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I was recently involved in an argument in a D&D subreddit where I was told repeatedly that I do not understand what a D&D cleric is. I have always understood clerics to be priests of some kind (although not all priests need to be clerics), but that view was not shared in that community. So I guess my questions is this: what is the consensus definition of a D&D cleric?

To give a bit more context, the "cleric" in question was devoted to a deity and prayed regularly. However, many characters are devoted and pray without being considered priests. This character did not do anything normally associated with being a priest; e.g., perform religious rites or otherwise act as a mediator between the deity and mortals. With that said, I think my question can (and should) be answerable without referencing this particular character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Glad you got an answer you like! Just a tip: it's often better to wait a while to accept an answer. Once you accept one, fewer new answers are posted. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 14 at 4:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Consider linking the reddit thread in your question, or at least adding some detail; your summary omits any nuance or any description of what kind of counter-arguments anyone was making. Surely they weren't saying that clerics are never priests? Perhaps some were arguing that not all clerics are priests in a church-leader / formal-religion sense? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 14 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like the issue is less "what is a cleric?" and more "what is a priest?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Carmeister
    Commented Jan 15 at 3:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think part of the problem is that some denominations make a point of not having priests, while still having "clerics" in the DnD sense (i.e., faithful who can perform miracles by the grace of god - however spurious those claims may be). Among Christians, there are episcopalian, presbyterian and congregationalist faiths, and the last has no priest equivalent - the congregation is democratically led, at least in theory \$\endgroup\$
    – No Name
    Commented Jan 15 at 3:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related, there's no need for them to even worship a god. rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/92308/… \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 15 at 13:32

5 Answers 5

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In original D&D there were 3 classes: fighters (or fighting men), wizards and the cleric that was a middle-ground of not as good at fighting or as good as magic, but had both aspects.

There's a video history of these classes you might find interesting. Whilst early D&D does describe them as based on knights templars (ie fighters) its really based on Mike Carr's character, the Bishop in their Blackmore campaign and that developed around Peter Cushing's van Helsing character in the movies to tackle another player who had developed into an OP vampire character. So originally it was more a vampire-hunter fighter class.

Then they codified the class as a middle-ground fighter with spells but later muddied the waters more by creating the Paladin, who is obviously based on knights templar type fighters meaning the cleric as a spell-wielding fighter didn't have enough distinction and thus became more "priestly".

However, 5e might have different ideas (pfft OD&D is the only one that matters) and in real life cleric is a word literally defined as "a member of the clergy" of an organised religion. Anyone who works for such religion in an ordained role is a cleric, regardless of what that role is.

So what it is today... who cares. its whatever you and your group and your DM wants it to be. There is no "one true definition" in games like this, you should be making up your own house rules, making up your own classes (eg the illusionist was originally an example of a specialised wizard that you were supposed to use to create other ones in your game). So ask them to define it, talk to them why you think its a priest, and what it should be within the game world you are playing in. These games are not rule-absolutes, they are collaborative social interactions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for mentioning van Helsing! Itinerant evil-fighting (Roman Catholic-looking?) wizard-priests are a weirdly common trope in a lot of media (basically anything to do with possession, for instance). I think there’s a certain fascination with the idea of the exorcist, perhaps especially among Protestants who don’t believe in that sort of thing but like the imagery of it nonetheless. Which also makes the cleric weirdly specific for a class that’s supposed to cover the heralds of any and all gods. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 14 at 19:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan also its a reason why a majority of Clerical magic is anti-undead rather than anti-demonic forces that you would expect from a medieval priest. \$\endgroup\$
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Jan 14 at 20:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is a summary (title) for your answer "Cleric is not well defined and does not have a consensus definition?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented Jan 15 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ > In original D&D there were 3 classes: fighters (or fighting men), wizards and the cleric TIL! For some reason I'd got it into my head that "Thief" was part of the original line-up, but it appears that that came later. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – scubbo
    Commented Jan 15 at 21:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cat no, because Clerics are well defined, that means in what they can do and what attributes they have. How that is applied to your game world is not defined, a cleric could be a vicar, or it could be a shaman in Hyboria or exorcist in modern day or vampire hunter in Victorian times or wild west preacher who goes out to kick ungodly ass. That meshing with the game-world is undefined even though there is a original suggestion that its a medieval style warrior friar. \$\endgroup\$
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Jan 15 at 23:14
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Clerics are priests that can call upon divine magic

This is on page 56, PH, in the intro to the cleric class:

Clerics are intermediaries between the mortal world and the distant planes of the gods. As varied as the gods they serve, clerics strive to embody the handiwork of their deities. No ordinary priest, a cleric is imbued with divine magic.

