Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Classy, Old-School Debate...

Character classes.  Some love 'em, others hate 'em.  But most, I suspect, are willing to go either way with the understanding that each has something to offer.  I fall into the latter category.  Classes, where used, create a sense of mutual interdependence and contribute to a game's implied setting.  How's this a problem?  Skill-based systems, on the other hand, enable near-total customization, which is undeniably cool.  There's nothing not to love about this approach so go ahead, make that armor-wearing battlemage...

But when it comes to classes, is it possible that less is actually more?  I mean, how many character classes becomes too much?  I'm a little torn.

On the one hand, if I come across a really nice class with a good skill set and progression options, I'm definitely all in.  It's really, really hard to hate something that's cool on the fantastical face of it.  And who can blame me?  But the problem with some class-based systems is that the only way to add a new skill set is to introduce a new class; and let's face it, some new classes come across as bloated, redundant, and unnecessary...

Barbarians?  As a class?*  They're just fighters from a primitive, probably northern culture, complete with loincloths and outdoor survival skills.  Can't we just roll up a fighter and embellish the backstory?  Gygax, for all I loved Unearthed Arcana, built an overwrought class around his apparently fawning love of Conan.  Of course, I have a fawning love of rules-lite games, so others may disagree.  But do we really need to build a whole new class around the ability to take natural cover or climb trees? Seriously, do we? 

Or a class built around the lance (cavaliers) or acrobatics (the thief-acrobat)?

All of the above feel more like backstories to me.  Barbarians and cavaliers can exploit Unearthed Arcana's weapon specialization rules and leave the rest to the player and their negotiated character concept.  Can Borg climb that tree?  Why not?  He grew up in the Northern Wood, after all.  Just roll under dexterity to make it happen.  Ditto for cavaliers and lances.  Or charging on horseback, for that matter.  And really, how did thieves perform acrobatically before 1985?  Hint: they were quite acrobatic since 1975!

Feel free to disagree.  Trust me, I see both sides of the coin.  Barbarians and cavaliers behave differently in the game's implied setting.  But is something lost when there's increasingly less opportunity to proceed from a character's backstory?  And does a game suffer when each new class is just an excuse to introduce a few new skills when said system already got along fine without them?  It's definitely a "classy" debate for the ages...

*Yeah, yeah, Pits & Perils has a barbarian class, and I still have reservations!


  1. I have thought for a long time we were getting carried away with classes.

  2. I am of the opinion that four classes is enough as long as players have skill options. Barbarians are fighters, Bards and Thieves are both Rogues. A warlock a wizard and a sorcerer are all Magic-Users. But some players need detailed alternate and specific classes because they need the structure and cant or wont just use their imaginations to fill in a cool backstory of their own. I also think some Game Masters are too rigid so if a class has not been defined with all its skill progressions they wont let a player improvise it.

  3. figthers, mages and specialists (aka civilians).

    fighters fight better, mages cast spells and specialists mostly fill the role of "all the other people in the world". Me myself, in order to make them "balanced" let them produce things from their bag or claim to have done X thing in offscreen that is related to their in-game proffesion. Is a little storygamey, but works and helps the gm make nice plots.

    As in a doctor rolling to see if he healed a specific NPC in the past, and how did the cure went.

  4. My base rules anymore are B/X, so demihuman characters fall into Elf-as-class, and dwarf-as-class, etc. Given that non-humans take up a class-slot, I found it intuitive to develop a few more demihumans into playable classes ... ape, goblin, orc, ogre; and I developed a couple more human classes to round out the ability-score prime requisites, so "hardy yeoman" have CON as a requisite, "travelling men" have CHA as a requisite. So my game probably has "too many" classes, but I feel like the limitations/abilities I provided establish the archetypes decently well. Except that travelling-men aren't as talk-savvy as I hoped because my players aren't good at negotiation ...

  5. I tend to agree with OHR, and enjoyed creating characters based on the four archetypes, but I don't mind variant classes if they're simply done. I happen to like OHR's alternative classes, because they're still just the base class, but trading one advantage for another. The Barbarian trades armor for Berzerk at level 1; the Corsair is a thief that trades advancing in stealth for skill at arms, the contemplative trades clerical proficiency with arms for superior power over undead, and so on. In this way you can create all kinds of subtle variants on a base class.

  6. Isn't that were kits came from?

  7. I'm torn on this subject. On one hand, I really like OD&D and the three classes (thief ain't no class, in the classic game, everyone is a thief). Ob the other hand, I absolutely ADORE the crazy classes of Troika! and the GLOG. I guess it depends on my mood.