Posts Tagged ‘character classes’

Divine Magic

Posted: 6 August 2012 in House Rules
Tags: ,

Although he takes it in a different direction than I would, Seth over at Kobold Enterprises touched on an idea I’ve been mulling over a little bit when he posted about recasting Divine Domains as “schools” of magic, the way arcanists have transmutation or divination.  He wants to set up pre-made spell lists and boils the domains down to a core of 8, which isn’t really the sort of thing I’m interested in.

Rather, what struck me about divine magic was this: Clerics (and Paldins, etc.) are tied to a given god (or allegedly a pantheon or idea, though I’ve never seen a good explanation on how that should be implemented).  They must be within one step of their diety’s alignment (a LG god can have LG, LN, and NG clerics, etc).  Depending on alignment (on the Good/Evil axis), they can Channel either positive or negative energy, and spontaneously cast either Cure or Inflict spells.  What this means is that a Priest of Zeus, a Priest of Hades, a Priest of Poseidon, and a Priest of Kronos all look exactly alike, with the possibility of a small variation based on good/evil.  It doesn’t matter that Zeus commands weather, Hades death, Poseidon the seas, and Kronos time — each cleric has access to the same spells (Bless, Compel Hostility, Cause Fear, Detect Undead, Enthrall, Raise Dead, etc).

I would like to recast (or maybe ‘fracture’) the Cleric Spell List so that Clerics only gain access to spells that are relevant to their deity’s domains.  Divine Spells are already marked with arcanist-style schools, and that might be a good place to start, but gods deal in domains, not schools, and a God of Love and a God of Deceit may both have Enchantment spells but probably shouldn’t have the same spells.

I think there may be some common core, spells that are iconic for the class (Cleric vs Paladin vs etc.) but I’m not entirely sure of that (it’s easier to concieve of spells that match all paladins than ones that match all clerics, I think).

This started as a reply to Brian’s comment on my last post, but quickly ballooned into something too big for a comment thread.  Brian said he likes my notions on the 3×3 Alignment (thanks, so do I) but he feels like there really needs to be consequences for breaking alignment — “If you’re a lawful good paladin and you strike down an enemy out of anger instead of in the name of your deity, there should be repercussions.”

Generally I agree, but I need to do a lot of unpacking to get at what I mean. There are a lot of things going on with that deceptively simple question.  First, yes, there should be repercussions for acting out of alignment; but there should be repercussions for any meaningful action, so this doesn’t really tell us much.  What I think Brian means, though, is that D&D has traditionally had mechanical and class-based penalties for breaking out of alignment, and this has traditionally meant that a Paladin can not lie for fear of losing their powers and being reduced to less-than-a-Fighter — how would I deal with that actuality?

I think that there are a few things going on here.  There’s how how Alignment affects a class, Alignment affects a character, and how Alignment affects the world.  I’ll address them in reverse order.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: it gets long.


So I recently had a few conversations that shared a common theme: the assumptions you bring to D&D can drastically change the way you approach the system.  Some of these conversations were about game-world assumptions and while those can change the way you approach the game (a setting where all rogues are thieves is different from a setting where rogues are more likely bored noblemen or commissioned spies), that’s not what I’m interested in talking about right now.  I’d like to put out my assumptions on the Pathfinder/D&D 3.X system mechanics and what they mean.

As I’ve mentioned before, my perspective on D&D is strongly influenced by Justin Alexander’s Calibrating Your Expectations post; I highly recommend that you go read it to get the foundation I’m working from.  I’m going to try to not simply recreate Justin’s post, but he’s covered most of the bases pretty well.

The very first thing to recognize is that, at least the way they’re done today, Player-Characters are not only above average, but they generally approach the peak of mortal ability.  This can be seen in two aspects: Attributes and Class.


As Justin notes, PCs use the “elite” array of 15,14,13,12,10,8 (which is the mathmatically expected result of 4d6-drop-lowest, which seems to be the fashion these days for random stats), and based on some statistics in the 3.0 DMG he concludes that this puts them in the top 5% of the population (as far as raw ability and natural talent goes).  Standard NPCs use the 13,12,11,10,9,8 array (this is the expected results of 3d6), and the theoretical “average person” would be 10,10,10,10,10,10 (I actually think that this NPC exists with fair frequency, since any given score describes a small range of ability).

