Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Prestige? Hell, I Was Born This Way

A contradiction:

First, the best way to do classes in a Basic D&D hybrid is start out with a simple list pretty much keyed to the ability scores. Fighter STR, Thief DEX, you know the routine ... Dwarf CON and Elf CHA pretty much slide in there. The runty class, I think, is best reserved for little nippers with no exceptional scores - that's how I make my gnomes. So seven classes, and it's damn clear which ones you're cut out for, and if your DM is a softie they can let you swap a pair of scores to play what you want.

The Grimdarckane Cricketeer Bladerager (tm)
It is also the easiest thing to slip out of that discipline - to get bored of the repetition, and sneak in a druid here, a bard there, a paladin or ranger or illusionist ... And then a genius insight! You can have your simplicity cake and eat complexity too. Just keep the more advanced options as 3rd Edition-style "prestige classes" for later levels, at a point in the game when the players are well used to it, and looking for new challenges and options.

The contradiction? For some classes that people want to play, it makes no sense, because the class is tied in with a background. Why should my vanilla cleric forsake his god and become a druid? That's as outlandish as a Christian curate suddenly becoming a Buddhist lama at 7th level (oh wait). Why should a vanilla fighter suddenly discover her barbarian roots? While it's easy for a wizard to start specializing, or a fighter to join holy orders, or a rogue to pick up the lute and become a bard, some other class-based choices cut to the identity of the character.

Sure, you could require that the would-be barbarian declare a wilderness background as a plain level 1 fighter, but then that's just another option players have to keep in mind when they start, to avoid the disappointment of being trapped in a choice they made when they didn't know any better. That way lies Third Edition madness, where optimal builds are mapped out level by level from the start like some kind of retirement plan.

So another solution presents itself: to make further specialization about what you can do, not who you are. Not about being a barbarian, but about gaining a Berserk Rage feat at level 3. Not about starting as a druid, but getting closer to nature within your faith, picking up some wilderness miracles at level 3.

But then you risk losing the simplicity of class-based design when it comes to NPCs. Instead of being able to say "This is a level 9 druid" now you have to say "This is a level 9 cleric with the Animal Friend and Plant Baron and Rockslide Impresario and Storm Meister special options."

Anyway, I see two ways out of the maze:

1. Different rules for player and nonplayer characters. The PC gets more specialized by feats, the NPCs have a set of named classes that involve a regular progression of those feats. The PCs, then, start out with a simple set of choices, but then have more diverse options than the NPCs in the fullness of time. In the meantime, the DM can handle the complexity that comes from having twenty or so NPC class options.

2. Realize that players evolve over more than one character. So, give players new to gaming or to your particular system the easy, limited set of options. By the time that first character dies or they are ready to join a new campaign, they will be more able to handle a complex set of class choices.

Which one do you prefer?


  1. Those "prestige classes" are based on the high level options from B/X. Nothin' new under the sun; fighters eventually needed to choose if they would be Avengers (chaotic), Paladins (lawful), or... some other thing (neutral). Mages needed to decide if they would be landed or free.

    Character evolution has been with us since the early days.

  2. In my own system that I am developing / hoping-to-playtest-once-I-drum-up-enough-players, NPCs and Monsters are built the same way. Their "abilities" are even "priced" differently, but it is simple to translate a PC ability into a Monster/NPC ability -- so a semblance of an NPC with a PC class can be generated.

    I find this easier to "balance," but also side-steps to 3e problem of Monsters -- due to them being built the same as PCs -- being a pain or just slow to build.

  3. I'm a bit conflicted on this. I wouldn't really want to go with the feat option. Things like the druid seem like they should be a package deal. Background, soft features (wooden weapons requirements and such), as well as the class features.

    On the other hand a dozen (or more) different classes does seem too much, if I'm playing oldschool. According to what I've picked up about the psychology of choice, less is definitely better.

    I think.. if I should go with something like this, I'd go for a prestige class option. The trick would be to make the base classes generic enough that it can cover the early career of the later specializations. So you'd be playing a druid from the start. You would have the same class as the cloistered cleric next to you, but stick to nature spells and otherwise act druidy, until you get the level where you go prestige and begin to get actual different abilities. Probably as early as level 2 or 3 for some of the prestige classes.

  4. Gosh, supplement 1--Greyhawk introduced paladins as a prestige class for fighters, right? Cha 17 and level 4 I think. I tried adding explicit 'guilds' and churches to allow specialist classes appropriate to the setting, but only the fighters and dwarves really wanted more options. Could be the fact that spell casters can learn different spells.

  5. You've been a long-time reader of my blog, so you probably can already guess my answer is closer to (2): start with just a few classes (and their hybrids) and allow broad changes to the "fluff" part of a class without changing the particulars of the class at all. Thus, my druids are pretty much the same as my clerics, they just swap spell lists (since there are plenty of nature spell lists floating around out there.) And my witches are magic-users (perhaps swapping druid spells for M-U spells) but with familiars instead of spell books and they brew potions instead of memorize spells.

  6. Oh, you had a question. I like #1 -- my biggest grief with overly customizable PCs and feats and all that is that I can't as easily, as DM, just thrown in a level 8 fighter or whatever NPC without going through a lot of pointless chargen. (Yeah, I can just ignore that stuff, but then the NPC is really weak compared vs. the PCs!)
    I guess this is really something you should your players about though, unless you asking for input because this will be going into one of your projects.

  7. I went with a FrDave like system of prestige classes coming with 4th level, built on this post. So at 4th level, you either become the name of your class (Fighter/cleric, etc.) or you decide to specialize in some way and become something else.

    Druids I treat specialy to prevent the issues you discuss with someone essentially "abandoning" their faith. Anyone can be a Bard at 4th level.

  8. @Josh & Mike: True, which is why my Basic-influenced instincts tend to head that way. Increazsing complexity with play wins!

    @Rev.: That system does look interesting, and there's much to recommend that approach. I'm reminded of FrDave's "druids as monsters," for example.

    @Rubberduck, Talysman, LGP: All good points and in the general same direction. I think letting druids be druids from level 1 while still being clerics/prophets is the way forward - this means that cleric flavor choice will have to be up front and similar to the magic-user's spell selection. A lot of biblical miracles are indistinguishable from druid nature powers anyway.

  9. I like #2. I add choice by having players "unlock" new classes in new locations. The bards of Halgorn, for example. If they create a new character there, he or she can be a bard.

  10. I think 4E had the right approach to NPC generation: just treat them like monsters. There is not really any benefit to engaging the whole PC chargen machinery. Just give NPCs hit dice, equipment, and (if appropriate) a few spells or special powers.