Monday, January 12, 2009

The Final Word on Simple

In the Good Old Days, the days of the original three books of the Dungeons & Dragons game, the number of variants on the rules was roughly equal to X,where X was the number of players in the game.

Alas, we all get older and more conservative, and with the publication of the more detailed, more structured D&D Basic Set, variant rules tended to become one with

There’s no reason why that has to be so. The D&D game, by virtue of its inherent simplicity, is an excellent platform for experimental rules…

- Paul Montgomery Crabaugh, author of “Customized Classes” from Dragon #109

The above quote sums up one of the reasons that people still find the earlier versions of this game so damn attractive, especially in light of the rule bloat that accompanied 3.5. While that edition did a lot to provide rules to solve just about any situation, it came at a cost of brevity and the room to tinker. With a structure as rigid as the d20 System, alterations to one part of it often causes stress fractures throughout the rest of the system.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the last year is that, when it comes to house rules and home-brewing, it’s often better to strip things down to the skeleton and begin regrowing bits from there, rather than attempting to graft parts directing onto the thick carcass of the established rules. For years, I’d been slowly building my own D&D Rule Golem in my mental lab. The result was functional, but extremely clunky and subject to complete collapse if too much strain was applied. If I’ve learned anything from the old-school movement, it’s that you need to start with the basics and work up from there if you want to home-brew.

This lesson has been put to good use over the past few months. I’ve got a lot less sacred cows than I once had, and my willingness to cull the herd has opened me to new ways of thinking about things. Most recently, it’s allowed me to overcome my final personal hobgoblin of the mind that had held me back from complete acceptance of the earliest editions of the game: race as class.

As I discussed last week, the idea of race as class had been a sticking point for me ever since I was first exposed to AD&D. As it turns out, it wasn’t so much the idea of race being a class; it was the limitations that accompanied its treatment in that manner. Basically, every dwarf or halfling being a fighter (or fighting man if you go back far enough) and every elf being a fighter/magic user was just too narrow for my own personal taste. I’m past that now, simply because I’ve found a way that allows for more choices in this matter, while still remaining true to the original intent of the game.

After much tinkering and experimentation, I’ve discovered that the method first laid out in “Customized Class” – which I’ll refer to as the Crabaugh Method after its author – provides an easy solution to this problem with a few minor alterations. Quite elegantly, the Crabaugh Method allows for the creation of racial variants to the standard human classes without the need to divorce race from class, which was the solution that the Supplements and AD&D presented. Furthermore, this method also provides a consistent system for home-brewing new classes. Since new character classes, sometimes in the gonzo, wahoo, crazy-go-bananas vein, were a staple of the original game, I find that the Crabaugh Method is very much in the spirit of the wild and woolly days. Armed with this method as a guideline, I could easily take on the challenge of letting a player run whatever he or she felt like throwing at the dungeon.

One of my recent decisions in regards to design and game prep has been to do only as much work as is necessary to get the game off the ground and running. To depend more on decisions made at the table, rather than at the desk, and let the game grow from there. Despite this, I needed to run my modified Crabaugh Method through its paces a bit to see if the alterations I made to it would stand up to the strain. In the end, I generated a few racial variants and two new classes suitable for the earlier additions of the game. While I used Labyrinth Lord as my reference rules during this process, those rules, by their retro-clone nature, provide easy inclusion into the Holmes/Moldvay & Cook/Mentzer rules, as well as OD&D with little or no modification.

I’ve collected those classes under one title, New Classes and Racial Variants for Basic Dungeons & Dragons and made them available to you fine folks. In addition, you’ll find the modified tables to the Crabaugh Method included therein, but for legal reasons I’ve left out a crucial table and detailed instructions. You’ll have to own a copy of Dragon #109 if you want to test drive the process or check my math.

Here’s a summary, along with a few notes, of the classes contained therein:

Barbarian: A new class for humans, just because you know someone’s going to want to play one sooner or later. The Barbarian benefits from a larger Hit Die, but suffers restrictions on usable armor and magical items.

Dwarf Cleric: Appeared last week as the Deeppriest, but I decided to strip the fancy name as it begins to smack to much of the prestige class syndrome I so dislike. KISS and call it what it is.

