Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Subclasses, Variants, and Filters (P. 3)

[continued from here...]

So, yeah: filters. What is an appropriate filter? Something that requires players to make a choice. Setting requirements that ask the question, "what are you willing to PAY to play this character?" Or rather, "are you willing to give up X, Y, and Z to have this particular concept?"

The basic classes already do this:
  • Cleric: will you give up edged (better damage) weapons for some miscellaneous/healing magic and some ability against the undead?
  • Fighter: will you give up any other special abilities for the use of all arms and armor, good HPs, and the best attack matrix?
  • Magic-User: will you give up all arms, armor, and combat fortitude for a chance to gain fantastic power over the long haul?
  • Thief: will you give up being mighty in combat for some sneaky skills?

Part of the trade-off for the basic classes is also with regard to one's expected role in the party. The cleric often seems over-powered for its class advantages, whether in AD&D (with its D8 hit dice and attack-oriented spells) or B/X (especially when using the default D6 damage)...at least, when compared to the cleric's rate of level advancement. But the cleric's player is also being asked the additional question: "Are you willing to take on the role of healer and cooperative/assisting party member in exchange for all these bennies?" The cleric character is generally the most "put-upon" of any party member, followed by either the fighter (expected to be the front-line combatant) or the thief (expected to walk point and disarm poison needles). The damn magic-user gets a "free pass" in most parties (and then bitches loudly that he's got "nothing to do").

The choices for the basic classes are BASIC choices. They define the role the player wants to take in an adventuring party. With exceptional variant classes, classes that "one-up" other classes, it's not enough to require a basic choice...an appropriate filter requires an EXCEPTIONAL choice.

For example, let's look at the AD&D ranger class: XP costs are about 10% higher (reasonable for any variant, in my opinion) plus the arbitrary ability score restrictions. Other penalties for taking the class include the following:

- Only receiving D8s for hit dice (but they receive 2D8 at 1st level giving them a better average HP total than equal level fighters up until 6th level..and their HD go up to eleven, not just nine)
- Must be of good alignment
- May not have hirelings until 8th level
- No more than three rangers may ever operate together at any time (because otherwise the entire party would consist of rangers?)
- May only own the goods and treasure they can carry upon their person and mount

In exchange for which they receive the following bonuses: gradually increasing bonus damage to giant-class creatures with includes such "giants" as goblins and orcs; bonuses to surprise; bonuses to resist surprise; tracking ability; druidic spells beginning at 8th level; magic-user spells beginning at 9th level; ability to employ magical scrying devices at 10th level; attraction of 2-24 loyal (unpaid!) henchmen at 10th level...said henchmen generally consisting of exceptional adventuring types and monsters (including copper dragons and storm giants!).

You know, a copper dragon mount carries a lot of treasure.

Assuming you're playing AD&D 1E sans the weapon specialization rules of the UA (and even rangers are allowed some weapon specialization), what's the real trade-off here? That your character has to be chaotic good instead of chaotic neutral? Other than the "no more than three rangers can operate together" clause, I see no real reason why all the fighting men of a (cooperative) party would not want to play rangers. I don't recall any PCs in my old campaigns hoarding so much treasure they needed a war galley to store it in (and why do you think portable holes were invented anyway?).

No...the restrictions on an obviously exceptional class are restrictions, but they ain't particularly stringent. Not enough to act as the filter I'm talking about.

Filters should have the following characteristics:

- they should be performable even at low (1st) level, making the class open to dedicated players
- they should be based on role-playing and/or player choice, not random dice roll
- they should be appropriate to and emphasize the class concept
- they should be a pain in the ass

And that is a pain in the ass for the player that wants to play the concept, not a pain in the ass for the rest of the players in the group. Filters should involve sacrifice for the player that wants to play the exceptional class, not a sacrifice for the other players. For example, it would be inappropriate for an assassin requisite to be "must kill a friend or ally in cold blood," when that would generally entice the PC to murder a fellow PC or one of her fellow's henchmen. See how that's not cool?

So what are some appropriate filters? Well, unfortunately, they're kind of setting specific...of course,  variant classes themselves are setting specific (including paladins in your fantasy world says something very specific about that world)...but most DMs will have to decide how "tight" a filter is needed for his or her own campaign. I suppose I could give some suggestions...but this would just be spit-balling. 

