Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Sub-classes

Having been primarily an AD&D player in my younger days, I retain a fondness for most of the sub-classes included in the Players Handbook. As I've immersed myself more fully in OD&D, though, I have come to see the proliferation of sub-classes introduced in the Supplements and The Strategic Review as blurring the notion of what a "character class" is. How to reconcile these two positions?

At present, I consider all classes beyond the original three to be "specialists" and, except in the case of the thief (whose status is still unclear despite years of wrestling with it), very specific specialists at that. I've already talked about how paladins into my setting. Druids are a secret society made up of former clerics of Lawful gods, who now oppose Law and Chaos in equal measure. Illusionists are members of an esoteric school of magic and assassins belong to a hidden brotherhood.

I simply don't like the idea of "generic" sub-classes, preferring instead that they all be tied to some aspect of the setting. I feel this way for several reasons. First, it means that, by and large, most PCs and NPCs will belong to one of the Big Three classes. Second, it means that, if a player does wish to portray a member of a sub-class, he's signing on to a large number of "social" restrictions/demands to make up for his character's increased power compared to members of the base classes. Finally, I genuinely think most of the "standard" sub-classes pretty much demand some kind of in-setting context to work. I don't think the paladin or the monk or even the assassin, as written, are archetypal enough to be used without some hook with the setting I'm using. If a player just wants to play a "holy warrior," he can be a cleric or even a zealous fighting man. If a player just wants to be a guy who kills for money, he needn't be a member of the assassin sub-class, which, to my mind anyway, is something much more specific.

So, I do like and would allow sub-classes. I just think they need to be uncommon and bound to the setting better than they are in baseline OD&D.


  1. This is an intriguing and eminently sensible idea, IMO. I always balk at restricting player choice "just because", but giving them an option with accompanying "baggage" seems quite fair.

  2. I definitely like the idea of social restrictions better than having a more difficult "attribute" requirement to enter a sub-class.

  3. I love giving my players the opportunity to have the character they want. One way is cut back on racial restrictions (including level caps), and another is to allow sub-classes as-is.

    I have always kind of hated the Thief Acrobat though. I nixed it the couple times I have had players chime in wanting it. I just have them do a theif with a bit of acrobatic skill.

  4. I've been thinking along similar lines - my alternative to full, fleshed out subclasses is here -

  5. Sounds a lot like the original intention behind the 3E prestige classes, and one I whole-heartedly support.

  6. The problem with sub-classes is you let one through and others creep up, and before you know it you and your players are staring at a few dozen of these.
    My solution was to have a proficiency, pseudo-point system where characters pick the right proficiencies and they get the character they want without too much hassle. What defines a ranger- tracking, wilderness lore,and the such, so you get a fighter with the Tracking, hunting, survival (usually woodland), and hide in natural setting proficiencies and voila you have a a ranger. The same would apply to a cavalier- a fighter with Proficiencies: Horsemanship, weapon proficiency (lance, sword), and Lore (heraldry, etiquette). And there you. Simple and straight, it's good smooth in my personal system/campaign.

  7. Yes and yes. I remember being so excited when the assassin class became available, only to wander through countless adventures where no one really needed assassinating.

    The thief/acrobat made me sick. I wondered what was next, the magic-user/lion tamer? The fighting-man/trapeze-artist? The dwarf/clown?*

    The elegant notion of limited sub-classes specifically tied to setting is a brilliant, brilliant solution that I'd not heard of until today.

    *okay, yes, I realize there is a long-standing argument regarding the dwarf/bearded-lady class, but I wasn't going to re-open that can of wyrms.


  8. "So, I do like and would allow sub-classes. I just think they need to be uncommon and bound to the setting better than they are in baseline OD&D."

    I agree whole-heartedly, and this goes for all the variations of D&D that aren't tied to a specific world. The specialized classes work better with context. I think the hardest might be the monk, which always struck me as an odd man out."

    I have to admit doing a double-take, however, when you wrote:

    "Illusionists are members of an esoteric school of magic and assassins belong to a hidden brotherhood."

    I first thought you meant Illusionists belonged to a school that mixed magic and assassination. Being a fan of illusionists, my reaction was "cool!"

    I might still do it. :)

    Security word: "forishri." What a drunken ranger says when talking about "foerstry."

  9. While I, being a victim of AD&D, hold to the four base class concept (Warrior, Rogue, Mage, Priest), I agree with you on the rest of the above. I'm slowly working up a new S&W variant to support that for the way I like to play, and I'm using Talents (like selectable class abilities) to allow differentiation and specialization instead of subclasses. However, there is definitely something to be said about building subclasses to fit your world (or vice versa). I think it's a very elegant way to integrate character concepts with the world you've created.

    One of the things I really like about the Old School movement is that it's perfectly acceptable for the GM to limit character concepts. In later versions of the game, it seems that the ability to limit character concepts to fit a certain world concept, while not impossible, is at least highly frowned upon. I've always hated sacrificing world flavor for the latest character infatuation. Fortunately, I've only had a few players that moved in that direction, although I saw a lot more of that online.

