Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Elements of a Classy RPG: Dungeons & Dragons (Third Edition)

Dungeons & Dragons has had many versions, editions, supplements, variants, and novations through the years. One of the most important editions of the game came to the public eye in 2000, when Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was first released. It came after the Second Edition had been around for eleven years, seeing countless product releases, rules supplements, adventure modules, campaign settings, and gaming detritus that still litter the shelves of second-hand bookstores across the country.  Where Second Edition maintained a lot of the core mechanics of the First Edition, Third Edition took a significant number of steps away from the recognized canon. Although a number of "sacred cows" were retained but many features, previously considered untouchable, were eliminated, evolved, or re-engineered into a new framework. The class system is one of the features that had notable changes worth discussing here.

Gimble is a Bard, not a Sorcerer/Thief.
You can tell because he has an instrument.
The Player's Handbook contained eleven classes. Most of the classes had been standard selections from the previous edition. A few classes, such as the Barbarian and Monk, had previously existed in some form or another but now made their debut as core classes. One class, the Sorcerer, was a new class intended to fill the growing desire by players for a non-Vancian (or, as I prefer, non-Gygaxian) spell-caster. However, the most novel feature about classes in the Third edition, and potentially the most important, was not their variety, selection, or number. It was the multi-classing rules that made Third Edition something to really think about and value as a game.

Third Edition characters have two concepts of level. Character level is the overall measure of the character's experience while class level is specific for each class and measures the character's training within that class. Whenever a character gains a level, the player chooses which class to level in, generally selectable from any class. So, if you make a half-orc Fighter at first level, you could very well choose to take a level of fighter, thief, or even wizard when you advance to level 2. For that matter, you could take a level in whichever class you wanted. Third Edition broke open the class system, allowing a player to make whatever choices they wanted regarding their character and his or her "class."  Of course, there are a few technical limitations. Generally, characters must keep all of their class levels within one level of each other or the character will incur (experience) penalties. That level 5 Ranger, level 2 Paladin, level 3 Wizard, level 8 Fighter you had always wanted to take on an adventure is a problem within the 3E framework because she'll get less experience and, thus, level up at a slower rate than her adventuring friends. But, barring that restriction (to which there are exceptions), the system lets you do what you want with your character.  Does Gronk the Fighter want to spend some time at the Wizard's Institute of Technocery? Grab a level of wizard!
Ember was upset to learn that she, as a
Monk, would be unable to multi-class.

It does not even stop there at that, though. Third Edition was the system for people that wanted a grotesque amount of character options. Beyond the initial eleven character classes, this version of D&D featured advanced classes that had some sort of prerequisite for entry. Called "Prestige Classes," these classes provided even greater abilities for characters that were able to take levels in the class. Prestige Classes were exciting because they provided a special suite of abilities, powers, and bonuses that catered nicely to a specific arrangement of class features. Wanted to make a fighter who used a bow and knew magic? The Arcane Archer provided bonuses and special abilities for that combination of talents, allowing the character to infuse his arrows with magical energies. Beyond the small number provided, the Prestige Class was an opportunity for Players and Dungeon Masters to create specific classes suited to the campaign setting or player concept that were limited in scope (maybe 5-10 levels worth of advancement) but that emphasized a certain synergy of abilities, powers, or features.

Although the first publication of D&D had few Prestige Class options, each supplement continued to add to the roster of available options, making the field of class options quite expansive. Later publications even included new base classes, further expanding the options for character advancement. Some characters were merely alternatives to existing classes, such as Fighter variants or Wizards of different schools. Some where entirely new classes readily injectable into the mighty multi-class morass that had developed. As a player, you had many choices to make at each level with regard to what class in which you wanted to advance. This was a role-playing ruleset where anything and everything seemed possible. Because of this freedom of character design, Third Edition earned a reputation as a player's game.

Considering the system laid out in the Third Edition, one may think that it should have been the definitive take on a class system as it provides numerous options and the freedom to do practically anything. But, there are a few peculiarities.
Alright, guys. Which of these multi-class option should I take?
One problem faced by the Third Edition system was the contrast of basic, wide-reaching classes to specific, narrowly-tailored classes. To illustrate, consider two brave adventurers, Bob and Tom. Bob and Tom are both level 4 humans. Bob is a level 2 fighter and level 2 cleric. Tom is a level 4 paladin. Both have some fighting prowess. Tom is strictly better at hitting than Bob but Bob has a few more options in combat from his fighting feats. Both have divine abilities, although they express their divine powers in different ways. Bob casts spells, choosing from an expansive list of Cleric spells, while Tom can sense evil, heal his allies, and gain bonuses against evil foes. But, as far as characters go, they are both... holy warriors? They both battle monsters and wield the forces of their god. The biggest difference is that Tom the Paladin has a more restricted set of abilities than Bob the Fighter/Cleric.

