Race, Class and type in the evolution of D&D

Today’s familiar model of class in fantasy games works like this:

  • Pick a race, determining base characteristics and/or available classes.
  • Pick a class, determining the majority of your character’s abilities and advancement path.

That’s the model Gary Gygax created for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s. Although there have been variant models over the years, the race/class model has stayed dominant. We need look no farther than AD&D’s most popular successor, World of Warcraft, to see the influence.

The AD&D character model can be described thusly:

  • Character
    • Common attributes
    • Race
    • Class

However, not all earlier models of D&D character construction work that way, and looking at the evolution can be enlightening.

OD&D, Dwarves and Elves

The original D&D Men & Magic booklet describes characters principally in terms of their class. Taking a nonhuman race grants a couple of bonus abilities, but limits the character’s growth in levels. We might infer that this was meant to limit the playable lifespan of nonhuman characters. Take, for example, the dwarf:

Dwarves may opt only for the fighting class, and they may never progress beyond the 6th level (Myrmidon). Their advantages are:
  1. they have a high level of magic resistance, and they thus add four levels when rolling saving throws (a 6th level dwarf equals a 10th level human);
  2. they are the only characters ableto fully employ the +3 Magic War Hammer (explained in Volume II);
  3. they note slanting passages, traps, shifting walls and new construction in underground settings; and
  4. they are able to speak the languages of Gnomes, Kobolds and Goblins in addition to the usual tongues (see LANGUAGES in this Volume).

That’s pretty close to the AD&D race/class model: choosing dwarf limits your class selection to fighting man and provides some innate abilities. It’s easy to envision two discrete entities that make up the character: dwarf and fighting man. The elf, on the other hand, changes things around:

Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game.

In this case, being an elf becomes an exception to the entire class scheme. The elf can, between adventures, change class. They apparently also have separate levels in each class:

However, they may not progress beyond 4th level Fighting-Man (Hero) nor 8th level Magic-User (Warlock).

So, in this case, being an elf changes the structure of the character. An elf is built like this:

  • Character (Elf)
    • Class 1 (Fighter)
    • Class 2 (Magic User)

What we can see here is that race is really an entire set of optional rules applied to a character, not an element of a consistent structure. Those rules vary with the race chosen.

Greyhawk and multiple class composition

The first supplement to Dungeons & Dragons, Greyhawk, clarifies and rewrites large sections of the rules, including those on race. In Greyhawk, dwarves again follow a model that looks like AD&D. Player character dwarves are again limited in levels, and again restricted to the fighter class.

(As a side note, NPC dwarves may be clerics, but also have level limits and can only resurrect other dwarves.)

Elves… well, elves are complicated.

Elves of 17 or 18 strength can work up as high as 5th level (Swashbuckler) and 6th level (Myrmidon) fighters respectively. Elves with an 18 intelligence can work up to as high as 9th level (Sorcerer) magic-users. Among the elves there are clerical types as high as 6th level (Bishop) who interact only with their own kind. These clerics (fighter/magic-user/cleric types) have magical ability limited to the 6th level (Magician).

Elves, then, are fighter/magic users whose progress is dictated by ability scores. However, they may also add cleric to their portfolio. But what about elven thieves?

Elven thieves work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category. Thus, experience is always distributed proportionately in the three categories even when the elf can no longer gain additional levels in a given category.

So elves have the option of being pure thieves or tri-classed fighter/magic user/thieves or tri-classed fighter/magic user/clerics. The drawbacks are levels and substantial XP drain. Half-elves look more like Men & Magic elves, being hybrid fighters/magic users. No mention is made of changing from adventure to adventure.

Hobbits must choose to be either fighters or thieves, but as thieves they get extra bonuses. The famous “halfling thief” is born, taking his heritage from luminaries like Bilbo Baggins.

With Greyhawk, then, race affects the entire way that a character is composed. It affects how many classes a character can have, what those classes are, and, arguably, how quickly the character advances in each. It also represents the first emergence of choices in character creation besides race and class: an elf player must choose whether to include cleric or thief in his portfolio, and whether to focus exclusively on thieving.

What we’ve seen so far is that D&D characters which add a race can change their composition entirely. Class itself has remained a neatly contained concept. That is, until we meet the paladin.

Greyhawk and the Paladin

With a strength of 18, a fighter may choose to be a paladin. (Whether fighters who have multiple classes due to race may choose to be a paladin is unclear.) “Paladin status” confers a host of additional benefits, with one restriction: the character must be Lawful and act lawful.

The paladin is essentially a “fighter plus,” with healing abilities, extra sensory abilities, and better saving throws. Paladins thus become the only “status” add-on in original D&D. You can see the roots of the prestige class there, but it will be many years before the idea appears again.

Holmes doesn’t weigh in

The Holmes Basic version of D&D simplifies a lot of these rules, but stops short of creating a formal relationship between race and class, or defining race as a discrete rules construct.

In Holmes, a dwarf or a halfling must be a fighter… unless, as the text suggests, you buy AD&D. (The assumption of compatibility there is interesting, suggesting that AD&D really was the advanced game, rather than an entirely separate one.)

Holmes also hints at the tantalizing possibility of the sub-class, something basic D&D will flirt with in different contexts for the rest of its run.

Moldvay and race as class

Finally, after AD&D, the Moldvay basic set decided to simplify things by making races into classes. A dwarf, then, was a fighter-like class. An elf was a class that combined elements of the fighter and the magic user. A character is composed very simply:

  • Character
    • Common attributes
    • Race or class

This carries through subsequent versions of non-Advanced D&D, including my beloved Rules Cyclopedia.

Honestly, this is my favorite approach. The AD&D route leads to the boring mini-game of race/class optimization, or to making race an essentially meaningless choice. There’s also nothing preventing GMs or supplement authors from creating variant or sub-classes of the racial classes. Gygax himself did it with the dwarven craftsman before race/class or race-as-class, and TSR would turn the concept into a running feature in the Gazetteer series.

The video game heirs to the Moldvay model include Gauntlet and, more recently, Warhammer Online.

Next: Yeah, but how did Arduin do it?

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