A Class Game: Kitchen Sink or Thematic

If you have a game with classes you have some or a lot. Or a ton. I can give you a couple examples:

OD&D, before any supplements, has 3 classes: Fighting-Man, Magic-User, and Cleric (or Cleric-Man if you like symmetry). If you want to play a Fire Mage, you write down M-U on your sheet and try to use fire spells more than anything else. You roleplay a Fire Mage, but mechanically you’re an M-U.

1st edition AD&D, you have 11 classes (including optional Bard). This is pretty much what we had in OD&D plus supplements, and it’s close to what’s going on in the Rules Cyclopedia (which is all I have much experience with when it comes to B/X). Among these are the F/M/C trio, plus Thief, and subclasses of these. Supplements like Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana ballooned the number to about two dozen.

2nd edition has the same, but systematized the M-U and Cleric subclasses so you can make up your own. Supplements and game settings expanded the available classes to several dozen distinct types. Kits modify your character slightly, and you can have one kit regardless of your number of classes.

3rd edition has 10 classes (11 with Warlock) and several hundred prestige classes with expansions. You’re expected to come up with more.

End of the relevant history.

Now you have a choice when you run a D&D game. You can have a small number of thematically-aligned classes or make every class available. Using the stock ~11 classes in the core book is the worst possible choice, since you lose both values: a solid theme, or lots of choice.

One example might be running an Oriental Adventures game with only Oriental Adventures classes. That’s fine. You don’t have lots of choice, but you have a good theme. Or circus performers. You can also use this to allow unlocking of classes. For example, if someone has a PC or henchman from the Oriental Adventures lands, he has a different class than is available in the Arabian Al-Qadim setting, which are different from the ones available in Dragonlance.

Choice is really important to some players, and I’ve heard it said that you should be able to handle a party consisting of a Halfling Gunmage, Drow Ninja, Tinker Gnome, and Saurian Swashbuckler (paraphrasing). If that doesn’t jive with your campaign, then maybe your campaign is more important to you than your players are to you and they’ll eventually sense this (DM as frustrated novelist).

I’d like to think the DM is going to put together a game and players will either like it or play something else, but in reality you have your gaming group and they’re your friends and you want to play with them.

Maximizing choice means The Binder. I haven’t made The Binder, so it’s entirely theoretical. You have a three-ring binder with plastic sheet covers in it, and in each sheet cover is a single class. You start by printing out a copy of every published class, choosing the most interesting if there are multiples. Then you add a ton more and solicit ideas from your players and work all of those up. Then you consider allowing completely free multiclassing (2e or 3e style, whichever) so if someone wants to play an Alchemist / Disenchanter / Spellstealer / Shaman / Bullette-Hunter, that’s fine and dandy. This is how I personally run Spelljammer. It’s the one time I’ll break out the Complete Humanoids Handbook and everything else and just tell them to go for it.

So what are your thoughts? Would you rather play in a game that didn’t quite have your desired class available but had something maybe close to it (and again, you can always roleplay whatever you want!) or would you want to be handed The Binder? Or do you really just like choosing between the same 3-11 classes every campaign?

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6 Responses to “A Class Game: Kitchen Sink or Thematic”

  1. Brendan Says:

    There are reasons other than “frustrated novelist” why one might want to limit the number of classes (or, more generally, the chargen options). I don’t want to have to learn about all those options. It’s too much choice!

    Delta said it better than I could:

    http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2007/04/magic-number-seven.html

    Also, all this choice often boils down to optimization methods. Not in all cases, but probably the majority. I realize that some people dig on that, and I try not to step on their fun, but all other things being equal I would rather players spend their chargen energy in other places.

  2. 1d30 Says:

    The frustrated novelist comment concerns that paragraph; it describes a DM who develops his campaign with specific characters in mind and then forces players to play those characters because otherwise it would affect his “campaign vision”. I can see a DM saying “I want this to be a midieval fantasy thing, so no anime space robots guys” but when the DM says “okay new campaign guys, everyone plays Dwarf Fighters!” it’s going too far.

    “I already rolled them up! Here Jim, your character is afraid of monsters and insists on wearing leather armor. Don’t worry, it’ll make sense later. It’s very important because of what I have planned for you to do in the 10th game session.”

    And this isn’t about optimization. That is, if you do a hundred classes it’s not because you’re making better Fighters (although I haven’t read an Oriental D&D supplement that wasn’t superpowered), it’s because your campaign setting is non-Dark Ages Britain.

    Admittedly, the F/M/T combo seems to make sense in just about any game setting. But let’s say you wanted to run an Ice Age or Prehistoric kind of Howardian game. I could see limiting the class options to Ranger, Berserker, Druid, Skald. With no organized religion you have no Clerics. With no writing you have no M-Us. With no locks, pockets, or traps there’s no need for a Thief (Stealth goes to Barbarian, Ranger, and Skald. Climbing to B/R. Druid and Skald have language skills).

    I think that campaign could be fun to play in. Certainly it offers no fewer choices than OD&D. But if I really want to play a Tinker Gnome this is not the game I’m looking for.

  3. Brendan Says:

    Ah, I see. That makes sense. Though I’m assuming you’re exaggerating regarding 100 different classes.

    “I’m only willing to play a tinker gnome” is just as absurd as “all players must be dwarf fighters.” This is a social game, and the various parties must be able to meet in the middle or there is no game.

    I agree: the Prehistoric Howardian game sounds like a great concept (though the equipment lists would probably be a hassle to draw up.

  4. Simon Forster Says:

    I’m all in favour of themed campaigns, so long as the players agree to play such a game. For example: I want to run the ‘Against the Giants’ campaign, and would limit the PCs to certain classes to begin with (core lot, maybe a few options); then I’d ‘unlock’ other classes depending on where they end up, factions they encounter, and the like.

    Also, I don’t see any problem with a ‘you are all dwarves’ game, so long as the players are happy with that. I think, to an extent, that the set-up or basic premise of a setting should be a decision made by all, unless the players don’t really care too much and just want to kill stuff.

  5. 1d30 Says:

    I like to come up with campaign pitches and toss half a dozen at the players as a group when I want to start a new campaign. If you have one where everyone has to play Halflings, one with ninja and samurai, an undersea one, a Spelljammer one, and a regular kind of dungeon crawl, at least people have a lot of choices.

    The pitch should be better than that, though. Think more like the back of the box for a large module.

  6. D. Says:

    I have lots of character classes, and have always played AD&D that way. Checking my list, I have around 40 or so for play – some of which people are probably not going to play (most people are not going to want to play an Oracle…)

    I’ve also tweaked the heck out of some classes (Bard, for example) in an effort to create something that does balance better in my mind.

    D.

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