For a long time now I’ve been interested in running an old-school points-of-light style fantasy game, for no particular reason. I’ve never played or run one, so it’s not for nostalgia’s sake; rather, it’s probably for the opposite reason—because I’ve never really experienced with that style of game.
“Points of Light” was the one thing I really liked about 4th Edition D&D, rolling things back to a more AD&D-style world setting where civilization existed in the form of small towns and isolated waystations, surrounded by oceans of dark forests filled with monsters and brigands and primal savagery. Heroes come from small-town beginnings, or from the few well-fortified city states; they venture forth into the unknown to beat back the darkness and plunder strange relics of lost civilizations—faded empires, shattered races. Help may be days or even weeks away, so life can be brutal and harsh, even for the prepared: it’s the rugged individualism of a new frontier.
In sum, the generic OSR setting without archaic OSR game mechanics. The Hyperborean Tales, Lankhmar, Averoigne; old Weird Tales pulp fantasy meets the Dark Ages.
You can see a lot of the original D&D game in it, too: when a half-dozen men-at-arms is a “sizable” patrol in an underpopulated world, compared to forty or more hobgoblins, it becomes a bit of small-unit skirmish. (As in, wargame.) Hex grid wilderlands notwithstanding. They had this gee-whiz sensawunda, too; stumble into this hex and you might find some dude’s magic arrows hidden in a hollow treestump, stumble into this one and you get attacked by the plesiousaur in the lake.
Actually, I can chart this interest back to when I first played Baldur’s Gate, because its setting fits my ideal bill pretty well. A lot of open wilderness filled with hostile creatures and the occasional dungeon (or humanoid stronghold), with a few scattered hamlets along the way. Candlekeep, seaside resort for rich nobles, old wizards, and dusty tomes; Nashkel, occupied by a neighboring city-state, its iron mines besieged; Beregost, sizable trade city, and Baldur’s Gate, sprawling metropolis of the region. The Friendly Arms Inn in particular jumps out at me; a badass adventurer couple overthrew an evil overlord and turned his fortress into a waystation. Baldur’s Gate is nasty and harsh, a tough slog filled with memorable locales and unique NPCs… it’s how I imagine a great AD&D game would be like. (Not having to calculate THAC0, weapon speeds, or Armor Class modifiers—yep, that would be a great AD&D game.)
I’ve always enjoyed playing the Icewind Dale games the most—they have a rich if subtle flavor (case in point, items) and they’re easiest to progress in—while Planescape: Torment had the best story, and Baldur’s Gate II was the most accessible (while retaining a similar top-notch story). I’ve never really given the original Baldur’s Gate that much interest, despite how much it’s influenced my gaming perspective. Maybe the Enhanced Edition will change that. Maybe if it had been developed enough to not give me fucking bluescreens.
Part of my problem is that I realize it’s not an ideal genre to play in, and besides, everyone else who may be interested in this probably played it thirty years ago—it’s still a major source of nostalgia, and I’d wager most gamers into more trad fantasy have already played this. Plus, OSR just doesn’t interest me—I’d rather run a stripped-down version of FATE, or perhaps (glorious day!) take The One Ring for a test drive, considering Mirkwood matches my ideal points-of-light setting pretty damn well. (Plus its rules are kinda hot.) For the most part it’ll remain on my back-burner until I find the time and interest for it.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’ve never been huge on miniatures for tabletop gaming. I don’t mind a good skirmish battle, so long as it’s not taking the place of a roleplaying session. And I don’t mind using them as visual aids—sometimes it’s just better to know spatial relationships—so long as they’re not a necessary part of play, e.g., you can game without HAVING to know those spatial relationships. But I do love painting those suckers, despite my slow and lackadaisical progress at, well, painting miniatures. It’s relaxing, rewarding, and best of all, you can slap those suckers down on the table a few weeks later and go to town on your players.
But I feel I need to point out Reaper Miniatures’ new Kickstarter, because 1.) The rewards are awesome, and 2.) This is how you do a Kickstarter.
Reaper Miniatures is pretty much the king of tabletop miniatures, ever since Ral Partha and Grenadier evaporated in the ’90s. They’ve toyed with plastic miniatures in the past—I have some of their prepainted Legendary Encounters figs, which aren’t bad—but haven’t been successful at taking their winning metal fig sculpts and bringing them to the plastic field. Until they came up with their Bones line in March, which are white polymer figures—essentially pre-primed and ready for paintin’. Great combo: cheap (polymer, non-painted) and quality (based off Reaper’s metal sculpts).
Currently, a full third of their salse are Bones figs, even though there’s only twelve figures in the line—similar to Legendary Encounters, which only had about a dozen figs for years. The cost to start-up, design, mold, and ship a new line of figures is much slower than sticking with the established metal line. But with Indonesia playing tin baron, the costs to buy tabletop figs have been rising a tad high in recent years. Three metal Kobolds go for $5.99, while six polymer Bones Kobolds go for $3.49. See the difference?
So, Reaper went out asking for $30k on Kickstarter, whereupon they’d be able to get the Bones molds constructed and the miniatures flowing at a rapid rate. Like a proper Kickstarter, Reaper set up a series of “Stretch Goals” for when that bare minimum is hit; each Stretch Goal gives backers more rewards… in most cases, more free figures, or the ability to pre-order expensive figures at a deep discount. When that goal was hit out of the park by Reaper’s fans, casual fans saw the awesome stretch goals and joined in, which caused more backers to join in to get the awesome rewards, which caused… you get the picture. The more people who donate, the more everyone gets. It’s a brilliant idea for generating money, and Reaper managed to set up the right hurdles and rewards to cause the desired snowball effect.
