Sunday, August 13, 2017

Multiclassing, Part 1: History of the Multiclasses (2nd edition)

I think it’s about high time I address a topic which is near and dear to my gaming heart: multiclassing.  There are many different angles to approach this topic from, and, as always, I choose all of them.  But we have to start somewehere, and I think it makes the most sense to start with the history of multiclassing in D&D.1

The early editions of D&D were fairly adamant about every player having exactly one class.  Because fighters always fight, and magic users always use magic, and nobody ever does both, in any fantasy story ever.  Yeah, early D&D players didn’t buy that either.  So the concept of having more than one class—multiclassing—was born.

We could start with 1st edition, but from what the Internet tells me, it’s not significantly different from 2nd ed; I personally have very limited experience with 1st edition—I’m sure nearly everything I did was wrong, and I certainly never got as far as trying any multiclassing anyway.  So let’s just jump directly into 2nd edition.

2e proper actually had 2 forms of multiclassing: one was actually called “multiclassing,” while the other was called “dual-classing.”  From the names, you might imagine that dual-classing was when you chose 2 classes, and multiclassing was when you chose more than 2; not so: multiclassing most commonly involved 2 classes (though it could involve more, in rare cases), and dual-classing involved as many damn classes as you liked (although admittedly it was more often 2 than any other number).  So what was the difference?  Well, we could talk about the distinction that one was only for humans and the other was only for non-humans, but I don’t think that’s particularly productive.  Now, I don’t want to get into whether or not limiting things to humans or non-humans is a good idea or not—we’ll talk about whether and to what extent applying limits on multiclassing is a good idea in a future installment.  For now, I’m interested in the mechanics of how muliticlassing worked when it was allowed and not so much why and when it wasn’t.

So the more interesting distinction is that multiclassing was something you picked at the beginning of your career.  If you wanted to be a fighter/thief, for instance, you chose to be a fighter/thief at level 1, and you were a fighter/thief forever.  Which, if you think about it, is a strangely inflexible way of providing more flexibility than you could get with a single-classed character.  Dual-classing was a bit better, but also somewhat inflexible.  You could change your mind about your class after level 1, but you did so by abandoning your original class entirely and choosing a new class.  So still not really ideal.

The nice thing about multiclassing was that the way experience progressions worked made it so multiclassed characters were never too far behind their single-classed brethren.  So a figher/thief had to divide all their experience in half, true—with half going to advance their fighter class and the other half going to the thief class—while a fighter got to put all their experience into the one class.  So the fighter gets to level 2 first, well before the fighter/thief gets to 1/2, much less 2/2.2  But the fighter/thief would get to 2/2 just before the fighter hit 3, because of the exponential increase of XP required per level.3  So the multiclassed character with 2 classes was only ever a level behind his single-classed compatriots.  If you were crazy enough to try a triple multiclassed character (such as fighter/mage/thief), then you might end up 2 levels behind part of the time.  But still, that wasn’t so bad.

Dual-classed was way more complicated.  Once you switched from one class to another, you kept all your old hit points, but you weren’t allowed to use any of the other class features, either at all (early versions), or you could use a feature, but then you lost all your experience points for that session (later versions).  This went on until your new class level exceeded your old class level, at which point you could start using the features of both classes.  But of course remember that those first few levels require much fewer XP to level up.  So, to take another example, let’s say you started out as a fighter and got to level 4, at which point you decided you were going to switch over to being a thief.  To get to level 5 of fighter, you’d need 8,000 more XP (on top of the 8,000 you already had).  But those 8,000 XP is also enough to get you 4+ levels of thief, so while the rest of your party is hitting 5th level, you, once again, are 4/4, only 1 level behind everyone else.  And, once you get just 2,000 XP ahead of everyone else, you hit 4/5 and now you can do all the fighter things and all the thief things, and then you’re really set.

So the good is that you can multiclass, and that your multiclass character stays fairly viable throughout all of its career (if multiclassing) or most of its career (if dual-classing).  In fact, as far as effectiveness goes, multiclassing is pretty solid, regardless of what combo you use.  Dual-classing is more limited, in that not only are certain combination sub-par, but it depends on what order you do them in.  Starting out as a fighter and switching to mage, for instance, is a pretty workable plan.  But starting out as a mage and switching to fighter is just terrible.  Plus, since you can never go back and gain levels in the original class, you have to be very precise in the level you achieve before you switch over.  Adding a third (or more) class just complicates things, no matter which method you’re using.  And there’s the bad: multiclassing is hard.  It’s complicated, and difficult to predict whether it’ll work out, and may involve temporary stretches of suckiness.  But at least it’s possible.

