Dungeons & Delvers: Organic Progression With Class

Over on G+ Dominique Zimmer started a thread where he asks:

"Are classes a needed thing in rpg's, they do help a character alot by guiding them as to what the class does but they seem very very restrictive in alot of ways"

William Altman soon responded with this:

"Necessary? No, and personally, I loathe them. I prefer organic character growth and character options, two things that classes, by their very nature restrict, even if the system they are in allow for it. That said, they are useful for jumping into the action, for new players, for helping the GM more easily balance encounters."

I'm not surprised by either statements. See, in a lot of Dungeons & Dragons games you choose a class (and often a race), and then you get whatever the designers feel you should get (which wasn't always much when it's anything at all), when they feel you should get it.

For example, 2nd Edition fighters got the option to choose weapon specialization, which gave you a bonus to hit and damage, and multiple attacks. Otherwise you didn't get to choose shit, though at 9th-level you could build a castle and attract followers. Yay, I guess?

Even worse, if you were a human and had a good in-game reason to switch classes, you could, but if you used abilities from your original class you suffered an XP penalty until I think your new class was higher level than the original, and you could never switch back. Demihuman races (ie, halfling, dwarf, elf, etc) could have more than one class, but you had to choose that at the start of the game, and unlike humans you couldn't switch out classes later.

It wasn't until 3rd Edition where I recall sometimes getting the chance to actually choose something, though it was usually feats, bonus feats, or spells. You want to play a paladin? Whelp, that means aura of good, detect evil, and smite evil once per day. At 2nd-level you, like every other paladin, will get divine grace and lay on hands, at 3rd-level you'll get aura of courage and divine health (plus a feat), and at 4th-level you'll...get to choose which spells to prep at the start of the adventuring day.

There's never any point during your paladin progression where you'll get to diverge from the status quo: every other standard paladin in the game will get the exact same stuff, also when you got it.

Now, in 3rd Edition you could multiclass pretty easily, choosing pretty much any class you want when you level up (barring stuff like alignment restrictions). Unlike 2nd Edition's dual-classing you could bounce back and forth between classes if you felt like it (among other issues like reduced XP for using abilities from your original class), and unlike it's version of multiclassing you didn't have to choose from the start if you wanted to have more than one class.

Technically it's better than nothing, but you're really just exchanging one set of rigidly and unnecessarily pre-defined class features and maybe bonus feat acquisition for another set, and if you didn't have a solid plan, houserules, and/or luck you'd probably end up accidentally breaking your character in the process.

I remember in the longest 3rd Edition campaign I ever played, one guy ended up with a bizarre and non-functional mix of rogue/wizard/bard/assassin and maybe something else that I can't remember. He couldn't hit anything because his attack bonus was too low, he'd get his ass handed to him in melee because his hit points were too low, and his spells sucked ass because he only had access to 2nd-level spells (normally by then you'd have access to 5th- or even 6th-level spells).

Really the only thing he might have had going for him were a few of his saving throw modifiers and some skills.

One of the goals with Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book was to allow for character flexibility, whether you stick with one class or find a logical in-game reason to shift careers. It's not as complex as 4th Edition, where you get like six powers at 1st-level, plus race stuff, feats, maybe even backgrounds and themes if you're doing that. Even classes like clerics and wizards are pretty simple, and you're never "locked in" on a path once you commit.

For example, if you roll up a fighter and opt for bonus damage with two-handed weapons, you can always pick the tanky-talents later. Using the multiclassing rules, you can even pick up levels in cleric and start performing divine miracles, though unlike 3rd Edition you don't get everything your new class would normally get at 1st-level (ie, if you start as a fighter and go into wizard, you're getting less talent choices than a core wizard would).

Also unlike 3rd Edition (and the more recent Dungeons & Dragons editions) there isn't a lot of math. Numbers go up pretty slowly, usually +1 every 3-5 levels, and the game doesn't "assume" any numbers: a 1st-level party can, with some planning and/or luck, take out a monster many levels higher than they are. This means you can multiclass without worrying about whether your character will be able to hit a "level appropriate" monster.

