The Fantasy of the Classes
August 8, 2016
To continue discussing the importance of the fantasy in D&D’s design, I’m going to focus on the classes and their impact both in the game and the world the game exists in. Part of the joy and draw of roleplaying games, especially pen and paper roleplaying games, is the theoretical depth of the world they exist in. There’s a living, breathing world behind the heroes’ actions. Since there is a living, breathing world, though, there has to be a place for the heroes’ skills, abilities, and histories in that world. They cannot be entirely divorced from the capabilities of the people around them, and they must represent their power in the story in the mechanics of the game (as the mechanics represent the “physics” of a world, in a way).
Unfortunately, Dungeons and Dragons has always failed on this measure in one way or another. Fifth Edition represents the biggest failure in this fashion.
Each class has two important components that I already mentioned; their place in the game’s society (that is, how they are as NPCs and the source of each class’s abilities) and their mechanical makeup which has to reflect their fantasy (or the story of how the class works – wizards being powerful wielders of arcane magic, clerics being representatives of their gods’ will, fighters being unparalleled warriors and masters of arms, etc). I’m going to do a post on each class in traditional D&D structure (the Fighter, the Cleric, the Mage/Wizard, the Thief/Rogue, the Druid, the Ranger, the Paladin, and the Monk) and how they relate to their world as well as what their mechanics have to reinforce, but for now I’m just looking at the entire structure of classes and how they work within a game’s narrative structure.
In order for a lot of this to make sense and why it’s important, it’s necessary to look at statistics a bit. Let’s just look at the US population for a second.
According to a quick Google search, there are 318.9 million people in the US. The number doesn’t have to be exact to the truth, so we’ll go with that for now.
Let’s assume that the US is now our fictional fantasy world. The entire planet has 318.9 million people on it, which is approximately close to the world population in the year 1400, maybe a little less. We’ll also assume that each class represents someone who is truly exceptional, the top of the top. Let’s say actually 1 in a million. That means for any given class there’s nearly 320 people in the world with their abilities.Given history, we know what even one person with exceptional abilities and access to technology can do. We have to keep that in mind every time we’re looking at classes from a design perspective – there will always be at least a few hundred of any particular class in any given world, and the world’s environment should make sense given there are that many people with those powers running around. Either class abilities cannot be world-defining (like the ability to raise armies in a single day, destroy huge swaths of land, raise the dead casually, or manufacture incredibly powerful artifacts with ease) or the game needs to be built around the fact that there’s these kinds of powers in common access to world governments. The best example of this is Exalted – the characters are powerful, but the setting is chock-full of powerful NPCs using the same abilities.
On the other hand, each class has a particular fantasy that should be represented from the beginning to the end of the game environment. For D&D, this generally means from level 1 to level 20. For example, the Fighter should be a competent, powerful opponent that uses strength of arms in a way that’s effective and masterful at every level, even the very highest where enemies are powerful wizards, ancient gods, or oppressive dragons. In the same vein, a wizard should always be a master of the arcane, from level 1 to 20, even at the very beginning when their spells are small but still impressive and always at their command.
Dungeons and Dragons, historically, has failed in this regard. In OD&D, wizards were objectively the most powerful class in the game eventually, and this was hand-waved by saying “you shouldn’t be playing after a certain level”, which basically asks the players to not use the entire product, only aspects of it. In AD&D, Fighters’ fantasy was completely undermined by the fact that Darts were the best weapon in the game for anyone who relied on only weapon damage, Wizards were still overwhelmingly powerful, and Thieves, Bards, and other “scoundrel” type classes were mechanically weaker and neigh-useless when anyone who can cast Arcane magic can replace the ability to pick locks, discover traps, disarm traps, and find secret doors. In 3.x D&D/Pathfinder, the Wizard problem got substantially worse – full-progression (or only advanced in a single class all the way to level 20) Arcane casting classes had the best abilities in every arena if you knew how to set up your character. Clerics were better Fighters than Fighters, at almost any level. Druids could replace Rogues outright in almost every situation. These were among the many reasons that D&D 4th edition was focused almost entirely on D&D’s roots – grid-based miniatures combat – and balancing at every level. Fourth, unfortunately, failed in a different regard – the classes no longer made sense in the world’s narrative. They had highly specific abilities that were mostly tailored to the grid and out of combat abilities were very, very limited in scope and ability. Fifth edition dropped all of this, though, and went back to AD&D for inspiration and made a game where once again Wizards are the best class at everything after a certain point and Fighters are no longer relevant a little sooner.
I’ll examine how to keep Fighters relevant, though, in my next post.