5 November 2017

Class(es) Dismissed

One of the many fun things about the OSR is that it often looks at the issue of classes in entirely new lights.  I'd say that, other than the default "keep it all the way it was", there's two other major schools we can group these views into: chop some of the standard classes out, and add new ones in.

For the first school you have things like Delta's OD&D house rules where he axes the cleric because he doesn't think it's proper fantasy, or those that eliminate the thief because it robs the other classes of the ability to do things that people feel all adventurers should be able to handle, and additionally serves as a Trojan Horse for that dread marauder, Sir Skill System.

For the second school, you have guys who decide that the standard classes don't adequately cover the range of decent character options.  These designers take the 1st-edition AD&D route and add more and more classes and subclasses, so that you have cavaliers and assassins and knights and jesters and mountebanks and thief-acrobat-turnip-twaddlers and whatnot.  It's very Rifts©®™.

This was my favourite search result for "class structure".

The Taxonomy of Classes

While I can see the appeal of all three ways, for my own system I'm cooking up (as I've discussed), I want short and sweet.  That itself is justification enough for me to get cutting, but there's a larger reason there.  I've never been happy with how D&D handles the literature it was actually based on.  The class structure that so defines the game is excellent for people attempting to get what their character is going to play like and generally do, but its rigidity means that, even with multiclassing and dual-classing and prestige classing, you have a hard time properly representing even someone as basic and foundational to the genre as Conan, while other classes come with bizarre abilities (like the thief and read scrolls) that are there because Gygax or whoever read one book where a thief was able to do that and so it became the template for thieves everywhere regardless of how much or little it made sense elsewhere.

My broad issue with method 2 (adding more classes)--besides the size of the resulting character creation section and the increased time it takes to parse options during character creation and gameplay--is that it never really solves this issue.  Like the chimerical quest for "the" transitional fossil, each class added only creates two further class gaps to either side of it.  Of course, after a certain point we can say that those gaps are no longer really meaningful ("now what comes between the gymnast and the thief-acrobat?"), but I also think that you have to create more classes than I want in order to reach that point.  So, while I need to keep in mind some way of creating role flexibility, I don't think piling on the classes is going to be the way to do it.  Role flexibility is thus something I'll have to tackle in another section of the game.

With the idea of adding tons of classes abandoned, I might as well dive in wholeheartedly into the opposite: "just how far can I cut?"

1) I don't want race as class, because it's a blocker for some and I'm going for a very setting-neutral thing here, to allow me to adopt the most material with the least effort (I'm not going to get that all the time, but with something like race as class, which I didn't like anyways, I can go with it).

2) As it's already been done I know I can axe the thief.  That will mean I'll have to ensure that thief skills are properly distributed in the ruleset so that all the other characters can do those things, but I don't think that will be an issue and in any case it's a matter for later on.

3) While I don't agree in the least with Delta's reasoning for getting rid of the cleric, it did get me to consider if it was a feasible thing to do it, and I think the answer is yes.  We'll take a closer look later.

That leaves us with just two classes: the Warrior and the Mage.  Now that's trim.  Let's give it a try.

The Warrior

What do we want the warrior to be able to do?

  • Be the best at beating things to death.  This is first and foremost.
  • Do more things in melee than non-warriors (i.e. not just higher combat numbers, but more options)
  • Slaughter hordes of mooks/peons
  • Protect the caster
  • Cast spells

The last one is perhaps a touch unintuitive, but this is a class feature of both the paladin and the ranger classes and several key fictional fighters (Karl Edward Wagner's Kane comes immediately to mind), so I think it needs to be possible.  Magic access just shouldn't be a no-brainer, and also shouldn't ever be comparable to the mage.

1) Be the best at beating things to death

There's three main ways to accomplish this, offhand: number of attacks, to-hit bonuses, and damage amounts.  Make any of these substantially higher or even exclusive to the warrior and they'll be noticeably better at carving up their enemies.

Attacks and damage are going to be my preferred methods.  I've been struck by 5th edition's interest in keeping numbers low overall, and I'd like to be able for a caster to still be able to hit things even at higher levels.  As such, the fighter will get better, but I don't want them completely outstripping the mage in this regard.  Here's what I'm using:

Warriors receive +1 to their attack bonus every two levels, starting at level 2.

From levels 1-20 that gives them a +10 attack bonus.  That's less than the +12 a fighter gets in B/X over the same level range, but that's playing into the statement above about not wanting too many attack bonuses.  There will be other ways for the warrior to get to that +12 figure, as I'll talk about once I reach combat.  Keeping the same to-hit range means I can keep broad compatibility with modules, monster manuals, and any related threat assessment mechanics (i.e. if text gives some sort of challenge or encounter rating, or if a module says it's designed for characters of X level).

The best part about working with D&D and trying to reach combat design goals is the abstract nature of combat and related mechanisms in the game.  There's no exact mapping of attacks and damage in D&D.  Most of this is due to the hit points mechanic.  Now, it's drawn a lot of flack over the years for being vague--how exactly does one tie injury to HP in a manner that's consistent, for instance--and it's created some rules oddities for sure (such as the higher level you are, the longer it takes you to heal; I'm fixing that one for sure).  Still, while most people work to reform HP and combat in a way that makes them more precise, I think that's a major mistake.  If instead we embrace the fact that combat and HP are abstractions (which they have always unambiguously been; see the 1st ed DMG, p. 82), we can also play around with abstract damage to meet our goals.

In short, as the warrior climbs in levels, we can give them more dice of damage to represent how much better they're getting in combat.  No, their weapons don't magically do more damage.  Rather, just as characters don't gain more meat and natural armour plate as they go up levels but gain more HP regardless, as warriors climb levels they become increasingly skilled at countering the advantages an opponent has that give them their higher HP totals in the first place.  Here's how I plan to do this:

At each name level, they receive an extra weapon die of damage (so a level 10 warrior would deal 3D4 damage with small weapons, 3D6+1 with medium weapons, and 3D8+3 with large weapons).

