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D&D General Character Classes should Mean Something in the Setting

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
WRITER'S NOTE: People keep reading the first post of this thread, skip over all the discussion, and express their frustration at the idea of "Shoehorning" or "Locking" player character's roles in the story/game by class. That is not what this is about. This is about the -CULTURAL- expectations of the idea "Sorcerer" or "Druid" within a given narrative setting.

Not a specific setting. Nor a specific locking in of player concepts. If you want your Sorcerer mechanically to be a Wizard narratively, that's entirely cool at my table and should be at any table. If your Sorcerer gains his Aberrant Mind powers from a Vestige of the Ashen Lands people will call him a Warlock in-character because that's what warlocks are known for, in that world.

This thread is about cultural expectations of class identity, how that class identity affects the world, and similar stuff.

There are 5-6 different posts in this thread where I have to repeat myself that it's not about players being stuck with only one or two character concepts available.



After reading the LevelUp Cleric I wanted to share something that I've felt is a real problem with several character classes in D&D: They have Fantasy Associations, but no World-Anchoring.

Yeah, a Sorcerer is descended from a powerful ancestor. But other than "LoL! You had to -study- to learn magic? Pleb!" type jokes and statements, what does that -mean- for the world? What interactions does the existence of magic people from birth really mean? And I'm not talking about "My baby cast prestidigitation and scared the babysitter" I'm talking on a Cultural Level.

In a setting I've been designing, I had honestly considered just flatly cutting Sorcerers out of the game, entirely. They seemed almost pointless, like a vestigial nub of some greater narrative purpose that was never fulfilled. But then it hit me: Arcane Nobility.

In the real world we have the idea of Bloodlines being important. Generally directed towards Politicians and the Rich. Because in both of those instances, Wealth and Power are handed down to the next generation over time. The Queen of England will eventually die and someone else from the royal family will become King or Queen or whatever. It's how we got Keeping up with the Kardashians, too. The wealthy progenitor hands big bundles of cash and affluence to their child.

In a world of magic... isn't Sorcery the same thing? Wouldn't a Draconic Sorcerer be the offspring (legal or illicit) of a family line of Sorcerers? Couldn't that lead to a whole -mess- of questions and presumptions? How about social entanglements and responsibilities? And hey, if your Sorcerer is the bastard son of the local Magocratic Ruler, you're also looking at being kidnapped and sent away, imprisoned, or straight up assassinated to avoid political fallout or someone grooming you to claim the throne as the "Rightful Heir".

Wouldn't such families do what we did in reality and try to keep the power for themselves? We're not just talking political marriages and inbreeding (which definitely could be a thing that leads to children with -strange- sorcery) but also about the Persecution of Warlocks and Wizards who are democratizing magic by being able to wield it while not being a part of a special bloodline. And also teach it to -others-?! Unacceptable! Laws must be passed! Halls of extremely prestigious study must be formed! Only the wealthiest, noblest, most favoured families shall be allowed to Learn Magic from a Wizard! All of which are of course at the purview of your local Magocrat.

Artificers, similarly, have this problem. They exist in most D&D settings for the purpose of existing. Sometimes, like in Eberron, they're the "Driving Force" behind technological (or more often magitechnological) advancement in the setting. But what is an -adventuring- Artificer? I wound up deputizing them as a special kind of Anti-Magic Magic-Cop in the setting. Their natural inquisitiveness allows them to CSI things up really nicely, add in some magical talents and understanding of the Arcane, and you've got a pretty decent Wizard-Hunter who can work for the Sorcerous Nobility to track down Witches and Warlocks and other Spellcasters who break the rules meant to keep power in the hands of the few...

Some classes, like Fighter or Rogue, should be pretty flexible, rather than tied into the setting, it's true. Though of course they should have -options- for ties to the setting, like Knightly Orders, Revolutionary Groups, or Thieves Guilds.

But what are some character classes that you feel need some kind of narrative anchor to not feel "Extra"?
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Some classes, like Fighter or Rogue, should be pretty flexible, rather than tied into the setting, it's true. Though of course they should have -options- for ties to the setting, like Knightly Orders, Revolutionary Groups, or Thieves Guilds.

