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For a list of all character classes appearing in Dungeons & Dragons, see Category:Classes.

A character class is a set of rules which describe the primary progression of abilities of a player character in Dungeons & Dragons. Character class is used to define a character as part of a certain fantasy archetype.

The first four character classes to appear in D&D were the Fighting-Man (now called the fighter), Magic-User (now called the wizard), Cleric, and Thief (now called the rogue). Other core classes include the barbarian, bard, druid, monk, paladin, ranger, sorcerer (since D&D 3rd edition), and warlock (since D&D 4th edition).

Purpose

Character classes serve several mechanical and thematic purposes which are core to the experience of Dungeons & Dragons.

Character development

Character classes provide a clear path of advancement and reward for players who succeed at the game.

Balance

A character class limits the flexibility of character creation, helping to ensure that no one character can be utterly weak. This makes the game more approachable to new players and ensures that all players are at comparable levels of power.

Conversely, unexpected combinations of character abilities can be used to create a character who is considerably more powerful than normal. This could particularly occur in Dungeons & Dragons third edition, where highly optimal characters cherry-picking synergistic abilities from the early levels of multiple classes and prestige classes could become much more powerful than the designers intended.

Genre emulation

A character class serves the function of defining a type of character likely to exist within the fictional world of a Dungeons & Dragons game. For example, the wizard class asserts many things about the world in which they might exist: that arcane magic is real, that it can be understood by humans but requires much study, and that trained warriors with the temperament to learn magic this way are rare.

Ironically, D&D's massive influence on fantasy fiction has created the situation where the game's character classes now emulate the characters it ultimately inspired.

Teamwork

It is frequently advantageous for a group of players to each create characters of different sets of abilities, for maximum flexibility. Character classes make it easy for players to choose complementary roles.

Single-player video game RPGs where the player controls only a single protagonist, such as Skyrim or Dark Souls, often dispense with the class system entirely or limit the impact of the player's initial class choice by allowing broad customization later on.

Appeal

Different character classes have different styles of play, which appeal to different types of players. Character classes can vary in complexity of play, mechanical focus, and thematic focus, so as to create many possible varieties of game experience and allow the game to appeal to more players. The variability of character classes also increases the game's longevity as a player who tires of one character play style can pick up another class.

Mechanics

Multiclassing and dual-classing

Main article: Multiclassing

Many editions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules allow a character to possess multiple classes. This can either by done by choosing two classes at character creation (multiclassing), or taking separate distinct levels in two or more classes (typically called dual-classing).

Multiclass characters are typically weaker than single-class characters, as D&D's rules discourage single generalist character archetype that often appears in video games.

Race as class

The Basic D&D product line from 1977 to 1999 merged the character concepts of race and class, effectively making all races a class. For example, one could play a dwarf or a fighter, but not a dwarf fighter.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product line (1977-1999) kept race and class separate, and D&D third edition (2000) onward chose to continue with the two separate.

Demihuman level limits

In Original D&D and AD&D 1st and 2nd edition, non-human (demihuman) characters were strictly limited in their choice of class and maximum character level in each class. For example, the dwarf could only reach 10th level cleric, 15th level fighter, or 12th level thief.[1]

Demihuman level limits were widely ignored. Despite this, rulebooks such as Skip Williams' Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns (1995) continued to insist that level limits were important to game balance and must be enforced.[2]

D&D 3rd edition (2000), of which Skip Williams was a lead author, removed demihuman level limits.

Prestige class

Main article: Prestige class

A prestige class was a concept introduced in D&D 3rd edition to allow characters to gain specialized abilities or pursue a unique character concept. Players must first take multiple levels in a standard class to meet the prerequisites to join a prestige class.

History

Origins

The earliest prototypical fantasy campaigns run by Dave Arneson only allowed players to control human fighting men, whose inspiration came from historic medieval wargaming.

The concept of character class began to emerge when players in Arneson's campaign wished to play a wizard, for which rules had existed in Gary Gygax's 1971 wargame Chainmail.

In 1972, Mike Carr played a third level village priest in Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, considered to be the inspiration for D&D's cleric class. While there is no record of Carr's priest having curative ability, it has been speculated that the introduction of hit points rules by Arneson may have necessitated the invention of healing magic inspired by Judeo-Christian descriptions of saints or kings healing the sick with a touch.

Original D&D

Based on Arneson's designs, Gary Gygax's original Dungeons & Dragons rules published in 1974 described "three (3) main classes of characters"—Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. This is earliest explicit reference to the term "class" in Dungeons & Dragons.

Greyhawk (Supplement 1) (1975) introduced a fourth Dungeons & Dragons class—the thief, a specialist in stealth and dungeoneering, originally suggested to Gygax by player Gary Switzer. This would establish the four core class set of fighter, wizard, cleric and thief (later called rogue) used by later editions.