Well, Reaper’s $30k goal was surpassed several times over, and the pledge will clear a million effing dollars sometime tomorrow if things keep up. And there’s another five days left before the Kickstarter ends. Currently, those stretch goals have showered down more bonuses on the heads of backers, so the $100 pledge reward has gone from thirty free Bones figures to nearly two hundred:
Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick. At my slow speed and non-professional paint level, the Vampire reward package is enough to set me back for a lifetime of painting. (Or at least a good number of decades.) There’s also the option to pre-order “big” Bones figures, mostly dragons, pairs of giants, a frost wyrm, a pair of demons, a trio of “spider centaurs,” and bunches of other cool stuff, at the cost of $10-15 per. If you donated an extra hundred to buy most of the big figs, that’d still come out to around $1 a miniature—better, standard Bones usually retail for $1.99-2.99, so not only are you getting them at wholesale value, but you’re propagating the line so it’ll see more sculpts (both old and new) at a really decent price.
I’m a bit underwhelmed by the current “final” stretch goal, since it gives you free dungeon furniture (torch, caskets, treasure chest), but the rest of the rewards are pretty impressive. All the Vampire-level backers getting ~200 figures is pretty damn impressive, as is dropping $10 to get a 5-6″ dragon.
Considering Reaper’s getting a million bucks or more out of this, the cost to make the reward figs is a drop in the bucket; with all that gross, here’s hoping that means the Bones line will explode instead of flounder like the pre-painted Legendary Encounters line did. I actually like this idea more than the pre-painted ones, since it saves me the time and energy of priming metal figs (or painting over plastic ones), even though I’d probably prime them black so I can see what I was painting.
[Update 21 August 2012]
I was being conservative when I said they’d clear a million by “tomorrow,” when what I meant was “in the early-morning hours shortly after midnight tonight.” And lo, I was correct. The Vampire level has added five pirates, five bits of scenery, four townsfolk, and four amazing mummies to the set, and will probably also hit its next stretch goals (four “dark heroes” and four other Pathfinder iconics) unless donations dry up. Reaper’s Bones Kickstarter is currently in the top ten highest grossing Kickstarters (hence why the stretch goalposts are increasing, to pay for all the free minis that need to be made and shipped to backers). It’ll also end up being the highest grossing Kickstarter related to tabletop gaming. Godspeed, Reaper. Make it to the top five.
Personally, while I’m not enthralled by all of the figures, I do like knowing that by early next year, the line will cover a lot of ground within Reaper’s extensive catalog, and do so faster than normal (compared to the ~12 figures in the line so far, the Kickstarter will fund production equal to 6-8 years of normal production speed). Not everyone has use for zombie hunters or future soldiers or steampunk gorillas (or, in my case, dungeon IKEA), but someone else will. And they’ll be able to walk into the store and drop a few bucks to pick up a Bones version.
Skill challenges are important because they’re the first mechanic D&D’s offered for long, non-combat challenges for the entire party. More of a framework and less a “mechanic” in the way “base attack bonus” or “saving throws” are a mechanic, but a mechanic nonetheless. They’re an integral part of 4e D&D, a major revolution in D&D games theory and mechanical interaction, they’ve always fascinated me with their potential and concept, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by attempts to blur the line between mechanics and “narrative” (in general, the non-mechanical happenings in the game—fluff, roleplaying, world-building, wandering around, setting, adventure goals, motivations, plot, etc.).
For a skill challenge example, I’ll use the first one in the Dark Sun campaign guide; it’s simple, streamlined, and well-described. The party want to find a secret alliance—a group that protects Preserver magicians, who are the guys who use magic that doesn’t corrupt the world—wherein they must undergo a skill challenge to join up. The challenge is divided into two parts: first, finding the alliance (Arcane/Streetwise with a secondary of Insight), and after two successes, they have to prove that they’re worth keeping around (Arcane, Diplomacy, Bluff to lie, or spend a Power to show you’re serious, with Insight as a secondary). In a nutshell, the “skill challenge” mechanic is using the provided skills (or ones the GM considers acceptable replacements) to succeed at checks; the party needs to make 8 successful checks before getting 3 failures, at which point they’re now in the secret club. Straightforward, right?
Now, that I’ve pointed out that I like the concept, and provided an example of how they work, here’s why I hate them. [Long-ass, double-size Super Special post; more after the break.]
I’ve always been a bit tired of the “traditional” western fantasy world. Maybe it was done 7th Sea style, like Pathfinder’s Golarion, where different eras of our history become fantasized elements that exist simultaneously. Maybe big, top-heavy, setting-based designs, like the Forgotten Realms’ Faerun, or Middle Earth: places with long-established and detailed histories. The thing defining “fantasy” today are the tropes that defy time, tide, edition, and system: you know, elves, dwarves, orcs, an entire world of Medieval Europe, the whole euro-centric knights and dragons schtick.
My problem is less with the individual pieces and more with games continually using this hodge-podge as a crutch, like it’s the only option for “fantasy” settings, be it film, book, or roleplaying game. (Well, I guess there are other options, but they fall into “Grimdark Fantasy”—Warhammer—or “Urban Supernatural Fantasy”—Vampire, Dresden Files—that also feel a bit overused and done to death.) I don’t mind western fantasy as a whole; I’ve always wanted to run/play an old-school Points of Light campaign, ala AD&D/Judges Guild, probably because I missed out on that and started with Dark Sun and Eberron. But that’s already been done to death; if I wanted to run that, I’d make something out of my assumptions of the setting and the dozens of books made back in the day. We don’t need yet another Faerun, Middle Earth, Greyhawk, or Hyperborea when we already have five each of those.
Anyways. Let me use Legends of Anglerre as an example, because while I like the game, I think someone should pick on it from time to time given some of its minor flaws. It’s FATE-based, so very open and flexible, and made by Cubicle 7, so it’s a giant, glorified toolkit. Unlike their space opera game, Starblazer, Anglerre has a pair of settings contained in the rules. And they’re both painfully traditional. Anglerre is a cross between the sword and sorcery of ’80s barbarian movies with a lot of Moorcock-style elements (Elric, Hawkmoon), and a dab of traditional Tolkien/Forgotten Realms high fantasy. The other, The Hither Kingdoms, is very traditional high fantasy, straight out of Tolkien and Lewis. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both very well done, very interesting settings. But I’m bored with all the elves and goblins; I want something that doesn’t immediately jump to mind when you say fantasy—I want something fantastic.
