Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Split Class

Lately, for reasons unknown even to myself, I've been re-reading Unearthed Arcana, one of the last things TSR published under Gary Gygax's byline. I'm on record as disliking it, feeling that it's a product of AD&D's creative decadence, a rococo gilding of the lily that ultimately lent credibility to many of the design decisions made in 2e. But I don't mean this post to be one about what's wrong with Unearthed Arcana but rather something that I think is right about it, or at least that might be right about it.

In this book, Gygax introduces not a new sub-class of the Thief but rather a "split class," the Thief-Acrobat. According to the text, a split class is a "specialist" thief who "leaves off all practices which increase his or her manual dexterity and begins a regimen of physical exercise in order to build coordination, muscle tone, and balance." Thieves who wish to do this must be at least 5th level and possess Strength 15 and Dexterity 16. If those requirements are met, the thief in question ceases to improve his pick pockets, open locks, find traps, and remove traps abilities (and never gains read magic) in exchange for gaining new abilities such as tumbling, tightrope walking, and high jumping. In most other respects, he remains like a normal, non-specialist thief.

What's immediately interesting to me nowadays is how similar in some ways the Thief-Acrobat is to the original conception of the paladin, which was more of a specialist fighting man than a distinct class -- meet certain requirements and you gain new abilities at the expense of others. It's an approach I've been tempted to employ in my Dwimmermount campaign, even though, to date, I've never allowed any classes beyond the cleric, fighting man, magic-user, and thief. Interestingly, this is similar to the approach Frank Mentzer adopted in his own revision of the D&D rules and one of the bits I most like about that rules set. Of course, the Thief-Acrobat is somewhat different, because it uses a different XP table than does the standard thief, a design decision that's defensible but I personally dislike, as it muddies the distinction between a split class and a sub-class.

Still, I find myself attracted to the idea of the split class as a means to create character class "specialties" without having to go the route of introducing whole sub-classes, some of which -- the druid and illusionist come immediately to mind -- involve significant rules additions. Time permitting, I may tinker with the notion of a few OD&D-style split classes and present them here for discussion. I think the split class is one of the more genuinely innovative ideas to be found within Unearthed Arcana and it's a shame it wasn't embraced more broadly in the subsequent history of the game. There may well be a reason why that's the case, but I need to explore this idea a bit more before I can decide my opinion on the matter.

27 comments:

  1. Perhaps even more interesting...this split class is the second (the 1e Bard being the first) instance of what in 3.x would be a prestige class.

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  2. Well, in a way it WAS embraced rather broadly when it became the "prestige class" of 3rd edition.

    Personally, players back in MY old campaign would ALWAYS take the thief-acrobat class over a standard thief (for a variety of reasons I've discussed here: http://bxblackrazor.blogspot.com/search/label/acrobat).

    That being said, I greatly prefer single "classifications" of adventurer, and while I feel an acrobat is a nice edition to any spelunking party, a "thief-acrobat" is kind of a cop-out class.

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  3. With regard to the subsequent history of the game: this was exactly what the 3rd edition 'Prestige Classes' were intended to be when they were first introduced. That mechanic was quite thoroughly corrupted before long, but the original idea was very much in this vein. 'Give up regular thieving to gain supernatural stealth' and 'stop advancing as a magician to channel your spells through archery' were two examples.

    The dangers in the idea that surfaced in that version were making the split class strictly better than the class they're splitting from, and allowing people to grab and drop classes left and right until class ceases to be a character-defining concept and is replaced by build. The second is easy to deal with; the first is probably more of a risk in old school games.

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  4. I want to fire up Assassins Creed 2 on my PS3 now for some reason.

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  5. I currently run a 3.x game and I LOVE prestige classes--however, the way I run them they're not exactly easy to come by. You need the prerequisites, of course, but you also need to establish a reason/means in-game as to how you'd be training in such a direction. It's the same with multi-classing, in fact.

    Only one character in my six-member regular party has picked up a prestige class (and only one level so far) because of this consideration, and also because we all came to the game with the mindset of: what you start off with at level 1 is the character's concept. Maybe that character has goals, which of course you'd pursue through gameplay, but the most fun way to advance a character is through seeing what happens to them and how they develop in the actual world, rather than by trying to fill out all the boxes you've checked at character creation to get to some goal at level 20 (if you even make it that far).

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  6. The Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide introduces variants of the core classes which sound similar to what you describe here. The idea is that instead of playing, say, a standard monk, you might want to play a drunken monk, or a Jackie Chan style improvisational fighter. Should you do so, you get new abilities which replace the standard class abilities.

    I think the intent is that a variant class is chosen at character generation, but the book does discuss the possibility of doing so part way through a career, although there are no set cut-off points, as with the Thief-Acrobat.

    I suppose a similar idea is the much-maligned kit mechanic in AD&D2, although the Pathfinder version seems more sensible and less of an excuse in power gaming.

    It may come as no surprise at all that the APG contains the acrobat as a variant of the rogue class. They lose their ability to find and disable traps in exchange for increased skill in, well, acrobatics.

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  7. For my own ADD game, I've been toying with the idea of redoing the Cavalier as just such a split class. Not sure how it's going to end up, though.

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  8. I've never liked this class simply because if h the thief had high Str an Dex stats in the first place they would either come naturally to him or others would see his potential and have him trained so he can be even better as a thief. Even if the thief didn't have the necessary stats, he would still have some Parkour-like abilities as those skills would become necessary to survive in a fantasy world.

