Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Non-Euclidean Justifications for Character Classes

Comments on yesterday's post brought up the old question of what makes a new character class necessary. Why have a Sage class when knowledge is something that a character of any class can have? Why a Thief class when a character of any class can steal, hide, etc.? (If memory serves, the example provided in the AD&D 2nd edition DMG was the Assassin: why have an Assassin class when a member of any class can kill for money?)

On the one hand, there is a strange conservatism, almost a reactionary flavour, to this argument: a default against having new classes, as though new classes is per se to be frowned upon. Admittedly, this is a position which has its attractions for me. But it isn't likely to convince doubters. What arguments might?

At first glance the strongest argument for the existence of classes, which is basically a variant of niche-protection: a class should mean a type of PC who has exclusive purview over one or more particular activities. Wizards for magic, Clerics for healing and turning undead (perhaps working better when exclusively able to do the latter), Fighters for fighting.

Except, er, members of any class can fight.

And, except Elves, Dwarves and Halflings, who could be described as being special cases were it not for the fact that this would make for just as many special cases as "standard" Basic D&D classes. (In fact, if you include the Fighter, it would make Wizards and Clerics the special cases in being classes-based-on-exclusive-abilities. Not to mention the fact that Elves also cast spells. But I've made my point, I think).

What other justifications might exist for creating a character class, then? One other argument standing a fighting chance might be that of fidelity to source material. There are wizards in fantasy literature, and there are warrior/fighter types - hence Wizards and Fighters. And there are Rangers (Aragorn), and there are also Elves and Dwarves, and Halflings. But Clerics? I'm also not convinced that there are many Druids appearing in fantasy fiction, at least those who are described as such, nor Paladins.

A better argument could simply be functionalism, which is somewhat related to the argument from niche-protection. Here, the idea would be that a class can exist where there is an actual need for it. You need a class to heal and turn undead. Hence Clerics. You need a class to be able to fight. Hence Fighters. You need a class to be able to cast spells. Hence Wizards. But don't Dwarves and Elves complicate both of the latter, creating functional redundancy with the existence of two classes doing more-or-less the same things?

The truth is, you are a fool if you think D&D is based on anything like rational or logical principles. D&D is resolutely non-Euclidean. Euclidean geometry is based on the notion that you can identify a small number of irrefutable apex principles from which all rules logically follow. This is not just an idea from the realm of mathematics: for somebody like Descartes or Rawls, it's also how you should organise anything, more or less - whether a role-playing game or an entire society or system of justice.

D&D is not like that. It's rules are a tangled mess with no coherent underlying principles: it is, in effect more of a result of Darwinian selection combined with inherent inertia on the part of players and rule-makers. Why does an iteration of D&D have the classes it does? Partly because it has always had them (Wizards, Clerics, Fighters). Partly because people clearly just want them (Rangers, Paladins, Druids). Partly because they are what works (you need there to be Fighters in a combat-heavy game; for some players, it's just easier to have a Thief class who disarms traps rather than having them puzzle them out for themselves). Partly because of fidelity to a shared notion of what fantasy fiction is (Elves, Dwarves). And partly because the creators of a new edition for obvious reasons are compelled not to stray too far from what has gone before.

It seems to me to be no accident that the more designers tend to try to start from apex principles and work from there, the less effective and interesting D&D becomes - 4th edition being the paradigm example. A slightly different way of putting all this is what Jeff Rients once said in what is probably still the single most intelligent blog post to ever emerge from what we now call the OSR - "every RPG theory fails the moment D&D comes into consideration".


  1. I think you're missing a mechanistic reason. Half a dozen people have come up with using something like reaction roll as a player mechanic (Logan Knight's Mystic, gloomtrain's Warlock, for example). Or dozens of different permutations on LotFP skill system as different classes. Or all of the GLOG wizards.

    Someone comes up with an interesting bit of mechanics, or reuses an old mechanic in a new way, and people look for ways to turn it into a character class.

    1. Yes, sure, but is that true of all character classes?

  2. I've disliked character classes since I started in RPGs as a nipper (with RuneQuest: even then, character classes seemed a D&D quaintism against which our childish minds rebelled).

    If RPGs want to emulate fantastical literature, then character classes are a hindrance. Conan is clearly a thief AND a fighter; Gandalf uses a sword; Elric and Jagreen Lern wear heavy armour, wield greatswords and battleaxes AND do magic; the Gray Mouser is a thief AND a swordsman AND a magic-user; Fafhrd is a fighter AND a thief. And so on.