My problem is that given FATE’s incredible flexibility, I’m not sure seeing them build two very staple settings does much to showcase the versatility of the system. I’d rather have seen a third setting, or—and nothing against the writers—a replacement for The Hither Kingdoms. (On the scale of “FANTASY,” Hither Kingdoms are not that far away from Anglerre. It isn’t run by psionic hairless cat people with crystalline mecha or whatev.) Something totally out there. Maybe it doesn’t have to be weird, bust just has to be unique. I consider Dark Sun and Eberron to be brilliant settings, some of the best for D&D, for new and innovative spins on the post-apocalyptic fantasy genre and high-magitech pulp dungeonpunk respectively.
I’m thinking, something like:
- For Anglerre in specific, I could see going balls-crazy just to try and utilize FATE all the more. Imagine piloting your John Carter-style dragonfly flier across crystal forests infested with arachnid monsters, to help the god-kings of old fight back the Titan legions of the Adversary, on the banks of the sentient river Scamander? Go weirder. That’s only scratching the surface. Limitless potential in the fantasy genre, and for a system that can handle the far-end extremes, I’m a bit sad it steered so close to what’s gone before.
- How about… a world of insect-themed humanoids. Give each a power (stunt/aspect) related to their insect progenitors: beetle-kinden are sturdy and work well with mechanical objects, the ant-kinden are great fighters who work with a hive-mind, the mantis-kinden are deadly in single combat, the wasp-kinden can produce a deadly magical “sting,” etc. Also, divide them up between the “apt” (those who can make/use technological devices—beetles, ants) and the “in-apt” (those with a stronger tie to traditional mysticism/magic—everyone else), where the wasp-kinden straddle the line. Add a very lush pseudo-steampunk, pseudo-pulp setting, with the tyrannical wasp-kinden conquering the rest of the world. (This would be the Shadows of the Apt, Empire in Black and Gold setting, which I loved… much more than the prose of the novel, which drove me up a wall.)
- Why doesn’t anyone use early Frontier Americana as a setting? Like, pre-revolutionary North America, maybe Seven Years’ War era. It’d make a fantastic Points of Light setting: small, simple communities nestled amongst the pines, beating back savage warriors and unspeakable monstrous horrors. What few urban centers are few and far between, and are themselves reliant on other cities to survive—and their parent country is fighting a war with the people who are colonizing far to your north and south. That doesn’t even include dealing with ankhegs burrowing up through your amber fields of grain. I guess part of the problem would be making the “savage” natives in a respectful manner. But just thinking about it makes me want to run it. And elements have drifted in to other games—the Croatan Song sourcebook for old Werewolf; Andoran in Pathfinder… just not a full setting.
- Speaking of dropping existing history into a fantasy game—or visa versa—what about 1806? Dude makes a compelling case, I have to say; I’m not that into Napoleonic stuff, but I’d learn lots about it just to run it as a fantasy setting.
Or go with non-traditional settings that have already, also, been done several times, but which haven’t been trampled into the ground.
- Everyone loves a Hollow Earth, right? All it has to have is dinosaurs and morlocks and bam, however else you alter it, it will be a Hollow Earth setting.
- A planet that’s all one thing, for a metaplot reason. A planet that’s all desert; that’s all snow; that’s all water.
- Do something else weird with the planet. Maybe it’s tidally locked, so it has a light side and dark side, and a single belt where life can thrive—the incredibly slow rotation leaves dozens of cities abandoned by the ages, just a few miles on either side of the life-belt, so risking the chilling cold—or burning heat—could be the cost of diving these centuries-old ruins.
- Make the planet’s temperatures spike, forcing everyone to migrate underground. Global Warming meets Ultima Underworld.
- Make its rotation so slow that a single year takes centuries, wherein the change of seasons sees new life-forms develop (cough Heliconia cough).
- Make the entire planet one big city—not so much Coruscant as much as Ravnica.
- Blow the planet up, then make it better; make it occupied by aliens or Mythos monsters from beyond the realms of sleep and sanity.
But please, whatever you do, take me away from the knights and hobbits.
I haven’t done one of these in a while, so it’s time to get back to my basics. With the Core Four and the Druid accomplished, let’s take a look at everyone’s least-favorite class: the Bard.
Bards had a brief appearance in The Strategic Review magazine, but didn’t enter the game full-time until first edition AD&D. There, they had to meet an inane amount of criteria—five levels of fighting-man, then dual-classing to thief, then dual-classing again to druid before ninth level, and then they could take levels in Bard—making Bards something like the first prestige class. All this dual-classing made them inherently powerful, keeping their thief and fighter abilities, along with druidic spells (and the ability to cast those without needing to be neutral).
Second Edition AD&D brought them down to a sub-class of thief, but again, one of the most powerful classes in the game: they could use most (if not all) weapons, had some thieving skills, had spellcasting as if they were a mage three levels below their Bard level, and could wear decent armor (as long as they didn’t want to cast spells). They also acquired Bardic Lore, which was a simplified identify spell, and had Bardic Music, which was mostly low stat buffs. Second Ed bards were capable second-line fighters, had potent spellcasting, and Bardic abilities that were pretty slick. It was a powerful class, though not as brutal as in first edition.
Third Edition started the grand tradition of watering down the Bard into a true jack of all trades (compare the 3.0 Bard with the AD&D classes the game designers advised DMs not to allow). Bards were average in everything, had a slow-progression spell list that was very short but combined aspects of clerics and wizards. 3.5 expanded the Bard’s impressive skill list, and gave it the ability to cast spells in light armor, something nobody else can do. Their Bardic music, which gave sliding-scale stat-buffs and condition removal, now improved as the Bard’s level went up.
