Old School Classes and Races

I tend not to get too caught up in the emotional frothiness of some “Old School Gaming” forums, preferring much more to just read about rules clarifications, GMing ideas, and inspiring campaign journals.  But while reading Lamentations of the Flame Princess recently I read about some apparent pseudo-drama about Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy, both of which are retro-D&D clones.  James, the author of LoFP, rightfully dismissed the conflict as more sturm than drang, but did then go onto talking in his classically forthright manner about games and personal preferences.

I believe, with all my heart, that saying, “I prefer thisedition,” is the same thing as saying, “The other editions aren’t as good.” It has to be. That one is considered impolite is simply a way of controlling the terms of the discussion so as to conceal one’s own weaknesses. One edition’s strengths and features aren’t the only story, and attempting to portray only positivity regarding this is simply lying in an attempt to manipulate and lubricate a more unpleasant message for easier consumption. Different editions don’t just lack specific traits, they possess additional features and traits which repel and cause that edition to be the non-preferred. So sometimes one’s preferences of one variation of many is defined by the lack of added shit when the actual favored features are more or less shared between all the variations. And different rules promote (if not necessitate) different playing experiences. Pointing out the bad of other editions is a natural part of stating why you enjoy your preferred the most. And a completely valid way of doing so.

Now I’ll free admit two things.  First, my first RPG ever was the blue-and-white softcover edition of D&D than came in the box with the red dragon on it.  I purchased it sometime in the 1970’s with a gift certificate from my uncle (if only he knew what he wrought).  From then on, I became a rules junkie: Champions and Traveller and Cyberpunk and what has, until about 2004 been a bit of a compulsion on my part.  I also followed every edition of D&D through its many incarnations up to 3.5.

At 3.5 I got ticked, mostly because I already found the game cumbersome and clunky, but then to have shelled out a hundred dollars only to turn around and have another edition that was little less than a rules revision roll off the presses just seemed greedy in that way that a lot of people feel Games Workshop operates.

So when Fourth Edition rolled out, I was at that point downright skeptical.  I had already discovered Castles & Crusades and True20 as “rules light” options for 3.X and was beginning to rediscover some of the joys therein. There was also another issue I had with 4E, namely its purported similarity to World of Warcraft.  I’m not a WOW fan, not because I hate fantasy computer games but I just don’t care for games that have literally killed people because they have played them non-stop.  I went through the whole MMORPG addiction thing in college, and wasn’t interested in reliving it again.

But anyways, like I said I’m a rules junkie, bought all three of the 4E rulebooks on Amazon at a discount, read them, liked certain elements of the game (which I have mentioned earlier) and even ran a few sessions with my gaming group.  And I can see how many people feel like the game has D&D running off the rails of its past (I’m one of them) and it further gave me a lot to think about in terms of what James was saying above: what do I like in an RPG, and what do I not?

This gets me, in a very long-winded way, back to the LL/BFRPG conflict.  I’m not as discerning a player as to grasp the subtle differences between the two games.  For me, there are only two: races as classes (in LL) and ascending Armor Classes (in BFRPG).

I know that initially you played an elf, dwarf, or halfling as a “class” like fighter or cleric, with the racial class essentially being the iconic depiction of that race: the elven fighter-magic user, the dwarf fighter, and the halfling thief.  This was quickly and irrevocably scrapped to allow the player to choose both a race and a class for their PC, raising the choices from seven to thirteen.  The negative aspect of this change is that is dumped humans as a racial choice into the ashbin of gaming, with future rules editions constantly looking for the “carrot” to get people to play humans: no level caps (like you’ll game that long anyways), extra skills or feats, etc.  But no, at least in my experience gaming groups were almost always demi-human dominated, despite humanity often being the most common race in fantasy worlds.  I mean, why play a fighter when you can play a fighter with nightvision goggles?  The only penalty is limits on what would be your dump stat anyways?  And elves are just downright superior: they see in the dark, don’t sleep, don’t age, are smarter and more dextrous, and can circumvent the armor/spell restrictions.  So from a gamesmanship perspective, race as class actually creates more party balance and reinforces the core thematic concepts of the centrality of humans.  It also sharply limits character concepts, which is the obvious downside gamesmanship-wise.

But the possible deal-breaker for me is the ascending Armor Class.  That the number got lower as the armor got better was (and in LL, is) the most counter-intuitive rule concept out there, in my opinion.  More than Vancian magic, as a simple number mechanic it rarely made sense, and LL’s continued usage can be defended in no way aside from simple nostalgia.  (Okay, it also lets you use OOP material, although a majority of the print material out there is AD&D, not OD&D.  You can only play Blackmoor so much, I’d wager.)  BFRPG went ahead and adopted the OGL rule for having AC go up, one of a handful of concessions to later rules developments.

And really, if this is supposed to be a “revolution” of Old School Gaming, where we are trying to not seclude our increasingly aging gaming generation but also invite new players in, why shackle them with difficult-to-comprehend gaming artifacts?

I’m tempted to try a LL/BFRPG hybrid, where I go ahead and invert the AC rules but keep race-as-class just to see how it would fly, but that would mean essentially keeping the rulebook behind the DM’s screen, rather than out where other players could look at it (that, or do some sort of supplemental house rule handout, which seems cumbersome).  In the end, as James suggests, it is all down to what you like to play, what you like to have in your game, and what fits your group the best.

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