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Head of the Class
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.


Last week I wrote about an approach to the game that focused on a character’s or monster’s ability scores. Many of the sub-systems in D&D serve as a buffer between a game mechanic and these abilities. By stripping away those mechanics and focusing on the abilities, we might find a simpler, more intuitive core to the game.

This week, we turn our attention to the character classes.

You Are What You Do

In the early days of D&D, your character class provided the staggering majority of your character’s capabilities. Your class provided your armor and weapon options, hit points, saving throws, and attack values.

In the beginning, classes were relatively simple. As I’ve written about earlier in this series, D&D has shown a strong tendency to gain complexity and detail with each passing edition. When it comes to classes, that complexity usually arises from a growth in options. Fighters started with few class features, and gained weapon specialization, feats, and then powers. Clerics gained spell lists that changed based on their deities, while their turn undead expanded to become a general ability to channel divine energy for various functions. By 3rd Edition, all characters gained skills and feats which provided a new, flexible way to determine what your character could do. Class was still the most important thing, but it wasn’t the only thing.

In many ways, you could argue that character class is the major engine of change between editions of D&D. The early editions had simpler classes, while 3E added more layers of customization. 4th Edition, at least out of the gate, gave the classes an identical power progression to create a unified play experience. While 3E did remodel the core D&D mechanics, those changes were mostly carried over to 4E. By the same token, 2E focused on clarifying and streamlining rules. THAC0 is a simpler way to express the basics of the AD&D combat tables. The major mechanical changes were tied to the character classes by adding options to some or incorporating non-weapon proficiencies and later kits for all characters.

With the game becoming steadily more complex, at least in terms of choices and options, how do you manage the disparity between players who like lots of choice and those who are happy with a few basic decisions? Traditionally, D&D has solved this by making the fighter simple and classes like the druid or cleric complex. However, that solution needlessly slices the pie based on what you want to do, rather than how you want to do it. RPGs offer unmatched freedom to explore a world, battle monsters, and carve a place in a setting. If flexibility and adaptability are two of their selling points, why not extend that to character creation? Why not allow for a simple fighter and a complex fighter, or the same range for any class?

The Core Class

Imagine a world where the first-time D&D player rolls stats, picks a race, picks a class, picks an alignment, and buys gear to create a character. Imagine if an experienced player, maybe the person helping our theoretical player learn the ropes, could also make a character by rolling ability scores and picking a race, class, feat, skills, class features, spells or powers, and so on. Those two players used different paths to build characters, but the system design allows them to play at the same table.

This setup would allow a new player to dive into the game quickly. A veteran player who wants options could customize a character. For a quick game, or for a player who doesn’t really care about customization, the simpler route provides a welcome option.

Such a setup is fairly easy to implement from a design point of view. Let’s take a look at the fighter in this world. The simple fighter—let’s call it the core fighter—has a progression that provides attack and damage bonuses that allow the fighter to operate as a skilled warrior in combat. Other automatic options could duplicate skills and non-combat abilities. In terms of the math and options for combat, exploration, and roleplay, the fighter is right on target for the skill and power we expect from a character at each level.

The core fighter presents an advancement chart that looks a lot like the one from the early days of D&D. It tells you what you get, and your only real choices lie in equipment.

Now let’s imagine that in a separate section of the rules—perhaps right after the core fighter or maybe in a chapter giving advanced character options—we learn that the core fighter is just a fighter with all of the choices made for it. Where the core fighter has class features, the advanced fighter has choice points such as feats and class feature menus. The core fighter simply has a set of pre-selected benefits.

With that change, we’ve given a simple and customizable option for every class. Even better, within the advanced option we can give lots of different types of choices. If you like making tactical choices, perhaps some of the feats or class features give you encounter, daily, or at-will powers. Other features give you benefits that improve all of your attacks in a manner similar to feats like Cleave or Power Attack.

From a game balance standpoint, we can analyze each option and compare them in terms of raw power. By breaking down the math behind the game, we can judge the relative value of a power you can use once per day and a feat that gives you a bonus to all of your attacks.

Why would you set up the game this way? Beyond the benefit of allowing players to pick their level of customization, you also gain a number of other advantages. Creating a character for a pick-up game is easy, since players can just use the core classes to save time. New players have an entry ramp that is directly integrated into the system. DMs who want to create NPCs or monsters with class levels can use the core class to speed up the process. In some ways, you might argue that you could play a game similar to any edition of D&D simply by opting into different levels of complexity. You could even collapse race down into the core options: The dwarf could be expressed as a core class, a fighter progression that focuses on durability, defense, and expertise with an axe or hammer. The core elf uses the multiclass rules to combine fighter and wizard, and the core halfling uses a preset rogue advancement chart. Choosing race could be part of the advanced rules, making setup even faster for new players or players who don’t want to spend a lot of time customizing their characters.

At the end of the day, you’d have a game that can appeal to a variety of play styles and levels of experience, all while keeping the focus on a single set of modular rules.

What do you think of such a system (of simple and customizable classes)? Let us know in the comments below.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 07/05/2011

A trader from distant Zaath smiles at you and speaks in a low tone meant for your ears alone: “You have been to the ruins beneath the ruined tower of Zenopus. There you met a bugbear. Perhaps we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement regarding that one.”

He gestures toward the sagging façade of an old alehouse, the Western Wind. It is an old and dilapidated place. A few surly sailors are visible at tables, sipping ale and talking quietly. What do you do?

  • Follow the trader into the Western Wind to hear him out: 56.7%
  • Drag him into a nearby alley and beat the truth out of him: 25.1%
  • Rebuff him and continue on to the Rusty Nail: 18.2%

Poll Time

Will continue next week...

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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