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I'm a complete newcomer to the RPG hobby. I was invited to a D&D session and when I was asked to create my character I was completely blanked. But when I came up with the idea of a martial-artist grappling Cleric and asked how to do that, the DM and the other players didn't respond well, or said sarcastic stuff like "read the manual" or "you should already know that".

The D&D version was 3.5 and I ended up creating a below average character that I didn't like at all. I will have a word with the rest of the group about this in the next session.

Right now I want to ask for advice on creating a character like this (who is balanced, not overpowered). That way i can have some background when confronted with troubles like this in the future.

Can anybody point me in the right direction for this?

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They don't sound like a very nice group to be a newcomer in... But in any case, welcome to! I cleaned up the post a little, I hope you don't mind. – SevenSidedDie May 16 '14 at 17:15
I'd echo what @SevenSidedDie commented, and also give food for thought. No matter what the answer to this question is, it's addressing a symptom instead of the problem IMO. Address the fact with your DM and your group that you are a newcomer, and that you need to know if your presence will be a good fit considering this. Otherwise, you're going to be left with a lot of questions like this, and the level of frustration will be continually increasing. – SnakeDr68 May 16 '14 at 17:20
As to this question, however, if you want build advice please be a lot more clear. What books are allowed, what level(s) are you targeting, etc. – mxyzplk May 16 '14 at 18:33
@mxyzplk That's expert-player level chargen detail. I think we have room for RPG-novice chargen overview advice too. – SevenSidedDie May 16 '14 at 18:46
What?!? Even a novice knows what books the DM said they could use and know if they're starting at level 1 or what. If they're a novice and the answer is "just the player's handbook, we're starting at level 1 and going up" that's totally fine of course. If nothing else it will prevent the inevitable posting of an answer using 15 levels from Book of Nine Swords and three from Incarnum and two from Cheese of Faerun for an answer. – mxyzplk May 16 '14 at 19:13

First off, if you want advice on being a cleric, the Cleric Handbook is the best place for it. Most of the guides on that site are actually pretty good, if a little in depth.

In 3.5, the default martial arts character is usually the Monk. They tend to come from monasteries, and the typical image of them is guy who spends several hours a day meditating, and several hours kicking butt. However, I'm glad you went with cleric, given that the monk is, mechanically, the worst class in core D&D. If your group suggests Monk, they probably don't understand how bad the Monk is.

You say you've already created a character—I'm going to pretend you haven't, or that your DM is okay with you rearranging your character. (It's often allowed to rebuild your character if you don't like them after the first session, rather than lump you with this guy for the rest of the game.) If your group says you can't do this, then build your way towards what I describe, but you might argue your case a little. Early rebuilding is an entirely reasonable thing to do, especially for a first time player.

Stats-wise, you're looking for high strength and high wisdom. Strength helps your grappling directly, and wisdom is what fuels your spellcasting. Even if spellcasting isn't the main thing you're looking for, just trust me on this. You'll want to have it. Maybe story-wise it's part of your legendary kung-fu stances. Typically, cleric spells are described as prayers to your god, so this probably is in line with what you wanted anyway.

Speaking of gods, you'll want to pick one of those. I don't actually remember the standard 3.5 gods, and I don't know if your group is using them either. My group typically makes them up as part of the first session. The main thing that differentiates gods is their Alignment (are they good, evil, lawful, or chaotic?) their fluff (that is, the stories about them and their attitude) and their domains. A domain is an area of existence the god has purview over—Zeus is a weather god, Mars is a war god, Loki is about trickery, etc. Each god in D&D has multiple domains, and each cleric chooses two from those under the purview of their god. Alignment and fluff I can't help you with, but what you want in terms of domains is the Strength and War domains.

The Strength domain gets you Feat of Strength—once per day, for one round, you have a bonus to your strength rolls equal to your cleric level. Very quickly this becomes substantial, but even better is the domain spell—Enlarge Person. The best way to grapple and do unarmed damage is by getting big. You also quickly get Bull's Strength, which makes you stronger for a short period of time. Given a chance in a fight, cast both of these on yourself, then go to town. The War domain is useful to you for the Weapon Focus with your deity's preferred weapon. I don't think any of the normal gods favor unarmed attacks or grapples, so this is probably only an option if you get to make up your own god. Then, it's a free +1 to either grappling or punching, your choice.

This is a basic starting point for you. Browse through the Handbook to see if anything catches your eye (though note that they use a lot of stuff from other books, which may or may not be allowed at your table). If it turns out you can't rebuild the character but have to play with what you've got (and note again that I would politely argue your case here), give us some more details on what character you have and we'll see what we can do to repair them.

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I was writing mine at about the same time as you. I totally missed "Enlarge Person" as a strength domain spell. That makes it the must-have domain for a grappling cleric. – Aidenn May 16 '14 at 19:01

You'll obviously want plenty of strength, and it's probably wise to take a level of monk too as that will give you 2 very important feats without requiring a dex of 13 (you'll lose your Dex bonus to AC while grappling anyway, you need Wis to be an effective divine caster, and Str to be an effective grappler). It also could make for a good backstory "Studied as a monk, but gave it up to follow deity."

Ask your DM what deities are available, and if custom ones are okay. A deity with the War Domain available and a favored weapon of grapple would give you a big leg-up, and since the rules are stacked slightly against this character concept, it's not broken. A lot of DMs will allow rule-bending like this if it both fits the world and isn't broken.

Perhaps a bigger concern is that while you're grappling, who is keeping your teammates alive? In a typical party, the cleric is the one responsible for healing and protecting teammates. They can also soak up damage well, and take potshots at enemies when the opportunity presents itself. When you're grappling, but haven't pinned your opponent, it will be at least 2 rounds before you can heal someone (and you are delayed 1 round from being able to cast any spells with somatic components).

You'll need the "Still Spell" metamagic feat if you want to actually try casting from within a grapple (though if you've pinned an opponent you can release them as a free action and cast immediately). Ask the DM if there are any house-rules for metamagic feats, as there is a general consensus that they are underpowered; some of the common house-rules would make "still spell" a no-brainer to take if you're going to be grappling.

Also, in general grappling is something that fighters and monks want to do to spellcasters, not something spellcasters want done to them, and the rules are stacked a bit against a cleric being a great wrestler. Any time you fight against what the archetypes are going to do, it's going to be harder to make an effective character, so don't be worried at all about being overpowered with this character idea.

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