Thursday, May 9, 2013


Following along with yesterday's post about Clerical healing from OD&D through Classic D&D and to 3E (skipping AD&D because I play it less and didn't feel like opening up more tabs in my pdf reader), I was thinking about Talysman's post I inspired and things I'm doing for Chanbara.

Side note - I did a little more work on Chanbara today, since I finished my academic work sooner than I expected.  Had a whole hour to work on it.  I removed the Kensei as a baked in class, since any Samurai, Ronin, Sohei, Kagemusha or Shinsen could just take the combat maneuvers to focus on one weapon and call themselves a kensei.  I also did some work on the Adventures and Rewards chapter, describing different types of adventure design and guidelines for awarding XP.

So, back to the random navel-gazing post where I speculate wildly and likely piss off some people.

Why did the Cleric develop the way it did over time?  Why have the Fighter and Thief/Rogue developed as they have?  Magic-Users/Wizards have been fairly stable across editions, while the other four base classes have shown greater or lesser change from OD&D up through Pathfinder (4E takes every class in a totally new direction, and I'm not up on the Next playtest stuff to be sure what they're doing with it)?

I took a look at the Cleric yesterday.  Mostly, they've gotten more and more healing powers as the years have gone by.  They've also had increases in spell levels, with only 5 levels of spells in OD&D, up to 10 levels worth of spells in 3E/PF.  Pathfinder also gives Clerics quite a few perk powers, such as the channel energy thing discussed yesterday, and two Domain powers usable 3+stat modifier times per day each.

Thieves were fairly stable across TSR editions.  There were slight changes to the skill progressions (noticeably a lowering of percentages in BECMI to stretch them out to 36 levels, and a slight raise early on in AD&D thanks to Dex and racial mods to the basic scores but high levels were slower than BX).  2E gave Thieves the ability to allocate their skill percentages as they liked, giving flexibility but otherwise leaving the class more or less alone.  Then in 3E, suddenly Rogues became the super-customizable skill class, and also with a lot more combat power thanks to the way Sneak Attack worked compared to Backstab in older editions. 

Fighters have had the least changes over editions, being able combatants from the beginning.  Mostly what they've gained were all the feats in 3E and later editions to tailor their combat style.  That was more or less an extension of Weapon Specialization in UA, and various combat oriented NWP and kit abilities in 2E.  Oh, and there was the Weapon Mastery optional system in the BECMI Masters Set/RC.  They've become flashier in their combat ability over the years, but the class has remained more or less the same.

Like I said above, Magic-Users have been the most consistent.  Weak physically, few spells at low levels, the most powerful characters at high levels.  Spell lists have grown over the years.  Low level spells have increased, but at high levels, BECMI Magic-Users have more spells than their similarly leveled 3E/PF counterparts.  Oh, and while the M-U has remained more or less unchanged, spells have suffered from years of developers deciding such and such creative exploit was overpowering and having the spell restrictions become more and more detailed and limiting.  Spells have changed, but the class is very similar.

Why the changes?  I think it went something like this:

OD&D is really fun to play.  Players want more.  Gygax and co. crank out supplements, making changes and adding to the power curve slightly (new classes, new spells, variable hit dice and weapon damages, new magic items, new monsters, etc.).  Players like this and buy stuff.

D&D/AD&D become big business.  Now, marketing people get in the equation.  They look at the game and try to see what sells.  Lots of modules, lots of supplements, the 2E glut.

WotC buys TSR.  Looking at D&D, they try to figure out what makes it so popular.  Surveys tell them that players find combat exciting.  Marketing realizes that selling books aimed at players should make them more money than the glut of supplements aimed at DMs.  Changes are made to the game.  Now, combat is the focus of all classes, and supplements are written for players as a way to make their characters more effective in combat.

Then we have a split, with the development of 4E and Pathfinder.  4E takes the combat focus to the logical extreme.  The game is really just a series of tactical battles strung together with some roleplay in between.  No, I realize it doesn't always play out that way (Dean's game that I played in was an exception), but that's the way it was presented and marketed.  On the other hand, Pathfinder takes the 3E base and instead of adding endless supplements, gives every class a shitload of options in the core book, so that players can customize their combat-ready classes however they see fit.

Did WotC make the right calls?  Well, 3E/3.5E did really well.  They're so popular that when they brought out 4E, many players stuck with it and now play Pathfinder.  However, the OSR also rose up and showed everyone that sometimes simpler is better.  I don't think WotC was wrong with the direction they took the game, there was obviously demand for it.  However, I do think some of the premises they based it on were wrong.

Those marketing surveys.  I remember taking one out of a Dragon or Dungeon magazine when I was working for Waldenbooks, filling it out, and sending it in.  This was in the late 90's, just after WotC had used their Magic: the Gathering earnings to buy out the bankrupt TSR, but before the Hasbro buyout of WotC, I think.  They were doing the survey to see what people wanted in 3E.  Apparently, lots of players responded that combat is the most fun part of the game.

I think this is a misunderstanding.  Combat is one of the most exciting parts of the game.  It's traditionally been fairly risky.  That risk makes it exciting.  One or two bad die rolls could end your PC's career and send you to your dice bag for 3d6 (or 4d6 depending on how you roll).  Players sit up and notice when things like initiative rolls or saving throws happen.  No doubt, combat is exciting.  But is it really the most fun part of the game? 

It can be, don't get me wrong.  But it's not always the case for me, and I would guess for most other players.  Hanging around a tavern looking for rumors about the next big score, pockets to pick, barmaids or bar-lads to bed, or surly locals to sock in the jaw can be pretty fun too.  So can engaging in a battle of wits with the Archduke in the King's Audience Hall.  So can exploring a ruined city without a single creature to battle, but with all sorts of mysteries and treasures of the ancients to discover. 

Combat is not universally "the most fun" part of D&D.  Yet 3E to an extent, Pathfinder a bit moreso, and 4E to a large extent were created with the idea that combat is where the fun is at, and every class needs to be good at combat so that everyone can have fun.  Not a new insight here, but it bears repeating from time to time.  So, the classes have evolved to be more hearty and more useful in combat situations when originally they were not expected to be worried about combat.  Healing increased, because if combat is the focus, PCs need to heal up to engage in another fight.  But, for example, Pathfinder and 4E both find alternate ways for the Cleric to be the healer but still allow them to do "fun" stuff in combat, because apparently healing your companions is not as fun as knocking around goblins with a mace.

Now, I did say I'd likely piss some people off.  And if you've read this far (this is getting long, I must be channeling JB), just let me say this before you fire off an angry comment.

There's nothing wrong with running a combat heavy campaign.  It can be a lot of fun.  Combat is exciting, and often fun.  If you enjoy a combat heavy game in any edition, that's fine with me.  But just remember that it can also become tedious.  And there are other things to do in the game besides just fight things, and they can be fun, too. 

It's when I'm doing those other things that I remind myself that I don't mind if Magic-Users only get one spell per day at level 1, Thieves have pitifully low chances to use their skills, Clerics aren't healing machines, and even Fighters need to be careful after taking one or two hits because they're at risk of death.  The non-combat parts of the game are just as fun, for me, and no PC needs a ton of special abilities in order to take part in most of the non-combat stuff.

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