There have been three or four threads concerning ‘Class’ on the WotC Forums that I’ve wanted to reply to but have just been too busy. I think it’s a vitally important aspect of the game, and the fact that there’s no agreed upon definitions even for this one fundamental point should be all the proof we need that no one game can ever work for everyone. What follows is bits and pieces of my theory discussion on ‘Class’ from our version of the game, with a closing to directly address a few things about the 5th edition discussion. I think a lot of it applies.
Most would agree that D&D was created as a ‘Class based’ game. Now, we could argue about how since it was among the first roleplaying games and there really wasn’t a broad body of theory out there defining different types (class based, skill based, hybrids, etc) it would be unfair to categorize it. However, by our modern definitions the original couple versions of the game were more or less ‘class based’. So what is that exactly?
The easiest way to envision early D&D is to think of miniature war gaming simplified to something like the game Stratego or Chess. Each side is fielding armies of different types of pieces. The different pieces have different abilities within the game. Each unique set of abilities is therefore a ‘Class’ of piece. D&D evolved from games and hobbies with this mindset, so it retained a lot of the same preconceptions. This idea that
A) Classes are defined by a ‘Uniqueness’ of abilities
is generally what is meant today by a ‘Class based’ game. We could argue about rather or not ‘Class based’ games are even a good thing, but that’s a whole different argument.
We originally had Fighting Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics (Thieves were added later). If we explore this idea of Class defined by Uniqueness we run into our first problem. While Fighting Men fight with weapons and armor, all the classes can use some sort of weapon and most can wear some sorts of armor. You can say Fighting Men are better at it than the others and have more choices, but that seems a weak basis for a defining Class element. We also can’t say that Magic-Users are their own class because they cast spells. After all, Clerics can cast spells too. We’ve already lost our operating definition of Class and we’re only in the first ever version of the game. So what is it that defines these classes?
At this stage of development we have three other logical options, and one that requires a leap:
B) Classes are defined by their primary Power Source. Fighters get power from physical weapons and armor, Clerics from divine belief, and Magic-Users from arcane study.
C) Classes are defined by their primary Attribute. Fighters use brute strength, Clerics use the wisdom of faith, and Magic-Users use their intelligence for knowledge.
D) Classes are defined by their primary Role. Fighters tank, Clerics assist, and Magic-Users provide utility including nukes.
or to a lesser degree,
E) Classes are defined by their member’s Affiliations. Fighters hang with soldiers and in armies, Clerics hang with the people and in churches, and Magic-Users hang with academics and in schools/labs.
I don’t think there is a right answer because the game seems to embrace each of these in different ways. The Power Source idea is great, but gets ruined as soon as the game evolves to Basic and AD&D and adds other classes (even just the Thief). The Ability idea can absorb the idea of Thief well enough, but the other classes (and in Basic, races) destroy the argument. Role makes the most sense of the three honestly, but it receives the least attention until 4th Edition. Even then we end up with multiple classes in each Role, so we can’t use it as a defining element. Affiliations aren’t used openly too much, but they are hinted at fairly strongly in later editions (level titles, backgrounds, training requirements, etc) and don’t suffer many of the negatives associated with the other options. However, they’re more often used in other game systems (like White Wolf and Warhammer). Really, while all have strengths none seem to work as well as simple Uniqueness as the basis for what makes a class. We therefore reach one of two conclusions:
1) Class really is all about one of the five definitions above, it’s just that being the first big game to explore the idea D&D didn’t do it very well.
2) In D&D Class is some kind of artistic hybrid of all 5 definitions, rather than a scientific singular mechanic.
This illustrates why I believe the game has had so many issues over the years. Even in the first version there was no THEORY underlying the game mechanics. By not defining Class sufficiently they started a 30 year cycle of guessing, reinterpretation, and change that splintered the player base. IF they had established the theory right away, and chosen a definition of Class, then the various editions could have ran with that idea and perfected it. For instance, if they’d picked Uniqueness as the definition of Class (and given all the classes roughly equivalent abilities) then we could have a game with infinite classes so long as they all had new abilities. If they’d picked Power source we could have explored all the different sources cropping up lately. An Ability base would have led to at least 6 core classes, possibly with hybrids instead of multi-classes and Roles could have been handled much the same. A strengthening of reliance upon affiliation would have created a very different, but no less potentially enjoyable game. Any would have been fine for a game. Even accepting the artistic blending of all would have at least allowed methodical exploration of the ideas. Choosing none overtly, however, has proved disastrous.
