Thursday, February 26, 2009

REVIEW: Delving Deeper Character Classes

I think it's fair to say that new character classes (or new takes on existing ones) are one of the oldest "traditions" of the hobby. The introduction of the Thief and the Paladin in Supplement I opened the door to this practice and I don't think D&D players have ever tired of it. If you read The Strategic Review or early issues of The Dragon, you'll soon see that new character classes were a regular and much-loved feature of those periodicals. By the time I started reading Dragon, though, new character classes were often presented as "NPC classes," often with dire warnings against allowing the use of these classes for player characters. The implication was clear: the AD&D Players Handbook was the final word on this subject and until TSR saw fit to add new classes through its official publications, there would be no more.

Gygax partisan though I am, on this particular subject I never accepted Gary as the last word. I gleefully allowed these supposed NPC classes to be used as player characters. We had our fair share of ninjas (years before Oriental Adventures), samurai (ditto), archers, berserkers, beastmasters, and countless others. Very few of them ever lasted for long (Jeff Goelz's variant bard being the main one I recall), but I rarely prevented a player from giving these new classes a whirl. That was part of the fun of old school D&D: the willingness to experiment with potentially dangerous "ingredients." Worries about "balance" were still far in the future. So long as a class was fun to play and added something unique to the campaign, it was usually good enough for me.

That's why, to this day, I take a lot of pleasure in seeing new character classes and new takes on old ones. One of the many pleasures of old school games is their simplicity. Creating new classes for these games isn't a complex math problem; it's more about finding an archetype unserved by the other classes and creating game mechanics that allow that archetype to be used meaningfully in a campaign, with "meaningfully" being a very broad adverb indeed. So, it's with great happiness that I came across Brave Halfling Publishing's Delving Deeper series, which presents new character classes for use with Labyrinth Lord, although they could be used without much modification for other games, such as Swords & Wizardry.

I'd previously reviewed Brave Halfling's version of the monk. This time I'm going to talk about three others: the bard, the paladin, and the ranger.

Delving Deeper - Bard is, for me, the weakest of the three products. That's mostly because the whole concept behind the class has been muddled since Doug Schwegman's article in The Strategic Review in 1976. That article described the bard as a "jack of all trades," a description echoed in this 4-page PDF, which sells for 75 cents. Part fighter, magic-user, and sage, the bard is roughly comparable to the cleric in terms of combat effectiveness and toughness (though with weaker saving throws). In addition, the class possesses a legend lore ability, can charm persons and monsters (as per the appropriate spells), and can read languages (including the magical tongues used to inscribe arcane scrolls). The result is very well done, but it does little to bring much-needed coherence to the class. After reading this product, I am still unclear exactly what archetype the bard fills.

Delving Deeper - Paladin is, by contrast, a very coherent presentation of a much-loved -- and hated -- archetype: the fighter dedicated to upholding law and goodness. I'll admit to multiple levels of prejudice in liking this 6-page PDF a great deal. Firstly, I'm simply very fond of paladins and almost always play them on those rare occasions when I play rather than referee. Secondly, the class presented here is, by default, not a spellcasting one, just like its Supplement I inspiration. I very much approve of that, since spellcasting paladins further muddy the distinction between this class and clerics. The result is a class that's umabiguously a fighting man, albeit one imbued with divine power and grace. This 75-cent PDF also includes rules including holy swords in your Labyrinth Lord campaign.

Delving Deeper - Ranger is 5-page PDF retailing for 75 cents and, in my estimation, the best of the three reviewed here. That's because this product embraces the multiple ways that the ranger class has been interpreted over the years by offering two different versions of the class. The first is what might be called the "traditional" ranger, in that it includes a damage bonus when fighting evil humanoids and giants, in addition to such abilities as tracking, moving silently, direction sense, and wilderness survival. The second version could be called a "scout," since it swaps the damage bonus for the ability to hide and listen in a natural environment. I really appreciate the inclusion of two versions of the class, since it highlights what new character classes are really all about in the first place: options.

