I’ve been thinking a lot about classes lately. There seem to be 2 general schools of thought regarding classes (assuming that you favor a class system over a pure skill system, as I do). School 1 maintains a relatively limited number of highly abstract classes which represent very broad archetypes. Classes in school 1 are often generic and not tied very closely to a campaign setting, and players tend to lean more heavily on backgrounds and (optimally) development during play to distinguish and define particular characters. The advantages of this style are that players can easily get their head around the archetypes without needing to absorb lots of campaign material, and there are fewer rules needed to govern a small set of abstract classes.
School 2 treats classes as more specific, often campaign-based types; rather than just having a fighter class, there might be fighters, paladins, rangers, cavaliers, etc. Games like Rifts take this approach to the extreme. This is the direction that AD&D, and post-TSR D&D went. Economically, this is unsurprising, because this approach leads naturally to the splatbook and the slow release of additional crunch in new products. For example, to get access to the barbarian class in 4E, you must buy the PHB 2. Second edition also added kits, which are another approach to differentiating characters. Rather than a whole new class, a kit is a subtype which grants flavor and a few extra abilities (generally only applicable to a single class, as in the “complete” series of 2E splatbooks). I don’t like this approach because it front-loads the character creation process, rather than allowing characters to develop through play. Anything that makes a new character more complicated to roll up I generally see as negative (it also makes players more attached to their beginning characters, which makes it less likely that the referee will present real danger and real challenges).
As the reader might guess from this admittedly biased overview of the two schools, I belong to school 1. I just found a really interesting related post. I think Wayne Rossi is making a similar point, though much more eloquently. Actually, as a little detour, I’ll go ahead and quote the last paragraph of his post:
I think that this approach needs to inform our class-building. There’s a certain degree of flexibility within the three original classes, but they tend to move in definite ways in-game. (For instance, fighters tend toward AC 2, magic-users go from one-shot “sleep ’em!” to world-shaking magic, etc.) But classes still need to be added with a “should I add this?” approach rather than “this would be cool.”
What was the problem that school 2 was trying to solve though? Selling more books was not the only reason. Players enjoy differentiating their characters, and they like to have cool abilities. Old school play should be antagonistic to neither of those desires. There have been other ways to allow such character differentiation which might be worth considering. For example, in many games characters can “upgrade” their class at some point, like the old black mage to black wizard transformation in the original Final Fantasy video game. This seems like it might fit the developmental aspect of old school play better than having a large number of classes or kits. The idea of an aspirational class is nothing new; one could argue that the “name level” concept in the basic game is a similar (though less rules-heavy) approach to the same problem (though it assumes that all players aspire to ruling domains and building strongholds). 3E added prestige classes. 4E has paragon paths and epic destinies. And, of course, AD&D had the original bard, which was a strange conglomeration of multiclass and prestige class. This is better than the idea of kits or backgrounds, in my opinion, because it does not clutter up the character creation process, and also gives players something to aspire to (yes, this is already handled by the level mechanic, but there can be more than one form of progression). My problem with this approach is that it feels too sterile and mechanical to me, more like picking another power on a list rather than seeing a character earn a new title. And the quantity of content that such systems seem to generate is overwhelming, to say the least. (Seriously, what PC aspires to be a “Loredelver”?)
So, I think it would be interesting to try to make some of the more specific AD&D classes available as upgrade options, but rather than insert them into a specific part of the game progression, make them more dependent upon the decisions and actions of the characters. The powers will come “free” in the sense that no experience or other game cost is involved, but the character will need to do whatever is necessary to become inducted to the new order, and will have to maintain the code of that order (hence the awkward terminology “ethos classes”; suggestions for a better term are welcome). This also allows me to avoid adding more bookkeeping. Also, I’m a sucker for tradition. I like being able to have some idea about what being a paladin means from my past experience with the game. I love house-ruling and tweaking, as anyone who follows this blog can probably see, but I don’t like to throw everything out and start from scratch.
One other interesting idea that I want to play around with is that an ethos class would not be restricted to it’s corresponding traditional class. That is, classes other than fighters may also take on a paladin role, and gain access to all the paladin abilities, as long as they complete the initial quest and maintain the code. This would allow, for example, a Batman-type character (a rogue or thief paladin). I’m on the fence about this, but I think it is a worthy experiment.
The key elements of an ethos class are: 1) initiation quest (the sign-up procedure), 2) a code (how to remain a member in good standing), and 3) the abilities granted. It is only possible to follow one ethos at a time.
Without further theoretical digression, I present the paladin as ethos class.
A paladin is a holy warrior dedicated to upholding an ancient code of chivalry and virtue. There are no requirements to becoming a paladin, other than being accepted by an existing paladin for training. It is traditional for an aspiring paladin to complete a number of labors. Fighters are not the only class that can become paladins, but almost all paladins are fighters.
The paladin’s code is not about strict adherence to law, and in fact the uncompromising nature of the paladin often puts him or her at odds with societal authorities. That being said, the paladin is not generally a rebel, and will often try to work within the dictates of society (if possible) if accomplish goals; the paladin’s goal is the ethical best, not the ethical perfect.
The code of the paladin (it would probably be good to make this a bit more specific):
- The paladin must not accumulate wealth. Paladins are allowed an adventuring panoply (weapon, armor, equipment, several magic items), and enough resources to maintain those dependent on the paladin (whether that is a group of hirelings, henchmen, or a domain). The rest must be donated to a cause worthy of the paladin’s beliefs.
- The paladin must seek to aid those that are oppressed or vulnerable.
Violating the code should not be a “gotcha” experience. In general, the referee should make it clear that a choice the player is about to make will violate the code, and give the player and opportunity to reconsider. Small infractions may result in a suspension of the paladin’s powers, and the requirement to seek atonement and guidance before the powers return.
As long as the paladin maintains this code, he gains the following abilities:
- Detect the arcane (this ability is not an unambiguous blinking radar, but rather a general feeling of unease that comes over the paladin when near the sorcerous or demonic).
- Lay on hands: heal 2 HP * level of paladin (once per day).
- Immune to natural diseases.
- Cure disease: once per week, the paladin may cure another of a natural disease.
- Mount: at any time, a paladin may quest for a mount. Though the mount may be replaced if it is lost or killed, a paladin’s mount should not be disposable (i.e., the quest for a mount should be relatively involved).
- Holy weapon: at any time, a paladin may quest to consecrate a weapon or search for a holy weapon of legend. The outcome of this quest is less certain than that for a mount. (I’m still thinking about how best to structure this, but I would like to work the “holy sword” aspect into the paladin.)
To summarize, I think the advantages of this approach are as follows:
- Adherence to tradition (the class abilities are recognizable).
- Motivation for character (player) initiated action (the various quests).
- Simplicity (no class inflation, no extra bookkeeping).
- Mechanical character differentiation (cool abilities) without making the character creation process heavier.
Other AD&D classes that could be handled profitably in this way are assassins, druids, and rangers. These are all classes that require adherence to a code (yes, even the assassin, in my opinion) and gain access to a few special abilities, but are otherwise much like standard core classes. One could also do the monk and bard in this way, but I think I am still partial to the sample monk class I posted earlier, and I really don’t care much for bards at all (though I like the idea of bards as hirelings).