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Basically, me and my friend have been arguing for 2 months over the Death domain cleric alignment. He keeps referencing the DMG's quote of "The gods of death domain embody murder" and the fact it is a villainous class option. My evidence is all the neutral deities (Wee-Jas, Raven Queen, etc.) that have death domain in their suggested domains. Who is right?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Related Can I be a follower of an evil god and not be evil \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jan 29 '16 at 3:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Since this question was first asked XGTE has been released containing the 'Grave domain' for clerics. This provides a good canonical option for clerics of neutral gods with 'death' in their portfolio. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Aug 8 '18 at 7:31

12 Answers 12

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No, by a strict reading of RAW. See the other answers for more details.

As a house rule, you could easily allow a broader spectrum of alignments for a Death cleric.

Fifth Edition has done away with alignment restrictions on classes in the Player's Handbook. You can just as easily apply this same concept to the Death domain in the DMG. Just as the game will allow you to play a Chaotic Evil paladin, so too can it allow you to play a Good-aligned Death cleric.

An example from the current campaign I'm in is a player running a Lawful Neutral Death Cleric. His concept is that his order safeguards the rituals and proper order of death and unlife.

One could even conceive of a good aligned Death cleric, who shepherds souls to the next life and is sanctioned to bring punishment to the wicked. It's a bit of a stretch, but within what's permitted by the rules.

With that said... The flavor of the class as written is definitely targeting a more evil vibe. And it's in the DMG, rather than the PHB. It is well within the DM's rights to ban the class, or to ask players to stick to evil/neutral alignments.

See also: Are there Race/Alignment restrictions for classes in the PHB?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The "shepherd of souls" concept isn't much of a stretch at all; priests of such death-gods as Wee Jas and the Raven Queen have filled that role quite nicely in past editions. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Mar 10 '15 at 20:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's the same in our game; for a few years now my lawful neutral tiefling warlock/paladin has served Wee Jas by hunting down necromancers and destroying undead. The lawful neutral interpretation is that death is part of life, and all things must die when it's their time. Raising undead or using necromancy to cheat death is basically stealing from Wee Jas, and is forbidden. When we moved to 5e, rather than use the DMG's obviously-evil variants, we homebrewed one that gets thematically-appropriate spells that don't raise undead (spare the dying, chill touch, gentle repose, speak with dead, etc). \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jan 29 '16 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please mention the text about Nephthys's and Anubis's clerics in page 299 of the PHB; it's a specific mention that not all Death clerics need be villainous... \$\endgroup\$ – Wtrmute Mar 4 '17 at 2:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Does the 'Grave domain' cleric, as released in XGTE since this question was asked help to fill this niche? \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Aug 8 '18 at 7:28
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RAW:

no, clerics cannot use the death domain and be neutral alignment, page 96 of DMG:

The Death Domain is an additional domain choice for evil clerics,..

That said, there is plenty of precedence throughout RPG history where negative energy and death have been wielded by neutral and even good characters. D&D 5 is no exception here.

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As AceCalhoon and Airatome and others have already noted, the DMG (p. 96) states in the section preamble that the Death domain and Oathbreaker options are "for" evil characters.

I will note, though, that while the paladin Oathbreaker explicitly requires an evil paladin, nowhere in the Death domain description does it similarly say that evil is required. The only guide about alignment is in the section's preamble, before the description, suggesting that the domain was created with evil NPCs in mind. And that isn't nearly as binding as the language for Oathbreaker is.

An argument could therefore be made for a loophole. Indeed, there's some textual evidence suggesting that the loophole is deliberate, rather than a goof. While the Death domain was created for evil NPC clerics, Death is listed as an option among the domains for several of the neutral gods on pages 294-296 of the Player's Handbook (Wee Jas, Kelemvor, the Blood of Vol), each of whom presumably might be served by neutral clerics who would also use that domain.

At that point, the primary problem with the Death domain in the DMG isn't whether it's permitted for evil clerics -- it's that its chosen powers are clearly more appropriate for evil clerics. That is, neutral clerics should be able to take Death as a domain, but perhaps not that Death domain.

I think the solution -- which I have written about elsewhere -- is simply to have another Death domain for neutral clerics. Neutral death gods abound in literature and mythology. The god at the head of the pantheon for my own campaign is a neutral god of death and knowledge (his shtick is that he knows everything that the dead know). The domain I created for his clerics is Open Game Content and can be found here: A Death Domain Variant for Neutral Clerics

Any campaign could create its own. Here are some of the guidelines I drafted for creating mine:

  1. A cleric of death is different from a cleric of undeath — the latter may be clearly evil, but death itself is natural. Accordingly, a cleric of death might be an expert in mortality.

  2. Think of the cleric of death as the guy you call when you find a dead body. He reassures the living, diagnoses cause of death, prepares the body for eternal rest, and so forth.

