Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Design Decision Tuesday: Classes (Part III)

"The Alchemist" by Phillip Galle
Image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org
I've written twice before about the decisions I made regarding the classes I was going to include in my ongoing World of Samoth campaign, which I've been running since May of 2001.

In Part 1, I talked about how I used the variety of classes available in the game (starting with the various "kits" from 2nd Edition AD&D and later on all of the classes from 3rd Edition) to help with world building. For example, if I read in a rulebook that "Paladin" is a character class that's available, as a DM, I can start thinking about how the class might integrate into my world, which countries and organizations might support such a class, and even if the class is available at all. I can also start thinking about NPCs that might belong to that class and how they might interact with the PCs if it ever comes to that. As a DM, I find that a really powerful part of world building. It gives me instant things to start thinking about when building a world.

In Part 2, I expanded on this idea in more detail, and pointed over to the 9 and 30 Kingdoms blog, where the author, Talysman, has a directly opposite point-of-view. I actually like his blog a lot, so this isn't a slam against him by any means. It's just a different point-of-view. I really like classes, and as I mentioned in Part 2, I think part of the fun of playing a Class & Level system (as opposed to a skill-based system) is having a lot of classes. And this isn't a "new school" thing that happened with 3rd edition or anything like that. New, optional classes have been around since almost the beginning of the game, beginning with the Thief and Paladin in Greyhawk, then the Assassin and Monk in Blackmoor, the Druid in Eldritch Wizardry, and the Ranger and Illusionist in The Dragon.

Should Every Class Just Be a Variant of Fighter, Magic-User, or "Talent" (aka "Thief)?
Again, to use Talysman's examples as a counter-part, he suggests that pretty much any "class" you want to create could be made by just tweaking a few class abilities of one of the "big three" classes (Fighter, Magic-User, and what he calls "Talents").

To look at an example he posts on his blog, there's his Alchemist.  Talysman creates his Alchemist by making it a Magic-User with the same hit-dice, experience tables, weapon and armor restrictions, and spell-list. I presume the attack tables are the same as well. So far, what you've got there is a Magic-User, not an Alchemist. The change comes by noting that the Alchemist prepares his spells as potions (from a spellbook, just like a Magic-User uses) instead of memorizing them or creating scrolls. It also notes that the Alchemist can research spells from any spell-list (which is really the main feature of this class, in my opinion). As he goes up in level, the Alchemist can make salves (affect any material they contact, not just living creatures), powders (can affect one creature at range, via a blowgun, which is funny since I don't believe that a blowgun is a weapon allowed to Magic-Users), and incense (a ranged area-effect).

All-in-all, it's not bad, but to me I kind of feel like it just doesn't go far enough. It feels like a standard Magic-User. And I think that's Talysman's point - just make it that way, call it something else, and you're good to go. And I do think this approach does work for a lot of things - a Magic-User can be used as the base to create a necromancer, sorcerer, or whatever you want to call it for flavor, without any mechanical changes.

But an Alchemist just feels too different to me. The name "Alchemist" to me conjures images of an early pseudo-scientist in his lab, working with a variety of magic and scientific equipment, much of which actually eventually found its way into modern scientific methods. They don't just "make potions." They worked on a variety of projects, including trying to create the fabled philosopher's stone (to turn base metals into noble metals) and also the elixir of life. Many alchemists also worked on creating constructs, and they worked with the four main elements involving experiments to transform his body to take on certain elemental properties. I actually don't think Alchemist should even cast spells, which is why I guess I struggle so much with Talysman's version. I think an Alchemist should be something entirely different, and it can't be created by simply tweaking a couple of things from the Magic-User class.

Pathfinder has a version that's very different, but it's a bit too fiddly for my tastes and goes a little too far with the mechanical changes (although part of that is based on Pathfinder just having more rules than the OSR type system that Talysman is using). But I think turning an Alchemist into "a Magic-User, but with potions instead of memorized spells" is essentially the same thing as saying, "I don't have Alchemists in my game."

