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D&D General On Powerful Classes, 1e, and why the Original Gygaxian Gatekeeping Failed

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Snarfian Note: I am using "gatekeeping" here in the older sense and not more recent slang verbiage. "The activity of controlling or limiting general access to something." In itself, this term is not a pejorative. I understand that there are those who use this term in a pejorative way (to limit participation in a collective activity), and that this is used to refer negatively to those who limit access to activities, discussions, and so on. That is not what is being discussed here.

Hi everybody!

Hi Dr. Nick!

Well, now that's out of the way, I wanted to discuss one of the topics that has been percolating in my pea-sized brain for a bit of time; specifically, the notion of Gygaxian gatekeeping of power. And, on a related note, why, in my estimation, that particular form of gatekeeping (that is inextricably tied into OSR and 1e concepts) ended up failing and no longer has a place of prominence in the modern game. In essence, it is why we see more balanced classes, more standard arrays and/or point buys instead of rolling, and so on.

A long time ago, I heard a saying about a profession. In essence, I was told that finishing at the top of your class was like winning a pie-eating contest, and the grand prize? It was more pie! The joke, of course, was that if you worked really hard, the reward you received was the ability ... to continue working really hard. That same dynamic plays out in the older games, and was (IMO) a particular Gygaxian way of gatekeeping powerful abilities.

In the Gygaxian editions of D&D, the game kept certain powers behind prerequisite ability scores that required your character to already be really good; this "rich get richer" conundrum was unsustainable as a design choice as it eventually led to (1) escalation of power, (2) cheating, or (3) ignoring the rules.


1. Examples of Gygaxian Gatekeeping.

"They call Snarf Zagyg 'Meth head Santa,' because he so rarely delivers." You, probably.

While we could go back and look at the origins of Gygaxian gatekeeping in OD&D, I think it is sufficient to see the full expression of it in AD&D (1e). Simply put, it is everywhere. For those of you unfamiliar with some of the design choices that went into AD&D, I will list some salient examples before going into one of the prime areas (that also happens to dovetail with my prior two essays on the Ranger).

a. Ability scores. In 5e, having even a 12 in an ability gives you a bonus. In 1e, many abilities didn't kick in with real bonuses until 15. If you used a 3d6 method of generating ability scores, your odds of rolling a 15 was 4.63% (with 4d6k1 it's 10.11%). Obviously, with six rolls, you you probably end up with a decent ability ... but using standard ways to generate ability scores, you probably ended up on the low side. But not only did most of the bonuses start kicking in at 15, they quickly scaled up- a 15 dexterity, for example, gave you a -1 to your defense (AC, a few saves) and that's it. An 18 dexterity gave you +3 to hit missile weapons, +3 on surprise/initiative, and -4 to your defense. Clerics with an 18 wisdom received 6 bonus spells. A lot of higher-level abilities were explicitly hidden behind high abilities- you needed a 17 wisdom to cast 6th level spells, and an 18 wisdom to cast 7th level spells (clerics), and MU spells also had the gatekeeping (starting at intelligence 10 for 5th level spells, and concluding at 18 int for 9th level).

b. Strength. Percentile strength was a heckuva thing and warrants a separate entry. For those of you not familiar with the jokes about 18/00 strength, the old rules, if you had an 18 strength and were a fighter (since this is apparently necessary, this includes subclasses of fighter... I sure hope I don't have to repeat this every ... single ... time ... I .... write .... this), let you roll a percentiles for additional strength (and bonuses). But to give you an idea of how amazing these percentile bonuses were, they could let a character go from a maximum of +1 to hit, +2 to damage, all the way to +3/+6.

c. XP bonuses. Most classes had a prime requisite ability (for example, Clerics and wisdom). If the character had a certain score (such as 15) or higher, then the character got an additional bonus- 10% additional XP!

