Monday, October 11, 2010

Three Base Classes Plus A Specialty

The debate over the number of Classes in Ye Auld Game goes back at least as far as Supplement I: Greyhawk, which saw the introduction of two new Classes: the ever-lovin’ Thief and the ever-righteous Paladin.  For all I know, however, there may have been debate before that; one of those ludo-archaeologists like James M ought to try and check on that.  I have to assume that there were people in 1975 who looked at Greyhawk and said, “Five Classes? Geez, I can’t take this rules-bloat!”.

Okay, maybe not.  But still, the debate, while it has waxed and waned over the years has never gone away.  At it’s simplest, the question is, “How many Classes do you need?”  But, probing a bit into the consequences of the answer, we see that the real question is, “What does a Class really represent?”

We see that evolving debate play out over the first three supplements to the Little Brown Books.  I already mentioned the introduction of the Thief and Paladin in 1975’s Greyhawk; that same year brought us Supplement II: Blackmoor with two more Classes: the Monk and the Assassin.  Finally, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry saw the last official Class for original D&D, the Druid.  In two more years, we would get the Player’s Handbook for Advanced D&D, which would give us the Ranger, the Illusionist, and surely the weirdest-arsed class ever produced, the 1st edition Bard.   It just goes on from there, and that’s not counting the innumerable unofficial Classes that appeared in the pages of the Dragon, such the Ninja and the Bounty Hunter.

Obviously, the tendency was to accumulate more Classes as time went by.  Although I’m sure the real reason for this was to bring new, shiny, and cool stuff into the game, the (probably unintentional) consequence was to define the idea of Class much more narrowly than before. Classes began to more and more overlap with the idea of “Profession” and sometimes even “Background” (aka the Barbarian).  So even though the Fighter, the Cavalier, and Barbarian are all basically guys who fight, they all end up as separate Classes due to very slight distinctions which would have been left mechanically undefined in the fruitful void in the early iterations of the game.

So much for the obvious history lesson.  I felt I needed that little recap to get to the real subject of the post.  In it’s pairing back down of rules, the OSR has generally leaned toward the broader idea of Class, which means fewer Classes.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think anybody has felt the need to retro-clone the Cavalier.  I should hope not.

I lean toward the extreme end of this trend.  Adhering to the credo of “Kill the Cleric, Keep the Thief”, I pretty much use what I think of as the three base Classes: Fighting-Man, Wizard, and Thief (howsoever you name them). In Under the Dying Sun, I call them Slayer, Survivor ,and Sorcerer, and have tried to be very explicit about the broadness of their meaning.  I’ll admit that I am using the idea of the Cleric in my Onderland Campaign (recoloured as the Champion), only because I hadn’t reached my stage of current thinking when I began it. I wouldn’t allow it now.

All that said, I too feel the allure of the additional Class.  Not so much for the “shiny and new”, but because there are certain Classes which seem to evoke the archetypal feel that a Class should have.  Although I feel the Cleric is irrelevant, I still think the idea of the Ranger is cool.   I played a Ranger the first time I ever ran through B2 and played his spiritual heir in my longest running campaign.  But really, a Ranger is just a Fighter with some woodcraft. Maybe not in AD&D, where he got some of the weirdest-arsed abilities this side of…well, the Bard, but still, you know what I mean.

I’ve been playing with the idea of staying with three Classes, but adding Specialties (not wedded to the name). The spur to this thought was talking with Trey at the Sorcerer’s Skull about Backgrounds in his City setting.  But I should note that I am explicitly not thinking of Profession or Background.   I am actually thinking of a little something from 2nd Edition.

Yes, yes, pick up your jaw.   I know that 2nd edition is generally vilified in the Old-School circles. I think it had a lot of dreck myself.  But, in some ways, the worst thing about 2nd Edition was a pattern of good ideas poorly implemented.  Look at pretty much anything published for Dark Sun; maybe the one with the surfer dudes.  Yeah.

One of the good ideas poorly implemented were "Kits". Kits were supposed to be a little something that you layered onto Class to give a little distinction.  The Al-Qadim setting actually did them pretty well.  A Fighter could take the Askar kit and be a warrior of the peasants or he could take the Mameluke kit and be a slave raised to be a perfect soldier.  A Rogue could take such diverse kits as Merchant, Holy Slayer, or (my favourite) Barber.  The idea was that to give some additional flavour and, perhaps, a little mechanical tweak or two. The Askar, maybe the best example, gets a benefit to Reaction rolls from people from his town.

Now, the whole Kit idea ended up being a disaster.  TSR began to put out entire books filled with Kits and they became so littered with rules-changes that you might as well have saved yourself the trouble and just made a new Class.  But the idea, I’ll contend, had merit and that’s what I’m thinking off.

At first, I was trying to come up with Specialties that could be used by any Class.   For example, one called “Woodcraft”.  If a Fighter took the Woodcraft Specialty, you’d have a Ranger; a Thief would give us a Scout, and a Wizard would give us a Druid.  Each Specialty would give a little something - in this case, hunting and tracking - and then maybe give each particular Class something else. Maybe the Ranger gets a the traditional Combat Bonus (though I think versus animals as suggested here, rather than against humanoids), while the Scout gets maybe the Armour Class bonus of the B/X Halfling or maybe a slight bonus when using the short-bow on horse-back (for that Mongol-warrior thing).  Druids? Um, something.

The more I work on it, though, I’m wondering if that’s too limiting.  I’m not sure. Anyway, I’ll probably post some sketchy, initial ideas soon.


  1. I've actually thought about kits a lot in my further musings on backgrounds/professions, too. I just wasn't brave enough to use the term. ;)

  2. Allow me to place my head in the lion's mouth for you. :)

  3. I've had similar thoughts, truthfully, but I have decided not to codify this sort of thing. The temptation looms large, though.