Friday, March 2, 2018

Putting More Class In Your Setting. Part III: Variations By Setting, Class, and Level

In Part I of this essay, I evaluated arguments in favor and against the notion that classes have standing as social structures, and then, in Part II, I examined reasons why this is likely to be so. Now, in this concluding section, I will look into how class structures are likely to vary depending on the class in question, the type of setting, and situational factors such as the level or power of particular characters.

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The insistence on the universal applicability of class abilities and the character's right not to be implicated within social structures are both resonant with rejecting playstyles that may lead the GM to restrict or alter the class lineup for a campaign. All published character types, the argument goes, should be appropriate for any campaign, so long as it is within the fantasy genre. The insistence on a single, generic fantasy style into which any character can fit so long as its build does not depart from the existing mechanics seems to promote openness, but actually constitutes a limiting of styles to a single supermarket-variety blend.

Supermarket-style settings have a right to exist, and are attractive to some players because their default assumptions about what they may find there - towns with taverns, markets stocked with readily available goods, frontier areas with dungeons and monsters, authority structures somewhere far from the frontier, and mundane populations generally prove to be accurate, leaving them free to worry about other things. But even in a generic setting - Forgotten Realms, or Sigil - City of Doors, where characters may come a wide range of cultural backgrounds, social structures and class structures can still exist, and be influenced by the multicultural environment in a variety of different ways. This concluding section lists examples of how setting type may influence class structure, and the relationship between classes.

1) In general, the degree of class organization, from tightest to broadest, can fall into these four categories:
  • A formal organization, with specified positions and offices, regulations and initiations (modeled by the Knights Templar, the Naqshbandi order of Sufi mystics, or the Sword Coast's Purple Dragon Knights). These organizations can model a distinct class, or specialization within the class.
  • A collection of possibly unconnected people bound by a teaching, technique, belief, ideal, or patronage of a deity or other powerful entity (modeled by the Buddhist sangha [monastic community], literate mages recording spells in writing, initiates into the Mithraic mysteries). It is entirely possible that adherents of a particular religion or the priesthood of a particular deity constitutes a distinct class).
  • A broad social class, estate, or caste, as discussed in Part II. In this case, classes can roughly correspond to backgrounds, and as such, can include, or even be numerically dominated by, people without any special abilities.
  • People from vastly different societies who perform broadly equivalent functions or have comparable skills, who may find affinities with others because they use magic, are trained in arms, are concerned with honor, etc.
2) Generally, the larger, "traditional" classes - fighter, rogue, possibly cleric and wizard, will tend toward looser class structures, whereas the more specialized classes that started as subclasses (ranger, paladin, druid), prestige classes (bard), or "unusual" classes (monk) will tend to have tighter forms of organization. However, this may be true only if certain standard assumptions about what a fantasy social environment is like obtain. It is entirely possible to imagine settings where basic classes are differently organized, or even do not exist at all. 

The cleric class, for instance, was designed to model the warrior archbishop Turpin or monastic fighting orders (before the advent of the paladin). Its heavily armed and armored demeanor, and its spell list, strongly influenced by Old Testament imagery, is hardly representative of priesthoods worldwide. 2e actually went some way toward disaggregating the cleric class, and replacing it with a priest class that was far more generic, but subsequent editions, including 5e, restored the centrality of the more traditional cleric. It is quite possible to have the cleric class as a tightly organized, militant grouping if one's setting resembles a disintegrating Roman Empire, where the Church seeks to defend itself and promote conversions in a sea of paganism. Other priests in this environment would likely possess an entirely different class, without armor proficiency, and without the ability to turn undead.

It is similarly possible to imagine settings without fighters, or with fighters organized as a highly specialized class that stands out from the rest of the population. It has been hypothesized that the Harappan civilization was a civilization without war, and if there is no war, there are likely to be no (or at best, very few) warriors. Perhaps warriors have intruded on this sort of peaceful culture from outside. The same thing might be true of a setting that resembles Hy Brasil from the Erik the Viking film, where the only fighters were the vikings who sailed to the island in their dragon ship. Even if the warriors did not all come in one ship, it is likely that they would feel a great deal of kinship with other warriors in such an environment, and would at least attempt to organize themselves - for conquest, to prevent undue conflicts, to develop some sort of warrior code, etc. This would constitute a highly unusual setting, very different from generic fantasy, yet definitely an attractive campaign setting.

