Monday, September 29, 2008

Half of D&D's Core Classes Are Crap

OK. A conversation with one of my players convinced me to take a look at the D&D classes.

Let's talk the basics. Fighters vs Magic-Users vs Clerics vs Thieves.

Fighters and Thieves suck. They suck at first level, they suck at mid-range levels, and they suck at high levels.

What is the role of the Magic-User? To cast spells. Can they? Yes. 100% of the time, when they want to cast a spell, unless opposed by the situation (damaged while in the middle of casting), they can cast their spell. For the class that's supposed to be the weakest at low levels, they are the only class that can be counted on to actually do their jobs 100% of the time. And they just get bigger and badder from there. No subclass duplicated the powers of a Magic-User... an Illusionist has a different spell list.

Clerics? Well, depending on your version, they might not get that first level spell at the beginning. But they get to wear any armor, that "no sharp weapons" rule hardly limits them so much (especially in something like BFRPG where there are blunt weapon equivalents in damage to anything with a blade), plus they get to turn undead, and in AD&D they get followers and collect taxes just like fighters. No subclass duplicates the powers of a Cleric... the Druid is a completely different beast, just under the umbrella of "believing spell-caster."

Fighters... what can they do that's unique? Use an axe? ooooo. Clerics get to wear just as much armor, and a cleric's to-hit chart is very competitive for the first ten or so levels. Fighter saving throws suck ass compared to everyone else's. Fighters get on average 1 more hit point per level than clerics, 2 more than thieves. That's not really a lot. As they increase in level, their non-combat capabilities don't increase (unless we're talking followers, and clerics get those too), and clerics and magic-users begin to be able to combat mass amounts of foes, while a fighter might someday get 2 attacks. The "one attack for every level versus opponents of lesser HD" rule is useless. ooo, a 10th level fighter gets 10 attacks against goblins, is that supposed to be a power? Or just something to expediate the foregone conclusion?

And their basic competency... swinging a sword. Against a completely unarmored foe, everything else being average... 55% chance to hit. Right about half the time. A weak-at-first magic user casts his spell 100% of the time. A cleric with a crap wisdom, if using an unadvantageous edition, has an 80% chance to get their spell off (funny that the versions where a first level cleric can't cast a spell at first level don't have this spell failure for low wisdom, either), and the same chances to hit as a fighter does at first level, *and* can turn undead. yoinks, not such a great class here, and especially not at *fighting*.

And then the subclasses of the fighter give added abilities, with precious few drawbacks. They aren't "different flavors entirely," like the illusionist is to the magic-user or the druid to the cleric. They are power-ups and add-ons. The ranger is better at fighting a large selection of enemies, including all of the most usual low-level suspects. The paladin is far an away superior in abilities. You might point out the experience point requirement difference, but that breaks down.

At 5000 experience, you have a 3rd level fighter, 2nd level paladin, or 3rd level ranger.

At 25000 experience, you have a 5th level fighter, 5th level paladin, or 6th level ranger.

At 100000 experience, you have a 7th level fighter, 7th level paladin, or 7th level ranger.

I do not believe the "restrictions" on the paladin and ranger are meaningful unless we agree that the fighter has no compelling qualities of its own. "Sorry, you're not a paladin anymore, you're just a shit fighter now!" The magic item restrictions of a paladin? HAH! Yeah, what other magic items is a fighter going to use? Paladins don't retain wealth... except enough to support themselves, their entourage, and their hold. Gee, how very restrictive, they can't blow all that money on whores and stuff like a real fighter. (Do paladins get experience for the discarded wealth and tithe? If not, how is it a meaningful sacrifice? Simply not being able to give it to the magic user for research?) Does anybody, anywhere, enforce the "will join a party with non-evil neutrals only on a single-expedition basis," or do we get the "Bob's a paladin, *groan* everyone's got to be Good." As far as ability score requirements... doesn't it compound the effectiveness (or pitiable quality) of ability scores to give their basic bonus AND then give access to whiz-bang class abilities?

I think the fighter itself should be beefed up. UA's weapon specialization is there, someone obviously saw the problem, but it takes up an extra proficiency (and that is one of the fighter's few advantages in AD&D, the breadth of possible weapon usage, certainly not the effectiveness once using a weapon), and they go ahead and give it to rangers.

