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I have a cleric who's currently focused on range combat, but is in a position where she'd probably pull her weight better by playing in a melee gish or close-range fighter role. She's been forced into the position of being one of the party tanks by virtue of being one of the only ones able to take a hit.

I'm looking for guidance on where to build her from here. I'll tell you about my situation first and some house rules that will affect her, then ask you the specifics at the end.

My character and party

I am playing a level 3 Wood Elf Cleric of Corellon who has taken the Protection and Chaos domains. (Wood Elf is a homebrew race.) She has a longsword, shortbow, and dagger for her weapons. Her abilities are: 17 WIS, 16 DEX, 6 STR, 14 INT, 14 CON, and 13 CHA. She has 19 AC and 22 HP.

She has Combat Casting and Spell Penetration for feats. Turning feats aren't going to be needed in this campaign, as we're going to be up against mundanes and outsiders instead of undead.

Her allies are:

  • A level 3 (really 1, but 3 due to outsider HD causing a LA) Malakim Ranger who can gank and tank, but who is not gaining XP for now due to being extraplanar for balance reasons.
  • A level 3 Elf Druid who can deal a bit of damage thanks to Shillelagh, but is pretty squishy (14 HP, and mediocre AC with no CON mod).
  • A wizard GMPC ally of unknown level and race (human or elf, not sure), but who isn't a permanent party member.

Her WIS makes her effective at casting and clerical skill checks, and her DEX makes her a reasonable archer, however her 6 STR makes her rather bad at melee combat or melee touch attacks.

I have 2600 gp, and the party has a decent pool of gold, but we're in a small town.

Some house rules we're dealing with:

  • Inflict spells are likely off-limits to her due to a house-rule based on the way clerics turn or rebuke undead and the properties of the Negative Energy Plane.

  • My DM has ruled that magic weapon bonuses don't stack. I can't take a +X weapon then stack things like Bless and Magic Weapon on top of it to overcome my character's melee infelicities.

Books permitted

I do not know of any book limits in our campaign, so all is fair game.

Where can I go from here?

I don't want to rebuild the character from scratch, or retcon the rolls that got her 6 STR because she's fine in basically every other regard.

Is it reasonable for me to orient her toward close-quarters combat? Or, should I abandon the notion of building her toward melee abilities with relevant feats and etc, and start piling on metamagic instead, accepting that my character will likely be standing off most of the time with ranged spells and her bow?

If it is reasonable for her to go close-quarters, how can she do it? (Without relying on inflict spells, see above.)

I was thinking of a combination of Weapon Finesse with Exotic Weapon Proficiency and a Dragonsplit, but if you can find a solution that works with her existing weapon loadout, or allows her to take a better-statted melee weapon yet, that would be appreciated!

Bottom line: My cleric sucks at melee, but I want to build someone competent at tanking in melee and I'm lost on where to go from here. What do I do?

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    \$\begingroup\$ (As an aside, given the house rules under which you and your fellow players labor, I truly hope this campaign is amazing.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Feb 10 '15 at 0:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please don't answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 10 '15 at 4:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am curious your definition of "tanking". In my circles, it means being able to take a hit but is disjoint from dealing damage (in melee or otherwise). I'd guess your question is about desiring to deal damage in melee but I thought I'd clarify because the answer is much different than being able to take hits in melee (or a combination of both). \$\endgroup\$ – joedragons Feb 12 '15 at 16:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @joedragons -- I suppose it depends on NPC behavior -- I'm used to DMs who implement NPCs that require you to be whacking on them to hold threat/aggro. \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Feb 12 '15 at 23:03
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So this is basically an answer in two parts: some general observations about clerics, melee, and so on, which seem relevant to you, and then specific suggestions for your character. I’ve tried to keep the first section brief; feel free

General Observations

Just some things I want to establish first.

Touch attacks are usually really easy

Granted, a −2 penalty from Strength is large, particularly since most people would have a +2 or +3 there, but nonetheless, touch attacks are usually very easy to hit – and they only get easier as you get more BAB, because touch ACs don’t really tend to go up much for most creatures.

So if all you were concerned about was touch attacks, I’d encourage you to just hold off; chances are you’ll be hitting them quite reliably.

Divine power exists

Just so you’re aware, divine power is a ridiculously powerful 4th-level cleric spell that gives you fighter-like BAB as well as a +6 bonus to Strength. That will solve almost all of your troubles. It only lasts 1 round/level, which is problematic, but there are tricks for getting it to last longer.

Your accuracy as a Str 12 character with full BAB will still be fairly mediocre, but it will be more than sufficient to consider touch attacks as good as guaranteed. Your attacks against armor will be sub-par but not embarrassingly so.

