Gaming Advice: When Everyone is Special, No One is Special

I was chatting with some friends the other day. We were reminiscing about the good old days and 1st Edition D&D. One of the subjects that came up was prerequisites. Racial and class prerequisites disappeared with 3rd edition. I’d never really thought about their absence; hell, I couldn’t even remember what they were for most races!

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


Racial Prerequisites

Leaving aside racial maximums, here are the racial prerequisites from the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook:

  • Dwarf: Str 8, Con 12
  • Elf: Int 8, Dex 7, Con 6, Cha 8
  • Gnome: Str 6, Int 7, Con 8
  • Half-Elf: Int 4, Dex 6, Con 6
  • Halfling: Str 6, Int 6, Dex 8, Con 10
  • Half-Orc: Str 6, Con 13

With the exception of the dwarf (Con 12) and half-orc (Con 13) it’s pretty easy to qualify for any given race. (Oddly, though, it seems halfling was one of the hardest races to qualify for as you needed four minimum stats).

Class Prerequisites

As well as race prerequisites, each class also had its own set of prerequisites:

  • Cleric: Wis 9
  • Druid: Wis 12, Cha 15
  • Fighter: Str 9, Con 7
  • Paladin: Str 12, Int 9, Wis 13, Con 9, Cha 17
  • Ranger: Str 13, Int 13, Wis 14
  • Magic-User: Int 9, Dex 6
  • Illusionist: Int 15, Dex 16
  • Thief: Dex 9
  • Assassin: Str 12, Int 11, Dex 12
  • Monk: Str 15, Wis 15, Dex 15, Con 11

Looking at the scores above it’s clear almost anyone could qualify for the four base classes: cleric, fighter, thief and magic-user. However, to qualify for classes such as druid, ranger and assassin, the character needs to be a cut above the ordinary. To be an illusionist, monk or paladin the character has to be truly exceptional.

The more I think about it, the more I think that’s kind of nice. It means that when you play one of those characters your character is special — a cut above the ordinary adventurer. You are noteworthy even before you save the village, slay the evil dragon or whatever.

So Restrictions are Good or Bad?

Yes and no.

To a large extent, the gaming community worships choice. The idea being, the more choice you have the more fun you have. To a certain extent I think that’s right. I’m not sure, for example, I could run a long-term Basic D&D campaign – I don’t think there are enough character customisation options to keep my players happy. However, I think as it stands we’ve got too much choice. We are only five years or so into Pathfinder’s 1st Edition and already players have the core book, Ultimate Combat, Ultimate Magic, Advanced Race Guide, Advanced Class Guide and the Advanced Player’s Guide (not to mention Mythic Adventures and the uncountable numbers of 3PP and Golarion specific books crammed full of player options). I’m not saying those books aren’t good books – I particularly like Advanced Player’s Guide. 

I’m wondering, though, if we really need so much choice; perhaps some restrictions could be good for us. One of the reason I grew disillusioned with 3.5 was the mind-boggling array of choices. It would take weeks of reading just to make a new and “interesting” character. The result of this was hyper-focused, optimised characters that were often an “eclectic” mix of races and classes which made little or no sense in the campaign.

In this “pro-choice” environment restrictions are bad and thus racial and class restrictions went away. The sad result of that is when everyone is special, no one is special. Today, paladins aren’t viewed as particularly noteworthy – in fact in comparison to summoners, alchemists, gunslingers and the like they look a little pedestrian.

For me, that’s a sad thing.


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

43 thoughts on “Gaming Advice: When Everyone is Special, No One is Special”

  1. I think for me – the biggest downfall of presenting so many options is that this also presents so many conflicting rules or exceptions to standard rules that end up breaking the game. It happened to D&D 3.5 and it is happening to Pathfinder. The more new rules and options that are produced, the harder it is to truly playtest them for balance and compatibility with existing material. For me an ‘interesting character’ is not defined by how many unusual feats or character options I can find, but how I play that character in the game – regardless of mechanics.

    1. I absolutely agree with this statement. More rules not only creates bloat and exceptions to standard rules it also crushingly slows down game play unless everyone is 100% on the ball. Given that everyone is rarely on the ball, to me this is a bad thing.