She's actually charting the requirements
for her next Prestige Class. It's complicated.
This clash highlights one of the dormant issues in the Third Edition system: What is the purpose of the Paladin, a specialized Holy Warrior, in a game with free multi-classing rules that allow a Fighter/Cleric Holy Warrior with little to no fuss? The ungainly restrictions attached to the Paladin make it even stranger: Why can only Lawful Good gods have Paladins? Is there something inherently Lawful Good about detecting evil? My Fighter/Cleric can do it, except that he does it as a spell. There are other examples of the peculiarity, such as with the sorcerer/thief and the bard (different shades of the magical trickster), but the Paladin and Fighter/Cleric represent the most obvious example.

In a system like Rifts, where each class told you how you fit into the world, D&D Third Edition almost feels like it does quite the opposite as it provides different ways to make the same character concept but with different mechanical outcomes. Want to be a dashing duelist? Maybe you could make a Fighter/Rogue character. Maybe just a Rogue. Or, perhaps a Swashbuckler? Swashbuckler/Rogue? A Fighter/Swashbuckler/Rogue? The system seems to get strangest when mixing basic, broad classes like the Fighter or Wizard with very specific, specialized classes like the Paladin or Bard. One begins to wonder what it means to be a Fighter/Ranger/Paladin character. Technically, these feel like they should all be same shades of the same basic character, but within the Third Edition framework, they are distinct classes to be chosen when leveling up a character.

After playing Third Edition for a brief period, I started to think that that all I really needed were the four "basic" classes (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, and Thief) and cleverly designed Prestige Classes.  The rest would be composed of some combination of those classes, maybe throwing in some specific Prestige Class along the way. Unfortunately, although the four basic classes covered a lot of ground, it is clear that they leave a vast array of potential character ideas out. Eventually, I began to hypothesize that what the game really needed was a solid array of basic classes that naturally developed into more specialized, advanced classes attainable after a few levels of dabbling in the core classes. Interestingly, that would later be done within the same d20 System framework in the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game, but that is a discussion for another time.

Krusk later regretted that level of
Librarian he took early in his career.
Another peculiar feature of Third Edition's class system was that, with such an abundance of options, it was quite easy to make bad choices. In fact, it was probably far easier to make a bad choice than a good one.  It is quite simple to realize several levels down the line that grabbing that level of Ranger early in the campaign was a terrible mistake. Or taking that Toughness Feat. While some choices may simply be situationally poor (such as taking Magic Item creation feats in a game where there are no Magic Items), others are simply not meant to be chosen together. It is strange that a game in which one would expect to play the same character for months, even years, would have a rule system in which bad choices are not only possible, but likely, and that no method to rectify bad choices exist. For players that hoped to do more than just play the pickup game at their local convention, Third Edition seemed to have it against you.

Unfortunately, for a system filled with a plethora of rules for different situations, it was not until Player's Handbook II that 3.5 addressed the idea of retraining. Granted, I would imagine any DM would allow players who realize they had made catastrophic mistakes with their character to have a go at re-building the character, but the idea that it took years of supplements to formalize it in the ruleset was peculiar, to say the least.

Some of the more obvious peculiar expressions of the Third Edition multi-class system came about in the d20 Star Wars RPG. Based on a very similar version of the d20 ruleset presented in Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, the Star Wars RPG took the game to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Game books would always feature stat blocks for iconic characters. As new source books were released with new Prestige Classes, feats, and features, some iconic characters would change class or build to better suit the new content. The Dark Side Sourcebook includes a stat block for Emperor Palpatine that included the following text:
The statistics presented here differ from those presented in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.While these statistics provide a much more holistic interpretation of the Emperor's abilities, either version of the Emperor works perfectly well for most roleplaying purposes.
I have multiple, different stat blocks, young Skywalker,
but I'll happily electrify your ass with any one of them.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with having to adjust, even ret-con, the occasional stat block, the idea that even the villains needed a few chances to "get it right" said something about the potential complexity of the system. I could almost here the player upset on discovering that an important boss has multiple game statistics. "But, last week he couldn't do that!"

This was even more apparent with the "power creep" that often appears in Dungeons & Dragons. Later content, such as classes and monsters, would be more powerful than earlier classes. Sometimes done to "balance things out" while other times done just to make new features interesting, the net result was that things introduced later would have a higher power level than earlier options. This could lead to new features, feats, or Prestige Classes meant to balance out the problems. The net result was a slow escalation, leaving early sourcebook options relatively unimpressive in later years. "Oh, you're a standard Fighter? I'm glad you think that still works for you!" Eventually, the iconic heroes and villains featured in early sourcebooks would have to be replaced by a more powerful version to keep up. It is no wonder that only four or so years into the game they felt the need to release an updated rulebook, version 3.5, to blank the slate.

The Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table, at least with respect to the Dungeons & Dragons game. A more flexible and robust system let players make characters that felt more like the character they wanted while giving them unique or interesting abilities to distinguish them from every other character out there. Unfortunately, having too many options or unnecessarily repetitious options weakened the impact of the system. Overly specific character classes did not mesh well with extremely general ones, leading to peculiar results. Further, having identifiably bad options or, in the worse case, secretly bad options, undermined the strengths of the system. Finally, the slow progression in supplements of raising the power level tended to make earlier options less impressive, sometimes even relegating them to obscurity. In the end, it opened a lot of interesting doors in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and class-based RPG systems, but it leaves open a lot of strangeness that should really have been better resolved.

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