Four Concepts Adrift in D&D

excerpt_4e_skill11With the impending release of the PHB2, and the general notion of what will be included, it occurred to me that even with these classes there seem to be some fairly reasonable character concepts that just don’t seem to mesh well with D&D. This article will identify those concepts, identify where I perceive the shortcoming in bringing the concept to fruition, and take a stab at how to solve this problem.

PIRATE (Naval/Airship characters in general)

Problem: Although not limited to Pirates, we all know that when we talk about the problems with nautical characters we’re all thinking pirates! In my mind I see the problem as two-fold. First, if you make yourself adept at ship-oriented things (including making up skills), it tends to make you bad in other respects (i.e. plowing through Dungeons, fighting Dragons). Secondly, there are no real powers/feats or much anything that manage to help this concept out anyway. So, here you are, wanting to be a pirate, but without any real rules to support your plundering anyway and with the few small things you can do just making you a bit of clunker off the boat. Overall, I view this as a crunch deficiency.

Solution: First, if your PCs really want to be pirates, figure out a way to set up some standard pirate ship skill challenges using non-obvious skills that are not perfect fits. For instance, you could let the PCs use their skills to help the pilot: use Endurance to help work the sails during a storm (keeping up at the task) or Nature to help figure out what to expect from the storm. Secondly, I would suggest that should a class be made, or powers be made available along the lines of the Spell Scarred, and that they should simply receive ‘bonus text’ in the nautical setting along the lines of the benefits fighters gain when using hammers with certain powers.


Problem: The hard boiled investigator just seems to be without a home in D&D. Sure, there is not a ‘detective’ class, but it seems like you can replicate a great deal of this through the Rogue. Now, perhaps the focus on backstab is a bit inappropriate, but the skill set and attribute focuses are decent approximation. To me, its not the lack of private eye/investigator rules that shoots this concept in the foot, but the inherited assumptions of most D&D games. Simply put, most DMs don’t run games to accommodate a mystery solving sleuth.

Solution: With the proper heads up you can probably keep some mysteries running through the game. You can also incorporate them into an overaching plot so that one PC’s constantly nattering about clues doesn’t bug the other characters too much.


Problem: Dudes fighting on horseback is a mainstay in fantasy, yet it always seems like a clunky afterthought in D&D. Sure, Paladins used to get warhorses, but they always got in the way and their solution to the problem was having the horse be summonable (nice hand wave, guys). In 4E they have lifted that portion of the paladin concept, but we have no real viable solution for a PC that loves riding horses. The rules have always felt inorganic and tacked on… plus it’s just annoying to have the dude that leads his horse through a dungeon, and equally problematic having the old school horses that would be more formidable than low level characters! Right now, again, I see a crunch problem.

Solution: To me, this is actually an easy one. The ‘pets’ from prior D&D editions felt extraneous to me as well, or ridiculous. Now, the 4.0 Beast Ranger has addressed that problem. I was impressed with its simplicity and effectiveness. I would hope that in the Divine Power book they reintroduce the Paladin Mount with a similar rules set.


Problem: The noble comes in many guises, but amongst the general notion resides some of my favorite concepts (such as the “Lord without a Throne” aka Lan from Wheel of Time or Paul from Dune). However, the mainline D&D product does virtually nothing to support it, despite its prevalence in non-D&D d20 products (Star Wars, Wheel of Time, etc). As simple as it is to make it part of your own character’s fluff, the concept is prevalent enough that there should be some meat to the idea. We have reviewed products that use multi-classing as a fix, but this does not deal with the idea of possessing land, title, or the background skills that would be logical for your upbringing. I view these problems as a lack of crunch.

Solution: The idea of the multiclass noble is interesting, but only gets at part of the problem. I think the idea of having feats that reflect a noble background (with the skills, lands, wealth, titles) and some just general use powers open to people that take that feat make sense. A full blown noble class would inevitably be a leader, but I am not sure that if there is enough inherent to the concept that involves combat to be a fully fleshed-out 4E class. Alternatively, the noble could be a class that features ‘advance multi-classing’ where you have to choose a class to supplement your power selection.