  2. I always boasted that I could play ANYTHING. Just give me a regular old magic-user or fighter, and I’d make him the coolest thing out there. Now-a-days folks need the weirdest combinations of classes and races to feel original… “Hey look at my new aasimas half-roper/half yakfolk oracle/monk/dragon deciple specialized in archery and origamy…”

    Seriously. If you need THAT to feel original, then you’ve really lost the point.



    1. Kinda my take on it too.

      Everyone else had already picked their characters and one of them told me the DM said I should be a fighter. At first I felt put off. I’d wanted to try something different. But then I decided, if we need a fighter, I’ll be the fighter. Heck, I’ll make Conan. Used the Barbarian kit (AD&D) to better suit that vision, and away I went. My DM and the party loved it.

      Years later it’s translated into playing Clerics, since every party can use one, and half the time, no one wants to play them.

    2. I think part of the problem you state about the half-yak/half-roper oracle dragon disciple character stems from players either not knowing about a campaign setting or simply not caring. If someone isn’t familiar with the fluff and what would fit in with a given fictional universe, they’ll fill in the blanks and make up their own stuff. And the same if they don’t care.
      I see it like telling someone to go shopping at Walmart. If I tell them to buy stuff because we’re “doing something”, that person will probably come out with an odd assortment of items. If I tell them to by stuff because we’re going camping specifically, then it’s more likely that they will walk out with things that fit the situation.

  3. Don’t forget to mention that stats were rolled in order, and, if your DM was nice, you could swap two of them in order to qualify for a class.

    It limited each player’s character choices, but, I felt, it was in a good way.

    It was fun to hear the DM saying, “We’ll make you X. Oh, you don’t have the scores for it. Wait! If we switch these two, you can be Y. How’s that sound?”

    “Um, sure?”

    1. To be honest, all the inline rolling did for me is make me roll hundreds of characters until i got one that would fit the kind of character I wanted to play. Mind you, I wasn’t min maxing at this point. I just thought “I want to play a Cleric” and kept rolling stat sets until I got a set that would allow me to play a cleric.

      1. This is exactly why Gary Gygax developed the expanded character generation options in the first Unearthed Arcana. He found that his players were continuing to roll and roll until they got the scores for the character they wanted to create. So he just came up with the variant where if you wanted play character-X, you rolled these dice.

        The nice thing about that method was that they ability score requirements were still in place for everything, you just had a better chance of getting the rolls for your class. The other thing was that it didn’t result in a bunch of multi-classed characters (although multi-classing and dual-classing was a different beast in those days) since the rolls were focused on your starting class.

    2. In the original AD&D rule books any method that involves a single set of 6 stats allows them to be placed as desired. If they had to be placed in order then multiple roles per stat, or multiple sets of stats were involved. The 3d6 in order method is a myth.

        1. But did class restrictions ever overlap with roll in order stats?
          OD&D had roll in order stats, but those stats had little effect, and as far as I’m aware there weren’t any class restrictions.

  4. I don’t like the requirements above. If I want to play an incompetent half-orc wizard, who can only learn first level spells, I should be allowed.

    1. Yeah, I don’t mind the book giving me a heads up about that sort of thing, but I demand the right to do it if I wish.

  5. As far as Paladins not seeming paragons anymore, consider using them as a prestige class, instead. In 3.x it was presented as an option, in Unearthed Arcana, iirc, for prestige Paladins, Rangers, and one other class, which I can’t recall atm.

    Another option, from Dragon Magazine, 310 I believe, and continued two issues later, were the “paladins” of the other eight alignments, each of which had its own distinction as fitting their stations.

    Those could also be adapted to be prestige classes, if need be. Your game, your world, your rules.

    1. Unearthed Arcana, 3e-era, presented the bard, paladin, and ranger prestige classes.

      Bard was the original prestige class in AD&D, predating even the thief-acrobat. You had to take levels in fighter and thief, then start druid training (at which point you were a bard).

      When I first learned of prestige classes in D&D 3.x, paladin and ranger seemed like they should obviously be prestige classes. I understand why they weren’t, but given their nature as mixed fighter/cleric and fighter/druid (or possibly rogue/druid, I liked that option too) they seemed like they should be.

  6. “I’m not sure, for example, I could run a long-term Basic D&D campaign – I don’t think there are enough character customisation options to keep my players happy.”

