Posts Tagged ‘character classes’

263 lines about 262 character classes

D&D Arcade Thief


On Facebook, Eddy Webb, Neal Stidham, Kenneth Brooks and I took to brainstorming new character classes. Here are the results, from Fraterminator to Entrepreneur Who Thinks Crowdfunding Is A Business Model.

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Swords Against Systems

Dragonsword of Lankhmar. Image from Demian's Gamebook Webpage.

(This one’s for Ethan, Justin, and Srith.)

Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are the definitive fantasy heroes. I love Conan and Bilbo, but my heart will always belong to two half-mad rogues fighting their way across the roofs of abandoned temples, stumbling their way down Cheap Street, or sailing to the edge of the world with a Mingol crew.

Leiber’s heroes are one of the main reasons I got into Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. My first D&D product was James Ward’s Dragonsword of Lankhmar gamebook set.

One of my best campaigns ever — the Adventures of Hackan and Marek — was a steampunk buddy fantasy directly inspired by the twain. We used the D&D 3rd Edition rules. Or parts of them, anyway.

Yet, no edition of D&D has modeled them particularly well. The builds presented in places like The Dragon and the various Lankhmar campaign settings required hacking the system. You needed some levels of thief, some levels of fighter, a sprinkling of Wizard. In fact, it’s the Mouser who suffered the worst1.

Trying to fit his smattering of magical training into the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons magic system — much less the class system — appears to have vexed many TSR authors over the years. The Mouser used magic from time to time, but it was almost always under Sheelba’s instructions, as in “The Lords of Quarmall.” He accumulated magic books and trinkets in “Adept’s Gambit,” but for the most part couldn’t use them — if, in fact, they did anything at all.

Arguably his most important spell, when he chooses the path of black magic in “The Unholy Grail,” is a spontaneous ritual. And for the rest of his life, he never does it again — perhaps with good reason. Skinning AD&D or my beloved Rules Cyclopedia for got awkward fast.

Once you spliced sheets for Fafhrd and the Mouser together, it was difficult to actually play them. They had to start at advanced levels to capture their knack for survival and allow them those extra classes. High levels plus multiple classes meant they couldn’t level up at the expected rate of D&D heroes.2

3rd Edition fixed some of this. While the rogue class was diluted by thieving abilities becoming skills anyone could take, the twain became relatively easy to model as fighters. The Mouser got along well enough with Use Magic Device, or a level or two of sorcerer.

Still, D&D characters started a bit flimsy for our boys, and there was a new problem: magic items. In the d20 system, balance between heroes and monsters relied on, among other things, those heroes being equipped with enchanted gear.

Which brings us to 4th Edition. The ups and downs of the game have been widely debated, but in my estimation, it’s the first D&D that can build Leiber’s rogues right, and have them play like you’d expect, from first level. So, let’s do it.


Fafhrd by David Petersen

Fafhrd by David Petersen

Fafhrd’s Character Sheet

Brash, red-haired, and secretly in love with civilization. Fafhrd is a fighter, drawing the attention and anger of his foes and then spilling their guts across the floor.

First things first: we’ll be using the Inherent Bonus option, so that both of our heroes gain bonuses as they level without magic weapons or gear. After all, they live by what steel they can steal.

I’m often annoyed by the “raging barbarian” archetype, since it doesn’t fit most of the great barbarians of fantasy literature very well. Even Thongor was fairly clever and cool-headed. When Fafhrd rages, though, as he does in in “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and Swords of Lankhmar, he absolutely cannot be ignored. GIVE ME THE JUG, indeed.

Thus, we choose the battlerager fighter build. Fafhrd’s sturdy, too — Death lends the Mouser some of his strength in “The Mouser Goes Below,” yet he’s still up for a romp with Frix and her airship’s entire crew. Battlerager Vigor, then, is appropriate, leveraging that tough Constitution into temporary hit points when up close to something that needs hitting.3 Battlerager Vigor also favors Fafhrd’s preference for light armor, rather than the heavy stuff used by more knightly PCs.

But wait, it gets better. Battlerager Vigor also gives Fafhrd a +2 damage bonus when using an axe… like that hand-axe he’s been known to throw into a fray. That mitigates 4th Edition‘s bias against fighters using thrown weapons, but it still doesn’t make it an ideal attack, just a good supplement. Perfect.