Now, this history is primarily intended to be a history of the mechanics of multiclassing, but I want to diverge just a bit to talk about my personal history with multiclassing.  See, I was never too much into the 4 base classes: fighter, mage, cleric, thief.4  My earliest D&D PCs were druids and bards.5  So, in a sense, I was reaching for multiclassing even while I was single-classing.  And then Skills & Powers came out, which opened up your class options considerably.  For a while I became obsessed with creating the perfect blend of wizard and rogue;6  S&P gave me the opportunity to try it both as a wizard with some rogue skills and as a rogue with some wizard features.  It never quite jelled either way, but it was an interesting experiment.

S&P took nearly every possible class feature and assigned a point value to it.  It didn’t really turn D&D into a classless system ... but it could come close, if you were willing to house rule a little.  You could pick and choose your features from a smorgasbord of class choices, so you could effectively “multiclass” by just allowing one class to pick a few options off another class’s menu.7  The biggest problem with this was that the points you got for different classes weren’t particularly balanced against each other.  For instance, fighters got 15 points, while mages got 40.  Now, you could make an argument that fighters got a lot of non-class-feature bonuses—combat stats, saves, weapons and armor, hit points, etc.  However, that breaks down when you then throw thieves into the mix, because thieves received a whopping 80 points, even though they had better combat stats, weapon selection, and HP than mages for sure.8  The truth was that thieves just had an insane number of skills they needed to spend points on, and all features were a multiple of 5 points, and, if the designers had just assigned 5 points to all skills, then they wouldn’t have any way to make the statement that certain skills (e.g. pick pockets) were just plain better than other skills (e.g. detect noise).  So thieves needed a whole lot of points just to recreate the PHB class, while mages just needed 5 points per school they had access to, which, in the PHB was all eight of them, therefore 40 points.  You could somewhat work around this (as I gleefully did) by taking “disadvantages,” which traded (typically) roleplaying downsides for (nearly always) mechanical upsides.  This led to two of my favorite all-time D&D characters—Shan, the spell-dabbling thief who could only speak in a barely audible whisper, and a Vistani mage whose demon-blooded ancestry had left her with blue skin, red eyes, and an actual pointy tail,9 and therefore became really good at being stealthy—but obviously it had the potential for terrible abuse.

Directly after a few aborted attempts at campaigns using the Player’s Option books,10 which many folks called (in retrospect, at least) 2.5e, we strayed from D&D for a while.  I invented my own, completely classless system, using the character points from S&P as a jumping-off point, and both I and another member of our group ran campaigns using those rules.11  We had just about come to the conclusion that, while having a classless system sounded good on paper, in practice it left you with a paralyzing amount of choice and no structure to help you resolve it, when along came 3rd edition.

Next time, we’ll look at how 3e revolutionized the concept of multiclassing ... for better, and for worse.


1 Note: For this installment, I was obviously inspired by Brandes Stoddard’s excellent History of the Classes series, which you should absolutely read.

2 Remember that each class leveled up at different rates.  Thieves leveled up the fastest.

3 Specifically, a fighter needs 2,000 XP for 2nd level, and a thief needs 1,250.  So a fighter/thief hits 2/2 at 3,250, whereas fighter 3 takes 4,000.

4 Yes, yes, I know: “magic-user.”  I refuse.

5 Not the original bard, where you had to dual-class for aeons before you eventually got to be cool.  Rather the bard based on the Dragon Magazine article “A different bard, not quite so hard.”

6 No, not a bard!  This would be a totally different thing, which I have a tendency to refer to as a “nightblade.”  Since 2e, I’ve tried the nightblade as a 3e class and a Pathfinder class, and I’m thinking about trying it out as a 5e subclass, probably a rogue archetype, but possibly as a warlock ... something.  Warlocks are somewhat frustrating to design for, as they have a huge amount of fun design space to play in, but patrons are somewhat thematically limited and pact boons are extremely mechanically limited.  But I’m pretty sure I could get something to work in that space.

