Kits and Optimization

Continuing on from yesterday…

I was recently reminded about character Kits in 2nd Edition, which add a whole new angle to the debate. Thanks to hindsight, I now find it pretty damn weird that nobody making the case for 2e brings up kits. Or brings them up to counter the “character optimization in post-AD&D is too much” argument. I’ve seen three or four similar arguments, which I combined into one for yesterday’s post, and kits are the one thing nobody mentions.

For a refresher, Kits were the 2nd Edition version of variant builds. Each class got them, and the demihumans got them, and they gave a minor benefit and drawback, along with a set of weapon and non-weapon proficiencies that would fit with the Kit. Generally, a Kit was a kind of overlay for your class—a fighter could choose to become an Amazon or a Barbarian, still advancing and acting as a fighter, but with the benefits and flaws of the Kit. Some people loved them, but the groups I played with were pretty ambivalent towards them, so I tend to forget they even existed.

Kits appeared with the first splatbook, the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, and started off with some very minor abilities. The Barbarian, for example, had a benefit that modified the character’s first meeting with an NPC: either the NPC liked your more or less than they normally would. And the drawback was another penalty to reaction rolls, because Barbarians are big and scary. Others had roleplaying-based advantages: the Amazon got THAC0 and damage bonuses for the first strike against enemies that underestimate female warriors. Similarly, the Myrmidon had to go off and do mercenary stuff from time to time, but got a free weapon proficiency and a patron.

Later books added a lot more flexibility with what you could take. The hated Skills & Powers opened up Kits to be even more flexible, so anyone could take a given Kit. You could have Barbarian Clerics and Barbarian Thieves, if they had a good enough strength. Some, like the Assassin, were barred from certain classes (Ranger, Druid, and Paladin), for obvious reasons.

Between the stacks of Kits and the Player’s Option books, late 2e had a notable power creep. Not as bad as it can get with d20, mind you, but since 2e was already working at a lower power level, it was easy to push things over. Not that all the problems with them involved power creep; there were a number of balance issues that got worse as the line continued. Given the disparate power levels, some Kits were only useful as character flavor or for roleplaying value, while others were pretty clear choices for powergamers.

The Cavalier, for example, another in the Fighter’s Handbook, is closer to being a sub-class like Ranger or Paladin. Cavaliers get a number of THAC0 bonuses (by level) to a variety of weapons. Some, like the lance, required him to be on horseback; others, like the sword, were just there in general. They’re also immune to fear, and get bonuses to saves, and a free horse, though they can’t use ranged weapons, follow a code of chivalry, and… wear the best armor they can afford. (Great drawback, that.) Now, who in their right mind would pick Peasant Hero instead of Cavalier, who gets the great bonus of being able to seek shelter in his own community? Granted, the Cavalier has some notable downsides, a number of them on roleplaying angles, but compare its benefits to everything else in the book.

In the end, I’m not sure it’s possible to compare Kits to pres-classes and character optimization in d20-based D&D. If the argument for 2e AD&D is that it focuses more on story and less on optimization, then I can see how Kits fall into place as the 2e variant for character optimization, and very much so. Kits were still a lot less flexible than d20 multiclassing; when you took a Kit, you were still locked into the role unless you dual-classed into something else. A good number of them had negligible, or roleplay-based, benefits and hindrances, which fits in with the argument for story over character builds.

Consider one of the big rants against post-2e D&D, particularly 3.x, that players have the freedom to take any class, and can make some pretty inane combinations, just to get the mechanics. Ever since the game released, someone’s been griping that you can easily powergame yourself into a nonsensical mashup of classes, prestige classes, templates, and feats. Ninja/Pirate/Assassin, for example. You can’t do that with Kits: there’s a swashbuckler kit, and an assassin kit, and some for ninjas if I recall, but you can only have one Kit per character, even if you dual-class. And every kit has some downsides, even if it’s largely roleplay-based.

Kits circumvent the restrictions of AD&D class rules to add a lot of options to personalize a character, but they don’t have nearly as much flexibility or freedom as newer systems provide. So I can see how they’d work as a part of the debate, even though they’re never brought up. They fit the 2e mentality on character builds better than the 3.5 or 4e mentality: more impact on fluff than crunch, personalization rather than optimization, the option to make each character unique without disrupting the balance of agency.

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