Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Appalling Survival Rate of Clerics in Felltower

It's no secret that Felltower is a meatgrinder. It's a tough megadungeon, it gets more and more lethal as you delve deeper, and all too often PCs have delved too deeply or chosen poorly while doing so and suffered casualties for it.

The fatality rate of clerics - and acolytes - has been especially so. From Inquisitor Marco early on to Felix Aurelius most recently, clerics and acolytes have rarely survived long in Felltower.


Here are what I think are some possible reasons.

Acolytes aren't full-fledged delvers. Let's just get that out of the way right way. An acolyte is a 125-point character. Felltower is routinely lethal to 250 point characters. So NPC "clerics" hired or brought on as Allies are likely to die much more quickly when bad things happen. They can't survive as much as a cleric can.

This has spelled doom for all of the acolytes - eventually, they get into combat and die, or caught in an area effect and die, or breathe something and die, etc.

Inherent weakness of the cleric template to damage. Clerics have only ST 12, and HP 12, and HT 12, to start with. That limits their ability to rack up a lot of high-DR armor or take punishment that's routine for knights and barbarians (HP 14 and 22, respectively, and both are usually higher - HP 20 is all but standard on knights in my game.) They end up slow (lower Move, lower Dodge), relatively fragile, and

People think of wizards are fragile - and they are, once you actually can hit them. They don't have as low of a Dodge score, add a shield and their defenses are pretty good, and it's unusual to have a wizard without an effective broad-use Blocking spell like Phase or Blink. They're at first glance more vulnerable than clerics but in practical terms they're harder to just clip with a good attack and take out of the fight.

A number of clerics have died because they just couldn't handle a single hit.

They aren't backup fighters. Clerics start with a 14 or 15 in weapon skills. This is just enough to get in the door as a potential combatant. But fodder monsters often have skill 14-15 - even the "attack in swarms and die in batches" dinomen have 14s. ST is 12, which is good for 1d damage. They can't do much more than usually hit and maybe cause damage. With ST 12 and a mace (sw+3) damage is 1d+5. That's 6-11 damage, average 8.5. A broadsword would be 1d+3 - 4-9, average 6.5). That means 2-3 blows in most cases to take out a HP 12, DR 3-4 foe. Compare this to, say, a Knight with skill 18+, ST 14 (so 2d+1 with that sword, doing 3-13 av. 8) without even dipping into more ST, Weapon Master (both are common), and who may have higher skill and Extra Attack.

In a pinch, yes, a cleric can fight. But they don't do it well. Buff spells and Heroic Feats (allowed in DF, not in DFRPG for what it's worth) are a good way to briefly allow a cleric to bring himself up to fighting spec . . . but they rely on time, random rolls (for effect or to cast), last a brief time, and cost points that draw away from other priestly roles. They're probably better for emergencies than for making your cleric into a combatant.

They just lack the skill, ST, DX, and HT of a front-line fighter, plus lack the special abilities (Extra Attack, Weapon Master, Trained By A Master, Enhanced Defenses, Combat Reflexes) that augment and multiply the effect of those stats.

I think D&D and AD&D rather permanently ingrained the idea of the "fighting cleric" or of the cleric as a "get in there and mix it up" class. You're a cleric, you cast some healing here or there, smite some things with your holy powers, and turn undead - and when you're not doing those everyone should fear your mace or hammer.

In GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, you can do all that . . . if you're around 400 points. And you won't do the fighting nearly as well as a 250-point dedicated fighter-type. You just won't.

In Felltower, this "not a backup fighter" reality has clashed with "clerics mix it up with Evil!" feeling. In our very first play of DF, playtesting Mirror of the Fire Demon, a cleric was killed by an ogre when he thought he was good enough for front-line combat. The clerics who have fought have found that their contribution is helpful but relatively paltry, or that they can't hang and die. Sometimes both.

I think those are some of the reasons why clerics, especially, have ended up dead all over the place in Felltower.


  1. Some advice on 'Being a Useful Contributive and Not Dead' cleric would be a helpful follow up post

    1. True. Given the 100% death rate of clerics, though, I'm not sure I have as much as I'd like!

  2. Psycho Dave: “Clerics are the red shirts of the D&D system. Always have been.”

  3. I tell my Players who want to go Cleric to make a choice, Casting or Fighting. Pick one, make the other strongly secondary. I even allow the "Fighting Clerics" to reduce their points in spells (by half) to increase their ST, HT, HP, or weapon skills if they want to, and add Combat Reflexes to the Cleric Advantage list.

