As computer RPGs blend more and more with Tabletop RPGs the essence of character classes seem to more accurately reflect the computer game zeitgeist. The height of this trend was the release of 4th Edition AD&D, which played more like a strategy game than a true RPG. Let’s take a look at the origins and meanings behind the various common classes in the hope of revealing more indepth Role Play in the term RPG.
While I could mention many other classes, I’ll be sticking mainly with the D&D and AD&D classes as I think the majority of gamers will be familiar with what I’m talking about. I should also add that D&D refers to the Dave Arneson branch of D&D from back in 1974. AD&D is the Gary Gygax branch which evolved into what we now know as 5th Edition D&D.
Let’s begin with one of my personal pet hates. A ranger is not called a ranger because she uses a ranged weapon. I’m not sure where this trend started except to suggest it was born from pure ignorance.
A ranger takes the name from one or both of two sources. First, is that a ranger is a wanderer, who has gained his knowledge on how to survive from spending endless days living among nature. The other interpretation comes from the idea that a ranger is the custodian of the wilds, much like a modern park ranger.
A bow is certainly a helpful tool for living in the wilds, as it’s good for hunting as well as being useful for guerrilla warfare against brigands and other threats in the wilds. The bow does not define the ranger though, it’s adaption is only incidental to the true role of the ranger.
Granting spells to rangers was an interesting evolution of the ranger class in AD&D. At first they only gained wilderness based clerical magic, then later the magic became more druidic. This strongly suggests that the role of custodian is where the true path of the ranger is going. In this sense, the ranger is to the druid what the paladin is to the cleric. They must have some form of belief in a divine force otherwise they wouldn’t get divine spells.
In most world settings, it’s probably best to think of the ranger as a protector of the wilds and a seasoned traveller who can help guide a party to their destination.
The druid is often seen as little more than a shape-changer now. Going back to the origins, the druid was a powerful guardian of the natural balance. They are more than just a nature cleric, they can hold the fate of the lands in their hands. In their generally accepted role, the druid can seem capricious. For example they might one day save the village from orcs, yet the next day help some goblins to raid the same village. This is because they protect all things equally by allowing everyone to have a chance to survive and thrive. Sometimes things must be pruned in order to flourish.
There is actually little need for a druid to travel with an adventuring party unless the party is working within the guidelines of the druid’s goals. So a druid would show little interest in killing a dragon for loot, and might even protect the dragon if it is in harmony with nature. However she would definitely help kill a dragon that has been torching villages, crops and forests in a manner that is wholly destructive to the land.
It should also be noted that druids are a part of a collective organisation, though it operates in a fairly non-humanistic way. Druids believe in the law of nature, that the strongest will devour the weak. So the druids learn from each other, and help each other when they need help, but they are just as likely to turn to violence against each other if they disagree on how some situations might be resolved.
The most important element of being a cleric is the religion you follow. It should never be because the party needs a ‘stitch bitch’ (aka healer). The spells and abilities the cleric is granted should be entirely based on the portfolio of their god/s. If the adventuring party needs a healer, then they should find a willing cleric from a religion which promotes healing. It’s stupid to pick a cleric who worships a god of assassins and demand they learn healing spells in order to be ‘useful’.
For those of you who are unaware, clerics were once restricted to blunt weapons only. The concept behind this was because a cleric didn’t want to shed blood (also showing a very limited knowledge of battlefield wounds). Perhaps this is where the concept of the cleric as healer first, fighter second comes in. Obviously this requirement makes no sense with many religions, both dark and light. Eventually the limit was altered to suggest each god had their own sacred weapons. Even D&D made these changes in one of the later Almanacs.
So what is the true role of a cleric? Whatever their god asks of them of course. However, be careful not to read the requirements overly literally. For example, a god of assassination won’t be about mindless killing, there will be a purpose to each death and so too should the cleric think about the reasons behind taking any life.
In our own mythology, few gods are either good or bad, they have many shades in between. RPG gods however tend to be viewed in terms of alignment, and are thus good, bad or indifferent. Those who are good tend to consider themselves ‘shepherds of the people’. Therefore their clerics choose their adventures with purpose. Sometimes this purpose might simply be to have people think favourably of their god and thus gain converts. Whatever the reason though, there really should be something beyond the banal.
I’m adding Paladin as a bit of an afterthought, because I think people are starting to understand the purpose of the class. The origin of the paladin comes from religious involvement with the military. The paladin is basically a military commander who speaks for the church, or in other terms, a champion of the church. As such, the essence of the paladin is defined by the church they are patron to. They should embody all that is of importance in the church dogma.
If we go back to earlier versions of AD&D and D&D, then the paladin was always Lawful Good (Lawful in D&D). The Lawful aspect was vital for the paladin to follow the church doctrine, and Good was important to provide a good example to the people. The way many early paladins were played lead to the term Lawful Stupid, meaning the paladin was righteous to the point of idiocy. This is a shame, because this form of zealotry would be fair role play for what a paladin is, but it’s also an antagonistic way of role playing in a group. It’s like a thief always having to steal, and for a barbarian to always use his intelligence as a dump stat. Paladins should above all, be able to interface with people, so toning down the zealotry would be a natural choice she’d make. A good negotiator understands you sometimes have to give a little to gain a lot.
The monk, or mystic as they are known in D&D, are a very curious choice for an adventurer. The purpose of monk training to to bring the mind body and soul into a state of perfection. They are not mindless pugilists who punch orcs and horses because it’s ‘fun’. In fact, they are scholars who usually also follow a strict code.
