Tuesday, August 25, 2015

B/X Overlays - Revisiting the Beastmaster

Tim Brannan had some nice things to say about The Complete B/X Adventurer the other day, specifically with regard to the beastmaster class it contains. Rereading the entry (it's been awhile since I've had reason to skim through the book myself) I found myself a bit disappointed at the way I chose to handle the concept, specifically the whole call/befriend/master mechanic (not to mention the learned languages...a throwback to the original inspiration found in Stephan Sechi's Compleat Adventurer book). It makes for a wordy class entry which is quite un-B/X, in my opinion.

The version of the class found in Five Ancient Kingdoms (an optional Hero subclass presented towards the end of Book 3) is a lot simpler, and much closer to what I wanted to model: a knock-off of the cult classic film, The Beastmaster. It's a movie that I find enjoyable to this day for all its sword & sorcery sensibilities. The class found in TCBXA is a bit too much of an homage to the Tarzan/Sheena feral-child-raised-to-be-lord-of-the-forest archetype. Which, when you think about it, doesn't make a whole helluva' lot of sense for a dungeon delving game. Those types are homebodies (protecting The Wild), not restless wanderers in search of adventure.

In considering rewriting the class (for my own amusement...I have no plans to alter TCBXA or issue a "2nd edition"), I hit upon a slightly different idea from doing the "one-more-new-class-for-B/X" thang: Class Overlays. Figured I'd share the idea with y'all.

A class overlay isn't a new class; instead, it's a set of conditions added to an existing class. Subclasses are a bit like this (at least, they were in the original D&D supplements). However, while a subclass is a set of conditions applied to a specific class (for example, ranger as a subclass of fighter), a class overlay is a set of conditions that can be applied to ANY class.

Dig it?

For example, a beastmaster is simply an individual who has a supernatural affinity with animals. There are many examples that don't resemble Marc Singer's oiled body: Radagast the Brown, St. Francis of Assisi, Dr. Doolittle, Voldemort, Mowgli, those kids from A Game of Thrones, Marko from Wizards & Warriors, some of MZB's Darkover characters (I know there are others I'm forgetting at the moment). These individual "beast masters" have a wide range of skills and attributes, and few of them are cut from the rough-and-tumble Tarzan mold. So rather than try to create a single class that encompasses the wide range of disparate examples, we just create a conditional class overlay that adjusts the existing character class.

"He senses danger, m'lord. Also, he wants a carrot."
[BTW: for my money, I'd probably only apply class overlays to HUMAN character classes in B/X; i.e. fighters, clerics, magic-users, and thieves. But if you want your dwarf to ride a giant mole or whatever, feel free to knock yourself out]

Below I've written up the conditions for the Beastmaster overlay. Other overlays I'd strongly consider for B/X would include Summoner (think pulp-style sorcerer), Witchhunter, Bard, and half-blood types (like Ogre/Giant or Elf). Yes, I am aware that most of these were classes I wrote-up for The Complete B/X Adventurer...I think they'd all work excellently in a variety of styles.


"Beastmaster" is an overlay that can be applied to any human character class. Beastmasters have a natural affinity for, and deep rapport with animals, though this is limited to the vertebrate classes of mammals and birds (lower lifeforms...reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, etc...are too primitive and/or alien for the human mind to touch). Communication with giant or prehistoric animals (smilodons, mammoths, cave bears, etc.) is possible; it is up to the DM to determine if a beast master's powers apply to magical or mythical animals (like a pegasus or griffon).

Beastmasters automatically understand, and are understood, by the animals in question. It is not necessary for the beastmaster to speak like an animal (hooting and howling); the animal simply understands what the beastmaster is saying. Beastmasters are thus able to interact with any animal encountered (normal reaction rolls apply, modified as necessary by charisma and circumstance). Beastmasters suffer a -2 reaction penalty when attempting to communicate with prehistoric animals.

A beastmaster may proposition an animal to join the character as a retainer/follower. The animal may not have more hit dice than the beastmaster (note: all B/X characters are limited to a maximum of nine hit dice). Animal followers count against the beast master's normal number of retainers, as determined by charisma. Animals whose hit dice exceed the beastmaster may still be friendly and offer temporary aid, as determined by a positive reaction roll.

Beginning at 4th level, a beastmaster may use a type of animal clairvoyance, limited to any animal retainer possessed. The beastmaster may utilize all the animal's senses, directing the creature telepathically, at a range of one mile per level of experience. There is no limit to the number of times an animal may be possessed and utilized in this way, but only one animal may be used at a time, and the beastmaster may take no other action when so engaged.

Conditions: a beastmaster loses all abilities when wearing armor of any kind ("scent of man") or carrying any type bow, crossbow, or sling ("the hunter's weapons"). Spell-casters may not learn or use magic that inflicts damage at range, nor any spell that manifests fire or lightning. Animal retainers will temporarily leave the beastmaster if the character uses forbidden equipment, and must test Loyalty (as per page B21) to see if they permanently leave the beast master's service.

DMs may OPTIONALLY choose to include cold-blooded beastmasters, whose powers only function on reptiles, amphibians, and fish/sharks. All conditions apply but, in addition, spell-casters may use neither cold nor water magic.

Just can't get enough, can you?


  1. I like the idea of Class Overlays. Reminds me a bit of the Kits from 2nd Edition.

    Back to beastmasters, I can see the wandering adventure type especially if given a reason like their home has been destroyed or they are seeking the source of their power.

    1. Yeah, I found the idea reminiscent of 2E kits also. However, most of my experience with kits was a) class specific (from those complete handbooks), b) focused mainly on "non-weapon proficiencies" (i.e. skills), and c) provided a small bonus with no trade-off. But I might be mis-remembering...I never did play much 2E.