But what are some character classes that you feel need some kind of narrative anchor to not feel "Extra"?

I completely agree with everything you wrote.

However, there are many people that hate tying "lore" or "fluff" into classes or into class mechanics.

That said, the following PHB classes tend to be more lore-heavy:
Paladin
Monk
Warlock
Sorcerer
Druid

Fighters and Wizards are the quintessential examples of classes that do not need to have that tie in.
Rogues are close behind.
Clerics are a bit different, simply because of the whole deity thing, which tends to be camapaign-specific.
(That's the "core four").

Rangers and Barbarians have some tie-ins to the campaign settings, but also tend to be a little more diffuse (either because of identity issues in the case of the Ranger or because of the "outlander" issues with Barbarians).

Bards should not be tied into any campaign, ever, and instead should be tied to heavy rocks and tossed into deep lakes.
 

Any or all it’s depend on the setting and the DM.
I think that a PC of class can by view as a sole and last member of an ancient tradition or a common member of a fully integrated class in the society.
Your ideas are great, that is exactly the building of a personal setting.
 
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jgsugden

Legend
Class is the primary source of power for the character. That does not mean it needs to be the primary source of their place in the world. A fighter can be a very generic class, but that does not mean that every fighter needs to be very generic. Their background, their humanoid type, and the backstory the player writes (ESPECIALLY the backstory) can all have equal or greater influence on who that character is and how they fit into the world. Your example of the "Anti-Magic Magic Cop" seems to indicate you've done the same.

Characters are built on character, not stats. Being royalty, a merchant's child, a former criminal, etc... all should have more of an effect on who they are than their class.

Further, reskinning can change a lot and not impact balance. One of my PCs is a Vuman (Warlock Magic Initiate - Mage Hand, Prestidigitation, Hex) Open Hand Monk - on paper. However, those are just the mechanics of his abilities. He is a wandering (Far Traveler origin) member of a clan that practices supernatural arts. All of his monk abilities are given a reskin so that they are primarily working based upon spectral hands he summons to perform the abilities (not everything, but most of it). A stun is a hand grasping a nerve on the enemy. His movement is his body being dragged along by the hands. The Open Hand Push and Prone are hands dragging enemies around. He doesn't belong to a monastery. He doesn't meditate. I selected the Shadow Touched Feat for him to give him more supernatural abilities. He feels a but like a monk, but doesn't subscribe to that title.

Further, you can develop class concepts further to give them more of a place in your world, with relationships and obligations creating expectations. In my homebrew, the sorcerers have baggage due to their origin, with the baggage differing based upon their origin (not really for the wild sorcerers, but for the rest). For example, a Divine Soul is sought out by the churches and recruited. The new Aberrant Mind is a perfect fit for a storyline, and I have NPCs that would be extremely interested in recruiting them. If you have dragon blood, you're going to be of interest to the followers of Bahamut, Tiamat and Vorel.

Artificers (as well as anyone else that might dabble in things related to science) also tend be sought out and 'encouraged' to join organizations in my setting. Those organizations have long histories, goals, etc... If you join - great. If you don't, you likely made an enemy. Either way, it adds to your place in the world.
 


delericho

Legend
I generally have a mix - some classes are tied into the setting but others aren't (generally, most aren't). So your Wizard probably belongs to a particular school and your Cleric probably belongs to a known religious order (or, perhaps, is not - but even that means something in the context of the setting). Conversely, Rogues and Fighters probably don't have specific orders associated with the class.
 

Nefermandias

Adventurer
I completely agree with everything you wrote.

However, there are many people that hate tying "lore" or "fluff" into classes or into class mechanics.

That said, the following PHB classes tend to be more lore-heavy:
Paladin
Monk
Warlock
Sorcerer
Druid

Fighters and Wizards are the quintessential examples of classes that do not need to have that tie in.
Rogues are close behind.
Clerics are a bit different, simply because of the whole deity thing, which tends to be camapaign-specific.
(That's the "core four").