For a very extensive actual play example (which is the best kind of example), in our Age of Worms campaign Melissa started out playing an elf rogue named Sumia. In the first adventure (The Whispering Cairn) they found an owlbear cub, and of course she wanted to keep it because cute, adorable owlbear. I'd been working on the ranger and told her that if she wanted to make it into a kind of pet, she could take ranger next level-up and choose the Animal Companion talent.

Over the course of the campaign, Melissa bounced back and forth between rogue and ranger (mostly ranger because of all the archery talents and Undead Hunter), until they got close to the end of Encounter at Blackwall Keep, where Melissa said she reaaally wanted to be able to see in the dark, because sneaking was a pain in the ass in dungeons if she also had to carry around a torch. I whipped up a Darkvision talent for the wizard, which she eagerly snapped up.

She went back into rogue or ranger for a few more levels, but then much later wanted to for some reason be able to communicate via telepathy, so she took another level in wizard to pick up a Diviner-based talent that would let her do just that.

I can't imagine a rogue/ranger/wizard combo working in 3rd Edition without some major planning and probably combing through numerous books looking for feats and/or prestige classes to maybe patch some issues, and you can't even really do this in 4th Edition. 5th Edition looks like things would be more functional, though again you're more often than not saddled with whatever class features the designer felt you should have, when he felt you should have them.

Compared to Dungeons & Dragons, the Black Book is much, much more organic and easy to work with: each time Melissa leveled up, she just chose whatever she felt made the most sense to her (which turns out was mostly rogue and ranger), and when an option wasn't available asked if/how we could make it work. Often the solution was as simple as creating a new talent. Despite a lack of planning and steady math, her character functions perfectly fine.

So, there you go: a class-based system that is flexible and allows for very organic progression (especially if your GM is willing to whip up a new talent here and there). Probably not as much as some point-buy and/or classless systems out there, but you still have a huge amount of freedom. As an added #inktober bonus, here's some quick illustrations of Sumia over the levels (clicking should enlarge it):

It look a lot longer than expected, but we finally released The Jinni. As with our other monstrous classes, this one is more faithful to the mythology (so don't go in expecting elemental-themed jinn).

After putting it to a vote, the next couple of classes on the docket are the warden (think 4E D&D warden) and apothecary (gotta go see what they're all about).

Dwarven Vault is our sixth 10+ Treasures volume. If you're interested in thirty dwarven magic items (including an eye that lets you shoot lasers) and nearly a dozen new bits of dungeon gear, check it out!

Just released our second adventure for A Sundered World, The Golden Spiral. If a snail-themed dungeon crawl is your oddly-specific thing, check it out!

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).


  1. I see your reasons about class organic progression and I agree with them. But just one little question: regarding Melissa's character example, from fiction POV how did you explained that she switched to Wizard "only" for Darkvision and Telepathy?

    1. @Thiago:

      So in-game there were several instances where Sumia would try to sneak around, but since there wasn't light she had to have a torch, which meant if something was around that didn't need light to see she was basically broadcasting her location.

      At one point she even tried sneaking in the dark without a torch, but then got ambushed by a lizardman hepped up on dragon's blood (he could smell her, and then also see her when he got close enough).

      She mentioned wanting to be able to see in the dark a few times, and since Humal was a wizard he offered to teach her some of the basics of magic (also using books from Allustan and/or Filge's collection, or maybe at that point they were in Dovin which had an entire wizard academy thing).

      In-game this meant, to me, that she learned JUST enough magic to see in the dark (which seems fine to me to learn in a fairly short period of time).

      She also kept upping her Arcana skill, so when she wanted to take a Telepathy talent a few levels later I just let her have it: she'd obviously been learning more about magic, and Telepathy would be part of the Darkvison tree.


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