But that's only AD&D, and shit, it's UA, and if you start introducing UA stuff, you'll get some dunderheaded fucknugget demanding to be a Barbarian and that's a shitwagon nobody wants to start riding. ("Our barbarian and our paladin can only adventure together once because the barbarian is neutral, and the cleric has to pretend to be a fighter that 'just happens' to like a mace and the magic user is just some guy hanging around because the barbarian will kill them both if they start being useful and casting spells.") (And what kind of half-ass design cancels out the restriction on using magical weapons at the exact same time that the ability to hit creatures affected only by magical weapons?) (ARRRRGGGGHHHHHHH)

Thieves... oh my god, what is this? Combat effectiveness is zero. Yeah, they can backstab, but they need to strike by surprise. Look at a first level thief's class ability chances.

Pick Pockets... 30%, if everyone involved is the same level. Open Locks? 25%. Find/Remove Traps? 20% (and TWO ROLLS to get the trap cleared). Move Silently? 15%. Hide in Shadows, 10%. Hearing a frickin noise is only 10%, and that caps out at 55%, for the highest level of thieves. Climb Walls actually looks useful at 85%. These are AD&D numbers, mind you. In Mentzer D&D, most are even worse.

Really, when thieves were introduced in the Greyhawk supplement, it's almost like Gary was screwing around with people. "It's too arbitrary to figure out if we find traps or pick pockets! Our referee is unfair! We need rules!" And Gary said... "OK, here's a class! It's CRAP! Hope you're satisfied never succeeding instead of figuring it out yourself!"

Seriously, what is a thief's core function to a D&D party? If your answer is anything different than "climbing that wall right there," then there's a problem.

And yeah, thieves have the "most advantageous" experience point table... but really... let's do another comparison.

At 100,000 XP each, you will have a 7th level cleric, a 7th level fighter, an 8th level magic-user, and an 8th level thief. That "quick advancement" crap doesn't get you very far, does it?And as an 8th level thief, you're still at 57% to open a lock and 55% to find and remove traps. Wow! Aren't you supremely friggin useful to a party closing in on Name Level! Your cleric, wisdom granting, might be able to cast Find Traps SIX TIMES! Your magic-user can cast knock and/or levitate only three times though. I hope your 62% Move Silently and 49% Hide in Shadows gets you close enough for your one-time Backstab attempt... which will have less of a chance to hit than your fighter friend performing a normal attack, and if you're seen, which you will be 50% of the time, your crappy armor class is going to leave you quite exposed to the kind of enemies you're all fighting at 7th-8th level.

... and let's hope there's no Assassin or Monk in the party (who, at 100,000 experience, will be 7th level, with the assassin needing 1 measly point of XP more to get to 8), or you're completely redundant.

So... can we agree that there is a problem? And I do have a couple of solutions that I can think of off the top of my head, and these solutions are based on making the characters more generally useful and effective without making anybody a superman.

For fighters, and just the core fighter, not any subclasses... give an extra attack. So levels 1-6, it's 2 attacks per round. 7-12, 2 attacks per round, and 13+ it's 5/2. And fighters use the monster to-hit matrix, which doesn't give much of a bonus for most of the level spread compared to what the fighter was before, but for example a seventh level fighter is going to be measurably better at, you know, fighting, than a 7th level cleric. Extraordinary strength scores will no longer be necessary to be an effective fighter, although frankly a fighter with such a stat might be friggin scary with these new rules. Maybe best to use this in place of the 18/xx scores in AD&D.

The thief... Easy. Start the thief off with 10% in all categories, and give all the increases as optional points to move around. For example, AD&D, 10% base in all abilities, and then 125 percentile points to distribute as desired. If a thief's going to be a one trick pony, let the poor dude choose which trick it's going to be. And then as levels increase, maybe the guy can become a two-trick, then a three-trick pony instead of some wandering mass of mediocrity while every other class is whomping ass. Is the process of play or the balance of power going to chance because Sneaky the Thief has a 90% open locks at first level? Or can actually be counted on to find a trap? I think not.

Or, if those solutions for the fighter and thief seem too radical... be simpler. Just say fighters use the matrix four levels higher, and use thief skill charts for the character's level +4. Surely a +15% chance to hit at first level for the fighter, and a +20% chance to find traps for a thief, won't kill anything? But at 7th level... the fighter is hitting 30% more often than a cleric (and having an extra attack every other round to boot), and the thief has a 70% chance to hide in shadows for his one effective combat move.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.


