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Class Conflict in 3rd Edition D&D

by James Haughton



In issue 17 PTGPTB featured a bit of laying down the lawful by Jesse Burneko along the "rules is rules" line in connection with the different abilities of classes in D&D. The writer pointed out that these divisions are ultimately arbitrary, there to enforce game balance, and thus disputing them shows a lack of insight into the nature of games and is a fat waste of time (I paraphrase).

While this may well be true for games, as far as they go, if we are interested in any kind of realistic simulation of a society there are, in fact, good reasons for both laying down the law and attempting to twist, subvert and undermine it.

Any anthropologist or sociologist will tell you that a standard feature of human societies, in fact of humanity, is that we divide the world, and our fellow people, into categories. These categories usually possess a significant degree of internal logic and are based on some kind of division and specialisation of labour, but are ultimately arbitrary. Furthermore, (this is a more recent insight in anthropology) no sooner do we set up complicated social structures based on these categories than we set about trying to subvert them in our own interests, all the while loudly proclaiming our adherence to the law and deploring the anarchistic and dangerous subversions of the Joneses over the road.

A recent column in Imazine commented that:

Rules do not just determine the success or failure of a character's actions, they may also determine less tangible aspects of the imaginary role-playing world. The rules-based simplification from a game like Dungeons & Dragons that characters can be described as Fighters, Thieves, Magic-Users, or whatever, has extensive implications for both the imaginary society being created, and the stylistic parameters of characterization.

In the first case, they suggest a rigid, hierarchical society, and in the second they suggest that characters fit into certain broad heroic archetypes. Any attempt to play acharacter whose actions and emotions aren't archetypal remains possible, but is working at cross-purposes to the rule system. Brian Duguid, Imazine 34:10

This seems a reasonable deduction. Let's take it a step further. One of the nice things, for an anthropologist, about social classification is that the same classificatory system tends to get repeated in several different spheres of life: so that one can construct multi-dimensional grids of these classifications. Any anomalies tend to reveal themselves and become fruitful targets for further investigation. Of course, unless one runs across a Sage, a bit of guesswork and deduction is usually required to work out what the categories themselves consist of first.

The D&D Social Grid

In D&D, one axis of a grid is obviously the very Basic Gygaxian system: Fighter, Magic User, Cleric, Thief. The other takes a bit more deduction. It is gradually revealed as we investigate the plethora of character classes that 3rd Edition has blasted - er, blessed - us with.

The most highly differentiated class, in terms of the number of subclasses which exist for it, is the Fighter. This of course is representative of every roleplayer's fundamental desire to shit beat up, preferably the jocks (does this word remind anyone else of "orcs" or is it just me?) we clashed with at school. But it is also symbolic of a violent society, one in which the fundamental definition of the state (the institution which claims a legitimate monopoly of force) is very much contested. So we already have a useful deduction about our game world - weak states. In any case, these subclasses include the Arcane Archer, Barbarian, Blackguard, Dwarven Defender, Fighter, Noble, Paladin, Ranger, and Warrior, with Monks in a somewhat ambiguous position.

There's some debate about this. See either this site at JMU or this tripod Ed.

How do we divide these up in some systematic fashion? Well, the first (in game development terms) of these subclasses to show up were the Paladin (from the medieval crusades and romances) and the Ranger (from Tolkien). These might be said to fit the categories of Church and Forest. Even this first categorization, to me, evokes some useful images: the village, with its rough Fighters, huddles against the Church, where the elite Paladins prepare to defend against truly dire evils, and the Rangers stealthily patrol the Forest outside the gates. But then the Barbarian appeared, and he was clearly exactly what his class claims to be: A Barbarian, one who, to the civilized ear, speaks in "Ba-Ba" noises (that's the Greek root. Look it up. It's also why people in crowd scenes say "rhubarb"). So from somewhere beyond the Forest, from Outside, the Barbarian sweeps, perhaps from the endless Steppes of Hyperboria, and the Paladins rally to defend the faithful - and why shouldn't a class which must be lawful and one that must be chaotic be on historical bad terms?

