Saturday, February 6, 2010

Evolution Of Thinking About Character Class in D&D

...presented in roughly chronological order with, no doubt, some timeline errors since I'm not James Mal.

OD&D -- The Categorical Era

The idea in this era was that every kind of PC fit into a broad category, and the classes were just ways of defining these broad categories.

In the beginning: D&D Is A Kind of Wargame

Therefore, everyone on the battlefield can be divided into:

Fighting Men, who generally fight things with weapons, and

Magic-Users, who generally fight things with magic.

(Note that this isn't necessarily automatically limiting. Theoretically, all PCs ever made could fit into one or the other of these categories. There's only a problem once you say that magic users can't use weapons or armor. Then suddenly all kinds of characters known in literature [or not yet known, but imaginable] don't fit the scheme.)

(Also, this is why they aren't called "wizards" and "warriors". Just because you can't use spells doesn't make you a warrior, and just because you do, it doesn't mean you're a wizard. This naming convention would become outdated the second that the next class came around...)

Wait, D&D Is A Game Of Dungeon Exploration

So it might be useful to have a class that's useful in a dungeon, despite not being much in a fight. Thus: The Thief.

Oh, Wait, I Read A Book That Makes Me Want To Put Fighting Priests In But They Don't Fit The "Everybody Uses Magic Or Uses Weapons But Not Both" Post-Wargame Schema

Thus: Clerics.

Oh, Also, I Like The Idea of People Being Able To Be Elves or Dwarves But I Think That Should Make A Mechanical Difference In The Game And There Is, As Yet, No Way To Differentiate Categories Of PCs Except by C

Thus: the Race-As-Classes. The Elf class, The Dwarf class, etc.

AD&D--The Archetypal Era

Hey, Wouldn't It Be Cool To Invent Some "Specialist" Classes, Where The PCs Could Trade Being Able To Do One Thing For Being Able To Do Something Else?

Thus, the sub-classes: paladin, druid, ranger, illlusionist, assassin, and many of the classes presented in Dragon Magazine. Plus, arguably, multi-classed characters.

This was a big deal.

What then happened was a shift in the thinking about class--the idea became that class represented, essentially, not the broad category into which the PC could be sorted for certain purposes, but rather a sort of "genre" of PC. That is, the class wasn't there so much there to place limits on the PCs mechanical function in the game, but to define what kind of character the PC was.

In the original scheme, a knight was a kind of fighter. In the new scheme, a knight was like a paladin, but--fuck--less religious. Could he just be a fighter? Well, but why should the paladin get its own special subclass with attendant powers yet the knight doesn't? Damn, we'll need a new class...

After this happened, having, say, a "druid" as a subclass seemed less like a fun bonus extra for people who wanted to play a specialist cleric and more like a sort of promise that one day every sort of fantasy archetype would have its own subclass with special powers.

By This Time The Game We Invented Was Making Us Lots Of Money So We Bought Some Weed

Thus: Monk and Bard.

Oh, Wait A Second, If The Idea Is To Have A Class Representing Every Fantasy Archetype, There's A Whole Bunch We Haven't Covered Yet

Barbarian, Cavalier, Thief/Acrobat, etc.

The '80s D&D cartoon is actually a leading indicator here--each character on the show was a different class--implying that character class and personality type were essentially one. I suppose it's even possible that the cavalier (paladin without religion) and the acrobat (thief without stealing) were invented for the show--anybody know for sure?

Some Other, Non-D&D, Games Being Made Around The Same Era

Hey Wait, This Whole Categorizing-PCs Thing Seems To Be Kind Of Unwieldy, Let's Just Go With Another Thing Entirely

Thus: skill-based systems.

Ok, But Class Is Kind Of Fun, Like I Know Being Defined By Your Job Is A Drag, But There's Something Kind of Interesting About How These Archetypal Professions Help Describe The Game World...

Thus: profession-based systems like Warhammer.

Later D&D--The Customizable Era

By this point, the people running D&D have to balance two considerations--one one hand, they feel class is an important and defining feature of the game that sets it off against all other games (How do you know it's D&D if you can't say "I'm a 3rd level cleric"?) but, on the other hand they want to give the players the same freedom that PCs have in newer systems.

Ok, We Have Classes But Hey It's Not Like There's A Character You Can Build In Any Other Game That You Couldn't Also Do In D&D

Thus rules that "soften" class divisions: skills and skill points, trading armor protection for spell-failure chance or armor-class bonus, etc.

