Thursday, July 12, 2012

Every Fighting-Man is Unique

I am not aware when it came about, but at some point a vicious rumour crept into our collective understanding of Dungeons & Dragons. This rumour subtly, surreptitiously put forth the notion that the original game, in its basic, open-ended template form, was somehow too limited. There weren't enough monsters, there weren't enough classes, there weren't enough powers or abilities. The original game, so this shadowy speculation would have you believe, just didn't have enough stuff.

So the next generation of more "advanced" games came out, promising more things for the throngs of adventure-hungry players to do by promising game rules that were packed with more stuff. Ironically, on the other end of this history (some thirty years later), we are now flooded with such games—enough to stack from floor to ceiling in a dusty, unvisited brick-and-mortar gaming store. We certainly have enough adventure, yet, we have very few players hungry for adventure. What went wrong? What was it that originally enchanted those players, who came from every walk of life, and made them so esurient?

Today's games have naturally attracted a very different, and far less diverse crowd (which is unfortunate, not only because we lose perspective and creativity, but because many of the so-called "gamers" are individuals that no one in their right mind would like to spend an afternoon with). The excessive influx of systems, mechanics and rules to our Saturday afternoon scenarios naturally caters to rules-obsessed types, and the move away from free-form, communal decision-making and storytelling alienates people who didn't sign up for this level of commitment. But there is also a delightful agility that was somehow lost in this sad transmutation.

I believe that earlier adventuring aficionados truly understood that the original game was merely a template. The apparent limitation, for example, to choose one of three iconic character options (Fighting-Man, Magic-User or Cleric) belies the fact that these choices were never meant as more than basic blueprints from which characters were built. Looking in the three little books, for instance, one finds extremely few limitations: ability scores have next to no impact on the game, the rules allow dual and multi-classing, and any character can attempt any action. There was essentially an adventurer, and different options determined what access he or she had to different equipment and spellcraft.

One of the rarely highlighted aspects of the original game in particular is the concept of level titles. This dizzying array of honorifics is typically understood as a strict progression, one to the next, so that a Hero becomes a Swashbuckler or a Sorcerer becomes a Necromancer or a Bishop becomes a Lama. Yet, as we can see, this progression is not altogether coherent (why should a Catholic Bishop become a Tibetan Lama, exactly?), which may have led many to simply discard level titles entirely. At my table, I encourage my players to really make level titles their own, however, and use them to define their characters.

Maybe Toki, a Japanese Fighting-Man character, starts off as a Veteran. By level two, I encourage him to describe how his Fighting-Man is different, and soon he takes the level two title "Sohei" (or warrior monk, becoming an ascetic mountain warrior). During level two, I allow him to track monsters through the woods or navigate untamed mountains. By level three, the campaign has taken another turn: Toki takes on the role of a pirate and starts swinging from ropes and intimidating his opponents.

Customizing level titles is an excellent way to show your players that the archetypal classes are merely base templates from which characters are developed. I do not believe a party with 14 Fighting-Men should feel like a party with 14 Fighting-Men. The fact is that the Fighting-Man class, like the other classes, is broad enough to contain every sword-swinging hero one could dream up. Each character should be different and unique, and the rules of the original game are just open-ended enough to allow that. In reality, there is nothing more alienating than bringing a new player to your table and telling him that his character concept has to fit within your game's hard boundaries and strict definitions, and this is one of the main reasons that this hobby lost its diverse player community: we stopped asking people to bring their own creativity and ideas to the table.


  1. outstanding piece. saving this one to my "good ideas" folder!

  2. Agreed: really good stuff. I play a lot of 4th edition now, and the plethora of classes (Avenger? Hexblade?) has to be its biggest deficiency. (It makes the game a really good table top version of Final Fantasy Tactics, but probably not the best role playing game it could be.)

  3. Funny that I can totally agree and totally disagree at the same time. Talk about your cognitive dissonance.

    I am one of those people that likes game mechanics. I want to be able to play different characters that have interesting ways to interact. Most of this interest focuses on combat and conflict resolution. I want to be able to have one character who interacts in a certain way and another character that interacts in a different way. As a 4E player, I like that I can have one character who has attacks powers that he can enhance a few times using power points. Or a warrior that can switch combat stances to achieve different effects. Or a druid who goes into battle with an animal companion. So, the fighting-man is mechanically very simple. Quite frankly, I find it a bit boring. I want the game part of my role-playing game to be fun, not boring.

    At the same time, I can relate that people let game mechanics take away creativity. I don't know why. I have made well over 25 pre-generated characters for my 4E public play event, many of them based on Star Wars characters. People see Clone Troopers and Jedi and assume I've built custom classes. "No. That's a Fighter. That's a Ranger. That's a Bard." So, the idea of turning your character, your fighting-man, into something distinct and different is something I very much approve of.

  4. I am not aware when it came about, but at some point a vicious rumour crept into our collective understanding of Dungeons & Dragons. This rumour subtly, surreptitiously put forth the notion that the original game, in its basic, open-ended template form, was somehow too limited.

    Certainly no later than the publication Strategic Review #2 in 1975, with the ranger class. By the time of Supplement I: Greyhawk in 1976, we can already see proto-AD&D (though in a much less legalistic form). I believe this tendency has been part of D&D since the beginning.

    Also, the other bad thing about all the mechanically specialized classes that you didn't mention is that they tended to drown out the more general archetypes. Who wanted to play a fighter when they could play a paladin or ranger? I know that back in my 2E days, a plain fighter was a rarity. And the same thing is true of races. Look at any modern D&D party and see how many people chose human and then made that human odd or unique in some way because of the race. It almost never happens. Players mostly choose the a package of race tropes by picking a well-defined demihuman.

  5. Brendan, I agree that "by the time of Supplement I: Greyhawk in 1976, we can already see proto-AD&D".

  6. I do a similar thing with skills, allowing each player to pick a subclass (or theme) for his character and giving him a bonus for skill rolls. However, I haven't figured out a system for combat bonuses based on that sort of thing. What combat abilities would a "barbarian" have that a "swashbuckler" or "knight" wouldn't have?

  7. I don't like level names because they are nonsensical. Better to let your "fighter" just choose what sort of fighter he is: swashbuckler, myrmidon, etc. I find calling the character by one of these names changes the player's perception of his fighter and thereby changes how he plays and what style of combat he uses.

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