Tag Archives: character classes

Paladins, Barbarians, and Other Classes Once Balanced by Rules of Behavior

Early in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s creators made classes that rewarded strict rules of behavior with extra power. For instance, a player taking the challenge of playing a chivalrous cavalier always fought fairly, but also gained a bonus to attack with sword and lance.

Arguably, cleric stands as the first class limited by rules of behavior. Some holy men in history attempted to straddle the gulf between peaceful servant of god and spilling the blood of enemies by opting to bash their foes’ skulls while claiming not to spill blood. Based on that lore, original D&D required clerics to choose not to wield edged weapons or arrows. Back then, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, so this limit only counted as a disadvantage because the treasure tables made magic swords 20 times more common than non-edged weapons.

Former Wizards of the Coast head Peter Adkison shepherded D&D’s third edition design. He wanted to purge “restrictions that did a good job of reinforcing play balance but still didn’t make sense.” Why would a cleric devoted to Apollo the Archer refuse a bow? For third edition, D&D’s designers replaced the rule that prevented clerics from using swords with a proficiency system that made swords a poor option. Modern D&D follows the same pattern, but it still includes a class that requires characters who choose to limit themselves. More on that at the end.

With D&D’s first Greyhawk supplement, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax started adding classes that clearly balanced extra power with limitations that required certain behavior. Paladins started as a version of fighter who always acted lawfully. (D&D lacked good and evil alignments then.) “Any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.” The paladin’s generosity required the class to give away inessential magic items and other loot. “Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game.”

The first editor of The Dragon, Tim Kask, wrote, “It was so rigid a PC class; that smacks of Gary’s fiendish wit. Make a character truly extraordinary and make it really tough to play in terms of always having to do the ‘right’ thing, ALWAYS.”

By the Unearthed Arcana book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, many classes offset power with a roleplaying catch. “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items.”

Gygax knew this created a recipe for party conflict and embraced it. “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at newly discovered magic items and rid the world of their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it, then…” When a monster turned Gygax’s barbarian to stone, it ended the character’s career. “No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in having the poor chap returned to life.”

In most games, players saw such restrictions as problems to solve with ingenuity. Part of the paladin’s reputation for lawful stupid comes from all the do-gooders conned into leaving the room when the thief wanted to question or kill prisoners. And how many barbarian players opted for characters just stupid enough to fail to realize that their +2 sword and cloak of protection happened to be magical? Sample dialog: “Tan-kor, you should wear this cloak we found because it, um, matches your eyes.”

Second edition introduced class kits that made characters more distinctive and powerful, often in exchange for behavior restrictions. For instance, the bladesinger from the Complete Book of Elves ranked as one of the most powerful kits. The catch: Having to protect elves whenever the opportunity comes. Players got a boost for simply committing to bite on a certain sort of adventure hook. A more onerous code weighed cavaliers, who always had to fight fairly and chivalrously. So if a cavalier’s foe slips off a cliff and hangs by the edge, the cavalier must help the foe up before resuming the fight.

Such restrictions only worked in campaigns where every player valued roleplaying. In a mix of actors and power gamers, behavior limits cause friction—even when the code doesn’t require destroying magic items. Players who value immersing into character grow annoyed by the players who just look for loopholes in codes of conduct. Dungeon masters dislike the role of mandating or penalizing behavior that ignores the hindrances built into a character kit.

By third edition, the D&D team mostly dropped roleplaying limits from the class-design toolbox.

Still, one code of conduct remains in the modern druid class. The fifth edition Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Druids don’t lack the ability to wear metal armor. They choose not to wear it. This choice is part of their identity as a mystical order. Think of it in these terms: a vegetarian can eat meat, but chooses not to.” This restriction brings enough teeth for class balance while proving clear enough to defy most players seeking loopholes.

Related: 4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

The classes in today’s Dungeons & Dragons game are balanced to make sure that when players leave a session, everyone feels like their character contributed to the party’s success. No player should ever see their character routinely upstaged and wonder, “Why am I even here?” In a list of goals for fifth edition, designer Mike Mearls wrote, “All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels.”

The game’s designers didn’t always aim for this target, and when they did the methods often failed. What methods of class balance have the game’s designers abandoned?

1. Ineffective in one pillar, strong in another

The D&D game focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. The original thieves lacked any combat assets—not even backstabbing—but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusable abilities. They shined in the exploration pillar, and floundered in combat.

In an interview for Drache issue 3, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax explained, “D&D’s team aspect is important. In a D&D game, each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

Some of that spirit remains, Mearls writes, “We’re OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects.”

