Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Class Proliferation

Just continuing from where we left off...

First off, let me say that, aside from the reasons I noted in my previous post, there's no special reason you need to have a "class system" in your role-playing game. Traveller doesn't need a class system. Neither does Pendragon or original Gamma World. There are some systems like Vampire the Masquerade that actually confuse their own design purposes by including a class system (see "clan"), though VtM does demonstrate yet another reason class systems are expedient: they limit what might otherwise be a baffling number of choices/options to a manageable number.

[I hear some folks might saying, HEY! Gamma World has classes: humanoids, mutant animals, and pure strain humans! To be clear, original GW only offers two choices: a PC with mutations or a PC without. If you choose the latter, you get some bennies when it comes to interacting with ancient technology. I don't see a "class" distinction when there's no real, mechanical difference between choices]

I'm not a stupid man (usually), but I just don't have the patience to wade through some of the character creation systems out there. I've played FATE games on multiple occasions (at conventions) and had a good time using "lite" streamlined chargen (once) or pregen characters. I own a couple-three FATE games. But I haven't run them...haven't even finished reading the rules. My eyes just start to glaze over when I start skimming the aspects and stunts and skill lists (skills! why are there always skills!). I have a much easier time managing a "light" class-less system (say Over The Edge) than something so robust...I don't want to "build" a game with a toolbox, I want to PLAY.

It may simply be that Dungeons & Dragons spoiled me a long time ago. The expedience of its class system with its distinct, recognizable archetypes just proves to be such a useful working template for fantasy adventure games that it's hard to get away from it...whenever I pick up an RPG that has  "quick-start" characters or archetypes (like Hollow Earth Expedition or Shadowrun or Deadlands), I always find myself asking 'Why didn't they just make this a class-based system? Wouldn't that have been easier?'

However, it's not always wine and roses in the world of classes. Class proliferation, the expansion of the choice list to fill an ever greater number of niche interests, can eventually lead to wrecking the joint...especially in games where the classes cease to be recognizable and/or the distinctions get muddied or outright buried. Palladium's RIFTS is probably "Exhibit A" for class proliferation leading to a loss of expedience due to proliferation: the original core book contains 28 distinct classes (or more if you count each "dragon RCC" separately) and each supplemental "World" or "Dimension"  sourcebook (more than 50 of which exist) add another half-dozen...or more! classes to the mix, many of which are no more than slight variations of others. Do you really need to include six variations of the juicer? For that matter, do you really need juicers and crazies and borgs? Aren't they all just enhanced/altered fighters with different downsides?

In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, class proliferation isn't nearly as extreme, but it IS present, and has been for decades. The original Little Brown Books had only three classes in 1974, increasing to five with the release of Greyhawk (1975), seven with Blackmoor (later in 1975), and nine (including the psionic variation which "drained" existing class abilities in exchange for psionic ones) with Eldritch Wizardry in 1976. That's nine classes if you're not counting each multi-class or race-class combo separately. By 1978 the AD&D Players Handbook had eleven classes available to players, with a character's race providing only slight variation (though many-many multi-class options).

While this was only officially increased to fourteen with the advent of Unearthed Arcana in 1985, the time between 1978 and 1985 saw the appearance of a number of classes in Dragon magazine, many of which were used in peoples' home campaigns (we used at least two or three, and I'm sure we would have included anti-paladins, if we'd had that copy of Dragon).

So how many classes do you really need? How many classes are "too many?"

It's pretty clear that most folks feel you need more than three (unless the capabilities of those three are so minimal in distinction that a race variation can make one feel "heavily modified;" see OD&D). But is 4th edition's 22 (spread across three PHBs), each possessing four "paragon" options (4E's equivalent of "prestige classes") that become accessible at 11th level, too many? I would certainly say, "yes," but it's possible I'm in the minority.

Classes (and class-race combos) are certainly something that can be tailored for each individual's campaign; in fact, in some games (like Rifts) I'm not sure a campaign can really function without a strong editing hand. But what a particular gaming group can stand with regard to class quantity is up for debate.

Back in D&D's "primordial ooze" days, new classes (and class options) were added in dribs and drabs until a saturation point was reached round about 1979. My evidence for this? The very unscientific fact that TSR was happy to stand pat with its "official" class list till 1985. While I realize that other things were keeping the company's main designers busy (lawsuits and finding new ways to spend their wealth), I have to think that if there'd been a real clamoring for new classes, the company would have found some way to put out a new or updated or modified PHB; heck, just a "revised edition" that included a handful of extra pages.

