17:24
    
And just to reinforce that story... there's a spell called Mace od Odo in Player's Guide to Faerun. –  Zachiel Feb 2 at 18:16
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I believe it goes back to Bishop Odo, an 11th Century cleric depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry wielding a club. Many historians believe that he wields a club because, as a cleric, he would have been forbidden from carrying a sword. Whether this widely-believed historical status is true or not, it's likely that the priesthood were generally not trained in sword-fighting.

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On the same tapestry, Duke William is depicted wielding a club as well. (He's the one on the yellow horse, right under the word Dux: bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/bayeux24.htm angelfire.com/rnb/bayeux_tapestry/sect37_39.html) –  Joe Jul 5 '12 at 23:44
    
In I.33 (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Armouries_Ms._I.33 ) a priest teaches the use of sword and buckler, and the topics are quite advanced. So presumably at least some priests were quite competent in the noble art. –  Thanuir Jul 6 '12 at 4:20
    
Many highly placed clergy where the sons of nobles who were not in line to inherit during the middle ages. It also sometimes happened that they would leave the clergy if a death placed them in line to inherit. –  TimothyAWiseman Jul 6 '12 at 17:13
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There's an interesting item in the Wikipedia article Sources and influences on the development of Dungeons & Dragons about Clerics. Quoting from an old Dragon Magazine article it states:

The cleric is largely inspired by folklore of the medieval cleric of Templar.[13] Like the Templars described in White's The Once and Future King, clerics in D&D were forbidden edged weapons by religious vows.

The source footnote states:

"The AD&D game models its cleric after the medieval fighter-cleric, à la Templar or Hospitlar." Lakofka, Lenard (1982-12). "Leomund's Tiny Hunt: The cloistered cleric". Dragon (TSR, Inc) VII:7 (68): pp. 30

I always understood that literary/historical rationale to be a convenient means of covering the fact that fighters who can also heal and turn back undead would just be too unbalanced. They needed to be impaired in combat relative to fighters, and only being able to use blunt weapons was a handy way to help that.

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It's useful to point out that real-world Templars definitely did use sharp weapons, such as the sword and lance. The very first primary source I could find talks about high-ups in the order getting horses and a guy to carry their lance. –  Alex P Jul 7 '12 at 2:48
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I don't have the original Dragon magazine at hand, but my guess is the Lenard Lakofka article was referencing the "folklore of the medieval cleric," (rather than a historically accurate source) which is why that is how it was put in the Wikipedia article. At a certain point we're trying to get inside the minds of the creators of D&D, so the best we can do is go with accounts like the one in your answer, @AlexP. –  Erik Schmidt Jul 7 '12 at 5:39
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Medieval inquisitors were forbidden from drawing blood when extracting a confession. Blood was sacred to Christianity after all. They could do anything else they wanted into process, as long as it didn't draw blood. This is one source often cited for why generic clerics can't use edged weapons. Mythos clerics on the other hand could use any weapons their gods allowed.

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[Citation Needed] Sorry, I just find that really dubious. –  KRyan Dec 16 '12 at 21:59
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@KRyan the prohibition originates in the Ecumenical Councils. It is, however, pretty much irrelevant to answering the original question, except by way of Once and Future King, and of Song of Roland, as many of the Fighting Cleric romantic era figures ignored it. Friar Tuck uses a staff because he's poor and not exceeding his station, not because he cares much for the prohibitions of a 600-year old council. –  aramis Apr 20 '13 at 23:29
    
Also note that blunt weapons don't actually accomplish avoiding bloodshed. Because they produce fewer clean cuts and more ragged tears and even deep abrasions, they can actually end up with more blood on the outside of the target's body, as once the wound starts bleeding, it can be harder to get it to stop. –  Matthew Najmon Feb 2 at 6:08
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