Hey, Wait, I Bet We Can Make Money Off This...

Thus: prestige classes.

Careful examination of published prestige classes (which, I admit, sounds like the title of the chapter right after "Waterboarding" in the Geneva Conventions on Torture) shows that the people writing them not only decided to (or were forced to) mine every imaginable fantasy archetype for new classes, they also mined every imaginable fantasy character.

Many prestige classes are so detailed that they could basically describe your character for you, soup-to-nuts. "The prophet of Erathaol is a seer and visionary, a medium of the heavenly will, pronouncing judgement on corruption and evil in the world, speaking words of comfort to the oppressed and downtrodden, and announcing the work of the archons in the world."

It's a trade-off--you get power, you give us your personality (and $32.95 for the book you found the prestige class in).

I never played D&D with prestige classes, but I imagine it's possible it could actually produce an interesting dynamic, with the PCs changing over time as their role became more defined. Those of you who did--did the PCs tend to become more like players wanted them to be as they got prestige levels, or did their roles suddenly take big left turns when they got a prestige level?


  1. Mostly we took the existing Prestige Classes as a jumping off point for making our own Prestige Classes-- in some cases in concert with the DM to widen/explain the world ("A Knight Of King Jibberjabba" or "Marlboro Guild Thief") & in other cases more PC driven, in order to specialize the way the character was headed ("Cleric of Jesus Undead Turning Specialist" or "I want to make a character who can use the whip & is also useful" or whatever)

  2. What I found with prestiege classes (from playing d20 Modern) was that they required planning from the start to meet the requirements. Thus character concepts were either based on the desired prestiege class, or the concept was tailored to better fir the prestiege class. Admittedly part of this is d20 Modern's system of having Basic classes and Advanced classes. While a character solely using basic classes is possible, a lot of the more interesting (casting spells for example) abilities were only available to Advanced classes, thus making them more of a requirement than prestiege classes in D&D. While the shaping of a character concept to a predefined class is a little annoying for those of use who are more narratively minded (the "roles" in D&D 4e being a real kick in the nuts) it also helped new players figure out what they wanted to do.

  3. When the 3.0 DMG came out with prestige classes as a new concept I was like yeah that sounds cool, there were like 4 or 5, things like Assassin and Dwarvern Defender.

    Then prestige classes appeared in every issue of dragon and every 3rd party supplement, in fact lots of products just read like lists of new prestige classes and feats.

    It also became obvious that if you didn't take a prestige class your character would be disadvantaged against a character that did, sometimes drastically so. A lot of focus seemed to shift onto finding the best "character builds" which would mean planning at least 6 or 7 levels ahead.

    These two factors which we saw as drawbacks basically led our group to basically eschew prestige classes and non-core feats entirely.

  4. To my mind there were two types of prestige classes, neither of which were supposed to be used directly out of the box. Generic style prestige classes were written in broad strokes with the intention that you would add specifics related to your world. Specific style prestige classes have the world information already in them ready to be stripped out before adding back your own world.

    Probably the only exception I can think of is the Prestige classes in the original relics and rituals. Those were designed so well to bring the characters into the Scarred Lands setting.

  5. Heh! good overview. I tend to slide up and down this scale when I'm thinking about character classes. I suppose it just depends on what sort of archetype I've been considering lately. I don't know anything about prestige classes, I never made it to the Skills&Powers stage in 2e.
    I tend to think the broad archetypes, fighter,magic-user,cleric,thief really do work best to cover the most ground. From that point you can work out extra abilities that make sense for each individual character with the player. If everybody is ready to display good sportsmanship and the extras are a matter of actual character development and not an attempt to build the UberPC.
    Hmmmm, now I'm thinking about roleplay solutions vs skill systems.
    Here's the thing, In my view, they arn't mutually exclusive. My first impulse is always to have PCs roleplay problem solving that isn't combat. Talk it out, no funny voices needed, just reasoning is fine with me.
    You're going to run into situations where that's not gonna fly,though. Maybe the players can't figure out a problem, or it's trivial and holding up the game, or everybody is tired or too shy or withdrawn to work it out in game. That's when I would switch to a skill system to keep the game moving.
    Have I wandered off point here? I have to go feed the chickens.

