Thursday, August 6, 2009

Assassins and Archetypes

One of the greatest strengths of D&D, I think, is the class system. No, it doesn't have ten thousand options for not only fighters and wizards, but "beguilers" (whatever the hell those are), knights, barbarians, warlocks, battle mages, etc. But that's not the point, nor the intent of the AD&D class system (and the D&D system from the little brown books and BECMI as well really). Instead, Gary Gygax's conception of a "class" was less of a packet of customizable character powers and abilities to help some poor dateless wonder realize his fantasies of playing a super cinematic character, but as broad archetypes, instead. Thus, a fighter isn't a job description, it's a category denoting "those who fight with armor and weapons in a martial manner" instead. A magic-user/wizard/mage is "one who uses arcane spells" and not a title. A thief - often the butt of grognardian displeasure because, of course, why does one need to belong to the thief class in order to steal? - is not so much one who steals as "one skilled in subterfeuge, stealth, and non-direct means."

Within these categories, the possibilities are numerous. Within the category of "fighter" for instance, lies the characters of an ex-soldier, Robin-Hood, a raging berserker, a swashbukling romantic hero, a town guard seargeant, or simply a degenerate thug. Likewise, the cleric category can encompass anything from Brother Cadfael to a frenetic ideological zealot. This is why I don't really like the multiplication of entities when it comes to classes. Simply put, they're just not needed, or they draw a distinction where none should be (i.e., why is it that all barbarians after UA are really berserkers? Isn't "barbarian" a cultural and social distinction instead?).

That's why, in the end, I don't see the need for an entire class devoted to the assassin. In the end, isn't an assassin merely one who kills for money? Why can't a member of any class perform that function? As it is, the class seems merely to co-opt part of the function of the thief class, but not as well. Ostensibly, a professional hired killer and a spy (two archetypes for the price of one?), but I simply do not see the need for this in the core rules say what you will about maturity, tone, of juvenality. The removal of the assassin from the core PHB in 2nd edition was, in my mind, a moderate improvement along these lines.

But what about the ranger, druid, bard, and paladin? Aren't they the same issue?

Yes, they are. And no, given the model of archetypes that I think Gary was following, I don't think that they're all together neccessary or needed within the core rules of the game. Each of their niches can be filled about as well by one or more of the other classes and good role playing as these extra classes can. Hell, the 2e PHB actually denotes the druid as a type of specialty mythos priest, but then goes out of its way to make it virtually impossible to replicate it via the guidlines given for special mythos priesthoods, so go figure.

In my mind, the only truly neccessary classes within the archetypal fantasy framework of AD&D are the Fighter, the Cleric, the Magic-User, and the Thief. All else is gravy.

Of course, one could take this argument far enough to say that there shouldn't be any classes at all and characters are entirely defined by what they do, but then it just wouldn't by D&D would it? We'd be off playing GURPS or something like that and there's no need to insult anybody by going there.


  1. "beguilers" (whatever the hell those are)

    Probably a class modelling the followers of some late 12th century Catholic heresy or other. Talk about over-specialisation of class archetype... ;)

    Where would you personally place the non-iconic, but now customary classes?

    Ranger: camo'ed up fighter or outdoor thief?
    Bard: chatty thief or musical MU?

  2. Yep, fighter, thief, magician, cleric; everything else is a variant on a theme, including multiclass types. A beguiler, if memory serves, is basically a sort of illusionist/thief.

  3. Chris: Yes.

    Matthew: Maybe, but I stopped following 3.x after I gave it one last fling with Ptolus (which I will say nice things about in itself).