    1. A putative Denizens: Clerics would have templates like that.

      I'm still not sure you get to be a very effective fighter. I feel that without Weapon Master/TBAM/Extra Attack, you're always a secondary combatant even with higher skill and ST. Without any of higher skill or ST or Weapon Master/TBAM/Extra Attack, I feel like you're a tertiary fighter at best.

    2. "A putative Denizens: Clerics would have templates like that."

      I've considered it... I've got some ideas for Clerics and a few Template tweaks are among them... it's just that's all I've got. A few things. Not even a third of the material of a proper Denizens book.

      "Without any of higher skill or ST or Weapon Master/TBAM/Extra Attack, I feel like you're a tertiary fighter at best."

      Without /any/ of it, sure. My goal was to get their defenses up, step them up from "tertiary" to "second string tank"... which is what my Players see Clerics as anyway (disregarding the Striker Cleric in D&D). Get the Cleric just 'tanky' enough to handle being an anchor point on the line, not a pivot point. A wing, not the pointy center of the wedge.

      And bumping ST up to 14, HT up to 14 and with decent armor they can tank some hits.

      Or go the DX route. I had one PC that went DX 14 and Combat Reflexes out the gate. He raised HT to 14 through play and had a solid set of 'Shield based' defenses (Dodge 12* versus people facing him, 14 Parry, 14 Block). His "tankyness" was pretty subpar, but he steadily worked on that as he went along (as well as spells and such) and was was a decent second string fighter by the time he died (second string caster as well, his spells were mostly just heals with a few buffs, but he struggled with affording the FP on the buffs). He didn't have the damage output, but he could tank well and hold the line.

      * Encumbrance penalty.

    3. I don't think in terms like "tank" in that way. Mostly because GURPS isn't really a system where you're fine until you run out of HP. You can be full up on HP and go to incapacitated or dead all at once. You can only "tank" by successfully defending, and I think that needs a different term than a video game term. I don't have one other than a non-pithy expression like "defensively sound."

      You're still shockingly vulnerable to being swamped by attacks, taken out by a critical, or just worn down by lacking enough stats and skills to face anything above fodder-level . . . and if you do get hit a couple of times, you're risking what's probably the only cleric to do it. If you've got multiples, maybe it's okay, but honestly I'd say get a fighter-type or an NPC hireling fighter-type. That's what they're for.

    4. Maybe they can hire Norman the Axe again to hold the line instead of a cleric. He isn't dead yet after all.

    5. "I don't think in terms like "tank" in that way."

      I may have mentioned "HP" but I when say 'tank' in a GURPS setting I mean "DR". Yeah, being able to take a few hits that penetrate is 110% necessary, but being able to shrug off 90% of the hit with DR is primary.

      Though yeah, nigh impenetrable defenses are also a key component.

    6. It never seems like there is enough DR - too many things with high damage, secondary effects, and armor divisors are out there. Not getting hit in the first place is critical - you say a key, but I'd say the key. Still, avoiding combat is probably the better solution.

    7. "...avoiding combat is probably the better solution."


      The Ancient Martial Artist Master Confuse-ed say, "If you see combat coming in the dungeon, avoid it."

  4. Shield is particularly effective at keeping a cleric alive

    1. Against strikes from the front, yes. But it's useful for everyone . . . I think clerics are still very vulnerable compared to how people expect to use them.

  5. D&D clerics are rather more like Holy Warriors who go heavy on certain kinds of Holy Might powers than like the DF / DFRPG clerics. DF clerics are more like the alternative divine spellcasters that show up in Pathfinder (I forget the name - but they're basically holy wizards).

    Given the roots of the GURPS spellcasting system, the fact that DF / DFRPG clerics have ended up as holy wizards is unsurprising. Trying to be holy wizards and D&D clerics at the same time just didn't work.

  6. I think Clerics (and to a lesser extent Druids) are in the same boat as Thieves: they fulfill an important role in the old-school style gaming that DF models, but that role is not combat.

    However, DF makes combat much more elaborate and interesting than most old school games. GURPS just provides a whole lot more interesting options. So your PC is going to be on the sidelines actively avoiding the interesting thing a lot.

    Later DnD editions eventually amped up all of these archetypes significantly in combat. DF deliberately did not, but there is nothing stopping a DF GM from bending things to be more favorable if they prefer it.

    1. What would you suggest in the way of bending things?

  7. The clerics in my game definitely fit the holy wizard niche, one deliberately, one because acolytes and the third spent everything on being a dark one good at healing. The acolyte hides behind the brute and the hired guard.


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