Wednesday, May 22, 2019

World Building using 5e Classes

One of my favorite poetic forms is the haiku. While tempting to see it as a very simple style of poetry where one need only come up with seventeen syllables and be done with it, writing a haiku is much more difficult than it seems. The goal is to capture a singular moment in time without allegory, simile or analogy. The skill and creativity to write a truly brilliant haiku is much greater than one might be led to believe.

Thus, I have always seen limitations as powerful creative tools. This explains my love of random tables. They severely limit my initial input as to what happens in an encounter, but open up a huge amount of possibilities when I am forced to rationally explain why that particular encounter happened when and where it did. This has consistently led to an enriching of my campaign worlds beyond what normally would have been possible if I had used my own input on encounters instead of a random table.

This leads me to today’s post — a thought experiment using limitations. Specifically, limiting the number of classes available to players in a 5e campaign and then building out a campaign world based on those classes available.

Since my favorite edition of D&D is B/X and B/X has four basic classes, I decided to use that as a benchmark. I then divided up the twelve available 5e classes into four groups:

  • Barbarians, Fighters, Rangers
  • Bards, Monks, Rogues
  • Clerics, Druids, Paladins
  • Sorcerers, Warlocks, Wizards

I then asked my children to pick one class from each category to come up with this list of four available classes:

  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Cleric
  • Sorcerer

Two interesting patterns emerge from this group of four classes:

First, the Cleric is the exception when it comes to magic. Rangers, Rogues with the Arcane Trickster Archetype and Sorcerers all use spontaneous casting from a list of known spells. Clerics, on the other hand, prepare spells from the cleric spell list and have access to ritual casting.

Second, there is no class that truly represents a standing army. Rangers are skirmish fighters. While rogues can emulate the sense of a disciplined army or coordinated fighting with their Sneak Attack, their limitations with both weapons and armor as well as their focus on dexterity and stealth suggest an army far more used to spying than to fighting toe-to-toe battles on a regular basis.

The campaign world that emerges from these patterns is one that is primarily focused inward because what outside threats exist can be kept in check by rangers and rogues. Thus, the driving force of most adventures is going to be political intrigue between factions that exist within the campaign world.

These factions are suggested by the various damage types available to sorcerers from the Draconic Bloodline:

  • Acid (with Black and Copper clans)
  • Cold (with Silver and White clans)
  • Fire (with Copper, Gold, and Red clans)
  • Lightening (with Blue and Bronze clans)
  • Poison (with the Green clan)

This nicely fits into a five point pattern similar to the Asian Elemental System of Wu Xing which creates a nicely complex but balanced system where each faction has an enemy and and ally. Given that the Poison faction has only one clan (and thus has their power base consolidated) and has a specialty so convenient to the art of assassination, it makes sense to understand this faction as the current royal clan (and gives me permission to use names like the Jade Throne).

What emerges from all this is a Far East-flavored, Middle Kingdom-esque campaign world where the aristocracy are descended from dragons, magic is seen as a sign of the elite and most martial weapons are highly regulated and only used by a special class within the ruling elites — rangers.

Clerics represent an outside (Western-esque) influence both culturally and magically. They would be rare and, given that their magic can be used by those outside the aristocracy, possibly illegal in various parts of the campaign world. Due to the fractious nature of the Fire faction, I could see the Gold and/or Copper clans being the most tolerant of these new ideas and magics.

Thus, the four classes can be understood in context of the campaign world in the following ways:

Rangers are akin to a samurai class. They are far more concerned about outside threats than an average citizen, but still suffer from a myopic view inward as evidenced by the Beast Master Archetype which is more about show and prestige of the animal companions (where more exotic and well-trained companions are more prestigious).

Rogues represent the default class of the average citizen. Thieves’ Cant is a kind of trade language and a (not so full proof way) to communicate under the noses of the aristocracy. The Thief Archetype represents your basic thug. The Assassin Archetype represents a basic soldier or city guard. The Arcane Trickster represents a low-born aristocrat, a dilettante that likes to slum it with the peasantry, or an aristocratic spy that keeps the ruling class informed about the rumblings and rebellions amongst the hoi polloi.

Sorcerers generally represent the upper echelon of the aristocracy. Those of the Dragon Bloodline are those that have the most royal blood running through their veins. Sorcerers who use Wild Magic are the exception. They are generally low-born who have enough dragon blood to manifest magic but not enough to control it and manifest it the same way as those who have the Dragon Bloodline. These sorcerers are generally looked down upon and seen as dangerous by both the ruling class and the peasantry.

Clerics and their followers are the most outward-looking citizens of the empire. Their magic and world-view is heavily influenced by foreign culture and ideas. Due to their focus on and care of the lower classes, they are seen as a threat by most of the aristocracy but are mostly tolerated in the lands controlled by certain Fire clans. Their existence hints at a greater (most likely undead) outside threat than the Empire has faced in generations.

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