Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Design Decision Tuesday: Classes (Part II)

The Beast Master
One of the first D&D classes I tried to create,
circa 1984 or so. Check out those level titles.
This is a continuation of a post I made back in July regarding my use of character classes in D&D and how they impacted some of the design decisions I made in crafting my campaign world.

[By the way, I started this last night but fell asleep before finishing, so I'm still calling it "Design Decision Tuesday" even though it's Wednesday now when I'm posting it.]

In Part I of the post, I mainly tried to get across the idea that for a Class & Level (hereafter, C&L) game, one can look at different character classes as part of world building. Have unique, customized character classes beyond the "core four" can help to define a culture or a race if, as a GM, you don't get caught up in the mindset of thinking, "There are too many classes!" and instead think, "How would this particular class, given how it's defined, shape my world?"

As an example, let's take the Druid class, which first appeared as a playable character class way back in Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry. Druids as a character class were defined in the earlier editions of the game as neutral priests of nature, who revere mistletoe, and who less involved with humans and more involved with protecting animals and plant-life. They specialize in magic of fire, natural forces, and living things, only use a small suite of peculiar non-standard weapons, and eschew metal armor.

"You Don't Need a Druid Class"
There are many out there who would say that you don't need a Druid class. Talysman over at the Nine and 30 Kingdoms has written pretty extensively on the idea that the game only needs Fighters, Magic-Users, and what he calls "Talents" (aka, Thieves and other skill-based classes such as the ones he's created like the Miner, Smith, and Tinkerer). Talysman sees the Cleric as a hybrid of the Fighter and Magic-User and posits that with the basic three (Fighter, Magic-User, Talent), you could then create a hybrid combination for each - Fighter/Talent, Magic-User/Talent, etc.

In Talysman's opinion, a Druid wouldn't be a separate class, but instead just be a Magic-User that's played differently. You'd call him a Druid, make a few tweaks to his spell-list (I guess), and be good to go.

Class & Level Systems Are Partly About Having Classes
I think that kind of misses the point of the nature (pardon the pun) of C&L type games. By having a Druid class (or a Monk, or a Bard, etc.) as a playable character class, the game system is essentially providing the GM with the tools to figure out how (or even if, which is just as telling a question) those types of characters exist in his world. If the GM decides that Druids exist, then he needs to figure out which races are allowed to play that character, which parts of his world those characters operate in, if there are organizations of Druids that protect certain wooded areas of the world, and more. It also means that the GM is saying that forests and natural areas are important in this campaign, and that most likely there's not going to be a lot of urban exploration.

Sure, you don't need a specific class to address these types of things in your campaign world. You could do it without. However, as I mentioned in my first post on classes, that's really only something that an experienced GM would probably even think of, and only an experienced player who knows what a Druid is would ever come up with the idea of saying, "I'm going to be a Magic-User, but I want to play him as a Druid." These aren't the types of things that come naturally to new players, who most likely would never have even heard the word Druid before, let alone know what it actually is.

If You Have to Tweak More than 1-2 Things, It Should Be a Separate Class
For me, another point in favor of having a separate class like a Druid is that it's more than just one or two tweaks on a basic class. Yes, in the original game they were called a "sub-class" of Clerics, but that's mainly because they used the same attack and saving throw matrices, as I recall. In every other way, they were completely different from Clerics. They couldn't wear metal armor, yet wearing the heaviest Plate Mail you could find was a hallmark of the Cleric class. They couldn't turn Undead nor cast as many healing spells, two other iconic powers of Clerics. The Druid spell-list is completely different, and they also have class-based abilities that are completely different from Clerics. That's a lot of things to "tweak" just for the sake of not having a separate class.

Again, you could go the easy route and just skip all that stuff, and simplify it to rely on the player to only pick appropriate spells from the Cleric list, and to forgo wearing heavy metal armor and turning undead and just hope that your player is cool with that. But, really, what's wrong with having a separate class for this? If you're playing a Class & Level game, why not embrace the idea of classes and have more than just a small handful?