Leiber’s battles are swift-moving, swashbuckling affairs, and so too the heroes. Thus, we’ll pluck the Combat Agility class feature from Martial Power 2.

We’ll give him a background of Geography – Mountains, getting him the Athletics skill he demonstrates as a climber. He’s been known to talk big to his enemies, so he’ll train Intimidate. As discussed above, his favored abilities will be Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity. Even early in his career, he takes quickly to the streets of Lankhmar, adding the Streetwise skill. And if the Mouser should fall and start making death saves, Fafhrd will be there to back him up and haul him out of trouble — Heal.

Fortunately, we only have to worry about two feats. Improved Vigor makes battlerager powers more effective, and Don’t Count Me Out bumps up most of his saving throws — fairly important in a two-man party.

The power names speak for themselves: Brash Strike, Crushing Surge, Knee Breaker, and my favorite, Bell Ringer.4 Footwork Lure fits the swasbuckling, dirty-tricks fighting style we’re going after.

Equipment’s straightforward: Graywand’s a longsword, Heartseeker’s a dagger, and we add on that light axe to round things out.

The Gray Mouser

The Gray Mouser by David Petersen

The Gray Mouser by David Petersen

The Gray Mouser’s Character Sheet

Quick-witted, slippery, and not-so-secretly in love with himself… as well as any passing dark-haired girl. The Mouser is a rogue in name and class, as adept at slipping into palaces as at taunting and outmaneuvering his foemen.

The Mouser is a trickster rogue, and uses Cunning Sneak tactics, which let him stay hidden even while moving rapidly. His Rogue Weapon Talent makes Cat’s Claw deadlier than a dirk in the hands of a lesser man.

From his days as Mouse, the wizard’s apprentice, and his dark departure from that life in “The Unholy Grail,” the Mouser gains the Arcane Refugee background, and thus, the Arcana skill. That’ll give him good insight into magic and occult circumstances, as he demonstrates in “The Unholy Grail,” “Adept’s Gambit,” arguably Rime Isle and dubiously “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” Arcana will also help with those magical trinkets.

Abilities are simple: Dexterity to be nimble and Charisma for a tricky tongue. Skills are Thievery, Streetwise, Acrobatics, and Bluff — all staples of the Mouser’s adventures. He gets Perception, too — he’s sharp, even if he doesn’t act immediately on prickling suspicions.

Remember how I said Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t do the Mouser’s magic right? Well, 4th Edition has a ritual magic system, and the former apprentice can take the Ritual Caster feat in order to use them, using his Arcana skill. He also takes the Weapon Proficiency (Rapier) feat.

The Mouser’s Deft Strike lets him maneuver even as he lunges with Scalpel. We give him Sly Flourish for a core attack, and Riposte Strike for that fencing feel. Positioning Strike lets him move foes into position, and Trick Strike lets him maneuver an enemy around the battlefield for an entire encounter. Perfect for facing duelist rats in Lankhmar Below.

Now, we just need to add Scalpel (a rapier), Cat’s Claw (a dagger), and a few thieves’ tools.


Skill Challenges provide lots of opportunities for Fafhrd and the Mouser to work non-combat scenes together (as in the duel in “The Lords of Quarmall”). A liberal interpretation even allows them to combine their efforts unknowingly from different locations (Swords of Lankhmar, “The Lords of Quarmall,” “The Frost Monstreme” and more).

At level 1, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are ready to take on the challenges of “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” before traveling the breadth of Nehwon (and gaining some levels) in “The Circle Curse.”

Most of the twain’s foemen also model well in 4th Edition. Anyone interested in seeing me adapt “Ill Met in Lankhmar?” Or another of the twain’s adventures?

  1. As, I’m sure, he would be the first to point out.
  2. It’s become somewhat unpopular to use the term “hero” to describe sword and sorcery or old school D&D protagonists. Goodman Games’ otherwise very cool ad for Dungeon Crawl Classics is one example. But if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser aren’t heroes — and Big Damn ones, as the kids say — then I have no use for the word at all.
  3. Yes, I’d let a player use it to woo.
  4. And isn’t that a nice coincidence — after all, Fafhrd famously rang a bell to wake the dread Gods of Lankhmar in Swords of Lankhmar.

