My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
This week, the first part of a character class discussion.
Character classes were perhaps one of the biggest innovations by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It says a lot that we take the concept for granted across many genres (especially when you consider class and level to be two separate mechanics). Team Fortress, Mass Effect, and World of Warcraft all make explicit use of classes. You could argue that even games like Magic: the Gathering, Halo: Reach, and Mario Kart use class-like structures to give players more options. Games like Chess gave different abilities to different game pieces, but D&D was the first to extend that to players.
Flipping through the various rulebooks over the years, it’s clear that classes have undergone a tremendous change. Let’s take the fighter as an example, starting with 1st Edition and moving through the AD&D branch of the game*. Back in the day, as a fighter you rolled 1d10 per level for hit points, had access to all weapons and armor, and had the most accurate attacks. At higher levels, you gained access to a small army and a parcel of land to rule over and tax.
As the editions moved on, the fighter gained more and more elements to play with.
Let’s compare a 1st level fighter between 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Editions. In the table below, I’ve summarized the basic steps needed to build a character, setting aside those decisions that all characters have to make in every edition, such as ability scores (rolled or bought), race, alignment, equipment, and so on.
However, I added elements beyond the fighter class that are present in one edition and not others, such as feats and any calculations for attacks, defenses, and others.
For total steps, I counted each individual decision or calculation as one step. For instance, a 1st Edition fighter picks four weapon proficiencies. I counted that as four steps, since that is four decisions.
||Weapon Proficiencies: 4
Calculate attacks against AC
Fill in saving throws
||Weapon Proficiencies: 4
Weapon Specialization: pick 1 at the cost of 2 proficiencies
Non-Weapon Proficiencies: 3
Fill in saving throws
Calculate non-weapon proficiency totals
Skill Ranks: 8
Calculate attack bonus
Calculate saving throws
Calculate skill bonuses
Calculate touch AC
Calculate flat-footed AC
At-Will Powers: 2
Encounter Power: 1
Daily Power: 1
Calculate attack bonuses
Calculate skill bonuses
Calculate healing surge total
Calculate surge value
Calculate bloodied value
Calculate passive Perception
Calculate passive Insight
It’s interesting to watch that list grow, and even more interesting when you realize how much more math is in play. For instance, a 1st Edition fighter had to write down a series of numbers from an attack table found in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Any attack bonuses from Strength or Dexterity (available only for scores of 16 or higher) were easier to apply on the fly. Armor Class consisted of looking up a number on a table and applying a modifier if your Dexterity was higher than 14 or lower than 7. Compare that to a 3rd or 4th Edition fighter, who must add together a variety of modifiers for AC, attacks, defenses, saving throws, and so on—few of which are simple table look-ups, and almost all of which are dependent on other choices such as feats.
On top of that, those choices grew only more complex. Choosing weapon proficiencies is fairly simple. You can look at the weapon table, find a few armaments you like, and write those down on your character sheet. A feat, on the other hand, requires you to read through a dozen or so choices, consider their effects, and note the modifiers or ability that each chosen feat adds to your character. A feat is active—or at least requires an active calculation or modification to a character; as you gain more of them, they build on each other. In contrast, choosing a weapon proficiency focuses your options, and occupies roughly the same mental space and time as buying gear. You could just as easily instruct a player to buy no more than four weapons.
I’d imagine that a non-gamer looking at the above chart would wonder exactly why there are three times as many steps for making a 4th Edition fighter as a 1st Edition one. As gamers, we know that more work and options can be more engaging and interesting. However, the bigger question is this: Why did the game change this way? Chess hasn’t become more complex over time. Monopoly has remained fairly static year after year. What gives?
*Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, D&D was divided into two basic lines. On one side, there was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with its hardcover rulebooks and more complex rules. Basic D&D was aimed at new players, though its simplicity, clear rules, and concise presentation have kept it a favorite for decades. Where AD&D tried to provide rules depth and complexity, Basic D&D relied more on an individual DM’s judgment and rulings to keep things moving. Of course, the Rules Cyclopedia introduced a level of complexity to Basic D&D that neared AD&D’s, but the basic sentiment remains the same.
4th Edition, and 3rd Edition before it, take their cues from the AD&D branch of the D&D family tree.
Next week, I’ll continue this conversation and give you my answer. Until then, let’s take a poll.
Legends & Lore: Poll #2 Results
How much player content would you feel comfortable reading and incorporating into your campaign each year?
97 to 128 pages per month (about 1,200 pages per year): 20.0%
- 33 to 64 pages per month (about 600 pages per year): 16.4%
- 241 to 320 pages per month (about 3,600 pages per year): 15.9%
- 65 to 96 pages per month (about 960 pages per year): 13.4%
- 129 to 192 pages per month (about 1,800 pages per year): 11.8%
- 1 to 32 pages per month (about 300 pages per year): 11.8%
- 193 to 240 pages per month (about 2,400 pages per year): 6.6%
- Nothing new; all I want and need are the core rules: 4.0%
What kind of stuff do you want the most?
More character options (spells, classes, weapons, armor, gear): 24.8%
- More adventures: 24.3%
- More info for existing settings: 17.5%
- More DM options (NPCs, monsters, treasures): 13.4%
- New settings: 11.4%
- More optional rules for DMs (variant critical hits, alternate XP rules): 8.6%
Through a strange accident involving the Large Hadron Collider and a Crown Royal bag of d20s, reality is scrambled and D&D is altered forever. Your fighter loses all his or her feats, skills, powers, and non-weapon proficiencies. Yet, your standard swing with a sword/shot with a bow is effective enough that you don’t feel overshadowed by any of the other characters in the group. How do you feel about that?
Is there an option in the poll we’ve missed? Then let us know how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.