This morning Wizards of the Coast published the latest Legends and Lore column by Mike Mearls: Class Groups.
According to Mr. Mearls the class grouping system that is coming out for the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is an outgrowth of their attempts to deal with the Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard classes in a meaningful manner. Under the current system the three are sub-classes of the Mage class. It is apparent that this class, sub-class arrangement is an effort to address one of the major problems with the last two editions of Dungeons and Dragons: multiple classes performing the same purpose with no substantive difference between them. For example, other than a game mechanic difference (preparation of spells) there is no real difference between the Sorcerer and the Wizard in third edition Dungeons and Dragons. By making them a sub-class of the Mage you can create fundamental narrative and mechanical differences between the sub-classes that go beyond the name of each group.
That is a huge step forward in the development of the game from its most recent iterations.
This class grouping system originates with the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition game. In that system you had a Class and several sub-classes to pick from. In Second Edition the Warrior Class included the Fighter, Paladin, and Ranger; the Priest Class included the Cleric and Druid; the Wizard Class included the Mage, Specialist Wizard, and Illusionist; and the Rogue Class included the Thief and the Bard. The use of sub-classes made it easier to understand the overall purpose of the Class while allowing for each sub-class to express different styles of play.
This system works well in the early stages of production, as it did in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, but problems develop in the system with the introduction of each new supplemental rules accessory. Each new product attempts to provide the consumer with a new and improved reason for purchasing the product; and without question this often comes in the form of more powerful player character sub-classes, races, magical spells and items. This 'power creep' eventually becomes so bloated that the system is unable to continue on and must be rebooted.
In essence this creates a built-in shelf life for the product which is dictated by the volume of material published that provides fundamental changes to how the game is played.
What all that means is that by looking at the previous incarnations of the game we can estimate that the new system will last seven to ten years (third and fourth edition will each have been in publication for seven years when they were replaced by new editions and second edition was in publication for ten years) before it becomes so bloated with supplemental rules, sub-classes, races, specialized items and equipment that a new system will be needed to clean up all the mess.
Which is fine by me.
The current system that is being discussed by Mr. Mearls uses four Classes: Warriors, Tricksters, Mages, and Priests. The exact shake-up of what sub-class goes where is not really spelled out yet but by looking at the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition Classes we can have a good clue as to where the base sub-classes will end up - though one thing is clear, if the comments on the article are of any value than the Trickster Class will be renamed the Rogue Class.
". . . Our goal with class groups is to provide an easy framework that magic items and other abilities can use to refer to classes, to give people a set of terms they can use to compare and contrast classes in broad strokes, and to make it easy for players to understand how the classes beyond the core four (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) relate to that basic group . . ." (Class Groups by Mike Mearls).
In researching this article I've noticed that there are a rather vocal group of commentators out there who are lambasting the new system for having items associated with classes. They act as though this is something that existed exclusively with Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons and that it was the kiss of death for that system.
They are clearly wrong.
There have been Class exclusive items present in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. While it is true that the concept was taken to its limits in Fourth Edition, it is not a new concept to the game. It was not the kiss of death for any other system; and I daresay it will not be the death knell of the new edition.