Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Class, Multi-Class, Race, and Holmes

[just FYI...my family will be flying back to Seattle this Thursday for a much needed two weeks at "home." Posting may very well be sporadic as a result (both leading up to the trip and during our vacation). I'm hoping to write a few posts and schedule 'em to roll out periodically...but we'll see what happens]

A couple posts back, Sean asked:

"What are your thoughts on a return to race as class?"

Which is kind of funny because, for years now, I've been very much about treating "race as class." In B/X (the edition I've played almost exclusively since 2009), race as class is the default, and I've blogged plenty of times why it is well justified, why I appreciate it, why I wouldn't want it any other way. When I wrote The Complete B/X Adventurer, I included a number of new demihuman classes -- the centaur, the gnome, the ogre-kin -- just to give some new options that still bought into that philosophy. It makes sense that non-humans are not human...that they don't share human ambitions and human versatility and do not exhibit the same human variety of "class types" within their species. Hell, if you're talking about a creature that lives hundreds or thousands of years (i.e. dwarve and elves) how can we expect them to have ANY type of world view like humans. They live life on a different scale from humans...their life priorities are bound to be incredibly different.

Think about it: elves and dwarves and halflings might simply not care about the same thing as humans. If all dwarves want to do is mine and carve and smith and smelt and forge and drink, maybe they don't have any time (let alone inclination) for learning magic. Maybe dwarf society frowns so fiercely upon stealing that they simply can't bring themselves to learn thievery. Maybe they have gods, but maybe their gods refuse to grant spells or the ability to turn undead and don't care if their followers carry swords...perhaps it is these dwarven "priests," indistinguishable from fighters, that forge the magic hammers and axes that their kind prizes.

They are not simply a different culture, but a different species, with a different physiology and different ideology based on their non-human life cycle. They don't have the imagination for illusion magic. They don't have the respect for forests that would lead them to the druid path. They don't have the wander lust of the ranger, preferring a sedentary lifestyle of clan and family. They don't have the spiritual thirst for justice that would call them to paladinhood. They are too honest and forthright to become assassins. They have too much attachment to clan and worldly goods (gold, gems, etc.) to join a monkish order.

This kind of thought exercise can be applied to any of the demihumans.

Of course, I didn't think this way when I was younger. I played AD&D for years...and even years after I'd stopped, when my (role-playing) buddies and I would get together we'd guffaw at "basic" editions of D&D with their "silly" race-as-class mechanics. How ridiculous to think a halfling couldn't be a thief! Or an elf be a druid. Or whatever.

'Course, WotC put the whole idea of race-as-class (or demihuman level limits) to bed with the advent of D20. Any species can be any class at any level! Mix-n-match to your hearts' content! It's all fantasy and make believe, so it doesn't need any kind of justification or underlying thought...we're in the business of FUN, dammit. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. No rhyme or reasoning required.

And I could buy into that a bit...I still instilled restrictions in my personal D20 campaign, but the open-endedness allowed me to include monastic orders of halflings and their opposite numbers of ninja-type assassins (for example). I don't know why...well, perhaps it was something left over in my brain from my youthful days of playing Bards Tale. Loved those halfling monks with their multiple attacks. Even in a static graphics program like BT, it conjured such lovely images to mind of tiny, chop-socky combatants.

I also like half-orc rangers and evil gnome assassins. I'm just weird that way.

Anyway...LIMITS. I guess the bottom line is that I like some limits, some boundaries to be in place. And it really has little to do with "game balance;" rather, its about helping solidify the concept of the game world/setting.

Take Holmes, for example (speaking about these subclasses I've been working with). I can say that prior to the PHB there was a strong implication (and sometimes explicit text) that subclasses were only open to human characters, but I could make a choice of allowing any class open to a particular race to have its subclasses open to it as well (so that, for example, elves could choose to be witches or illusionists). OR I could restrict ALL the subclasses to human only, seeing as they are too specialized to appeal to the various demihumans...in such a case, I might still allow half-elves (and half-orcs) to advance in those subclasses by dint of their "human nature."

Holmes himself is somewhat contradictory on the subject. The section on Adjusting Ability Scores (page 6) lists dwarves and halflings side-by-side with fighting-men and clerics, as if they were their own classes (interestingly, one could infer that elves "as a class" cannot adjust abilities in Holmes, as they're not listed). However, in the following section on Fighting Men, Holmes writes:

"Any human character can be a fighting man and all halflings and dwarves are members of the fighter class, unless they opt to be thieves."

Which would clearly indicate that the occupational class is something that any given species (i.e. race) might choose for itself.

Unfortunately, this is contradicted later in the elf section where the elf race is clearly treated as its own "thing" due to its split-class nature. We are informed in the section on elves (the race) that "they can use all the weapons and armor of the fighting man, including all magic weapons, and can also cast spells like a magic-user."

They use the gear of a fighting man; they cast spells like a magic-user. But they are their own class.

This is bolstered by the magic-user section in which only humans are mentioned (not elves). Holmes then makes this note regarding the class:

"They have the advantage (shared with clerics and some elves) of being able to work magical spells."

