Thursday, January 20, 2011

Meditating on Sub-Classes

On Tuesday, I mentioned that Hamlen's player surprised me by making an oath and playing through the struggles of keeping it — and keep it he did. In some of our post-session banter, we began to discuss paladins. Hamlen behaved very much like a paladin without actually being one. In contrast, every one of us has seen people play paladins in very un-paladin ways.

Given James's recent question about the number of classes we use in our games, his treatment of Druids and my recent perusing of Adventures Dark & Deep has got me thinking about sub-classes.

To my mind, Hamlin's paladinesque behavior proves my own axiom that What makes a Fighting Man a Barbarian, a Knight, or a Gladiator is the way it is played, not the mechanics behind it. However, in playing the game in a world where 3.5 exists with a bunch of guys who cut their teeth on 3.5, my players chomp at the bit over having only the three core classes. For myself, I have been gravitating more and more to that personal proto-version of the game I used to play that exists somewhere between Holmes, Moldvay and AD&D. This version includes some great experiences playing paladins and illusionists.

Ironically, I've been turning to 3.5 in my attempts to reconcile these two divergent impulses in the form of the prestige classes. Like most things about 3.5, I have a love/hate response to this mechanic. I love the idea of being able to grow a character into something that isn't available at character creation and that isn't hardwired into the core classes. I despise the way 3.5 handles this, however. In making skills and feats the primary way to qualify for prestige classes, it actually shackles players instead of freeing them with more options for their characters. It forces players to ignore the natural progression of their characters as they interact with the world in which they exist in favor of an arbitrary sequence of necessary mechanics. In other words, 3.5 punishes creativity and rewards homogenization (despite the appearance of the opposite).

The basic idea, though, has a lot of merit. In thinking about this, I have been playing with the idea of making sub-classes actual sub-classes. Rather than making them available at character creation as wholly formed classes, have them be a sub-set of class abilities available to players when their characters fulfill a set of requirements during play. These requirements need not be set in stone, but could be adjusted to fit the needs of each individual Referee and their world. Upon fulfilling the necessary requirements in game, the player would then be allowed to put XP towards obtaining this sub-set of character abilities.

For example, Hamlen took an oath, accepted a holy quest and managed to fulfill both. As such, when I award XP for the session, I can inform Hamlen's player that he would be allowed to set aside some of his XP for the purpose of advancing in the paladin sub-class set of abilities. Each ability could require the following (total) amount of experience (based on the difference between Fighter and Paladin XP requirements in AEC):
1st 350XP
2nd 700
3rd 1400
4th 2900
5th 4000
6th 10,000
7th 25,000
8th 50,000
9th 100,000, etc.
The following abilities are available:
  • Lay on Hands: heal 2hp per character level
  • Cure Disease: once per day for every 5 character levels
  • Immunity to disease
  • Detect Evil: 60' as per the spell when concentrating
  • Protection from Evil: as per the spell, radiating 10' r. at all times
  • +2 to all saving throws.
Once two abilities have been gained, the following becomes available:
  • Turn Undead as a cleric 2 level lower than the current character level.
Once three abilities have been gained, the following becomes available:
  • Summon a special warhorse (AC 5, HD 5+5, MV 180).
Once eight abilities have been gained the following becomes available:
  • Gain the ability to cast Cleric spells.
Note: character level indicates the class level, and is not tied to the number of sub-class abilities.

I could see Bards, Berserkers, Illusionists, Rangers, Seers, etc. and even Thieves getting this kind of treatment. What I really like about this is its flexibility. One need not necessarily be a Fighter to qualify for obtaining Paladin sub-class abilities. I could very easily see a Cleric spend the XP to get some of these. It also empowers the Referee to control how much these sub-class abilities get used by determining whether or not XP rewards can be used based on play. Finally (and in a way, most importantly) it encourages and rewards player interaction with the world that the Referee brings to the table.


Michael Bugg said...

Interesting. I've been working on a similar treatment of sub-classes, though I hadn't thought of handling the xp the way you did. Thanks for your thoughts.

Robert Conley said...

Note that nothing in the Prestige Class mechanic requires you to have certain attack bonuses, feats, or skills when making a Prestige Class. It just nearly implemented class has those part of it's requirement. It is a convention rather than a rule.

When I first read 3.0 I was impressed with the idea of Prestige Classes. I thought what a great way of introducing things specific to your setting. That not how Wizards implemented it in the long run but doesn't nullify the usefulness of the mechanic in this regard.

Erin Smale said...

Two gold stars:

1) The character grows into the sub-class through deliberate action and XP expenditure. Hamlen isn't a paladin, but through his actions, he may become one. At his own pace, and in whatever progressive structure he chooses.

2) The abilities stack such that to get the powerful abilities (warhorse or cleric spells), you must first acquire (and, ostensibly, use) a host of "entry-level" type things (laying hands, cure disease, etc.). Again, at the character's pace and in whatever order he wants.

When grafted to the core classes (or, even better, when used with a "race=class" system), this provides so much more flexibility and customisation than simply saying, "Right, you're a 1st-level paladin."

Really well done, Dave. I'm eager to see how this plays out.

FrDave said...

You're welcome. I hope my thoughts prove fruitful in your own efforts.

That's not how Wizards implemented it
This pretty much describes much of my relationship with D&D 3.0+. Wizards came up with so many great ideas, beautiful concepts and wonderful mechanics, but they are implemented in a way that actually frustrates me and the way I like to play the game.

Like you, I think the concept of the prestige class is an awesome way to introduce setting-specific flavor. This is why I'm seriously toying with using it in older editions through this re-imagining the sub-class.

@ Erin,
Thanks for the kind words. Your observations synch exactly why I've gone down this path...