Sunday, October 18, 2009

Character Class Archetypes, Reality, and Game Preferences

It occurs to me as I play PF/3.5 as written that my preferences for a less grid/movement/tactical game come not only from a preference for a certain style of play, i.e. narrative v. tactical, but perhaps primarily derive from how I define character classes.

My preferences for character classes go back to the original Red Box stuff, where you had a guy who swings a sword, a guy who steals stuff, a guy who can pray and have actual miracles occur as a result, and a guy who can use magic.  I like those 4 archetypes because they are very basic, and because (outside of the magic and miracles) they represented what an ordinary guy Western Europe in the middle ages could do. 

For example, a guy in the middle ages who was a warrior swung a heavy piece of sharp metal.  The more he swung it and prevailed in combat, the better he got at swinging it.  The guy who steals stuff had to rely on his physical body to move around silently, and his wits to determine if there were traps, or people he didn't trust.  The more he was successful, he became more experienced, and became better at doing what he did best.

The rules of Basic D&D let me determine if an ordinary guy who fights with a sword or steals is successful at what he is trying to do.  In other words, you have an average guy who is good with a sword.  He is not supernaturally strong, nor does he have any powers a guy in Western Europe in 1345 AD wouldn't have had. He is not as strong as a giant, nor could he ever grow to be.  If I wanted to determine if that guy in a magic free world swung his sword and hit something, the rules of D&D Basic Set give me the ability to do so.  They don't give me any rules for something an average Western European in 1345 AD couldn't do.  This is the natural world, the same one we all live in today. The rules for these two character classes just describe what we can already do in the natural world, both then and now, and help us adjudicate chances for success.  You could run a game of D&D set in the medieval European world of Earth using the Red Box rules for fighter and thief and its combat rules.

That's the base of the game.  Let's call it the natural world.

Then you have the overlay of magic and miracles on top of it. Let's call this the fantasy overlay, level 1.  In addition to being able to wield a weapon and wear armor, a guy can also cause miracles to occur, as a result of the direct intervention of a deity he worships. Another guy can also tap into mystical forces which are real, and cause fire to spring from his hands and burn his foes. They both tap into the forces of the supernatural.  Certain elements of fantasy books, magazines and movies of the time were basically added to the natural world, and we now have normal people living in the natural world, some of which have the ability to do the fantastic, or tap into the supernatural.  In all cases though, the magic or miracle was something that was outside of you. You were a normal man who was able to tap into something outside of yourself and make it affect the world around you. The character wasn't himself magical, fantastic, or supernatural in any way. 

Next we have supernatural creatures added into the combination of natural world and fantasy overlay 1.  Let's call this fantasy overlay 2.  Some of the less fantastic creatures can be played as classes, and some are there to interact with in other ways (mostly just to kill and take their stuff).  Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, etc. represent classic fantasy creatures, with rules which determine their ability to do things in certain circumstances. These races are not as powerful as most of the other fantastic creatures, but are more numerous.  They are inspired from classic mythology and other fantasy elements of the time when the rules were written.  The rules describe how the abilities they were portrayed as having in mythology or in the literature of the day function and interact with the natural world.

There was a strict division in the classes humans were able to play.  You were one of the 4, and there was no overlap in abilities.  You were either someone who fought, stole, used magic, or caused miracles to occur.  

Again though, until we added the fantasy layers, the rules represented reality and how to deal with real life situations that would have occurred in 1345 AD or 2009 AD, assuming we stole without the use of technology and fought with medieval weapons in 2009.  The classes represented that reality.

Classes in later editions don't start off in the natural world.  They are inherently supernatural, jumping right into, stemming from, and are an inherent part of fantasy overlay 2.  How else do you describe a race/class combo that can teleport at will?  Or push a dragon a distance just by using a power?  Or a swordsman who can target, mark, curse, put an oath on, or otherwise affect his foes magically before he even swings a sword? Or heal himself at will?  Is this ability inherent in everyone who lives in the land? Making them all supernatural? Or can it be learned?  Making humans all latently supernatural? Are these people even human anymore?

Just so you don't think I'm picking on 4e, to use 3.x examples, how can someone shoot 2 arrows at once with any accuracy in the real world?  Or not be penalized for shooting arrows into an ever-shifting melee combat?  Or not be penalized when swinging a sword at someone when you're blind?  Or hit four people with one swing of the sword with equal effectiveness?  Or trip or grapple a guy 2 or 3 times your weight? Or grow in strength to be as strong as a supernatural creature 10 times his weight?  Would a guy with a sword in England in 1345 AD be able to do that?

The reality we are starting with in the later editions is not natural, it is supernatural, or superheroic at least.  It's a world where the adventurer is not the average guy who got good with a sword, but something not human as we would describe it on earth in 2009.  Supernatural abilities are built into the class, and the class doesn't describe what a person primarily does (as in swings a sword, steals, causes miracles or casts spells), as much as it describes a list of inherent supernatural or superheroic abilities or powers that a person has. The rules no longer start with a basis of reality in the natural world. They start with a basis in a reality I can no longer identify with, either because I am not involved with or don't like the latest literary, film, or computer game influences, or because of some other reason.

