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Monday, August 26, 2013

Character Class as a Role - or - Niche Protection Before MMORPGs

Tallifer made a comment in regards to my previous post that became a bit "thought provoking" for me. Here's the relevant bit:
"It is interesting that you recognize the existence of roles even in old school games."
Here's the deal Tal - we recognized the roles the different classes played in the game, even if we didn't label them Tank, DPS, Controller, Healer and the like. The roles changes for the classes as the game and character levels progressed.

Fighters (and their subclasses) were the front line fighters and the main damage bringers for at least the first few levels, before liberal use of fireballs and lightning bolts changed that balance. They had both the hit points and armor class to hang with the big baddies.

Clerics were always the premier healers. Druids made a poor substitute and Paladins served as little more than a bandade in that role. Hold Person as a 2nd level spell made Clerics decent Controllers at 3rd level and beyond. They could also on occasion fill in for a front line fighter when needed

Thieves were rarely the big damage dealers, but their skills with traps and locks kept the party alive in other ways.

Magic-users were weak as shit for the first few levels (but Sleep was always one hell of a game changer). At 5th level, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Hold Person and the like change much of the DPS and control focus to the simple and fragile Magic-User.

And of course I'm leaving out the multi-classing, UA classes and different race adjustments that sneak into the picture.

This all being said, I don't recall us ever saying "we need X to fill the Y role". Still, you knew a balanced party included one each of the core four classes. While fighter subclasses did a decent job in filling the same niche as a fighter, the druid, assassin and illusionist generally made poor substitutes for their more popular siblings, but in the hands of the right player, even this could be overcome.

So yes, even 30+ years ago, we recognized there were niches or roles that a successful party needed to consider. It just hadn't occurred to us to limit ourselves by labeling the roles like MMOs do, which then carried over in many ways to table top role-playing.

The problem with MMORPGs is that if you aren't the best at what your "role is", then you are wasting the time of everyone else in the party. Limited to 4 slots or 6 or x in the party, you need to make every character count. Which makes MMOs seem more like an exercise in math and statistics than an actual game to me these days.

All of which might have little to nothing to do with Tallifer's excellent quote, but it got me thinking along my own set of ideas on the topic ;)


  1. I've had this discussion elsewhere, and I know I've had people agree with me on this: certainly not everyone played that way.

    I don't remember being able to turn to a Cleric in the party (if we had one) and just *get* healing. Some Clerics didn't memorize those spells for the party -- maybe just one for themselves. You *might* be able to beg for it for yourself instead, but more likely than not, the answer would be "no" (or "I already used it up").

    Not all mages had fireball at hand. If you were relying on your GM to seed spells for you to find, you weren't guaranteed to find what you most wanted. Yes, we loved fireball. But it wasn't always there, and neither were lightning bolt, etc. You did what you could with what you gots. There were magic-users with fireball, sure, but I don't remember running into that as *an expectation* that you *must* have it, until later in my gaming career.

    And I don't recall myself or anyone else ever asking around as to what to play in order to balance out the party. Guys showed up with what they wanted to play. Sometimes that made for some tough going, but *you were always playing what you wanted to play*.

    There very well could have been a guy who'd play a Cleric because the party "needed one" and he'd just memorize healing spells for the sake of the party, back in the tail-end of the 70's and early 80's... But I never met him at the time.

    These are all concepts I didn't bump into until circa 1990, and at conventions.

  2. We did a lot of "well, the 3d6 in order say my only good stat is Str... so a fighter I will be." Our party composition in ACKS rarely included one each of the Big Four, even with henchmen - thieves were considered 'not worth it', and my players couldn't keep a cleric alive, so for a long time we were very fighter-and-mage stacked with occasional cleric henchmen who inevitably bought the farm in a session or two. Random spell selection, bad stat rolls, and the Death and Dismemberment table led to such marvellous characters as The Dooromancer (only knew Light, Hold Portal, Knock, and Wizard Lock at one point - basically became the party thief), Glassjaw the Fighter (Str 16, Con 4, polearm in the second rank), and the Maimed Priest (lost both hands, then one arm at the elbow, then was addled by a head injury...), which led to a very 'make do with whatever you have' sort of game rather than one with clear-cut roles.

    Essential thesis - too much randomness in chargen can lead to a breakdown of the role model, and more organic parties.

    1. Edit: *sufficient* randomness in chargen...

    2. Ah, and I forgot random henchman availability as another force pushing against easy role-filling! Sometimes the entire party rolls fighters and mages, all available henchmen are thieves and fighters, and there are simply no clerics to be had.

  3. I agree with bygrinstow. I think you are conflating newer experiences with recollections. The party role a la MMOs entered RPGs in 3rd, Pathfinder, and especially 4e. It never existed classically. The party was what the player's brought to the table.

    It is a modern, metagaming trend to "design" a party that can tackle all problems by taking the perfect spells and matching the skills of all characters to cover the bases.

    Parties never needed "balance" in older games, and still don't. The cleric did not always play a Healer and the Magic-User was not always a damage dealer.

    I have played in many games where the M/U was a problem solver with unique spells for, get ready, EXPLORING a dungeon. ESP, Knock, Hold Door, Magic Mouth, Levitate, Light, etc etc. This is their primary purpose in old school games, not throwing fireballs. They are the exploration toolkits that keep the party out of major trouble and divert enemies from their paths.

    It is very curious how the Thief/Rogue shifted to a hardcore melee DPS character in later editions, however.

    1. **The party role a la MMOs entered RPGs in 3rd, Pathfinder, and especially 4e...**

      Just to clarify from my own perspective: That was happening by the early 90's, and thus, Second Edition.

      I started going to conventions in 1989. Over the next few years I was repeatedly and increasingly exposed to the idea of "Cleric = Healer" only, MU is there to do ranged damage, Thief must be a ninja... You notice these things when strangers are calling you out because your mage isn't built the way they think they need it built. You notice these things when you like to solve the game's problems creatively, but people at the table are seeking to employ only cookie-cutter solutions.

      I can't blame 3.x and what followed for the issue of straight-jacketing players into a role. It certainly came from a faction of the players themselves, perhaps the loudest, and thus influenced subsequent design.

      But cupping my hand to my ear, I think the 'creative solution' folks out there are starting speak louder, too, and starting to get heard... : )

  4. Hardly anyone ever played a cleric in my 1E/2E days and I can honestly say that the mentality in my groups through both editions was more about what they enjoyed playing than anything else. I didn't see the concept of char op role-based approaches to D&D popping up until about a year and a half into D&D 3E's time, when people had played the new edition enough to start "playing the char op" game, but even then I didn't see a lot of role-assignment unti after WoW entered the scene and an entire generation of gamers were indoctrinated into the idea that roles are a real thing that must be adhered to rigidly.

  5. When my 2e thief died in late 80's I was railroaded into taking on a priest because 'we needed one' even thigh my stats reay didn't point to priest being the best option.

  6. It's call roleplaying, not classplaying. I do my best to put character before class.

  7. All of my groups HAD to have a cleric. It always came down to "who's turn is it to be stuck with the cleric?".