Character Classes in Classic D&D

Rillian, CC-BY-ATT by Peter Seckler
Rillian, CC-BY-ATT by Peter Seckler

This is part of my ongoing series that dissects early D&D and builds a simplified system out of it.

Original D&D has three classes: Fighting-Man, Magic-User, and Cleric. Basic D&D has seven: Clerics, Dwarves, Elves, Fighters, Halflings, Magic-Users, and Thieves.

The division in OD&D is simple: fighting-men bash things, magic-users are physically weak but use powerful magic, and clerics are a compromise between the two.

Basic D&D changes things around. Elves are now the compromise between magic and fighting, while clerics’ powers focus on fighting undead. Dwarves are basically fighters with better saving throws. Halflings and thieves bring interesting new dynamics: halflings are sneaky and hard to hit, while thieves have special abilities (much higher numbers when attacking unnoticed, and the ability to pick pockets, climb, etc.).

Dungeon Raiders strikes a balance between these two approaches, with four classes: Fighter (unchanged fighting-man), Wizard (unchanged magic-user), Rogue (combining the halfling and the thief), and Cleric (combining the cleric and the elf).

Fair enough. Now we must address even thornier issues: What stats must we use?

Hit Points (HP) have certainly proved their worth over the years, so we’ll keep that.

Should HP be random, even at first level? I argue no. Weakness is already modeled in the system. A character with one HP is certainly playable, but requires so much protection and is so unlikely to become stronger that it shouldn’t be a default part of the game. So, each class will have a specific starting HP, and will roll for more HP as characters level up.

What about the to-hit (attack) die? Here’s where I completely break with tradition. Here is where readers will either throw their hands up in disgust and skip to the next article, or give me a fair shake and continue reading.

I’m not going to use a d20 as the attack die.

Instead, each class will have its own attack die (thus keeping with the “Lots of Dice” element of early systems). Borrowing from Savage Worlds, each player will roll his or her character’s attack die, and try to meet or beat a 4.

I think we have enough information now to stat up the classes:

Fighter: 8 HP, 1d8 attack die, +1 damage.

Rogue: 6 HP, 1d6 attack die, +2 to difficulty on all saving throws, and +2 to difficulty on rogue-related ability checks (including but not limited to pick locks (DEX), detect traps (WIS), move silently (DEX), climb (STR), hide (DEX), and listen (WIS)).

Cleric: 5 HP, 1d6 attack die, and mostly utility and healing spells (each day, can cast a number of spells equal to the cleric’s level from all spells at or below cleric’s level).

Wizard: 4 HP, 1d4 attack die, and powerful combat spells (1 per level chosen from the list).

Both wizards and clerics are still easy to kill, each having roughly half the HP of a fighter. The wizard can use powerful, long-range combat spells. The cleric’s support-oriented magic is offset with slightly more HP and a better attack die than a wizard, so clerics can do pretty well in battle.

While we’re at it, let’s work out the attack and damage mechanics.

Interestingly, in early D&D, all weapon-based (e.g., non-magical) attacks deal 1d6 damage.

Should this be changed? It depends on how I want to simulate combat. Will a “powerful” weapon in the hands of an unskilled person do more damage than a dagger? Arguably not; indeed, a neophyte will probably be able to hurt more easily with a dagger than with a broadsword.

To reflect character’s individual training and skill in combat, I debated about using the attack die as the damage die. So, if your attack die is 1d8, you would roll 1d8 to see if you hit, and if you do, roll 1d8 again for damage. But this favors fighters excessively.

So, all attacks deal 1d6 damage, with modifiers as appropriate. Also, powerful creatures can have multiple attacks, giving them much higher damage capacity.

To attack, roll your attack die. If your roll meets or beats 4, you hit and roll 1d6 for damage points. Fighters add 1 to the damage roll, and all characters add one damage per level beyond their first level. Damage points are subtracted from the enemy’s HP, with armor absorbing its rating in damage points each blow. So, an attack roll of 4 will hit a character with +1 armor, but if the damage roll is 2, only 1 point of damage is dealt.

Next time, we’ll cover the all-important topics of experience points and leveling up.

9 thoughts on “Character Classes in Classic D&D

Add yours

  1. I like it! I wonder if you could simplify combat further by combining initiative, the hit roll and damage into one roll. Thus character a and character b roll their respective attack dice > highest wins > the difference between the two = damage. This could be further streamlined (option), a la Tunnels & Trolls, with both sides rolling all their attack dice at once for large melees.I guess missile combat might have to work differently? With the attack dice being rolled against a distance dice, say: d4 @ close range, d6 @ med, d8 @ long and d10 or more @ extreme… Actually your dice mechanic could be used for all difficulties as a universal mechanic should you want to…

    I look forward to reading more


  2. Unless Wizards can cast spells a lot more frequently than in D&D, using a d4 with a target of 4 makes them about half as effective as in D&D (hitting an unarmored foe one if four times instead of one in two). Not sure I’ve met many people who think D&D would be improved upon by making low-level wizards even weaker….


    1. Hi, Josh! Thanks for your comment. Sharp eye!

      Yup, wizards can ast spells more frequently in Dungeon Raiders. That’ll be explained in the spells post, which should come out in a few weeks.


  3. I’m not convinced that having damage die equal to attack die makes the fighter overpowered compared to the other classes. More effective at martial combat, certainly, but… the wizard get spells. What else does the fighter get? In most editions of D&D (and derived games) fighters basically get “hit things with other things” and that’s about it. Let them be good at it.


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