  1. There are some feats for naval characters in Dragon 370 (see, e.g., the ones requiring an Aglarond background).

  2. The problem IMO is that 2 of the 4 concepts you list don’t normally show up in the type of fantasy setting D&D (high medieval fantasy) is based upon:
    1) Pirates, as most people envision them, came about long after the days of knights in armor and feudal kingdoms had gone. A pirate class is a niche that doesn’t fit into most people’s campaigns – instead you have to build a campaign around those characters.

    2) A detective type class is another one that is very specific and not suitable for most groups. Nor does the game’s mechanics really support playing investigative dramas: Sure you can do it, but you won’t be using most of the 4E system and instead are simply relying on skill checks (largely just perception and insight) and a lot of roleplaying. There’s nothing wrong with that but the guy playing the dragonborn fighter is going to be pretty bored….

    Of the other two mentioned, neither is really cut out for the type of adventures 4E is built to emulate. Nobles aren’t really part of the typical adventuring group and thus the game isn’t built to support them. The king or the price doesn’t normally go out dungeon crawling – they send their faithful knights. Once again, while you might come up with a storyline where this could happen, it’s not something the game should support via the rules. The reason why the mount rules feel tacked on is because that’s exactly what has happened. Adding rules for playing nobility would do the same thing. Similarly, a mounted knight is pretty useless anywhere but in a wide open field.

    IMO, D20’s greatest mistake was trying to create a single system that could be used for any genre. Want sci-fi? Here’s D20 Future….. Modern? D20 modern…. Most of which were complete garbage at the worst or simply a bad fit at best. The same thing goes with trying to create a character class to describe every possible profession or role. I’d prefer it if 4E stuck to what it does best and focus on that.

    If you want to play a pirate game, I think Savage Worlds does a better job. For Nobles, Reign or Houses of the Blooded is infinitely better than 4E. As for detectives…. I’d probably go with FATE, Wilderness of Mirrors, or best yet one of the GUMSHOE games if I was looking to run a true investigative game. In other words, there are some great alternative systems out there that would work great for the concepts you mention and we should all give them some love too…

  3. I have to agree with MJ, rather than trying to shoehorn these things into D&D (like what happened with D20 Everything Under The Sun) there are systems out there that can really handle this kind of game. Though these are good solutions if you have a single whiny PC in an otherwise normal 4e group.

    Wyatt´s last post: Ladybird Chapter 1: On Starting A Story Or Something

  4. krontekag says:

    MJ Harnish, agree with most of your points, but I have to take issue with the mount rules. Although there are basic rules, it would be nice to have fighter, paladin, maybe even warlord builds that exploit mounts, and certainly more powers and feats to support such characters.

    Nobles can be handled through roleplaying alone. Detective types and pirates would not garner much interest in my group.

  5. I definitely agree that other systems can handle most of these concepts better, but the fact remains that time and again these character concepts have shown up as under-cooked, rehashed, and half assed rules in pretty much every edition of D&D. Clearly there is some demand for them in the system, and saying “play another system” might be the smart answer but you KNOW there are people out there who that’s just not good enough for.

    My suggestion for the mounted combat issue is creating powers that are useful outside of mounted combat but that incur bonuses and advantages for being used in the correct situation. It could even boil down to a simple solution of allowing a Fighter or Paladin to use certain powers in conjunction with a mount and gaining certain benefits because of that.

  6. Why bother with classes for these at all?

    The pirate and horse warrior are just fighters. The pirate is a fighter on the high seas and the horse warrior just fights from horseback.

    The nobleman is just a background trait for a character (his social standing).

    The Recursion King´s last post: Combining miniatures and roleplay

  7. The Main Event says:

    @MJ: Although D&D is ‘medieval high fantasy’ I don’t think having a character with a pirate background is too great a stretch for this kind of system. 3.5 had all sorts of duelists and swashbucklers that seemed to encapsulate parts of that idea… and those kind of characters certainly aren’t medieval, they’re more Renaissance. As for the gumshoe/private eye, I concede that they just don’t “fit” in the article rather than their being a true rules deficiency, so we can agree there.

    As for the noble/mounted characters, I think that these clearly do fit into the typical D&D worlds. Not only as Knights and Princes, but Genghis-Khan type horsemen or more minor nobility. Its not even necessary to have full classes for these options, just a way to allow players to make the concept viable.