Given the changing assumptions about what constitutes an arcane spellcaster over the years, the notion that studious and literate wizards are generic "magic-users" may be outdated. Sorcerers with raw talent are actually better suited for the role, whereas wizards may be a newer group that recommends itself to the populace precisely because they are more responsible with the Gift, and have more control over other members of the class, because they subject them to long years of study.

Conversely, it is possible to cast the more specialized classes in generic roles. For instance, druids may be members of a generic ruling class of priest-kings who battled other clans or tribes for primacy (this actually quite accurately models the situation in much of northern Europe in the centuries and decades prior to the coming of Christianity). Monks constituted the ruling elite of Tibet until the mid-20th century. 

3) The more style-specific the setting, the tighter the organization of individual classes (and vice-versa: the more generic the setting, the looser the class structure). In a cosmopolitan setting, many people and many members of elites might be transplants from distant lands. As such, aside from having a vague sense of affinity with those who also have combat training, or magical training, or training in the manipulation of symbols, they may have nothing in common with others who technically represent the same class and possess similar abilities.

Yet no setting is ever completely cosmopolitan. We can delineate two distinct varieties of cosmopolitan settings. The first type represents capitals or major metropolitan areas (like port cities) in expansive empires, which use openness to facilitate expansion. This means that it has a ruling elite class (or occasionally, several classes) which is in fact a coherent group bound by shared training and a common set of values. More likely than not, it is one of the "basic" classes outlined above. Other classes might be rag-tag, but given their power, it is quite likely that the ruling class will be trying to organize them into a recognizable group, or at least several recognizable subclasses. In fact, an attempt to bring 'lone wolf' characters under the control of a class group to which they have been administratively assigned may constitute a major theme of a particular campaign. Alternatively, a character belonging to one distinct class (e.g. a sorcerer) may be pressured to submit to another (e.g. a wizard, which may involve opportunities to learn new spells, but also attempts at "erasure" of existing properties, like channeling wild magic surges (obviously uncontrollable by the powers that be), breath weapons (unnerving to the mundane populace), etc. The example of Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh models roughly this sort of cosmopolitan environment (the ruling class here was obviously a warrior one, with a typically martial approach to streamlining other classes).

Muslim warriors inspired Christian chivalry while living near Crusaders
in the Levant
A different type of cosmopolitanism obtains in shared frontier areas between powerful realms. Examples of such may include large urban trading emporia, or an extensive area of badlands, mountains or deserts featuring overland trade routes, bandit fortresses on mountaintops, and isolated oases preserving the remnants of ancient elites whose writ perhaps used to extend over much larger areas. Here, although diverse groups may enter into contact and even learn from one another, they still feel that they belong to distinct groups in their homeland, even if such groups do not heavily figure in the course of a particular campaign. Crusaders and ghazi represented distinct frontier forces on either side of the Christian-Muslim frontier, though over time, they came to resemble one another to some extent. Perhaps at a certain point they might come to resemble rival archetypes of a single ranger class, and the longer the frontier persists, the more indistinguishable from one another they become (as even rivalry fades into the background, since both groups feel more in common with one another than those enjoying the soft life in metropolitan areas in the cores of either civilization). Classes that form diasporas stretching across frontiers will also proliferate as political confrontations become more systemic. And unique classes or subclasses will hide beyond walls of oasis cities, offering their unique services to one side or another - for a price. Foreigners may also marry into a fossilized, diasporic, or frontier class, perhaps even turning away from their own people to join an elite on the other side.

Initially, when coming into contact with one another, functionally similar but culturally foreign classes may have important secondary features that divide them more than shared features unite them. Different groups of fighters may use different weaponry and armor. Casters may have unique, and not mutually comprehensible magical scripts, and perhaps even component types. If a character belonging to a combat class that allows its members a proficiency with heavy armor comes from a culture without such armor, its in-game acquisition may, at GM discretion, be accompanied by a process of cultural assimilation that aligns the character with foreign NPCs belonging to the same class. In some cases, it may make sense to design (or select) a wholly distinct class, however.