Pathfinder keeps the Bard mostly intact from 3.5. Their bardic performances saw sliding-scale increases per level (again), and they became much more versatile in their skills-use… though those mostly applied to Perform skills.
Fourth Edition, on the other hand, put them as an arcane caster in the Leader and Controller roles. Leader is a shoe-in—Bards have always been about making others better via their performance—and Controller takes the class back to its AD&D roots, having a potent and versatile spell list. To keep their jack-of-all-trades nature intact, they can take multiclass feats from anybody; additionally they can cast spells related to their performance abilities.
Originally, Bards needed Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, related to their thieving, casting, and singing respectively. Nowadays, Bardic spellcasting, performance, and most skill abilities are based on their Charisma, though Dex and Int are still for boosting skills.
Role within the party
The Bard is an odd duck to pin down. Their wide range of skills makes them an obvious choice for skill monkey, though one slightly less flexible than a Rogue. Their Bardic Music works as a capable buff across all levels, thanks to its gradual improvements; Pathfinder makes this feature even more useful. In general, the Bard is the character who can do things others can’t, and works in a support role until their services are needed.
Firstly? They can cast spells in light armor! Other arcane classes need to take feats before they can do that. They have a huge selection of skills, plus average hit die and two good saves. Bardic Music can buff, counterspell, and even confuse/fascinate groups of enemies. Their spell list combines solid spells from both the cleric and wizard spell lists. Did I mention casting spells in armor?
Jacks of all trades are masters of none. Their spell progression is slow, they don’t get the flashy high-level spells, and as a spontaneous caster their spell picks are locked in place to a greater or lesser extent: meaning their low-level spells will be pretty useless after a while. The average Bard is not a good combat class because of their low health, AC, and damage output. Also: since the Bard’s whole shtick is related to noise and music, they’re affected even more by silence since it negates any of their singing/countersong abilities.
The Bard is very versatile, but not very competitive: it can do anything another class can do, but cannot surpass any one class without severe optimization, and even then, they’ll be further behind the other classes whose job Bards can do. They have buffs, but not as good or useful as the ones Clerics get, and don’t have the high-damage spells Wizards pick from. They’re terrible damage-dealers compared to Rogues and Fighters, leaving them around on par with Clerics, only the Cleric can trudge around in splint with a tower shield and still cast spells.
There’s still a use for the Bard, especially with its stacking buffs and Performance tricks, but in 3.5 and Pathfinder, it’s widely considered a dead class because of its diminished impact: a Bard can’t hope to leave their mark on a game unless it’s heavy on roleplaying and singing competitions.
Getting back on topic with D&D classes, only ones outside the original four. Druid is still a very old class, dating back to 1st Edition AD&D, but they spent most of their life as a subtype of clerics. I’m particularly fond of them, so I’m jumping ahead of bards and cavaliers and everything else.
So far, I’ve tried to balance the perspective between Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, being the systems I know the most, but this one will be focusing more on the changes made to druid in the Pathfinder rules set since I’m currently running it.
Gygax had druids—inspired from the pagan, British Isles/Stonehenge druids—back in oD&D, but they didn’t become a playable class until the late ’70s. The idea was that True Neutral clerics made up a sub-set called druids, who worshiped nature as a perfect balance. They were restricted from using metal armor and weaponry, except those with specific symbolic meaning (e.g. the crescent-moon shape of the sickle and scimitar), but could cast more spells and cast faster than Clerics, and had a slightly more aggressive spell-list.
Besides the alignment restrictions, they had other moral/societal rules, but spoke their own cool language and got little animal buddies and in Unearthed Arcana could summon elementals. 2nd AD&D continued with the whole “TN sub-class of nature clerics” thing, but made their casting abilities more or less equal to a cleric’s.
3rd edition gave major tweaks to druids; first off, they were their own class, not a type of cleric. They still had alignment and weapon/armor restrictions, but they got a sizable set of benefits. Druids received an animal companion, and the ability to spontaneously cast summon nature’s ally spells; their shapeshifting abilities were expanded in 3.5, allowing them to change into elementals and a variety of animals and sizes.
Pathfinder tweaked much of how druids operate. Their base details are the same, though slightly nerfed. Wildshape is acquired earlier, but instead of gaining the stats for an animal, it merely gives a set number of bonuses and a limited number of the animal’s special qualities (such as darkvision or grab). Meanwhile, in 4th, they became Controllers, the divine to match the arcane wizard Controllers. They gain more at-will attack powers, and retain many of their traditional abilities (such as Wildshape).
Like most of the more “advanced” classes which exist outside the core four, Druids have a number of important attributes. Wisdom determines their spellcasting. Dexterity and Constitution are vital for keeping the Druid alive, and Strength is highly useful for any melee-centric Druid. Intelligence isn’t that useful, but since it impacts skill points, it’s not a dump-stat; it may seem counter-productive to dump Charisma, since it impacts calming animals, but Wild Empathy is usually powerful enough to take a minor Charisma hit.
Role within the party
Jumping into the Controller category for 4th is an odd choice, but druids have had Controller aspects for ages. Their spell selection is much more control-dominated than a cleric, with spells like entangle, spike growth, and spike stones. (Marginal though they are, they are still very handy spells.) Druids in Pathfinder and 3.5 are incredibly diverse. They can become powerful warriors with their wildshape, or use it to fill the scout or skirmisher roles, which are also augmented by woodland stride and trackless step. They have a larger number of versatile offensive spells than clerics (heat/chill metal, call lightning, flame strike, wood warp, produce flame) while retaining many capable buff spells (barkskin, air walk); they can spot-cast summoning, and have numerous spells that buff their animal companion and summoned creatures. Oh, and they’re also passable healers, better than a bard but far inferior to a cleric.
So, while the druid can very easily become a controller, they are spread all over the party roles. They can be controllers, healers, scouts, and make solid second-line skirmishers or warriors, and even alternate between these roles based on their build.
