Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the cleric and paladin classes and how they fit into D&D. From a D&D Next point-of-view, it seems like the designers are trying to figure out what makes a paladin distinct from the cleric if they are both divine warriors.
Historically, the cleric class has been a hybrid warrior/caster. Clerics get a mid-tier amount of hit points and an average attack bonus. They also have been encouraged to wear heavy armor with the benefit of not having armor affect divine spellcasting, but at the same time limited to bludgeoning weapons. Cleric spellcasting has been focused on healing, defense, and boosting the abilities of allies.
The paladin class on the other hand has been linked to the fighter. It shares the fighter’s high attack bonus and hit points, but adds a small amount of divine spellcasting, the ability to smite evil, and a celestial mount. The paladin has also been a relatively restricted class with its alignment limited to lawful good, high charisma requirements, and early in D&D’s history only being available to humans.
While the mechanics of both classes were different, the narrative elements weren’t particularly distinct. Characters from both classes are divine warriors who wear heavy armor, have the ability to heal, can turn undead, and belong to holy organizations. Paladins have been presented as knights in shining armor, but that has conflicted a bit with both the fighter and the cavalier or knight classes introduced in many versions of D&D.
Defenders and Crusaders
I feel that the cleric and priest could have distinct story elements, even if previous versions of D&D haven’t really done a good job at giving them distinct roles. As I see it, a cleric is a defender of the faithful while a paladin is a crusader against the enemies of the faith. Going with this division, it follows that clerics should be focused on defensive abilities while a paladin is focused on offense. For example, a cleric could have the ability to turn undead to hold them at bay or force the undead to flee. Meanwhile, a paladin could have the ability to smite undead or even channel divine energy to destroy them with a blast of light. A paladin would be more likely to train in and wield the holy weapon of a god while a cleric would focus less on martial skill. A cleric would be able to heal and ward others while a paladin might instead have the ability to channel divine power to close his or her own wounds with far less focus on healing others.
Mystics and Cultists
While the paladin and cleric have been the most common divine classes in D&D’s history, the lore of D&D and fantasy stories offer more divine archetypes that could make interesting classes. The two additional archetypes that I think could make good character classes are the mystic and the cultist. Both of these archetypes are far less martial than either the cleric or the paladin and instead focus on either divination and self-perfection or infiltration and persuasion. A mystic could be similar to Pathfinder’s oracle with a focus on divination magic, but it could also inherit the self-perfection aspects of the paladin and monk classes. A cultist meanwhile represents a worshipper who operates outside of the support of a large temple and has to rely on stealth, persuasion, or trickery while attempting to further the agendas of their gods. While the cultist might be most common amongst the worshippers of evil deities, I think it could also be a good fit for followers of gods like Olidammara, Avandra, or the Raven Queen.
The artwork for this post is from Divine Power and is probably meant to be a cleric based on wielding a mace rather than a sword.