I can understand that some fighters may be better with a bow than they are with a sword due to specializing in it, and that a thief may be a cat burglar rather than a pick pocket. To the extent the rules allow for such specialization, I agree with them.  But other than casting spells due to arcane study or making miracles due to devotion to a diety, I don't agree with rules which represent a reality not present in 1345 AD England.

Not surprisingly, I also don't agree with multiclassing without serious penalties.  Each profession of the four above requires much hard work and discipline to achieve mastery in.  When you dabble in two fields which each require total focus to master and get better at, there ought to be a seriously huge penalty to how fast you can achieve mastery in each (level up) when you are dividing your attention.

To the extent someone may argue that some of these classes from later editions are simply characters with multiclassed abilities integrated so as to make a new class, or a prestige class, I also call BS on it.  It has no basis in reality, because you are essentially starting as human and melding into your very being supernatural or magical abilities, so that they manifest in a sword fighter who can channel electricity bolts from their being through their sword on a successful hit.   Or who can blink in and out of a this phase of existence, like a phase spider, and strike down a foe without them seeing you coming, not due to casting a spell, and channeling energy outside of yourself, but by using energy and power you somehow have made a part of yourself.  Again, you're no longer human.

To the extent a class system is more based in the natural world, with magic or miracles being something a special class of adventurer has to cast spells to achieve, who is a normal human being in every respect other than their ability to cast spells,  I like the game system better.  Likewise, to the extent all playable races have abilities which aren't magical or supernatural (like the ability to cast faerie fire) but are rather the product of them living in a certain environment and being in tune with it due to the nature of their race (detect stonework traps), I like those races better.

Was I imprinted by my early experiences to therefore like certain editions and styles more than others?  Yup.  Obviously.  Does it matter to me what someone else plays?  Nope.  Enjoy it.  I just write these essays and experiment with newer systems to help me to better define what I like in a game, and why I like it.  There is no one game system which is inherently better than others, except on a personal level, due to personal preference.


  1. I like to add in the "crowd pleaser" or "The face man" into the group, the talker.

    For multi-classing, I use the "pie system".

    Ie, you can "multi-class", but you do worse at both.

  2. Great post Joe.

    I am bemused by the current fetish for loading base PCs with supernatural powers that they could simply achieve via 'ingame' circumstances such as obtaining potions & amulets, visiting shrines, an so forth.

    My gaming default is definitely "ordinary people, extraordinary circumstances".

  3. It is interesting how our first D&D experiences often become normative for us in one way or another, even if we are playing something quite different. I started with Holmes and there is something that just feels right about four classes, four races, only elven multiclass (fighter/magic-user) and a five way alignment system. That's not what I am playing, but it just feels right.

  4. I've never thought of it broken down into layers like that. That's a useful tool.

    I usually prefer something between layers 0 and 2, too. Once you get to layer 3 where the PCs are inherently supernatural, it becomes a game that I don't recognise as D&D.

    That's not to say that I don't like those kinds of games. Earthdawn builds supernatural ability right into even the basic "fighter" and "thief" class equivalents, and I rather enjoy that setting and system. It's worth noting that it's also built into the setting so that there's an in-fiction explanation for why these people are so super.

    I think I'd mind 4e (and yes, some of those parts of 3e) a lot less if it tried to ground the powers that PCs have in the fiction rather than just leaving them dangling loose and unexplained. I still don't think it would fit in the same gaming niche that 2e and earlier occupies, but it would sit much better with me.

    I've been casting around for a long time since 4e disappointed me, trying to find a modern system that could run a game that still felt like D&D. I haven't found it yet, but the collection of games that come close are odd bedfellows: Burning Wheel, HackMaster Basic, and the version of the ORE in Reign. Having read this post, I think they're alike in that they all have "you're a normal person" at their core, and then expand from there if you want.

  5. I'm with you here,Joe. In order to do something well, you have to practice it. Thievery, fighting, magic, god-pleasing, this automaticlly takes up time and excludes you from improving your skills in other catagories. This is basing the game on real-world realities.
    I'm sure you've seen non-lawyers attempting to fill the role in court. Without extraordinary talent on their side, lack of skill in the Legal Semanisist Class always weighs heavily against them.
    Placing your break down of classes against the classic structure of medieval life, Those who Fight, Those who Pray, and Those who Plow, shows how close to reality the basis of the game is. You only need to add, Those who work Magic, and Those who Steal. And in truth, thieves and magicians already fall within the underclasses of europe, 1345.

  6. That should be Legal Semanticist Class, heh...

  7. If you are talking Europe 1345 then your clerics and your lawyering types run together as the Canonist.

  8. I blame anime and super hero comics/books and video games. Which all tend towards superhuman characters and things such as ridiculously large swords (img google FinalFantasy if you don't know what I mean).

    There's also been a large shift in mainstream RPGs from player ability to character ability. Which fuels ever increasing/expanding powers for characters.

    Both of those stem from desire to sell an endless stream of product to power tripping adolescents.


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