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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Compass Rose of Character Classes

So I've been thinking a lot about D&D lately, mainly because most of my friends have stopped playing City of Heroes (either due to boredom or summer) and so I've been having a torrid affair with Dungeons & Dragons Online. Playing DDO has reminded me of one of the many things which bug me about D&D, which is:

There are too damn many character classes.

Now, let me say first that I like choice in character generation. Usually more choices = better. But the problem here is that with D&D, you play with fantasy archetypes that are almost Jungian in nature (perhaps Gygaxian is a better choice.) By introducing more classes, you begin to dilute what I feel is the essential purity of the originals.

For example, the Barbarian. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a barbarian in D&D, of course, as Robert E. Howard has taught us. But does the barbarian truly need its own class? Really, isn't the barbarian just a half-naked fighter with excessive hit points and who froths at the mouth? Making Rage a fighter feat would do just as well, I feel.

And don't get me started on the Monk and how his Shaolin antics have no place in my Western European-themed game. This was one of the things 2nd Edition got right.

To help my argument, I present to you the Compass Rose of Character Classes. First we begin with the quartet every grognard knows by heart (if perhaps by different names) aligned with the cardinal directions:
FIGHTER
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CLERIC ------------------+------------------ ROGUE
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WIZARD
Each class occupies its own niche of Gygaxian Archetypal uniqueness. Each has weaknesses which are bolstered by its "opposing" class (smart, weak wizard complements strong, dumb fighter, etc) and each brings a valued skillset to the table (divine magic, arcane magic, stealthiness, and hitting things really well) which is unmatched by the other classes.

All this is well and good. Now let's try to add some other classes and see where they fit. (I apologize for my crappy formatting; apparently blogger hates spaces, even when I use the HTML code for them.)
FIGHTER
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PALADIN | RANGER
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CLERIC ---------------BARD--------------- ROGUE
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WIZARD
The Bard fits easily, as he is a generalist and possesses elements of the other four: some arcane, some buffing/healing, some sneaking, and half-decent in combat with the right armor and skill feats (specifically, Elven Chain and Weapon Finesse). The Paladin (Holy Warrior) logically occupies a space between Fighter and Cleric; likewise the Ranger (Stealthy Warrior) is midway between Fighter and Rogue. So far, so good, but this is where things get tricky, because where are the Cleric/Wizard and Rogue/Wizard analogues? Furthermore, where do the Sorceror and the Druid fit into all of this mess?

First, let's fill in the holes in our Compass Rose by leaving the Player's Handbook and turning to the supplemental stuff, such as the Complete series.
FIGHTER
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PALADIN | RANGER
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CLERIC ---------------BARD--------------- ROGUE
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  WARLOCK | SPELLTHIEF
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WIZARD
The Spellthief, from Complete Adventurer, is a Rogue who can steal (and eventually use stolen) magic when he performs a successful sneak attack on a caster, so this is fairly obvious. I do confess that the Warlock is a stretch, and for that I apologize; there is no non-prestige class which melds Divine and Arcane magic seamlessly (unless you count Bard, above). But I feel that if you ignore mechanics and look at the theme of the Warlock -- "Wielder of eldritch energies as a result of a dark pact or infernal parentage" -- then the fit becomes more apparent, at least to me. I fully expect arguments about this; c'est la vie.

Now we return to the Druid and the others, and I detect a wilderness theme occurring. Therefore I make the following placements:
(Barbarian)
FIGHTER
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PALADIN | RANGER
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(Druid) CLERIC -----------BARD------------ ROGUE (Scout)
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  WARLOCK | SPELLTHIEF
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WIZARD
(Sorceror)
Except the Sorceror doesn't quite fit, now does it? In order to fit the wilderness-variant theme we have going here, we need something that's more than a Wizard without a spell book. What we actually need here is a Witch of kind -- herbalist, enchanter, and transmogrifier of legends and fairy tales -- and whose nomenclature helps anchor the Warlock in place semantically. What's rather strange here is that in many ways, the Druid fits this mold nicely: shapeshifting, animal companions, the use of holly and mistletoe, etc. I suppose it could be argued that the Spirit Shaman from Complete Divine fits somewhere in there, perhaps in the spot once occupied by the Druid-now-Witch.

Now the frustration really sets in. We've filled up the prime directions/archetypes, along with the in-between versions. So where do the others fit? Is the Swashbuckler somewhere between Fighter and Ranger? Is the Knight more Fighter than the Fighter? Isn't the Beguiler basically an Illusionist variant of the Bard? Where exactly in all this mess does the Dragon Shaman fit?

And then there are the Fighter/Wizard analogues, of which D&D has at least three: the Warmage, the Hexblade, and the Duskblade. By this point I, who desire an orderly game universe, am becoming increasingly frustrated (and Eris is no doubt laughing her ass off as I try to impose Aneristic tendencies on my own pocket universe, probably because she wanted to play a Monk).

My point -- assuming I still have one by now, which is arguable -- is this: Choice is good, but too many choices leads to confusion. Call it Syndrome's Law: When everyone is X, no one is. The entire purpose of classes in D&D, at least to my understanding, is to provide a discrete framework where everyone knows what their role in the party is and what they bring to the table. With too few classes, you end up with stereotyping, but too many results in such muddying of roles that you might as well drop classes altogether and play an entirely skill-based game. (Which would be interesting, true, but there would be hue and cry that it isn't "really" D&D any more.) Personally, I favor the setup found in figure 2, as it has the "Goldilocks zone" of distinction plus playability. Also, if you want to play a Fighter/Wizard, you'd better multiclass.

So in summary: have some class, but not too much. Some distinction of roles is good, or else when the wind is north by northwest, you'll not know a hawk from a handsaw, or a fighter from a rogue.

3 comments:

  1. Honestly. I think that D&D online have made a good approach to all of this (and sort of simplifying DDOs bewildering array of classes and prestige classes).

    Unlike the P&P game DDO has Enhancement points that you gain and spend over the levels.
    While enhancement points does lead to certain balance issues (especially at higher levels) they do provide a way of customizing your initial class (even if it's a class that doesn't have access to a whole lot of feats).
    At level 6 there are a number of "Prestige class" specializations available to people who spent at least part of their feats&Enhancement points on a couple of different perquisites.
    So lots of these different "weird classes" show up instead as refinements of the original classes.
    AFAIK They're only going to add Druid on top of the classes already in the game.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I try to play well rounded characters in my RPG's and I always feel like the basic classes limit me a bit. Mainly because I want a mechanical connection to my character's idiosyncracies.

    To that end, I love hybridized classes and (Erin strike me dead) the hybrids in 4e strike at the core of what I love about them. It's like playing with legos.

    "Oh look, I like this class feature, but I don't like this power at level 7, I'll pick and choose, chinese menu style!"

    ReplyDelete
  3. I actually think the Factotum belongs on there with the Bard. I personally prefer it as a jack-of-all-trades character class. I never much liked the Performing aspects of the Bard.

    ReplyDelete

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