Instead of trying to decide right now what Class is for all of D&D let’s look at the evolutions of the various editions and how they treated the class question differently.
The biggest shift in the Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer Basic D&D was the adoption of races as classes of their own (and the bundling of the Thief class as one of the core). There were also ‘races’ in the early edition, but they were so limited (Halflings and Dwarves restricted to Fighting Men, Elves to Fighting Men or Magic-Users) as to essentially be meaningless. I’ve always been fascinated by this choice. It’s usually explained as a way to simplify the game, but to me it makes the idea of ‘Class’ that much more complex. In truth races were mostly hybrids of other class abilities (Halflings were Fighting Men & Thieves, Elves were Fighting Men & Magic-Users) but their abilities were described as cultural or genetic rather than chosen or trained abilities.
The net effect of this choice was to create an entirely new possible definition of class:
F) Classes are defined by how the world Interacted with the characters
due to their attitudes, beliefs, origins, etc. For instance, a Dwarf in Basic was simply a Fighting Man with slightly better resistances mechanically, but from a roleplaying perspective he was significantly defined. He was short, tough, dour, lived underground and was a master of it, disliked elves, etc. Now, any fighter could have made similar roleplaying choices, but the world wouldn’t treat him the same as they did a Dwarf who acted the same way. This racial difference defined their Interactions with the world, and therefore defined them as a class more than Uniqueness, Power Source, Attribute, Role, or Affiliation.
The only other way to interpret Basic’s handling of race as class is that it really was only about ignorance and simplification and everything else is just being read into it. That’s possible I suppose, but very VERY sad. People want things to be engineered…intelligently designed. Finding out that things suck just because they were randomly and haphazardly thrown together rather diminishes my respect for the game.
First edition is a bit strange in that it seemed to adopt three different theories regarding the new classes it brought to the game. First, that the additional classes were perhaps sub-classes of the main 4 now embraced, second that the new classes represented hybrids of two or more base classes, and third that each of the classes was unique and on its own. Then it made things even more jumbled by offering both dual-classed and multi-classed options. Of all of the issues created by AD&D this one is probably the most important from a game design perspective. How can anything else be clean and logical when such a basic building block is in limbo? Mind you, we still haven’t resolved the basic definition of Class itself, but now we’re adding more.
Looking at the sub-class idea we have a major issue right off the bat: Monks and Bards. Monks are listed as a fifth primary core class with no sub-classes, and Bards are a required tri-class (the only one allowed) who after becoming true bards have no ‘core class’ over them, or three, depending how you see it. We find Paladins listed as a sub-class of Fighter (ostensibly because they both fight), even though it receives Clerical magic and Clerical powers and obtains these through faith like a Cleric. Some point out that Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers can all use any weapons, armor, and shields…mechanical sameness. Yet a Ranger gets an 8-sided hit die (2 at level 1) while Fighters and Paladins share a d10. Clerics can use any armor and shield, but Druids (a sub-class) are heavily restricted. In other words, that argument doesn’t hold. We also know that all the classes have unique ability sets, so that’s not what defines them as similarly classed either. They don’t have the same affiliations (Rangers are solitary, or with other nature lovers or loners, and Paladins have more in common with Clerics and nobles than simple soldiers like Fighters), and they don’t have the same Power Sources (Fighters physical items, Rangers nature, Paladins divine).
The only ways they’re related are in their Role, and to a lesser degree their Attribute (though a bow using Ranger is a lot of Dexterity focus, and Paladins are heavily Charisma and somewhat Wisdom split). The other class groups are similar in both these areas (Thieves and Assassins based on Dex, Magic User and Illusionist based on Int and so on, and also that Clerics and Druids serve similar Roles just like the others). This means we have to assume that AD&D 1st edition is declaring that a Class is either a Role or an Attribute, and that there are sub-classes to most core classes. It seems like a pretty hit-and-miss definition however, with a lot of outliers.
Even though it’s clearly shown that some classes are to be considered sub-classes it’s clear that many of them hearken back to the Basic days where Races were generally nothing more than hybrids of two other core classes. With this in mind we can see a Paladin as a hybrid Cleric/Fighter, but because he obtains entirely new Abilities that are Unique to just his class he’s not multi/dual classed but his own class. Similarly a Ranger may be thought of as a Druid/Fighter, perhaps with a little Thief thrown in. The obvious problem is that this only applies to some classes. While it would be easy to imagine an Illusionist as a hybrid Thief/Magic-User they’re not portrayed that way, instead being treated purely as a sub-class. This sets the stage for 2nd edition specialty Wizards and Priests, but doesn’t fit the hybrid model. So again, we have a hit-and-miss definition.
