Thursday, June 26, 2014

Oriental Adventures got it right

Now that D&D 5th Edition is about to come out, I've been musing a bit more about what would make a better game. I just bought the PDFs of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperboria (AS&SH) and it kind of hit me that there are a number of different classes in the original game and retroclones, but Oriental Adventures hit on a core rightness that other versions of the game haven't. Maybe it was a comment that veteran players tend to prefer the basic 4 classes and get a deeper experience from them, but since the addition of the Paladin and Ranger and so forth, something is off. Here's the quote itself:
Utilizing only the four principal character classes is recommended when introducing young or inexperienced players to AS&SH. A game with but these four classes is also easier for a novice referee to manage. Furthermore, veteran gamers oft deem the four principal classes as more gratifying compared with a dozen or more subclasses; indeed, the classes of fighter, magician, cleric, and thief suitably cover the gamut of archetypes portrayed by such literary sword-and-sorcery masters as R. E. Howard and F. Leiber.  (AS&SH p16)
They're all redundant classes, other than the basic four. An illusionist is a focused but lesser magic-user in the same way that an assassin is a lesser thief and the paladin/ranger are fighters with a little something different. The paladin and ranger seem to be more iconic because they actually do something a little different than the fighter, whereas illusionist and assassin are more focused (and possibly lesser) versions of the basic class. Druids are apparently distinct enough from clerics to have caught on.

The subclasses of older editions have been copied and recopied in retroclones, but there's very little that distinguishes them from their basic versions at times. I've particularly noticed this in the magic-using classes and fighter. AS&SH has illusionists, necromancers, and pyromancers but they're basically just magic-users with a specialization. Third Edition added the sorcerer, which was a nice change. Maybe this is why I like the Wizard-Sorcerer-Warlock trio for magician classes since they actually cast spells differently, and can support their own sub-classes or specialties (based on school specialization, bloodline, or pact). They feel like classes, not just like variant wizards (as necromancers or illusionists do).
Which brings me to Oriental Adventures. The classes in Oriental Adventures are:

  • Samurai (Cavalier)
  • Shukenja (Cleric)
  • Sohei (Cleric)
  • Barbarian (Fighter)
  • Bushi (Fighter)
  • Kensai (Fighter)
  • Wu Jen (Magic User)
  • Monk
  • Ninja (Thief)
  • Yakuza (Thief)

What is really interesting here is that there are one of the basic classes: No fighters, clerics, magic-users, or thieves exactly. We have two clerics (the marial sohei and theurgic shukenja). We distinguish the noble samurai from the common fighters (outsider barbarians, lowly bushi, and kensai experts). Ok, samurai at least get a bonus on the birth-rank table indicating their association with the upper classes, others can also be upper class if they're lucky. There is no generic fighter though, we get these types who are more specific to the setting. More specific in general. Because the fighter archetype is very broad. We have the knight-templar style (sohei) and also the cloth caster (shukenja). We have the guild thief (yakuza) and the infiltrating spy (ninja). Ok, so there's only one monk, one type of noble warrior (samurai) and one magic-user type (wu jen).

Al-Qadim (Arabian Adventures) also got this point, to an extent. With their suite of mandatory kits, we no longer had plain old fighters, but fighter was one of four groups that supported the askar, faris, fesert rider, and corsair. Cleric supported the different temple priests as well as wise women and mystics. Thief supported barbers, outcasts, scoundrels, and merchants. Mage supported elementalists and the genie-binding sha`ir. Because it was 2nd Edition, they also had rangers and bards, but by and large the Al-Qadim system was built around these four classes and the set of kits as much as 2nd edition in general had four class groups (Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, and Priest) and its 8-ish classes.

Looking at a number of Retroclones and older rules, I think I can see why people would claim that the basic four classes make for a more satisfying experience: in most cases the others are derivative and lesser. I'd still consider playing an illusionist or an assassin, but I see how they might be suboptimal in a way. An illusionist doesn't replace the magic-user, nor the asssassin the thief.

In a way, I think retroclones need to learn a lesson from 4e still. The party roles in 4e were amazing. Even in the new edition, I imagine that when the party loses a cleric, they'll still need another cleric (or maybe a druid or paladin) to replace her. Whatever role a wizard plays in a party, a game with many classes like this should have a way for a bard, cleric of a god of magic, warlock, or sorcerer perhaps to replace them. Despite the combat roles, 4e even gave multiple classes access to thievery (i.e. find/disarm trap) skills, so an artificer or warlock or anyone could fulfil that need.

So what did Oriental Adventures do right? It presented a setting without overly generic classes. It isn't the most diverse slate in the world, but its a good start. Arabian Adventures followed suit. The Conan d20 game did it too, as well as Iron Heroes. I guess that's one slight disappointment with AS&SH, which I find an otherwise nice take on the game. I wonder if more retroclones could take this into account, though I doubt they will since the four basic classes are such sacred cows. But what might D&D look like without them? Conversely, what could 5th edition have been if they did to the paladin and ranger what they did to the warlord and assassin and folded them back into the generic class as particular builds?

We could take a note from Oriental Adventures, Arabian Adventures, and Conan d20 and replace the common Fighter with a few other options (soldier, ranger, knight, pirate) but ultimately I think why this might fail is the lack of a good term for the prototypical fantasy hero: your dirt-farmer who gets a sword and saves the world. A less magical ranger class might fit Eragon or Luke Skywalker, but ultimately the reason the fighter is such a good fit is it is broad enough to encompass these non-fighters or fighters-in-training. The Peasant Hero, the Blade, the Champion, the Explorer... We might need another solid class to help capture this archetype. Its almost enough to yearn for the 3.5 factotum class who was literally more of a jack-of-all-trades than a bard. The Second Edition Ravenloft avenger class might work well in some ways.

Obviously, I'd be remiss claiming Oriental Adventures is without problems. It is oddly japanocentric and exoticizes many things that would otherwise be familiar (why can't there just be an oriental thief? Why can't we use the same magic-user class?). These criticisms are shared by others.

It is odd though, that it seems to take a specific setting to eliminate the fighter and the other generic classes. I'm intrigued by this idea and Oriental Adventures seems to be the original D&D version to do away with some basic classes like this. But I'm also jonesing to try an Oriental Adventures game, particularly after reading a few of reviews of OA adventures from Dungeon Magazine, which is what got me to notice this in the first place.

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