All of them. Druid was the 3.5 power class for a reason, and they’re still very capable in Pathfinder. They get an animal companion, roughly another frontline fighter, can summon more animals, and can turn into one at 4th level. They have limitless capabilities related to plants, animals, and nature through their abilities and spells. They have a solid spell-list, shorter and weaker than either a cleric or wizard’s, but overlapping both where it needs to. They have two good saves, Fort and Wis, a great selection of skills, and average attack and progression.
Oh, and as divine casters, they can wear armor (shitty non-metal armor it may be) and cast spells. Spells which the druid didn’t have to buy and learn, either.
Alignment restrictions are annoying; weapon and armor restrictions are downright painful. Wearing metal armor means the druid loses her abilities and spellcasting for the day, which is a serious hindrance. This leaves them with a low-grade AC; when in wildshape, the AC is that of the animal, which would be “piss-poor.” Plus, druids are stuck holding either crappy weapons (clubs, staves) or expensive ones (scimitars, sickles). Oh, and their ranged weapon is a sling; yay. Druids also have bad Reflex saves, and their wildshape is severely limited at first, and doesn’t have half the punch it used to due to becoming the new beast shape spells.
Their spell list is very capable, but is focused largely towards buffing animals, not people, and doing an amazing amount of inane shit with plants (talking to them, driving them away, etc.). It lacks the consistent versatility of other casters: neither as much healing as a cleric’s or as much damage as a wizard’s.
Druids were the most powerful class in 3.5, being able to do everything at once; instead of having to buff oneself to perform this like a cleric or wizard did, the druid just had to wildshape. Pathfinder has nerfed their wildshape power-ability. And yet, they’re still one of the more powerful classes. Wildshape and casting can put the druid above the fighter in utilitarian value, and gives them more of an offensive edge than a rogue, though they have nothing to compare to a good sneak attack. Most of all, for any wilderness-based game, their list of abilities allows them to overcome a number of hindrances—poison, difficult terrain—that can bog down other characters.
A druid isn’t able to heal or buff as well as a cleric, or damage and de-buff as well as a wizard. However, their spell list does encompass the best aspects of priests and mages, capable of healing (even though it isn’t that good at it), capable of buffing (the same bull’s strength, cat’s grace, etc. as everyone else), has versatile offensive spells, and can control the battlefield. Just because druids don’t excel at any of these the way other casters can doesn’t negate the fact that they can do any of them all at once.
So, druids got a necessary nerf that still leaves them with the capabilities to outshine the rogue and fighter in combat, while their spellcasting remains a few steps behind the other casters. Either one would make it a great class; having all of these benefits and advantages makes it downright powerful.
Last of the four core classes: the thief, recently retitled the rogue in order to give the class a little more variety in its roles. We’ll get to the other classes, but for the most part, the rounded party of Fighter, Priest, Magic-User, Thief has been the staple of D&D adventuring parties since the 1970s.
The last of the four core classes was introduced in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement. It’s pretty obvious Gygax based the character off of Bilbo from The Hobbit, though there’s some Grey Mouser and Cugel the Clever there: someone capable of stealing, but also capable of fighting and fast-talking their way in and out of situations. Interesting enough, in AD&D, thieves were the only class non-humans could reach unlimited levels in. There were also a number of weird restrictions on alignments between the early editions, so you could have a NG or LN noble rogue, but no LG or CG Robin Hood type. Thieves were most noted for their Backstab ability; if they attacked an enemy from the side or rear, they could do bonus damage, applying a damage multiplier to their final damage roll.
Thieves originally got thief skills, which were the closest thing AD&D had to a skills system. This was a percentile-roll sub-system, where the thief would have a certain percent (say, 35%) in Pick Pockets, Find & Remove Traps, Open Locks, Hide in Shadows, and Move Silently, and would have to roll their success. The skills started at a flat rate of 10-20%, and got a number of points to boost these per level.
Thieves were renamed to rogues for 3rd edition; it’s a good move. Thief has such a limited role (and negative connotation!) associated with it, while all sorts of good rogues populate fiction, from Han Solo to the Grey Mouser. Part of this new role was a broadening of what they could do; thief skills were rolled into the new skill system, and rogues got access to them… along with almost everything else. Backstab was replaced with sneak attack, an ability that dealt bonus d6es in damage when the rogue struck a target denied its Dex bonus, flat-footed, or flanked. Lastly, the class got rogue talents, special abilities or feats that allowed the rogue a number of benefits, such as “dirty” fighting tactics or the ability to move faster while stealthed.
Pathfinder didn’t do much with rogues; it upped them from their traditional d6 hit die to the d8, so the class fell in line with every other class that had an average attack progression. It also expanded the number of rogue talents. 4th put them as Strikers, emphasizing their traditional mobility and single-target precision damage. Sneak attack was altered so that it only applied once per round, compared to 3.5 and Pathfinder.
Dexterity is the most important attribute for all thieves, since it handles all of their finesse-based stealth, perception, and trap/locksmithing skills. It also improves their initiative, Reflex saves, and ranged attacks, three things rogues use often. Intelligence gives the rogue more skill points, and Constitution is never a bad stat to have.
Role within the party
Rogues fill several roles; primarily, they are the skirmisher, the class cannon in combat who can dish out the most damage in one hit (through their sneak attacks). Rogue precision damage can make or break a combat, so they need to rely on their other assets to get into striking position: stealth, tactical movement (Tumble/Acrobatics), flanking. Secondly, and more important for AD&D games, rogues are the people who set and disarm traps, find and open locked doors, and make sure the treasure chest isn’t a potential explosive device. They also have the option to specialize in anything they want skills-wise.
Also worth noting: because of their stealth skills, rogues make excellent scouts, finding out what’s lurking ahead of the party before the party stumbles into it.