Conversely, when set in a non-generic fantasy culture, most classes are likely to have a tighter organization - legendary exemplars and founders, heraldry, training manuals, formal codes of conduct, etc. In extreme cases, different classes may constitute distinct castes that ought not come into direct contact with one another. That might call for a one-class campaign (in which the various characters represent different subclasses or archetypes, or belong to different races, to increase variety and the party skill range). Alternatively, some members of the higher classes may have to undergo special rituals during downtime to remove the "pollution" accumulated from long-term exposure to adherents of other classes.

Since non-generic settings and unique lands are rarely hermetically sealed, it may also make sense for the GM to outline foreign classes which may be present in such a setting. In the Lukomorye setting which I write about on this blog, there is no native tradition of literate high magic among the residents of Nor'. Yet wizards from wealthier and richer lands to the west and south do appear from time to time. They may be ambassadors, or in the employ of local princes (who have links to the fighter warrior elite). They will rarely interact with others of their class, but their activities are surrounded with class-specific accoutrements brought from home - star charts, kabbalistic diagrams, alchemical alembics, and so on. Similar provisions are made for paladins and monks, which also do not figure among the setting's main classes.

4) The higher a class is in a given social hierarchy, the more tightly it will be integrated, because with the highest power come the most stringent gate-keeping mechanisms. Formal training to advance levels requiring the expenditure of money and time will most likely apply to elite classes, while formal training for rogues would probably look silly in most circumstances. Ruling classes would also be more likely to have at least somewhat explicit rules of conduct and oaths or vows to uphold them. Failure to uphold these vows would likely result in concrete punishments that affected class powers and advancement. For instance, fighters who habitually flee from battle may be barred from training for higher levels, wizards that share secret knowledge may be barred from mysteries and initiation rituals, and members of any given class can be berated by superiors to such an extent that further advancement in that class becomes impossible - at least for a time. It may be that certain rituals, performed by higher-level members of the same class, are required to open access to a certain tier. This admission may allow not only the standard class powers like spell levels, but also social perks, such as the right to hold the office of bishop. In the Lukomorye setting, the priest class has a built-in hierarchy requiring the attainment of a particular level to hold such offices, but also to perform socially crucial rituals, most of which actually have a concrete mechanical impact on the game (for example, the ability to anathemize another straying priest or priestess, which strips them of power until they atone). Given this class' social prominence, there is also a built-in system that privileges them on Charisma checks - at least in environments where their leading role is recognized. Clearly, in non-generic settings, some classes will require at least a partial redesign to reflect their higher social power. But that is right and proper - settings and campaigns that stress social interaction more than those who tilt in a more default combat-heavy direction will be balanced (yes, balanced!) differently, and the most obvious way to rebalance is through adjusting class design.

For weaker classes, structure and identity will be much less evident. It is often argued that characters will use multiple designations to refer to themselves, and of these, the class name may appear as merely as one among many, or perhaps not at all. Thus, fighters may think of themselves as gladiators, guards, knights, or soldiers, rather than fighters. This may in fact be so, but it doesn't take away from the structural reality of class. Not only commoners, but full members of a given class may use different titles to refer to the same group (or even the same title to refer to different groups). But a sense of class belonging may be situational. Like the proverbial Ibo in Lagos, who becomes a Nigerian in London and an African in New York, a sense of solidarity with larger groups may develop in unfamiliar surroundings. A person may think of themselves as a member of a particular mercenary group back in their home town, a member of the Champion subclass in an imperial capital, and a fighter in a frontier region between multiple empires. Alternatively, in the company of spellcasters, two fighters would definitely think of one another as martial types, in opposition to the rest. In the company of rangers and paladins, they would quickly begin to emphasize the differences, and begin wondering why these others spend so much time in the woods, or in temples, rather than just honing their fighting prowess. And in the company of all fighters in the barracks, subclass differences would suddenly seem very important, as tactical commanders begin to complain about the show-off Champions who specialize in single combat. The initial lack of awareness of membership in a class early in life does not mean the class doesn't exist.