7 Again, I must stress that this was a house rule.  I don’t wish to accuse the writers of S&P of any more insanity than they actually perpetrated, which was already quite a bit.

8 You could debate saves.  Saves in 2e were super-funky, so they were nearly always debatable.

9 She was sort of an extreme version of a tiefling well before we had tieflings as a racial option.

10 In addition to Skills & Powers, there was Combat & Tactics and Spells & Magic, and we used ’em all.  We were starved for character-building options back in those days.

11 Obviously he tweaked some of my rules for his own purposes.  But I expected no less.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Brief History of Mistakes

The other day, my boss Steve1 asked me about a ticket I had written a long time ago.  Was the problem I had reported still a problem, he wondered?  Well, yes, technically speaking, it was still a problem, I responded, but not a very big problem.  After all these years, we’ve mostly worked around the minor pains-in-the-ass it causes.  And while it could cause a bigger problem, and in fact had just done so no more than two weeks ago, the truth is, as I said to him, somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

That blip was the first one in forever, and, try as I might, I couldn’t get Arya2 to be worried about missing an entire day in his reports.

Now, some hours after I sent this, as I am wont to do, I started wondering about my own choice of words there.  I made it sound like I had actually put some effort into trying to convince Arya that the problem was significant, even though the most likely person to be impacted by it was him, and he was obviously not worried about it.  Not to mention that, if he did decide to do something about it, the something he would do is make a ticket for me to fix it.  So whatever effort I was putting into this argument was only going to end up making work for myself if I “won.”  And yet, it sounds like I put some effort into this argument because ... I actually did.  So, now I wondered: why?

And thus we begin what I suppose is now part 4 of my ad hoc series, “Why I’m a Pain in the Ass at Work.”  Last time I briefly reviewed the first two installments, then went on to recast my being a stubborn ass in as positive a light as I could manage, which mainly consisted of pointing out that I’m trying to keep from making—and/or trying to help someone else avoid making—some mistake that I’ve already made once and don’t have any desire to repeat.  And, unlike last installment, I’m not going to say today that I think there’s more to it than that.  On the contrary, I think I might have nailed it down pretty thoroughly at this point.

What I was pondering that led to today’s post, instead, was why sometimes (as in all 3 of the incidents that spawned the previous posts) I seem like I can’t let it go, and will go overboard in my objections, whereas sometimes (such as with this particular incident) I put up a token resistance, but then I cave pretty easily.  I mean, either way, it’s a mistake that I’ve seen happen before, right?  Either way, to let it happen again is going to be frustrating ... right?

Well, after much pondering and soul-searching, I’ve come up with an answer.  I wish I could tell you that I thought that, when people have this reaction, they base the intensity of their argument on their assessment of how much damage the mistake could cause, or perhaps on the likelihood of that mistake actually happening (is it nearly guaranteed, or a longshot that anything will ever go wrong?).  I do wish that were the case.  But I don’t believe it is.  I believe that rather it depends on whether you were the one who had to clean up the mess or not.

See, I’m not the only person who has these types of reactions.  Oh, sure: I’m probably the biggest pain-in-the-ass at my current job, I won’t try to deny that.3  But I am, occasionally, believe it or not, on the other side of this debate.  I am, occasionally, the one who’s saying, “yeah, okay, maybe that could happen, but that doesn’t sound so bad.”  Where this most often comes up, for instance, is with two of my co-workers who are very focussed on security.4  They’re always trying to convince me that we should implement this or that piece of authentication that I’ve no doubt will leave us safer, but which will probably be a big hairy annoyance to me in the meantime.  And, sure, I nearly always lose these debates,5 and nowadays my ssh key has a more-than-40-character passphrase, and my hard drive is encrypted, and I’m about to start undergoing the horror that is Multi-Factor Authentication.  But, still, whenever the topic comes up, I’m nearly always the one going, “I hear you about what could happen, but I’m finding it hard to get too worried about that.”  And it’s certainly not because I’ve never seen inferior security measures fail.  And I’m pretty sure it’s not because doing it the “right” way is going to make more work for me: I’ve argued to the death for making more work for myself on many an occasion.  Nope, I’m pretty sure that it’s because, whenever I have seen such things, it was never my job to clean up the inevitable mess.