But the game no longer allows classes that prove ineffective in a pillar. “If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn’t account for that, the system falls apart,” Mearls wrote. Over the years, the thief class added a backstab feature, which became sneak attack and a suite of combat abilities.

See The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

2. Weak at low levels, mighty at high levels

In D&D’s early days, Gygax saw characters who survived to high level as proof of a player’s skills. By this notion, players able to raise a weak character to the top deserved rewards. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon magazine, echoed this perspective when he wrote, “Anyone that gets an Illusionist [to high level] deserves whatever they can achieve.”

No class showed this attitude more than the magic user. Originally, magic users started with the no armor, the lowest hit points, feeble attacks, and just one magic missile or sleep spell. But while a high-level fighter just added more hit points and a higher attack bonus, wizards gained power in 3 ways: They gained more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. Their power grew to overshadow the other classes.

“Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level,” wrote third-edition designer Jonathan Tweet. “But we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.)”

The current edition starts to get the formula right. Mearls explained his goal for fifth edition. “Attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.”

See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.

3. Higher-powered classes require more experience points

Before third edition, every D&D class had a different table of experience points required to level. As far as I know, Gygax never explained this quirk. No one asked because everyone just assumed the higher-powered classes demanded more experience points to level. The charts hint at some of this: The mighty paladin requires more experience than the weaker rogue. But for the original classes of fighter, cleric, and wizard the differences seem quirky rather than systematic. “The system sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.” Until double-digit levels, the XP requirements for a magic user never left the wizard more than a level or two behind the other classes.

4. Classes with level maximums

Originally, Gary Gygax gave little thought to high-level characters. Kask recalled, “We figured the odds of even getting to level 9 or 10 were so high that it wouldn’t pose a problem. This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest-level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was a 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave Arneson’s.”

After D&D’s release, TSR co-owner Brian Blume lobbied to include the monk class in the game’s upcoming Blackmoor supplement. Kask wrote, “Brian rationalized the nearly super abilities of the monk’s high levels with the argument that nobody, or damned few, would ever get that high. (This illustrates a certain naivete that all of us shared back then. We had no idea people would play almost daily and rack up XP’s at a truly unimagined rate.)”

Gygax published a class that imposed harsh limits to high-level monks. For monks “there is only one man at each level above 6th.” So to rise above 6th level, a monk character had to find the one monk of that level and win a fair fight. “There will always be a higher level to fight, even if there is no player character in the role.” The class topped out at 16th level.

A year after Blackmoor, gamers had completely disproved the theory that few characters would rise to high level. So Gygax returned to the monk class’s scheme for limiting the new Druid class in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Kask explained, “Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat—and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one’s own to deal with!”

In practice such limits only steered players away from choosing the classes they wanted to play, or blocked characters from advancing with their peers in a high-level party.

Next: Number 5.

How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind)

The massive damage inflicted by characters built on the Sharpshooter feat can overshadow other characters and make potentially interesting encounters resemble an execution by firing squad. See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition.

Sharpshooter lets characters exchange -5 to hit for +10 damage. Many players combine it with Crossbow Expert, which lets a character wielding a hand crossbow trade a bonus action for an extra attack.

This post reveals how to build on Sharpshooter to create characters able to deal the most damage. Before you play these characters, consider whether they fit your gaming group.

If your group likes pitting optimized characters against a dungeon master who thinks a Remorhaz makes a suitable first-level foe, these builds fit.

If you want to show off your min-maxing skills, skip the sharpshooter. Such easy builds may fail to impress.

Optimal sharpshooters shoot hand crossbows rapid-fire. Does the flavor of your campaign fit a character firing a toy crossbow with the manic speed of a Benny Hill clip? I suppose some players fancy a character who resembles a genre-bending gunslinger, but I suspect the build’s massive damage draws more players than its flavor. (In second edition, the highest damage came from muscle-bound characters throwing darts. No one played that for flavor either.)

In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting your sharpshooter showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a beast and soaking damage, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.

Before playing an optimized Sharpshooter, ask your group.

Building a sharpshooter

The Sharpshooter feat is powerful because it makes each attack deal excessive damage in exchange for a manageable penalty on to-hit rolls. To make the most of Sharpshooter, create a character who (1) makes lots of attacks and (2) minimizes the penalty to hit.