    @TRK: “Why bother with classes for these at all?”
    I don’t think you really understood the point of this article. I do not flatly suggest that any of these concepts require FULL classes to be utilized. I just have had players want to use these concepts in the past and feel like the current rules set doesn’t accommodate them. Most of my players would be disappointed if I told them to make a pirate character that was exactly like a fighter except he had an eyepatch, that wouldn’t really feel like much of a pirate. Moreover, they would not even necessarily know how to sail using current rules for fighters!

  8. If you want to go more in-depth than a feat tree, I think a better option for Noble might not be as a class, but as a race. It’s a little inefficient, since you’d need one for every race, but it also fits – they’d have a bonus to Charisma and maybe Int or Wis, they’d have race-specific feats, they’d get skill bonuses to Diplomacy and maybe Bluff or Athletics or something depending on the race (human noble: bluff; tiefling noble: arcana, etc). They might have one nobility-related at-will or encounter power, and they’d certainly have nobility-feats.

    Perhaps you could create a nobility ‘template’ where you’d swap out certain race features for noble features. For example, a noble dragonborn might trade their intimidate bonus for diplomacy, and have some sort of noble power instead of the +1 to attack when bloodied. A noble dragonborn could take noble feats and dragonborn feats, just like a half-elf can take elf and human feats. It could get a little messy, but it’s one possible option.

  9. “Most of my players would be disappointed if I told them to make a pirate character that was exactly like a fighter except he had an eyepatch, that wouldn’t really feel like much of a pirate.”

    I can see what you are saying but its the *adventure* that makes the player feel like his character is a pirate; set it on the high seas where hes raiding coastal towns and other galleons for treasure (instead of dungeons) and fighting ships crew men, the town guard and massive krakens (instead of goblins). THAT will make your player feel like a pirate, not a seamanship dice roll made against a number on a character sheet 😉

    The Recursion King´s last post: Combining miniatures and roleplay

  10. HA! Made me think back to my purchase of the pirates of the sea of fallen stars FR sourcebook.

    LOTS of cool crunchy bits, but in the end, even the book said that they were a poor idea if the campaign was not primarily aquatic. While a long journey of exploration sounds like a blast (Voyage of the Princess Ark anyone?) Unless the whole group is down, it is a disaster. 3E classes and their lack of skill points come to mind.

    Detectives…Whatever it says about me, I’d rather be killing things. With a BIG axe. I assume the lack of pretty much anything along that product line actually puts me in the majority 🙂

    Nobles. Have to agree. A worthless NPC class is not enough. I recall hearing that the PHB II will also include an extensive list of backgrounds to use – with nobility in several flavors included.

    It’s coming…just gotta keep patient.

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  11. @Main Event – I guess my main problem with all the concepts is that, irregardless of what people want to think, 4E (just like every iteration of D&D) is a game about a group of strangers who wander from place to place, killing monsters and taking their stuff. Yes, you can have a story and you can set it in a dungeon, in a city, in a noble court, or in a forest, but the rule system itself only really supports play involving a group of 4-6 PCs spanning a bunch of different character classes, who move from encounter to encounter, killing things and looting the bodies and taking short rests between combats. “Stuff” especially in the form of magic items that impart combat bonuses are a necessary part of the new system as well.

    If anyone doubts these claims try out some “alternative” modes of play: Try running 4E, as written, with a party of 5 elven fighters or don’t let PCs rest between encounters (e.g., have the monsters in the adjacent rooms come see what all the noise is about and show up before the required duration of a short rest is over)… Or try running a paragon level adventure, but don’t allow any of the PCs any magic weapons or armor. The results generally are not pretty at all and in most cases you will TPK the party in a disturbingly short time.

    This may sound like a harsh put-down of 4E but it really isn’t…. it’s just that it’s clear as to what the game is meant to do and expecting it to work well under situations that don’t involve the original design intents is asking for the system to break down. It’s no different than trying to use a jumbo jet as a submarine – after all it’s airtight and cylindrical…it ought to work. Thus, trying to build character classes, power lists, feats, etc. to handle situations outside 4E’s intended usage largely leads to very odd situations or weights the system down under rules bloat much like what happened with 3.x. In many ways 4E is a far less generic system than 3.x because of the way powers work and so trying to adapt it to “non-standard” genres is even harder.