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  9. mmmmmm (looking at my Majestic Wilderlands) you may have something there. It has the right feel in the way Jeff Rient's Hedge Mage had the right feel for handling NPCs with abilities.

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  10. A questions do you feel that setting forth requirements (ability, alignment, etc) is sufficient for a split class. Would there be a class where the split class add enough to warrant a higher XP cost?

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  11. What are your thoughts hybrids like my Montebank which is a thief-mage.

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  12. As others have noted this is very much like Prestige Classes in 3rd edition. Which is something I very much liked about 3rd edition. I recall that Jonathan Tweet claimed he was inspired by Runequest in this aspect.

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  13. yeah, it's a prestige class, or a 4e would put it, a 'paragon' class.

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  14. This kind of thing is why I dislike class-based systems.

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  15. Whether you call them split classes or sub classes AD&D should have standardized them instead of making up a new system everytime for the bard, for the druid, for the etc.

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  16. I personally dislike the split class/prestige class concept for exactly the reason Thomas Denmark mentioned for Tweet liking it: it feels like it wandered in from a different game.

    If you're going to have classes, they work better IMO if they are taken reasonably seriously. An acrobat that is a acrobat from day 1 is a much cleaner concept than the one in UA. After all, acrobats are only tangentially connected to thieving - watch Errol Flynn's (or Burt Lancaster's) swashbuckling films and then tell me why we can't have fighter-acrobat.

    I think the whole idea is confused and typical of the mess that skill systems make of archetypal character play.

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  17. I play Labyrinth Lord basic and offer my players the basics--fighters, thieves, magic-users and clerics--but ask them to cater that class to their archetype. One dude is a bounty hunter, so he gained the combat matrix of a fighter and lost half of his thief skills. I know a lot of people don't like muddying up the waters, so to speak, but I find that letting my players pimp the "image" of their characters actually makes them less likely to approach every single problem as "a magic user", or "a fighter". Games like B/X and LL are light enough on rules that they encourage stepping out of the rigid class idea and having your fighter sneak up on somebody, or have your mage whack somebody on the head. They don't need specific class-based powers or feats or anything else.

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  18. I agree with Nagora and think if you're going down the skills route, go Runequest.

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  19. @Nagora

    I seem to recall that a module did introduce a fighter-acrobat class (although not a split one), the Rake, which was pretty much what you were looking for. I believe it was the Arena of Thyatis, although I long ago misplaced my copy of
    it so I can't completely back that up.

    We never used the class at the time, although nowadays, I love to play those sorts of swashbuckling fighter types, so I'd like to find it again, just out of curiosity if anything.

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  20. Very much like a prestige class but its a lot more like how I thought the prestige classes should have been done. The ability to just pick up and drop prestige classes was a horrible thing that allowed things that boggle the mind and was definitely mutated by their being so many. I can using 3.5 make a rogue that gained +1d6 sneak attack every level till at least level 10 because of all the random rogue prestige classes that gave it on their first level.

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  21. Also, the idea of changing classes was pretty well ensconced in the AD&D rules, just usually in the opposite direction.

    For example, Paladins and Rangers becoming Fighters if they failed to meet the requirements for their classes.

    So I always saw the Thief-Acrobat as the next logical step of a concept that had been around for awhile.

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  22. I, like many of the others, see the split-class as the forbearer of the prerstige classes of 3/3.5 and the tier-based paragon and epic level paths of 4e. I have been toying with the idea of starting a long project which would craete something like the this-for-that tradeoff of the ADD paladin and thief-acrobat, but on a slightly different scale. Using ADD/LL Advanced as a base and the icnoic classes (fighter, cleric, magic-user, and adding rogue), building seperate class paths which a PC would have to choose from to craete his own "class". Their spells, class abilities, skills, etc. would be based on which class tree/path you choose to go down. e.g. A classic fighter could be turned into a palading by selecting the "Divine Warrior" tree/path in stead if the "Weapon Specialist" tree/path (these are just test names and have no real meaning yet). He would be swapping a fighter's master of all weapons type skills for the paladin's divinely ginspired healing and defense abilities.

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  23. "I think the whole idea is confused and typical of the mess that skill systems make of archetypal character play."

    Now, I've been playing it since its earliest incarnation, so I'm biased, but I like the way GURPS handled this with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. There are packages that line up pretty well with classes, but, since the underlying system is free-form, you can mangle those packages into what you're looking for.

    Want a stereotypical barbarian? It's there, spelled out, but with enough options to let you make the character your own. If you want a barbarian/thief, start putting your points into thief skills -- Stealth, Pickpocketing, Lockpicking, etc.

    EVERYONE is playing by the same rules, at least within a given campaign.

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  24. For what it's worth, I think the Acrobat is a horribly weak class, and if I were to use UA in a 1e game, I'd fold the acrobat's talents into the standard human thief to answer the age old question of: Why play a human thief in AD&D?

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  25. @ Taketoshi
    That's entirely by-the-book, per 3e DMG. The players are not supposed to get 10 classes or prestige classes at their whim. Besides the mechanical penalties, lots of roleplaying requirements are shown. So the usual comments that 3e characters have "X classes each" has more to do with crappy DMs than what the game mandates.

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  26. Chris Tichenor said...

    For what it's worth, I think the Acrobat is a horribly weak class, and if I were to use UA in a 1e game, I'd fold the acrobat's talents into the standard human thief to answer the age old question of: Why play a human thief in AD&D?
    November 3, 2010 9:59 AM


    I've always done that, and I've also given human thieves a d8 for hit points, better attack rolls and more options with weapons and armor.

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