Monday, April 15, 2013

Subclasses, Variants, and Filters (P. 2)

[continued from here]

So, okay, we should probably think of something different from "subclasses" to call these aberrant classes...just so the discussion can keep going. Because I DO mean this post to be about these things, misnamed or not, and we've got to get back to the point. "Variant classes?" Because they vary from the original classes of OD&D (which constitute three of the four human classes found in B/X: cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief)? Sure...that's good enough. When I say "variant class" I mean a class found in AD&D (or later iterations) other than clericfightermagic-user, or thief. Okay? Okay.

Back to the discussion.

Variant classes since AD&D have been presented in two different styles: one pre-3rd edition, and one post 3rd-edition. I have issues with both, but let's go ahead and describe what that presentation entails:

Pre-3E Variants
- ability score minimums for entry
- generally higher XP requirements than their "parent" class
- unique spell lists, for spell-caster classes
- widely differing adherence to parent class abilities
- some non-standard role-playing requirements (alignment restrictions, treasure acquisition restrictions, guild requirements, behavioral restrictions, etc.)

Post-3E Variants
- no ability minimums
- no XP penalties
- no unique spell lists
- treated as their own "standard class" though save bonuses, BA bonuses, etc. may mimic the non-variant classes
- generally unique "skill lists"
- some variant classes of earlier editions now "prestige classes"

Now, as stated, B/X doesn't include variant classes except in its incarnation as Labyrinth Lord (with the AEC as described above...this uses the pre-3E style, deliberately aping AD&D). But if you wanted to add variant classes to B/X, or if you wanted to re-examine a different (house ruled) way to handle variant classes in your own game, or if you wanted to create you own version of D&D (i.e. a "D&D Mine" project)...if you wanted to do any of these things, you might want to consider the best approach to the concept of variant classes. that unnamed blogger pointed seems a little hard to swallow parts of either approach.

For example, there aren't any real restrictions to variant classes in 3E or 3.5...which means a paladin or ranger or bard or barbarian is at least as common as the basic four classes. Which not everyone wants to be the case in their setting. One thing the heightened "point of entry" (ability score restrictions) did for AD&D was to ensure that it was a lot harder to roll up a paladin (with that 17 Charisma restriction) than to roll up a plain old fighter. Less than 2% of characters (4 in 216) have a CHA of 17 or least when rolling your ability scores with the standard 3D6. Add in the other ability score minimums and you're increasing the rarity of the class exponentially.

But are ability scores really a barrier to entry? After all, nothing prevents a player from rolling-rolling-rolling till the right numbers come up...and the DMG and UA provide plenty of "variant methods" of rolling ability scores to give players a better chance of achieving the stat line desired. 

However, I'd ask that you forget randomness for a second...I mean, what is it that you are really trying to limit? Given random dice rolls, it's possible, however improbable, that a player might NEVER roll the scores desired, just given bad luck. And then what have you really succeed in doing except preventing a player from creating and playing the character concept they desire? What are you doing except blunting a player's creativity and imagination with your arbitrary barrier?

Here's what I think:

1) I can see the value of including exceptional variant classes in one's game, not just subclasses that fulfill a concept. Often, these might be setting specific, and certainly they should have a degree of scarcity because of their exceptional nature (if "paladins" are the "default fighter" in your game world, then they're not a variant class, they replace the usual basic one).

2) By including such class in a campaign, you are setting up an expectation (and desire) for your players to play them...for sheer novelty if nothing else. When my old DM said she was going to include half-ogres in her new D&D campaign, my first response was "sign me up for THAT!"

3) Players allowed to play the concept they want are generally happy players. That's just a personal,  unproven theory, I realize...

4) Random, arbitrary barriers (high ability scores) are a non-starter. They don't actually cut-down on entry (due to the ability for all players to re-roll...or "commit PC suicide" and re-roll). And  personally I find it puts too much emphasis on ability scores in a game where such is already too often the case.

5) Likewise, arbitrary level restrictions (for example, 3rd edition prestige classes), is a no-go as it prevents players from running the concept of their choice for (often) a long-ass time. I came up with a dwarven duelist concept for a PC in my buddy's 3.0 game a few years back and it was the height of frustration, plowing along as a fighter and rogue for the six or seven levels necessary to get the correct pre-reqs just to switch classes...and then he ended the campaign around the time I reached eighth level. That's bullshit, folks...again, if the concept is possible in the setting, players should have the option of exercising that possibility from the get-go.

5) What we're looking for is a FILTER, not a barrier...something to weed down the number of people that would take the character class. Ability scores and level restrictions aren't a filter...they simply delay player gratification. Slow advancement (XP penalties) is appropriate to an exceptional variant (it's harder for the Elf to learn both fighting and magic, you know?) but is neither a filter nor a barrier.

[to be continued, where we'll pick up talking about filters]


  1. This is why I always liked Kits from 2nd Edition. You get some flavor-fluff and one or two small advantages balanced by a penalty or two, letting a character feel distinct without needing to rewrite the entire class. And unlike prestige classes, you get your cool stuff at the beginning and don't need to wait seven levels. (I realize kits got a bit crazy near the end of TSR's run, but when they first hit the scene, they were nice and simple.)

  2. Great, great stuff as usual! You, my friend, are a natural game designer, if you ask me! You really know how to break down your thought process during the development of your gaming products, and that's a window that is rarely opened so that the interested can take a peek. Thanks once again for the insightful posts, and I am really looking forward to 5AK!

  3. @ Joshua: I played very little AD&D2, but the problems I had with kits was 'too many' and 'too much;' the latter in the form of non-weapon proficiencies (with which I have many, many problems). That being said, I probably take a lot of subconscious inspiration from their "minor bonus for minor limitation" paradigm. I mean, I KNOW what a pirate I need a two page write-up on how to play the kit?

    @ Anthony: you big smoothie, you! Thanks for the kind might want to withhold judgment till you read the last post, however.
    ; )

  4. You've really encapsulated some feelings I've had about the problems with both 2E- and 3E-style variant classes, feelings which I haven't been able to pin down into precise understanding. This is the kind of stuff that makes me want to jump right onto the design board, half-assed but inspired. I'm eager to get to the next post, where I hope that, as per powersports's suggestion, you'll talk about Street bike parts California.