But Wait! There's More! I just claimed that the common or garden Fighter was hanging around in the village: but in fact we now have two NPC classes to do that: the worthy Warrior, found as pub bouncer and city guard in Common villages everywhere, and the Noble, who rightfully does the rallying and defending of the huddled villages, representing crown, law and State, and the Paladins should keep their acne-free noses to themselves unless it's a crusade, thank you very much. It becomes clear that the Fighter is in fact a pretty rare and specialized kind of monster in his own right, perhaps a mercenary (you know they'll do anything for gold) owing no sworn allegiance to Noble (like the Warrior, the backbone of mass armies) or Church (like the snotty Paladins). The independent, mercenary Fighter is more likely to get bounced than do the bouncing, or be arrested than be a guardsman - he is clearly a creature of the independent Towns that have sprung up with the increase in prosperity caused, perhaps, by the discovery of so much gold lying around out there in haunted Dungeons. This also suggests that we are looking at a historical period corresponding to the late middle ages or early renaissance, rather than the classic Dark, feudal times per se. Otherwise, there would be no niche for an independent Fighter, unless as an outlaw.

There's still a few Prestige classes left over - but this is a good moment to stop and see how our classification scheme fits the other basic categories.

Turning to the Clerics, we find the Forest/Church division fits well, with Druids taking up the Forest role. The Barbarian's spiritual needs, Outside the boundaries of civilization, are doubtless attended to by the shaman or Adept, another NPC class. Some local, more sanctified version, the local wise woman or cunning man, also an Adept, probably attends to the simple needs of the Common folk. Where, though, is the Cleric of the State?

At this point, I will make explicit what some of you have already noticed: that I have set up this system of categories so that three of them correspond to the great medieval social divisions of State, Church and Common people, the First, Second and Third Estates, or Dogs, Shepherds and Sheep, and that the demarcation boundary between Church and State was then, as now, endlessly quarreled and fought over. A Cleric of the State would therefore be a somewhat chimerical monster, breaching all social boundaries, unless our fantasy world is a complete theocracy. The closest equivalent in medieval history might be an Inquisitor, which does not exist as a class, though a cleric with appropriate power domains, perhaps War and Divination, might do the job.

Next, we come to the Magic-User, with subdivisions of Adept, Wizard, Sorcerer, Loremaster and Bard. Where else would Merlin, the archetypal Wizard, be found but at the left hand of the King? So Wizards fit the classification of State (other settings take a different approach - Ars Magica, for example, states explicitly that the Magi are a fourth Order of society, requiring a quite different classification system. I'm sure you can do it yourself at this point), and the Bard, carousing in the local pub with the Fighter and enlivening the evening with enchantment, is quite definitely the Magic User of the Town. The others are a little trickier. Patience, grasshopper, all will be revealed. To fit the Loremaster, we must remember that in medieval Europe, concurrent with the rise of the Towns, another social organization rose: the great Universities or Academies, at first mere appendages of the Church, took on roles and powers of their own. The relationship was not smooth - the phrase "Town Vs Gown" is still a cliche, and suggests some fruitful roleplaying possibilities - but by and large the Academy stood for individual talent and learning alongside the Town's commerce, against the older Feudal orders. And where else but in an Academy would the Loremaster be found, doubtless clashing regularly with the Bard who would drag his esoterica through the mud of song, mockery and common knowledge? The Academic can also be found amongst the Fighters and Clerics - he is the Monk, who in medieval history was the Church's guardian of knowledge and in D&D has combined this role with esoteric martial prowess to become a living, educated weapon.

Curiously, there is no Magic-User of the Forest, although there is a perfect folkloric equivalent for this position: the Witch, who, black, white or Blair, invariably lurks within the dark woods. The new spell-casting abilities of the high level Ranger perhaps represent a recognition by the writers of this gap in their system. The feared Magic User from Outside, beyond the known world, is again represented only by the Adept, with his promiscuous mixing of Divine and Arcane, perhaps indicating that the gods of the Barbarians are magical spirits (ancestors perhaps?) rather than "proper" gods. A more accurate figure of the Outsider Magic User, in a medieval mindset, would be the Jew, a stereotype best left buried, but some fictional equivalent could certainly enliven a campaign, and Jewish magic in the form of Cabala is relatively well covered in Ars Magica and other systems. The Cabala also provides a possible source for what seems another contradictory position, the Church Magic User (Again, this position is neatly covered in Ars Magica by the various degrees of Christian Magehood). Cabala was discovered by Christian scholars like Pico della Mirandola during the renaissance and believed by them to form the basis of a new natural magic, a godly magic, or Theurgy, as opposed to the demonic magic, or Goety, which they attributed to their medieval predecessors. The definitions of Godly magic, whose most famous practitioner was probably Dr John Dee, sound oddly like natural science - there is much talk of revealing and using the subtle laws of the universe which God in his wisdom has placed for humanity to discover, and make use of, once some maturity has been reached. A Theurgist in a D&D system would perhaps specialize in the use of those Arcane spells which most closely mimic Divine spells (and thus be almost useless as a PC - but for the sake of completeness...), or might have access to both spell lists in a far less restricted fashion than the Adept. Or He might simply be a Cleric specializing in the Magic domain.