Without feats or off-hand attacks, a rogue only gets one attack per turn. And with one sneak attack per turn, rogues want to be sure to hit. Taking a -5 to-hit penalty adds to the risk of losing a sneak attack. A ranged rogue can often reduce the risk by attacking from hiding to gain advantage, but Sharpshooter only makes a decent feat for a rogue, not a strong one.

Ranger and fighter make the best classes for sharpshooters. Both classes gain extra attacks through their careers, and both offer the Archery fighting style, which grants +2 to hit with ranged attacks.

Choosing a race

Most players interested in playing a sharpshooter opt for a human character. Humans can take Sharpshooter at level 1, and then Crossbow Expert at 4. Bring on the Remorhaz!

Still, levels 1-3 go fast, so an aspiring sharpshooter can choose another race without playing too long with a merely balanced character. An elf can more easily reach a 20 Dexterity while taking Sharpshooter at level 4, and then Elven Accuracy at level 8. When you have advantage on a Dexterity attack, Elven Accuracy lets you re-roll one of the dice. For most characters, this makes a weak benefit, but a fighter who chooses the Samurai archetype usually attacks with advantage. Oddly Elven sharpshooter Samurai make good characters. (But please invent an interesting backstory.)

For a crossbow-wielding sharpshooter, choose a human. At level 1, take Crossbow Master. At level 4, take Sharpshooter. (The fast advance to level 4 means a short wait for both feats.) At levels 8 and 12, increase your Dexterity.

For a longbow-wielding sharpshooter, choose a human or, for a samurai, an elf. Take Sharpshooter for your first feat, and then focus on increasing Dexterity to 20.

Building a fighter sharpshooter

Fighters can combine the Archery fighting style with more extra attacks than any other class. Action Surge lets fighters unload an extra round of attacks. Such bursts let sharpshooter-fighters kill legendary monsters in a turn, and lead the rest of the party to wonder why they showed up.

Conventional wisdom suggests that ranged attackers typically suffer weak defenses, but not fighters. Ranged fighters skip shields, but they have all the hit points and armor proficiency of a front-line fighter. Plus a crossbow expert proves deadlier in melee than a great weapon master.

The Battle Master and Samurai archetypes combine particularly well with Sharpshooter.

Battle masters gain four or more Superiority Dice that they can spend on combat maneuvers. The battle master’s Precision Attack maneuver helps make your sharpshooter attacks hit despite any penalties. “When you make a weapon attack roll against a creature, you can expend one superiority die to add it to the roll.”

Samurai gain 3 or more uses of Fighting Spirit. “As a bonus action on your turn, you can give yourself advantage on weapon attack rolls until the end of the current turn.”

Advantage from Fighting Spirit helps your Sharpshooter attacks hit despite any penalties. However, the feature takes a bonus action, which makes it a bad match for a crossbow expert. If your self respect prevents you from using a toy crossbow, play a Samurai.

For a longbow-wielding fighter, choose a human or elf. Choose the Samurai archetype. Take Sharpshooter for your first feat, and then focus on increasing Dexterity to 20. Elven characters can then opt for Elven Accuracy.

At level 15, the Rapid Strike feature often lets Samurai take as many attacks as a crossbow expert. “If you take the Attack action on your turn and have advantage on an attack roll against one of the targets, you can forgo the advantage for that roll to make an additional weapon attack against that target, as part of the same action.”

Building a ranger sharpshooter

Rangers can combine the Archery fighting style with an extra attack at level 5 and more attacks at higher levels.

For example, at level 11, rangers with the Hunter archetype use the Volley feature to launch attacks against every target in a 10-foot radius.

The best ranger sharpshooters choose the Gloom Stalker archetype. These rangers gain an extra attack on the first turn of combat, and also add an extra 1d8 to that attack’s damage. By level 5, a human with a hand crossbow can start every fight with 4 sharpshooter attacks. With a just a little luck, that amounts to 80-some points of damage. How many foes will live to the second round? Gloom stalkers can also add their wisdom to their initiative, so ask, “How many foes will live to their turn?”

At 11th level, the Stalker’s Flurry feature minimizes the chance of missing despite any penalty from Sharpshooter. “Once on each of your turns when you miss with a weapon attack, you can make another weapon attack as part of the same action.”

Related:
How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter
How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat

10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

In Dungeons & Dragons, rolling handfuls of damage dice feels like a good way to shine among party members, but know this secret: Other players usually overlook the damage you do. If you really want to shine, find ways to make other characters better. Make them hit on a roll that would have missed. Make them save when they would have burned. Make them happy you brought your paladin.

