JB of B/X Blackrazor fame has posted this series about variant / exceptional classes in D&D and its derivatives (that is, classes beyond the Main 4, like the paladin and ranger). He proposes that DMs who want to increase the rarity of variant-class PCs in their games should apply a filter – that is, a series of trade-offs which will filter out those who are not willing to pay the price of playing the class, rather than a barrier like ability score restrictions. He does a superb point-by-point job of it, and I highly recommend reading it in his words. I don’t disagree with JB at all. I simply wish he’d gone a step further.
I commented on the third post in the series, but I was rather sick at the time, and I wasn’t entirely coherent. In going back to clarify, I decided it would make a better post than a comment.
Here’s the part where I think he comes up to the line and stops short:
So what are some appropriate filters? Well, unfortunately, they’re kind of setting specific…of course, variant classes themselves are setting specific (including paladins in your fantasy world says something very specific about that world)…but most DMs will have to decide how “tight” a filter is needed for his or her own campaign.
The strongest take-away for me is that variant classes say something about your setting. The base classes say something as well. They say “I’m running D&D”. That comes with its own mess of assumptions about your campaign world. The specific thing we’re dealing with is variant classes relative to the base classes, i.e. that Thundarr the Hammer is not satisfied with just clerics and fighters; somewhere along the way, she found an exceptional individual who would dedicate his combat prowess and charisma entirely to her cause, and she made him a superhero so he could go further toward that cause than he could have gone in either base class. Likewise the ranger – not every mountain man who can creep up on a deer can also fight with two weapons and cast spells. There’s something special going on.
But I want to go a little beyond just the classes as a whole and say that the exceptional nature of these classes is in part a reflection of their individual nature. A paladin of Thundarr is going to be different from a paladin of Busybodaicus, God of Moral Regulation, and further, paladins (rangers, etc.) are so rare that their individual natures stand out more – they’re going to be different from each other even within their own sect or division. It’s fine if they’re mechanically identical in game terms (though, really, I would be in long-standing good company to wonder why two paladins from two totally unique traditions both have the same mount / lay on hands / holy sword whatever going on). But with regard to the filter, it doesn’t make much sense to have a cookie-cutter approach. Thundarr is going to require much different sacrifices from those Busybodaicus demands. Thundarr doesn’t care if the local reeve is taking bribes, and Busybodaicus is more concerned with handling evil among human civilization than going after evil giants in the hinterlands. Busybodaicus might give his paladins the ability to detect lies a few times a day and see invisibility once per day in exchange for laying on hands, specifically so that they can engage in the kind of court intrigues for which Thundarr might smack one of her own paladins. There are general and individual differences in application of rare classes to the world. And I think this is best reflected in the filter you present as DM of your own campaign world.
JB puts it this way:
Filters should have the following characteristics:– they should be performable even at low (1st) level, making the class open to dedicated players– they should be based on role-playing and/or player choice, not random dice roll– they should be appropriate to and emphasize the class concept– they should be a pain in the ass
Emphasis mine, because this was the point where I presumed JB was going to get into individualized filters which would reflect the realities of the campaign world and which would work with the concept of the individual character.
I don’t necessarily believe that each paladin or ranger has to be some high-concept, storied individual whose filter restrictions reflect her unique character background. That’s obviously counter-productive for a one-off adventure where you roll your hat and go. I also recognize that some people just want to play the beer-and-pretzels game and don’t get too deep on the role end of things. And frankly, I’m a fan of emergent character history rather than having two pages of dramatic backstory before you start the first session. But I think that if you’re going to go to the trouble of considering what it means about your campaign that Thundarr and Busybodaicus have paladins, then it’s probably worth your time and the investment in your player to make an individual filter, whether it’s a filter for a particular background applied to the class (e.g. all Thundarr paladins use this filter; all Busybodaicus paladins use that one) or a character specific filter.
Just for completeness’s sake, here’s a filter for a paladin of Majus, the lawful good god of organized fighting folks In My Campaign. First, the base filter applied to any paladin of Majus:
- You must make your presence known to the head of the guard, the bailiff, the sheriff, or whoever is the commander of the local fighting group wherever you go. Part of your duties as a paladin of Majus include being on call if the need arises, and that can’t happen if no one knows you’re there. So if you and the knight-baron have a personal disagreement, suck it up – you still have to pay your respects.
- You are subject to personal challenges and duels, and people know it. Don’t allow a drunken fool to throw away his life by accepting his impulsive barroom chest-thumping, but if someone persists in challenging you even though he knows what he’s up against, you must oblige. And this is especially true on a field of battle, where even a non-verbal or implied challenge must be accepted.
- 10% of your XP rewards must be donated to Majus, who will give them to needy orphans and kobolds. (Simply a different way of looking at having to achieve a higher XP total to level up.)
- You are allowed to spend whatever money you wish on improving the fighting capacity of yourself and those for whom you are responsible, and you are allowed to save some of your treasure for that masterwork plate mail you’ve been planning in your head. Beyond that, your money should go toward the defense and improvement of your community. Regardless of how you spend it, at least 10% of your money must go to the community and 5% must go to the clerical hierarchy – and don’t forget your taxes.
- Leave the clerics of Sithye, the death god, alone, unless they’re actively asking for you to beat on them. You work the same beat, and their job starts where yours ends.
And some character specific filter points for Saoszuc, iconic paladin who came to service after being called by Majus specifically so that he could channel her unfocused anger issues into useful combat skill:
- Play nice with others. If you go to bed pissed off at your party members, Majus reserves the right to disallow some of your spells, slots, or special abilities the following day.
- No special mount for you, lady. Yes, I know that the drow priestess gets a talking donkey and you have to walk. Don’t whine. Here, have an extra use of lay on hands per day instead.
- You must wear and maintain the best armor available to you. This means you have to spend some time after any extended field trip in upkeep, and it means you round down your coppers to the nearest silver, spending them on replacement straps, buckles, chain rings, scales, and so on as needed. (That’s right – Saoszuc has two different money restrictions.) It also means you don’t have to decide whether you’d be okay with chain if it means you can bring more miscellaneous gear – just take the damn plate mail.
Majus has a special purpose for Saoszuc, which involves her being embedded in a diverse party as the primary tank. She has to be flexible enough to go delving in twisting caves. So no horse, but it’s still worth having heavy plate mail; she may be slow and clunky in those horse-unfriendly environments, but she can take the punishment meant for others and still keep tanking, as well as provide some extra healing. So she gets individual filter tradeoffs to reflect her personal role and to make her different from the remainder of the handful of Majian paladins, each of whom have their own individual filter entries. In other words, the pain in her ass is different from the ass-pain of any other paladin, and that acts as a pointer to the paladin’s role in the campaign world and the rarity of the character.