[by the way, this falls into the "more evidence" drawer when it comes to my idea that subsequent editions are written MAINLY for returning, experienced players. Once you've added a bunch of classes over time, veteran players come to a new edition with an EXPECTATION of being able to play with their favorite shiny bauble. It's why there's so little "pruning" that occurs between editions, despite the fact that a dozen plus classes is probably excessive for a new player]

So what, JB? Having classes is fun! Having more classes just means more options which means more fun! You just said that groups are going to vary in opinion over "how many is too many."

That's right; I did say that. I said that limits are going to vary depending on groups...but there reaches a point, with ALL campaigns, when the proliferation of classes is going to be too many. When the number of class options is so many that game play is no longer expedited. That number may vary from table to table, but each table has a number. And I think that knowing that number...or, rather, finding that number...can be useful.

I've delved into this a little bit in the past when I was reminiscing over the gaming group of my youth. While it lasted only seven or eight years, it represented a substantial investment of time (in hours spent) back before my friends and I had much in the way of responsibilities or distractions. I would estimate that we spent at least three times as much time on Dungeons & Dragons as on ANY year I've spent regularly playing as an adult, the equivalent of a 20+ year (adult) campaign. Which is about right for the power level we were often playing at.

[to be clear, we ran...roughly...three full campaigns during this time period, taking characters from 1st level up to (what would be) a retirement-worthy high level]

Most of this was played with 1st edition AD&D; our group disbanded shortly before 2nd edition was released. Including the Unearthed Arcana (we never used Oriental Adventures), here's our breakdown of classes:

Cavalier (subclass: Paladin): never used. Never ever ever. It wasn't that they weren't cool, or that we couldn't roll up characters with high enough ability scores. No one wanted to be strait-jacketed by their codes and alignment restrictions. Plus, what good is a horse in a dungeon?

Cleric (subclass: Druid): we saw several clerics over the years, though the first PC cleric did not appear until we picked up the Expert set (circa 1982) and the followers that came with high levels outweighed the lack of "oomph" at low levels. My friend Matt's longest running PC was a cleric of Athena. A visiting player brought his high level cleric to one of our game sessions (another cleric of Athena? Maybe). There were also two Drow clerics of Lloth at later points (one male, one female, both played by different players at different times); one of these (female) was multi-classed. We never had a PC druid (I rolled one up, a female half-elf with the oh-so-original name "Galadriel;" she never saw play time). One half-elf "converted" (mechanically and religiously) to a cleric of Artemis. There was also one "healer" PC, based on the NPC class published in Dragon magazine; "Fr. Cornelius" was Chaotic Evil and insane and lasted all of one session before being castrated and left for dead by his fellow party members.

Fighter (subclass: Ranger, Barbarian): my co-DM (Jocelyn) 's second oldest PC was a straight B/X fighter, and probably the most badass character to ever roam our campaign; she deserves her own post. My brother played a dwarf fighter/thief; another player (Crystal) played a 6'3" female human fighter fighter who sported about 50 weapons including a man-catcher ("to catch me a man") and exceptional (%) strength. My brother played a barbarian also ("Bork") who was killed at least once in an intra-party feud. There were a couple 1E bards who started in the ranger class (one was mine) but we never had any dedicated rangers. One of the earliest character sheets I still have stashed is a level one elf (B/X) named "Silver Fox;" no idea whose it was. Jocelyn's oldest character was a 1st level (B/X) halfling that I gave her when she randomly showed up to the first adventure I ever ran and needed a is the only "halfling fighter" I remember anyone ever playing back in the day. Matt also ran a half-elf "archer," though I can't remember if this was taken from Bard Games' The Compleat Adventurer, a Dragon magazine, or was some kit-bashed combination.

Magic-User (subclass: Illusionist): quite a few of these, though most were played by one guy (Scott); his longest running PC was a straight MU named "Lucky Drake" (later "Lucius Draco"). He also ran an illusionist (who adventured through D1: Descent to the Depths of the Earth), and a (male) Drow magic-user/assassin with house-ruled pyrokinetic (psionic) ability. Also seen: a half-elven fighter/magic-user and a female (wild?) elven magic-user with red hair and a penchant for fire/arson. Now that I think of it, fire and arson were fairly common proclivities of magic-users in our games. Not Lucky, though...he was a strict lightning bolt type of mage.

Thief (subclass: Acrobat, Assassin): quite a few of ALL of these. Jason's longest running PC was a thief, grandfathered into AD&D from B/X. Matt had an assassin. Scott had the aforementioned magic-user/assassin. After the UA's release, most thieves (at least three, maybe four) chose to become thief-acrobats upon reaching 6th level (two bards did). In one campaign, my bard took assassin as his second class (instead of, this was not the guy who started as a ranger). My brother's halfling thief-acrobat was the kind of douchebag only an annoying younger brother can run. A couple of (prominent) halfling thief henchmen/NPCs. Scott ran a female half-elf thief who was brutalized and killed by a tribe of bullywugs (I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City) in what may have been the lowest point of our many year campaign...a campaign that had MANY low points (see Matt's healer character above).