Rangers and Barbarians have some tie-ins to the campaign settings, but also tend to be a little more diffuse (either because of identity issues in the case of the Ranger or because of the "outlander" issues with Barbarians).

Bards should not be tied into any campaign, ever, and instead should be tied to heavy rocks and tossed into deep lakes.
That's expected, to be honest. Being a paladin or a monk actually says a lot about who you are, how your education went, how you're expected to behave regarding certain subjects, etc.

Being a fighter or wizard though? It just describes a set of tools you use to interact with the world (in this case, either martial training or arcane magic). It doesn't pack up a lot of lore baggage.

I like how 4e separated things. Your class represented your toolset while your theme and background actually represented who you were within the fantasy world.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
As one of those people @Snarf Zagyg mentioned who find no utility in strict alignment of class to in-fiction groups, I have nothing meaningful to add to the topic.

Other than saying my response to the title of the thread is "No". :)

It's definitely a controversial topic.

Given the general direction of the game, I am surprised that we have not seen a gestalt option.

I would not be surprised, at all, if a 6e keeps the class structure as the base option, but then provides some sort of "gestalt" or "a la carte" selections at each level as an optional feature.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I'm definitely sympathetic to the idea - I'm also sympathetic to the idea that background should be tying the PC to the world. Ultimately, I think it's really got to be both and any viewpoint that focus on one or the other is, necessarily, missing about half the picture.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Warlocks are a great example of this phenomenon.

By being tied to a powerful otherworldly figure, they've got a somewhat strict tie to the world. One which, like a paladin or cleric, strip their power away the moment they don't like what the Warlock is doing. These NPCs are often Evil, or at least Alien. Malign or Strange, they have their own goals which may not always align with the warlock's, and they're always tied to the specific setting you're in.

Yeah, you're a Fiend Pact Warlock, which feels fairly generic, but your patron has a name and a role in the narrative. Schemes and plots and enemies and such. Usually.

Sometimes being a Fiend Warlock just means you've sold your soul or done some terrible evil in a one-off event, or been born of a cursed bloodline, and you choose to forgo your potential narrative ties to the campaign setting because your power was attained in a single event and any "Patron" involved isn't micromanaging you as their hand on Krynn or whatever planet you're on. And that's fine.

What I'm referring to is the Baseline of Sorcerer. The Baseline of Ranger. They should have some ties to the world that any player is, of course, free to ignore. If someone were to play a Sorcerer at my table in the Ashen Lands campaign setting I wouldn't demand a 4 page History Report on their lineage and bloodline with provided patents of nobility reaching back at least 3 generations on one side.

That player could just be using the class to represent a character with Magic. Hell, that player could play a Sorcerer and call themselves a Wizard or a Mage, for all I care and hang out in the prestigious halls of magical knowledge like a Wizard. Or claim to be a Warlock and ask me to write them up a Patron that gives them Draconic Power for their Dragonblood Sorcerer and I'll gladly oblige and put it into the world for that player in particular and everyone in the game world will treat them just like a Warlock regardless of their Sorcery Points and Metamagic Feats. Their draconic patron might even have specific goals of it's own that they're directed to.

But beyond mechanics, things should have a narrative connection to the setting. Something that a player can look at and say "Yes. That is the setting's narrative for my class and I like it and want to explore it!" or "Yes. That is the setting's narrative for my class and I would prefer to not have that."

While the actual main thrust of it is giving the class a place and way to exist within the cultural narrative of the world for the DM to use to build and flesh the world out. Which is the purpose to which I'm referring. Not a narrative straitjacket for players to be bound to.

A basis which uses the class fantasy to enrich the world.
 

aco175

Legend
I find that a lot of class expansion would be campaign dependent. I hardly use faction in FR except for at conventions where AL is used. My players would rather have local groups or orders that are tied to campaign. The fighter has a 'soldier' background. This can be so much more if it was a specific unit or town militia. There can be added flavor tied to it and even changed benefits like skills or powers. Same thing with sorcerers and wizards. There can be guilds and academies that they may have attended with specific schools or limited spells available to them that went there. This can be a great way to introduce some of the new spells from the advanced 5e that @Morrus is working on and has some sample spells in another thread.