This post lists 10 ways to build and play characters that will earn the love of your party.

10. Build a cleric and prepare bless and aid

Between short rests and a choice of classes able to heal, D&D groups no longer require a cleric for healing. Clerics now can prepare some spells so useful that no one will gripe about the spell slots you should have hoarded for cures.

Bless lets up to 3 targets add an extra d4 roll to their attack rolls and saving throws. Unlike most 1st-level spells, which pale at higher levels, bless remains strong all the way up to a level-20 showdown with Orcus.

Players have enough trouble remembering their characters own abilities, so they sometimes forget even a buff as useful as bless. When you bless characters, loan their players a super-sparkly d4 to set beside their d20 and act as a reminder of who helped them shine.

Aid increases current and maximum hit points of up to 3 allies for 8 hours. This spell rates as one of the best to cast with a higher-level spell slot. Cast it once on your front line, or twice to give everyone in your party a boost.

Clerics and druids can also help friends with the guidance cantrip, the best utility cantrip in the game.

9. Build a wizard or sorcerer and a prepare haste

Fireball ranks as the 3rd-level spell strong enough to shape D&D’s power curve, but haste boasts nearly as much power. Against smaller groups of foes or spread out targets, haste works better. Just cast haste on the party’s most damaging attacker, typically the sharpshooter or great weapon master. They will relish the extra attack, and thank you every turn.

8. Build a barbarian who follows the Path of the Ancestral Guardian

Some support features work as reactions, making you watch the battle for chances to use the ability. Instead of waiting between turns with no chance to act, you stay involved in the fray. Such abilities bring you deeper in the game while earning the love of your party.

Barbarians who follow the Path of the Ancestral Guardian gain a feature like this. At 6th level Spirit Shield lets you use your reaction to reduce the damage that your allies suffer. Who needs a cleric when no one takes damage?

7. Build a fighter with the Battle Master archetype

Fighters with the Battle Master archetype can learn a couple of maneuvers that help allies.

Distracting strike lets you give an ally advantage on the next attack on a foe. I suggest putting an attention-grabbing marker on the enemy’s figure, so your friends remember to take their advantage.

Rally lets you grant temporary hit points to a friend in need.

6. Build a wizard in the School of Abjuration

At 6th-level, Abjurers gain the Projected Ward feature that lets you use your reaction to prevent damage to your friends. That’s immediate healing, and another ability that keeps you involved outside your turns.

5. Build a bard in the College of Glamour

The Bardic Inspiration feature lets every bard give friends a die that they can add to their choice of one d20 roll during the next 10 minutes. Set real, shiny dice next to the inspired players’ d20s, so they remember the boost—and remember who enables their success.

Bards in the College of Glamour can spend just one use of Bardic Inspiration to help a number of allies up to their Charisma modifier. Everyone inspired gains temporary hit points and can spend a reaction to move their speed without provoking opportunity attacks. In a tight spot, a bonus action plus Bardic Inspiration could make you the party MVP.

4. Build a wizard in the School of Divination

The diviner’s Portent feature rates as underrated. After a long rest, you roll 2 or 3 d20s and record the result. Then, when any creature you see is about to make a d20 roll, you can substitute one of your portent rolls. By tagging a foe with a bad roll, you can guarantee that save-or-die roll just means die. More to the point of this list, you can guarantee that a friend saves, lands their killing blow, or makes that vital check.

3. Build a rogue with the Mastermind archetype

Rogues who choose the Mastermind archetype can use the help action as a bonus action. Plus, they can help allies attack foes up to 30 feet away, adding combat advantage to attacks, both melee and ranged.

2. Build a barbarian following the Path of the Totem Warrior and choose a wolf totem spirit

As a wolf totem spirit warrior, while you’re raging, your friends have advantage on melee attack rolls against any creature within 5 feet of you. Unlike advantage-granting features from the Mastermind and Battle Master, this ability helps all your melee friends rather than just one.

1. Build a paladin

At 6th level, paladins gain an Aura of Protection that extends to every ally within 10 feet. Those allies gain a bonus to saving throws equal to the paladin’s charisma bonus. For most 6th-level paladins, the bonus starts at +4 and will rise to +5—roughly equivalent to advantage on every save.

Too few people play paladins, so when a level-6-or-higher paladin shows up with an aura, everyone gets a shocking reminder of how good paladins are. Adventure author Eric Menge writes, “That aura is the bane of my DM existence in my home game. No one fails saves.” I hear you, brother. Players under the aura shed magical attacks like Superman sheds bullets.