  6. Seriously, fuck the prestige classes.

    As some people have mentioned, the appearance of prestige classes made everyone plan their characters for 7 levels ahead. What? You want to be a duelist? Ok, you can start out as a normal, salt of the earth fighter and eventually become a swashbuckling hero. Cool, just don't change your mind halfway, cause you'll get left behind.

    On the other hand I do understand why prestige classes appeared in the first place - to give players unique powers and abilities that will make their fighter different from the other three in the party. Interestingly enough, no one thought of you just talking to your player to decide what will work best. He wants to be a berserker? Give him the rage ability, but take the ability to wear plate armors. No one needs a whole damn book about it!

    Anyway... I share your stand on monks, but why do you are so negative about bards?

  7. Palmer--
    you haven't wandered off--this whole post was inspired by your Spy class and me thinking "The spy class is a good idea, but do we need a spy class?" then thinking-- "Ok, at what level of differentiation does D&d need a spy class?" etc etc

  8. Cavalier and Acrobat were both introduced in Dragon in 1983, which, by sheer coincidence I'm sure, was also when the cartoon began.

    I've never played with prestige classes, as I skipped 3e, and we haven't got to the equivalent level in 4e yet. I have played a bit of WFRP though, and I quite like the advanced careers in that, which are more or less the same idea, although they tend to flow more naturally from the current career due to how that system works.

  9. I've used few prestige classes, but with every character I had, I pored over the books to find something that would fit the character's style and personality. The only long-running PC of mine who ever did take PrC levels instead of being straight-up constructed with them was a wizard, who in his first adventure found himself staring down the boulder from Indiana Jones rumbling down the dead-end corridor at him. His declared action? "I find god." The boulder rolled a critical miss on attack and didn't hit him, and he went on to become a 12th-level wizard/divine oracle.

    There are many cool prestige classes out there, but a lot of them are too specific to fit most characters. Therefore, the character must fit the prestige class. As you said, it does cost them something of their personality.

  10. "I have fashioned the character
    more after the Celtic and Norse types than anything else, thus he is a character
    who resembles a fighter more than anything else, but who knows something about
    the mysterious forces of magic and is well adept with his hands, etc." - Statistics Regarding Classes: (Additions) BARDS, The Strategic Review, February 1976

    Seriously, give the bard a go.

  11. No-one carrying a lute is allowed within 50 feet of me, whether they're fictional or not.

  12. "Ok, at what level of differentiation does D&d need a spy class?"

    Ah-ha! There we go, that's a good thought! I think this adds another axis of thought to the philisophies of gaming that are insinuated by the various editions of The Game.
    Beyond the rules themselves, I've always thought that the iterations of The Game each had it's own prefered flavor of play that was purely a matter of atmosphere and approach.

    OD&D/Holmes/S&W I run with more of a weird tales/Howard/C.A.S/Lieber flavor. Small groups of PCs operating alone and largely unprepared for the dangers they face. AD&D with a Pulp expedition into the unknown in the tradition of Verne/Doyle with large groups of retainers and advance planing on the part of the PCs.

    So, I think the atmosphere of the game world you're trying to evoke will have a strong influence on what sort of PC classes you want to use, and the degree of definition in those classes you feel comfortable with.

    Thanks,Zak. You've helped me get a clearer grip on what I think of class design. Hoody-hoo!

  13. They (maybe) didn't start this way but when I got into 3.5 prestige classes were *all* about power gaming and min-maxing. No one paid one whit to the fluff, it was all about the crunch and whatever super-awesome-mega damage/I win loop hole you constructed with bits of three or five other prestige (and core) classes.

    Just for the record monks rule, bards drool!

  14. Cavalier and Thief-Acrobat found their way into 1e's Unearthed Arcana, which also gave the birth of cantrips, comeliness, and the Underdark races of Drow, Duergar, and Svirfneblin. Also, many silly magic items.

    The whole book screamed "munchkin" before we knew what a munchkin was. :)

  15. Herobizkit--

    Yes, that's all true. Though I'm not quite sure what makes you bring that up here. Did somebody ask? It doesn't answer the question of whether barbarian, cavalier, and acrobat were invented in anticipation of the show or not.

    UA also had lots of excellent stuff like Chain Lightning and Evard's Black Tentacles.

  16. I don't see the Prestige Class as limiting rules, but perhaps because most of you are looking at them the wrong way. First of all, just eschew the pre-requisites and only keep the most essential, like a feat the class expands on or the caster level requisite.

