Over at Jeff's Gameblog, Mr Rients has a nice post up today about Paul Crabaugh's Dragon article on "Customized Classes." Crabaugh's article presents a system for creating new character classes or modifying existing ones. One wrinkle in the system is that it never once recreates the XP requirements for the standard B/X D&D classes. In every case, trying to build one of the standard classes using the article results in XP requirements that are either less than or greater than those presented in the rulebooks, usually by a significant margin.
Jeff suggests that Crabaugh, rather than proposing a poor system, is in fact using it to critique the standard XP requirements. It's an interesting thesis and I think he's probably on to something. However, I still have a problem with Crabaugh's system and indeed most other build-your-own-character-class systems I've seen. The problem is that the system seems to assume that XP requirements are intended solely (or at least primarily) as a means of balancing the relative power of each class at first level. On this understanding, a thief takes so few XP to reach second level compared to, say, a fighter, because a thief is such a pathetic class at 1st level. Similarly, all the demihuman classes require more XP than their human-only counterparts as a way of compensating for their racial abilities.
I'm not convinced that's the truth of it. If that's the case, then why does the supremely wimpy magic-user require more XP to reach 2nd level than the hardy fighter in standard D&D? Likewise, why does the cleric, which is in many ways a "fighter plus," require less XP to reach 2nd level than either the MU or the fighting man? Crabaugh's system would suggest that the XP requirements in standard D&D are way off base and ought to be corrected by lowering those of the magic-user and increasing those of the cleric. That's a perfectly reasonable approach if you believe the sole/primary purpose of the XP requirements is to introduce some kind of rough balance between the classes.
For my part, I prefer to see the XP requirements play a different role: providing (dis)incentives for playing certain classes. For example, I'm told that, in many campaigns, it's hard to find players willing to take on the role of the cleric. I personally find this baffling, as the cleric is a pretty mighty class, but there it is. Might not the more favorable XP requirements make the class more attractive to some players? Similarly, could not the comparatively high XP requirements of the magic-user be a "warning" of sorts, intended to dissuade those looking for an easy-to-play class?
I should note here that all of the above is pure, undiluted ex post facto rationalization for a bunch of XP benchmarks that were, in all probability, made up without any rhyme or reason, or at least not as much as we might wish. My general feeling is that, in practice, the differences in XP benchmarks don't mean a lot till you're in the mid to high levels anyway. Likewise, I'm pretty dismissive of trying to balance one class against another based on some "objective" calculus, since, especially in an old school game, so much of any character's effectiveness depends heavily on his player and the referee. That's not to say I don't find articles like Crabaugh's interesting and occasionally useful, only that, as I get older, I find I care less and less about the fact that the buff cleric needs 500 XP less than the fighter, while the weakling MU needs 500 more.