At 7th level, the paladin’s aura gains an extra measure of protection. As a player, I love the Aura of Warding, which grants you and friendly creatures resistance to spell damage. As a dungeon master, I tell everyone not to play boring, dumb paladins.

The paladin’s aura earns enough love to vault the class to the top of this list, but the class also brings enough healing to cure a fallen ally. Plus paladins gain the bless and aid spells listed in item 10.

Also, the Divine Smite ability lets you roll fistfuls of damage dice. I hear that can be fun too.

The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Of the 4 iconic classes in Dungeons & Dragons, only 3 appeared in the game’s original rules.

Just a few months after D&D’s initial release, in the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer. “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary [Switzer] gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See The Thief Addition (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

Thieves brought abilities that could shine in exploration and treasure collection. Too bad low-level thieves suffered from miserable chances of success. The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

Near level 10, a thief’s abilities improved enough to finally work reliably. Too bad wizards and clerics could now cast spells like Detect Traps, Invisibility, Levitate, and Fly. Most anything the thief did, a spell did better.

Thieves could “strike silently from behind” for +4 to hit and extra damage, but the game lacked rules for maneuvering to strike, so the stunt relied on a dungeon master’s favor.

The original thief lacked a dexterity bonus to armor class. Thieves suffered from the same 1d4 hit dice as wizards. Sneaking in for a backstab proved riskier for thieves than for their targets. Gary explained, “This class is different from any of the others. Thieves are generally not meant to fight.”

D&D players like characters handy in combat, so the thief should have proven as popular as the Sage, but players found the class so compelling that Thief took a place with the Magic User, Fighter, and Cleric. Even in the 70s, many players shied from running clerics, but someone always brought a thief.

The thief class offered 4 advantages that let it thrive.

1. An early monopoly on skills

The thief boasted the only abilities resembling skills. When thieves gained the ability to climb walls or find traps, fighting men, clerics, and magic users implicitly—or sometimes by rule—lost the ability to try similar feats.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. Low-level thieves may have sucked, but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusabable abilities.

2. A compelling archetype

Adventure fiction features many heroes that thieves or rogues. Gary Switzer and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from fantasy icons such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Fritz Leiber’s The Gray Mouser, and Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever.

We all sometimes feel bound by the restrictions of everyday life. Roguish characters let us escape that feeling and savor some vicarious disdain for society’s rules.

Players loved the Thief class, but many complained that the concept fostered conflict between players because the class title encouraged theft. Players stole from other party members and dragged parties into fights with the town guard. So D&D’s designers backed away from the class’s emphasis on stealing. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins. Second edition made the thief a type of Rogue in name and spirit. The new Player’s Handbook touted the rogue’s heroic archetypes. “Many famous folk heroes have been more than a little larcenous—Reynard the Fox, Robin Goodfellow, and Ali Baba are but a few.”

3. A reason for a solo spotlight

Even in the 90s, D&D rule books told players to elect a caller to speak for the party. Outside of Lake Geneva, D&D parties rarely assigned callers, but most tables settle on a leader who dominates attention. Until a fight comes, other players get less time in the spotlight. But rogues could often sneak and scout and play solo while other classes waited for a turn. Players like going rogue.

4. Fast leveling with no demi-human caps

Unlike classes in modern D&D, the original classes advanced at different rates. Thieves required less experience than anyone else, so they often rose a couple of levels above their party.

Few players chose a class based on the experience needed to level, but everyone who considered an elf or dwarf weighed the demi-human level limits. The original D&D rules stopped non-human characters from rising beyond certain levels, making the most powerful characters human. However, non-human thieves suffered no level-limits.

Gary introduced these level limits to explain human domination of D&D’s fantasy world. “A demi-human is unlimited in thief level only,” Gary explained, “as this is a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.” Also, the limits created a game that featured as many human characters as the fantasy fiction that D&D emulated.

Transforming the rogue

Third-edition fully renamed the thief class to the rogue. This name change matched a broader concept that embraced sneaky backstabbers and dashing swashbucklers. Rogues gained the ability to choose their skills. They could favor charm or acrobatics over theft. The new skill system finally gave low-level rogues a decent chance of success.

The transformation also made rogues a battlefield threat. When Backstab became Sneak Attack, thieves could easily maneuver for their special attack, and they could repeat it.

The rebirth of the thief as a rogue fits the archetype better than a character not meant to fight. Leiber described the Gray Mouser as one of the best swordsmen in the world. Robin Hood ranks as an expert archer. Gary Gygax said Robin’s climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) influenced on D&D’s combat system.