    Thanks for an interesting topic,

  10. I'm torn. I understand your rationale - setting specific context is always a good thing, IMO. But still. Part of me feels the same way as the previous poster who said that once you introduce one they start to creep and then you've got...3rd or 4th edition. But I hate telling my players they can't try out a concept, and I'm personally really fond of the ranger class (tracker, trapper, woodsman, Aragorn, whatever)- the one class your post didn't mention. But the Strategic Review Ranger seems too powerful (compared to the fighting man, at least) and more complicated than it needs to be. But then, that's how all the sub-classes seem to me. And I don't know if I want to add proficiencies (previous poster's solution), as that's more rules and I want simplicity. It's a knotty issue, and I admire your solution - but I'm still not sure.

  11. So where does this leave the AD&D bard, other than stuck in an appendix?

  12. Good discussion. I agree with a lot of what Kameron and Flynn said above. The line, "I simply don't like the idea of 'generic' sub-classes, preferring instead that they all be tied to some aspect of the setting" is almost a direct quote of something out of the 3E DMG regarding Prestige Classes.

    I think the lesson I have to take from the 3E experience is that this intention gets wiped out by the interests from the publishing side of things. More money is to be made from publishing generic, campaign-detached stuff, upping player power indefinitely, and giving aid & comfort to player refusals to play along with a given campaign milieu.

  13. I'll join the chorus saying that this is pretty much 3e's prestige class concept as Monte Cook originally intended it. Speaking from an experience very early in 3e's run, my players loved the idea that there were a handful of "secret" classes that they had to discover in the campaign world through actual character work and then "unlock" by saying and doing the right things. The word "prestige" meant something at that point, and they reveled in it more than any magic item. Such a good idea... at first.

    [As an aside, although I am quite pleased with 4e I must say that one thing I miss from a creative standpoint is making my own classes. Oh sure you can if you want, but the existing ones are paradoxically so simple yet so comprehensive there really isn't much design space left to plumb in my opinion. Guess I have to get my jollies elsewhere.]

    Anyway, 0e - 1e sound like they could be excellent rule sets for the prestige class idea. Perhaps someone should experiment with some guidelines for it.

  14. I see subclasses as a "focusing in" on a basic class. That is to say, rangers and paladins are fighters with some specific extra abilities that a fighter could conceivably otherwise have had, but are explicitly legislated for in the form of the subclass.

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  16. I say the previous comment about subclasses being specialized forms of the base class is the road I've been taking.
    As for the paladin, I decided it was best to be given a prestige-class-like treatment, for all its elaborate but flavor-full context. I did the same with the assassin and bard.

  17. For low level campaigns like OD&D, I think off Sub classes are sort of the extra spice you add to a meal. a little goes a long way as too much can ruin it.

  18. This way of handling classes is one reason I like 7th ed T&T. It has Specialists, which have the option of covering everything the three main classes don't by zooming in on one feature.

    Since I never valued the idea of playing the archetypes that strongly, I've always liked that take on it.

  19. All classes should be tied to the game setting. Type of skills/weapons the fighter is proficient with is directly dependent where that fighter comes from, ergo for magical schols/college membership for magic users, guilds for thieves. In my setting the more elite a sub-class is, the more social obligation that player character hads to his class. Rangers have a secret society and must carry out its orders, etc.

    I am not against anything the player might want to play, but the mnore advanced/esotecric the class, the more disadvantages/restrictions the character has. Players are required to write a brief biographic narrative tio explain the special skills/powers/advantages that characters may have, but then the DM has the last word and can twist the story to maintai the game balance. Player writes her character to be a magic user perincess. The DM adds her fatehr was an unpopular tyrant, that her uncle has usurped the throne, that the local magic users guild has outlawed her as a witch,a dn that consequently the player character is hiding in a small town working as a tavern barmaid. However, she has contacts with a loyal servant (a high level fighter) protecting her and there is a number of NPCs across the realm still loyal to her father, who can help her wiht shelter and funds. This makes the player about evenly matched at the start of a game: She is a princess, and if the players acts stupid and reveals herself, she will be captueed and likely executed, if the other players won't be able to mke a rescue.

  20. giving aid & comfort to player refusals to play along with a given campaign milieu

    This is a simply brilliant observation. It strikes me that later edition D&D worked so hard to be D&D the property that they destroyed the space for D&D the individual campaign.

    years ago I read about Ayutthaya in the 17th century, with its king guarded by Samurai, sent as a gift from the Shogun, its European traders and con-men, its holy men and wandering mercenaries and transvestite seers and, best of all, its funerary architect-acrobats. Suddenly I lost my hatred for the thief-acrobat. I'm still waiting to run the setting as a game, though.

  21. Something I've been considering is "requiring" *players* to play and gain experience of my campaign/playstyle before they can get crazy with subclasses/races/etc. Play and survive with one of the archetypes till 3rd level, then if you still want create something "crazy".

    I expect the majority of players to not be familiar with sandbox and non 3.x style and I think it'll be fun/good for them to actually experience it fresh and simply without lots of clutter.

    Also, after reaching 3rd level they should have some good knowledge and ideas about the campaign world / history / factions and be able to come up with nicely integrated subclasses.