(Right now I'm tying a lot of bonuses to every fifth level, which is what I'm calling a "name level".  So a lot of, but not all, goodies kick in at 5/10/15/20.  I'll talk about this another time).

Weapon damage I covered in my previous post (and is why I started my design series with that post).  Other than helping out the warrior, higher damage also helps keep combats fast, which I like: as levels climb and HP totals with them, the warrior is going to be able to keep up to a degree.  I also plan to use the "name" mechanic to add additional attacks, like so:

At 1st level, warriors may make one attack per round. Warriors gain an additional attack at each name level.

Between that and the increasing damage, you'll see quite noticeable ramp-ups of warrior capability as they climb the level tree.  This needs playtesting, of course, to make sure warriors don't hack through opposition too well, but as I also mentioned in an earlier post, I'm writing with the assumption of smaller player groups and so smaller adventuring parties.  As such, a warrior needs to be more capable than normal--this meets that goal.  I must admit that I'm not as sure about the extra attacks as I am the extra damage.  Maybe I'll reduce their number: we'll see what playtesting says.

2) Do more things in melee than non-warriors

This one is damn tricky.  For one, one of the major reasons warriors often suck in games compared to mages is that people's realism alarm doesn't go off for mages in the same way it does for "natural" classes--classes that obey the general laws of reality.  In some cases people have tried to get around this by bending those laws, looking to wuxia, myth, and so on to expand what "realistically" means for a warrior.  In other cases, rulesets have looked to add special maneuvers and the like to just give the warrior more to do; ACKS takes this route, for instance (and is the inspiration for what follows).

I'm not interested in the first approach (just not my thing) and the second often fails due to implementation.  Why?  Well, the general idea is that doing things other than beating a guy like a baby seal is special, and such attempts need to be penalized because otherwise the warrior will run amok (or will spam one attack like some a 12-year-old playing Mortal Kombat).  ACKS, for instance, applies a -4 to all such attempts, so that if you want to try and knock someone down or disarm them or what have you, it's damn hard.  The result, however, is that people don't tend to bother.  The other issue is that each special maneuver comes with its own special rules, and between the fact that they're rarely used and that they each tend to work somewhat differently, you get a major slowdown mid-combat due to the need to look up how they work, as few players will memorize them in the same way as the general combat rules.

I think I have a way of getting around this.  I want to give warriors some fighting styles to choose from.  This won't be like feats in graciously permitting them to do something they should already be able to do, but rather just something that encourages a warrior to do something they were already inclined to do.  The idea is you have a warrior fighting concept in mind, and then you get something that reinforces that concept, without generally preventing you from doing any of the other things.

In short, guy who wants to use giant-ass swords will be pretty good at them.  Similarly, I don't need an archer class when that's just a weapon choice (and also the warrior that decides to be a sniper will be able to do things with bows no non-warrior can).  The lightly-armoured fast-mover archetype is covered as well (again without the need for a class).  But Brawler is where most of the fun comes in.  I originally had this as just a melee-only to-hit bonus, but numbers are boring and also threaten to undo the bounded range of potential to-hit values we're playing with.  This compresses the page of ACKS special maneuvers down to a few lines, and their freebie nature makes it so they'll actually show up in play.  Making it random means that a player won't be doing the same thing over and over, avoiding that spamming repetitive feeling.

I do wonder if it's a wise idea to wall off these maneuvers behind just the Brawler, I have to admit.  But otherwise I'm good with it.

I also used to have Sniper as providing a to-hit bonus, but again--boring.  Allowing them to be the one group of combatants that can fire into melee is unique, and eliminating range penalties is something that is rewarding without being unbalancing (i.e. it doesn't make you more accurate, just more able to hit things at long range, so as you get higher and higher in level you can make more legendary shots).  As you can tell, I'm planning on using much higher range penalties than base D&D (based on Delta's series of interesting range and missile weapon analysis articles):

Archery -- Field Experiment
(last in the initial series)
Slings and Arrows and Outrageous Formulae
(interesting add-on)

Points 3-5
We'll cover the remaining points another day.  This post is already getting long, and in any case addressing these involves more than just the base character class section.  I'll just end with one co-opting of a modern D&D innovation, the Power Attack feat:

A warrior’s combat expertise allows them to balance power and finesse as needed. Before making attack rolls for a round, a warrior may choose to subtract an amount from all their attack rolls and add this amount to all their damage rolls. This number may not exceed their available attack bonus for that round, and cannot apply to spells.

I'm just giving this for free to all warriors, based on an off-hand comment by Gronan/Old Geezer a long time ago on some random forum (which amounted to "why not just bloody well let them do that?").  This helps reinforce warrior combat prowess, and at the same time gives the warrior player something to play around with each round (but not something so complex that it will eat up a lot of time).  It's chosen by the round, not by the attack, so as to not make things too fiddly when the warrior starts getting multiple attacks per round.

Below is a one-page pdf of what the warrior looks like right now.  With a similar one-page mage treatment, I can get the class selection part of character creation out of the way in two facing pages, which makes me very happy.

(I think the image of the warrior is Elric)

I've deliberately left out any attribute score class restrictions, because I feel that assumption of a role does not automatically mean that you're good at it.  If people are really concerned about this being unrealistic, there's already a mechanism known as Darwinism which generally serves to enforce what you're after.  (Additionally, with only two classes, I can't really redirect people to other classes if their ability scores suck).


Next we'll look at the mage, and then move on to the challenge of ensuring that these two class archetypes can actually fulfill the character-building desires of most players and games.

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