This flavor is great for the setting and some players want more of this but it takes a lot of work to tie everything together.
 

Xeviat

Hero
I agree with the principal. That's why I like smaller class lists. The 12 classes of the PHB were my ideal; I felt most archetypes could be made with them. It took me a while, but I came on board to the Artificer as a class, because it is a firm archetype that cannot really be done with the existing classes.

I'm still on the fence personally about the Warlord: part of me can see it as it's own class, part of me can see blending it with the bard and making thr bard broader, and part of me sees splitting the warlord up into fighter and rogue subclasses.

I still hold onto hope that we will get a Mystic. I even see the Monk as a potential "half-mystic".

The primary spellcasters are firmly tied to the setting. Personally, I think Warlock and Sorcerer could be blended and have the difference between blood and pact be fluff or a choice in the class.

Likewise, Bard, Druid, Monk, Paladin, and Warlock feel very tied to the core D&D assumptions. It's been pointed out to me recently that the Cleric is very culturally specific too.
 

My first thought was "but DnD doesn't have a world, it has many worlds." It's not setting agnostic, but people play in many different settings so any way you tie a class to a setting is going to need to be reexamined when you change settings.

What I'm referring to is the Baseline of Sorcerer. The Baseline of Ranger. They should have some ties to the world that any player is, of course, free to ignore. If someone were to play a Sorcerer at my table in the Ashen Lands campaign setting I wouldn't demand a 4 page History Report on their lineage and bloodline with provided patents of nobility reaching back at least 3 generations on one side.
The thing is, sorcerers and rangers have a baseline. Sorcerers have their origin. They could choose to have their character not know about it, but they could chose to lean into it if they wanted. Maybe they're from a dragon-blooded noble house, or they spend their childhood in the shadowfell. Rangers have their circle plus the general idea of being a ranger (a protector in the wilderness).

The only classes that don't have something in the class to build off of are fighter and rogue. With fighters, most subclasses do the work for you: any of the mage-knight subclasses could be a knightly order in the setting if you want, and most of the non-magic ones could be tied to specific schools or martial traditions. Rogues are tougher - several of the subclasses just imply that you worked for a shady group, which is really vague.

But if only one class has the problem, than it's not a general problem.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
I've tried to make it clear that I'm talking about the Class as a feature of the Setting.

Not about how a player chooses to play the class.

I'm just not sure how I can make it any more clear, at this point.
 


I fully agree that the classes should have in-setting meaning. I literally have no interest in using a class based system if this is not the case. For my new game I went trough all the classes and subclasses, chose which I wanted to include, and tried to come up an in-setting context for them. So now I have an origin story for the Spell-Thieves of Shimbal (arcane tricksters), cultures which worship animal spirits from which totem barbarians and certain druids can hail from, origins for differnt martial arts schools etc. D&D classes come with weirdly specific packages of stuff and reskinning those is awkward and kludgy. If I want more freeform character creation that is not tied to strong archetypes, then I just use some other system that is not literally build upon such archetypes. And on general I don't care for having mechanics for just mechanic's sake. A mechanic must represent something, and the same thing must be represented consistently.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
After reading the LevelUp Cleric I wanted to share something that I've felt is a real problem with several character classes in D&D: They have Fantasy Associations, but no World-Anchoring.
This is a valid position. It in not the only valid position. And for the historical position of D&D, it is the wrong default position.

I'm very fond of laser-focused rules and setting, like Blades in the Dark. It's great to have that level of mechanical support for a setting. It really can add to the feel.

But D&D is a big tent game, not that typoe of game. It supports lots of different settings including homebrew. Trying to require the mechanical to tie into the setting is at best futile, and at worst actively limiting in how homebrew and other settings can be created because of mechanical connections that act as world limitations built into the classes.

