Episode 112: Straitjackets and Scaffolds

This month, Roger and Mike consider the history and utility of character classes… and do not reveal their True Names.

We mentioned

Equinox at the Bundle of Holding (until 11 April), Shadowrun, Transhuman Space, Risus, RuneQuest, Rolemaster, GURPS Action, Dungeon World, Feng Shui, Traveller, d20 Modern, The Nun’s Story, True Names and The Nine Billion Names of God.

We have a tip jar (please tell us how you’d like to be acknowledged on the show).


I started RPGs with D&D Basic quickly followed by AD&D 1st and later 2nd which remains my favourite D&D due to expertise gained via masses of games played. At the beginning of course the whole idea of RPG’s was a novel one and I played different classes without giving it a second thought, after all I had all of those AD&D subsystems going up down or sideways to learn. I did get Traveller and CoC when they came out and ran some games back then so I was familiar with skills based systems which I also enjoyed.

Contrary to Roger’s unfavourable opinion on the AD&D 2nd’s mixed classes and non-weapon proficiencies which are skills by another name, I found the mix was a useful way to broaden and develop characters and a decent slow introduction to the idea that perhaps classes were not the only way to do this and there might be a better approach. Skills based has become my favoured type of game system but even though I don’t usually play fantasy any more if I needed to knock up a quick fantasy adventure I would still do it in AD&D 2e because I know it really well and can make it run smoothly.

These days I mostly run/play CoC 7e, Liminal and Traveller so no classes there. One day I shall play GURPS, with or without a template. :slight_smile:

True names…
Made me smile thinking about modern day true names such as an NI number. I also thought about a Traveller character’s hexadecimal UPP as their true name but of course they aren’t unique. Fun discussion.


I think the problem for me specifically with DSG/WSG/2e proficiency slots may have been that RuneQuest and Traveller and Rolemaster were already out there with actual skill systems, and here was the most popular of the systems making what felt like a very half-hearted concession to the idea of having skills. It felt as if D&D were the hold-out while every other system had gone on to something that worked better.


This seems to have been due to the Gygaxian Ego Problem. He had a high opinion of himself as The Creator, and was quite unwilling to adopt changes that hadn’t come from within his creation. So other people’s ideas that had been published in Dragon, no trouble. Separate games, a serious problem.

There was a quote from him in the early 1990s. He was at a convention, drumming up support for his Dangerous Journeys RPG, which hadn’t yet been published. Extolling the virtues of the new flexible magic system, he was asked if it had similar capabilities to the Champions power design system, which is very capable. His response was to the effect that while he wasn’t familiar with Champions, he understood that it used character stats (Strength, Intelligence, etc) in the same basic way as D&D, and therefore he wasn’t basing stuff on it, they were basing stuff on his work!

It appears the session ended quite swiftly after that, as people realised they weren’t going to get much in the way of answers.

Hmm, yes, but DSG/WSG are explicitly post-Gary – Unearthed Arcana was his last book before… leaving… TSR, and looking at Dragon of the day that seems to have been the direction in which he was thinking of taking the then-hypothetical second edition. DSG and WSG are by Douglas Niles and Kim Mohan respectively, i.e. the senior D&Ders who were left at TSR after Gygax had been purged, and they’re going in a somewhat different direction (more consonant with what would be the 2e that eventually got published).

I went pretty much straight from the Mentzer Red Box to the Rules Cyclopedia with D&D and never particularly cared for the advanced version. I did like the proficiency systems in the cyclopedia.

I tend to think of classes as costumes more than anything else. Maybe it’s meaningless personal synesthesia but rules systems tend to have a feel and when playing class is often the first part that is handled.

If you’re going to play act, you can always make your own costume with chosen materials but sometimes a costume is a toy and not a craft.

So playing Mentzer D&D was like grabbing the fighter costume and then dropping it for the Elf one if I cut my tongue on the plastic mask.

Playing savage worlds is grabbing swords and helmets and necklaces and bracers and shin guards from the toy box and finding out if I can make it down a slide with what I have on without injury and not feeling too silly.


Ah, true. They may have wanted to stick with the existing concept of proficiency slots, or they may have been scared to prod the huge mass of rules too hard. D&D 3e is a different game system that has some concepts in common, but plays significantly differently.

I have heard it suggested that AD&D (1977) was a way for Gygax to stamp his ideas on the game – partly to have a book that didn’t have Dave Arneson’s name on the cover, partly a way of fastening down the often very bizarre early D&D ethos into a proper game, with rules and tournaments and things.

Of course I in the early 1980s, knowing nothing of this, assumed “Advanced” was the next step after “Expert” and was briefly quite confused. (I’ve heard similar stories from a lot of people who started gaming around then.)


