Friday, July 25, 2014

Prototypical FRPG Character Classes?

My friend Jeffro (Jeff Johnson) writes a column about classic science fiction novels related to role-playing games. In his discussion of Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade ( ) he briefly discusses what character classes most fit in medieval fantasy and which ones have a weaker place.  This set me to thinking.

Just about everyone would agree that the archetypical medieval fantasy characters are the fighter and the wizard. I don’t know whether clerics were part of the Chainmail rules, which were the first stab at adding fantasy elements to miniatures battle games, out of which grew D&D. At some point before publication of the original three D&D books the cleric became the third class in the game, and as Jeffro points out, clerics are major participants in the Middle Ages, though not clerics who cast spells per se. The first supplement, Eldritch Wizardry, added the thief class.

In many role-playing games the cleric is forced into the role of a mobile hospital, dispensing healing and not doing much else. Hardly anyone wants to play that kind of character. Fourth edition D&D got a whole lot of things wrong, but one they got right was to have the clerics be militant types who could do a little healing on the side; but at same time the vast amount of healing through “healing surges” available to everyone tended to ruin a great many things.

I disliked the thief class from the moment I started playing D&D (with those three books plus the one supplement). I disliked at first because I think of D&D is a cooperative game, and these are naturally uncooperative characters. They are loners, they are the ultimate expression of self-interest, and that doesn’t fit.

Perhaps more, I didn’t like the thief class because many of its powers were ones that by right some fighters ought to have, and two of its major powers - move silently and hide in shadows - were easily replicated and improved upon by Elven boots and invisibility rings. So in a game where there was much magic around the thieves soon found themselves obsolescent. In my games I turn the class into archery-expert Scouts, but they still did a lot better when they had invisibility rings and Elven boots.

For me, fighters ought to fall into two groups in rather the same way that strikers in soccer fall into two groups. First there are the big strong guys who rely on their strength to push around the defense, though they also have skills. Second there are the smaller fast guys who probably have more technical skill, and need to find ways to get around the defense rather than bull their way through it.  I divide the first kind further into two groups, the prototypical center-forwards like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Andy Carroll, and those who are more athletic but nearly as big and strong like Cristiano Rinaldo and Gareth Bale.  The latter are downright frightening when they get up a head of steam with the ball at their feet. The smaller strikers often play on the wings, though the prototype here, Lionel Messi, tends to play in the middle.

So some fighters should be big and strong and perhaps not very fast, like the prototypical center-forwards, some should be faster and more athletic, and some (the smaller ones) should be using many of those powers that were assigned to thieves. You could convert thieves into fighters of this type by giving them more hit points and better combat ability.  (I never understood why the original D&D thieves were not great with bows - as I recall they couldn’t use them at all.)

For those who’ve read Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, the Mouser is the prototypical little guy fighter and Fafhrd is the prototypical center-forward fighter.  (Chewbacca on the one hand, and Luke on the other, can be seen as the big and little types.  Han Solo may have been the Cristiano Ronaldo type.)

Perhaps there should be a place in RPGs for little sneaky guys, con-men, like Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo.  But if you play D&D with the idea that you’re the Good Guys, as I always have, these guys just don’t fit. And if you play it as a highly cooperative game, as I try to, their entire attitude doesn’t fit.

Someone at Castaliahouse remarked that the thief tends to be the primordial character for third edition D&D. If 3e tends to be a game for showing off, a game of every man for himself ("look at me, I'm a one-man army"), then that makes a lot of sense.  Thieves are the quintessential loners out only for themselves.

Going back to clerics, to me clerics are leaders, a kind of combination of fighter (but not as good) and spellcaster (but with less powerful, or often defensive spells). And shouldn't those guys who ultimately have a direct connection to some of god's greater minions (through that wonderful commune spell), and who will ultimately have access to the greatest play in the game, raising the dead, be seen as the leaders of adventuring parties in a world where gods are REAL and manifest in the world?
If first edition AD&D is all about cooperation, you could make an argument that the cleric is the primordial 1e character (if the cleric isn't reduced to a medic).

What's the primordial fourth edition character? Perhaps it's all those character classes that seem to be combinations of archetypes.

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Rick Stump said...

My thoughts on the core classes is, naturally, from a military viewpoint.
Fighters are physical offense.
Wizards re magical offense.
Clerics are physical and magical defense.
Thieves are scouts and intelligence.
I know your outlook influenced me greatly, but I see thieves are the class most dependent on team work - by themselves they can only find things and find ways to things.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Which reminds me of my comparison between American football and D&D classes. I'll have to write that one up sometime. Briefly, MU=QB, fighters are linemen and occasionally running backs, clerics are linebackers and occasionally running backs, rogues are wide receivers and defensive secondary.

Rick Steeves said...

Thieves pick up bows in Arcana.

Alex J. said...

My half-baked thoughts on the issue: give cleric spells to MUs, but make MUs less flexible in their spells, e.g. spheres or BTB B/X spellbook rules.

Make the difference between tankish fighters and sneaky theives be armor and weapons. You take off your armor when you want to scale the castle wall at night, you put it on when you stand in the middle of the battle line. You defend yourself in the city with your sword and buckler. You fight on the field with a halberd. You sneak around the forest with your bow. Naturally, some people would be better at some phases than others.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Not everyone may know what "spheres or BTB B/X spellbook rules" means. I don't have a clue.

Alex J. said...

(Sorry about that.)

The relevant part of Moldvay/Cook Basic D&D spell system in short: magic users have spells in their books only equal to what they can cast. So a 1st level wizard has just one first level spell in his book. At second level, he gets two, etc.

The result being that magic users are de facto specialists. So one might have Sleep where another has Turn Undead.

By spheres, I mean a more formal specialist system. Where e.g. you can't learn both black magic and white magic spells. 2e AD&D had a specialist mage system where you got bonus spells in your sphere (e.g. Illusion/Phantasm) but couldn't cast in the opposing sphere or spheres (I think it was Alteration/Evocation).

You could make cleric type spells one of those spheres, and their reversals another.

Lewis Pulsipher said...


I think clerics, if configured correctly, are a great addition to an FRPG. Gods really exist (whereas that's debatable, at best, in the real world), and manifest themselves in the world. Religious ought to be important. It would be wasteful to merely add clerical spells in some way to magic-user spells, though I've seen the "solution" suggested elsewhere.

DHBoggs said...

Agree and enjoyed the post. Clerics aren't in CHAINMAIL, but were introduced in pre D&D Blackmoor and one of the main functions they came to have in Blackmoor was as vampire hunters. Also a slight correction if I may, Supplement I, which does introduce the thief class is called Greyhawk, not Eldritch Wizardry which is Supplement III.

Game Designing Courses said...

Enjoyed reading the blob but was lill confused about spheres or BTB B/X spellbook rules.