    You need to find players who want to play D&D then, players who want to create a character and explore your world. It sounds like you have players who want to play the rules rather than the game. If they’re more focused on their characters than on your world, something is wrong… if they wanna be novelists, they ought to admit it and start writing. If they wanna role-play, they ought to stop looking at rulebooks, and start reacting to your world as they would if there actually were their character!

    1. Or maybe he would prefer to have some fun with his existing group of (presumably) friends, rather than look for another group?

  7. As a guy who cut his teeth on Basic D&D and AD&D, and played those games for many years, I hear what you are saying, Creighton. I’m currently playing a Pathfinder game, and leveling up my character feels like an awful lot of work, and I find the sheer number of choices before me a bit mind-boggling.

    On one hand, I appreciate that the system allows for an otherwise simple character such as a fighter (my favorite class) to distinguish himself mechanically from other fighters in the party apart from what magical gear he carries. On the other hand, this all feels like too much of a good thing. (I especially liked your comment about reading for weeks to feel like you’re making an informed choice about how to design your character.)

    The level of distinction offered by D&D 5th edition strikes me as a movement in the right direction, though it’s worth noting that the part of that system that I find most compelling aren’t the mechanical aspects of the class, but the backgrounds you can roll up for your character. *Who* your fighter is matters a lot more than *what* your fighter is. And that, really, is the biggest point of all that the complications of Pathfinder seems to miss.

  8. I used to play HERO System as my primary system (I still keep it around for engineering and game design purposes, but I don’t play it any more). One of the first things a GM should do with that game is determine where the boundaries are, because the rules really don’t.

    I usually took this a step further. My players were able to choose what they wanted from prepared options, but much of the toolkit stayed behind the scenes. For example, they could be members of specific races (identified and defined by packages) and learn particular spells if they had the necessary training (rather than have direct access to the power construction rules). I was quite a bit softer on ‘class analogues’; I did have packages prepared and there were some benefits to taking one, but it was not necessary to take one if there were none that fit.

    For HERO System, that can be pretty constrained, but that constraint provided structure for the players to build and play in.

  9. my groups tended to care more about what someone wanted to play and if they didn’t have the minimum requirement the dm would move up a score or two to make it happen so that they would be able to play what they wanted to a limited extent, and for me I always tended to have an idea for a type of character I wanted to play, attitude, look etc., before I rolled up anything

  10. RE: Option – The flip side of this argument is that if new material is not produced, the game will stagnate and die. Remember that anything beyond the core rules is entirely optional. Don’t like the Advanced Class Guide? Don’t use it! I’d rather have too many options than none at all.

    RE: Making a Character Special – I can make a vanilla fighter special through role-play. But the point of having so many options is not for those lacking originality; it’s freedom of choice. By the same token, I can make a half-dragon/half-tiefling alchemist/sorcerer/rogue special through role-play too. As Kell pointed out, it’s about knowing the background of the campaign and building a character that fits into that mold.

    RE: Prestige Classes – Frankly, ANY class with the exception of the big four (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Rogue) could be a prestige class.

  11. I was in a Pathfinder campaign a while ago that ran for well over a year and wound up in an Eberron (which I hadn’t played in forever) game immediately after. I found myself close to cross-eyed with the options in front of me and the DM saying, “You can use pretty much anything except for (class) from (book) unless you take (class) first, but not with (item) or (prestige class combination).”

    I think Paizo’s done pretty well slowly growing their setting and providing a steady flow of options with in-house QC rather than WotC’s problem of giving a lot of untested 3pp the “official” stamp and running into what Shaun mentioned regarding the impossibility of testing it against all other existing content for balance.

    I’ve tried a few things to circumvent the issue on a micro scale. The most successful, which I stick to now pretty much universally, is assembling a list of character concepts that resonate well with the campaign setting and story and letting the players mull over it. Once something catches a someone’s eye, I elaborate on it and sit with them while they build the character, which, in my experience, results in a mechanically functional character who is part of the setting from its inception and is interesting to the player.

    I believe placing focus on the character this way from the beginning creates greater investment in their personal journey and gives them humanity, making it unnecessary to fish through bizarre options for a sense of individuality.

