One of the big changes that Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition (AD&D 2e) made was changing the way that we thought about classes. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons First Edition (AD&D 1e) had classes and sub-classes, but these were streamlined choices. For example, you could play a Cleric or a specialized version of the cleric called the Druid. AD&D 2e changed this by creating a group, and then requiring players to choose their class from that grouping.
When you first look at it, it all seems a odd.
So as a player you would first decide on your group (which represented your general occupation within the game): priest, rogue, warrior, or wizard. These groups then divided up the various classes according to their roles within the game world. Let’s look at the Warrior group for a better understanding of how this works.
Warriors are focused on combat with the enemy through direct, primarily physical, means. They included fighters, paladins, and rangers with each class the player was provided with a specialized theme for how their class dealt with the world, and how it would think about combat. Fighters were your champions, sword masters, soldiers, and brawlers. They were your every man of the Warrior group. Paladins were the exemplars of knightly virtues noted for their bold and pure natures. Rangers were the woodsmen, living their lives in the wilds and existing on the very fringes of the civilized world. (Cook, 35)
The group gave you an idea of what you were going to play, while the classes gave you the theme of your character’s life. By using this system of organization, the AD&D 2e game taught players a certain way to think about the game. First you chose your general attitude in the game. If you chose Warrior then you were looking to get your hands dirty; but how did you want to do that? Each class represented a fundamental change in how a player would answer that question and in doing so it changed how they would play the game.
Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (D&D 3e) would dispense with the groupings, as would all subsequent editions, and instead have players choose their class directly. This fundamentally changed the way that players thought about the game because they were taught a different way of thinking about building their characters. Where beforehand you would ask “How do I want to deal with the world,” and then refine that thought by choosing your class. Now a player went straight to their class without that first question asked. It creates a situation where the mechanics of play may differ from class to class but the way a character is played is the same.
Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D 5e) is attempting to teach a new generation of players to ask the same questions AD&D 2e had us asking by getting us to think about the game in a new way. Now the Class a player chooses serves the same function that the Group once served in AD&D 2e because D&D 5e uses the Class to ask, “How do I want to deal with the world?” It then refines that thought by asking the player to choose a Background.
Backgrounds represent a fundamental understanding of how your character is going to interact with the world based on their lives before adventuring. The D&D 5e Player’s Handbook describes them as follows:
. . . Every story has a beginning. Your character’s background reveals where you came from, how you became an adventurer, and your place in the world. Your fighter might have been a courageous knight or a grizzled soldier. Your wizard could have been a sage or an artisan. Your rogue might have gotten by as a guild thief or commanded audiences as a jester . . . Choosing a background provides you with important story cues about your character’s identity. The most important question to ask about your background is what changed? Why did you stop doing whatever your background describes and start adventuring? Where did you get the money to purchase your starting gear, or, if you come from a wealthy background, why don’t you have more money? How did you learn your skills of your class? What sets you apart from ordinary people who share your background . . .Crawford, 125
After nearly twenty years of not asking players clarifying questions during character creation to help guide their play Wizards of the Coast has begun teaching a new generation to ask those fundamental questions in a new way. Now they’re being more specific and helping this new generation to realize their characters more fully by using backgrounds. Their asking the specific questions that AD&D 2e left unasked and by doing so it’s creating a situation where what differentiates two barbarians isn’t their gear but the choices they made at character creation.
Just as AD&D 2e was a reaction to AD&D 1e so it would seem D&D 5e is a reaction to the entire history of the Dungeons & Dragons game. It’s something that needs more investigating in the future.
Cook, David “Zeb,” et al. Player’s Handbook for the AD&D Game. USA: TSR Inc, 1996. pg 35. PRINT
Crawford, Jeremy, et al. D&D Player’s Handbook. USA: Wizards of the Coast, 2014. pg 125. PRINT
Update 2/19/2019: Dither had the following note about Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D 4e) and its use of ‘roles:’
4e had “roles” that classes for into, and recommendations for party composition based upon those roles.
Striker was the most plentiful with rogues, Rangers, and warlocks from the PHB. Defender included fighters and paladins. Leader (equivalent of priest or healer) included cleric and warlord. Controller was covered by the wizard in the PHB and had the fewest classes overall.
Subsequent publications added the most to strikers and changed how a few classes worked to get them to fit the combat roles as defined. Many people who read (but didn’t play) 4e complained the classes were homogenous, but actually playing the game should quickly dispel the misconception.
Later in the game’s life, WotC experimented with mixing combat roles and releasing alternate versions of popular classes with different powers and class features to fit different roles. By far the most powerful characters successfully hybridized two or more roles. I recall the fighter/warlord was particularly devastating . . .Dither