Designing Interesting Classes (or, Why Nobody Plays a Samurai)

As I look at races, classes, prestige classes, and other things (but mostly classes, since they’re the biggest deal) for Underpowered, I’ve found myself wondering more and more why I think these options need help. It’s true that I don’t think they’re very good mechanically, but there are a lot of options in D&D where I don’t like the mechanics and don’t see a need to retool them (Hello, 4E bard! What fun we could have had together!). To get some perspective on this (and to fill time while I rewrite the half of the article I lost on the healer class from the Miniatures Handbook), I started looking at the classes that I thought were fine, figuring there was something there I could extrapolate.

Well, it turned out that was easy. The classes that were fine were the ones that people played. After all, there’s a reason people play some classes and not others. But what have I seen people play?

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not counting any times I saw the character in one-shots, PvP sessions, or Delve Night, unless the player made a conscious decision to play that character consistently. In short I’m only counting ongoing characters, not see-how-it-works trial runs. I also need to point out that this evidence is purely anecdotal rather than an analysis of every D&D character ever played, but I work with what I have.

Here are the classes I’ve never seen in 3.5E:

  • Dragonfire adept
  • Factotum
  • Healer
  • Marshal
  • Ninja
  • Paladin (I know, right?)
  • Samurai
  • Spellthief
  • Spirit shaman
  • Swashbuckler
  • Warlock
  • Wu jen

Here are the classes I’ve never seen in 4E:

  • Ardent
  • Assassin
  • Runepriest (though I’ve seen a hybrid)
  • Warlord (though I’ve seen a hybrid)

It’s a little telling that of those four, the only one that isn’t a healer came out during Essentials. This says to me that either people really like the other three healing classes or really hate these three.

But here’s the kicker: 3.5 only has a few more classes than 4E. 3.5 had the core 11, 3 each in the first four Complete Whatever books, 2 each in the Miniatures Handbook and Heroes of Horror, and 1 each in Dungeonscape and Dragon Magic, a total of 29. 4E had 8 each in the first two Player’s Handbooks, 6 in Player’s Handbook 3, 2 in Heroes of Shadow, and 1 each in the Eberron Player’s Guide and Neverwinter Campaign Setting, a total of 26.

I’ve been playing 4E for four years now, and I’ve been playing 3.5E for more than ten. I’ve had a much longer period to see 3.5E characters than 4E characters. So why is it that I’ve seen 85% of the classes 4E has to offer, but only 59% of 3.5E’s?

From the standpoint of how the classes are built I think there are a few possibilities. It’s possible that base classes in 3.5E were just that: bases. The real meat of a character is the choices made later, like feats, spells, items, and so on. For many characters, their prestige class was what really made them special and the base class was just a way to get there; Complete Warrior alone had more prestige classes than 3.5E as a whole had base classes. There’s a reason my decision to play a single-class fighter in a recent campaign was something of a coup. In this respect, 3.5E provided so many options that no two characters looked the same even if they had similar starting points, because what they did was so much more important than how they started.

It’s also possible that these classes are just so bad that nobody wants to play them. Why would somebody play a spirit shaman when a druid can cast the same spells and get wild shape? Why would somebody play a runepriest when a hybrid cleric/fighter has more healing and more defense? With this assumption, 4E’s tight hold on power balance affords a much higher likelihood that any given class will be fun to play without breaking the game wide open.

But I think both of these just look at part of the picture. A lot of players are trying for a prestige class or looking for a class that isn’t weak, but these are both means to the same end. A player picks a class because they think they’ll have fun with it.

Looking at the list above, I can see why these classes generally weren’t popular. Three of them are strongly Eastern (ninja, samurai, wu jen), which doesn’t fit with a lot of fantasy archetypes, and people sign up for D&D because it’s high fantasy; it helps that they’re just retooled versions of core classes with less long-term support. The spellthief’s usefulness is highly reliant on the DM’s favor. The paladin has a hard alignment restriction that limits the characters who can play it. The spirit shaman is based on an obscure creature type. The swashbuckler’s high concept is better satisfied by a rogue or ranger. The warlock…okay, I’m stumped here. The warlock is awesome. The other four classes aren’t helped by being from obscure books, but are still strongly and unbreakably dragon-based (dragonfire adept), reliant on a player’s strong rules knowledge (factotum), incapable of most participation in combat (healer), or built around making other people look better (marshal). For most of these classes, there’s a pretty good reason why a player would look at them and decide, quite simply, that they weren’t fun to play.

It’s not possible to explain in a single blog post what players want to play. Large companies have entire departments devoted to learning the ways that people have fun, and they still can’t always get it right (Hi, Square Enix!). Some people like classes because they’re better mechanically, some because they fit a pre-existing concept the player wants, some because they work with the system in neat ways, and some even because the art was awesome and got them interested. I think that to be interesting and thus playable, a class has to fit at least one of these requirements, and the more the better.

As an example, take the 3.5E samurai. It’s not as good mechanically as a straight fighter. It does have a unique high concept, scary Eastern fighting guy, but one that doesn’t fit with D&D’s core storyline. It does have an interesting mechanic, but one that doesn’t actually work as expected. And the iconic samurai, a dwarf, doesn’t know how to hold a katana. It fails on all counts. (For homework, open the same book as the samurai, Complete Warrior, and explain why the dark hunter prestige class also fails all four requirements).

Now let’s take the redesigned samurai. It’s roughly on par with the fighter, or at least with other non-magic classes. Its high concept is still restricted to something not like D&D, but it’s expanded to allow for other interpretations and allow players to file off the serial numbers. Its interesting mechanic actually works beyond the small window of the original design. The art…okay, the art’s still bad. But three out of four is a lot better than zero, and my stick figures wouldn’t improve anything.

Of course this extends to things that aren’t classes. The bullywug was underpowered, it had no interesting mechanics, and its art would have been improved if they’d used screenshots from Bucky O’Hare; all it had going for it was a concept that the player-ready version opted to ignore. The redesigned one has a mechanic no other race has (or even approximates), its concept is front and center, and its power is back up to the level of other races.

In general, though, a race should be a fairly small part of a character, while a class or prestige class is part of the three-word description you use to explain the character to somebody else. It colors your decisions, informs your build, and at least partially determines your party role. Having an interesting class is worlds more important than having an interesting race.

It’s with this mindset that I’m looking through books, trying to figure out what it and isn’t a candidate for Underpowered. There are a lot of things that nobody’s playing, and sometimes it’s hard to determine why. There are plenty of perfectly fine options that through happenstance haven’t made it to my table (seriously, the paladin). The question is figuring out what’s good but unlucky, what needs a small tweak, and what needs a total overhaul.

If you have any ideas, feel free to drop me a line.

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2 Responses to Designing Interesting Classes (or, Why Nobody Plays a Samurai)

  1. pouncing panda says:

    I’m amazed that you saw a Hexblade but not a paladin or warlock!

    Could the complexity of a class be a factor? My eyes glazed when I looked at the spellthief (also the Crusader from Book of 9 Swords). Even if I’d figured it out, I’d have spent ages explaining it to everybody ELSE and annoying the DM – in an RPG, complexity needs to be socialised.

    There’s also the niche issue. Both the spellthief and the hexblade seemed better suited to prestige classes because they’re such specific, strange concepts. The spellthief would seem specific to a high-magic campaign setting, the Hexblade to a gothic setting. By contrast, the swashbuckler is an archetype that everybody at the table should be able to identify with.

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