Just a healing class, you think? No. Clerics have come a long way from being simple priests. In 5E, clerics range from the beefy pious tanks, versatile skilled sages, to the highest damage dealers of all the classes. The choices of the cleric subclass vary so much that I often find myself constantly coming back to the cleric as it fits all the needs that I’m after. If a party is missing a cleric, there’s an immediate sense of anxiety and dread, as the cleric can bring you back to life, persuade the enemy to leave you alone, or slaughter them all otherwise.
D&D 5E has many sub-classes to choose from, spanning several core books. Here are some quick summaries of each subclass, which will give a bit of insight to the theme, generalized game mechanics, and the likely play style to expect. This list isn’t the way you are expected to play the subclass, but our own interpretation of what the subclass archetype is trying to be. Your interpretation may differ, and if it does, please share how!
Knowledge Domain (Player’s HandBook)
Theme: Wise sage able to draw knowledge about anything, including people’s thoughts and memories.
Game Mechanics: Able to be proficient in anything for a while, with many additional skills, and higher level abilities to read thoughts and memories associate to objects.
Play-style: You like to play with the lore of the world and, if necessary, defeating your foes with wisdom.
Life Domain (PHB)
Theme: The healer archetype, life clerics are among the most difficult to defeat, as they are constantly able to replenish health for themselves and their allies.
Game Mechanics: Enhanced healing with additional spells to keep everyone alive, the life cleric might have the largest pool of health available of all classes.
Play-style: You play as the overwatch of the party, ensuring everyone is kept up to their fighting strength. If they cannot, you will step in and take the blows until they can.
Light Domain (PHB)
Theme: Fire and light are the crux of the light cleric, representing persistence, wisdom, and divine cleansing.
Game Mechanics: Could also be known as the “fire cleric”, the light domain has a focus on fire spells, with a couple extra abilities like blinding your foes or cleansing magical darkness. Those familiar with DragonBall Z should find their main ability sounds exactly like Krillin’s “Solar Flare”.
Play-style: You like to blind your enemies, and then play the pyromaniac. Just make sure you take magic initiate to get “Control flames” and “Create Bonfire” to make the powerful fire cleric complete.
Nature Domain (PHB)
Theme: One with animals and plants, the nature cleric acts with the world around them, seeing themselves as just another part of it.
Game Mechanics: With spells focused on animal friendships and natural defense, the nature cleric can gain allies quickly by charming beasts and summoning plants.
Play-style: You like to play the summoner class, relying on defensive magic. You like to explore the nature of the world, and charm it to be your friend.
Tempest Domain (PHB)
Theme: Lightning and electricity course through the body of the tempest cleric, giving them their strength to defeat their foes, and shocking anyone who dares to touch them.
Game Mechanics: One of the few clerics able to use any weapon and heavy armor. Their main ability allows for a counter attack to cause lightning damage. Melee attacks from the tempest cleric cause lightning damage, with future levels enhancing the damage taken. Eventually, the tempest cleric can fly among the clouds!
Play-style: As the tempest cleric, you’ll be a reliable tank with most damage being done in retaliation to attacks. You revel in gaining the attention of your foes and watching them get hurt by touching you.
Trickery Domain (PHB)
Theme: Schemers, with high level goals to topple authorities of all kind, trickster clerics like to confuse anyone and everyone, just to watch how it all unfolds.
Game Mechanics: Stealth focused, this cleric also has the ability to create an illusory duplicate, which only gets more fun to play with when you can also turn invisible, and create even more duplicates.
Play-style: Charming or confusing your enemies is far more fun to you than direct combat. You have more fun playing with the perception of others.
War Domain (PHB)
Theme: Blurring the line between Paladin and Cleric, the war domain is focused on bringing righteous punishment to your foes.
Game Mechanics: Able to use any weapon with heavy armor, this cleric also benefits from being able to do additional attacks in combat. Couple with the guided strike, it is as though the Gods themselves ensure that you hit your enemy when you want to.
Play-style: You are more focused on being the damage dealing spell caster, like a divine knight. Why worry about healing your allies if you can just kill the enemies first?
Arcana Domain (SCAG)
Theme: Why be an agent of a God when you can be an agent of magic? Reliable for a variety of magical spells, the arcana cleric is frightening to creatures of many kinds.
Game Mechanics: Additional cantrips, which get stronger as they level, the arcana cleric has a spell list with varying uses. Their channel divinity truly shines as it not only turns the undead but also a celestial, elemental, fiend, or fey. Additional spells at high level makes this cleric easily the best spell-casting cleric.
Play-style: You like casting spells, like the wizard does, but want to ensure you are not so squishy. Better armor, better turning ability, and more supportive spells ensures the arcana cleric can keep a party alive and strong.
Forge Domain (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
Theme: Blacksmith archetype, the forge domain is attuned to the fires of creation. Showing reverence for the anvil, the forge cleric has an affinity for the craft of war.
Game Mechanics: Versatile magical ability can help attack or defense. The forge cleric can also spend time creating objects almost out of thin air. The only cleric with a smite, this cleric can be a major damage dealer, smiting enemies like you would hot steel!
Play-style: You have fun with creation and conjuration more than combat. You like the Paladin’s smite, but want more versatility in your magic choices.
Grave Domain (XGE)
Theme: Guardian, guide, and sometimes an escort to death, the grave cleric represents the afterlife, death, and undeath.
Game Mechanics: They have unique abilities to keep allies healed, to hunt undead, make enemies become vulnerable to attacks, and prevent critical hits to your allies.
Play-style: You see the cleric as the ambassador of death, ensuring those that you want to die do so, and to keep alive those that you think aren’t ready for death.
Death Domain (Dungeon Master’s Guide)
Theme: The villainous archetype, death clerics live to see their enemies die in agony before them.
Game Mechanics: Heavily focused on necromancy magic, the death cleric can use martial weapons which will have additional necrotic damage done on hits. With most abilities focusing on giving your enemies disadvantages, you could also view this subclass as the “Poison” cleric.
Play-style: You like to use magic to bring your enemies to death, or poisoning them so that someone else can finish them off. You don’t care who gets the kill, so long as they are killed.
Order Domain (Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica)
Theme: A pious and divine leader, the order cleric is concerned with goals and ambitions beyond themselves. Whether it is the parties quest or providence, these clerics are goal oriented and understand success is more likely found when in a team.
Game Mechanics: Focused on charming others or granting allies an opportunity to attack, this cleric serves well to direct combat, and has plenty of utility spells for role-play.
Play-style: You’re most interested in the ambitions and goals of the world around you, and how to accomplish them. Your allies are assets which you can bolster, and you see your enemies as just another possible pawn to be used in the overall scheme.