Thursday, November 11, 2010

Split Classes and Holmes Expert

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. It further distinguishes the new line as something different from both AD&D and OD&D without being wildly divergent.
Got it?

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?).


  1. this is a similar mindset behind d20 modern or star wars the RPG;
    you start your career as a mundane FAST hero and then specialize as a gunslinger or cat burglar

    a split class system also mirrors real life experience . . .
    you join the army as infantry, and after E4 you can be selected for special forces
    you start out as a boxer
    THEN later specialize as a MMA (mixed martial artist)

  2. I don't as a general idea like the split class very much and think the game would be better served with more flexible classes.
    I also think waiting till nearly mid career is far too long. Its boring

    l4 is soon enough to cut down on the notion of builds like the 1e bard *shudder* or so many 3x characters as well.

    However I do like your idea as it gives a definitive "you are now someone" demarcation for certain concepts

    For example, Fighter 1-3 could represent a squire and a person would then get their spurs at L4 and then would be a Knight

    This works well for Paladins as well, at L4 you are strong enough to be Called

    or even Magic Users, though I might take advantage of the allowed arbitrariness and require them to cast say L2 spells to qualify for journeyman and L5, fir master and at those points they can specialize

  3. Totally behind this idea, right down to Level 4 as the change-point, rather than Level 9.

  4. Just a short note. I have come around to thinking this is actually a great idea.Kudos.

  5. And did you do anymore work on the idea?

  6. Awesome! I actually cam across this line of thought myself, inspired by this video game called Final Fantasy Tactics.

    I second Matthew's query: have you pursued this idea further?

  7. The short answer is no.

    The Domain Game and the Pulp Fantasy Project have been the two projects that I've been trying to get off the ground.

    But that said I would like to come around to it again when I do.