Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Swords & Wizardry: Pulp Fantasy Edition

People who've been following my random musings since before I started this particular journal will be aware that one of my back burner projects has been what I called "Pulp Fantasy D&D." This would be a variant on the D&D rules that, while generally not changing anything about the game as written, would be presented in a way that was more consonant with the pulp fantasy literature that inspired Gygax and Arneson. I've recently begun to think that Swords & Wizardry would make a nice basis for such a game, not least of which because, of all the retro-clones and simulacra currently available, it's the one that's closest to the three little brown books that started it all.

In thinking about it, I realized that Pulp Fantasy D&D would be built on the foundation of three primary character classes: the Fighter, the Thief, and the Magic-User. Where is the Cleric, you might rightly ask, especially given that it's one of D&D's original classes? Well, my feeling is that the Cleric just isn't a pulp fantasy archetype. The class itself owes its existence to a combination of Peter Cushing's Van Helsing and the Knights Templar. It's really a "Vampire Hunter" class and, as such, has no place in Pulp Fantasy D&D. Now, the Priest is a pulp fantasy archetype, but the Priest is in fact just a kind of Magic-User, which is why my version of the M-U comes in two varieties (or maybe three): the Wizard and the Priest, each of which taps into the same flows of magical energy but whose effects are quite different owing to means by which they channel that magical energy.

You can view these three classes (including the sub-sets of the Magic-User) as three slices of a big circle. At the places where two classes meet, you find other archetypes, such as the Warrior-Wizard (where Fighter and Magic-User meet) or the Rogue Wizard (where Thief and Magic-User meet). It's my belief that multiclassing in either the traditional Gygaxian form or the 3e version thereof is an abomination, both mechanically and thematically. The desire to play a character whose archetype exists at the boundaries between two primary classes is a valid one and should be accommodated. D&D -- Pulp Fantasy D&D even moreso -- is a game of archetypes and the rules need to support them. In my opinion, a new character class is the simplest and fairest way to handle "mixed" archetypes. This approach also nicely puts a cap on the number of possible classes, since there are only so many combinations, even if one allows for numerous Magic-User variants, which is why I like it.

The one difficulty I'm finding is this: what's the archetype that exists on the boundary between the Fighter and the Thief? I suppose a lot depends on how I define the Thief, something I'm still mulling over. I've always been a little unhappy with D&D's portrayal of the Thief, which alternates between being reductionist (the Thief as "Special Skills Man") or being the Ninja class in all but name, neither of which quite captures the Thief as a pulp fantasy archetype. Likewise, since the Fighter is intended to cover all warriors, regardless of favored weapons or armor or fighting style, I don't think it's appropriate for the "hybrid" Fighter-Thief to be the Swashbuckler or some other nonsense like that. The Fighter is a broad enough class to accommodate the quick, dexterous warrior concept and, if you think otherwise, odds are you won't be happy with the direction I wish to take Pulp Fantasy D&D anyway.

So, there's still some thinking that needs to be done on this score, but the ideas are flowing again and I'm happy for that. Particularly in this post-4e age in which we live, there's need of a game that pays appropriate homage to the literary inspirations and origins of OD&D. It's a pity that D&D itself isn't the game to do so, but so be it.


  1. An idea:

    Just Fighting-Man & Magic-User

    But allow options/specialties:

    F-M: Knight
    F-M: Thief
    F-M: Gladiator
    F-M: Ranger
    F-M: Soldier

    M-U: White Magic
    M-U: Gray Magic
    M-U: Black Magic
    M-U: Green Magic
    M-U: Mind Magic

    Allow basic abilities by class but then allow little tweaks for specialties. Allow new specialties every few levels.

    It reeks of prestige classes [or advanced classes], but the idea I saw first in Warhammer.

    I think it might be a good way to create something pulp-y without reinventing the wheel.

  2. I'm all for limited classes. IMO, "streetsweeper" should never be a class; not because it'd be boring to play, but because it's not an archetype.

    For every archetype a class; for every class an archetype. You could do worse.

    Keep us posted on what happens with this, okay?

  3. I'm with The Myth – don't introduce thieves or rogues. The pulp thieves are in fact just fighting men that wear light armor and have a high enough Dex to make it worth their while. To recreate this mechanically you could add max Dex bonux per armor type, and add maybe something akin to Weapon Finesse – use Dex instead of Str to fight. Or you could abolish the reliance on stat bonuses and just say that heavy armor is expensive, loud, and slows you down. All good reasons why Conan wouldn't have it.