Contrariwise, when it’s a question of making a sub-par design decision, I get very invested in making sure we don’t go down a road that is going to cause us heartache one day, because in that case “us” inevitably means “me.”  And, even if it doesn’t mean me in the future, it certainly has in the past.  I’ve seen the crap that can fall out of one bad choice, and I’ve had to go in there years later and try to figure out how to undo it.  And those are painful memories.  And, as far as I’m concerned, these are things that will happen, eventually.6  So it’s not a question of “if” but rather “when.”  I distinctly remember one such discussion, which happened to also include my boss.  He seemed genuinely puzzled at my passion for whatever particular design principle was at stake.  Intellectually, I believe he knew that what I was predicting could happen—maybe even he knew it was likely to happen.  It just didn’t seem that big a deal to him if it did, and I bet that’s because he just never drew that short straw of having to wade into the cesspool and shovel out the shit.  And, in the end, I let that particular point go because I was pretty sure that, whenever the shit hit the fan, the fan was most likely going to be pointing at someone else anyway.7

And, in the situation that spurred this post, I also knew that it was probably pretty unlikely that I personally would be responsible for the clean-up.  This was really only going to go wrong if the particular day that was missing from reporting—and, really: not even missing from all of reporting, just missing from one subset of reports—happened to contain a significant number of results from one customer, or maybe a set of customers, and therefore the lack of those results would significantly alter an aggregated view (likely a monthly one) in a way that was big enough to make a (business) difference, but small enough not to be glaringly obvious that data was missing, and if the report went through enough hands that the numbers were used to make some wrong decision, or sent the business off on a wild-goose chase involving many employees and lots of wasted time, but not so many hands that someone along the line didn’t remember that, hey, didn’t someone say there was a whole day missing somewhere?  And damn, that’s a lot of “if"s.  And, if anyone comes to me about it, I get to point out that I already told everyone I could imagine to watch out for this, and the worst that can happen is that someone makes a ticket for me to fix it, which is honestly what I was sort of pushing for in the first place.  So, you know: no skin off my nose.

So, yeah, I did try a little bit to convince Arya that he should be worried about a missing day in his reports, because if the worst case happened, I would feel bad for him (’cause he’s a genuinely good guy, and I love working with him, and I hate to see him stressed), but, no, I didn’t try that hard, ’cause, in the end, Arya gets to make his own decisions (and his own mistakes), and I can’t make ’em for him.  But maybe also because—just maybe—not only am I pretty sure that I won’t have to clean up the mess in this situation, but I’ve never had to clean up the mess in any past, similar situation.  And I’ve seen some.  Ignoring reporting data glitches will nearly always come back to bite you in the ass, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ones.  But it’s never been something I’ve personally had deal with.  Never have I personally been the one who had roll up their sleeves, muttering non-stop profanities under their breath, throwing all their current plans and schedule out the window, and start doing shit-work to clean up all that fertilizer that just passed through the oscillating air distribution device.

And I’m trying to figure out if that makes me a bad person.

I hope not.  I hope that I’m just a person who, like pretty much all people, is subject to confirmation bias (or maybe some other kind of bias; Wikipedia cautiously suggests correspondence bias), and that sometimes I’m on the receiving end, and sometimes I’m on the other end.  Maybe understanding that will help me handle these situations a little intelligently, and hopefully a little more diplomatically.

Or maybe I’m just fooling myself again.  But either way I found it an interesting meditation.


1 Okay, Steve is technically my boss’s boss.  But I don’t usually think of him that way.

2 Arya is the head of the business analyst department, and the person on the business side that I work most closely with.

3 Yep, and probably the biggest pain at my last several jobs.  I can own that too.

4 One of whom is my actual boss, and the other of whom is our sysadmin.

5 Did I mention that one of the other parties was my boss?

6 Well, unless the code doesn’t last that long.  But I don’t accept that as a useful counterargument; that’s pretty much like saying “it’s okay if we build a completely flimsy house, because there’s a decent chance we’ll tear it down before it gets the chance to fall over.”  Which is cold comfort if you’re the one who has to live in the house in the meantime.

7 Interesting side note: the co-worker who was most likely to have said fan pointing at him has since left the company.  So now I suppose I’m back in the running for most-likeliy-to-be-spattered.  Lovely.