Friday, August 2, 2013

Playing the Specialists

OD&D lists ten types of specialists who can be hired by PCs: Alchemist, Armorer, Assassin, Animal Trainer, Engineer, Sage, Seaman, Ship Captain, Smith and Spy. With Greyhawk, a Thief was added as a sort of playable specialist class, with various functions that were useful in dungeoneering. In Blackmoor this was expanded and the assassin class was made playable; per various discussions this was also the intent of the sage rules, which became a set of NPC rules. As was pointed out to me after my previous post on assassins, there is an alchemist written up in the second issue of The Dragon, as a character who produces poisons, acids and potions.

The Dragon alchemist class has a number of fascinating new potions, and I recommend tracking down this class (which unfortunately isn't in the Best of the Dragon #1) mostly for its interesting new potions, such as flash pellets, which are thrown at the floor to blind opponents and come with the warning "Don't fall into a pit." This would be a fairly interesting character to have, although they really aren't much use until third level. An alchemist really fits best into a retinue-type campaign, where the character attaches themselves to other PCs at low levels and functions like a magic-user, and pays them back later with potions aplenty. It's also an interesting alternative to have an alchemist running around doing the healbot stuff, since they can create potions of healing at level 3 (3000 XP), rather than a cleric.

Spies are the very obvious class here that has a niche somewhere around the assassin and the thief. Indeed, for some kinds of action I would consider a spy to be almost more iconic than the thief or assassin as such. A spy class could be somewhere between a thief and assassin and the LotFP specialist - a jack of all trades, and someone really good at sneaking and finding hidden information. Like thieving and assassination, these are really things that just about anybody could do, but a spy class could really fill a couple of niches well in a dungeon. One is the sneaking and reconnaissance role that thieves often take part in. The other is disguise and infiltration of enemy groups; very useful if there is a bunch of brigands or bandits in the dungeon or wilderness.

Sages have an Arnesonian pedigree. It's not immediately clear what one will provide on a dungeon expedition, but in a true exploration game that might not be so irrelevant. If a sage is able to figure out the secrets of the dungeon and get the party to the treasure alive instead of falling to its horrible tricks and traps, he's worth his weight in gold. Particularly if you give a sage class a magic item use capability similar to magic-users for wands, rods, staves and so on (but no actual spells).

The rest are a stretch. Engineers could be interesting in a dungeon, but only if the referee is willing to tolerate a very nonstandard approach to exploration - reminding one of the story of digging around the traps in the Tomb of Horrors. Animal Trainer is explicitly limited to one type of animal, which precludes a Beastmaster type of character with all kinds of "pets" that do his work; probably good for those who are squeamish about animal death. Seamen and sea captains, outside a strictly nautical campaign where they'd probably just be fighting-men, are not useful at all.

But for these four - alchemist, sage, assassin and spy - I do think there's real potential for highly nonstandard PCs. Especially with the spy, who I think could be a better alternative to the thief if done properly.


  1. The problem with more character classes is rules bloat. If the only two classes you have are fighting-man and magic-user, there's really not a lot of choice but a lot of simplicity and ease of play. Look at 3rd edition or Palladium/RIFTS with the myriad of classes. Options are great, yeah, but what happens to game balance? If you aren't worried about balance, great, but as a DM/GM/etc. dozens upon dozens of classes make it hard to prepare and plan because you may have a player that simply uses a special skill to bypass 90% of a challenge.

    I get this feeling that the OSR doesn't exactly know where to draw the line, or at least where that line is drawn is subject to individual tastes. Since BECMI and white box are so different, what happens when a white box DM plays with a BECMI enthusiast? But I digress...

    It seems to me that, since the OSR seems to cleave to the "less is more" philosophy, OSR enthusiasts should try to streamline the player options as much as possible to facilitate faster, simpler play that is heavier on the abstract player-DM interaction for various action and task resolutions outside of combat. Specialist classes invariably introduce mechanics (like the thief does) that hijack that interaction and, in my opinion, actually start dragging the OS game more toward 2nd and 3rd edition play styles inadvertently.

    1. Most of the time, the referee's choice decides which version is used.

      Personally, I value parsimony but allow options - for instance I've run Holmes D&D where a player used a ranger from Strategic Review / Best of the Dragon and nothing untoward happened.

      One thing I was thinking of doing is to take the specialist from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, change it up a bit and make it more like a spy class to replace the thief, which I find interesting in concept but lacking in execution. I agree about interaction and don't let thieves roll for "find traps" except when checking door locks and things of that nature.

  2. I'm starting to lean more and more toward classless systems in which your character has nigh-infinite customizibility. But, then again, that brings in all sorts of different problems.

    Roll-based task-resolution systems really got going with the thief, it seems. When I played with Dennis in S. Korea, we had to play really, really smart. Constantly ask questions. Give detailed explanations for our actions. Don't just say, "I open the chest" but explain how you open it. Listen at doors, see if you can peer through keyholes, tell the DM you're looking for oddly shaped bricks or tiles in the floor, etc. If you're going to be playing an OS game, I find it FORCES you to start playing really intelligently in order to avoid getting killed! I can totally see how involving a thief with a roll-based resolution system can really put a damper on that.


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