  3. A cleric of death might actively oppose undead. When all of the other clerics get alternatives to Turn Undead, the cleric of death might get better at Turning Undead.

  4. A cleric of death might become expert at knowing how to cause death, or how to forestall death, or at knowing why people fear death.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @GrahamScott Nice edit, +1! \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jan 29 '16 at 14:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman - Thank you for your help and patience. \$\endgroup\$ – Graham Scott Jan 30 '16 at 0:10
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Page 96 of the DMG IS giving an alignment restriction for Cleric, just as it IS (perhaps not so plainly) saying that the Oathbreaker Paladin Class is only for Paladins who fall from grace (ie: Break their Oath Tenets and lose their Paladin powers proper....which certainly can happen if you go against your Oath tenet restrictions too harshly).

*"...An additional Domain choice for Evil Clerics, and the Oathbreaker is an alternative for Paladins who fall from grace. A player can choose one of these options with your approval...."*

The fact that the above is a restriction and not simple flavor text is farther expanded upon in the Oathbreaker entry. Which reasons that BOTH the Oathbreaker AND the Death Domain Cleric have strict requirements, not just one of the two Villainous Options; fair is fair after all.

*"...A Paladin must be evil and at least 3rd level to become an Oathbreaker. A Paladin who breaks their oath can later atone and become a true paladin once more......demonstrating an alignment change through words and deeds. A Paladin who breaks their oath a second time can become an Oathbreaker once more, but can no longer atone..."*

Because the Paladin has so much more involved, the entry lays out the rules for their Oath, Tenets, AND Alignment requirements. A Cleric simply has to choose the Death Domain, but just like the Paladin, requires you to be of Evil alignment. They just put it more simply since it's a very uninvolved process.

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The Player's Handbook (Appendix B: Gods of the Multiverse; pg 293) has a specific text box detailing the Life and Death domains as such:

  1. The Life Domain is restricted to any "Non-Evil" alignment.

  2. Most Death Domain deities are evil, but not all are. As such, most Death Domain Clerics are evil, but not all are.

The specific take-away is that one should ask the DM for permission and respect the DM's decision.

However, if you want to really fight for a death-domain cleric...

  1. There are no alignment restrictions explicitly in play for Clerics in the Player's Handbook.

  2. The standard practical restriction is "One-Step" differential. A character that worships a Lawful Good deity (like Tyr, god of justice) might very well be Lawful Neutral (emphasizing that human laws aren't always good). One that worships a Chaotic Neutral deity (Mask, god of thieves) could very well be Chaotic Good (a la Robin Hood).

My third point is a comparison of different deities. Here are the Death Domain deities in the Forgotten Realms:

  • Bhaal, god of murder. Neutral Evil.
  • Kelemvor, god of the dead. Lawful Neutral. (Symbol is upright skeletal arm holding balanced scales.)
  • Loviatar, goddess of pain. Lawful Evil.
  • Myrkul, god of death. Neutral Evil.
  • Shar, goddess of darkness and loss. Neutral Evil.
  • Talona, goddess of disease and poison. Chaotic Evil.

And here are the Tempest Domain deities in the Forgotten Realms:

  • Auril, goddess of winter. Neutral Evil.
  • Talos, god of storms. Chaotic Evil.
  • Umberlee, goddess of the sea. Chaotic Evil.

Of course the Player's Handbook permits the player to worship and obey the commands of Chaotic Evil gods of pure and utter destruction. But a Divine-magic necromancer-type player is forbidden...because?

And that's just the Forgotten Realms! Greyhawk has Wee Jas, the goddess of both magic and death. Lawful neutral, which means they could very well be invoked by a PHB paladin!

The net result being that if the DM absolutely refuses to let you be a Death Domain Cleric and you really want to make a point, you can always just go the route of a Chaotic Neutral or even Chaotic Evil character and be a Tempest Domain Cleric. Hey, they can't prevent you from doing that since the Player's Handbook explicitly describes it.

Also note that the Dungeon Master's Guide mentions Hades and Hel as applicable deities for a Death Domain Cleric. Yet Hades, in myth and practice, is a relatively just and fair ruler of his domain the underworld; he is "evil" only insofar as the living are afraid of death. And then there's the Egyptian Pantheon, which mentions both Anubis the Judge of Dead Souls (squarely Lawful Neutral) and Nephthys the Chaotic Good goddess of mourning.