Class Construction in early Tunnels & Trolls

The early editions of Tunnels & Trolls are a good example of two class design schema:

  • Classes to fill holes
  • Classes on a spectrum

The two base classes are warrior and wizard. The warrior is a straightforward arms and armor type, noted in the game’s fifth-and-a-half edition as being based on Conan. Wizards have a mix of dungeon utility spells and combat spells.

T&T‘s mechanics are somewhat more regular than D&D‘s. “Take that you fiend!,” the equivalent of “Magic Missile,” simply allows the character to wield his intelligence as a weapon.

The spectrum element comes in when rogues are added to the basic mix. Like D&D‘s thieves, they appear to have been modeled on the Gray Mouser, but they are essentially fighters with who dabble in magic. They represent an in-between space between the warrior and wizard class, illustrating the spectrum principle.

Initially, rogues were required to choose to become either warriors or wizards as they leveled up… a choice the Mouser himself made at a young age. In practice, apparently, players tried to avoid making this choice, and thus T&T introduced a mirror-class: the warrior-wizard.

The warrior-wizard is interesting not only in that it completes the spectrum of character classes, but in that it requires the rolling of unusually high attributes at character creation. The combination of fighting, spellcasting, and attribute requirements is suggestive of D&D‘s paladin (though I doubt there’s a direct line of inspiration). As of T&T 5.5e, then, the classes form a sort of circle.

Unlike most fantasy games which followed, Tunnels & Trolls embraced Dungeons & Dragons‘ milieu of dungeon delving wholeheartedly, but casually rejected many of D&D‘s other additions to the fantasy genre, such as the thief-specialist and the fighting cleric. In other words, it absorbed D&D‘s gameplay innovations while ignoring its class design.

It’s particularly tantalizing to imagine a version of D&D with the more elegant class structure of T&T. Indeed, while the thief has only occasionally been imagined as a subclass of the fighter, reimagining the cleric as a variant wizard has a long heritage. The “White Mage” is a fixture of franchise like Final Fantasy, and is echoed in TSR’s mid-90s Lankhmar boxed set.

It’s almost criminal to go this far down into an article about Tunnels & Trolls without mentioning that the game’s far more lighthearted than D&D grew up to be. The spell names are, largely, cheap jokes. The tone of Liz Danforth’s 5.5e is tongue-in-cheek, and rather charming.

I was raised on two kinds of fantasy gaming. The first were the Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games, which were full of puns and jokes. Although the humor was  of a slightly different breed, they fit well with my readings of Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, as well as Robert Aspirin, J. R. R. Tolkien1, and, dare I say it, Piers Anthony.

The second were the Dungeons & Dragons variants and The Lord of the Rings, plus the Elric books. Though all three have more humor than they’re generally given credit for, they are by comparison dreadfully serious. I think Aaron Allston makes it through the Rules Cyclopedia without so much as an ironic aside. The third edition of Dungeons & Dragons admonishes (though not absolutely) against the use of cheap gags in your characters or campaign.

At this stage of my life, I appreciate the humorous side of fantasy gaming more. I’m compelled by Conan’s rarely-detailed “gigantic mirths,” and the heroic laughter of Fafhrd and the Mouser in “Adept’s Gambit.”2 I’m attracted by the absurdity of creations like the rust monster and the beholder. That makes a review of Tunnels & Trolls rather a welcome evening chore.

  1. Yes, I mean The Hobbit.
  2. Which, it turns out, is of rather cosmic significance.

The First Estate

“Vatican II led to many changes in the Catholic Church, notable ones being the use of mother-tongues – instead of Latin – for parts of the mass, the empowerment of the laity, and allowing priests to use bladed weapons in combat.”

Critical Miss #8

I suppose I’d know who the cleric was, if I’d started with her. I understand girls you can’t save, no matter what god they work for.

Aleena, D&D Red Box

You couldn't save her. Just like all the others, a million little boys who couldn't. Forgive yourself.

As it happens, though, I didn’t. I started here.

Ultima 3: Exodus Character Creation

Ultima 3: Exodus Character Creation

Actually, let’s zoom in a bit…

Ultima 3: Exodus Cleric

Ultima 3: Exodus Cleric

There. See. Now, what I knew in… 1988… sounds right… was that a cleric was another word for priest, and a priest was someone who worked for God.