It’s worth noting here that a score of 8 or 9 is “below average,” but that doesn’t mean it’s crippling disability.  I think this is easiest to show with INT, but it can be extended to other attributes.  In a lot of places (though I can’t remember if any were ‘official’) it’s been said that INTx10 gives you a rough idea of the character’s IQ score.  (Palladium Book’s RIFTS system states this explicitly).  “Normal” IQ is considered to be between 70 and 130.  The definition of “mental retardation” doesn’t kick in until below 70, but it’s only mild retardation if it’s above 50; these people can learn to live on their own and maintain a job.  Severe, “unable to function on their own” retardation is marked at 35 and below, and the D&D system marks INT 3 as the lower limit of sentient life.  A dim character has an IQ of 5 to 7; above 7 they might not be the smartest person in the room, but it’s unlikely anyone would notice.  Forrest Gump, I would guess, probably has an IQ of 5 or 6. At the same time, “genius” level IQ was originally set at 140, or INT 14.

I generally consider 18 to be the peak of natural human ability; above that there needs to be something beyond “natural” at work.  By the rules a human COULD roll an 18 and then apply their racial +2 to get a 20, but I generally consider this inappropriate.  I freely admit that this may just be my preference, but that’s most of what we’re talking about anyways.  Demi-humans can surpass the limit of 18, depending on how they’re measured on average versus humans (elves are smarter and more agile, orcs are stronger, etc).  I don’t consider this a double standard; humans are marked by adaptability and I feel that’s the appropriate use of their +2 bonus; demi-humans are noted for other things and as such are expected to surpass humans in certain ways.


When people think about classes, they typically think about Fighters, Rogues, Clerics, Wizards and so on.  That’s reasonable because these are the classes that PCs typically have.  The problem is when people assume that all soldiers are Fighters, all thieves are Rogues, and all priests are Clerics. (Personally, I think a given priest is as likely to be a Rogue as a Cleric, but that may be a discussion for another time).  In fact, these PC classes represent a significant advantage in terms of training and skill above and beyond what’s available to most people.  Most people have NPC Classes — Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, and Warrior — these are classes that most people don’t think about because they aren’t meant to represent adventurers.  In 3.X I think these classes are only listed in the DMG, and I’m pretty sure they were essentially ignored in 4E altogether. (I could be wrong on both counts.)  Rogues and Bards are PC-quality Experts, Fighters and Barbarians are PC-quality Warriors, Wizards and Clerics are PC-quality Adepts, and so on.  The PC classes represent a higher level of training, either because you had a better teacher or because you were able to better develop the skills you were given, or some similar situation.  In fact, depending on your world, most people are probably going to be Commoners, with Experts representing artisans, etc.


So, Player-Characters are naturally more gifted than most of the population, and then get better training than even their peers.  This already sets Player-Characters well above the norm, which in turn makes them capable of adventuring and (one hopes) becoming heroes.  But my main take-away is this: although the game may focus around PCs as our protagonists, the mechanics can not be calibrated to PCs as the baseline, because they simply are not baseline characters.  For the world to be consistent, PCs need to be recognized as above the norm and systems should assume average or slightly-above-average NPC-quality abilities.

I have more to say on my assumptions and understanding of the 3.X system (possibly a lot more), but I think this is a good stopping point for the time being.

The Professor doesn’t really run a game blog, per se, but the most recent post touches on an issue that I think is A Problem for RPGs, and especially endemic in 4th Edition D&D and probably in 5th Edition, too.

That post is about “support roles” and how there’s a push to “fix” them.  It mentions games like City of Heroes, Team Fortress 2, and then Dungeons and Dragons.  The idea if that there are “primary” classes and “support” classes, where primary classes are defined by their ability to “solo” the game, and support classes are more indirect and make their team mates “feel more awesome.”  These games, though, have tended towards balancing support classes so that they can make a better direct showing in combat, to the detriment of their ‘support’ abilities.