  4. This makes me so happy to read this. :)

  5. Assassin is a good one. How could I have been so dense as to have forgotten that one?

  6. I will, in a future post, clarify "Why Thieves?" but the short of it is this: this is Pulp Fantasy D&D, not Pulp Fantasy simpliciter. That means I have to stick, as close as possible, to the D&D conception of fantasy and tweak it rather than wholesale eliminate it. Granted, I have already tweaked the Cleric out of existence and, if the Cleric can go, why not the Thief? It's a good question and one I'll talk about in a future post. For now, I'm keeping the Thief as an archetype and thus class.

  7. Fighter/Thief = Conan is a very fair point, but hard to game balance: we know he's the strongest person in the world, and he seems not to need armour, not because he's so fast but because he's so rawk. In fact I think the ever-rising hit points mechanic is supposed to be a direct effort to map his fighting style.

    I see an underlying attitude in fantasy games that fighter archetypes are not very resourceful, leaving thieves as the men of resource (what you might call the Thrud factor): I don't know if it's intrinsic to D&D or not; in any event, I think it does a disservice to fighters, perhaps with the intention of making room for thieves. So I ask - what does a thief do? He's surely not just a chest-haxxor.* What special thing is it that thiefly characters do in the pulp fantasy sources - is there something other than opening the city gates for the fighters and using underhanded tricks while fighting? Something other than a Dex skill?

    * execrable spelling required by default meaning of "hack" in genre.

  8. In this scheme (i.e. Fighter, Mage, Thief), the Fighter would be more rank-and-file soldier, knight, bravo, thug, etc.

    The Thief avoids and retreats from a fight. He'll take advantage of surprise to back-stab, he'll snipe from a distance, but then he's out.

    The Fighter/Thief would be special-ops, scout, ranger, Conan, Fafrd & the Mouser, etc. He has the better stealth and intrusion capabilities of the Thief, but can step up and fight when required.

    Among pulp fantasy, Fighter/Thief is the most common protagonist archetype. (While the antagonists are typically Fighters and Mages.)

    In fact, if not using multiclassing, I’d be tempted to put more than one class between Fighter and Thief. e.g. Having both a FIGHTER/thief class and a fighter/THIEF class.

    And always remember: Conan always wore the best armor he had available.

  9. Is there room for a tri-class character (fighter/MU/thief) on your colour wheel? I'm guessing probably not. I ask the question because I'm trying to think of good fighter/MU archetypes in fiction and the only thing I can come up with is priest-of-a-dark-god, who is usually dispatched by the heroic fighter in the final confrontation.

    ...I'm guessing Belgarion is not of interest because he's a postD&Dification genre character.

  10. I know you say you'll address it later, but I frankly don't see why you'd retain a thief archetype if you're willing to throw away the cleric.

    From my reading there seem to be precious few pure thieves in the pulp literature...they all (from the Mouser & Fafhrd to Conan) seem to be fighters who also happen to steal things and rely on whatever skills they can to get them ahead, whether it's busting heads or hiding in the shadows or scaling walls to get to what they want/need. A thief who is not also a fighter (or an MU) is likely to get killed real quick in the pulp-verse.

    I liked an idea I believe you had earlier where the 'Rogue' class stepped in for the thief and was a sort of MU-fighter hybrid (as the Mouser and perhaps Cugel seemed to be in the stories). Why not have the 'thief' slot thus exist in the intersection between MU/fighter instead of being a 'pure' class on it's own. It really seems in the literature (if you want to take it as your startiing point) that everyone in the stories is a thief in some point in his career, but all that really means is he steals stuff in whatever way he's able until he can make money in better ways.

    The only reason to retain the thief as part of the 'trinity' of classes is to hew closely to the OD&D rule set/archetype, but you've already ditched the cleric from this paradigm, so why not go even closer to the pulp roots? everyone who is an adventurer seems to be a thief as far as those go...why would it be a special class?

  11. I'm so sorry to be jumping all over this thread, but you've tickled my design nerve. Is it possible that the problem is not the division into fighter and thief (which works just fine for Lieber) but the invention of plate mail? That is, the debate seems to be between agility/ability and armour: the fighter gets the latter and it cripples him for the former, turning him from a rogueish adventurer into a knight. Is there any virtue in considering a "dark ages" D&D, with chainmail being the height of the armourer's art and "fine" or "magic" mail allowing for agile fighters (without invoking the anathema term "mithril")? Is it no longer D&D, without plate armour?
    I'll shut up now, really.