I had moved to Advanced before Expert was released so my path was already in progress. I also liked the separate race and class system in Advanced which seemed more consistent to me. Since I found the whole idea of RPGs absolutely fascinating the big interesting AD&D books were an attraction too. I’m sure I never ran 1st ed Advanced “properly” but 2nd ticked all the boxes and I ran and played it a lot, mostly not in dungeons but that’s another subject.

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I’ve gone on thinking about True Names and the last note I made was:

Only Demons, Wizards and Cats have True Names.

We know that the bit about Cats is true because The Poet (T.S.Eliot in modern magic) says so.

I think Wizards get True Names as part of initiation/training.

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They need to understand this:

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I was thinking more that they got to say:

“I Sudo command thee, INSERT_DEMON_NAME_HERE to carry out my commands viz…”

Rather than their teachers getting more tyrannous over them though that’s implied too.

(Restricting the numbers of True Names solves part of the problem which we noted in the podcast. Cats of course don’t use the same system as humans and few humans (or Demons for that matter) can pronounce Cat Names.)

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I once ran a Dragonquest campaign set in a fantastic version of Europe in the Twelfth century. The Church was identical with the College of Naming Incantation, and the priests had a record of evryone’s true names in their baptismal registers.

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I think that the perpetuation of character classes is partly (of course) the perpetual insidious influence of Dee-unn-Dee, and partly related to the nature of pulpy adventure fiction - either influence-from or parallel evolution (we’re reinventing pulpy adventure fiction), or a bit of both. The point being that when you mostly just want to get on with the plot, having a quick, definitive, recognisable label (“Warrior”, “Pilot”, “Wizard”) for this character’s place in it helps a lot. And of course personality clichés soon attach to those labels. (Barbarians are gruff and boozy, Pilots are flashy and boozy…) Though those can always be subverted.

I quite like the Trail of Cthulhu Occupation model as a simple approach; mostly, your Occupation determines skill costs (as discussed in the podcast), but each Occupation also has one moderate benefit (the kind of thing that might be represented by an Advantage in GURPS, or sometimes just an unusual skill), which is unavailable to other Occupations. So your Antiquarian may be a crack shot, but the special thing about him is that he often has some artefact or text in his personal collection that is relevant to the current mystery, while your Doctor gets better results from her First Aid skill (thanks to broad detailed training) and can talk her way into hospital records departments (because she can plausibly claim legitimate need), but can also learn Stealth or Theology if she insists. You aren’t entirely defined by your Occupation, but it does have significance.

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A feeling I remember from the 1980s - though it may just have been among the people I gamed with - was that you had to have restrictions, otherwise characters would just get good at everything. Even something like Rolemaster, where a pure fighter can try to learn spells but he’ll be very bad at it, was viewed with suspicion.

A class (or an occupational template) can also be a useful clue as to the sort of thing the game writer expects PCs to be getting up to.

Well, there’s something to that logic - if everything can be improved without restriction then the ultimate endpoint is a string of identical superpowered characters. I must say it’s not something I’ve experienced outside of a computer game though.

Personally I have no more problem with character classes than I do with templates. I think they’re helpful for new roleplayers to get a handle on what their character can do, and I think as you say they’re helpful for players new to the system to indicate what sort of characters are expected of them. They might be shortcuts and cliches, but in my roleplaying experience shortcuts and cliches are not the handicap they are in fiction. We’re not all trying to write Finnegan’s Wake (thank goodness). If they help you get to the fun bit quicker, they seem like a good thing to me.

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Fair points! I think my main argument is that they restrict the sort of character you can play; in AD&D every fighter is an equally good all-rounder, for example, and the difference between my fighter and yours is mostly in the random stats. The contortions needed to represent peasants and townsfolk as more than a piñata full of XP make it clear where the system’s creaking a bit. Yes, you can and should say, later D&D, Pathfinder, etc., have fixed this a bit, but at that point I wonder what the class is useful for any more given that you don’t have the option of saying “I’m playing a fighter” and being ready to go.

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In the groups I played in, there were plenty of multi-classed characters, but the experience point costs meant they were expected to be lower level than the specialists. The perfectly balanced party would have one or two, to add backup capability.

Specifically, I’d propose that the ability to use True Names requires that one have a True Name. So while your local Hedge Wizard may not have a True Name, neither can they summon or bind Demons (their Cat is just there for the treats and scrinches and is in no way bound).


“So you are… sigh, Bloodzor the Incarnadine, yes.”
“Right, your Worldix username is bloodzorincarnadine173. Remember to change your default password.”
“There are 172 other Bloodzor the Incarnadines?”
“Well, there have been. We don’t like to reuse userIDs. Causes all sorts of trouble.”