  12. Speaking to (and largely agreeing with) the other feedback here, I think that it’s completely valid for a gaming group to chose whichever system caters to their preference for game mechanic options. I play both Pathfinder and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG regularly and they are kind of the opposite ends of the spectrum on mechanical options, but in both cases, the best experiences are with a group that engages the world and the story.

    If your half-roper rogue/assassin/paladin/monk has a backstory that fits organically in with the setting and he actually grew up in the area that’s “threatened by the ancient evil awakening” or whatever the campaign focus is, it’ll work fine. If, on the other extreme, the player of the plain ol’ Fighter insists on being from a Far East type setting and quoting the Bushido code in the DM’s immersive Viking game, that’s going to be a disconnect that hampers the story.

    I’m lucky because I game with a group of folks who make a conscious effort to engage the story being told. That doesn’t mean they don’t exercise free will and sometimes things go WAY off the tracks (often with delightfully fun results!), but it makes for a much healthier, longer lived, campaign if characters are built and played as being invested in the setting.

      1. The classes could be covered as a religious order concerned with the balance and life and death.
        The roper bit needs some sort of campaign world explanation though. Heck, maybe everybody in the DM’s campaign world is half roper. I dunno.

  13. I have played D&D in various versions for almost 30 years now – and while I have always enjoyed options and a multitude of choices, I have the same experience with the over-doing in same.
    If you have to “study” the books before you actually get to play the game, there’s something wrong.
    I attribute this issue more to the lack of fantasy among player (ironically) than to WotC and similar companies; people have a tendency to want their characters style, mechanics and everything else carefully laid out for them.

    My group has long enjoyed “skinning”; taking a more basic character and dressing it up like something else; for example a 4.ed. Shaman is an Animal Trainer in our Ancient Rome campaign, his conjuratons would be real animals – and I used to play a 3.ed. Fighter-Cleric as a Jedi in a Star Wars game, double-sword (magic, +fire dam.) would be my double light saber and spells represented by grenades – and so on.

    The vast sets of rules has a tendency to get in the way of the game itself – we have had to make many tweaks to the 4.ed. system to kep it playable above lvl. 7-8 – and adding more and more just adds to the confusion and slows everything down.

  14. Players can be unique based on their personality. One doesn’t have to have a drow ninja illusionist to feel unique if you can use your imagination. Options can be great but they also cause lazy players.

  15. IMHO, I remember fondly the old days of customizing characters on GM fiat, on the outcome of discussion and play, rather than by something that was in a splat book before the game ever started. We used to start with an idea, work with the GM, and find a way to make the idea work in the existing rules. Now, people start with the books (and the min/max boards online) and come up with something that has maximum combat effectiveness but no real foundation to it. The theme seems to have shifted toward that of figuring out the optimal mechanics with all of the potential for character development and story participation as incidental to the actual game play. The result always breaks down to a nonsensical band of quasi-monstrous murder hobos, freely accepted in any settlement as would any group of barely interesting adventurers even with the half-dragon, the Aasimar, and the intelligent polar bear. I’m all for fun and interesting characters, but somewhere they have to make sense in the absence of any mechanics to justify/necessitate the final product.

    The single largest reason I don’t run D&D-type games anymore is the result of the glut of options and the need to either keep up with everything or set arbitrary limits on what materials can be used so I can retain some amount of sanity.

  16. Having options is good. If there are too many then don’t allow them. I ran an Eberron campaign back at the end of its printing life. Between that setting and 3.5’s books, there where dozens of books to choose options from. From the beginning I made a list of allowed races, classes and character options. I also limited the books to all Eberron and a few 3.5 ones. This worked fairly well. All the characters had good flavor and where well grounded within the setting. It was funny thou cause it seemed every other weekend a player would ask if I would allow this or that option. I would say “Is it in one of the allowed books?”, “No” they would say. To which I would respond “Then you have your answer”.

    I know players and DM’s (mostly DM’s) that won’t touch Mythic with a 10 foot pole. Any DM can set the ground rules of what’s allowed and what’s not. If you want to run core rulebook with the advanced players guide only, then do it. If you want to allow everything printed including 3rd party publications, I’ll be ready in three months with my new character. Lol.