5) Class structures gain more weight as characters advance levels in a class. No matter how important to their self-understanding at the beginning of their career or adventuring life, mundane professions and regional origins will fade into the background, while class membership will loom ever larger. Characters will become famous for their exploits, and will attract others who would sit at their feet. Conceivably, successful characters could attract followers belonging to other classes, but given their skill-set, there is a limited amount they could teach them. Assuming they are in good standing, they will also receive offers to take up official positions or leadership roles within elite structures, because their fame now reflects well upon the group, and gives it greater legitimacy. On the other hand, success will attract rivals, perhaps those who have been passed over for special consideration, and now want to show up the winner of accolades as a fraud. Within tighter class groups with a secretive structure (e.g. because of official persecution) a limited number of top spots at top levels could require combat or other competition to advance to higher level. Such limitations existed for druids, monks and assassins in the 1st Edition rules. They may not work for everyone's setting, but it is hard to argue that as narrative elements they necessarily detract from a campaign: old-style characters spent a lot of time preparing for such ritual contests. It is also possible that certain powers, and spells, are only possessed by the highest-standing members of each given class, and finding them (to learn an 8th or 9th level spell) would constitute an important part of driving a high-level campaign forward. Offers to warlocks to displace one's patron, and to become a patron in their own right may constitute another class-driven plot device. The strain between fulfilling one's destiny (or saving the world) and taking up a position of power within one's society could be an interesting source of dramatic tension. Fear of being expelled from one's class for some real or purported transgression could be another.

If advancement implicates one ever more within class structures, what does that mean for multiclassing? The issue of multi-classed characters constitutes a key point of contention between those who downplay class structures, and those who emphasize them. If multiclassing is a birthright, and a character can always change class to any class upon gaining a level, classes certainly seem very fluid, and devoid of in-game substance. If, on the other hand, multiclassing is a customization option that is available "with the DM's permission" (PHB, p. 163), then the situation starts to look very different. I don't want to rehearse common arguments regarding the reasons for multiclassing. Most fans of multiclassing will insist that they do it for character-driven reasons because they like options, rather than for reasons of power optimization. Both surely have their place as explanations, though given the stigma against powergaming, the former will almost always be emphasized, including by powergamers themselves. But the key question is, to what degree does the insistence on multiclassing respect the narratives constructed by the GM? If class is regarded as a calling, the idea of multiple callings does present difficulties, as a calling is the driving element of a character's life. Some insist that a character should be a Renaissance genius, since we play the game for fantastic escape, and most of us do not measure up. But a quick glance at fantasy as literature reveals that heroes are rarely this type of person. There is no built-in assumption that most characters should be such.

In older versions of the game, there was a built-in narrative for multiclassing. Typically, the option was available to non-human characters who had very long lifespans, and ample opportunities to immerse themselves in various callings. A character began as a multiclass character, and advanced in all the chosen classes simultaneously. For humans, there was the option of dual-classing, but it was rarely taken, because the abilities associated with the old class were not fully available until the level attained in the new class exceed that attained in the old class. Thus, a prolonged period of training was modeled. In the 5e rules, the dual-class structure is adopted as the model for multiclassing, but all the powers of all the classes are immediately available to a switch-hitting character.

I am in principle open to multiclassing, provided that a character's backstory indicates such a propensity from the start. A nobleman from a society ruled by a martial elite may incline toward magical studies, but the foundation for combat training was probably laid into such a character at a young age. Similarly, a charlatan who was trained as an illusionist has plenty of reasons to consider switching to rogue at some point in her life. But simply picking up a level of another class for the purpose of "dipping" into an ability gained at low level does not strike me as justifiable, though a long period of downtime may make learning a new class possible. Even so, there is every reason to suppose that doing this will result in growing pressures from one's old class-mates. A fighter may have been marked for a leadership role, but now attracts suspicion from members of his order. A member of a class with very high social standing may meet with disapproval from "dipping" into a class with a lower social standing. A cleric picking up a level in rogue will turn heads, and a cleric picking up a level in warlock may risk expulsion (so she would do best to keep this new departure secret). A highly successful multi-class character may successfully break old molds, but they have to prove their success, and withstand social opprobrium. Subsequently, they may come to be regarded as demigods (or mythic founders of new archetypes); but the road to that happy end is a long and difficult one.

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Ultimately, every GM will decide for themselves whether their playing experience will benefit or suffer from connecting class to setting social structure. As for me, I have laid out my case, and my own conclusion is unequivocal: get your ass with the class!

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