Monk: I created a monk character with the name "Soft Treader" (because I suck, okay?) who wore a cape with a hood that looked a bit like Moon Knight (not really an inspiration) and, as far as I remember never used his hand-to-hand attacks; had a crossbow and "jo sticks" instead and made it to about 2nd level before being abandoned (or killed...I honestly don't remember). Pretty sure he was Lawful Neutral, which didn't fit in all that great with the (usually Chaotic) party we were running.

Bard: three of these, though one (mine) really had three iterations across the years: first as a fighter-thief-bard, then as a ranger-acrobat-bard, and finally as a fighter-assassin-bard. The other two were both female; one (another half-elf ranger-acrobat) was a prominent NPC. The other was a crazy-ass mix of storm giant/human/elf that (I think) was of the "standard" fighter-thief variety...albeit one with a bunch of crazy air elemental type powers (this was NOT my character; another long post).

A few years after this group disbanded, I did have the opportunity to run a short (maybe three month?) AD&D campaign for my brother and some friends. They were in high school at the time and were tired of me maiming their PCs with Chaosium game systems (ElfQuest, Stormbringer, etc.). The group consisted of a fighter, a couple clerics, and an evil magic-user or two. Oh, and another (1E) bard who was sacrificed pretty early on in order to power The Machine of Lum the Mad. Since that time, I've really only run/played BECMI or B/ least as far as anything resembling a "campaign."

So what's the breakdown? How many different classes are we talking? Well, that's really only about EIGHT classes, plus multi-class combos and racial variation. I mean, the monk? I can hardly call a class played in one or two sessions by a single player (probably one just "trying out" the new rules) as really viable class. Other than the thief, most single-class characters were a "main" class: fighter, cleric, or magic-user. Subclasses were something to be shoehorned into a multi-class character (or bard) or left for NPCs. The thief subclasses were the exception for us, and I'd guess this was due mostly to them all being "thief PLUS" type classes: they had all the abilities of a thief, plus extra abilities. And UN-like other subclasses (paladins, rangers, barbarians, etc.) there were no behavioral restrictions mandated by their class. Any rule that restricted us with regard to who we could loot and what we could carry (treasure-wise) was enough to render classes undesirable and untouchable.

Getting crowded in here...
If we had played without behavior restrictions, would we have made use of more classes? Possibly. Certainly the cavalier's "boost ability score over time" looks like the kind of tasty exploit we would have lapped up. But it's hard to say: the original four B/X classes (fighter, magic-user, cleric, and thief) were so straightforward in how they worked. A class like illusionist seemed pretty easy to add, because it was (mainly) just about swapping out the spell list. And you can do a LOT with four classes, a handful of races, and an ability to combine the two (or more) elements.

Which, unfortunately, doesn't really answer my question.

I just want to add a couple-three more thoughts (as I wrap up an already-too-long post): one is that my remembering of my old campaigns' classes is probably not accounting how much of our enthusiasm or affinity for a particular class was due to level restrictions. No one played dwarves (for example) because they max level was capped in all but the thief class (and who wanted to play a dwarf thief? He can't even climb walls!). This was a major consideration for us "back in the day."

Secondly, regarding 3rd edition (and 3.5 and, by extension, Pathfinder): I've played this brand of D&D and despite it only having only 11 "core classes" (we won't count the later "Complete" line of 3.5 that added at least 12 additional "core classes" to the mix), it was TOO MANY for my taste, simply because of the lack of restriction in combination. I suppose there's nothing "wrong" with a gnome or half-orc some ways, that's a nice option to have, an example of "outside-the-box" thinking, casting against type, etc. But there IS something about allowing (for example) ANY race to become a paladin, or a monk, or whatever that makes a class that once felt special and privileged to be "less special." And the open-ended multi-classing? That defeats the whole purpose (and advantages) of having a class-based system; instead you're doing a class-less system, just not one as robust as other "point-buy" RPGs (like GURPS).

In the original AD&D PHB, there were a total of 56 race-class combinations available to player characters (58 in games that allowed the human and half-elf bard options). 22 of these were specific, demihuman multi-classes, almost all of which were composed of primary classes (not subclasses). 50 is probably more than one will see in a long-running game (mine used less than half this number, and we enjoyed trying out new things and tinkering)...but I can see wanting to have 150% to 200% more available than what one would expect to find over the life of a campaign. For me, based on my past experience, 40 would feel like a pretty safe maximum.

Besides, I could always add more if some player really REALLY wanted to have something unusual (a half-giant pyrokinetic archer, for example).
; )


  1. Give me B/X and you can even keep the Thief. I'll take the big three human classes and the three demi-men.

    1. @ Scott:

      Hmm...rather than saying 40 as a "starting point," I probably should have said "absolute maximum." By start, I meant "place to start testing" ...then prime from there.