The rogue is awash in skill points and skills; rogues rely on a variety of skills, and get a wider array of them than anyone else. Rogues are the only class who can pick pockets and open locks; they can also specialize in a number of diplomatic skills, stealth skills, all the perception skills, and use magic device. UMD is not a skill to under-emphasize, since it allows the rogue to use wands and scrolls, which is a damn fine ability to have, particularly if the group is low on casters. Their Trap Sense, Uncanny Dodge, and Evasion abilities allow them to ignore hindrances that could cripple an unprepared fighter.
Rogues get average hit dice and attack progressions, and can use a number of basic/light weapons and armor, giving them better survivability than wizards in melee… though, to use their abilities to the fullest, lighter armor is best. Rogues aren’t as good as fighters or clerics due to their lower AC, but they have great mobility, and a good weapon selection.
The rogue’s best asset is their backstab/sneak attack: the extra damage is where it’s at. Rogues are generally geared to damage output, and hitting is of prime importance; a rogue’s other abilities—stealth, tumbling, flanking—all set them up to sneak attack. A good sneak hit can ruin just about anything in the game, provided it is subject to criticals.
Rogues are going to be in combat a lot—flanking and whatnot to set up sneak attacks—and will probably have the lowest AC of all the party melee combatants. This means their health won’t go as far, even in Pathfinder with a d8. Most important, rogues suffer from the flaws of both Wizards and Fighters—they have terrible Will and Fort saves, making them perfect bait for any number of spells and spell-likes. Unlike fighters, they don’t get a bonus against fear spells, and they’re just as easy to dominate. Comparatively, rogues aren’t that weak, but they have some major weak spots.
Rogues start the game as a fairly weak class—less health and AC than the fighter or cleric, as well as less damage potential—but end up in a very strong position, with the best damage output per class, as many varied skills as they want, and the ability to use scrolls and magic items. Rogues are a lot like wizards: both of them follow a strange D&D power pattern that makes them nearly worthless at first level, and can end up outperforming other classes. They also ignore anything requiring a Ref save. That said, rogues still have several major flaws. They never have the health or AC that they need, and are easy targets for Will-based (dominate, charm/hold) or Fort-based (disintegrate, slay living) spells. Rogues are powerful classes, but are even more of a glass cannon than wizards; wizards can simply cast fly or stoneskin, while rogues have to UMD scrolls at best, and more often than not take it in the teeth.
The last of the first three classes presented in the oD&D Little Brown Books is the magic-user. The D&D arcane caster has always been a hodge-podge of literary inspiration, primarily a heavy modification of the spellcasters presented in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series: casters who can “memorize” a number of magical formulas in their heads which are “lost” upon casting.
The class has went through three distinct names: magic-user, mage, and wizard. No other class has had its terminology changed up so much, although Fighting-Men became Fighters, and Thieves became Rogues. On the other hand, whatever their name, wizards have stayed very much the same. They are the weakest class, in both physical health and martial prowess. They can’t wear armor, can’t use most weapons, and are otherwise the weakest link in the party (in that they die the easiest).
At the same time, they’re the strongest link in the party, and are on a steady track to become the most powerful. They have always made up by being the artillery: mages are the guys who drop the flashy damage spells, who control the battlefield with de-buffs and movement restrictions, and who get the most powerful abilities at high level in the form of 8th and 9th level spells. Nobody else got spells that powerful.
Specialist wizards have existed since AD&D, with the quintessential gnome illusionist. Illusionists gained minor bonuses at the cost of having a different spell list and slightly fewer hit dice. 2nd Edition codified this; instead of having a separate spell list for each specialist school, each school had prohibited “opposing schools” that the specialist wizard couldn’t access.
Wizards had also gotten some secondary rules benefits to represent their higher intelligence, which is reflected in how many skills 3.x gives the class. The other major change was metamagic feats: the ability to “modify” a spell by casting it at a higher level spell slot. These can increase the spell’s effects, or allow the caster to cast the spell without requiring verbal commands or movement components. Specialists saw some loosening of their rules, in that a specialist chooses their restricted schools.
Pathfinder did much to change how the wizard operated; their hit die increased, and specialists now got specialty powers and spells related to their school ala Cleric domains. 0-level “cantrip” spells could be cast at-will, and specialists got a large number of per-day abilities, allowing the wizard to cast minor tricks through several encounters. The spell list also saw some nerfs, making the class less powerful in the low-mid range of the game. 4th Ed put the Wizard in the Arcane Controller role: much as with all other wizards, the 4e version focuses on doing multi-die damage to multiple targets, de-buffing enemies, and altering the terrain to handle movement control.
Intelligence has always been the arcane caster’s attribute of choice. Constitution (for health) and Dexterity (for AC) have always been good secondary choices for Wizards, though they don’t really require any secondary attributes.
Role within the party
The mage is the glass cannon artillery of the party: the class nobody wants to see killed because of its potent spellcasting abilities. Its spellcasting falls into three main categories. First, damage; wizards get better damage-dealing spells than anyone else, particularly ones that can affect multiple targets (fireball, cloudkill, cone of cold). They also work great at de-buffing powerful enemies (ray of enfeeblement, glitterdust for invisible things) or just simply locking them out (sleep, hold person, charm monster). Lastly, they handle all sorts of battlefield control to tie up the enemy (web, grease, black tentacles).
The wizard’s spell-casting is more diverse than that; they’re also great at summoning, can buff allies, and have all sorts of other utility spells from feather fall to telepathic bond. They can divine the future, transform targets into dragons or newts, wish for anything they can imagine, and stop time itself. The wizard has always started the game as the person cowering behind the armored meat-shields, and ended with unlimited power potential at their fingertips.
Wizards have great skills and skill points, a nice selection of metamagic feats, and a great spell selection. They also have a familiar, which can be used as a lookout or spy, though having a familiar die is a serious issue. Perhaps their best advantage is their spells, particularly those which can keep them alive long enough to control the battle: mage armor, mirror image, stoneskin, and fly should be mandatory for all arcane spellcasters. The ability to modify them with metamagic makes them very potent, as does the freedom to prepare from a wide array of known spells.