You know who else are Chaotic Good deities? Thor (Norse god of storms/Tempest Domain), Aphrodite (Greek goddess of love/Light Domain), Trithereon (Greyhawk god of retribution/War Domain), Tymora (Forgotten Realms goddess of good fortune/Trickery Domain), and all four general-pantheon non-Drow Elf gods (covering Light, Nature, Tempest, and Knowledge).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Jergal is a a death deity in Forgotten Realms who is not explicitly evil (his alignment was Lawful neutral). That is a notable counterexample. \$\endgroup\$ – indigochild Apr 27 '16 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for mentioning the Egyptian Pantheon. You might insert there a quote from the PHB pages 298/299 where it says "Thus, although most clerics of the Death Domain (found in the Dungeon Master's Guide) are villainous characters, clerics who serve Anubis or Nephtys need not be." \$\endgroup\$ – Wtrmute Mar 4 '17 at 2:06
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The rules as written do not specify that to be a cleric of death one must worship an evil god or be evil. Your DM is quoting flavor text.

The cleric may not know that his deity is evil. A cleric who believes his god is a neutral god of death might be blinded by religion and refuse to acknowledge that his powers are distinctly evil.

Alternatively, the cleric may be the black sheep of his religion - that could even explain why he is adventuring instead of being in the temple all day.

While the priesthood might be evil, he could travel the world encouraging people to prepare for the end of their mortal days, convincing people to stop sinning, and giving comfort and advice to those who are nearing the end of their natural lifespan. If his god continues to grant him his spells every morning, then he's doing his job.

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The fact that the Death domain is not in the Player's Handbook should be proof enough it requires DM approval. In the games I DM personally, the Death domain is only available to clerics who worship a specific deity that grants it. The DMG specifies explicity the domain is for evil clerics... That isn't flavor text in my eyes as a DM. If you look at the alignments of the "neutral" deities that grant it, they are within one step of being evil, Lawful Neutral. Since previous editions required the one step rule, I would require the player character to be evil. The domain spells are not usually associated with clerics... Wizards casting Cloudkill is normal... Clerics casting it... Only through divine blessing. And it is a spell designed to take lives. There is a fine line between murder and killing bandits (most kingdoms have laws allowing bandits to be killed for banditry). Death domain is the domain of murderers. I would require the evil alignment for a cleric taking this domain as it is gearer toward killing for the sake of killing (cloudkill isn't selective after all, everyone in the cloud makes the save).

Also, the Blood of Vol is a bit of a misnomer. Anyone that's run Eberron modules and read the novels can tell you the organization is pure evil at its core. It wears a masque of neutrality but consider the fact it controls the Order of the Emerald Claw from the shadows and plays ignorant when confronted about it... Keith Baker's webpages have also left hints of it in his writing periodically.

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Yes

Page 96 of the Dungeon Master's Guide says

Villanous Class Options

[...]

Cleric: Death Domain

The word option, when you look at the definition in the dictionary means you have a choice or in this instance, "here’s another choice for playing a cleric: the death domain."

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, on page 19, explains

Gods of the grave watch over the line between life and death. To these deities, death and the afterlife are a foundational part of the multiverse's workings. To desecrate the peace of the dead is an abomination. Deities of the grave include Kelemvor, ...

Here are some facts that indicate the Grave Domain need not be related to evil.

  1. Kelemvor, and some of the other deities listed are lawful neutral.
  2. Gods of the grave watch over the line between life and death. It doesn’t mean that they’re there to cause death, but they are certainly related to the Death domain.

Hence, the Death Domain option can include some non-evil aspects (i.e. they aren't necessarily there to cause death)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! I made some edits to your answer. Please verify that this is the original intent of your answer. Feel free to edit it if I changed something accidentally. Also, please take the tour to see how things work here. Hope you stick around! \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 17 '18 at 22:24
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4E Raven Queen is a neutral goddess of Death and undead are her enemies, because they cheated death.

So yes you can, and remember the wise words of Gary Gygax (AD&D 1st edition DMG, p. 230):

Afterword

It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Text screenshots are impossible to search for and much less accessible in general. Please transcribe this quote. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Nov 18 '17 at 5:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I transcribed the quote from the book. I also took the liberty of putting the AD&D's original ALL CAPS SHOUTING into the normal sentence-case that's more legible in modern online reading, since it's the content that matters, and since the original all-caps were merely due to the limited typographical/layout options available to emphasise and make that section stand out. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 18 '17 at 7:37
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One could argue that a god of death could be good aligned. It could be a god of mercy or a god or final rewards. Dont forget the #1 rule of D&D, have fun and the next most important rule is the DM can allow or disallow any rule. IF you are playing Adventures league the rules are a little more strict but even there if you get a cert for the death domain you can not play them as evil unless you are part of the Zhentarim or the Lords Alliance and then only LE.

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Look up the original release of the domain. It was for worshipers of the LN god of death. Who was basically Anubis and the Judge of the dead. I am playing one like that. The only issue and house ruling is dropping the animate dead spell for another.