Strangely, it’s rare for source books to detail monks with any depth. Different orders should have different requirements. Some would venerate certain deities who promote divinity through physical perfection. Other orders might believe true perfection comes through personal training, not from divine inspiration. If you are going to play a monk, then the true essence of your character should come from the dictates of their order.
People seem to really struggle with the concept that the thief doesn’t have to actually steal anything. The city locksmith would probably have the thief class, as would many archaeologists. Think about the role of thief like we think of the mordern day Hacker. There are black hat hackers who break into systems and write malicious code for the fun of it, or for personal gain. Then there are white hat hackers who check system security and find weaknesses in malicious code so it can be countered. The RPG thief is much like this, there are those who steal for fun or profit, and those who learn how to be a thief as a way to support a community.
The main role of the adventuring thief should be that of a forward scout. I find most adventuring groups don’t appreciate the value of gathering information and making a plan before attack. If the thief can determine that the room ahead contains four orcs playing cards, then the party should be able to calculate how to swiftly take down those orcs using the minimum of resources and making the least noise. Scouting saves lives, so a thief should be a valued member of the party, not feared because he’ll get to the treasure first and steal all the really neat stuff.
The bard is a relative newcomer to AD&D. It didn’t exist in D&D at all, and attaining the rank of Bard in early AD&D bordered on the verge of epic. The basic premise of the bard is “jack-of-all trades, master of none.” It’s an unfortunate description because it ignores the fact the bard does excel in one thing; communication.
Assuming the concept of bard is based on historic examples, such as the Nordic Skald, then the purpose of the bard is to inspire others as well as keep the stories and lore of the people. Therefore a bard is really part charismatic mountebank, part supporter of allies, and a big part scholar.
By treating the bard as a jack-of-all trades they become a second string class. I think this is why 5th edition AD&D gave them healing spells as well as the rest of their spellbook, as a way to make them feel more useful. However, better written adventures should be able to reward scholars by being able to unravel the deeper mysteries of ancient ruins or avoid dangers.
If you want to play a bard in D&D, then choose thief with a high charisma. Choose history, lore and performance skills for your general skills. This combined with the thieves ability to Read Languages and use magical scrolls will round out the bard skill set quite well.
I don’t have much to say about the arcane users except to understand where their powers come from. The warlock is literally selling their soul, so how will that alter the way they live their life? The wizard might lack the natural powers of a sorcerer, but they are very studious folk so it would be foolish not to take ranks in whatever arcane lore skills exist in your world.
Even the way each form of spell caster tackles a problem should be unique to their type. A wizard will likely want to carefully contemplate the variables, while the sorcerer will just try to brute force the issue with magic.
Of course character personality comes into play, but when constructing that personality think very carefully about how the way they attained that power will effect how they use it.
It’s a shame that many people view the fighter as the default character for new players. Playing a fighter should be every bit as thought provoking as any class. A fighter is likely to not have any wild cards to get out of a tight situation, they only have their HP pool and the luck of die roles with their weapons. For this reason, fighters should be careful and methodical.
Fighters should usually be party leaders, as it’s her life on the line when things go down. A fighter also needs to think of themselves as a Swiss Army Knife for combat skills, instead of just fighting the same way every time. For example, stowing the noisy plate armour in favour of leather might be a life saving choice when stealth is more important than brute strength.
Use diverse weapons such as thrown oil and similar tools to control the flow of combat. A fighter masters the field, rather than reacting to events like a startled raccoon. You are not your weapons and armour, you are a master of battle who still has a human personality with all the relevant strengths and weaknesses.
I wasn’t going to bother mentioning the barbarian, but I do see many trends in the way people play the class which don’t sit right with me. I’d also like to add that Conan the Barbarian is more of a multi-class barbarian/thief than a pure class barbarian.
Let’s start by looking at what a barbarian isn’t. A barbarian isn’t stupid, he isn’t uneducated, and he most certainly isn’t a mindless berserker. Sure, the barbarian might lack a formal city education, but he has an extensive education on how to survive some of the harshest regions in the world. As for his Rage skill, I propose that this is the barbarian harnessing the natural wild talent of fight or flight, which all natural creatures experience when suddenly put into danger. The barbarian has taken that adrenal rush from fight or flight, and turned it to a powerful fight reflex.
With that out of the way let’s talk about what a barbarian actually is. In essence, they are a sort of super ranger who swapped magic for enhanced senses and greater physical prowess. They live and breathe an almost bestial drive to survive, which is tempered by a really strong tribal connection. Depending on what version of D&D you are playing, this tribe will also have a totem which helps guide the barbarian’s behaviour. Within the tribe you learn there are those who are a liability, and those who are an asset. A lot of the barbarian’s gruff exterior might come from this binary way of valuing people. It also means in a strong effective party that uses teamwork, the barbarian will come to think of his companions as siblings.
If you want to play a barbarian in D&D, then one of the best matches would actually be mystic, but with heavy discussion with your DM to iron out the wrinkles.
Anything I Missed
I know there are countless other classes in AD&D, but I don’t have enough experience with all classes to offer an informed opinion; or I forgot them because there was little to misunderstand about them.
As for the D&D racial classes, they warrant an entirely different discussion. I respect the hell out of racial classes and fully support their use. I find they give each race a distinct identity and thus a vital role in the world. It also supports the need for different races to come together when the world faces real threats.