  12. I agree with you on the Horse Warrior score. It would be great to see better rules for mounted combat in 4e, because it is such an effective and pervasive type of warfare. The problem is making it a balanced class. Mounted warriors were more mobile, tougher and had a big advantage against unmounted troops, but horses were always very expensive, and training to be effective at mounted combat took years. Duplicating that without making a character that is overpowered outside and underpowered inside would be tough, but great if possible.

    Pirates, Gumshoes and Nobles, though – I think those can be pretty much covered in the current rule sets. A rapier deceptive rogue makes a great swashbuckler pirate, a warlock or rogue with certain skills would be an effective PI, and pretty much most classes can use a noble background with a few appropriate skill picks and some role-playing.

    You may elect to give such PC’s, if well-played, a +2 bonus to skill rolls that relate to their particular background. Between that and good old Rule 42, I think those characters are quite playable.

    Ultimately, I think that Paragon paths will be how you can really approach this, as well as some additional feats. I’m sure we’ll see it all in one of the splatbooks.

  13. MJ Harnish: I feel that you’re taking a very limited view of 4th Edition and saying that it is the end-all for the system. You could effectively eliminate magic items from the system entirely with some VERY simple math adjustments, in fact it would be a more simple system because you could forget about the hundreds of magic items and instead just give characters the PHB equipment and flat bonuses based on their level.

    Another concept that I’ve been dying to try out is James Wyatt’s Conan universe game where you only use Martial characters (much more excited with Martial Power now) and Rituals represent the only form of spellcasting, similar to how a Cthulhu game works out but mixed with Barbaric Fantasy.

    I think the root of the issue is that you are talking about running 4th Edition “as written”, but the number one rule of tabletop roleplaying is that you change things and go with what works for your group of players.

  14. @ MJ – Have to disagree. The various “paths” that each class has at inception are as different to each other as the old 3E core classes were to their similar “expanded” classes. i.e. rogue and scout, Fighter and anything holding a sword.

    I would go so far as to say that this near speciation from first level makes the single class party doom that was a mainstay of 3E much less of an issue in general.

    My own experience so far has been two parties of 6. One three pallys and three clerics, and the other 4 fighters, a cleric and a rogue. Over specialization in one role hasn’t popped up at all really. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the system itself if VERY forgiving with one exception – solo brutes.

    Donny_the_DM´s last post: A near TPK…what a ride!

    @ Bart – RIGHT ON! That sounds like a riot!

  15. Hmm, I have to jump in here and actually agree with MJ. D&D, at its core, is pretty much what he described. As with any game, you can always modify it, but it’s clear that the core experience is the “Kill Monsters/Take Stuff” paradigm. 3e (and to a bit of a lesser extent, 2e) straddled the line between a “fantasy toolbox” approach and the core D&D game, and IMO ended up doing both something of a disservice. (For example, part of the inspiration for this article… me wanting to play a Private Eye in one of TME’s D&D games).

    4e clearly works to redefine the game away from fantasy toolbox and back towards the core, eliminating not just the options above, but other problematic concepts (characters who summon hordes of critters, wizards that outclass everything else at high level, etc).

  16. ARK! Sorry, my disagreement was not with MJ’s assessment of D&D in general. In fact, I agree with that particular part completely.

    It is more the rather simplistic assessment of 4E’s attempts to bring order to the chaos that preceded it 🙂

    See, now it’s “kill monsters/take their stuff” WITH STYLE! and not a small amount of flash.

    Donny_the_DM´s last post: A near TPK…what a ride!

  17. @ Dave / MJ / Donny: I think we can all agree that he’s right about what D&D is at its core, but what I was disagreeing with is that these efforts to add things into it will result in the system breaking. It could end up breaking and the effort might be futile, but I’m not going to assume that just yet!

  18. @Bart – Just to clarify, I don’t think it’s a waste of effort to come up with your own stuff. I just don’t understand/agree with the common opinion that one system can fit all genres/playstyles and thus 4E (or any other RPG) only needs some ninjas, pirates, monkeys, and robots classes to make everyone happy. If you really want to run a swashbuckling pirate game, there’s nothing wrong with just admitting that 4E really isn’t designed to do that well and then moving on to a RPG that is.