[oh, well...when have I ever balked at voicing a half-baked idea?]

Much Maligned
The thief-acrobat subclass of thief is a problematic one for a variety of reasons: it requires PCs to obtain a certain level (6th), it has a bunch of fiddly feet/inches based skills, it's written poorly...and yet just about every thief in my old AD&D campaign would eventually switch over to the thief-acrobat route once they had the required levels under their belt. Why? Because their concept of a thief was more in-line with the daring cat-burglar than the skulking pick pocket...plus you get to keep all the "cool" skills (backstabbing, moving silently, etc.) and picking up all this acrobatic nonsense. My campaign was absolutely filthy with thief-acrobats...and no one ever had a problem making the ability pre-requisites.

[as an aside, by 6th level the clerics can detect traps and the magic-user can knock locks, so what's lost in making the transition? See...not much of a SUBclass]

Now, as said, the variant is still problematic because of its level restriction...but if you re-wrote the class to start at 1st level (HINT: subtract 5 from each number in the leftmost column of the Thief-Acrobat Function Table in the Unearthed Arcana), what filters might you put in place to prevent all your aspiring thieves from jumping into the T-A archetype?

How about ALL of the following requirements:
  1. Character must pay all starting gold to her instructor; part of her "schooling" will include some basic tools of the trade (generally, climbing gear, some pouches, and her two formal weapons...no armor). Thereafter, she must give one-half (or more) of all treasure found to her instructor between adventures, at least for the first three to five levels...acrobatic training is rigorous, and on-going teaching necessary for an apprenticeship period.
  2. Character is restricted to staff and lasso as her weapons at first level (these take her two proficiency slots)...both are tools as much as weapons, and it is necessary to be as accustomed to them as to her own limbs.
  3. Character must demonstrate her dedication to the craft by performing (or attempting to perform) at least one feat of daring in each session during the apprentice period. Such a death defying act might be a solo wall scale or over-head hang or any use of the acrobatic skill function. Failure to at least make a single attempt results in NO EXPERIENCE being earned for the session. Likewise, there's no respite from this penalty should "no appropriate opportunity" be presented; in the acrobat's mind, such an adventure might be deemed a waste of time and training! Once the apprentice period is over (after the first three to five levels) such demonstrations are unnecessary for advancement, but should have become a routine part of the player character's gameplay.

I'm sure I could think up some other appropriate filters for the paladin class (most involving vows to a Church or temple and based on the knightly trials of chivalric literature) and the others...but, then, you folks can probably do that, too, right?
: )

Hope this gives people some food for thought!


  1. I wonder if you'll get flak for those proposed thief-acrobat restrictions, but I actually rather like them. I'm crazy enough that reading them made me want to jump at the class *without having ever read the sub-class write-up* - i.e. without knowing the benefits you receive to offset the penalties.

    I think you're definitely right about this being setting-specific, though. The restrictions above seem a lot more interesting if you read it in light of a local mentor who's teaching one or two apprentices how to do the crazy things she does before she gets too old to pass on her knowledge. If it's more broadly applied, like the generic fucked-up druid shit from 2E ("For any druid anywhere to become a super-high-level druid, he must kill and eat the druid who outranks him, no exceptions"), it winds up feeling pretty bogus.

    As far as AD&D goes, the DMG for the first three editions - I can't speak for 4E, having never touched it - suggests making minor plus/minus tweaks to existing classes on a case-by-case with individual players, and ultimately I think that might be the most satisfying answer. Unless, that is, you're making a setting-heavy ruleset upon which all your variant classes will rely.

  2. My favorite filter is the "don't tell the players the class exists" filter. Let the players learn about the class during gameplay either by meeting one or hearing about one. Or maybe the player will come up with the idea independently as ask to play it.

  3. @ RMDC:

    The idea is more about making exceptional classes a bit more rarified...and yet hopefully adding to the richness of your RPG at the same time.
    ; )

    @ Hedge:

    What you're suggesting is a BARRIER to play, not a filter. With filters, players know the class exists, but not everyone has the desire (or balls) to play them.

    I suppose I should have just stated that up front for the sake of clarity.

  4. JB, I did a bit of clarifying in this post, since my comment was running long. :)