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The Art of the Small—Analyzing the “Crunch” for the “Fluff” 3a

Written by LanJemWezz - Published on July 15, 2011

Once more into the brink, fellow gamers!

Join me in a series that takes a 20 on a Spot Check examining details within the D&D game that provide role-playing cues. This time we take a stab at class specifics, whereas last time it was character race; thus we’ll be bouncing back and forth. Are you game? Excellent, let’s begin!

Part the Third: “How do you say ‘classic portrayal’?”

Choosing a class in D&D is arguably the most important decision a player faces during character creation (save perhaps race). What isn’t argued however, is how important the portrayal of what it really means to be a member of that class. Besides a simple set of numbers, abilities, and flavor text, many classes are rooted to the way they interact in the world by virtue of their social status. To get an understanding of this, let us consider the name for these classes and how these monikers relate to the game world.  Lets look at their context.

“If you can’t beat ‘em…try slashing or piercing ‘em!”

What do you think of when you hear the word barbarian? A handsome, long-haired, bear-chested behemoth wielding a greatsword? A crooked-eyed Neanderthal with a snaggletooth and a bone through his nose? Either of these may be correct; neither may be correct. Outward appearance aside, barbarians are untamed outsiders, fierce independents, and bred hard by the conditions they inherit. Few would purposefully choose to become a barbarian, moving from comfort to discomfort. The barbarian doesn’t see it that way; he lives in the manner of his people have because their methods prove effective.  Even with weaknesses such as illiteracy. Illustrations (chalk art, dyed skins, sewing/weaving, etc.) and storytelling (fireside chats and oral retellings) replace text. The barbarian’s unsurpassed hit die demands he live a life free from too many conveniences. This doesn’t mean the barbarian thinks life is difficult, merely that he is comfortable living without luxury, or that the way in which he lives is a luxury overlooked by everyone save druids—the more natural the better. In 3e, we might say the barbarian’s sensitivity to differences between the natural and unnatural worlds is manifests in his trap sense. As for the word itself, “barbarian” should be part of the in-world lexicon, but this isn’t the way most of them would think of themselves, or even how many of them could be described. More appropriately, barbarians share the role of “hunter” with the ranger, are usually the biggest or fiercest “frontiersmen” or “naturalists,” could be the local “gladiator,” “prize” or “cage fighter,” or the king’s “high champion” or the chief’s “brave” or “bloodguard.”

Fighters are one of the mainstays of D&D.  In fact there’s never been an edition published without them. All the same, you probably wouldn’t call out, “Hey, fighter!” When you examine the fighter, it’s one of those classes that isn’t defined by anything other than what you put in. The fighter isn’t an archetype or profession that one would easily recognize. Fighters are better known in-world as “soldiers,” “mercenaries” (or “darkblades,” if you want more of a Realms-inspired feel), “boldblades” (again Realms-flavor, and more generally used to signify adventurers), “armsmen” (coupled with ranks become “captains-at-arms,” sergeants-at-arms,” etc.), or “weapons masters.” The class’s name is more a catchall term for what the class is good at, not what social status it may hold.  Because of this, there’s freedom to embellish the implied background in every fighter’s path.

Paladin. Historically, the term derives from one of twelve legendary peers that were said to wait in attendance on Charlemagne. More commonly, the name refers to any knightly or heroic champion. While seemingly an off-shoot of the fighter, paladins are a more demanding breed, requiring conformity to certain strictures on alignment and behavior, a responsibility to root out evil, as well as a greater demand for competence in ability scores across the board. Paladins thus exist in the game world both as a class choice and a hard and fast profession/archetype, although they would probably refer to it as a “calling.”  Paladins often form orders (based on political or religious lines), display heraldry or specific colors, and champion causes (fighting for the sick, the needy, the powerless, or even the opposite) that affix their social status. Paladins are notably rare because of this, and logically so. To label a paladin anything less than a paladin is to ignore their alloted place. Whereas the paladin and fighter are cut from the same martial cloth, they occupy opposite ends of the social spectrum: while the fighter is beholden to no one, the paladin is, at first anyway, expected to be beholden to almost anyone she meets.

The pattern here is to recognize whether or not the class in question exists as an umbrella term for a wide swath of individuals, or more a banner title that everyone of its type subscribes to. Know that and you can see why the class exists in the first place, and how far you could stretch the bounds of play that the class governs for a more realistic portrayal. In the next section, we’ll set our sights on a new batch of classes, so stay tuned, with daggers low and swords high!

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Written by LanJemWezz

Writer for ICOSA Entertainment LLC, and author of the upcoming in-house offering, “The Alchemist’s Trilogy”: a series of Pure Steam tie-in novellas. Also, look for his short story “Dark Magic in the Root Cellar” in the “Dreamless Roads” anthology for DreamWorlds Publishing, due out Winter 2014!

Check out the Pure Steam Campaign Setting at: puresteamrpg.com, drivethrurpg.com, paizo.com, d20pfsrd.com
Twitter: @PureSteamRPG
Facebook.com/PureSteamRPG

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2 Responses to “The Art of the Small—Analyzing the “Crunch” for the “Fluff” 3a”
  1. B'omarr Punk says:

    Well met! Thanks for the insight, m’friend.

    The perfect antithesis to this line of thinking, I think, is a game I played in alongside some newbies.

    Minutes into the game, the DM has the barkeep ask the new players, “Ah, what’s a group like you doing in a place such as this?”

    Player A shouts (proudly), “I’m a fighter!”

    Player B follows suit, “I’m a sorcerer.”

    Player C attempts to keep up with, “I’m a…uh…” ::looks at character sheet:: “a ranger, right?”

  2. LanJemWezz says:

    And exactly the kind of lackluster role-play that doesn’t develop, reinvent, reinterpret, or energize what goes on around the gaming table. I know what you mean, bud!

    When playing our characters, we should always examine how our class defines who we are in the game world, beyond what’s plainly written. The simplest, and often least grasped, way to do that is to just know how to say what you’re playing, and then own it!

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