Just one problem. Fantasy didn’t have God. Oh, sure, there was a cross on Link’s shield, but there’d been one on He-Man’s armor, too, hadn’t there? Just a device, a heraldic symbol.

Now, in 1989, someone conveniently introduced me to the pagan gods1, and they found their way right into my world of magic and elves2. My carefully envisioned narrative-driven side-scroller had elves and Greek gods.

But those gods didn’t have priests, did they? I mean, you read the Bible, there are priests all over the place, and usually mucking things up. Got Jesus hanged, I’d been told, and that’s why we couldn’t let the Church have undue influence on the state.3 But the Greek myths, nooo… people prayed, maybe there were some burnt offerings, but pagan gods didn’t need priests. They did things themselves.4

Yet, Ultima had priests. Briefly. I was very glad when the next Ultima came around and got that fixed. Shrines, virtues, no gods. Very sensible, and I could continue being a bold maverick having Zeus meet the elves. I’d played Hero’s Quest by now, too, and read Lloyd Alexander, and while there were certainly hints of greater supernatural forces5, there was hardly a celestial hierarchy.

Even King Arthur, well, God occasionally popped up in his life, but no priests. I’m not sure what they were all doing at the time, but he had a proper wizard to cast his spells for him, just like Pharoah had had.6 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had gods, and Lankhmar had a whole street devoted to them, but both the priests and the gods were more than a little silly.

The holes filled, gradually — I was a weird kid, but hardly a dumb one, but my fantasy worlds never really had need of magic priests, even as they developed pantheons of their own. Even reading Moorcock and Lewis, the gods all took care of their own business.

The idea that a whole class of adventurer might need to be priestly never really occurred to me until I got my hands on the Rules Cyclopedia. Even since then, I’ve never been sure why clerics weren’t just a sort of mage, and seeing fantasy through the eyes of D&D hasn’t really helped that at all. In gaming, I came to understand, clerics were somewhere between fighters and wizards… but so were elves, and for that matter, there were paladins. And some paladins had gods, too.7

But in the better sort of fantasy video games, there never were priests. The Ultimas were neatly atheistic, and when they got around to coping with gods, in Pagan, it was in a very Star Trek way. Gods, fantasy said to me, better off without ‘em, and their priests are all liars and idiots and just occasionally Theleb Kaarna.

D&D Arcade Cleric

Badasses, like this guy.

Yet, for some reason, there was always someone who wanted to play one in my games. Sometimes, they weren’t very serious — I’d heard of Bob, the God of Donkeys out there in another campaign. But all too often, they were devout worshipers of gods who never seemed good for anything except a daily spell allotment. Sometimes they were badasses.

D&D Arcade Thief

And he hung out with this hottie. Just saying.

And there seemed to be roleplaying games that shared my indifference. Tunnels & Trolls had no clerics, and Stormbringer certainly didn’t go out of its way to suggest the idea.8

The first time I ever encountered a proper cleric adventurer was in college, as it turned out. Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish officer who got lost in Florida, made his way to Mexico casting out demons and disease in the name of God, gaining and losing fellow soldiers and native adventurers along the way. And around that point, through that lens, the cleric started making sense to me.

The cleric? He’s Moses. He’s Samuel9. He’s Martin de Porres. She’s Joan of Arc.

And don’t worry. Someday Aleena will come back.10


  1. The Greek ones, and boy did that set me up for some issues on down the line.
  2. Where’d the elves come from? Not sure. I’d only read The Hobbit at that point, so elves should have been assholes. I think I picked up from a friend that link and Zelda were elves on account of the ears, so elves were cool.
  3. Got that from my grandparents. Very good Catholics and fearlessly determined liberals. Did I mention my upbringing was weird.
  4. Well, apart from that Trojan War mess.
  5. Who was Baba Yaga? And Arawn, he was certainly a suspicious character.
  6. There’s that Bible again. Colored my whole view of the genre.
  7. Or, in dear old Paksenarrion’s case, a saint.
  8. Notably, it suggested priests got their magic powers by sorcery, same as everyone else.
  9. David was a rogue. Don’t let the instrument fool you, he was just playing at multi-classing while waiting for the next big score.
  10. Just don’t be surprised if she has two kids and is married to some 3rd level IT Expert AND DOESN’T LISTEN TO ANY MUSIC THAT’S COOL.