The Sorcerer, who derives his power from within rather than from the study of books, has a new category created all to himself: the Mystical. What, another? Do not despair, for we find that the Fighter prestige class of the Arcane Archer fits perfectly into the slot of a Mystical Fighter (there's Zen in the art of archery, you know - though perhaps the Monk would do as well) and, glancing ahead, the Shadowdancer similarly fits the category of the Mystical Thief. Mystical Clerics - Hermits and Saints in the medieval mindset - are rendered somewhat redundant by the average D&D cleric possessing more power than an actual Saint in his own right, but some modification of the Druid might also fit the bill. Tensions always exist between Mystics and established religions, and thus we might expect the Sorcerer and the Church classes to be on bad terms.

What about the Common people's Magic-User? Whilst we could place the overused Adept in this cultural space as well, I think a better person to fill the gap is the Expert - though it is true he can't cast spells, for the ignorant peasant little difference exists between advanced learning and magic, and many professions hedged their trade and guild secrets in mystico-magical rites, due to the absence of unions or copyright law - the Freemasons are the most well known extant survivors of this practice. In a truly magical world significant tension would undoubtedly be created by such practices between the Experts and the genuinely Magically endowed, though the Bards might be inclined to side with the Commons.

We now come, last but not least, to the Thief. The Common people's Thief is the Peasant or Commoner, of course - if you don't believe me, then ask your party to trust the next random NPC farmer to take care of their violently-gotten GPs and thus save on those rotten encumbrance penalties. Watch your DM's face light up! Likewise the Town Thief is your basic Rogue, busy removing the purse (if the Bard didn't snatch it first) from the drink-sodden Fighter before being bounced out by the Warrior. The Thief of State is the prestige Assassin. Ignore that stuff about evil alignment being necessary. Who else uses Assassins - who else can afford to pay for them, for that matter - but the Noble classes? Murder is a tool of statecraft, and all that. Just ask Terry Pratchett. The Thief of Academie is the Bard, crossing the D&D bard's skill at judicious hood-winkery and pick-pocketry with the ancient real-world role of the bard as the preserver of learning and wisdom through song. And as previously mentioned, the Mystical Thief is the prestige Shadowdancer.

Again some significant gaps exist, and again there are perfect medieval roles to cover them, which will no doubt appear as character classes in some Open License publication. The Forest Thief - the Bandit! Out there with the Long Bow, the Lincoln Green and Robin Hood the Ranger! The Outsider Thief, wandering and stealing, from some strange AeGyptian shore - the Gypsy! No chicken, horse or maiden is safe! Finally, the Church Thief, a role with at least three fascinating real-world equivalents: the mendicant student/friar or Vagabond, wandering, begging for bread and books and stealing when begging does not suffice, author of the wonderful Carmina Burana; the heretic/charlatan, leading penitent reformers and maddened fanatics in a personal crusade against the established religions of the wealthy; and the Hashishim, the original Assassins, the holy killers of Shi-ite Islam whom the Templars feared and respected and were renowned throughout Europe for their fanatical, holy devotion to their task of killing the enemies of the Faith before their name was stolen by the common murderer.

This comprehensive review omits only the Blackguard and the Dwarven Defender, of whom I state with confidence that WotC has only done it to annoy. One is clearly intended as an NPC villain and the other is so specialized, to one race and class, that his omission is not significant and may be swept under the carpet, or down the mineshaft, whichever you prefer.

Commons Church State Town Academy Forest Mystical Outsider
Fighter Warrior Paladin Noble Fighter Monk Ranger Arcane Archer Barbarian
Cleric Adept Cleric [Inquisitor] Cleric/[Mormon] Monk Druid [Hermit] Adept/[Shaman]
Magic User Expert/Mason [Theurgist] Wizard Bard Loremaster [Witch] Sorcerer Adept/[Cabalist]
Thief Commoner [Heretic]
Assassin Rogue Bard [Bandit] Shadowdancer [Gypsy]

Using this system to enhance game play

So, now we have our classification system and, if you're canny, a guide to which new classes are likely to survive if created under Open License (a quick review: the Inquisitor, Witch, Saint, Hermit, Shaman, Theurgist, Cabalist, Freemason, Bandit, Gypsy, Vagabond, Charlatan and Hashishim are all waiting for a creative mind to bring them to life). How does one use it to add detail to one's campaign? Before you blanch at the work involved, consider that because these classification systems exist within the structure of the game system, and because you too are human, you have probably, perhaps unconsciously, already built them into your world. You just need to realize this process and extend it.