Oh, and they can also make their own magic items. Let that sink in for a minute.
Their spells aside, wizards are a horribly weak class. They have the lowest health and bad Fort and Ref saves. Without sinking feats into armored arcana, the possibility of spell-casting failure means they can’t wear armor. Between the low health and low AC, wizards are incredibly fragile things; a few solid hits or a crit can end the wizard before they’ve even begun to cast. Their low attack bonus should be a deterrent to getting up close and personal in combat combat… at least, until the wizard can prepare transformation and their horde of personal defense spells.
Probably the biggest disadvantage is the wizards’ low number of spells per day. While their casting is more versatile and customizable, sorcerers get the same spells, and more of them, at a slightly slower progression. Picking and choosing spells and scrolls carefully is a must, otherwise the wizard is left with nothing to do be rely on wands or crossbows.
The wizard is the least useful class in pure martial combat, and it has the lowest survivability in low-level and even into mid-level adventures. But its spell-casting makes it the obvious superior class. Many of its spells simply avoid or finish combat: sleep or color spray for groups at low-level; dominate or hold/charm for solo enemies at mid-levels. At the end of the game, they get wish and time stop, and no other class has anything which comes even close to these abilities. The wizard gets better offensive spells than the cleric or druid, enabling them potentially better damage output than the fighter. And there’s always something for a wizard to do.
The wizard also one-ups to sorcerer from its ability to customize each day’s prepared spells to fit specific adventures—fire spells against trolls, water breathing for aquatic adventures, etc. A sorcerer has to make do with what they’ve got at all times, but if the wizard has eight hours of forewarning, they can prepare the right spells the night before heading into combat. While the sorcerer gets more spells per day, unless they choose their list very carefully, the wizard is the better option every time with its unending spell list.
Next up, clerics. This is a class which spent decades as the legendary “everybody needs it, nobody wants to play it” class, then spent a decade as one of the most potentially powerful classes in the D&D game. Another one of the original three D&D base classes, clerics are the standard divine caster, acting as the hands of their deity to channel their power on the material plane.
Older edition clerics couldn’t use edged weapons to represent the Catholic church’s decree to use weapons that “did not shed blood;” ironic, as a blunt weapon can crack skulls just as easily. At higher levels, clerics used to be able to use their turn undead features against demons and other evil outsiders, while evil clerics could turn paladins before being able to rebuke undead. 2nd Edition broke cleric spells into “spheres,” which combined with the cleric’s dogma, determined what they could cast. It’s interesting to note that high-level AD&D clerics got a cathedral full of followers that they had to take care of; rangers got a motley crew of animal followers, fighters got troops, and clerics got a church.
Worth noting: spells were limited depending on what the cleric worshiped, with a demi-god allowing up to 4th level, and a god up to 7th. And there was a chance of divine spell failure, based on the cleric’s Wisdom; how wise they were determined their degree of connection to the divine. Also worth noting: AD&D clerics could only be of an alignment that wasn’t True Neutral; TN “clerics” were a sub-class called druids, and were clerics who followed the balance of nature. This was changed up in later editions, though even today you should be within one step alignment-wise to follow a deity.
Clerics spent a lot of their life as the class every party needed but nobody wanted to play: the heal-bot. 3rd Edition came up with the idea to “spontaneously” cast heal-spells, freeing up the cleric to prepare their other spells, which made the class much more playable. Domains replaced the spheres process, giving the cleric a list of options to choose from, which boiled down into choosing one of two domain spells, and receiving two domain powers. With its solid BAB, good saves, d8 hit die, and heavy armor proficiency, clerics became very effective beatsticks. Particularly with their own buff spells and assortment of domain powers. Oh, they could also cast spells up to 9th level.
Pathfinder upped the ante on domain powers, and also added in the ability to channel energy, healing (or harming) all living or unliving targets for xd6 per level. This healing boost wasn’t offset by any major nerfs; clerics lost their heavy armor proficiency, and that’s about it. 4th Edition put clerics in the Leader role, which does exactly what clerics have always done: buffed and healed allies, focusing first on healing and protection backed up with some melee capabilities.
Wisdom is the cleric’s main attribute, which influences spellcasting. Charisma has traditionally been a secondary attribute, which things like turn undead are based upon. Strength and Constitution are always useful for a more combat-centric cleric.
Role within the party
Clerics don’t exactly fit with most peoples’ idea of the medieval priest, but it’s pretty clear that Gygax based these “defenders of the faith” on divine crusader-knight orders, such as the Knights Hospitalers or Knights Templar. Going with that mindset makes clerics make sense: divine warriors who protect their deity’s flock, guiding their wards through the deadly wilds to reach the holy land.
Clerics serve with both spiritual aid and martial combat, but not pure battlefield crusaders (we call those paladins, who are more a representation of goodly Arthurian knights). Clerics are wardens of the faithful, the defenders of their chosen faith, which reflects in their abilities: they have enough martial training to act in battle if necessary, an assortment of abilities to fight back the evil tides of darkness, and a wide array of protection- and healing-based spells.
First and foremost, they are spellcasters. While their spell list isn’t as flashy as their arcane counterparts, clerics have a wide range of versatile spells. Clerics have a wide range of stackable buff spells, starting with bless and protection from [alignment] at first level. They can summon creatures, invaluable for giving the party another fighter and setting up flanking. They can turn and destroy undead, one of the more common foes, with many spells and abilities. What few damage-dealing spells clerics get are utilitarian (inflict x wounds), albeit many are best used against evil foes (holy smite, undeath to death). And most importantly, they can heal.
Second, even as a spellcaster, clerics are great second-line fighters. For most editions they can wear heavy armor, though they are restricted in what weapons they can use. They have solid attack progressions and health, which combined with their armor and weapon choices, makes them a serious combat contender. Clerics are the best spellcasters for someone who wants to wade into combat, particularly in their wide array of buff spells: magic weapon, magic vestment, divine favor, shield of faith and the like can give the cleric beefy “magic” item bonuses before the party’s fighter has his first +1 longsword.