In fourth edition, every class needed a way to contribute to the game’s two main activities: combat encounters and skill challenges. By design, every character, and so every class, needed to contribute to skill challenges. That ended the old order of rogues who brought useful skills to exploration but nothing to a fight. For challenges, every class needed skills. On the battlefield, rogues needed to kick as much ass as anyone else.

But rogues did more than hold their end. Strikers came to dominate fourth-edition combat. See Which two D&D roles are too effective. When the designers put rogues in the striker category, the characters came to kick more ass than fighters, wizards, and clerics.

Fourth edition completely inverted the thief’s original role. A class that could barely fight now dominated the battlefield. A class that monopolized the closest thing original D&D had to a skill system was now limited to equal turns in skill challenges.

Fifth edition dials back the class’s combat dominance, but the new game leaves the rogue in a good spot. A d8 hit die and a dexterity bonus to armor class makes rogues stouter than the original thief. New class features let rogues excel at skill checks. Sneak attack still deals ample damage. The latest rogue fits the archetype better than Gary’s original ever did. You can even choose a Thief archetype. For my next character, I think I will.

D&D Adds Psionics: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

While editing the third Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, Tim Kask developed D&D’s first rules for psionics. He loved psionic combat and threw his enthusiasm into the task.

His rules answered D&D’s biggest critics. First, they stood separate from unrealistic notions of class and level. Second, they adopted a point system similar to the spell points touted by critics of Vancian casting.

Kask balanced and tested psionics to perfection. But when Eldrich Wizardry and its new psionics rules reached fans, some liked the topic, but few liked the rules.

Few players cared to learn the intricacies of psionic combat with all its tables and charts. Some players liked adding the extra powers onto their characters, but hardly any DMs allowed psionic characters in their game. The new rules mostly ignored D&D’s system of class and levels. They unbalanced play.

Tim Kask balanced psionics for a setting where intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. He loved psionics and imagined a game-world that fostered mental duels against psychic creatures.

In practice, nobody played D&D Tim’s way.

Psionics suffered from more than imbalance. Psionics grafted an complicated new game onto D&D. Virtually nothing in the new rules resembled rules already in D&D. By creating rules that answered D&D’s critics, Kask created rules that failed to match the rest of the game.

Role-playing games without character classes and with spell points can work brilliantly in a game like Runequest (1978), but the incompatible rules fared badly in D&D.

Perhaps the failure of psionics taught Gary Gygax some things.

In the July 1978 issue of The Dragon, Gygax would defend D&D’s character classes from critics. “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character. Not only would this destroy the variety of the game, but it would also kill the game, for the super-character would soon have nothing left to challenge him or her, and the players would grow bored and move on to something which was fun.”

Gygax also defended Vancian casting against point-based systems. “Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.”

Now, game designer see value in keeping game rules concise and applying a simple rules broadly. Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls wrote, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.” But in 1975, folks were still figuring out RPG design. So designers like Kask felt free to graft a psionics game onto D&D. Whenever Kask talks psionics now, he explains that he would design them differently.

Even as Eldrich Wizardry went to press, I suspect Gygax understood some points he would argue later. So why did Gygax open D&D to a psionics system that ignored classes and that used points? Because during the development of Eldrich Wizardry, Gygax still held to his a long habit of collaboration. If a collaborator like Tim Kask felt passion for some addition to the game, Gygax opened the way. Many of these “official” rules never entered Gary’s Greyhawk game. Still, he welcomed other dungeon masters to pick and choose, to shape their own games. (Over time, Gygax would become more protective of D&D’s rules. For much more on his evolving attitudes, see Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions.)

Psionics became unpopular because it added 70s parapsychology and an entirely different sub-game onto D&D. The concept only lasted because the notion of psychic powers resonated with players.

In the years to come, designers found ways to make psionics at home in D&D. They would integrate psychic powers into settings like Dark Sun, and they would express psionics using D&D’s core rules. For example, when David “Zeb” Cook updated psionics for 2nd edition, he created a mental version of THAC0. Potential psionic rules for 5th edition use character classes and even revive the name of Steve Marsh’s Mystic class.

Gary Gygax experimented with psionic characters to offer players a defense against the terrible power of mind flayers. Eventually, his original justification for psionics moved from the real world into the game world. In 4th edition lore, psionics manifested in the prime material plane to help its inhabitants battle intruders from the Far Realm—intruders like mind flayers.