  12. I'm certainly no Luminary, nor a scholar of old school, like many of you, but I've been reading Grognardia for quite some time now and this topic piques my interest.

    It seems to me that it's mostly about "framing". You say "thief" and you think of a rogue-like character that exemplifies certain character traits: self-serving, sly, conniving, quick-witted, etc.

    Now, this is not to say that a fighter can't also take on some (or all) of these traits. But it's not commonly envisioned when the term "fighter" is initially mentioned.

    IMHO I think that these three archetypes are a framework that attempt to convey the pulp fantasy character. You say "thief", as it relates to Leiber or Howard, and you get a definite mind's eye picture. Maybe not the hero of the story...but you can certainly fit that archetype to the pastiche.

    It's sorta like the "Erol Otus rule" eh? ;-)

  13. The idea that Conan never wore heavy armor is false. He wore what was:

    A) available to him at the time


    B) fitting for whatever he was doing at the time

    So as a young thief sneaking into a wizard's tower, no, he does not wear armor. Yet, as a king leading his army into battle against his enemies, he's decked out head to toe in heavy mail.

  14. I'm actually quite interested by the idea you have going for you hear, and if you put it out I entirely mean to play it. Can I make one request, though? If you include demihumans, please no level caps just for the sake of hewing to tradition. I've never personally understood why they should exist, and it's something that I've always taken the time to houserule out in my regrettably few attempts at playing older editions of D&D.
    Again, just a request, if you find it suitable. No need to take issue.

  15. The idea that Conan never wore heavy armor is false
    I'm sorry, I never intended to suggest that; it's just that, as the hero, Conan pretty much triumphs no matter how little he has to work with.
    fitting for whatever he was doing at the time
    that's the point of divergence between novel and game, though: once you've got your PC fighter into plate mail it's really hard to pop him back out of it: players are paranoid sorts (often with good reason) and will eat, sleep and go to the bathroom in their plate. Rolston had the idea of putting bits into dungeons you couldn't enter while wearing armour (the "squeeze") in a computer game. Players didn't enter those parts.

  16. That is, the debate seems to be between agility/ability and armour: the fighter gets the latter and it cripples him for the former, turning him from a rogueish adventurer into a knight.

    I don’t think armor needs to cripple any other abilities. I don’t think armor is more than a minor point in this discussion.

  17. It seems this topic has me thinking too much too. Apologies in advance for the length.

    I think there's definitely a place for a thief as an archetype. The name "thief" is unfortunate. The defining attribute of a thief isn't that they steal stuff from people, it's that greed (esp. for money) is one of the few things -- or the only thing -- that can make them take any risk at all.

    The Fighter should be the guy who goes toe-to-toe with the big nasty. He may be quick, cunning, stealthy, but his bread and butter is feats of physical bravery and prowess which includes combat. He likes an enemy he can sink his sword into. And if he must hack and slash his way past a horde of minions to get to where he needs to be, well, he will do that. He is not incapable of a ruse or a clever ploy, but he probably sees it as a way to maximize his application of force. A pure Fighter is not afraid to die, whether from honor or fatalism.

    From the Conan books I have read, I think he was a pure Fighter. The guy is all about the derring-do. And I think he was more about impressing himself with his own awesomeness than screwing up his courage to go after what he coveted.

    The Thief is someone who certainly would like to avoid physical combat. His go-to strategy is hiding, running away, bluffing, fast-talking, dissimulating, betrayal. If he needs something tough slain, he hires a Fighter. Though if cornered, or absolutely necessary, he may be practiced in some sneaky, deadly techniques.

    Above self-preservation, a PC Thief might barely value some noble sentiment more, sometimes. But probably, when greed or honor might force him to take a risk, even a horrendous risk, he is much more likely to complain, drag his feat, and pause at the highest point of risk to reflect on how stupid this plan was.

    A pure Thief is not the skirmisher/specialist of later D&D. In a way he is a less integral character to the group, sort of an X-factor, someone who tries to shake up the formula. Said another way, there is a fair degree of combat-uselessness in the pure Thief.