    I was going to say, under your previous post, that your excellent cash-for-exploration system looked like a good argument for unclassed characters ("This is what you want to do; do it however you can.").

    But - and it's a big but - the one glorious thing about character classes is class-based damage. This always strikes me as something that makes perfect sense and gets round all sorts of problems with combat systems. If you use class-based damage, then that trained fighter with a knife is a bigger threat than that scholarly wizard's apprentice cowering behind a claymore. And that's just as it should be.

    Other than that, I think "equipment as character class" is a pretty good system. Plate armour and heavy weapons render you hard to kill and well equipped to kill others - but they're not really practical for exploring. So you might blast through the goblin guardrooms at the start of the complex, but climbing to their warrens or crossing an underground river can't be done with that gear.

    Similarly, magic is all very well until you have to abandon your spellbook or staff. I prefer equipment-based magic to all other kinds; there's more resonance in tarnhelms and thirsty swords and ancient grimoires and accursed rings than in Vancian memorisation.

    That leaves the default adventurer as a thief. But I think that's quite all right.

    And yet ... and yet ... class-based damage is such a great concept.

    Incidentally, while there aren't many paladins in fantasy literature, there is one big one in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. That book acts as the bridge from Charlemagne to Chainmail and beyond.

    1. I also think class-based systems do give players fun and interesting and easy ways to differentiate themselves.

  3. I apologize if my last post seemed reactionary; I didn't mean to come off as grognardish or dismissive. (Not that I see this blog post as some kind of bitter rebuttal or anything like that, just wanted to clarify that my criticism was well-intentioned)

    I generally agree with you, I think (F/MU/C/Th) are seen as the Core Classes in D&D mostly by tradition. However, they're so ingrained in modern fantasy culture that it's usually helpful to think of other classes as extensions or combinations of them because it's a fast, easy way to comprehend what they do in a general sense.

    It's fine for a class to step on some toes in terms of niche as long as it's still useful to the party at the end of the day. Hell, you can have two people playing the SAME class and it doesn't matter as long as they're still contributing to their success and survival (and as I understand it people doubled- or tripled-up on classes fairly often in the old days, they just reskinned each of their Fighters as a berzerker, ranger, pirate, etc.)

    Which leads me to my main concern regarding the Sage. As written it felt more passive than most other class I've seen. Mostly due to the apparent lack of combat abilities (either to physically harm or just incapacitate) and the incentive to observe/capture monsters rather than kill them. Conceptually the Sage could work but I think it's vital to make sure they can actually DO something besides sit on the sidelines making sketches and yelling at the fighter for using lethal force (AKA their job).

    1. No, not at all - this post was just spurred by me thinking about the comments, not as a reaction to them.

      Having Sages actually do something is a good point - hard to decide on what, though. Performing knowledge check rolls is the obvious idea but kind of boring.

    2. I can only speak of kung fu dates but I would say they can:

      Read scrolls and maybe create/copy one use scrolls. Perhaps of any level.

      Walk on surfaces that one shouldn't be able to walk upon. Less solidity as one raises in level.

      Be able to use swords or magic swords.

      I think that would suffice (along with some kind of knowledge shiz)

    3. 'Dates' should read 'Sages'...

  4. "Fighting-Man" is a Wargaming term used in relationship with either the original or alternate combat system and hit dice system, to describe characters by their use within these systems (fighters).

    Magic-User was added later as people (I think it was Rob Kuntz) insister on playing a Wizard - the class's name is in relationship to the original: there are Fighting-Men, and Magic-Users.

    Clerics are more like the later stuff like Druids, Paladins, Rangers: they're professions that are clearly established within the setting. The first Cleric is a Van Helsing-type, mace-using, armored knight of Law, pretty much superior to the Fighting-Man, mechanically (in OD&D) because it wasn't meant to be a part of a balanced trinity - it was just an addition from some dude.

    It's not that Fighters fight, Magic-Users magic, Clerics hunt undead. It's that Fighting-Men are the default "adventurer character" and everything else is just fancy rules for people who wanted to play as something else.

    1. I think that kind of supports my overall point!

  5. Of course, we actually create new classes because itsi *fun*.

    I think Against The Wicked City has the most interesting reboot of classes, fwiw - genuine high end specialisation for the five core classes, and then simple but funky chrone for the unlockable classes.

  6. Creativity craves constraint. You can make class #5, 6, 7 but that implies there are 4 to begin with.

    Not Eucledian but perhaps axiomatic.

    I don’t use a thief when I run. Not ever. You can’t bring your thief. But I use race as class. So for me there are six classes. And it feels perfectly d&d.