You never really need a melee character

3.5 doesn’t go in much for “roles” or even “having a balanced party.” Magic rules everything in 3.5. You look at your party, and realize it’s got two full-casters and a half-caster, and want to improve it? You don’t get a warrior, you don’t get a skillmonkey: you get another spellcaster, because the more magic you have, the better off you are.

Clerics, as it turns out, have some of the best spellcasting in the game. Top 5, easily. Druids, too. (The other three are archivists – who mostly use the cleric spell list anyway – artificers, and wizards.) With a cleric and a druid, you’re actually doing pretty well.

And if one of the full-casters is looking to do more melee, the druid is the far more natural (har.) fit. Once he gets Wild Shape at 5th, he could be a beast (har.) in combat. Natural Spell at 6th is basically what every druid ever should do.

On houserules

  • Losing inflict doesn’t really matter because those spells are really bad. Inflict light wounds is relatively cheap for repairing undead, but those are evil under the usual rules, so it doesn’t really matter.

    • That said, other things might be lost that would be quite a bit more painful. How much this affects how your cleric should play depends on exactly what your DM is restricting.

    • It may not matter, but for what it’s worth I can tell you unequivocally that negative energy is not [Evil], and the inflict spells are perfectly acceptable options for good clerics.

  • Bonuses don’t stack if they are of the same type. Magic weapon applies an enhancement bonus, the same as a +X weapon, so those normally would not stack; that is not a houserule. Bless does apply a morale bonus that would stack, but it’s a small bonus that isn’t worth your time anyway. I would only worry about this if a bard joins your party (as the morale bonuses from Inspire Courage can be a great deal more significant than bless).

    • By the way, because of how this works, the usual response is to make every weapon a +1 whatever special properties weapon, and then cast greater magic weapon on it. Greater magic weapon will not stack with the +1, but it will replace the +1 and let you enjoy a higher enhancement bonus alongside special weapon properties. This is a good thing; special weapon properties are usually better than enhancement bonuses anyway.
  • Your wealth is not good. Characters are expected, per the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to be worth approximately 2,700 gold pieces by the time they hit 3rd level. Moreover, wealth is expected to be primarily in the form of useful items, not in gold pieces you cannot spend. D&D 3.5 responds very poorly to lower-than-expected wealth. This “houserule” (which it isn’t really; these are just guidelines in the DMG, but they generally should be followed) is really the one I would be concerned about.

    • But not as a cleric. Clerics don’t really care, because they can make their own magic. It’s the ranger who should be very worried about this, because rangers only get really pitiful magic and need magic items to shore that up.

Specific suggestions

Basically, I see two routes here for your character: pure spellcaster (the easier and more powerful option, honestly), or, if you really insist on melee, ruby knight vindicator (requires a supplement you may not have, requires adaptation to work for Corellon).

Pure Spellcaster

Melee clerics are usually Strength-based – their ability to use armor while spellcasting means they can safely ditch Dexterity, and Strength leads to better returns on melee. Dexterity-based melee requires more feats for less damage. You don’t have that option, since you have low Strength and high Dexterity, but that Dexterity is put to better use simply pumping your Initiative, and allowing you to cast spells before other people get to go.

Clerics have some of the best buffs in the game. You can make each of your allies count for that much more. They also have solid battlefield control, to prevent enemies from doing the things they’d like to be doing. Choose your spells with these in mind. Don’t worry about damage – the ranger can deal damage with impunity if you pump him up and eliminate enemies’ ability to threaten you.

Ruby Knight Vindicator

Normally, clerics are just about the best melee warriors in the game. Normally, they have persistent divine power on top of a naturally-high Strength score, and swing big, two-handed weapons. You don’t have that option.

You could take advantage of your high Dexterity score by taking Weapon Finesse, but your damage – still based on Strength – will be poor. The best way to use Weapon Finesse is by dual-wielding, but that will make it hard to cast spells and you don’t have any major sources of bonus weapon damage, like Sneak Attack, to make that worthwhile. Ultimately, considering just how powerful you can be by not doing this, it’s really just not worth the headache. It can be done but why bother?

I can think of one exception that would be effective, and a lot of fun. The ruby knight vindicator from Tome of Battle is an awesome and fun prestige class that will make you quite a lot better at melee. It also works out quite neatly for you, because it enables a strong Dex-based option. Things it has going for it:

  • It progresses your spellcasting fairly well.

  • It offers martial maneuvers, which are simply the best way to get better at melee.