d. Multiclassing level limitations. Non-humans (dem-humans under the older nomenclature) were allowed to multiclass, but had strict level limits in almost all classes (except thief, except half-orc which was unlimited in assassin). However, those limits were influenced by ... ability scores. So you wanted to play an Elven Fighter? Great! If you had a strength less than 17, your level limit was 5, if it was 17, it was 6, if it was 18, you could go to 7th level!

e. Psionics, etc. There were any number of rules, including optional rules such as psionics, that also had this type of gatekeeping. Looking at the optional psionics can make this clear- in order to even have a chance for psionics, a character would need to have one or more unmodified* scores of 16 or higher in intelligence, wisdom or charisma. More importantly, you have a much higher chance for each point of Int/Wis/Cha that you have above 16! And ... wait for it ... the amount of psionic ability (the points you have) is modified by having these abilities higher!

*Brief aside- why unmodified? Great question! Since this is only determined at the creation of the character, it doesn't take into account magic items or other things that would modify the scores, so assumedly it is referring to racial bonuses- in other words, if you are a dwarf with a penalty to your charisma, that doesn't count against you. If you are a half-orc, though, too bad. Only humans, dwarves, and halflings have psionics, for reasons. Elves don't, because they are soulless automatons with dead eyes that seek the destruction of all that is good.


2. Gygaxian Gatekeeping and the Subclasses.
"I'm not great at this Hallmark stuff, but when I look at you now, I don't want to kick you in the head quite as much." Mother Teresa, indubitably.

So all of the above (and more, as I am sure others will chime in!) were examples of Gygaxian gatekeeping. But the primary example most people easily remember is the subclasses. For those who aren't versed in 1e and how things used to work, you had the "Core Four" (Cleric, Fighter, Magic User, Thief) as well as subclasses for the core four (Cleric/Druid, Fighter/Paladin, Fighter/Ranger, MU/Illusionist, Thief/Assassin). There was also the Monk (set out separately, but for these purposes will be considered a subclass) and the Bard (as kind of a pseudo-prestige class, and will be rightfully ignored).

As a general rule, the subclasses tended to have incredibly high prerequisites. To give you an idea of the differences-
To be a cleric, you need a 9 wisdom. To be a druid, you need a 12 wisdom AND a 15 charisma. (I won't mention this again, but remember those XP bonuses? A cleric get a 10% XP bonus for a 16 wisdom; a druid needs a 16 wisdom and a 16 charisma to get the bonus).
To be a MU, you need a 9 intelligence and a 6 dexterity (heh). To be an illusionist, you need a 15 intelligence and a 16 dexterity.
To be a thief, you need a 9 dexterity. To be an assassin, you need a 12 strength, 11 intelligence, and 12 dexterity.
And, as an FYI, to be a monk you need a 15 strength, 15 wisdom, 15 dexterity, and 11 constitution.

The reason I am only briefly mentioning those is because, why they are examples of this type of Gygaxian gatekeeping (restricting by ability score), they weren't overly powerful. People can play and argue about their love for the 1e druid, or illusionist, or thief, or even the OG Monk, but no one would say that they were just so OP that they were ridiculous.

The fighter subclasses, on the other hand ... let's briefly discuss the Paladin and the Ranger. Both of them had severe ability gatekeeping to become that class. To be a fighter, you need a strength of 9 and a constitution of 7. To be a ranger, you need a strength of 13, intelligence of 13, wisdom of 14, and constitution of 14. To be a paladin, you need a strength of 12, an intelligence of 9, a wisdom of 13, a constitution of 9 and a charisma of .... wait for it .... 17.

But here's the thing- the fighter subclasses got everything the fighter did, and more.* The 1e fighter was an excellent class. But, although there were some restrictions (cue up the "Lawful Stupid Paladin" memes), the fighter subclasses not only did everything the main class did, they also were stocked with all sorts of other abilities, from spellcasting at higher levels to innate abilities (such as tracking and bonuses against the most common enemies for rangers, or the whole kitchen sink of abilities for Paladins).

Again, the limit, the gatekeeping function, was that you had to be a certain level of awesome (with high abilities) in order to be even more awesome.