And options are what these inexpensive PDFs provide. At 75 cents apiece, each one is well worth picking up, if only to mine them for ideas when creating one's own character classes. I've been lately pondering ways to make a more coherent bard class and Delving Deeper - Bard gave me some food for thought, even though my own interpretation of the class will likely be quite different. All of these products include art by Andy "Atom" Taylor, whose exuberant style is a perfect esthetic representation of Brave Halfling's approach to publishing. They're definitely worth a look by anyone who hasn't forgotten the joyful enthusiasm this hobby engendered in all of us at the beginning.

Final Scores:
Delving Deeper - Bard:
3½ out of 5 polearms
Delving Deeper - Paladin: 4 out of 5 polearms
Delving Deeper - Ranger: 4½ out of 5 polearms

27 comments:

  1. James, AD&D Bard class reprsents the archetype of the viking bardic tradition - a sort of folk singer, who makes his living either as a soldier (an armed man in service) or an outlaw. Wotan was the ultimate Bard - he was the patron saint of soldiers and thieves, and if he liked you, he came to you in disguise and offered you a drink of water on a hot day. If you drank from his cup, you became a poet and developed wanderlust, left your wife and your family, and became a thief or a soldier. GYgax's Bard alternates between fighters and thieves and comes close to this.

    By the way, how do you compare "Delving Deeper" series with the TSR's 2 Edition Complete Book Of... series, they have complete book of Paladin, Bard, every class... what do you think of those?

    I've seen specialty classes in Dragon and White Dwarf magazine so long ago. The Elementalist, the Houri, The Onomancer from Gary Gygax's extraordinary book of names. To me they are too one sided, not general enough to qualify for a bona fide character class.

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  2. My favorite version of the bard is probably the Castles & Crusades version. I like the fact that these bards can't cast spells. They simply charm and inspire with their songs.

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  3. Yes, but how do you quantify this effect in the game?

    Bards were Mystics. Wotan hung from the Tree Of Life and became wise as a result of his suffering. He is the original Hanged Man of rhe Tarot deck fame.

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  4. You look way too serious in the picture you provide of yourself, a bit like an evil schoolteacher.

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  5. School's out, it's AD&D time, and not accidental death and dismemberment for all ye hackmeisters out there? Why settle for sloppy seconds when you can go straight to the source?

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  6. Hey thanks, James. I'm glad you like them. All of the BHP guys worked hard with me to create the DD series.

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  7. To provide another viewpoint, a bard works very well as the old beloved Swords and Sorcery generalist, with more of a bend towards knowledge and legends. Think the Grey Mouser.

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  8. James, AD&D Bard class reprsents the archetype of the viking bardic tradition

    I'd agree that the skald is an influence on the bard class, but it's not the only one and certainly not the predominant one, at least if you consider all the Celtic nomenclature that surrounds it.

    By the way, how do you compare "Delving Deeper" series with the TSR's 2 Edition Complete Book Of... series, they have complete book of Paladin, Bard, every class... what do you think of those?

    They're really two very different types of books. The Delving Deeper releases are much more bare bones, whereas the various "Complete" books had a lot more breadth, if not depth. I haven't looked at them in years, but I recall thinking well of some of them at the time, although there were also a great many I felt were really abominable.

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  9. You look way too serious in the picture you provide of yourself, a bit like an evil schoolteacher.

    And that's inappropriate? ;-)

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  10. Hey thanks, James. I'm glad you like them. All of the BHP guys worked hard with me to create the DD series.

    You're very welcome. I see BHP as one of the most exciting companies to come out of the old school renaissance. I love your products and hope these reviews might alert more people to the excellent work you've done.

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  11. Think the Grey Mouser.

    I have occasionally considered the possibility that, under D&D, the Mouser might be considered a bard, but the class is such a peculiarly mixed bag of abilities that it's no better a fit than thief would be.

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  12. What I liked about playing bards is that it made it possible to let fellow players know that "my guy is a sensitive artist and intellectual whom women find inexplicably irresistible" without having to say that. And I don't know if that's good enough to justify a character class. Like the thief, there's something very appealing about the bardic archetype, but maybe it's just lazy roleplaying that prevented me from finding that in another class: "My guy is an M.U. who plays the banjo when he's casting spells. And all the girls want to try on his conical hat."
    Still, I look forward to what James has on this.