Including Certain Classes Says Something About Your Game World

In a way, I look at character classes in a somewhat similar way as 3rd Edition D&D looked at Prestige Classes - Prestige Classes in 3E were originally intended to say something about the campaign setting in which they appeared. The idea was that you wouldn't necessarily have a generic Prestige Class, but rather something specific, such as the Forgotten Realms' "Red Wizard of Thay" which came with a whole description and background of what that organization was, and in turn helped the GM to flesh out that section of his world. I'm not advocating for Prestige Classes in all editions of D&D, but the idea of having some classes that are unique to the setting and different enough from the standard "core four" classes is one that has merit.

Let's go back to our Druid example again. If the Druid is a separate class, then a GM who doesn't include it is also saying something about his campaign setting - there could be a dozen different reasons why, but he's saying that playing a wilderness-oriented nature-priest is either not important (maybe it's a city-based type of game) or just not available (maybe he has plans to use Druids as NPC adversaries). It's almost instant-world building from just one simple decision.

Archetypes Bridge the Gap
While I like the idea of having a wider array of classes to choose from beyond the core four, I also agree that there are many separate classes that have been created over the years that don't need to be separate classes, and which lead to "class bloat." I'm really not a fan of having a bunch of classes that essentially just replicate 90% of a core four class with only a few tweaks. In that case, I really like the idea of using "archetypes" as Trey Causey mentioned in the previous post on Classes, and which is something that the Pathfinder RPG has adopted. You don't need a separate "Geisha" class for an Asian-themed game. Just make that a Bard archetype and swap around a few things. A GM with a list of archetypes for player characters can help his players get a feel for the setting, and again, it acts as world-building. If a GM says that "Samurai" is a fighter archetype and "Ninja" is a Thief archetype, he's defining his setting, just as easily as if he said that "Knight" was a fighter archetype and "Court Mage" was a Magic-User archetype.

Applications in My Campaign Setting
I did this quite a bit in my own World of Samoth setting, where I provided an idea of an archetype for each character class for each race in my campaign, including humans (which were country/culture specific). For example, I mentioned how many Dwarven Bards had come into fashion as "Composer Historians" for human princes, dukes, and counts. The dwarves in this campaign are a bit down on their luck and tend to be treated a second-class citizens, so preserve their disappearing heritage, they weave subtle information about their own Dwarven history into the songs that they perform for their human patrons, with the humans none-the-wiser. Dwarven Paladins were mainly "Ancestor Champions," who kept detailed family trees of their clans and used their healing powers to tend to the sick and destitute dwarves who live in Dwarven ghettoes in human cities.

I could've created all of that information without having a Bard or Paladin class, but in this case I was looking to define how a Dwarf would approach each of the classes listed in the Players Handbook. If I were working with just the core four, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have come up with any of that information above, because I wouldn't have had a need to figure out why a Dwarf would become a Bard or a Paladin and what being one of those classes meant to a Dwarf. The core four classes, while broadly drawn on purpose, are sometimes too broad to generate this type of thinking I'm talking about.

Class vs. Archetype: An Initial List
Based my thoughts above, here's a quick summary of some classes that often appear in D&D and related games, and which ones I think should be separate classes versus handled as an archetype. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. I actually tried to keep this edition-neutral, so the comments should theoretically apply to whatever edition of D&D (or retro-clone) you're playing. 