It’s only when we again choose to view the classes as Unique on their own that we find a definition that can somewhat hold up. Fighter still throws us for a loop by having few Unique abilities over a Paladin or Ranger (or really ANYONE), and we still can’t concretely say why a Magic-User and a Cleric are unique from each other since both cast spells, many of which overlap. However, the Uniqueness idea deals nicely with Monk, Bard, etc. Since abilities have been more fleshed out in this edition than in the original it certainly makes the classes FEEL more Unique, even if mechanically they’re sometimes not. I always liked the following illustration:
Imagine a typical Fighter. He wears armor of some type, and uses various weapons, and is fairly tough. Now imagine four different people make a Fighter to play. One makes a tribal warrior, wearing natural armor, and using big two-handed weapons. The second makes a soldier called to the crusades by their God, wearing metal armor and using a sword and shield. The third makes a loner, wearing mixed armor and using hunting weapons like the bow, spear, and long knives. The final person makes a standard soldier, using various armor and weapons as they are found. Because there are no mechanical differences in those characters, they are all Fighters. Their power is all equally about combat. It’s roleplaying, luck, and choices that differentiate them.
Now imagine those four people roll up a Barbarian, a Paladin, a Ranger, and a Fighter to play. Suddenly it’s a HUGE difference in party makeup. There are actual game mechanic differences. Suddenly a four Warrior group has access to three of the four lists of magic, magic items, as well as Thief tactics and exploits. They still interact with the world through brute force combat, but they do so as if they were more people than they actually are. The sub-classes are still roughly balanced against each other because of the granted abilities, but the party itself is vastly altered in its dynamics with the rest of the world. This is the difference between Interactive differences and Unique ability differences.
Some of this can be gotten around by doing that artistic blending we mentioned before, and getting into Roles, Affiliations, Attributes, and so on along with their Uniqueness. Doing so is once again, messy.
We still haven’t addressed what’s up with multi and dual classing either. If ‘Class based’ games are about Uniqueness then why does it allow merging more than one class to get the abilities of more than one? Doesn’t that get rid of Uniqueness? If it’s one of these new definitions of Role or Attribute how is it that muli-classing uses only different Role combinations and different Attribute combinations, but dual classing allows both different or sameness? There’s no possible way that we can have a meaningful definition in a Class based game if we allow splitting off the classes like that.
The only way to maintain purity in definition (Uniqueness) is if we stick purely to Uniqueness of abilities as the definition and then don’t allow any classes to share many traits or have none. Class based inherently means being pre-defined in many/most mechanical ways. You can have a lot of pre-defined Classes, but each character should remain a part of that class under most circumstances. To allow them to mix and match any other way turns the game hybrid, or skill or power/ability based.
If we look at games like Shadowrun, where it’s assumed people will ‘make their own classes’ through priority assignments of mechanical traits and abilities, while you can make any combination you desire you’re still ‘stuck’ with the end result (barring extraordinary circumstances). Character ‘classes’ who don’t choose to be magical won’t ever become magic using, just like how in Star Wars if you’re not Force Sensitive you won’t ever become a Jedi. You don’t get to suddenly pick a whole new set of abilities that radically alter your character. To do so would defeat the entire purpose of the ‘Class based’ nature of the game.
With regards to Class, 2nd edition is nearly identical to 1st. They just clean up the language and reasoning a touch, and put it all down in nicer tables for you to look at. They even retain the crazy multi and dual classed rules. Then came the expansion books where they add the idea of Kits. Kits aren’t so much unique classes as flavoring to put on existing classes to somewhat reinvent them. They usually have only minor changes to ability, with most of the changes being about roleplaying and fluff.
Ok, they did a few other things, like cleaning up the Bard class, and initially dropping the Monk rather than try to figure out which of the core four it fit under as a sub-class. One other change was the advent of a more integrated skill system (called proficiencies). While it didn’t change things greatly in this edition it laid the foundations of the MAJOR departure of 3rd edition.
Ahh yes…3rd edition. Sneaky, sneaky bastards. On the face it seemed so familiar…so much like previous versions. All the iconic races and classes and aspects…just ‘made better’. The math is all cleaned up, control passed largely to player creativity, skills finally evolved, and cumbersome multi-classing fades away to seamless mechanical multi-classing. Many thought it was the epitome of D&D (well, at least by 3.5 or Pathfinder). What few realized at the time was that it was an entirely new game under the same old logo. Most importantly for this discussion, despite evidence to the contrary – IT WAS NO LONGER CLASS BASED!