*Okay, the ranger got d8 hit dice, two at first level but with con bonuses on each, instead of d10. But they also got one level more- so they ended up with 11d8 (plus con) (average 49.5) instead of 9d10 (49.5); the ranger was also delayed slightly from gaining additional attacks. But generally, everything and more.


3. Interlude; On Cheating and an Aside about Real Life.
"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works." Siddhārtha Gautama, inspiringly.

Without trying to be controversial, there does exist a basis for this original design decision. While Gygax explicitly eschewed the idea of D&D being "realistic" in the DMG, it is also true that he came from wargaming routes; there is a constant tension in 1e between verisimilitude and just being a game. If you were to assume that Paladins and Rangers are more rare than Fighters ... that they are the best of the best ... then it would make sense that they would be restricted. Not every person can be (for example) a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL. We often see this play out in different spheres- put this under the "rich get richer," category. Sure, it may not be fair or right that (say) an actor who is already making a lot of money is then gifted with a lot of freebies at an awards show, but it often plays out that these types of advantages steamroll.

But that doesn't make for a fun game, necessarily. If you really want to play a Paladin (for example), it would truly suck that you would have to wait for the stars to align and to get that 17 charisma. On the other hand, if you are playing your "regular old fighter" it might seem almost unfair to be in a party with Rangers and Paladins, both of whom not only have special abilities, but also likely are just plain better since they needed great abilities already just to qualify for the class!

These unfortunate truths, IME, led to a lot of .... creative rolling back in the day. There are quite a few people who would show up with 18-percentile strength (and always high percentiles ... never an 18/21). Or they just happened to roll a 17 charisma when no one was looking. Because unlike the more modern games, once you rolled your character, those abilities were set (yes, there were certain magic items that could raise them, but you didn't have ASIs) and determined a lot of those bonuses and how effective you were ... not to mention what classes you could even qualify for.

So people were ... creative.


4. Unearthed Arcana; Gygaxian Gatekeeping Bends and Breaks.
"To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research." Laurence Sterne, haltingly.

As noted above, Gygaxian gatekeeping was often dependent on ability scores- ability scores that were largely immutable. Which led to a lot of creative ways to get ability scores. But by the time of the release of Unearthed Arcana, the gig was up. There are a lot of reasons I don't like UA, from the power-creep of the classes to the fact that a lot of the rules aren't playable in a long-term campaign. But in the appendices we also found the beginning of the end of Gygaxian gatekeeping.

Method V allowed you to roll up to 9d6 to generate an ability (!), and if you didn't get the minimum, you could just take the minimum score needed. Although it said it only applied to humans, because Gygax really, really loved humanocentrism, that was almost always ignored at tables that used it, and it quickly became a way for table to generate very high ability scores while also choosing their class.

And that's what it comes down to- in the end, the method used just wasn't popular, and most tables found a way around it either explicitly or surreptitiously. Which is why, AFAIK, there are no vestiges of Gygaxian gatekeeping left in 5e.
 

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Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Small point of clarity, you couldn't be in a party full of rangers in 1e. You were limited. And in a game that was all about treasure (that's how you got most of your XP), paladins couldn't have as much as everyone else. Not that that made up for the power difference.

Personally, at lower levels, the cleric was the most powerful class IMO. A high WIS with bonus spells? In an edition where spells were more powerful (save or die)? Yeah, a 3rd level cleric with a high WIS tossing around hold person spells was more powerful than about any other class at that level.
 

You are correct with regard to creativity.

In such a restrictive and deadly world mulligans and DM help were required to get to high levels.

statistically—-statistics are not on your side! You are going to miss a death save. Without mountains of hit points, a lucky roll will get you.

we fudged for sure in some way. And of course sometimes we died.

What the gate keeping did for us was to make some things special. They felt rare. Nothing was given. We did not demand our story get told! We fought to make our mark and often we did.