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  13. I generally agree with James' problems with the Bard as a class. I recall finding the AD&D Bard fascinating like some kind of abstruse, metaphsyical puzzle, but ultimately not a class as such.

    I must admit, though, that I had some success playing a C&C Bard in the vein of Elric's cousin Yrkoon: a warrior and a scholar of the occult, twisting his Inspire ability into a Taunt abilty.

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  14. Have you seen Alexis's take on the Bard on his blog? He posits the bard as a class of artists, his description of the class is geared a little towards the musician side of things but could easily describes painters, sculptors, poets - what have you. Normally artistic types serve to get schooled by barbarians in Sword and Sorcery but they are definitely part of the genre. Especially if you count Jack Vance's work.

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  15. This bard seemed to me to be a fantasy version of a gypsy.

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  16. If you want a class to be NPC only, the obvious (pre 3e) solution is not to include an XP progression table! Levelling up only by DM fiat clearly says "NPC ONLY".

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  17. The Bard is a very much needed class IMHO. ;-)

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  18. With regards to artists in AD&D game, if you look at all thematerial components listed in Gygax's spells, require their use in the game (i.e. role-playing the actual casting of the spells using all of the components, verbal, material, and somatic) then a Magic Users turn out to be great aesthetes also! Think of them having to shop for material components, the way chefs do for dinner ingredients and the way painters do for just that right pigment to put on their canvas...

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  19. "My guy is an M.U. who plays the banjo when he's casting spells. And all the girls want to try on his conical hat."

    Haha

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  20. Have you seen Alexis's take on the Bard on his blog?

    Link?

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  21. Seeing the Bard as Wotan makes sense to me, at last. I always expected it to be Taliesin, and was consequently confused by the class' many presentations. Perhaps I'd insist on giving him a familiar.

    I'd love to see a Taliesin class, BTW, but I don't think he'd work in D&D for a number of reasons. The trouble with having a creative/artist archetype is that it doesn't touch on combat, which is the basic coin of D&D: unless you fundamentally restructure the game, I can't see performing arts being very valuable down the dungeon.

    Does anyone else worry that including a jack-o-t class rather invalidates the whole concept of classes?

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  22. Sorry! Here's the link: http://tao-dnd.blogspot.com/2009/02/bard.html

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  23. Not really, Richard. I've heard Druid referred to as a Jack-O-T class, and yet, a party of druids in a dungeon would be challenged beyond their capabilities. I think that Multi-Classed characters, and Basic D&D Elves are the true Jack-O-T's and they don't threaten the character class system, and don't have that much of a combat advantage unless they are facing parties of fighters or magic users without other classes protecting them.

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  24. I have been working on a BFRPG campaign, and I am using all three of these Delving Deeper classes with only minor tweaks. I agree that the Ranger, due to the multiple ways of handling it, is the best option. I actually liked this take on the bard, but that is because I have never liked the "bard as variant spellcaster" concept, and this one isn't a spellcaster, though it does have access to "magical" abilities.

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  25. Weird thing - I never had a game with a bard or a monk charcter in it. Had a guy who was into Kung Fu movies, James Bond assassins and Ninjas, an I offered him the Monk, the Oriental adventure Samurai, as well as Ken Sai and Ninja characters, and he got cold feet and stuck to a regular fighter instead. Why, I don't know.

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  26. I'm not fond of the bard as-is, either. Why do we need a new spell caster class? We don't. He needs to have his charm abilities linked to verse and song and make them unique, not simply charm person duplicates. That's lame.

    There's scope yet for someone to come along and do the bard class right, give him his own set of magic items and his own niche. Perhaps something like in the Bard's Tale computer games would work well.

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  27. Does anyone else worry that including a jack-o-t class rather invalidates the whole concept of classes?

    Yes, that's been a big beef of mine for a long time.

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