Musings on Class

Druids? Or just grubby old men in blankets?
I have a fondness for AD&D, but one of the things that drove me away from it back in the distant past was the emphasis on restrictive and overly pernickety class definitions.

It seemed (and still seems) to me that it was just stupid that only a character with the Thief class could hide in shadows, and that only a Ranger could track things in the piney woods.

There are ways to play around this, of course, but as far as I can recall, the rules as written offer no really useful advice on the matter. It's just assumed that if you want to be able to find and/or disable traps, then you'll be a Thief. That's a Thief with a capital T.

It's a situation that came up for me not all that long ago, when somebody wanted to play a druid in my game. The difficulty was that the game, at that time, was taking place in a geographical region other than that were the Pseudo-Celts hold sway, so the player's character would be entirely divorced from their hierarchy and authority. It wouldn't matter much, day to day, but it would have been an issue when it came time to level up and what-not. That person ended up not playing in the campaign; I don't know if the social restrictions being placed on their character conception played a role or not, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The thing is, as I realised later (too late), they didn't really want to play a Celtic priest and law-giver. What they wanted to play was a crazy old nature-wizard who hung out in the forest and made friends with the little fluffy animals of the earth. I'd trapped myself, and them, into arbitrary restrictions based on preconceptions about a class title in the PHB, and there was really no need for a Druid (capital D) to be a druid at all. Or for a crazy old nature-wizard to be a capital-D Druid.

Names Are Important

When you name something, you immediately begin to define its parameters. That's a useful thing; it makes a thing immediately identifiable, and reduces ambiguity and confusion. If someone names an animal as a bird, then immediately the qualities of "bird-ness" jumps into our minds. It's probably going to have feathers and lay eggs. There's a good chance that it will be able to fly, but maybe it won't.

A name like "bird" is pretty general though; a kiwi and a condor, though both birds, have little in common. They both have feathers, but their feathers are, though fundamentally similar in structure, in actual use and appearance quite different. They both have a beak, but the condor's beak could never be mistaken for that of a kiwi, and they're used in fundamentally different fashion. Still, they are both birds.

I don't have a basic objection to the concept of character classes in roleplaying games; they provide useful archetypal starting points. However, where I do have a problem is when they become prescriptive and proscriptive. I don't want a player who wants to play a condor being forced to play a kiwi, just because a kiwi is what the author was thinking of when they wrote up the "Bird" class.

Class Names in Roleplaying Games

I believe, that for a class system to be useful in a RPG system, it needs to build from the very general to the particular, and the class names should reflect that progression. I also think that the level of particularity should be left entirely up to the individual player to decide.

A class separation I've seen somewhere (I don't recall where) that I rather like splits characters into one of just three fundamental types:

  • Magic Users — anyone whose focus is primarily on spell use, regardless of how that magic is defined. It would include both structured and free-form magicians (e.g. in AD&D, Wizards, Sorcerers, Clerics, Druids). The specific abilities and restrictions on the final character design are largely irrelevant except as special effects.
  • Fighters — anyone whose primary focus is physical combat. In AD&D, these would be the Fighters, Rangers, Paladins, and Monks, but those names might not be appropriate to the specific character conception, so let's not get hung up on them. It doesn't mean that the character can do nothing but fight, but fighting is definitely the most important part of the character conception.
  • Adventurers — pretty much everyone else. Jack-of-All-Trades characters like AD&D Thieves and Bards would be slotted in here, but again those names are less important than what the character can actually do. These would be your "Indiana Jones" characters.

So... What Then?

Re-jigging D&D to a more generic class system isn't entirely straightforward, but it's not impossible. The main difficulty is that we're dealing with a system that has been in print for a long time now, so its class system carries a lot of baggage.

Probably more useful than devoting vast effort to rewriting everything would be just to make a change of mind about how to manipulate the existing system. Think about what we want to do with a character first, and then see how the available classes can be used to achieve that end, rather than going about things the other way around. And, if the existing classes won't work for what we want to do, then CHANGE THEM. I promise you, nobody is going to lock you in prison for this.

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