So yes, clerics are priests, but more than that -- other than mundane priests who cannot work miracles, they are imbued with divine magic and can cast spells.

This is explictly discussed on the same page:

Not every acolyte or officiant at a temple or shrine is a cleric. Some priests are called to a simple life of temple service, carrying out their gods’ will through prayer and sacrifice, not by magic and strength of arms.

I have no idea where the notion that they are not comes from. Maybe because they are more combative than the typcial priest?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The counterarguments were generally of the form "all it really takes to be a cleric in D&D... is to be a devotee and worshipper" \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented Jan 14 at 1:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cat I see -- that is exactly the wrong way round. That's all it takes to be a priest; for a cleric, you need divine magic, at leat in 5. (In D&D 2nd Edition, if I recall right, Priest was a super-category for Clerics, Druids, etc; but your question is about 5e) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 14 at 1:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ It’s probably worth mentioning that clerics don’t really have to be “priests” per se. It’s possible to imagine a given faith having a church as a specific institution, with its own hierarchy, and “priest” being a position within that. Those priests may or may not be clerics. But it’s possible for a god to tap a lay person as an “intermediary” and grant them divine spells and the other features of the cleric class, without that institution necessarily recognizing them as a “priest.” Of course, this is also getting into semantics—one could argue that the cleric is a “priest,” regardless. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 14 at 4:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin I think your answer is misleading. I agree with KRyan. A cleric doesn't have to be a "priest", per se. Further, priest is so culturally specific as to be almost meaningless outside of a specific game setting. One could imagine a cleric who specifically considers themselves to NOT be a priest. Maybe the local religion is corrupt and the cleric is more the kick-out-the-money-changers type. Or stretching it a bit, a character could even be a cleric and not know it. "I don't know where my powers come from, I just love the ocean." \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Jan 14 at 16:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cat The PH definition says that not all priests are clerics. It doesn't say that all clerics are priests. Clerics may be a priest of an organized church, but it's not a requirement. Just like rogues don't need to be criminals, and fighters don't need to be soldiers. \$\endgroup\$
    – MJD
    Commented Jan 14 at 19:26
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A cleric is a worshiper chosen by a deity to wield divine magic.

In D&D 5e specifically, a cleric is defined by the Player's Handbook to mean a follower of a deity who has been specially imbued by that deity with the ability to wield divine magic.

A cleric may also be a priest, i.e. a member of the clergy, a preacher with a formal affiliation with a church who performs ceremonies and other duties. However, at least in D&D 5e this is not necessarily so. The term for a clergyman is acolyte, as in the acolyte background. Some clerics are acolytes, and some acolytes are clerics, but not all.

Outside of D&D, "cleric" and "priest" both mean essentially the same thing. In earlier editions of D&D, "priest" also had a formal meaning in the rules, e.g. in AD&D 2e, where "priest" referred to a category which included the cleric and druid; in AD&D 1e, "priest" referred to a cleric who had reached level 3, and so on. This can cause confusion.

Specific citations

The D&D 5e Player's Handbook p.56-57, "Cleric", is the primary source here.

Not every acolyte or officiant at a temple or shine is a cleric.

"Cleric" is a special term for members of the cleric character class, all of whom possess spellcasting power at minimum. A church may have many priests, but not all of them are clerics.

Most adventuring clerics maintain some connection to established temples of their faiths.

This is a key quotation, because it confirms that you do not need to be a member of an official church to be a cleric. Most have some connection, which implies that a few have no connection, and a number of those who do may be only loosely affiliated. Nowhere in the cleric class description does it say you must be a member of a church, or a preacher or officiant in the traditional sense.

As you create the cleric, the most important question to consider is which deity to serve [...]

It certainly sounds like following a deity is a necessary part of being a cleric. It doesn't say you have to be part of an official church hierarchy. It's probably quite common to do so, and certainly thematically appropriate, but it's not necessary according to the rules.