    • It offers martial maneuvers from the Shadow Hand discipline. This is important because

      1. those are quite good,

      2. being in a Shadow Hand stance is a requirement for the excellent Shadow Blade feat, which adds Dex-to-damage with certain weapons.

Problems:

  • It’s in Tome of Battle; I do not know if you have that book availble

    • If you don’t, I strongly recommend it. It is, far and away, the best-designed book Wizards published for 3.5. No other book comes even close in tightness of design.
  • You have to qualify. That basically means taking a level of crusader

    • This isn’t that big a downside; crusader is awesome.
  • As written, it requires that you worship Wee Jas. The official Adaptation section says you can “easily adapt it to crusaders devoted to almost any other deity,” but you’ll have to take that up with your DM.

If you were going this route, you would want to do Cleric 4/Crusader 1/Ruby Knight Vindicator 10. By taking the crusader level at 5th, your Initiator Level is 3 (it includes half your levels in other classes) – enough to take 2nd-level maneuvers. You get 5 non-stance maneuvers total, and 1 stance; you need 2 Devoted Spirit maneuvers, at least one of which is a stance.

Stance – iron guard’s glare or martial spirit

For stance, then, your options are iron guard’s glare and martial spirit – both are quite good. Iron guard’s glare gives your enemies a −4 penalty to attack your allies – incentivizing them to focus on you, and leave the more fragile party members alone. Martial spirit allows you to heal someone nearby for 2 HP every time you hit an enemy (has to be a real enemy; can’t play-hit an ally to heal up). Both are good options. Don’t get too hung up on it, because ideally at 6th level you’ll assume a Shadow Hand stance and never leave.

Maneuvers – mountain hammer and at least one Devoted Spirit

For non-stance maneuvers, you have a lot of options; you can just pick whatever looks good, and it almost certainly will be. One needs to be Devoted Spirit; crusader’s strike for healing or foehammer for big damage are probably your best bets. Aside from these, mountain hammer is an excellent maneuver that basically every initiator should take, and I rather like battle leader’s charge and tactical strike from White Raven. But really, you can take whatever sounds good to you; it will probably work.

Feats – Weapon Finesse, Shadow Blade are top priority

You should also see if you can retrain your feats. Combat Casting is weak (in a few levels you’ll basically never fail a defensive casting check) and Spell Penetration just doesn’t help that much, particularly if you want to get into melee.

If you’re meleeing, with your stats, you need Weapon Finesse. That comes first no matter what; without it, you are not a melee character, and should see above for how to be a Pure Spellcaster.

At 6th level, when you take your first level of ruby knight vindicator, you gain a stance and Shadow Hand is an option. That means you can take island of blades for awesome flanking, and then you qualify – right at 6th level – for Shadow Blade. Assuming you already have Weapon Finesse, this is your highest priority.

After these, you want Exotic Weapon Proficiency, and then Power Attack. Yes, Power Attack – if you want damage, this is how you get it, and you should have the accuracy to support it. Plus, you should be getting 2:1 returns, because...

Exotic weapon – Spiked Chain

That Exotic Weapon Proficiency feat is for the spiked chain – a two-handed finesse weapon associated with Shadow Hand. That list just hit every major point we needed. You get 2:1 returns from Power Attack, you get to use Dexterity for both attack and damage rolls. Plus it has continuous reach, which is just about the best property a weapon can have. In other words, this is an absolutely perfect weapon for you. Since it can trip, you should consider Combat Expertise, Improved Trip, and Knock-down later on.

Without retraining – Weapon Finesse and Shadow Blade ASAP

If you cannot retrain, take Weapon Finesse at 6th and Shadow Blade at 9th. You can take Exotic Weapon Proficiency at 12th and Power Attack at 15th if you want, but getting your Dexterity into play is your top priority.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sometimes, the amount of 3.5 knowledge you have is terrifying. \$\endgroup\$ – Ellesedil Feb 13 '15 at 20:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ellesedil I agree that it is scary – I scare myself sometimes – but I’m not sure what’s particularly scary here. Everything I mention here is either core or from Tome of Battle, and are pretty popular/common options (divine power, spiked chain, RKV, Weapon Finesse + Spiked Chain). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 13 '15 at 22:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Why is Mountain Hammer so great, Foehammer also ignores DR, and adds 2d6 \$\endgroup\$ – András Jan 23 at 12:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @András As attacks, both foehammer and mountain hammer are fine enough but nothing to get really hyped up about. The really exciting thing about mountain hammer is that it also ignores hardness—which foehammer does not do. That gives mountain hammer fantastic utility, since you can use it on objects and walls. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jan 23 at 12:40
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Weapon finesse is a good compliment to touch spells. Focus not on weapon attacks, but on save-or-suck and save-or-die spells. On the other hand, further investment in this direction is contraindicated unless you have a specific 20 level build you're going for. Your second acknowledgement of being a ranged character is, unfortunately, accurate. Focus more on summons and let them get the stuffing kicked out of them instead.