It seemed to be ‘Class based’. After all, there were classes. Same classes from before, right? Wrong. While many classes retained Uniqueness of abilities, many LOST their abilities to the Skill or new Feat system. The problem with that is, ANY class could usually use those. Want a Fighter that hides in shadows and picks locks? No problem. Want a Magic-User who can use a staff really well in combat? Done. All these new creative controls and openness that attracted us with their shininess are, in reality, an abandonment of the very tenets of ‘Class based’ games. It utterly removes any Uniqueness from the class. How is a Thief a Thief when ANYONE can do almost everything he can do (if not quite as well)? It claims to do it in the name of creativity and player control, but in my opinion it’s really about turning the game mechanical.
Then along comes the new no-cost multi-classing system and HOLY COW! Choosing a class now only has one purpose – to obtain mechanical benefits previously restricted to other classes. Wizard with hit points? No problem. Thief with weapon specialization? Done deal. Add Thief abilities to any class cheaply? Can you say *4 Skill Points for 1st level Rogue? It was a min/maxers wet dream. It was internet builds r us. It was the absolute, total and complete end to any vestige of it being a ‘Class based’ system. It was now Skill/Ability/Build based.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually appreciate the system. It’s clean, it’s fun, it’s semi-well designed, etc. Problem is, it’s not REALLY D&D…and what makes me so mad is, I never really saw it at the time. I knew I still liked something about the older editions, but could never analyze it fully. There were a TON of fixes and improvements to the game that did nothing to break ‘Class based’. Saving throw overhaul, AC and general combat streamlining, etc. In fact, in one way it was actually superiorly ‘Class based’. Unique classes.
That’s right, even though they took away some classes abilities and made them available to everyone, and even though they let everyone be almost any combination of classes they wanted any time with hardly any restrictions, they got rid of the idea of class groups and sub-classes completely and tried to make every class unique and shine on it’s own (and then let you give it all the other skills and abilities you wanted and ruined the whole thing). They even cut down on the hybriding of classes somewhat. Oh, you can still see elements of Paladins being Fighter/Clerics, but with so many different abilities and restrictions and such it was no longer all it was. Paladins were DEFINITELY their own class finally. The same was true for most of the others.
It also did good in removing Kits as any kind of mechanical device. Classes were classes, and the rest (after multi-classing the feating/skilling the crap out of them) was roleplaying fluff. Sadly they then immediately made it even worse by creating Prestige Classes…which were kits with overpowering mechanical ability differences. On the good side they definitely retained Uniquenesses, but it was still a way to move away from the strictures of a truly ‘Class based’ game somewhat.
4th edition I know the least about. I’ve played it a little, but never enjoyed it enough to get into. In fact, at first I hated it. After spending time studying it, however, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the theory and design elements that went into it. I don’t agree with the final product for my groups, but I totally get that it’s a viable game choice for other groups. Bottom line, it’s even more different from D&D than 3rd edition was.
With regards to class a couple major changes took place. First, they abandoned totally open mechanical multi-classing and went with a slightly more limited form of power-based multi-classing. While one could still argue this as exploitive to a ‘Class based’ game, it was far less so than 3rd edition.
Second, they finally brought up Roles officially and addressed them. Rather than use them as a singular definition of class however, they used them as a guideline when assigning and balancing class abilities. So, with both Fighters and Paladins being of the Defender Role we expect to see abilities relating to that. However Roles were not assigned Uniquely, so that one class may exhibit aspects of other Roles. In this way too Roles are less a strict definition of ‘Class’ and more of just another way to view and play a class.
They also finally dealt with Power Sources, though again not in a defining way. Initially keeping to Martial, Divine, and Arcane they eventually grew to other sources as well, but it was once again more of a categorical way of understanding a Class than as a singularly defining element of it.
Sadly not all was roses however. They kept, though altered, Prestige classes. While they reduced the impact of skills they retained the system in a way that still allowed some violation of Class Uniqueness, though not as badly as 3rd edition had done. Sadly they expanded greatly upon the Feat system, merging it with the idea of Powers (ie Class abilities) somewhat. This created an even worse breaking of ‘Class based’ mechanics in this regard. For many the worst thing about 4th was how, in turning to the Power system, they had altered the feel for a lot of us regarding Class Uniqueness. Fighters (and other non-magicals) suddenly seemed to have a magical flavor, and that chaffed with people greatly. The Uniqueness of Magic-Users compared to Sorcerers seemed somewhat diminished (rather true or not, that was the feeling).
