Monday, August 6, 2012

Does each class need a unique mechanic to "play" differently?

This is a topic I'm still a little undecided on. But the direction of 4e and the discussions of the new edition of D&D lead me to suspect that the design team wants each new class to "play" differently, which might mean a new core mechanic for each class.

The problem is, this hasn't really been true for D&D. From the basic D&D days, Dwarves and Halflings were variant fighters, while Elves were fighter/mages. Unique, maybe, but they certainly didn't have a unique set of mechanics. Clerics and magic-users both cast spells, though from different lists.

By the time we move to third edition, we begin to see a proliferation of classes. Sure, second edition AD&D had kits galore, but few new classes. Specific campaigns like Dark Sun and later Ravenloft saw new and variant classes (Gladiator, Templar, Avenger, Gypsy) to replace banned/unused ones (often Paladins), and but few new classes like the barbarian, shaman, and ninja were really presented outside the core books in the generic materials.

Third edition saw a real proliferation of classes, yet they were by-and-large variants of one another. Archivists were scholarly divine casters that functioned like wizards, favored souls, spirit shamans, and such were divine casters that functioned more like sorcerers. The Samurai, Hexblade, and Swashbuckler were basically fighter variants, while the ninja, scout, and spellthief were rogues, more or less. There were some innovative classes, like the warlock and marshal, but even these got later variants (Dragonfire Adept and Dragon Shaman). There were some late innovative classes too, like the martial adepts from Tome of Battle, new magic-users from Tome of Magic, and the whole Incarnum stuff I never got into. But even these presented classes as variations on the theme mechanics.

In fourth edition, we start to see some more notions that classes need distinct mechanics, not just powers. While all the defender classes used marks early on, they accessed them in different ways and felt "different", and later essentials defenders used defending auras which were a variant on the mark. Striker classes mostly got distinct damage mechanisms (Extra dice of damage for warlocks, rogues, and rangers though with different conditional restrictions, etc). Even leaders had the same healing word mechanic with subtle tweaks. Controllers never really had their own unified mechanics, which might be one reason why people consider the invoker to just be a divine wizard.

Which is better though? Should fighters have some unique mechanic that only they can access, such as stances or maneuver dice? Is it enough for wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers to have differential access to arcane magic (along with Bards and certain other classes?), or do they need their own set of spells and powers? Is a paladin really just a dude with limited access to cleric and fighter powers, or is he defined by his auras, challenges, smites, or ability to lay on hands?

My first instinct, coming out of playing 4e, is that each class should have distinctive mechanics. But then I remember that distinct mechanics (i.e. powers) in 4e were a complete mess. Creating a new class was a monumental undertaking in 4e because of the mostly exclusive powers. I yearned for some powers that were just generic "arcane", so that wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, bards, artificers, and swordmages didn't all need their own proprietary fireballs.

I'm still not sure why the Pathfinder
summoner is a distinct class...
Similarly, is it a problem if all the spellcasting classes draw from the same pool of spells, more or less? Can wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, clerics, and shamans all have access to Protection from Chaos or Torchlight spells? If that's the case, I see no reason that fighters should have their own unique set of maneuvers, though perhaps they have access to the whole range of them, whereas rangers or paladins are more limited. In other words, maybe spells aren't the defining characteristic of wizards and combat maneuvers/stances aren't the exclusive province of fighters. Sure, fighters and wizards might be the best at their arts, but they're not the exclusive holders of those arts. In this way, they're defined by their general access. Paladins, cavaliers, knights and samurai might still challenge their foes, and rangers might still have favored terrains/enemies which help define them.

Does this solution leave wizards and fighters as flavorless though? I don't think so. This also helps avoid Pathfinder syndrome, where each class becomes bloated with class-specific options and variants. If one of the design principles is simple and clear rules, then a system of differential access to these options seems like better option than a dozen class-specific options (like 4e powers), forcing each class to have a 20 page write-up.

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