In a few levels, you'll have access to shivering touch and darkfire, which can certainly be your mainstay attacks (opening with a shivering touch to disable the nastiest enemy, and then sitting on darkfire while waiting for opportunities), and having weapon finesse is certainly worthwhile to boost touch attack accuracy.

As a cleric of "protection and chaos", you're not very well set up to be a melee gish, as you have yourself so accurately noted. For now, focus on getting a "cloud of knives" up at every combat, as that'll give you a free ranged attack every round. If you can adjust your domains at all to be better ones, it would help your future plans quite ably.

Still, at level 3, between cloud of knives and spiritual weapon, you'll have 6 solid rounds of "weapon attacks" per combat at the cost of 2 spells, which should last you until you have save-or-win spells in 2 levels. On top of this, encourage your druid companion to start investing in summons and the level 1 spell "produce flame'. They're a touch early for good ones, but even 3 rounds of something taking damage is better than the alternative.

As a general pattern, these early levels are quite fallow for characters that don't have a specific build strategy in mind. Focus on save-or-suck spells that you can deploy at range in lieu of wading in. Gish builds tend to be prerequisite dependent and require careful planning before the game starts.

Also, without significant effort or alignment breaches, you won't be very good at the summoning, nor the undead games, both of those being traditional caster-focused routes towards having other things tank for them. You do have access to summon monster, however, so the summoning handbook is likely a good read. Unfortunately, your best bet right now is to emulate summon monster I and summon dire badgers for 3 rounds. Being a good summoner requires dedicating your character to it, but it is a route that can pay off well.

Given that pointyeared-rainbow-god has the war domain, your DM may be interested in the house-ruled subdomains I made to make war reflect ... aspects of real war. The spells of those domains will also provide a significant capability boost for your intended purpose. (They do change the face of the game world, however, as they directly impact how and why wars are fought.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you ID which books you are drawing spells from? (It's not like I have a pile of 3.5e books on hand...or should I just be staring at the SRD instead of a PHB?) \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Feb 10 '15 at 23:29
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Based on your comment above and only because you included it in the list of options in your Q, I would recommend not panicking/changing anything and discussing with your party. Lower level druids are rough, but mid-high level druids are awesome and versatile enough to do a lot. They can become a tank easily (if they so choose). Similarly an animal companion on a well designed character can do this (you don't mention having one above, so there may be some weirdness in your campaign but they are standard on druids). A guy no gaining any XP (no matter what reason) is equally rough but I've seen higher level rangers with AC in the 40s.

I acknowledge it is possible that your druid (or ranger) will not further the tank path and might be why you're asking. However, with the qualifications you gave above of both needing to take a hit and needing to do damage that's a lot to put on one persons shoulders (esp guessing you're also primary healer:P). Hopefully your team will help you out.

If not and you want to keep up with archering, you may consider 2 levels of Order of the Bow Initiate (Complete Divine). This allows you to shoot into melee, so you could be up there doing archer damage and taking hits. There are other classes/spells that allow this too but it makes sense for a cleric archer (I have one myself).

As others have answered, I have also witnessed what you want done with minimal changes to the character but a tremendous amount of personal buffing. The problem with this, I've seen is it takes/can take a couple rounds to make happen (a friend of mine likes to say "wait for it"=). However, with that in mind, consider this. If your party is not willing to wait while you buff and your GMs criteria is that you are in the front and do damage to be a "tank" then really the question is beyond what you should change and becomes how do you out damage your own team or why won't they wait for you. That very question seems against the team nature to me. So again, my advice is discuss with your team.

It is possible that the end answer will be "I could use a few more buffs" from your ranger (or druid). Or "we didn't know you felt that way". Or as said above, they could just be waiting to come into their own as they gain more levels and gear.

As a semi-aside, another thing I've noticed is that with GMs who define tank the way yours does is that at higher level (or even lower level) when the foes have multiple attacks, they generally go for the full round option on the character in range rather than one attack on the character doing damage. This is not always true and you know your GM, but this is something to keep in mind as well. Things very well may change at or around level 6. You may be able to become the tank with low damage just by the virtue of being in the front. That obviously will not apply in all circumstances but I believe is the situation you associated with the Q.

At the end of the day, I always advocate play what you want to play. If you want to change, then others have given solid advice. If you don't, I think (and hope) there are ways you and the team can make things work.

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