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Yes is the quick answer to this question. Starting with 2nd edition, continuing through 3rd edition, 3.5, 4th, and now suggested in 5th, a cleric can be within 'one step' of a deity's own alignment. Specific to Wee Jas (and perhaps her subsequent iteration as the Raven Queen), the goddess is Lawful Neutral, so the following alignments are valid for her clerics: LG, LN, LE, CN. In editions of the game where clerics had to choose positive or negative energy to channel, she required them to choose negative, but that is no longer a factor in 5th edition.

Understanding Wee Jas, her ethos and motivations, really requires delving into history, the history of the game, and the history of the game world Greyhawk which was the first campaign setting. As Advanced Dungeons & Dragons opened in the late 1970's, Greyhawk was a world that, like our own, had already seen entire civilizations rise and fall, before play begins. One of these previous and now dead civilizations of Greyhawk was the Suloise Empire. Wee Jas came to be worshipped first by the Suloise. She was their goddess of magic, and she was perhaps a mortal who had come to apotheosis and deification as the best of all magic users. She was unbeatable. Magic has rules, rules that can be deadly at the slightest misstep, rules that must be followed flawlessly to achieve the greatest power. Wee Jas was all but perfect, and in apotheosis, perhaps became perfect -- at magic. Her unassailable discipline also made her vain, however, and as a goddess she took on the mantle of both Magic and Vanity and was dubbed the Stern Lady. She took residence in Mechanus, the plane of ultimate discipline and structure, ultimate Lawful Neutrality.

As the Suloise empire grew, and the magic users of the realm became great Wizards, they appealed to Wee Jas for ever greater power. She granted it if they were flawless, like herself. If they were not, they died. And, when the Suloise Empire finally found itself in a great war that threatened to topple the empire, the Suloise mages also appealed to Wee Jas to give them the power to win, even though they otherwise did not have it. She granted them knowledge of 10th level spells in her vanity, knowing that she would be the greater deity of the whole empire if they survived because of it. They did not. 10th level spells are beyond mortal ability, and using them in the war, the Suloise caused a catastrophic magical calamity that broke the world, their empire, and sent humanity back to a stone age of sorts to recover from. That period of recovery culminates in the World of Grayhawk as it opened for play in the 70's.

But, Wee Jas did not fall with the Suloise. As her people proved themselves to be too imperfect for the power she had given them, they cried out to her as the world collapsed in flaming ruin, and the goddess was forced to take on the mantle of death, because magic, death, and vanity had become one. She remained the goddess of this fusion as Greyhawk rebuilt, but never again with such devotion as the Suloise showed her, and never again granting spellcasting beyond 9th level. (The elves did achieve it in their own way once, but that was not a human deity's concern.)

The last really detailed depiction of Wee Jas was in 2nd edition, and it is very telling. She is said to wander outside her icy keep in Mechanus sometimes, sifting through the ice of that plane, which traps mortal memories. What she gets out of this isn't spelled out specifically, but the reader is encouraged to imagine the Stern Lady seeking moments when magic was pure perfection, unencumbered by the death that comes to those who are less than absolutely able to handle it.

In her role as a goddess of death, Wee Jas represents the moment of death rather than lording over the underworld and murder as evil deities of death do. She is absolute in resolving the moment of death, impartially, so that the soul can find the afterlife coming to it without error. After resolving that, she is done, and other Powers sometimes do funny things with souls and their disposition, but each is afforded exactly what is coming to it at the moment of death. Thus, she is supremely Lawful Neutral.

She used to force her clerics to choose to channel negative energy, and she used to require them to get permission from their superiors in her temples to raise the dead, because her visit at the moment of death is inevitable to every mortal, and to reverse that was only allowed at great need, with a lawful system of approval. Wee Jas, as the goddess of magic, recognized that necromancy was part of the rules of magic as well, so she did not forbid it, but some clerics and paladins in her faith saw intelligent undead as anathema, seeking to cheat death and final resolution.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to let you know, the reason this is likely attracting downvotes is because the question is specifically tagged 5th edition and Rules as Written. Although lore background from earlier editions is interesting, it doesn't actually answer the question \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Jun 29 '16 at 8:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ 5th edition has not addressed the question yet, so answering requires extrapolation to the 5th edition rules by readers / players. \$\endgroup\$ – OfTheMagi Jun 29 '16 at 9:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ The asker is explicitly looking for a rules-based 5e answer to this question. If there are no 5e rules to cover the scenario then the only valid answer is, "The rules do not address this case (yet)." \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Jun 29 '16 at 12:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's not remotely true of a game that has a 30+ year history of updating canon material with rules updates to cover new editions. The answer is as I gave it: here is the canon that the design team is likely to draw from as they develop Dieties and Demigods 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – OfTheMagi Jun 30 '16 at 9:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ You assume there will be a "Dieties and Demigods" for 5E, which is a shaky assumption at best. The release pace for 5E is significantly different from previous editions. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Mar 11 at 13:12

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