I really look back fondly and wonder if I should revisit that very gatekeeping. A single magic item could change a character greatly. Resources were scarce and things felt more tangible to me.

if it was all a dream as Conan says, it was real enough for me.

even with some fudging things were still not always a given. And honestly I liked that.
 


billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Yeah, the gatekeeping stat requirements weren't very effective. There were 3 ways I know of people getting around them to play the PC class they wanted to play:

1) Use that really degenerate rolling method from Unearthed Arcana
2) Roll again and again and again to get the stats you needed
3) Roll up the character and then simply raise stats that didn't meet the requirements so that they did so.

As a variation of #3, I did like way MERP handled it (and maybe that was a feature of Rolemaster too, I didn't really delve into the original game). Every class had a primary attribute so you put your lowest rolled stat in it then raised it to 90 (out of 100). It guaranteed you had that primary attribute at a very good level and you got to ditch your lowest score to do so.

Ultimately, I'm glad the gatekeeping got ditched.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Do you consider the other Gygaxian balancing issues separate?

Different xp charts.

Level limits for races in general separate from the distinctions by stats.

Low level suckage versus high level dominance and vice versa.

I do consider them separate. While these other Gygaxian mechanisms have also been discarded over time, I think that there are other reasons for both using them and discarding them- honestly, they are (as you state) balancing mechanisms.

The issue I highlight, IMO, aren't balancing mechanisms. They are, pure and simple, gatekeeping functions that primarily allow those with higher ability scores (which are randomly generated) access to more and more bonuses, powers, and so on.
 



Nikosandros

Golden Procrastinator
Small point of clarity, you couldn't be in a party full of rangers in 1e. You were limited. And in a game that was all about treasure (that's how you got most of your XP), paladins couldn't have as much as everyone else. Not that that made up for the power difference.

The 1e paladin has to tithe 10% immediately and the give away excess treasure after paying upkeep, but they still gain XP for gold. They just don't accumulate it.
Personally, at lower levels, the cleric was the most powerful class IMO. A high WIS with bonus spells? In an edition where spells were more powerful (save or die)? Yeah, a 3rd level cleric with a high WIS tossing around hold person spells was more powerful than about any other class at that level.
Indeed. It is not unusual to see a cleric devoting all the second level spell slots to hold person.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
I think, and I certainly can not speak for the actual reasons and mindset of Gygax, but it always seemed/made sense to me, that gatekeeping the subclasses (and monk and bard) behind ability scores served more than a "power-brokering" thing or any attempt at what we'd now call class "balance"...NOT Gygax's strongest suit...

...But it was a function for the narrative/story side of the game. That in the world of D&D, there would/"should" just be fewer paladins running around than fighters. That Rangers, Druids, Illusionists, Assassins, and especially Monks, should be more uncommon in the world simply by virtue that having the traits that "permitted" those classes were found fewer and farther between among people.

I mean, sure, folks "cheated" more and more to end up with the character they wanted. Human nature, I think, moreso than anything UA said was "ok/now allowed."

But I always read the 1e PHB, and UA, and all of the ability limits and scores (we flat out ignored racial level limits across the board, the entirety of our play experience) as an attempt to limit the number of such classes (and creatures), by the dice, in the narrative. Racial ability minimums were set to make the elf and dwarf characters more rare than a human one -strictly by the rolls. The ability criteria of the Ranger was to make sure there were very few "Rangers" running around in the same fashion...though a green-cloaked "Woodsman/Archer/Monster Hunter Warrior guy" Fighters (or thieves) were a dime a dozen.

But I honestly can't recall being at a table, back in the 1e [glory] days that stuck by 3 (or 4) d6 in order rolling when it came to making characters. More often than not, you just rolled...over and over and over until you got what you wanted.
 
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Stormonu

Legend
I must have been one of the very few that was fairly strict on the aspects mentioned above (though once UA came out I did let players use the Method V, if they were going to play a human character). Most of that went out the window once 2E rolled around, though.