      The Big Seven in B/X are a good place to start any campaign, but I'm not sure it can sustain long term play without variation or addition. Even in my All B/X All the Time days (circa 2010-2012) we eventually ended up adding a few classes to the mix, both from my own work (The Complete B/X Adventurer) and AD&D (via the Advanced Edition Companion for Labyrinth Lord).

    2. Yes, it can be hard to stick with seven (or for me six) but it's a great starting point.

      In my Fallen Empire setting the classes available are the seven minus the Thief, plus Rat-Catcher (an urban ranger) and Holmes Monk (not a 1e Monk). There will also be druids, but they will not be playable to begin with, and I think two more kinds of non-Cleric clergy aside from the Monk.

  2. Thanks for this! It's being very helpful in how I present roles for fantasy in my light Fudge game ... but still trying to retain a D&D atmosphere.

  3. Once again, I find myself pointing at 5E Basic as better than full-on 5E: "The Basic Rules runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options" 4x4 = 16, that's enough but not too much.

  4. I don't mind tons of classes as long as creating them doesn't take substantially more time and that they provide a distinctly different feel than other classes. That's one of the things I liked about all the classes that sprung up in Dragon Magazine, even when they were a sub-class of another class they still felt different in play and they generally were no more fiddly to create than what we were used to.

    This was unevenly handled with kits in 2nd edition. Some books I liked, like the Bard's Handbook, where there were a lot of kits that gave a different flavor to your character. The Fighter's Handbook seemed to fail in this regard, as the differences were pretty bland and if I recall correctly there were a couple obviously better choices.

    One of the things that impresses me about Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea is that the classes all seem like they will be interesting and different (I think. Haven't gotten it to the table yet.)

    I do want to clarify that while I want classes to feel different, it doesn't bother me to have multiple characters in a party of the same exact class. Some of the best games I've played in have been nearly or totally single classed.

  5. I think that it depends on the rest of the game, really. A bunch of classes in The Arcanum or Rolemaster seems right. Fewer, but still several, in AD&D seems good too, and in some settings there can even be a few more than the official number—useful examples I've seen in specific settings include Psionicist, Dragonlord/Dragonrider, Mountebank, Dreamer, Timelord, Bandit, and so on. But D&D works just as well, maybe even better, with just two or three, but can go up to seven or so without effort, and despite what you said above, having one to three "classes" in Pendragon*—Knight in all editions, Magician in 4th edition, and Lady in 4th edition and possibly others—is probably more than enough.

    I will say that "archetype" systems like Shadowrun, TORG, or Star Wars (WEG) are presenting classes, but they're also usually presenting a class-creation system that seems similar to a point-buy system as used in other games.

    *I'll point out that the situation is complicated slightly by the fact that some lands in some editions have alternatives to these, such as Pagan Shore or Saxons which have a slightly different structure for character creation. But this isn't really an issue, since each land only has a couple of main options that fit the concept of a class.

    1. @ Faol:

      Pendragon has magicians and ladies these days? I was completely unaware of this.

      However, maybe you misread what I wrote: I said some games...including Pendragon...don't need a class system. A game where everyone plays the same type of character (a knight, in the early editions of PenD) isn't a "class" system (um...not in the sense I'm writing about anyway!) and it works just fine.

      The alt land add-ons you describe would not even count as "building a class system" (in my book)...presuming players still only play one type of character (Saxon knights or whatever), you're just publishing an alternate setting for the PenD system, which is just fine and dandy. Even the original PenD had slight variation based on "land of birth" and different religions having different "virtues" (or whatever they're called)...this doesn't make a different class anymore than D&D's alignment or weapon proficiency selection does.

      I agree with your main point though: it depends on the game.

    2. 4th Edition added magician PCs.

      5th Edition went back to basics. There are rules for a lady in waiting, but magic is back to being an NPC thing and the focus is squarely on knights again.

    3. Yes, what Tom said. 4th edition Pendragon was an interesting experiment that they've chosen to discard.

      I see what you're saying, though, and I do agree. Pendragon 4th edition is a bit of a different animal than other Pendragon varieties, which I happen to prefer but I know that I'm deeply in the minority there.

      Completely agree that different lands don't make classes, though different nationalities might, if you consider race and class to be as connected as you imply. A Saxon thane or whatever is not the same as a knight of Logres, and neither one is the same as a warrior of Ireland, but in D&D terms they're all Fighting Men. Just, one is a "dwarf" Fighting Man, one is a "hobbit/halfling", as it were. Not literally, but you see what I mean. Religion is absolutely a parallel to alignment, too.