Some elves?! This must be a reference to elvish thieves, for in the thief section it says: "There are special rules for halflings, dwarves, and elves who wish to be thieves..." which would strongly imply that the thief class may be taken as an occupation by anyone. On the other hand, he later writes (in the section on determining hit points):

"Although halflings are always fighters..."

As I said, contradictory.

Now, most folks reading Holmes (like myself) are operating with a breadth of knowledge that encompasses the texts and rules found in other editions...AD&D, B/X, BECMI, OD&D...and will layer Holmes's contradictions with their own understanding based on this knowledge. Lord knows what people thought back in the day (perhaps, 'I need to pick up this Advanced Dungeons & Dragons thing in order to make heads-or-tails out of the "basic" game.'). For me, attempting to examine this edition "in a vacuum," I'm left with the ultimate conclusion that I'll have no choice but to make some house rules on the matter to make the game work. That basically, I need to lay down my own laws on the subject. And if I'm going to do that, then it's going to need to be in accordance with the campaign setting.

Because I don't know if I want elves to be druids just because they're "foresty." I don't know if I want halflings to be thieves just because they're "small and sneaky." Maybe dwarves make good illusionists because of their innate cleverness and the long periods of time they spend in the under dark. Maybe half-orcs do make good rangers, finding no life for themselves within normal human society.

Probably, it would be best if everyone made their own individual decisions on the subject (and made their decisions based on the proper "fit" of their campaigns). I can tilt my head different ways and see the class-race thing working in a variety of ways. But I haven't yet decided how I want to run my particular campaign.


  1. I think I am in your camp. I like Race-as-Class, I like Race separate from Class, I think it all depends on how Elves and Dwarfs etc work in your world and trying to say that all Elves everywhere in every game have to follow one way... well to me that's crazy.

    1. @ Steven:

      At some point, we've all got to pick a side. But let's not do it without thinking.
      ; )

  2. I like what you say about dwarves...where mining and forging axes is their clerical practices. And after a hard day of religion...they go get drunk.
    Kinda like early humans where narcotic plants, tattoos, drum music, and champions to represent them is all part of their spiritual practice.

    1. @ Sean:

      I like to think of dwarves as the "priests of Thor," myself.

  3. So forest dwelling dwarves of the black forest who work in fire-hardened wood are heretics?

  4. One other data point for the Holmes elf is the Monster List entry which refers to "a leader (fighter/magic-user) of 2-4 level/2-8 level ability", showing that the class don't have to be the same level. I think the 4/8 are references to the original level limits. It's also a change from what Holmes originally had: "a leader (fighter or magic-user) of 4th to 8th level".

    1. See, to me that edit (to the published version) would be a "Gygax edit" to change Holmes's simplified version back to the complexity of OD&D. But even if it had been left as is...yeah, that would be another contradiction.

  5. I have no specific objection to race-as-class in certain contexts, though I personally am not entirely sold on the "alien culture" argument.

    Regardless of the fact that they live lives much longer than humans, it's never once said anywhere that these races aren't still bound to the natural cycles of the world. Day and night are the same length for halflings as they are for humans. Growing seasons are the same for the elves in the forest as they are for their human neighbors. Members of all the races still have to eat and sleep (or trance) every day. All of the things that force us to notice the passage of time are still present for a demihuman as for a human.

    Demihumans still have to worry about growing or finding food, which almost certainly means agriculture. They have to worry about clothing and shelter, which will obey the same physical rules as any other inanimate object. Whether they want to spend their idle days mining or weaving or making art or whatever, they have to tend to their physical needs first. This is going to necessarily give them significant overlap with human cultures, with attendant diversity in career path. Specialization is for insects, but it is also sort of inevitable once division of labor becomes a thing.

    Just adding a bit of spice to the sauce, as it were. Feel free to take or leave these thoughts :)

    1. @ Jack:

      And here I always thought dwarves lived off quartz and fungus beer, and were naked under their forged-steel armor. Can a subterranean species really be considered diurnal?
      ; )

  6. I linked this post on my blog today. I thought you;d like to know. :)


  7. I keep meaning to look at the OD&D rules and compare them to what Holmes did for non-human races as classes. Because I think what he did was give a stripped down of OD&D (while keeping in mind what was supposed to be coming in AD&D). So in my mind, just because Holmes didn't include all combinations that OD&D allowed doesn't mean that we couldn't apply the same race as class logic to other race-class combos and have them in our own Holmes-rules defined games. The Elf class is a great example of simplifying a character able to advance in both classes at the same time without having to track each class XP value separately.

    1. @ Raymond:

      OD&D (which is available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG) doesn't say all that much about the races...not nearly as much detail as Moldvay or Gygax in AD&D, for example. To me, they feel they were just tacked onto the game as a "gimme" for Tolkien fans who wanted to make like the Fellowship of the Ring in the Mines of Moria.

      Um...by which I suppose I mean: Holmes didn't "strip down" anything...they were already pretty "stripped."
      ; )