    I would call Cugel a pure Thief, torn between greed and self-preservation, willing to adopt any scheme no matter how circuitous to avoid a dangerous (or even tedious) obligation, schemes both craven and gob-smackingly ballsy at the same time. Maybe this is way off-genre, but I'd also call Han Solo a pure Thief (I even like the class name "scoundrel" from SW D20 RPG better than "Thief"). I would say Fafhrd is pure Fighter, while the Mouser is Fighter-Thief, if not actually just another Fighter. Finally, I think Bilbo in the Hobbit as a "burglar" fits my definition comfortably, but not the D&D class at all.


    As for the Cleric, removing the class entirely seems like a good idea, and I like the idea of replacing it with some kind of Priest that deals more with "received" magic than the Wizard's "forced" magic, though I don't see quite how it would work in terms of the circle of mixed classes.

    In game terms I think there is still a Healer type role that needs to be filled, and in metagame terms the Healer is a good complement to the Thief; a character not in a central role, good for inexperienced players, but positive and helpful vs. the Thief's chaos and selfishness.

  18. I've wound up writing a little essay about classes and armour. I understand it might not be wanted or of broad interest, so I'm just going to link to it, for anyone who's curious.

  19. why would it be a special class?

    It isn't. There is a "cleric" class in Pulp Fantasy D&D, but it's been recast as more a "divine wizard" than the vampire hunter/crusader class we all know. The Thief class too is being recast somewhat, to emphasize his cunning and trickery rather than his skills at lockpicking or climbing walls.

    I'll be explaining it all a bit more soon.

  20. It's sorta like the "Erol Otus rule" eh? ;-)

    Very much so.

  21. I know this is a bit old, but I just stumbled on it and I quite, quite like the idea being batted around here.

    Richard asked if there were any Fighter-Wizards in the lit. He must just have had an off-day to forget both Elric and Kane the Killer, among others (although I tend to find the Mouser isn't really in this class). It's a definite archetype anyway.

    As to "cleric" issue, Pulp Fantasy is chock full of priests who learn ancient, eldritch secrets. My preference would be no mechanical difference between Clerics and Wizards, or wizards with different power-sources, or anything like that. Your class is Wizard. Whether your day-job is Initiate of the Mysteries of Zarxun or one of the High Philosophers of Dumdj (which is the verification word I was asked ot put in) or the weird old man who reads fortunes or the shaman of the Wolf Tribe. That's colour in the same way that one Fighter is a brawling barbarian from the Northern Wastes while another is a refined duelist from the City-Sate of Karsch.

  22. As to "cleric" issue, Pulp Fantasy is chock full of priests who learn ancient, eldritch secrets. My preference would be no mechanical difference between Clerics and Wizards, or wizards with different power-sources, or anything like that. Your class is Wizard. Whether your day-job is Initiate of the Mysteries of Zarxun or one of the High Philosophers of Dumdj (which is the verification word I was asked ot put in) or the weird old man who reads fortunes or the shaman of the Wolf Tribe.

    I absolutely agree.

  23. I thought more about this over the week-end; it's really rather caught my mind. This is a thought about the "archetype circle". What if the circle was more of a continuum with Fighter and Wizard as the two poles. That is: Sword and Sorcery. Anything else falls somewhere on that.

    The Vampire Hunter as a scholar with a stake falls closer to Wizard, but has some Fighter characteristics. The Vampire Hunter who is a stern soldier for God falls closer to Fighter, with some Wizard characteristic (maybe a special power or something).

    This would mean dumping Thief as a core archetype, but not dumping the idea of the Thief. You just decide whether he hews more towards Fighter (physical skill) or more toward Wizard (knowledge). I think you could map any S&S figure onto the continuum.

  24. A number of games have had a fighter/wizard split or continuum.

    The Fantasy Trip Wizard or not-a-Wizard

    Dinky Dungeons Fighters and Wizards (with the Bard serving the fighter/wizard role—I assume)

    Arneson’s game, the name of which escapes me at the moment.

    Tunnels & Trolls Warrior, Wizard, Warrior-Wizard, and Rogue Wizard

    And I’ve mentioned before how I kind of see the oD&D cleric as a fighter/magic-user.

    Also salient, I believe, were the rules from the Lankhmar AD&D book.

  25. I thought more about this over the week-end; it's really rather caught my mind. This is a thought about the "archetype circle". What if the circle was more of a continuum with Fighter and Wizard as the two poles. That is: Sword and Sorcery. Anything else falls somewhere on that.

    That's a very intriguing idea ...

  26. For Fighter/Thief, I'd personally go with Pirate or Assassin.


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