  1. I think it's largely true that Thieves are a poorly designed class, both mechanically and conceptually, which is why I don't favor their inclusion in any OD&D campaigns I run. Remember that Gygax assumed that the class would be used primarily for NPCs rather than PCs, which probably explains a lot about their features.

    The fighter, though, I'm not sure I'm seeing the problems you are. In OD&D, they're the only class that can use magic swords (well, until the Thief comes along), which is a bigger boon than it seems, and get multiple attacks against creatures of less than 1 Hit Die, which is also quite useful. No, a Fighter doesn't compare to either a MU or a Cleric in long-term power, but they're quite robust at low levels and easy to play, which makes them great for novice players. Again, I don't see this as something that needs fixing.

    (On the other hand, I think the Cleric, as written, is probably too powerful)

  2. I only use the original three classes nowadays. ALL the magic swords in the original rules had intelligence and special abilities, so the fighter's ability to wield them is pretty buff. By using pre-Greyhawk hit point and armor rules everybody is down a peg or two in power, so the ability to punk out lots of goblins is actually a lot more critical. Also, I use Chainmail, so Heros can shoot down dragons and Super-Heroes can force morale checks on enemy armies.

    Finally, I would note that you can swipe a clerics holy symbols, burn a mages spellbooks, and throw the thieves tools down a well, but you can't so easily take away the ability to kick ass.

  3. Not really seeing the problems myself. Yeah, paladins and rangers are better than fighters and at certain experience totals levels are equal; fighter saving throws are actually amazing in AD&D, not poor at all. They start off worst, but advance by far the most.

    Thieves are probably the weakest class overall, but even they have their good points as they progress in level to a point where their abilities start becoming more reliable.

    A lot of the variance depends on what edition you are using, but it has always been the case that past level nine or so, spells make swords look pretty poor by comparison.

  4. I rather like the fighter, but I do acknowledge your points. As a friend put it, "the fighter (in AD&D) was the class you settled for if you didn't qualify for a sub-class". Specialization helped, but restricted your options at the same time.
    The thief is another problem. I agree with those that eliminate the class, but I have a great fondness for it and want to make it viable somehow.

  5. The Magic User may have had a 100% attack rate, but it was only once per day. The classes that could engage in melee had lower odds, but there was no limit to the number of times you can swing a sword or mace. It does rather even out, even in Basic and AD&D.

  6. Some things I'm not clear about. My player's handbook, AD&D, says a Ranger doesn't reach sixth until 40,000 X.P. And while the thief may be 8th at 100,000 X.P., at 110,001 X.P. the thief is ninth, while the fighter, ranger and paladin are all still 7th.

    Um, things you didn't point out about the fighter: he gains a 10% bonus in combat at 4,001 X.P, while the cleric doesn't get that bonus until 6,001 X.P. The fighter gains his next 10% bonus at 18,001 X.P. while the cleric gains his next 10% bonus at 55,001. Not comparable.

    Fighters are the only class allowed to take a +3 or better bonus from constitution. Fighters are also the only class allowed the % strength. Consider that the fighter is placing his best two stats on strength and constitution, while the cleric will use his primary stat on wisdom. Those aspects tend to make the fighter much tougher in combat.

    While the ranger/paladin compare with the fighter, the pace of levelling is really noticeable when the players hit sixth. The fighter needs only 35,000 for seventh, while the ranger and paladin both need 50,000; moreover, by the time the paladin reaches 5th, the fighter is already 2/5 his way to sixth. These differences are crucial.

    I do think the fighter attacks column is low. I've been playing with a rule for some time now that seems to work. Divide the fighter's level by the defender's HD+1; thus, a 4th level fighter gets two attacks against 1HD, a sixth level gets 2 attacks against 2HD and three against 1HD and so on. When fighting among masses of humanoid creatures it has a considerable effect.

    I don't have any particular problem with thieves. Most of the time, they're not in direct combat (unless they're stupid) and their high dexterity gives them excellent missile abilities. I think, generally, most players tend to think of the thief as a weak fighter that occasionally gets lucky, while a smartly used thief will collect reconnaissance and infiltrate the enemy with effect. I admit, I tend to be fairly generous with the thieving abilities, assuming that hide in shadows or move silently succeed unless there is a particular condition affecting either one. The fault is not in the class, it is in the player.