Heck, class as an in-world concept doesn't even have to exist. Look at the NPCs in the monster manual. They weren't created using PC rules. Druids who are 4th level casters but can't wildshape, and lots of other bits. Classes are a balanced shorthand for PC creation, and players could literally be unique in the world to have that exact combination of abilities.
 

ninjayeti

Adventurer
I think it depends on how common you assume those classes are in your fantasy world. If they are relatively plentiful, then yes society would probably carve out a niche for them. But if they are rare then they could be seen as "one -offs" and make a place for themselves as individuals. So if sorcerers are common they might be the noble bloodlines of a kingdom or seen as dangerous challengers by the wizards guild (both things I have used in game worlds). But if sorcerers are rare then they probably don't have a role as a group.

The same reasoning can apply to races. If, for example, kenku are common in your game world then there should be kenku nations, or at least "rookery" districts in the major cities, a kenku culture, etc. But you could also say a kenku PC was the last of his tribe, from a remote corner of the map, the result of magical experiment, etc.

Bottom line is PCs are supposed to be exceptional - there is no reason to assume there must be lots of other people in your fantasy world with the same set of abilities.
 

Aldarc

Legend
As one of those people @Snarf Zagyg mentioned who find no utility in strict alignment of class to in-fiction groups, I have nothing meaningful to add to the topic.

Other than saying my response to the title of the thread is "No". :)
I'm more put off by halfway efforts of no in-fiction meaning of classes and yes in-fiction meaning of classes because if you want something generic, the in-fiction classes that are there will rub you the wrong way, but if you want in-fiction meaning of classes, then those that aren't will also rub you the wrong way.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Then you need to specify which Setting.
Any setting..?

All Settings.

Character classes should be a part of the world. Should shape it as a narrative conceit in the hands of the writer.

The word "Paladin" (or "Herald", now, I guess) should hold weight in the Mists of Ravenloft and also on Krynn. It should be a part of the narrative structures of Faerun and Athas. It shouldn't just "Exist to Exist". Is what I'm getting at. For the purpose of the setting, of -any- setting, a character class or race or other aspect should have a purpose.

Wizards should have schools and orders and towers and spells named after them and undergo insane rituals to steal the power of the Gods for themselves or act as sages for players to call on. Clerics should proselytize for their deities whether through word or through deed and in connection to the church or as a radical heretic against it. Warlocks should seek out secret knowledge or engage in the plans of their outlandish patrons, perhaps stealing names for a Fey Trickster or swapping babies with changelings. Fighters should be part of armies or renegade bands or washed up swordsmen with legendary histories or folk heroes. Rogues should be Pirates and Conmen, Manipulators and Puckish Rakes. And Sorcerers... should... um. Do...

Something. Something that isn't just "Well a Wizard could be in this role, but I could use a sorcerer for it, too". Something that sets them apart.

For my setting I'm making them Arcane Nobility. In another setting they might be the hands and eyes of various cabals of ancient magical entities working against each other. In Ravenloft they might represent Accursed people who wield terrible magics and often undergo physical transformations as their powers grow! On Krynn maybe Dragonblood Sorcerers are the puppets of Paladine and Takhisis. Or just children playing in the garden while a war brews beyond the fence, blithely unaware of how good they have it while the danger builds.

Maybe Storm Sorcerers are descendants of Titanic Elements in a setting and their powers bear deep respect upon the High Seas for fear of angering the Sorcerer's Parentage. Or maybe the Abberation-Blooded Psionic Sorcerer has to lay low when the Order of Monster-Hunters come calling to "Purge the Land" of the abberant plague.

-Something- to make them feel like they fit into the setting. Rather than existing only to exist.

And, again, I'm talking about narrative trappings for NPCs and such, to flesh out a given campaign world separate from a player's personal characterization.

I just think it sucks that Sorcerers are often left on the wayside in most settings. Rangers and Artificers, too. They "Exist to Exist" for most worlds, with no more binding to the world than the idea that they're "Out There" and "Doing Things".
 

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