Friday, May 6, 2016

The Fighter/Mage/Wild Card Paradigm

A close friend of mine was reading the blog (Hey, dude!) and texted me some cool thoughts. He said I could quote him, so...

"I've always been in love with the basics of dnd party lineup wise (fighter, wizard, token rogue: there is a primal delight in this bread and butter arrangement) along with the idea of them struggling with basic enemies early in their careers. Engaging in mortal combat as unseasoned warriors. [...] Not to say that other classes are bad, but once you leave the standard books the magic of each person having a specific role that they alone excel at, their niche, gets muddled. Or can get muddled."

Since the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Playtest Document 0.1 has proposed knocking the number of classes down to three, and since I often find myself tinkering with class rules, I've already been thinking along these lines for a little while. Then my friend randomly texted me and pretty much put my thoughts into words almost perfectly. Funny how that works.

Based on the blogs I've read, a lot of people in the OSR seem to enjoy boiling the class system down to a very minimal number of choices. I often see people discuss dropping the Cleric and/or the Thief from D&D. I also hear about a lot of campaigns that cut out classes like the Paladin, Ranger, Monk, Assassin, and Bard to prevent them from encroaching on the territory of more generalized, archetypal classes like the Fighter, the Magic-User, and sometimes the Thief or Cleric. There seems to be a widespread desire for a minimalist, "back-to-basics" approach to classes.

When it comes to the few vs. many, generic vs. specific debate about character classes, my stance is determined almost solely by my mood. Sometimes a simple approach appeals to me, and sometimes I just want a lot of variety. It depends on the game and the day. I don't think either approach is universally wrong. Lately, I've been wondering what D&D would be like with just Fighters and Magic-Users, or what it would be like with everything but generic Fighters and Magic-Users.

Anyway, this reminds me of a related subject I've been mulling over.

I don't know how much you see this in tabletop RPGs, but in video games with character classes, it often comes down to three choices: a Fighter-type class, a Wizard-type class, and...something else. Usually that something else is either a Thief-type class or a combination/variation of Fighter and Wizard traits. Sometimes melee combat and ranged combat are split into two separate disciplines, so you have a Fighter/Wizard/Archer setup. Sometimes a second school of magic is introduced, so you wind up with a Fighter/Wizard/Cleric arrangement or the like. Sometimes stealth or some other skill is emphasized as the game's third answer to combat outside of physical and magical attacks. At any rate, many video games with RPG classes break those classes down into Fighters, Wizards, and Wild Cards (in the sense that the third type of class differs more than the others).

And even though most class-based games, of both the tabletop and video varieties, usually have more than three classes, I think that most classes in most D&D-style games of fantasy violence (and some SF violence) are built primarily from combinations/variations of only two or three main building blocks: physical fighting/toughness, casting spells/using special powers, and some third thing that varies from game to game. Often that third thing is a skill system. Sometimes there are two or more "third" things, so you might see the basics as something like a Fighter/Thief/Cleric/Wizard setup, but even then, the two key ingredients of physical/fighting prowess and magical prowess are almost universal.

Maybe this is a "well, duh" kind of thing, but I think it's interesting because it highlights some assumptions we often see in class-based fantasy games. Physical and magical abilities are often non-complementary, even opposed, within the same individual; some games allow characters who dabble in both, but usually not to an equal degree, and even when a class can be equally skilled at both, they're usually not as skilled at either discipline to the degree that a "pure" Fighter or Wizard is. Brain and brawn have trouble mixing, and so do the physical and metaphysical worlds. Also, the most important aspects of character classes and/or the most important details about player characters in general must include at the very least some measurement of how good they are at combat and how good they are at magic.

If I were to sum up most character classes in most fantasy games, I would use phrases like:

  • It's a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric.
  • It's a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric except...
  • It's a combination of a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric and a Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric.
  • It's one of the few classes in the game that isn't a variation on a Fighter and/or a Wizard, like a Thief, or much more rarely a Diplomat (like a Bard or something), a Scholar, a Specialist of some kind (merchant, blacksmith, doctor, language expect, etc.), or something else with an ability that is either unique to that class or presented as a third major aspect of the game.
I guess my point is that it would be cool to see this paradigm shaken up a bit more than it usually is. This doesn't mean there's something wrong with the approach taken by D&D, since as my friend would agree, the basic classes are fun and satisfying, but I'd like to see more variety in other, newer games, or even in some new D&D house rules or hacks.

