Jim (aka the Wampus) asked yesterday what I meant by saying that split classes were a likely design choice for our hypothetical Holmes Expert set. My line of reasoning flows back to 1984 when Frank Mentzer's third boxed set for D&D, the Companion set, reared its head.
In that edition, a number of new classes were introduced, not as stand-alone classes in which a player starts at first level and works as usual up the ranks, but as a career choice for certain qualifying characters of the basic classes as they reached name level. (BTW Grognardia had a recent interesting discussion on this whole topic.)
Thus in BECMI-flavored D&D you didn't start play as a Paladin; it was instead something a Lawful fighter earned by reaching 9th level. Similarly a Neutral fighter could choose to become the Knight class and a Chaotic one an Avenger (not quite as cool as the dreaded Anti-Paladin that was invariably played by That Guy). Neutral clerics could opt to become Druids with their own unique spell sets.
Later Gazetteers would even add some options for the demi-humans that topped out so early, such as the Halfling Master class.
The more I thought about the more the logic behind going the split class route seemed more and more rock solid to me as a design choice for an expansion to a Basic boxed set since:
- It's awkward retroactively introducing new low-level-starting classes in a product that is supposed to expand play to levels 4-12. It undermines the standalone simplicity of the Basic set and a slower introduction to greater levels of complexity.
- It gives players an interesting carrot for higher levels of play. “When Mogg the Mendicant gets to 4th level, dude, he's going to go all Witch Doctor and rock out the dungeon.”
- It allows a designer to introduce a smaller, simpler set of the inherently fiddly new abilities, spell, and other goodies that come with a new class in D&D.
- It further distinguishes the new line as something different from both AD&D and OD&D without being wildly divergent.
In my own dream Holmes Expert it would work something like this. Players start levels 1-3 with the usual range of race and class choices (perhaps throwing in the demi-human thieves that creep into the pre-generated character list of B1).
When they reach 4th level--and yes, I would introduce them much lower given the 12th level ceiling to the whole project—they are allowed to choose any number of new quasi-classes attached to their starting class that they qualify for by alignment, attribute, race, or whatnot.
My own druthers would be to introduce a largish range of sub-classes with very short lists of new goodies. Go wide and shallow in other words rather than the AD&D way of creating longer and longer sets of new stuff to deal with in an individual class.
It would be doubly fun to draw on a wide range of sources contemporary to the OD&D era, stripped-down, more Basic-ish versions of all the classes in Strategic Review, The Dragon, and the many wackier classes of the constellation of zines from that time (can we say Pyrologist and Dwarf Craftsmen?).