Moving on to p.127, "Acolyte":

You have spent your life in the service of a temple to a specific god or pantheon of gods. You act as an intermediary between the realm of the holy and the mortal world, performing sacred rites and offering sacrifices in order to conduct worshipers into the presence of the divine. You are not necessarily a cleric—performing sacred rites is not the same thing as channeling divine power.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate the detail in this answer, but I'm confused by the title. "As you create the cleric, the most important question to consider is which deity to serve" suggests that serving a deity is essential to being a cleric. That seems to go beyond simply being "chosen by a deity to wield divine magic" \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented Jan 14 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ "A cleric is a worshiper chosen by a deity to wield divine magic." — so, more like a prophet, than a priest. \$\endgroup\$
    – user28434
    Commented Jan 15 at 11:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cat I have updated the title to note that a cleric must be a follower of a deity. However, a cleric is not necessarily a priest, since lay people also serve their deity. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 15 at 13:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user28434: I think a cleric is more like a saint, rather than a prophet. They don't necessarily have a prophecy from their god to deliver (though some might), but they can do miracles (i.e. divine magic). \$\endgroup\$
    – Blckknght
    Commented Jan 15 at 21:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think pointing out the difference between class and background hits the nail on the head. In 5e, not all clerics are priests, not all rogues are criminals, not all fighters are soldiers, not all barbarians are outlanders, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – MJD
    Commented Jan 16 at 14:25
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The D&D 5e-specific answer is correct

In D&D 5e, the class is called "cleric", and the word "priest" has no special meaning besides what you can find in a dictionary.

Why the confusion then?

The confusion of other people online might depend on how old they are and what makes "D&D" D&D for them. In 2e, the words had the exact opposite meaning, because "priest" was an in-game term, not a fluff text:

A cleric was a person given divine powers by gods. A cleric could worship a god or multiple gods. All clerics had the same class with the same restrictions and hit dice, hit bonuses (which had a different name back then) saving throws etc. Cleric was the base class available in the Player's Handbook.

The Player's Handbook already mentioned that if the DM builds a full-fledged campaign world, they can offer specializations for clerics to worship a single specific god in the world. Their powers and restrictions would change based on that. It listed a few examples, but stayed unspecific and vague.

Almost all classes got their own books, and there was a "Complete Priest" book, too. It detailed a lot of concepts and philosophies and their worshippers. Since it did not name actual gods or settings, players and DMs were supposed to fill them with their own worlds names, but take the concepts if they wanted. Those concepts would fundamentally change the cleric base class depending on concept worshipped (pacifist, war, love, peace etc), give them different domains, other armor allowance, other hit dice, different weapons and so on.

Those specialisations of the cleric class were called priest, it was an actual in-game term, not just a word to be used in the modern dictionary sense.

So even if it has changed and people might simply be wrong about it on the internet (who'd have thought?), there is plenty of reason in D&D's history, to have people confused and arguing about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While this answer contains useful information, it omits the important detail that "priest" was the term for the superset of classes that included both the cleric and all specialist priest classes. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jan 14 at 10:44
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A cleric does not need to be a priest. Indeed, they don't even necessarily need to worship a god.

The PHB (see Appendix B) notes that it is perfectly acceptable for a DM to decide that there are no gods that are worshipped in his or her campaign:

Your DM determines which god, if any, are worshipped in his or her campaign.

Emphasis mine. In these instances where the players inhabit a faithless world, the clerics, druids, and paladins don't just disappear because there are no imaginary sky people to give them super powers. They draw their power from a devotion to whatever ideal they value above all others.

The DMG goes on to codify this a little more explicitly, and provides guidance on alternative religious systems to the standard polytheistic pantheon that the vanilla game assumes as the default. It even specifically discusses "forces and philosophies" as an alternative to deities entirely on page 13. It has a decent amount of text, so instead of quoting it in its entirety, I'll simply leave it to you to look up at your leisure. You might also consider animism, which the DMG discusses on page 12. Perhaps that storm was caused by an Air Spirit, and the act of walking through the storm without praying to it for safe passage angered the spirit, and now it calls the character to its service. There are many possibilities that are well-supported by the rules and do not require any substantial effort on your part to implement.

In prior editions, it was more explicit that, no matter the setting, it was possible for a cleric to merely serve an ideal even in a world where most clerics are dedicated to a specific god, but in 5e, it seems to be a DM call regarding their setting.

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