    From my point of view (and my players) a Prestige Class isn't something you tailor yourself to. It is something you look for that tailor YOUR character. In 3.0 they were still experimenting and there were a lot of odd ones. 90% of the PrC had an ultimate power at 10th level that... duplicated a 4th level wizard spell.

    Once a day.

    With a lesser DC.

    Even wizard-tailored PrC had it, which was ridiculous.

    While others made, for instance, a Ranger become very good when fighting undeads. But completely worthless when fighting anything else. The worst prestige classes are probably the ones that are so focused that are only useful or fun against a specific type of enemy or specific situations.

    The "Complete Something" books have mostly varied and well thought classes. The important thing is for the DM to make the players aware that the PrC are something that will make a big impact unto the character. I've played with a DM that gives a special solo adventure to the character in order to be able to acquire PrC levels.

    Mine, as a Mage of the Arcane Order, was to prove that my character was an accomplished wizard by... properly teaching about magic to apprentices. So I made a little research and put a private show about the pseudo-science behind some low level transmutation (my wizard's specialization) spells. While another character had to go through a spiritual experience to be able to become a more specialized cleric PrC who heals better but fights worse. I liked his way so much I adopted from them on.

    Sure, then there are some classes that are just balls-to-the-wall munchkinny. Like the Frenzied Beserker (also known as "Barbarian on steroids") and the Weapon Master (Infamous for a 3.0 combo where you'd roll criticals 50% of the time and do 5X damage on them...), but these are the kind of things that a DM should know better and overrule.

    The real fun in them come from the players asking themselves: What I want my character to be?

    "Do I want my necromancer to be creepier?" Look up the Pale Master.

    "Do I want my rogue to be sneakier?" Shadow Dancer looks like your way.

    "I want a fighter who can use spells through his sword!" Spell Blade.

    "I want to be a Paladin who leads by example" Warpriest.

    "I want my cleric to be Zeus" Stormlord.

    "I want my bard to sing even more!" Err... Virtuoso?

    And so on. Plus they're full of interesting ideas for NPCs, even if only their unique powers. The fact that they tried to fill every gap is a good thing, so you are more likely to find the PrC that is the closest to what you see your character as.

    If you're looking the PrC just for the powers and benefits you're looking at them the wrong way. Well... maybe the "intended" way, and I wouldn't send a player away just because he's a munchkin, but if you're actually roleplaying the character then you go the other way around and look for the PrC that suits the character.

    * On the bard issue.

    I actually like the concept of the bard. I just don't think he should apply his powers through a damn music instrument. Maybe his spells, but the concept of "hear my song and fight better"... not so much. So I rule that the bard powers that are supposed to be used in battle actually represents the bard using his knowledge to organize his companions and inspire through leadership. Or adapt the group to the better dramatic possibilities or the workings of narrativium or whatever the setting is about.

  17. Having spent the span of 3e and 3.5 combing every source for perfect and broken character combinations so I can bust my PC's plans when they try to break my game, has lead me a fairly universal conclusion; same shit different pile. There are now dozens of ways to achieve the same effects, each requiring a comparable amount of character resource and rules acumen. And this is not even counting third party material.

    Then, for a completely unrelated reason i started taking a look at pathfinder, owning to some of the changes in 4e which i though were a decent idea (like perception over listen AND spot) but not wanting to make my thousand dollar collection of 3.5 material obsolete. Pathfinder i think have done a wonderful thing. They have made every fighter type class (samurai, knight, etc.) and every other new standard class a part of their parent class, simply by allowing a broader range of character choices as the character progresses. The same is true for most prestige classes; spy master and thief acrobat are built into rogue, frenzied berserker into barbarian and so on. For those few prestige classes whose abilities are left out of their parent classes, they are easy enough to get into that if you want to be that type of guy, chances are you already have the stuff to do it. Also, with far more versatility in each of the core classes, there is a far greater incentive to stay with them. In all i think it was a fine slimming of a crushing volume of material while still maintaining a rules structure even the most rigid players can enjoy.

  18. I want classes that grow out of the setting so for example if there's a Conanesque cult of Set then there should be priests of Set (who are a mixture of mage and priest in game terms) and paladins of Set (who are like Assassins).

    I don't like classes that don't fit the current setting.