  19. @MJ I completely agree with the relative idiocy of adding tons of classes to make everyone happy, but again, I think you do 4e a disservice to to say that you can’t run a swashbuckling pirate game with it. The combat system and mechanics make it an excellent swashbuckling, high-adventure style game – in fact, that’s it’s too “High-Flying” is a common complaint about it that I see on the boards. It’s not an out of the box pirate game, but if you really want to do fantasy pirates, it’s a good choice, especially with vehicles thrown in.

    Now, gritty middle ages knight game… not so much just yet.

  20. @Wickedmurph – I’m not trying to start an argument but merely trying to point out why I think 4E doesn’t do pirates (again, if you’re modding the game, you’re not playing 4E so the point is moot)
    1) No skills that represent sea knowledge, though physical skills are present (acrobatics & athletics).
    2) No real rules for handling 3D movement amongst the rigging, swinging from ropes, etc.
    3) Almost all powers assume the world is a 2D, Cartesian plane (e.g., the blast rules give no indication of their height).
    4) With the exception of the dagger and rapier, there aren’t a lot of really “pirate” weapons in the list. Blackpowder weapons are a must if you’re going to play an “authentic” pirate game.
    5) Many builds are severely penalized if they don’t wear armor. Pirates do not, and in all practicality cannot, wear armor.

    Sure you can start writing new classes, powers, skills, and rules to handle all this but at that point you’re no longer really playing 4E. Now, I completely agree that you could build up a group of choices from the ground up and use the 4E mechanics to make a pirate game and it would work pretty well. However, that IMO would require gutting all of the existing material and starting from scratch to make all the races & classes fit the feel. So, yes, I would agree that 4E has the potential to do pirates but not using the existing material. Now if someone were to produce a set of good, playtested pirate classes, etc….that would be interesting. Unfortunately the most likely thing to happen is a 3rd party GSL producer will simply throw together a “pirate book” with little to no design testing and what will then ensure is a lot of complaints about how “broken” the system is or how bad that book was. :O(

  21. Maybe I’m argumentative just for the sake of it, but I see your points about 4th Edition (especially as published) not really being able to handle Pirates and the other concepts of this post at all. However, what I disagree with is what you said here:

    “if you’re modding the game, you’re not playing 4E so the point is moot”

    I’ve worked on Firearms and Explosives rules to use in my current 4th Edition campaign, but I wouldn’t say because I’ve modified and added rules that I’m no longer playing 4E. There’s certainly a line you may cross where you’ve modded it so much it essentially has become something other than 4th Edition, but I don’t think the tweaks discussed in The Main Event’s post are THAT drastic.

    Now onto your idea of making a well playtested and well designed 4th Edition Pirates system, I’m thoroughly intrigued and inspired so we’ll see what happens! 😀

  22. I’d love to see a 4E take on pirates in which the classes represent different roles on the ship and the races perhaps as various nationalities. Come to think of it, this might be an interesting community project to put together, playtest, and publish. Hmmmm….. Anyone interested in doing this? If we could put together a few creative folks we could probably knock out the project in a few months and have it ready to playtest.

  23. I’m DMing a campaign right now with a nautical pirate feel to it. Initially I intended to add rules for firearms but I never got around to it and now we are at level seven, so it’s a bit late. However, when thinking about gunpowder I was also thinking about new classes. Now, If I don’t have the time to add gunpowder rules then I definitely don’t have time to write up a full class. Instead I’ve been thinking about adding new builds to old classes, the way martial powers did. In that way, a pirate can be done as a ranger build, a noble as a warlord build, the private eye as a rogue build or ranger build and the horseman as a fighter or paladin build.

    Some of these builds however would be suitable to many classes, a pirate could be a rouge, a ranger or a fighter for instance. This has made me think about a new system for prestige classes. It would be a combination of a new build and the multiclass feats. I envision it as a feat adding a number of possible powers at different levels. A pirate could be built as a prestige class adding a new at-will power and a couple of new other powers as well as a +1 bonus to Nature checks while at the sea or something along those lines. This prestige class could then be added to any allowed class (ranger, rogue and fighter in this case). This could also be used for specific, unique. I’ll probably do a more extensive write-up on these ideas on my blog one of these days.

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