It’s by no means a secret that 3.5 D&D’s balance was off in some ways that made ‘good’ and ‘best’ categories of things a little unintuitive, like how the best stealth-based character was a wizard, or the best speed-based character was the wizard, or the best big, strong melee character who smacked things with a sword was a wizard.
If you ever got asked, houwever, about ‘best’ builds, there were always a handful of builds that stood apart because they had unique combination of effects. There was the Supermount, for example, or the Wildshape Ranger, builds that were renowned for having access to something that set them apart from things of their type. And, especially since Legolas was in the popular media at the time, there was often a question about how to make the best archer. There were plenty of archery feats, and it seemed for once, this was a challenge the fighter was perfectly suited to address – the excessive strength of the Barbarian’s rages wouldn’t necessarily apply, and sneak attack for a rogue was harder to get, so perhaps, perhaps, with a host of feats available, surely the best character to take them would finally be the Fighter?
It was the cleric.
The cleric archer was a known factor in 3.0 D&D, and I’ll spare only this much on that: Back then, enchanted arrows applied their bonus damage in addition to the enchantment on enchanted bows. Which meant if you had a +1 bow and a +1 arrow, you’d get +1 to hit, +2 to damage. So far, so good because magical arrows were kinda expensive in a way that wasn’t easily maintained. But the cleric, with access to spells like Greater Magic Weapon (which lasted for hours) could get an enchanted bow, and enchant arrows, in bulk. They could even get a +1 bow with a lot of secondary abilities on it, then use Greater Magic Weapon to enhance both the bow and stack of arrows. At level 9, this would translate to a +3 to hit and a +6 to damage, which tended to outpace whatever the fighter was doing, and the gap got wider. This particular quirk did go away in 3.5, and some of the spells were toned down. Essentially, the 3.0 version of this character was stronger, but I remember the 3.5 version better, so that’s what I’m going to focus on.
Archery in 3.5 was tied to a feat chain, it’s true, but the nature of that feat chain was, like many feat chains, to not actually be so long that a fighter was the only person who was going to reach the end; instead, there was a single starter feat (Point Blank Shot) that chained into a small number of payoff feats (Rapid Shot, Far Shot, some other stuff in more wide splatbooks). The real trick was just getting those first feats early; for a fighter, they could have the payload of Point Blank, Rapid, and say, Precise Shot all at level 2, while for a character getting feats ‘naturally’ that set had to wait until level 6 (1, 3, 6). Even then, you might notice, waiting four levels doesn’t seem like a huge wait, and it’s not, because the fighter was really bad.
Now, part of the problem at root here is just that the cleric was overpowered, let’s not mince words. The Cleric had access to an enormous spell list of readily available utility effects and buffing power that broke the rules for a lot of things. Just one basic example is that at level 1, Clerics had Divine Favour, a spell that gave you a +1 to hit and damage for every 3 levels you had, and that was a short, fast spell to fire off. It capped at +3, but until you were level 15, that was going to catch you up to the Fighter in To Hit Chance. Essentially, the cleric was going to be capable of pushing almost any limits the Fighter had, just because the cleric was busted.
Now, as with Spelldancers before, in other conversations, the problem is less power (see our Wizard example above), but rather, convenience of power. The wizard player needs to look at a lot of complicated spells to have on hand the full scope of their own power. The cleric however, can get what they’re after with just knowing the best and most reliable spells in their repertoire, which were largely in the main books.
There is a clause here? Which is ‘Persistent Spell and Divine Metamagic nonsense’ which we can go into later. Because all those spells don’t give the cleric archer access to the fighter’s supposed edge over them, those feats.
Well, let’s go down to the Forgotten Realms.
The Forgottean Realms is always going to produce problems for anything divine, I mean, c’mon. This is a setting that’s dedicated to jerking off to its own mythos and lore consistently, and that meant they were never going to be satisfied with giving their gods the standardised, boring, simple so-called ‘standard domains.’ No no, they had to introduce a bunch of extra ones, and most of them were boring.
Meet Labelas Enoreth.
Labelas Enoreth is a chaotic good (the best alignment in 3.5), elven deity who has the domains of time and elf. Time is just an all-purpose busted good domain, adding a bunch of powerful spells to the cleric’s list, including Time Stop. The domain also granted you the feat Improved Initiative, one of those ‘best feats that non-powergamers rarely found the room to take.’ Meanwhile, the other domain, Elf, granted a bunch of nice utility effects, like the spell True Strike (great with metamagic feats), and oh yeah!
Point Blank Shot!
Suddenly, the fighter could round out those three archery feats at level 2, while the elf archer had to wait until level 3 and the elf would have another feat over the fighter.
And that was all you needed – at low levels, before large numbers of iterative attacks were normal, the cleric could operate just like an accurate archer most of the time, with buffs and healing and long-lasting effects (in combat terms) like Bless and Divine Favour. They could shoot just fine, and use their mundane weaponry with a magic weapon spell to start outpacing the fighter, too.
But also, any time they had to, they could put the bow down and operate just fine as your standard cleric, which, to reiterate were really strong. And the thing is, you didn’t have to be doing a bunch of complicated choices or cross-searching books for this. Just lists of domains would often have Elf and Time in there, the bonus off Elf was ‘a bonus archery feat’ so all you had to know ahead to fime was ‘archery clerics are a thing, and they often use the elf domain.’ That would set you on the path and you didn’t need to do a lot of work to make the rest of it powerful.
And that was part of why it was so embarrassing that it completely displaced the Fighter using part of its choices!