Monday, November 26, 2012

The Tyranny of Labels

"I want to play a merchant," "I want to play an archer," "I want to play a vagabond." What classes are represented in those statements? Can you tell? The proper answer is: no, you can't, because classes aren't occupations or descriptions, they're just bundles of abilities that belong to certain types of people. They're archetypes, not jobs. Imagine a system that had to build a separate class for every job in the universe -- what would a baker class be like? Why would every baker follow the same general progression? You can see where this is going: eventually the classes would become infinitely granular to the point where EVERY INDIVIDUAL would need their own class (or at least every conceivable job in every conceivable culture viewed through every conceivable lens).

Character classes in AD&D are not jobs. They do not describe what you do, but rather what you have in common with certain other people. Indeed, AD&D takes the somewhat war-gamey point of view that essentially all people are, at a certain level, interchangeable. The skills of one fighter are not really all that different than the skills of another. Perhaps one favors a different weapon, or the other is just plain stronger. Perhaps one is more skilled, which is an important distinction to make in a roleplaying game.

What doesn't AD&D model? It doesn't model knowing "techniques" very well. It assumes a common canon of combat knowledge between characters. Getting better happens in general, not specific. You don't increase your ability to, say, trip someone without also increasing your ability to fight in general.

Back to the first question: what would the classes be to represent those first three characters I mentioned? Well, you could go a number of ways. A merchant could easily be a low level fighter or a thief. An archer goes either way there too. A vagabond could be a fighter, a thief, a bard, or even a wizard. Why? Because these are ciphertitles. Classes don't describe what you do, they describe how you do it.

I don't understand the hypergranular and yet completely non-intuitive class system of 3.x. I don't like the straightjacket classes of 4e. Classless systems are actually pretty alright by me as well. But if you're going to come and play AD&D, don't complain that all fighters are the same. They're not, they just have similar skill sets. It's what happens when a man learns to fight instead of, say, steal.


  1. I much prefer a class-less set up myself, but I've been in games where I've heard people talking about character creation and how the party shouldn't have two healers, as they both do the same things.

    No, both have the option to grab the same skills, what they do with those skills, - and hell, how they even got them, make them two very different characters indeed. As an example from a class-less game I'm playing in at the moment:

    On the surface myself and another player - Ant - are playing the same class. We're both fighters who also happen to be good at talking and social interactions. The only problem is, that's not even scraping the surface. I'm an ex-legionnaire from a Greco-Roman inspired nation. I never amounted to much, and ended up on the run after pilfering from the stores. I now make my living as a conman in a thieves guild, and the training comes in handy if it doesn't go according to plan.

    Ant is a viking warrior poet on a long journey of discovery. He fights in a totally different style, with different weapons, and is more vicious whereas I rely on finesse. True, he also has a silver tongue, but while I use mine to charm coin from pocket, he uses his to stir hearts and drop undergarments.

    Two characters that would have the same class, and maybe even multi class, but totally different. And great friends as it turns out. Without me reading the source material until well into the campaign, we seem to have almost recreated fafhrd and the grey mouser.

    1. That is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. This is a perfect example of "same class, different person."

  2. Two characters. One a knight, in plate mail, bastard sword, and a high Con for extra hit points, with a cleric and a squire as henchmen. The other a pit fighter, in leather armor, short sword and spiked buckler, with a high Dexterity for faster reactions and better AC, with a thief as his lone henchman.

    Both were 1e fighters, of course.

  3. In Zaan, every individual has his own class.

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