Another gatekeeping aspect that made its way into 2E was the “% to know spell” on the Int table - I got zapped by it when my Witch character couldn’t learn Fireball, and I had another player who was incensed they failed to learn Magic Missile. And of course, there was the cleric not only unrestricted in learning a spell, but get bonus ones to boot.

I’ll also mention that while AD&D supposedly didn’t have a maximum level, it was pretty clear Gygax didn’t intend for the game to play into the double-digit levels (except for maybe magic-users); strongholds and armies were clearly the end-game abilities that kicked in around 9th. This meant that the “unlimited level human advancement” is a bit of joke, and multiclassing as a demihuman was the de facto way to go.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I do consider them separate. While these other Gygaxian mechanisms have also been discarded over time, I think that there are other reasons for both using them and discarding them- honestly, they are (as you state) balancing mechanisms.

The issue I highlight, IMO, aren't balancing mechanisms. They are, pure and simple, gatekeeping functions that primarily allow those with higher ability scores (which are randomly generated) access to more and more bonuses, powers, and so on.
In a way that is a balancing factor though. Higher bonuses and subclasses with more powerful abilities were “balanced” by the fact that they were rarer. Richard Garfield tried to do the same thing with Magic: the Gathering, “balancing” the most powerful cards by making them the rarest. On paper it makes sense, especially in a competitive gaming context like the wargames Gygax’s background was in. In practice of course, people are going to find a way to play what they want to play, be it through cheating, house ruling, or just re-rolling tons of times (or buying tons of packs, in the case of M:tG).
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think, and I certainly can not speak for the actual reasons and mindset of Gygax, but it always seemed/made sense to me, that gatekeeping the subclasses (and monk and bard) behind ability scores served more than a "power-brokering" thing or any attempt at what we'd now call class "balance"...NOT Gygax's strongest suit...

...But it was a function for the narrative/story side of the game. That in the world of D&D, there would/"should" just be fewer paladins running around than fighters. That Rangers, Druids, Illusionists, Assassins, and especially Monks, should be more uncommon in the world simply by virtue that having the traits that "permitted" those classes were found fewer and farther between among people.
I imagine it was a bit of both. Yes, from a world building standpoint it makes sense that Fighters are more common than Paladins and Rangers. But also, Paladins and Rangers ought to be more powerful if they’re rarer, no? If nothing else, to at least make them something worth aspiring to. Give them the cool abilities to make them the classes players hope to roll high enough to play.

Again, it makes sense on paper. It just fails to account for the fact that in practice, players will go to great lengths to play what they want to play.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I’ll also mention that while AD&D supposedly didn’t have a maximum level, it was pretty clear Gygax didn’t intend for the game to play into the double-digit levels (except for maybe magic-users); strongholds and armies were clearly the end-game abilities that kicked in around 9th. This meant that the “unlimited level human advancement” is a bit of joke, and multiclassing as a demihuman was the de facto way to go.

We say that, but ...

1. Several classes had capped level limits that were well above 9th level. Druid (14), Assassin (15), and Monk (17) all indicated that those hard caps were supposed to be meaningful, and all were well above 9th level.

2. Weird class abilities- such as the Fighter multi-attack. You didn't get the 2/1 until level 13 (Paladin & Fighter) or 15 (Ranger).

3. The existence of those insane spell tables ... the Cleric spell tavle went up to level 29, and there were no level 7 spells until level 16; the Illusionist went to level 26 and you didn't get level 7 spells until 14; and the MU table went to ... checking again ... squints ... LEVEL 29! And you didn't get those precious, game-destroying 9th level spells until level 18.

4. The occasional letter to Dragon Magazine, as well as the existence of Deities and Demigods and Q1, seemed to indicate that some people didn't just build strongholds, unless they did so ON ORCUS'S BONES. :)
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I imagine it was a bit of both. Yes, from a world building standpoint it makes sense that Fighters are more common than Paladins and Rangers. But also, Paladins and Rangers ought to be more powerful if they’re rarer, no? If nothing else, to at least make them something worth aspiring to. Give them the cool abilities to make them the classes players hope to roll high enough to play.