As I said in my (excruciatingly-long-in-hindsight) comment over there, this is appropriate for games like TF2 and CoH.  Those games have a somewhat static ecology to work with and a default engagement method — namely, “kill all of the things.”  Because of this, classes are measured by how well they can contribute to combat.  TF2 is a team game by default so there’s room for a bit more specialization (compare Heavy vs Sniper vs Engineer). MMOs like CoH and World of Warcraft assume team play (on some level) but don’t enforce it; players will occasionally not want or be able to find a group, and so either all classes can make some measure of progress alone or they risk a stale experience (and losing customers).

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’d have to admit that D&D began life with a similar default of “kill all of the things,” but at the time there was more emphasis on “and take their stuff,” than on the killing.  I’m told that OD&D gave out experience points for every piece of gold you found, which would encourage <i>avoiding</i> fights if it means (1) you could get (most of) the treasure any ways, and (2) it let you save resources so you could kill more things later (and take their stuff).  Regardless, D&D definitely grew from there to the point where, in D&D 3.X, combat may have been common and expected, but it wasn’t the only approach to the game.  Knowledge, skills, and personality could get you places that a sword and a strong arm couldn’t (depending on your DM and what kind of game you were playing). Characters don’t need to shine in combat so long as they can shine somewhere else, and I think that’s a great strength that tabletop RPGs have over (most) video games.  If the rogue or wizard was terrible in combat that was fine, because the fighter would be useless when a trap had to be disarmed or some ancient runes needed to be deciphered.  If the men-at-arms characters could handle the combat the others were free to hang back, and they’d get their spotlight with other challenges.

One of the most common complaints about 4E (in my experience) is hat it essentially threw away decades of legacy for the “new hotness” of MMOs.  Personally I think there’s some truth in that, but (1) I think it’s the natural result of forces that began acting long ago and (2) for what it was I don’t think they did a bad job.  The thing is that years before 4th Edition became a thing, D&D players and designers got caught up focusing on Combat and aiming for Balanced Encounters.  Fourth Edition really just codified that in the system; for better or worse, it’s something we did to ourselves.

To that point, though, I’d say it’s “for worse.”  Fourth and Fifth Edition both seem to assume that combat is the default method of engagement and everyone should contribute to it equally (or at least consistently).  It’s forcing a homogenization that I think is bad for the game and for the hobby. Tactical miniatures are fun games (I play Warhammer 40K myself, when I get a chance), but they’re different from RPGs and they satisfy different desires.  ‘Fixing’ the classes and the systems so that everyone acts like a Wizard and fights like a Fighter limits the hobby, and frankly other games do those things better already.

A long time ago, Classes in D&D were a lot different than we know them today.  My understanding, gleaned from no source more reliable than Wikipedia, is that the original D&D just had Fighter, Cleric, and Magic-User. The races were humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings, and the non-human races had restrictions on what classes they could choose (ie, there was no such thing as a Dwarf Magic-User or an Elf Cleric).  Then, the ‘Basic’ set of D&D added a few classes and shunted non-human races off into their own individual classes — there was no longer even “Elf Magic-User” there was just “Elf.”  the game gradually moved away from that to the duality of Race and Class as we know them today — race determines certain attribute bonuses and penalties, maybe some special abilities, but the bulk of the character is his Class, and the difference between a Human Fighter and an Elf Fighter is little more than “one has pointy ears, and on average will be more agile and frail.”

The argument has been made that the way we have things today is dumb because elves and dwarves and gnomes and so on are not just humans in funny hats.  They are, the argument goes, utterly alien beings that do not approach the world the way humans do, and anyone who says Race-as-Class is dumb is being unimaginative and a little racist.

The argument has also been made that Race-as-Class is dumb because it assumes that all individuals of a given race are formed from the same unbending mold, that each one that adventures does it in the same way without variation.  Anyone who says Race shouldn’t be separate from Class, the argument goes, is at best being obtuse, and probably a little racist.