Greyhawk also introduced the paladin, a lawful-aligned variant of the fighter with the ability to "lay on his hands" to cure injury or disease.

Blackmoor (Supplement 2) (1975) introduced the monk, considered a cleric sub-class with some fighter and thief abilities, and inspired by the Shaolin monk of 1970s TV series Kung Fu; and the assassin, considered a sub-class of thief. Eldritch Wizardry (1976) added the druid as a cleric subclass.

Classes in Original D&D each require different amounts of XP to level up, making it rare that multiple characters would qualify to gain a level at exactly the same time. This was standard until D&D third edition (2000), which would rebalance all classes to use the same XP chart.

Basic D&D: race as class

In 1977, Dungeons & Dragons split into two product lines: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and a simpler Basic D&D originally edited by Eric Holmes.

Among the simplifications introduced by Holmes Basic, the list of available character classes and races were combined into a single list from which players could make a single choice. Players who wished to choose both a race and a class, such as a halfling who wished to play a thief, were advised by the rules to buy the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.

The use of race-as-class continued throughout the basic Dungeons & Dragons product line until 2000, when Wizards of the Coast abandoned the basic/advanced dichotomy.

AD&D 1st edition

The Players Handbook (1e) (1978) introduced players to the ranger, considered a subclass of fighter, and the illusionist, a subclass of wizard. This edition also included the druid, paladin and assassin subclasses as in the Original D&D supplements, with monk now considered its own character class.

AD&D 2nd edition

The Player's Handbook (2e) (1989) re-organized all character classes under the four traditional abstract archetypes: Warrior, Wizard, Priest, and Rogue.

Warriors included the fighter, paladin and ranger. Wizard included the Mage (a new name for the standard Wizard or Magic-User) and Illusionist, with the potential for specialists in the other schools of magic. Priest included the cleric and druid, with additional rules for inventing priests of different mythoi.

The rogue category included the thief and a new class called the bard, a magic-using musician.

Monk and assassin were no longer present in the Player's Handbook.

Numerous sourcebooks introduced variant classes or "kits" allowing players to play specialist characters.

D&D 3rd edition

The Player's Handbook (3.0) (2000) originated with eleven character classes: the barbarian (a fighter-like character with rage abilities), bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, rogue (a new less pejorative name for the thief), wizard, and sorcerer (a wizard-like character who casts spells without preparation).

D&D 3rd edition's Dungeon Master's Guide (3.0) (2000) introduced the concept of the prestige class, a specialist class which requires the character to have met certain prerequisites, typically by taking around seven levels in one or more standard character classes. The assassin appeared as a prestige class.

Additionally, the Dungeon Master's Guide included rules for NPC classes, weaker and less interesting character classes intended to represent non-player characters: adept (a magic user), aristocrat, commoner and expert (a skill user).

Numerous sourcebooks add additional character classes to the game, including a total of 125 classes or variant classes and 712 prestige classes. Among these was the warlock core class in Complete Arcane (2004), notable for its inclusion as a core class in later editions of D&D. Countless additional classes were published in web articles, Dragon Magazine, third-party sourcebooks, and fan-made homebrew websites.

D&D 4th edition

By the mid-2000s, many video games inspired by Dungeons & Dragons used the four-archetype system based on AD&D 2e's classification of Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.

Likely drawing inspiration from this, D&D 4th edition explicitly divided all character classes into one of four roles:

  • Defenders, analogous to the "tank" classes of video games, have strong defenses and high hit points in order to intentionally absorb enemy attacks, as well as the ability to force enemies to attack them.
  • Strikers, analogous to the "DPS" (damage-per-second) classes of games, deal high damage to individual enemies.
  • Leaders, analogous to the "support" or "healer" classes of games, who assist their allies by healing injury, curing debilities and deploying "buffs" or positive effects.
  • Controllers, analogous to the "CC" or "crowd control" classes of games, deal damage or cause hindrance to multiple enemies or a wide area.

The Player's Handbook (4e) (2008) includes eight core classes: as defenders, the fighter and paladin; as strikers, the ranger, rogue and warlock (now a core class after its inclusion in D&D 3.5's Complete Arcane (2004); as leaders, the cleric and warlord (a morale-boosting military leader based on the Marshal from Wizards of the Coast's D&D Miniatures game); and the wizard.

Additional sourcebooks such as Player's Handbook 2 (4e) (2009) introduced additional character classes. Ultimately, 77 individual classes or variant classes were added to the D&D 4e Compendium.

Characters in D&D 4e also gained the ability to choose a ten-level paragon path upon attaining 10th level, a mechanic similar to D&D 3.5's prestige classes except that the path abilities are granted alongside a base class instead of replacing them; and an epic destiny at 20th, similar to D&D 3.5's epic prestige classes.