For a start, one figures out the alliances and tensions which exist between the social classes: Church and State quarrel over their control of the Commons, for example, but both are a conservative bastion against the new-money claims of Town and Academia, who have their own feud over control of the city's gates, and none of them like the wild possibilities of the Forest, Outsiders and Mystics much. This is how it was in Medieval Europe, but you should feel free to come up with any power alignment you wish. Amongst other things, it provides instant reaction details for any NPC the party comes across: Nobles, for example, will be courteous, in either a friendly or chilly way, to Paladins, automatically expect the service of Warriors and other Commoners, snub Fighters, Bards and the more martially inclined Monks, hate Rogues but accept Assassins, respect Wizards but fear Sorcerers and treat Rangers, Druids and Barbarians as little better than animals.

This structure, or scaffold, also provides a rope from which to hang, or at least tie down, greedy PCs - so the Fighter is constantly going after gold? Well, that's expected, he is from the immoral Town, after all - but now that knighthood will never come to him since he ignores the Noblesse Oblige of State, Temples controlled by the Church(es) charge him five times the price for their healing services, the only magic-user he can get to take a look at the strange artifact is the Loremaster at the University - for a hefty fee, of course - and any quests he receives are likely to be of a morally dubious variety, since he has shown he deserves nothing better, which will interfere with missions the Assassins see as their prerogative and thus place the hapless gold-digger on numerous hitlists. On the plus side, the Bards sing endless songs of his accomplishments (Brave, Brave Sir Robin!) and the local Monks of Bael-Sha will provide some esoteric weapons training if he's willing to endow a chair at the Academy of Occult Arts. It all falls naturally out of the social dynamics of the situation.

Most interesting of all are the dynamics mentioned at the very start - what happens when people subvert the system? The Fighter, above, tries to buy his way into the nobility when he discovers the royal finances are in a spot of bother. An Assassin, maybe even a Hashishim or an accusation of heresy calling for an Inquisitor, is certain to be set upon him by the conservative groups. If he survives and succeeds, he is faced with a choice - change his ways to fit his new position and lose all his old, disreputable adventuring friends from the tavern in the Town, or be as he was and become known as a disgrace to the noble classes? Can he find a way to do both? Suppose he wishes to develop his inner power and become an Arcane Archer - will he be required to abandon his riches and his castle and live with the Sorcerers of the crags and the Witches of the forest?

Or take weapons restrictions. If these restrictions are not "rules is rules" and not constraints to quarrel with one's DM over, but social conventions, flouted at one's peril, what will be the consequences of breaching them? Why do Wizards and Sorcerers only carry daggers? Is it a law passed by the Nobility under pressure from a jealous Church? Is it a proud declaration (or bluff) of power in a violent society: "I have so much magical might that I have no need of your petty weapons and armour. Fear my wrath"? Is it to distinguish themselves from the crass Bards and common Experts who cheapen and bastardize the Art? Is it a symbol of some ancient pact between themselves and the Assassins, by which Wizards (but not Sorcerers or Loremasters) teach Assassins those spells they can now learn (in 3rd edition) in exchange for training in hand to hand knife fighting? Is each dagger embossed with some particular School's symbol, making it the equivalent of an Old School Tie? Depending on the answer, a wizard carrying a sword might find himself facing the Inquisition court ("Blasphemy and Treason!"), getting mugged by common rogues ("He must be a pathetic Wiz if he still carries a sword. Let's do'im"), snubbed by his colleagues ("Joined the riff-raff, have we?"), kidnapped by the shadowy Assassin's guild ("You have violated the pact of Ibn-Gazi. Prepare to meet thy fate.") or just sniffed at ("Dahling. There's a common little wizard at the door carrying a sword. No Hogwarts' dagger at all. Shall I have the butler direct him to the tradesman's entrance, or did you summon him for the children's party?"). The sorts of answers you arrive at will shape your world in subtle, fascinating ways and should provide endless hours of roleplaying opportunities. Imagine, for example, the lengths our heavily armed, socially outcast wizard might go to when he hears a legend of a magic dagger which transforms to and from a two handed sword upon a word of command, lying in a dragon's hoard...

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