As David Smith pointed out over at Beyond the Pale Gate:

As a player, I would not have found it fun in the least if I had told my friend "I have an idea for a druid for your new campaign" and he said "Well, ok, we'll start with a cleric. I'll try to work something in where you can quest for the shapechange ability, and I'll look over some of the druid spells and work them into the cleric list. How does that sound?" I would have said "It sounds like I'm playing a cleric. Nevermind."
When Having Lots of Classes Goes Too Far
I definitely get the people who don't like "class-bloat" - it can go way too far, and I think the 3.5 Edition of D&D did just that. I just did a quick Google search and found an article on Wikipedia that lists 51 different base/core classes beyond the standard 11 in the Players Handbook and not including the NPC classes from the DMG. That list of 51 classes also does not include the variant classes from Unearthed Arcana (like the Planar Ranger or Divine Bard). When you get up to 51 classes, I think you're doing something wrong.

I do like how Pathfinder handles some things in their system, and it's actually not too unlike Talysman's system, which is to take a main class and then just make a few tweaks to it and it becomes a separate "class." Pathfinder calls them "Archetypes." Talysman calls them Variants (or sometimes sub-classes). Back in the days of 2nd Edition, they were called "kits" (which were much maligned but were actually a neat concept for individualizing a character type). The implementation is all the same - you take a main class, and then swap out a few things here and there to create the exact class you want.

So, the way I'm thinking, a Barbarian wouldn't need to be a separate class. It would just be a Fighter, but taking away the ability to wear heavy armor and maybe giving it some outdoor survival type abilities, or depending on the type of Barbarian culture, better skill at fighting from horseback or sailing or animal friendship or whatever. You'd need to work out the details for the specific campaign, but to me a Barbarian is too close to a Fighter to warrant a separate class.

On the other hand, a Paladin, with its divine magic abilities and spells and resistance to disease and (if you use them) alignment restrictions, deserves a separate class. It's got too much going on to just shoe-horn it into a Fighter. Druids, to me, are the same thing, as are Monks. Rangers are debatable, but if you go with the classic AD&D idea of tracking and access to Magic-User and Druid spells and animal companions, then I think you're looking at a separate class. Alchemists fit in this as well. There's got to be a way to make an Alchemist that's more than just "a Magic-User who uses potions." If that's all you've got, then sure, it should just a "variant" of Magic-User. But I think there's so much more potential to make it it's own class with rules for inventing things with a sort of magic-science blend that could be really cool.

Classes Created Merely to Exploit Game Mechanics Shouldn't Exist
Looking at the list on Wikipedia, there are so many classes that don't fit classic archetypes and aren't really filling any need other than to create new ways to exploit the 3.5E system, and that's where I draw the line. A few examples that stick out are the Crusader class from Tome of Battle which is essentially just a fighter but with all of these insane amount of options (stances, boosts, counters, and strikes...), and the Favored Soul (basically a cleric, but casts spontaneously instead of praying ahead of time for spells, and eventually grows wings for some reason).

For the Crusader, that's a class for which the only purpose of existence is utilizing a whole bunch of new rules from the rulebook it came from to make combat in 3.5E even longer as the player and DM have to wade through dozens of different options and decisions each round. It's not serving a role from fiction or history, it's serving game mechanics. That's not a class I'd say that you need.

For the Favored Soul, that's just getting into nitpicky things like "do Clerics cast spontaneously or do they have to prepare their spells through prayer?" I know that a lot of people think that's an important decision that needs an official rule, but if I were the DM for that, I'd just hand-wave it. You want to cast spontaneously? Fine. You can, but you have one or two fewer spells you can cast per level. That's the trade-off. That's not a change that's "worthy" of being a separate class to me. Then the whole thing with the character growing wings as it advanced in level... I'm not sure where this is coming from, but in a game when most spellcasters at higher levels have access to fly spells (or at least potions) anyway, I'm not sure why that's there. I'm sure it must have been some kind of "balance" thing (they probably took away some other cleric class powers), but it just seems totally out of place to me.

What New Classes Make Sense?
There are other classes that seem, to me, to be different enough both in terms of their background and their power set that do deserve to be their own class. Both the Noble (from the Dragonlance Campaign Setting) and the Artificer (from the Eberron Campaign Setting) are good examples. Both are found either in history or in fantasy fiction (or both) and are part of the "core" fantasy mythology.  By that, I mean there are nobles throughout the literature of the fantasy genre, such as Denethor the Steward of Gondor, the various characters from the Song of Ice and Fire saga, such as Cersei Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and Renly Baratheon, and even Princess Leia from Star Wars. In terms of the Artificer class, you've got the dwarf smiths from Norse mythology, Celebrimbor and the elven smiths of Eregion who made the rings of power, and Weland the Smith (who created Beowulf's magic mail shirt).