Another (back)stab at a thief

The Thief

The Thief

The Thief, by Max Brooks

The thief is centered, well-meaning, and devoted to the common good, spreading enlightenment by the lightening of purses. Not without commercial skills, however, the thief has a nose for gold and a touch to match.

Where other adventurers laugh in the face of danger, the thief smiles at the back of danger’s head, then cracks it with a blackjack.
Prime Attribute: Dexterity, 13+ (5% experience)
Hit Points: Constitution + ((1d6 + 1)/level)
Attack Modifier: -1

Armor/Shield: The thief may wear any armor or shield, particularly when trying to get out of town disguised as the fighter. To use thief abilities, however, a thief must be wearing armor no heavier than leather.

Weapons: Thieves may use any weapon, but use of their thieving abilities restricts them to one-handed weapons (including one in each hand) or a short bow.
Swashbuckler: So long as the thief is wearing ‘light’ armor (no heavier than leather), is not using a shield, and is not using a large weapon, the thief gains a -2 bonus to AC.  Also, when using two weapons the thief gains a +2 to hit.

Second Chance: When an ordinary adventurer would fail at any of the following activities, the thief may make a saving throw roll with a +2 bonus to succeed.

  • Avoiding traps
  • Climbing
  • Running across difficult terrain, like broken ground or rooftops
Surprise Attack: Most characters surprise on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6. If this fails, the thief may make a saving throw to surprise anyway. In addition, any successful attack the thief makes during the surprise round automatically inflicts a critical hit. This is known to hurt.
Find Treasure: On a roll of 1-2 on 1d6, the thief can find a hidden cache of treasure.

The Elegance of Arduin

As a followup to yesterday’s post on race and class

The Arduin Grimoire is a series of three books functioning primarily as a supplement to 1974 Dungeons & Dragons. Although it makes some noises about being a complete roleplaying game, it’s really not playable unless you at least understand the concepts of D&D. A few ideas from The Dragon also seem to have made their way in.

Read today, Arduin‘s a lot like reading an old school D&D blog, or Philotomy’s D&D musings… thirty years after the fact. There are a lot of strange little insights into the way David Hargrave and his friends played D&D, as well as unique wonders like the infamous Arduin critical tables.

The reason I bring up Arduin, though, is that it takes an elegant and unique approach to race and class. In Arduin, the main component of a race is a set of unique saving throws. (Human saving throws are set by class.)

Since Arduin follows the classic Dungeons & Dragons divide of using AC to defend against martial threats and saving throws to defend against magical ones, that means that race is principally a matter of how dangerous certain types of magic are.

D&D’s saving throw matrices generally follow a simple better or worse pattern, with a character having strong, medium or weak saves. This is, doubtless, why Swords & Wizardry gives each class only a single saving throw number.

Arduin gets a little clever with that, though. For example, dwarves are better at resisting paralysis than elves, but elves are better at resisting poison. There’s a real sense of variation in the Arduin scheme, rather than a feeling of “I’m X, so my saves suck.”

I find this system simultaneously elegant and varied. I probably won’t use the Arduin saves for the next D&D game I’m planning, since simplicity will be key there, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind for future gaming and design.

Next: Tunnels & Trolls

Akrasia’s Thief

Akrasia posted a variant thief class that I really like. I’m working on a mini-campaign for which I’m looking at implementing a variant thief class, and Akrasia’s is a front-runner.

I’m also working on posts regarding the history of the thief in literature and gaming, and seeing multiple mechanical interpretations for multiple systems is very valuable.

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?

What makes a core class?

I often insist on the fighter, magic user and thief as the core classes of Dungeons & Dragons, since each of them has a unique mechanical subsystem. It’s been pointed out to me, though, that the cleric has his own subsystem, too: turning.

So I think it’s reasonable to define a core class, in non-Advanced D&D, as a character type which owns a unique subsystem. That gives you the core four. It’s also a rather elegant guideline for when to create new core classes, versus when you should extend a previous class.

As I develop my all-new Sorcerer class (details soon), I’ll be keeping that in mind.

And wait ’til you see where that ties into Vampire.

The Construction of Character Classes

Premise: a character class provides players with an interface to the game world and a place for their characters within it. (See yesterday’s post on classes.)

There are a couple of major schema for constructing character classes. Most games use more than one.