Again, it makes sense on paper. It just fails to account for the fact that in practice, players will go to great lengths to play what they want to play.
You don't say!

From the OP:

Without trying to be controversial, there does exist a basis for this original design decision. While Gygax explicitly eschewed the idea of D&D being "realistic" in the DMG, it is also true that he came from wargaming route; there is a constant tension in 1e between verisimilitude and just being a game. If you were to assume that Paladins and Rangers are more rare than Fighters ... that they are the best of the best ... then it would make sense that they would be restricted. Not every person can be (for example) a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL. We often see this play out in different spheres- put this under the "rich get richer," category. Sure, it may not be fair or right that (say) an actor who is already making a lot of money is then gifted with a lot of freebies at an awards show, but it often plays out that these types of advantages steamroll.

But that doesn't make for a fun game, necessarily. If you really want to play a Paladin (for example), it would truly suck that you would have to wait for the stars to align and to get that 17 charisma. On the other hand, if you are playing your "regular old fighter" it might seem almost unfair to be in a party with Rangers and Paladins, both of whom not only have special abilities, but also likely are just plain better since they needed great abilities already just to qualify for the class!


:)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I’ll add that I really like the idea of rarity as a balancing tool. But it requires a different type of game to work. That’s why limited formats are a thing in magic - instead of building decks from your whole collection, everyone gets a fixed amount of sealed product and has to build a deck with whatever they get, or else draft picks from a shared pool and build with what you draft. To make rarity as balance work in D&D, you would need a similar restriction.

Again, theoretically you could achieve this by strictly enforcing 3d6 in order (or whatever method of rolling stats, the important part is just that everyone has to use the same method), with no rerolls. But in practice, players can just have their characters commit suicide (or play them suicidally if that’s not allowed) so they can roll up a new character, until they get a set of stats they like. Maybe the thing to do would be to let everyone roll up a certain number of characters (again, enforcing the same rolling method for everyone), and once your characters are all dead, that’s it. You’re out. This would work better for a more competitive form of D&D, where the DM tries to kill the PCs and the players try to keep their characters alive as long as possible.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I’ll add that I really like the idea of rarity as a balancing tool. But it requires a different type of game to work. That’s why limited formats are a thing in magic - instead of building decks from your whole collection, everyone gets a fixed amount of sealed product and has to build a deck with whatever they get, or else draft picks from a shared pool and build with what you draft. To make rarity as balance work in D&D, you would need a similar restriction.

So, to more fully explain why this isn't a balancing tool (unlike XP charts, level caps for demi humans, or the way some classes sucked at lower levels compared to other classes) as opposed to a rarity issue-

Look back at the entirety of section 1. Throughout OD&D and into 1e, the use of high ability scores for gatekeeping was prevalent. High ability scores gave you all sorts of bonuses; not only the bonuses you got from the high ability scores (such as advantages to armor class, ability to be resurrected, advantages to thieving abilities, or even bonus spells), but they also allowed access to everything from special classes to XP bonuses to optional abilities (like psionics).

That's why this wasn't a balancing mechanism, but a gatekeeping mechanism. It had nothing to do with game balance, but instead provided cascading advantages for having high abilities.
 

Voadam

Legend
I’ll add that I really like the idea of rarity as a balancing tool. But it requires a different type of game to work. That’s why limited formats are a thing in magic - instead of building decks from your whole collection, everyone gets a fixed amount of sealed product and has to build a deck with whatever they get, or else draft picks from a shared pool and build with what you draft. To make rarity as balance work in D&D, you would need a similar restriction.
I think this works better by limiting rare things per PC rather than balancing with the rarity for the group in general. So if you wanted to make magic items rarer only allow three magic item slots per PC. Or go all in on the no more than three rangers restriction. Or classify some things as rare and you can only get one rarity (subclass add on powers, psionics, ridiculously high stats). Otherwise you get one player playing the rare card instead of everyone only getting one rare card in their pack.
 

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