No edition of the game really used Attributes or Affiliations effectively as a defining characteristic of Class, but nearly all mixed in at least portions of them. There are also clearly most of the other definitions evidenced at various points along the evolution of the game. For this reason I have to say that D&D, while thought to be ‘Class based’, has always been an artistic blending of class elements rather than a strict definition thereof. Not until 4th did they begin to openly address this blending and seek to use it as a balancing element. I don’t believe they got it right, but at least they tried it.
So now 5th edition is looking back and trying to bring the editions together, but improve and unify them. GREAT. Ideally that should mean a more scientific blending of all the various defining elements I’ve talked about behind the idea of making the best ‘Class based’ game they can. When I read their releases, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be where they’re going at all. They seem to be using a percentage rule…whichever methods were in use the most gain prominence, and the rest gets back burnered (if included at all). That’s not evolution, it’s devolution. The very idea of sub-classes denies Uniqueness (as well as bringing up a whole host of other problems as discussed in the 1st and 2nd edition reviews earlier), and that should be what we’re blending all the elements to obtain.
What’s even worse is my trepidation over continued focus on Skills and Feats. Saying they’re modular is a big step, but the bottom line is that they mostly belong in Skill or Power/Ability based games, not ‘Class based’ games…at least unless they’re VERY careful to keep them relegated to a separate function like they were as proficiencies in the earlier editions. We certainly don’t want to see large mechanical benefits from them that imitate or minimize unique class abilities. They can’t turn a Magic-User into a swordsman, and shouldn’t be where Thieves find their class abilities.
Now they talk about backgrounds and themes. I can see where backgrounds could be used in lieu of secondary skills or early character development. I can see where it might suggest packages of skills, or even replace skill checks in some way. I wouldn’t even get bent out of shape if it was a way to suggest possible different ways to play various classes (like the 4 fighter examples I gave earlier). I don’t think it’s particularly useful like that, but at least it’s not offensive and doesn’t break the ‘Class based’ mantra. UNLESS it’s used as they’re suggesting, in such a way that members of a class other than Thief might gain abilities Unique to Thieves.
Themes could have been much the same, but instead it seems like it’s going the way of kits or (*gasp*) Prestige classes. This just raises all those issues all over again. If they restrict themes to certain classes then maybe it’s not such a huge deal, but then instead of kits or prestige classes we’re getting sub-classes and back to all that again. If we strip out the ability granting parts then we’re left with nothing more than a roleplaying choice. That’s a fine thing to offer players, but is hardly ground breaking or necessary.
Another part of the whole background and theme debate is that both seem focused on skills and feats, which in no way need to be a part of the game. If they are included they need to be optional, and once they are then so are backgrounds and themes. That means that a huge percentage of the development of 5th isn’t about embracing ‘Class based’ gaming, but finding ways to exploit or escape ‘Class based’ restrictions.
This all forces us to deal with rather or not we want D&D to stay ‘Class based’. Personally I consider it at least as important as the 6 attributes, the main races, etc. I think maintaining the Uniqueness of long running classes is vital to the essence of D&D. I wouldn’t mind to see it cleaned up, and integrated (and even balanced) more with other parts of the game, but I want it to be ENTIRELY ‘Class based’. No more sub-classes, no more hybrids, no more multi-classing, no more class abilities as skills or feats, no more one class ‘feeling’ like another. Uniqueness through the balance of the other five elements and always keeping the goal of Unique flavor at the forefront. Embrace the original nature of the game…run with ‘Class based’. It’s one of the big things that keeps D&D different than other games.
For people who dislike ‘Class based’ games, why are you even playing D&D (except maybe 3rd edition)? Class based is what it is. I suppose if they manage to pull of absolute modularity in 5th edition it would be possible to have our class game and you do a skill game and so on ad infinitum. I’m skeptical however. I think the basic type of game it is requires core commitment. If you want skill based or whatever else wouldn’t you rather play a game that was designed entirely for that from the ground up? It’s not that I don’t want you in ‘my game’, it’s that I’m trying to be true to the nature and intent of the game, allowing for evolutions and improvements where possible to provide the best game of its type. If that’s done it couldn’t possibly be the best game of any other type, so it seems like other options would be better for that.