Additionally, these are classes that can't easily be replicated by "take an existing class and swap out a power or two." As described in literature and history, their powers are things that aren't replicated by existing classes, and they are extensive enough and different enough that you'd be making substantial changes to a main class to try to "change them."

Some may argue that a "Noble" should just be a Fighter, but I think that's missing the point. Again, pointing back to Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark, and even Joffrey Baratheon, they aren't Fighters. And yet they are just as important in terms of the power they wield as the more typical Fighters in that series. I've seen others say that the "role" of the Noble is filled by the Bard class, which is again, I think, missing the point entirely. This isn't about "niche protection" or covering some kind of video-game construct that says you need a Tank guy, a Support guy, etc. Bards influence people with their music (in D&D terms), sure, but they aren't Nobles and their powers are magical in nature. Nobles don't have to have magical powers to be powerful (again, look at the list above - none of those characters uses magic, and yet they exude a strong amount of influence even in magical settings).

Similarly with the Artificer class, people may argue that it's just a Magic-User who likes to make things. You could do that, but then you're missing the opportunity to create something unique with a different set of abilities that then defines something about your campaign world. A world with Artificers in it is a completely different world than one without. I'm not arguing that you should have Artificers in your game. My point is, if crafting powerful and legendary magical items, repairing constructs, and the like is an important part of how you're defining your campaign world, then you end up doing yourself a disservice by saying, "But if you want to do that, just be a Magic-User." Think about if you're a player, and you create this awesome idea in your head, based on what the DM has said about the world, where you think, "I want to be one of the legendary magical smiths of the elves who create unique items that perform specific tasks, and I go on quests to find the rarest and most perfect materials to craft my creations." And then the DM says, "Okay, you're a magic-user" (or, worse, "Okay, roll the dice and hope that you create a magic-user", but that's an entirely different topic).

My Criteria for Creating a New Class
So, two of my criteria for whether a class should be a separate class are, number one, "Is their a historical, mythological, or literary source for the class, or is it being created just to exploit game mechanics?" and number two, "Does it do enough things that are different enough from the main classes to warrant a separate class?"

My last criteria for whether you should create a class is, "Does it fit the purposes of the game world?" This is related to the first criterion above, but as a type of counter. Sometimes, you you've created campaign world that's different enough that there are no true historical or literary sources, but the standard classes might not be enough to help you realize that vision. As an example, there's the Iron Kingdoms campaign setting, which first came out as a d20 setting for 3.5E. This is a good example of a non-traditional fantasy setting where there is extensive use of steam-based technology (but it's not Steampunk because it doesn't take place in a faux-Victorian era). With all that technology running around, you need people to fix it, so they created a bunch of new classes that focused on magic mixing with mechanics, as well as others centered around the idea of imbuing, and fighting with, magical firearms. Those are two archetypes that didn't necessarily have a historical or literary equivalent and yet fit in perfectly with the setting the authors created.

Wrapping Up
Hopefully you can understand why I think having new classes in a Class & Level system is not a horrible idea based on players just trying to get "kewl powerz" and also that not necessarily every new class can be easily made by just tweaking one or two class abilities of an existing class. Some class ideas are different enough, and make sense from the context of the campaign world or from historical/mythological/literary sources that they deserve to be a separate stand-alone class.

Those are my thoughts - what are yours?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Spider-Man Theme" by Richard Cheese


  1. Largely I think it just comes down to preference. Many classes are "unnecessary" but they serve to emphasize things the creator of the world/game may want emphasized. After all, isn't everybody just a fighter with talents (at thievery, magic, etc.)?

    1. Yeah, I agree. I guess my preference is to be a little more "liberal" with classes, whereas I see a lot of OSR types that are dead-set against them.

      Interesting point about "isn't everybody just a fighter..."? I never thought of it that way, but it totally makes sense.

      Thanks for commenting! BTW - if I can find a few minutes, today's "New Comic Wednesday" is totally up your alley I think - Kings Watch featuring Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and the Phantom!


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