And then we get to the mage. D&D has always had trouble coming up with mage sub-classes that strike enough of a chord to stick around in the collective gamer imagination. The obvious reason: arcane magic-users in D&D can already do just about everything. The notion of an illusionist, a sorcerer, a witch, or a warlock always seems kind of silly in the face of the standard wizard archetype. The psionicist makes an interesting variant; but then again, I've generally preferred to leave "psionics" out of my games altogether and actually describe D&D magic itself as sitting somewhere at the crossroads between psychic power and spiritualism. So for my campaigns, that even makes the psionicist redundant.
What archetypes are necessary? Well, you've got to have a fighter, a thief, a healer, and a mage. And I like to include monks, because kung-fu is cool, but fighting unarmed in D&D (and not sucking at it) really demands a special class devoted to the concept. And maybe a sixth class to round things out (six ability scores, six classes), like the tech in my Engines & Empires setting; or, in a more medieval game, a bard of the jack-of-all-trades variety (rather than merely the "magical thief" or "druidical fighter" varieties) would serve just as well. The point is to make all of the classes distinct, and not to have subtle variations that could easily be subsumed into another class. Otherwise, where does it end? The next thing you know, you're cracking open your Player's Handbook VII and trying to decide whether you want your next character to belong to the juggler, jester, or acrobat class.
(On the other hand, I do quite like using demi-human "racial classes" instead of sub-classes as a way to add variety to the game. Here, at least, players have the chance to do something different, but they also have a reason to come up with an interesting hook. Playing a "dwarf" in Classic D&D demands that the player invent some way to make his dwarf unique, to differentiate that dwarf from all other dwarves. You can't bank on the game rules to be a special snowflake, i.e. "my dwarf wizard is special; he's a dwarf... and he's a wizard!")
Two days ago, I started my space opera campaign using the Retro Phaze rules. Six players sat down at the table, so they easily managed to cover all of the classes in the game. (Retro Phaze describes five character classes for fantasy campaigns: Fighters, Rogues, Wizards, Monks, and Bards. For the sci-fi setting, these classes have been dubbed Fighters, Rogues, Psions, Mystic Monks, and Mystic Knights.) Thus did we wind up with the following cast of characters:
- Joseph Callahan, Fighter. A Federation Space Corps Crewman, he acts like a stuffy idiot (but really isn't) to cover up his minor smuggling operation. Given the way that he likes to stand on military ceremony, he's something of a cross between Arnold Rimmer and Sgt. Bilko.
- Mike Anderson, Rogue. An orphaned drifter raised on the streets of an urban planet, he's got a chip on his shoulder that makes him resent anybody well-off or rich, but he'll readily respect and befriend anyone who's had a rough time surviving.
- Rollo "Weasel" Jones, Rogue. A nervous, weaselly little engineer, he makes his way in the galaxy by keeping trader ships' engines in good repair and by looking out for his own hide with technical savvy and an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation.
- Kurtz Monroe, Psion. A computer hacker by trade, he was hired to steal a file but not look at it. He looked anyway, and the experience knocked him on his arse and fritzed with his memory. When he woke up, he was suddenly psionic, and now he has unhappy corporate stooges gunning for him.
- Lorenzo von Matterhorn, Mystic Monk. Raised in the Borderlands systems on the edge of the Federation, his "family" was actually a syndicate of slave-traders. He couldn't bring himself to stay in the family business, so he ran; but for a Mystic, he still seems to have an evil streak a mile wide, so who knows how long he'll last before turning to the Dark Side?
- Valraine Mythrari, Mystic Knight. She was the top bodyguard for a young nobleman who ruled a small princedom within the Federation. When the noble (for whom her esteem was more than professional) was deposed and presumably killed, she had to flee for her life. She's your classic "proud, brave warrior" personality.
Even after one session (and only a few short battles to put the revised rules through their paces), I can already tell that things are much improved. I'll go into more detail about the first game session tomorrow, since this post is already running long, but for now I just want to comment on the fact that practically all of the magic in Retro Phaze is of the combat-useful variety, flashy invocations on the arcane side and standard heals and buffs on the divine side. Why is this factoid worth mentioning? Well, it gets to the heart of a bias that exists out in the D&D-playing community, not just the OSR.
4th edition AD&D, and 3rd edition to a somewhat lesser extent, are decried as being "too board-gamey", on the one hand because they use minis and grids, and on the other because of "gamist" or "dissociated" mechanics that mean something to the players of the game but not to the characters. Both of these charges are silly, of course, because earlier editions of D&D are chock full of dissociated mechanics (character levels, hit points, and cure spells, anyone?) and more than amenable to tactical combats. I have my problems with 4th edition (the mass slaughter of sacred cows; the woo-factor that says "our fantasy is edgy and 733t!"), as well as with 3rd edition and the d20 system in general (could there possibly be more rules and bonuses to keep track of?); but "too much like a board-game" isn't one of those problems.
The fact is, I wrote Retro Phaze not just to mimic the feel of 8-bit and 16-bit console games: I also wanted a board-gamey RPG that allowed for Shining Force and Fire Emblem style battles, without all of the silly complexity of 3e's "rule for everything" approach or 4e's "deck of powers" method. Simple, traditional, and board-gamey is actually a very good thing (not to mention fun as hell)!