    But in my Port setting I’ve added class 7 (and I’m considering class 8.)

    Making new classes is fun but they do have to fit a particular role.

    On the other hand, if you make too many classes, you might as well dump the whole concept and go to a point buy system like GURPS or HERO. Totally okay too.

    D&D needs classes though. That’s a basic part of D.

  7. I feel like whenever this comes up it's worth pointing out how exactly the original classes came about.
    The Fighting-Man is your generic larger-than-life Hero figure - becoming the even moreso Superhero figure upon defeating enough enemies. This is literally the hero figure from a wargame, in this case Chainmail.
    The Magic-User, or Chainmail's Wizard, is a Gandalf who can inexplicably toss fireballs. Gygax also grafted on some Moorcock elemental-summoning as well as other stuff, but the Big Idea is that this is your generic magician unit.
    These are the original two, with Chainmail suggesting that Elric would fit as a special combined unit.

    Come OD&D, then:

    The Cleric is Van Helsing with some Sunday school miracles, created because the PC vampire Sir Fang was getting overpowered and the good guys needed a counterbalance.
    The Thief was created because someone wanted their dwarf to pick a lock with a knife, and later wanted to hire "dungeon specialists" to help with stuff. A telephone conversation with Gygax later, you get the Thief you're used to. (The original Thief, as seen in Warlock, is quite the different beast.)
    The Paladin is literally just Holger Carlsen from Three Hearts and Three Lions. It later got clerical spells in AD&D, but in its original form? Yeah, it's just the reincarnation of Ogier the Dane.
    The Assassin is an extended treatment of the NPC specialist Assassin from Vol.3, and is just a variant Thief with some flavor from the historical Order of Assassins.
    The Monk is, as I understand it, just Remo Williams from The Destroyer. Apparently some player wanted to play that, I dunno.
    The Druid is partly someone noticing that Neutral Clerics aren't really a thing in OD&D, partly an expanded version of the NPC Druid monster in Greyhawk, and mostly just based on historical stereotypes regarding Druids. I don't know if there's any specific source.
    The Ranger is literally just someone who wanted to play Aragorn and sent in a version to The Strategic Review, as far as I can tell.
    The Illusionist is seemingly just a more tricksy Magic-User (with Clerical spell progression) and I'm unsure where the author of the article got their inspiration.
    The Bard is a combination of various European traditions as laid out in the original article and seemingly just because they liked the idea.

    In any case, as you can clearly see there's a handful of broad types here:
    Expanding previous material (Assassins, Druids, kinda-sorta the Sage)
    Adapting media (Paladin, Monk, Ranger, kinda-sorta the Cleric)
    Generic units (Magic-User, Fighting-Man)
    Seeing a niche that needs filling (Cleric, Thief, Druid-ish, arguably Anti-Clerics, Bard perhaps)
    And then there's the Illusionist and Bard, which might just be someone seeing the possibilities and coming up with an idea. The Illusionist is a Magic-User with different, more focused spells, and the Bard is a jack-of-all-trades with a unique niche of song and knowledge.

    Also, note that OD&D had multiclassing for humans (and so Gandalf still gets a sword, even if Gygax' removed Arneson's magic-user swords) and that the Elven Magic-User/Fighters are probably just Elric.

    Sorry for the excessively long comment.

    1. What was the Warlock variant of the thief like?

    2. Think a Magic-User except the spell selections are permanent and can be used at-will. They also don't really scale, being e.g. 67% lockpicking at "spell" level 1 and 90% at 2nd.

      For some random examples of Thievish Abilities, the '78 version from The Complete Warlock has Detect Evil as a first-level ability, Map Memorizatoin (75%) as 2nd, Hide In Shadows (90%) as 3rd, Manipulate Small Objects With Feet (90%) at 4th, Read Lips at 5th, Code and Cipher Breaking at 6th... alongside a bunch of other abilities.

      For reference, the name-level Thief (8th, seemingly?) has 6/4/3/2/1 abilities of level 1-5.

      There's just a lot more to it, because Warlock was making their own somewhat bloated homebrew (that didn't need to worry about sales, page count, etc.) while Gygax just wrote up a literally two-page version of his Thief based on a phone conversation. The version in The Complete Warlock is seven pages of abilities in three columns of small text.

      I'm personally not all that fond of the Warlock version (it's a bit bloated and suffers from all the usual issues with skill systems), but it's definitely a very different class than what we got.

  8. Jesus, it's been THIRTEEN YEARS from Jeff's post :O