D&D 5th edition

D&D fifth edition's Player's Handbook (5e) (2014) featured twelve character classes: all eleven appearing in D&D third edition, plus the warlock. The explicit role system from 4th edition was largely abandoned.

Most character classes in this edition include an archetype feature, usually chosen at level 2 or 3, which act as a sub-class and determine part of the character's class features.

This edition did not include prestige classes. An Unearthed Arcana web article introduced playtest rules for a single prestige class, but it was generally poorly received. Official variant classes in D&D 5th edition are typically created as archetypes for an existing class, assuring that a character will not miss out on core class abilities as was often the case with D&D 3.5 prestige classes.

Creative origins

For the creative inspiration of individual character classes, see the individual entries for each class. A selection of major D&D classes whose inspirations are verifiably known appears below.

  • Cleric: In 2007, Gygax stated that the cleric was inspired by the real-life Bishop Odo, a Christian who fought in the 1006 Battle of Hastings and is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry wielding what may be a bludgeoning weapon; and Friar Tuck, a Christian monk of the Robin Hood tales. The original cleric was a priest played in
  • Fighter: The fighter is derived from the fighting men of the Chainmail miniatures wargame, who are in turn a somewhat historically accurate representation of real-world medieval warriors.
  • Illusionist: In 2008, Gary Gygax cited the illusionist's inspirations as including several characters in Finnish myth, L. Sprague de Camp’s Harold Shea stories, and the fairy tales of Andrew Lang.
  • Monk: According to early TSR employee Tim Kask, the monk was inspired by the shaolin monk archetype, specifically the 1972-1975 Kung Fu starring David Carradine as monk Kwai Chang Caine.
  • Paladin: In 2002, Gary Gygax cites the paladin's inspirations as the twelve Knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend, the twelve quasi-legendary paladins of Charlemagne, and the medieval code of chivalry.
  • Ranger: In 2004, Gary Gygax stated that he believes the ranger was inspired by the character of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. He credits the original class to Joe Fischer, a player in his D&D group.
  • Thief: In 2004, Gary Gygax cited the thief's inspirations as several thief characters of 20th century sci-fi and fantasy novels. Among them are: Jack of Shadows (Roger Zelazny, Jack of Shadows, 1971), Cugel the Clever (Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld, 1996), Gray Mouser (Fritz Leiber, Two Sought Adventure, 1957), as well as Conan the Barbarian (Robert E. Howard, 1932). In The Thief Addition (1974), Gygax credited the original class concept to Gary Switzer.[3]

Reception and influence

Dungeons & Dragons' use of character class inspired countless other tabletop roleplaying games and video games to include a character class mechanic.

Use in video games

The first four D&D character classes—fighter, wizard, cleric and thief—have been abstracted by many modern video games into a four-category team role system: the Tank, who takes damage for the team; the CC (Crowd Control), who deals damage over an area; the Support, who heals and buffs (strengthens) allies; and the DPS (Damage Per Second), who deals high damage to a single target. This system was backported into D&D 4th edition as the Defender, Controller, Leader and Striker combination.

In addition to fantasy computer roleplaying games, character class systems have appeared in other games. The use of a class system in team-based first-person shooter Team Fortress (1996) would inspire the character-based Team Fortress 2 (2007), which in turn inspired the "character shooter" genre including games such as Overwatch (2016). Overwatch used a four-role system of Attack, Defense, Support and Tank, before combining Attack and Defense into a single Damage category in 2018.

Classless systems

As a reaction to D&D's class system, many games have developed a class-free system, such as where the player is free to select abilities on a points-based system, or in which skills level up independently through use. This method is popular in single-player computer roleplaying games where the player controls a single character, such as Skyrim and Dark Souls.

Classless tabletop RPGs include Risus, a freeform points-based RPG; and Tri-Stat, also points-based, where the players buy abilities from a list.

Criticisms

TSR employee Tim Kask was critical of Basic D&D's race-as-class, AD&D's demihuman class restrictions and level limits, and D&D third edition's overly specialist prestige classes:[4]

"I look at the modern stuff and I look at all these silly character classes. The only thing sillier was when they started making race as a class. That was one of the stupid things in my opinion that was ever done. Dwarf as a class? Dumb! Dumb dumb! Dwarf was something you chose when you rolled up your stats—'casue we rolled up stats and kept 'em—dwarf was a player character you chose because of the stats you had."

References

  1. Dungeon Master Guide (2e) (1989), p.22.
  2. Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns (1995), p.178.
  3. Gygax's "The Thief Addition" (1974), Playing at the World, 2012.
  4. Curmudgeon in the Cellar LIV, 3m30s
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