Some possibilities that might be fun:

  • Every class uses magic, and the differences lie in the schools or philosophies of magic. You could have the fireball-slinging wizard, the Illusionist, the psychic, the summoner, etc.
  • Every class is good at fighting, and the differences lie in their fighting styles and/or their skills outside of combat. You could have a Ranger/Paladin/Archer/Swashbuckler/Mage Knight/Pirate/Ninja/Samurai kind of thing going on.
  • You can do what every version of AD&D and modern D&D has done, which is pretty much all of the above plus more in one great big wonderful mess, but either throw balance out the window like in RIFTS (or so I'm told), work on maintaining the balance a bit more carefully, make sure every class fits more than one niche (so no basic Fighters or basic Wizards), make sure every class has a super-specific niche outside of fighting and casting, or just add in crazy classes that bend or break the rules (like the Alice in A Red & Pleasant Land or the Chaos DJ in The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia).
  • Ditch any kind of generalized skill system for a bunch of separate systems with different rules that are at least theoretically as central to gameplay as fighting and spellcasting.
  • Make the skill system independent from the class system, so that your Fighter or Wizard could also be good at picking locks, sneaking, climbing, learning new languages, diplomacy, or what have you.
  • Make the number of core classes with extreme niche protection something other than three or four. For example, present options like a Knight (only decent non-magic melee fighter), an Archer, a Summoner, an Illusionist, a Sorcerer (only guy throwing fireballs), a Spy (only stealthy guy), a Trap Master, a Shapeshifter (only decent magic melee fighter because NOW SHE'S A MAGIC BEAR), an Herbalist, and a Chess Expert (because everyone in the kingdom is obsessed with Chess and you can use that to your advantage).
  • Set your fantasy game in a world in which physical violence between sapient beings is impossible, and make the classes things like politicians, craftsmen, and entertainers. This would be pretty far from your standard D&D game, but it could still be a fantasy game and still have classes, making for an interesting, semi-familiar experience.
I'm sure this has all been done before in one way or another, and I probably look really out of the loop right now. Be that as it may, I'd love to see more class-based fantasy games (either new or that I've simply missed) that avoid or heavily alter the Fighter/Wizard and Fighter/Wizard/Other Thing paradigms. And yes, I know classless games are a thing, and I don't have anything against them, but I'm simply kind of curious how unusual we can get with classes.

I'll leave you with some examples of games that stick fairly strictly to the Fighter/Magic-User/Wild Card thing. I can barely think of any Tabletop games with classes that haven't featured at least four of them, but video game examples are plentiful enough.
Tabletop RPGs
Lamentations of the Flame Princess (Playtest Document 0.1)
OD&D (before the Supplements and magazine articles, and ignoring races)
Tunnels & Trolls (to the best of my knowledge - I'm admittedly not very familiar with the system)
Video Games
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
Dragon Age series
Fallout series (arguably, although it's more like Figher/Thief/Diplomat)
Hexen: Beyond Heretic
Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos
Legend of Grimrock
Lords of Magic
The Magic of Scheherazade (applies to the main character)
Phantasy Star Online
Quest for Glory series (although a Paladin class shows up after the first game)
Shadowrun (Sege Genesis version)
Swords and Serpents
System Shock 2
Wizards & Warriors III: Kuros: Visions of Power


  1. Just about every tabletop fantasy RPG used a strict class system, until the classless stuff started to appear later on. Tunnels and Trolls was class based. (We didn't play it much, but I do vaguely remember it.) Rolemaster (affectionately referred to as Rollmaster because of all the dice rolling and tables) used it. The Rolemaster-based Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) used classes, too. Non-fantasy RPGs seemed to avoid classes. Games like Top Secret and James Bond didn't use classes. Superhero RPGs like Marvel Superheroes and Champions never used classes. (Although in marvel Superheroes, you pretty much just used the provided Marvel characters.) Traveller didn't use classes, but you did have to pick what your character did before becoming an adventurer, and that kind of had some class connotations, just nowhere near as strict. I only vaguely remember Star Frontiers (the TSR attempt to take on Traveller). Shadowrun had classes (I think they were called Paths), but they weren't hard and fast classes. It was structured so that you couldn't relly be good at both combat and spells. (Cyber implants to make you bette rin combat reduced your ability to use magic.) Once some of these non-fantasy games became popular, then some of the classless rules started to come back over into fantasy games.

    1. I really want to take the LotFP Classless System from The Undercroft for a spin at some point, although I'll probably modify it a bit because, well, it's me.
      This isn't a tabletop example, but I really like how the Demon's Souls/Dark Souls/Bloodborne games handle classes. They're just starting packages of attributes and equipment (including spells, which are found or bought just like items), and any character can eventually do everything with enough leveling up, a proper distribution of attribute points, and the necessary gear. Of course, those games are meant to be beatable by a single character, whereas D&D focuses on teamwork, so the needs of the class system are a bit different. Still, a lot of my favorite fantasy characters are skilled with both swords and magic, so it would be nice to be able to emulate those kind of characters in some houseruled form of D&D.