Clerics have few disadvantages, and many are the same as the fighter. While fighters could justify the lack of skill points, clerics have far too many skills to put ranks into—know (religion/planes), heal, diplomacy, and perform (oratory) if the GM is anal about skill checks when the cleric performs holy rites like I am. Clerics are only proficient in simple weapons and their deity’s favored weapon, limiting their combat options, and unlike fighters they don’t get any abilities to off-set heavier armor’s movement penalties. Lastly, they have terrible Reflex saving throws, which doesn’t always make up for the two good saves they have.
Clerics are somewhat divergent, a class that can easily become either the most or least powerful in the party. They have the option to out-fighter the fighter by focusing on their buff spells and tactical summoning, but can also stay as pure healbots who exist to drop healing spells on wounded party members. Their high-level spell list has some phenomenal choices that nobody else gets (blade barrier, planar ally, holy word, righteous might). Clerics also have higher survivability rates than wizards due to their ability to wear armor while casting. Without the right spells, equipment, or attributes, a cleric can’t compete with either the fighter or the wizard, but clerics start in a good spot to dominate.
Let’s start off with the easiest and most basic class: the fighter. The general stereotype about 3.x is that casters win the game and fighters are worthless; while it’s true they’re one of the weakest classes in the game, they have some strong advantages, and smart optimization/equipment choices/caster support makes fighters a viable combat machine.
The “Fighting Man” is one of the three oldest classes, dating back to the original Little Brown Books (oD&D). Fighters have generally had the best attack progression, high health, and the ability to use the best equipment. AD&D fighters were the only classes who could gain weapon specialization, offering bonuses to hit and to damage. 2e AD&D continued weapon spec. by adding in weapon group proficiencies, and added in the core four fighting styles: single weapon, dual weapons, sword-and-board, and two-handed-weapon. 2nd Edition also contained a lengthy list of example fighters:
Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried (Sigurd), Cúchulainn, Little John, Tristan, and Sindbad… El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Spartacus, Richard the Lionhearted, and Belisarius.
It’s also worth noting that at higher levels, fighters got castles filled with troops and followers. AD&D fighters were awesome like that.
Fighters got a leg up in the 3.o rules. The addition of Feats meant that fighters could now be easily customized, and multiple fighters in a party could do very different things. The fighter retained all the basic abilities, such as the d10 hit die and fast BAB, but gained the worst skills per level of all classes. (Painfully so.) The idea to customize each fighter with dozens of feats and fighting styles/maneuvers meant that fighters had a lot more to do than roll to hit, roll damage. Fighters saw no major changes in the 3.5 revisions.
Pathfinder’s changes were notable: it increased feat acquisition, furthering customization, added “weapon group specialization” back into the game, gave a bonus to Will saves against fear, and a reduction in armor penalties. However, despite their attempts to make it viable from levels 1 to 20, its capstone ability is lacking. 4th Edition codified the fighter as a martial Defender, using its solid defensive abilities to protect other characters. Their focus is on damage output and mobility control, while retaining their traditional high health and attack rate.
Strength to hit and do bonus damage, Dexterity for ranged combat and a better AC, and Constitution for health. In 3.x and Pathfinder, it can be a good idea to bump Intelligence for extra skill points, and Wisdom to make up for that pitiful Will save.
Role within the party
The most obvious one: the frontline combatant, the warrior, the guy standing in front of the artillery (magic-user) and his healing support (cleric). Fighters have been defined as anything from bodyguards to bandits to soldiers, and everything in between. In actuality, they’re close to defensive lineman in football: they get into the midst of the scuffle, and using their strength and prowess, keep the enemy line from attacking the more vulnerable members farther back.
Fighters are an interesting role to play. Their main build in 3.x looks like a slugger from their damage output potential, but that’s only half of the role. Given their higher AC and health, fighters are generally good targets for the GM to swing at, since they’re less fragile than the other party members. Thus the fighter ties down the enemy and makes himself a target, allowing the other party members to set up for spellcasting or sneak attacks. The fighter has to survive a lot of attacks, but also has potent offensive capabilities, getting more attacks (and thus, more hits, and more damage) than anyone else.
Fighters have huge advantages, particularly at lower levels. They have the most hit points per class (save barbarians in newer editions) because of their d10 hit die. They can use all the armor, all the weapons, and can specialize quite easily in whatever equipment they choose. They have the best attack progression, get the most attacks per round, and with their huge arsenal of feats, are highly customizable combat powerhouses.
However, their disadvantages are numerous. They are legendary for having terrible Will saves, and are easily dominated or confused by enemies with spells or spell-likes. Until Pathfinder added in Bravery, fighters were also terrible cowards who’d fail saves against fear. They also have the amount of skill points imaginable; the fighter has roughly two skills he’ll shine at, probably Climb and Swim. And having all that heavy armor makes them sluggish on the battlefield: plate is great, but reduced speed and encumbrance aren’t. Pathfinder’s Armor Training is a major help in this area.
As they progress in levels, it becomes harder for a fighter to stay competitive; even their bundle of feats and abilities pales compared to a well-built spellcaster. In fact, fighters at all levels are reliant on the party casters: buffs and terrain-negating spells make combat much easier. The fighter is still a damage powerhouse due to its great BAB and number of attacks, but is outshone on the damage-dealing front by a rogue pulling off multiple sneak attacks. The sheer level of customization available from all those feats is impressive, but the player has to be strict in their choices to outshine the advantages of a paladin, ranger, or barbarian via the bonus feats.
Fighters have always been a second-stringer in high-level D&D, moreso in 3.x. Rogues do better damage, Clerics and Wizards dominate the battlefield through their spells. That said, the fighter can still be a decent class, pending proper building and support from the party’s casters. The fact that it’s so reliant on optimization and caster support point out that the class needs some modifications, but fighters are still very useful, particularly in the “sweet spot” of low-mid level combat.