  • Alchemist: Many would just say this is a Magic-User. I think it's a bit too different to be played that way. Sure you could just say that all of his spells are really potions, but that's just too plain for my tastes. I think you can use the Magic-User as a starting point but then make enough changes that it goes far enough to warrant being its own class. 
  • Assassin: This is probably just a Thief or perhaps a Fighter, with some kind of code about killing people for money (a role-playing choice) who might be good at disguise (a background which is most likely not mechanical). Maybe you give him a Ranger's tracking ability to account for him tailing his victims, and take away some Thief skills or Fighter weapons/armor.
  • Barbarian: This is a Fighter with a different background (not based on game mechanics) and a penchant for wearing light or no armor, and perhaps an aversion to magic (a role-playing choice, not a mechanical one). Perhaps you bump up his hit dice a bit or give him a bonus on his saves or AC to account for wearing light armor, since having access to heavy armor is one of the fighter's main class abilities. 
  • Bard: I'm not saying you need to have bards in your game, but if you want to include them, they should be handled as a separate class. There are too many differences and abilities behind this class to make it an easy one to play as a tweak or archetype of either a Thief or a Magic-User.
  • Cavalier: This is a fighter who is part of the nobility and good at horseback riding (this is a background, not game mechanics), who also follows a code of honor (a role-playing choice, not game mechanics). You could also call him a Knight.
  • Druid: As mentioned above, I think this should be a separate class. Once again, there are too many abilities and restrictions that can't easily be handle with one or two tweaks to an existing class. 
  • Illusionist: This is just a Magic-User whose player should limit himself to only picking specific illusion/shadow/sleigh-of-hand spells. Maybe give the player a bonus on those spells to offset him not taking the standard magic missile and fireball spells that most magic-users are expected to take. This example works for all types of magic (e.g., a "Summoner").
  • Inventor: I've seen many people try to make a class like this, and it's one that in certain more "advanced" settings could make sense. The Clockwork Mage kit for the Sha'ir class from 2nd Edition D&D for the Al Qadim setting comes to mind, but I think in this case it's substantially different enough to warrant being a separate class rather than trying to shoe-horn it as an archetype for an existing class. 
  • Monk: This should be a separate class. I really don't see anyway to handle unarmed fighting with the existing rules of pretty much any edition and give the monk a fair shake. You could try to play him as an archetype of Fighter without weapons or armor, but you're taking away the two things that the Fighter is good at and exchanging that for some really bad unarmed damage and cumbersome pummeling and/or grappling rules. I'd keep it a separate class. 
  • Ninja: This is a Thief (or "Rogue" in 3E+ parlance) who belongs to a clan or family (a role-playing choice). The Thief's back stab ability (or the Rogue's sneak attack) account for the ninja being good in combat under the right conditions.
  • Paladin: This is a tough one, but given the way they are portrayed with all of the different things they can do, I'd probably keep this a separate class. 
  • Ranger: Another tough one because I really like rangers from the early editions of the game, but I think they can be handled as an archetype of Fighter. They are Woodsmen (a background) who are good at tracking (keep this mechanical ability and swap out the ability to use some of the heavier Fighter armor). Having woodland animal followers is fine but probably doesn't need all those rules. Just say he has a pet [whatever] and let it go at that. The more recent additions of two-weapon fighting, as well as the whole "bonuses to kill giant-class creatures" goes away. 
  • Samurai: This is a Fighter with a code of honor (a role-playing choice) who is good at horseback riding (a background with no game mechanics) who is in the service of a noble (a role-playing choice). He's probably also educated in a few different fields like calligraphy or painting or writing poetry (backgrounds with no game mechanics). 
  • Witch: This is probably just an archetype of either a Druid or a Magic-User, depending on whether you see a witch as a nature-oriented pagan (Druid) or as an evil servant of the dark one (an evil Magic-User). Maybe give them a bonus to use scrying magic-items or tweak the spell lists for the player accordingly so that the spells make sense within the fantasy/fictional version of what witches as thought to be good at. 

Obviously the list could go on and on, but hopefully you get the idea.

As a fun little background while I was writing this post, I went into my files and found a bunch of classes that I had created shortly after I began playing. The list included:

  • Beast Master: An "NPC" class (following Dragon magazine's format that any class not created by Gary Gygax was unofficial and only intended for NPCs), that could train any animal given one week, ride a horse without a saddle, Bless friendly animals, train and ride a Unicorn (if a female Elf), gain animal followers like Rangers, cast Druid spells... the list went on and on. I included a copy of the first page of the character write-up from my old notebook above.
  • Assassin-Acrobats: Obviously this was a really stupid idea, but it seemed logical that if Thieves could have a "split" class with Acrobats, then Assassins could, too, since in AD&D an Assassin was essentially just a Thief (two levels lower) who killed people and used poison. 
  • Forest Runners: These were like "super Rangers" who ran really fast. They could track as Rangers (but better), had the Thief abilities of Move Silently, Hear Noise, Hide in Shadows, and Climb Walls, Surprise 75% of the time, pass through overgrown areas like Druids, and were resistant to Charm, Sleep, or Slow spells. 
What can I say? I was like 13 or 14 when I made these. 

Hanging: Partly home office (laptop) and partly living room cough (iPad)
Drinking: El Segundo Brewing Company's Two-5 Left Double IPA
Listening: "Moonlight in Vermont" by Stan Getz

1 comment:

  1. While classes can get out of hand, I tend to favor more classes rather than less--though I think it ought to be less than 20.


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