Class by Combat Role

You separate characters by how they fight. This is the simplest distinction between Dungeons & Dragons‘ fighting men and magic users, and it goes back to Chainmail. The fighter/wizard divide (or lack thereof) is arguably the definitive problem in character class design.

Basically, in Chainmail, there were guys who fought other guys with swords and polearms. Then Gygax added wizards, who functioned as artillery. So, going into Dave Arneson’s original game, you had these two basic types of units.

In 1974 D&D, they were represented by two overlapping but distinct systems: combat and magic.

In tabletop games, D&D 4e is probably the most rigorous example of this approach. Not only is every class and monster defined by a combat role, but those roles are transparently explained to the players right there in the rulebook.

Virtually every Everquest-descended MMO is built like this. (The extent to which Everquest itself follows this model is a longer discussion.) The most transparent about it is probably City of Heroes, which marries Everquest combat roles to character concepts while staying fairly abstract about both.

This is a somewhat circular methodology, though. Since D&D, it’s become imperative to have certain classes if you’re going to do a class-based fantasy game. And if you’re going to have combat, there’s a strong push to give each class a unique place in combat.

(That last bit’s especially true of MMOs, where problem solving comes down to money or combat, no matter what style the game adopts otherwise. )

Classes by Concept

You have a fictional persona in mind, so you make a class for it. By volume, this is probably the biggest driver in class design.

D&D’s original classes (fighting man, magic user, cleric) were driven by combat role and need. The first supplementary class,* the thief, appears to be driven more by concept.

The thief appears to be loosely modeled on characters like Fafhrd, the Mouser, and maybe Bilbo Baggins. (Gygax didn’t like Tolkien all that much, but that didn’t stop him from using Middle Earth stuff where he liked it or thought it would be commercial.)

He has the skills one would guess a thief might need, as well as one which seems rather particularly borrowed from the Mouser: the ability to use magic scrolls.** In the process, he introduces a third system to D&D. Mechanics supporting fiction, we are go.

Classes to Fill Holes

Your system’s missing something, so you make a class to fix it. D&D’s cleric is the classic example of a class created to fill a hole in a game or campaign. Dave Arneson had one player playing a vampire. As Mike Mornard recounts:

Well, after a time, nobody could touch Sir Fang. Yes, that was his name.

To fix the threatened end of the game they came up with a character that was, at first, a ‘vampire hunter’. Peter Cushing in the same films.

As the rough specs were drawn up, comments about the need for healing and for curing disease came up.

This is pretty much always a supplement for another design scheme, and many games that start strictly adhering to another approach evolve in this direction over time.

Classes as a Template Layer

Your system operates on a point-buy or other system, but classes ease new users into creating a character.

D&D 3.5 almost works this way. One of my favorite video games of all time, Hero’s Quest/Quest for Glory I, works this way. Ultima Online‘s current character generation process works this way.

Vampire: The Masquerade‘s clans were intended to operate this way, but quickly became vital fictional concepts in and of themselves. By the end of the Revised Masquerade line, fictional concept drove class design completely. How that played into the approach taken to Vampire: The Requiem, and how the vision changed over the course of that line, is the subject for another article.

Classes on a Spectrum

You have certain “pure” mechanical concepts (melee, magic, stealth) with classes that represent them (fighter, mage, thief) and then a series of classes which exist between those.

This is the fighter-cleric-mage spectrum of the original D&D. The Mass Effect series is also built this way, and quite elegantly. Tunnels & Trolls primarily follows this method, though it’s also evolved quite a bit over the years.

Classes by Convergence

Your game has no formal classes, but character optimization favors a small number of builds. You probably lie awake at night worrying about tank mages. Later designs building on the same system end up centering around these builds more than the original open, underlying system (usually based on skills).

Ultima Online is the poster child for this. UO wasn’t designed for classes, but they perpetually emerged from each revision of the skill system.

GURPS is often played this way, though I’d be a little afraid to say so on a message board.

Exalted looks like it’s a class-by-concept scheme, with all of the D&D standards scaled up, but many people play it as a convergence scheme, and that’s the current approach to its mechanical design.


* Class was a slippery concept in 1975, something I’ll treat in the future. But by the definitions later games would extrapolate from D&D, Greyhawk D&D has four classes.

** This seems to me to be directly from “The Lords of Quarmall“.