Elf Cleric: Elves get a lot of treatment as you’ll see. This is largely due to the fact that so many people seem to love to play them; they’ve traditionally had the most access to various classes, and were the first multi-class. I wasn’t going to bother with Elf Clerics at all until it came up in the comments about my race as class mental block.

Elf Druid: Originally I was going to create two types of Elf Clerics: one with the ability to turn undead and one without, as I thought that an Elf Cleric without that ability fit in quite nicely with the whole “connected to nature” elf thing. But ultimately, I decided to make that type of cleric into more of a nature priest. Although the name is the same, and there certain similarities, people expecting a class more in line with the Druid of AD&D will be disappointed.

Elf Fighter: I wanted to see how the Crabaugh Method would work when I stripped the multi-classed Elf down to but a single class. Not too bad as it turns out.

Elf Jack-Of-All-Trades: While I intended to stay away from multi-class characters during testing, seeing as they are outside of the scope of what I wanted to do with the system, I needed something to stress the system to see how it would handle really outlandish class ideas. What better way to do that than recreate the fighter/magic-user/thief? While I’d still never play this, and certainly discourage someone running one in my game, the Crabaugh Method managed to produce a pretty balanced result.

Elf Wizard: Like the Elf Fighter, but stripped of the combat benefits of playing a regular Elf.

Halfling Thief: What else would I chose for a Halfling?

Hireling: This is strictly an NPC class. Inspired by one of the sample customized class in the original article, it makes a nice catch-all class for any semi-skilled assistant a dungeon-delving party might hire. A brave farm boy or local militia man could easily be run as this class. The Hireling has low experience point costs for progression, but a 8th level cap and the fact that most NPC don’t get full shares of experience make this a NPC class that won’t outshine his employers.

Grab the download for yourself here.


Jeff Rients said...

Wow. You would not believe the high degree of correlation between your PDF and a not-quite-finished project of my own. I was even working on a hireling class!

Anonymous said...

But what about a class for the learned professor, an expert in antiquities?

Michael Curtis said...

Wow. You would not believe the high degree of correlation between your PDF and a not-quite-finished project of my own. I was even working on a hireling class!

The tainted well from which the blognards drink from has struck again!

I do hope you'll post your own efforts on your blog, Jeff. I'd love to see what you ended up with.

Michael Curtis said...

But what about a class for the learned professor, an expert in antiquities?

As if anyone would be so foolish to play such a thing...

Actually, that's outside the scope of my efforts. I've been ruminating on the idea that the player should define his charater sheet and not the other way around. I smell an upcoming post.

Kevin Mac said...

I knew Paul for a couple of years when I was a kid hanging out at Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica. Besides articles for game publications (including the infamous "Random Monsters" article in the Dragon), I recall he had a major Buck Rogers (TV show) jones, and submitted scripts to the series (unused). Nothing to do with the matter at hand, but it's interesting. Paul was so smart (compared to a lot of the other older guys who hung out in that dingy shop on Santa Monica Blvd), and even as a kid I thought that show was very dim.

Paul never ran D&D at the shop. He seemed to prefer Traveller at the time (inspiring me to run my one and only Traveller campaign).

I recently found out that Paul had passed away a couple of years after I stopped hanging out at the shop. My old friend Gary, the old owner, died a couple of years ago, which I also recently discovered. My Grognard roots are slowly fading away...

Dan Lawson said...

Wow, great stuff! One question, though: for us BECMI'ers, how would you handle XP for further attack ranks (A through whatever)?


Michael Curtis said...

One question, though: for us BECMI'ers, how would you handle XP for further attack ranks (A through whatever)?

Not to sound dismissive, but I wouldn't. My own experiences with the Mentzer era ended with the Companion Set where the attack ranks feature first appeared. I've never had any experience with them in the game. Since attack ranks are unique to the Mentzer editions I didn't even consider them when putting these classes through their paces.

I would leave it up to the individual referee to work out a system for attack ranks based upon his/her own game, players and familiarity with the system. Which, of course, always over-rides everything anyway.

Unknown said...

Excellent work!

Pulp Herb said...

Great idea but the file won't download.

Michael Curtis said...

Great idea but the file won't download.

It's been corrected.

Pulp Herb said...