Friday, June 23, 2017

Dissociating Character Classes from the Fiction

So here's something that everyone knows but relatively few players manage to employ at the table: A character's class is an abstraction. It helps to quantify the abilities of the character within the fiction, but it is not itself a part of that fiction. In the comment section of a recent post on Delta's D&D Hotspot, there was a conversation about Robin Hood being classified as a Fighter rather than a Thief. I don't presume to know definitively what class Robin Hood should have, but I'd argue that a character needn't be a Thief in order to be a thief--if you'll pardon the deliberately muddled distinction.

A character in the fiction is incapable of knowing anything about class, level, attributes, weapon proficiency, or (at my table anyway) alignment. Certainly a character can speak very knowledgeably about his or her job, general competency, health and education, weapon skill, and moral outlook, but that's because these are the realities that the abstractions quantify. A skilled swordsman might be able to perceive some difference in method between two fighters with the same chance to hit, one due to better Thac0 and the other due to weapon specialization, but that doesn't make him aware of Thac0 and specialization as structures. There's nothing more immersion-breaking (in my humble opinion) than characters behaving as though they are aware of the abstractions in the system. This was a problem for me when playing with rule sets such as 3.5 (or worse, 4E), where a lack of optimization in either build or tactic was met with scorn by many players.

"Don't forget to press X to access your inventory, kid!"

This distinction was not of much importance to Gygax either, of course (nor many of our gaming forebears), but even as modern sensibilities encourage verisimilitude, and elements like alignment languages and level/rank isomorphism fall from merely out-of-vogue to downright silly, many players still have trouble separating a character's class from her occupation. This is unfortunate because it limits the options of such a player to only those he's likely to intuit as viable under the given class identities, and because it prevents some interesting juxtaposition within a character between his talents and his ambitions. After all, who's to say that my 12 charisma fighter isn't a bard? Who in the fiction knows that, and how? 

"Oh, Sir Reginald! My hero!"
"Actually, I gained a level. I'm a swashbuckler now."
Consider a 5th level Thief-class character, as noble and brave as you please. If you called him a thief, he'd lay you right out with a sock to the nose for the insult. Ask him to pick a lock and you'll get an arched brow and a, "What, exactly do you mean to imply, sir?" Sure, he favors the short sword and leather armor, keeps quick on his feet, and has a talent for devastating opponents with his deadly flanking maneuvers (backstab multiplier!), but he's no thief! And what of Sir Tancred, 12th level fighter and favored of God, who can abide no evil and is ever compelled to lay down his life in service of a righteous cause? He's not a paladin in the eyes of his comrades, because he can't lay on hands and his Charisma is 16 instead of 17?

Okay, those are easy examples. But what about Clerics and Wizards? Is there some reason in the fiction that a pious Wizard can't don the cassock, brandish a holy symbol, and bless his flock with Protection From Evil spells? Why shouldn't there be a secularized Cleric in the secluded tower at the edge of town, brewing potions and wrestling with esoteric knowledge? At least in this case, there is a distinction implied mechanically and within the fiction, but it's very possible to strip our milieu of that justification and build something to better suit our needs.

In the next post, we'll look at a few ways to dissociate the Cleric and Wizard classes from their roles in the fiction. We'll also take a stab at the puzzle of reconciling monotheism with a setting where priests of other gods can also cast spells. Exciting stuff!


  1. Great topic and I agree with your ideas and view-points. When I advice my players on making a new character, I always ask them to start out, by describing the characters personality-traits and skills in a non-meta fashion (a dashing good-heartet man, who's skilled with a sword) and only AFTER that is settled, do we work out a fitting class. The character evolved free of the rules, and rules comes after, to ground the character in reality. It makes it easier for both new and old players to RP their character, and make decissions free of any meta-knowlegde.

    1. Nice! Yeah, something I've been doing for awhile is a going back in my campaign timeline for the starting area about 50 years or so, then rolling a d6 to move forward through the timeline and place events at each rolled interval. Then, during character creation, I ask the player for his or her character's age and we go through the events of their life that way. I improv some questions about what happened to the character and the answers I get influence stats and proficiencies and stuff.

      So, for example, "Ok, when you were seven years old, there was a famine. Your family was short on food. Did your parents share out food equally so everyone was a little hungry or did they feed you and your siblings first?" If they shared out the food equally, there's no effect. If they fed the kids first, one of the parents is dead and the PC has a +1 to Constitution.

      Or for a time when there's a rash of crime, "You're apprenticed to the town blacksmith, and you're very grateful for the opportunity. While the smith is away visiting family, a thief breaks into the shop. You catch the thief in the act. What do you do?" Depending on the answer, I might give a free weapon proficiency (if they attack with a sword or whatever), a point of Wisdom (if they hide and observe the thief, then report him to the authorities with an accurate description), etc.

      The players seem to really enjoy the mini-game.

    2. Some video-games does this when they start out and I always found it a bit forcefull, but given the freedom around the table, I could definitely make this work - not all my players write 12-page character BIO (one of them did...) so it will definitely help those who might need a little inspiration and some fleshing out. It will also help shape their characters moral compass.

  2. "Your fighter is a better archer than my ranger!?! There is NO point in being a ranger!"

    1. I know, right? Another one that is unrelated but really bugs me:

      "Wizards are so OP at high level there's no point playing anything else."