  7. I recently had the idea for an OD&D thief to just swipe all the "dwarves and elves can find stuff" and "elves and halflings are sneaky" rules from the little brown books and the AD&D Players Handbook, add the dwarves' saving throw boost (thieves are lucky/live by their wits/whatever) and the backstabbing thing (applicable when attacking from surprise). Oh, and anyone can use thieves' tools (maybe limited by Intelligence? I dunno), but thieves get any break-and-enter job done with a bump up on the time scale. So, 1 round to pick a given lock versus 1 turn for a non-thief; 1d6 rounds versus 1d6 turn to force an entrance through a castle's drainage system; or whatever.

  8. On the subject of fighters, I had the idea of scaling up thier attacks on the basis not only of # of total attacks per round, but also # of attacks allowed per opponent. Thus you'd have something like this:

    1st level - 2 attacks/round; max. 1 attack per opponent
    4th level - 3 attacks/round; max. 1 attack per opponent
    7th level - 4 attacks/round; max. 2 attacks per opponent; all foes in range must be attacked at least once if possible
    10th level - 6 attacks/round; max. 2 attacks per opponent; all foes in range must be attacked at least once if possible

    This progression is admittedly a little apeshit comparing to baseline D&D ideas, but I don't know, maybe there's something to the basic idea.

  9. These two posts might help a bit with thieves, whether or not they represent Gary Gygax's "original intent":

    I also think that, when it comes to "remove traps", it should apply to the fine motor skills needed for disarming things that are on a hair trigger. This should help a bit by removing traps somewhat from the domain of thieves, which sounds backarsewards until we remember that forcing thieves to use their "remove traps" skill at all opportunities is pretty mean. OTOH if you want to boost the thief a bit you could, I suppose, use the skill as a sort of "knowledge roll" that will grant clues to the player. Or it can act as an extra save: if the player says "I move the lever upwards", a successful roll will mean that the character sees the mechanism about to spring and ease off on the pressure. Just a thought.

  10. You focus too much on the lower levels. And I know a lot of people often only play the lower levels. But at higher levels a Priest is not going to be able to take the brute of the dmg from high level creatures. Plus, having henchmen and property is fun if RP'ed properly. Thieves can become quite powerful and useful in the level 10+s.

    As for thieves, I always found them useful in my campaigns. I got sick of people RP'ing them like Tasslehoff though. But I create things that work around thieves.

    Curious, how often have you had campaigns with 14+ lvl characters? Ever had a lvl 20 D&D character?

    It all comes to RP'ing again. What is a thief in D&D really? Its Conan climbing the Tower of the Elephant. Its rarely just some annoying purse snatcher. Its a dungeon runner. Are they max utility for sitting in an empty room hitting a Dragon? Or, needing to get through a lot of traps or open a lot of treasure chests? Not really.

    As for your recommended modifications. They sound good to me in general.

  11. >>Curious, how often have you had campaigns with 14+ lvl characters? Ever had a lvl 20 D&D character?

    Never. Sure, I've done one-offs with high level characters, but for a "start at the beginning" campaign... getting everyone to 7th level is the highest I've ever run, and that took a little over a year... and I felt like such a Monty Haul to get everyone so high a level so quickly.

    In my current game, we've played about eight sessions and the party is half-and-half first and second level now.

  12. >>It all comes to RP'ing again. What is a thief in D&D really?

    Oh yeah, forgot to address this.

    When I'm playing, I prefer a thief, because I picture a dungeon delver as an Indiana Jones type... certainly not a criminal involved with the mob...

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Did an edit in the last line which said up armoured instead of saying unarmoured

  14. the Thief class. Boot the Cleric - that removes the pesky skill as pass/fail explicit, discrete, special cases, that they introduced. Move back to player skill for resolution in most instances. Get rid of turn undead in its current form making horrific monsters much more ...horrific.
    Give some skills like LotFP does already if you really have too. Make the resolution be a "stat check". Use whatever resolution takes your fancy d6, d6 pool, d20 roll under, target 20 , whatever. Have skills buff the "stat check" by one in the favour of the player if they are "skilled/proficient" or by two if they are "expert". Really there is only one class but the divider is on magic use which limits your ability in combat as does armour use in the opposite direction causing a limit to spell casting. The out come is three main builds from the one starting point a) heavily armoured fighters b) light armoured skirmishers with some fighting and casting ability and c) unarmored spell specialists.

    1. That's boot both the first boot got chopped off