  17. A lot of my experience with early D&D is that there was a very strong vibe of doing the best you could with what you were handed. No matter how much you wanted to play a paladin or illusionist or whatever, sometimes the dice weren’t in your favor. And since you always entered play at first level, no matter what level everyone else was at, it was all about shepherding the resources you had carefully to make sure you made it to second level, where things sucked slightly less.

    I think restrictions are a good thing because they force us to think. If I wanted to play an alchemist style character before Paizo released the class, I would have to think about what class, feat, skill and gear choices would get me my goal. Now playing an alchemist is as easy as picking it off of a list.

  18. I never played 3rd or anything Edition thereafter. My primary reasoning was that rules are guidelines; they do not MAKE the game. I read much of the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook and I even played a game or two under the new rules. I think that too many rules get in the way of a good game. Oh sure, doing away with things like Encumberance rules may seem like a lot, but do I as DM want to worry about how much gear a character is holding …or do I care if they are playing the character well? That is what it always has been about for me.

    And I couldn’t agree more: when everyone is special, no one is. There is always a sense today that the boring “basic” classes are dull. I disagree. I think you have to play just a dwarven fighter or an elven thief every once in a while. A simple human cleric can be the savior of the party in many ways – more than in just healing spells. If more players tried playing the basics, then they might get why everyone in the party can’t be a 1/2 Tiefling, 1/2 Drow Acrobat/Sorcerer/Two-Weapon Wielding buttkicker. If you want to play ALL classes in a single character, don’t play D&D. The idea is play A character, and then when a large number of players are each playing A character, you get a party (or in other terms: a TEAM). You have to rely on each other and work together and that’s the fun of the game right there.

    1. It’s been my experience that either you either buy totally buy into the “if everyone is special, no one is special” concept or you hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand burning stars. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

      Classic character/race mixes – dwarven fighter, elven wizard etc. – exist and continue to exist because they are the bedrock of fantasy gaming. We need them!

  19. From a publisher standpoint, I can see some reasoning behind moving to a system like point buy and no prerequisites – especially if your intent is to promote the game through a massive multiplayer experience like Living Greyhawk, Living Forgotten Realms, and D&D Adventure’s League. It standardizes the experience (to the extent possible) for character creation and ensure a common starting point of power for characters.

    Where most of the ability requirements moved to is feats and prestige classes. But even these don’t have the barrier of entry you’d think once you include the prevalence of stat-bump items.

  20. I’ve had the exact same reflection (really, another all non-human party?) when the most Campaign settings calls for 80% human population.. and the only heroes are from the 20% of the rest?
    So i went “old skool” on my recent campaign – playing in “The Grand Duchy of Karameikos”, my players would roll an additionnal d20 dice when rolling Stats. That would limit their race choice, still a choice, but all races aren’t available unless you are lucky. My current table, on a d20, 1-10 Human, 11-15 Half-Elf, Halfling, Human and 16+ Elf, Half-Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Human. And voilà. They had 3 sets of rolls for Character stats + roll for race tied to each set. So they had to either choose if the race was more important, or their stats (if the desired race was not rolled with that desired set of stats). In the end, I didn’t have a full party of humans, but at least 4/6 are human with one dwarf and elf .

  21. The glut of rules and options is something that roleplaying games have always struggled with, and they’ve usually handled this by rebooting and creating new editions (AD&D is now in its 5th incarnation, after all). This is a product of economics, I think, more than anything else, as TSR/WOTC sought to create new product as well as give players new options that they could adopt or ignore at will. Once those options became to cumbersome, it created demand for a new, more refined system. Wash, rinse, repeat. At the end of the day, these games were always flexible enough to play them as you wished- I played plenty of 1st editions games where the race/class restrictions were softened or ignored, and I’ve played later editions where limits were imposed or even made sharper. So, as many people have pointed out here already, it’s really about the group you play with, and whether they are more interested in the “game” side or the “role-playing” side of things.

  22. As soon as I saw that they removed the class restrictions for races in 3e I identified this issue and proceeded to develop my own restrictions to address the problem as I saw it. The players weren’t on board at first but once the understood the reasoning behind it we had a lot of fun. I also made exceptions for any player willing to develop their character with a good history as to why the restrictions didn’t apply and made them particularly special.

    1. Nice solution. I think as long as the players know the reasoning behind your decision, restrictions are a lot easier to deal with and understand. I also like the aspect of getting the restriction lifted for a good history and back story.

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