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Clerics, fighters, rangers, rogues, and wizards all have long histories in the D&D game.
Throughout the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, we’ve been following the online comic adventures of five heroes—representatives of their factions, but also of five key classes to the game. In today’s D&D Alumni, we take a brief look back at the history of these classes, and how they’ve evolved into their current inception in the Player’s Handbook.
The fighters of D&D can trace their genealogy back to the heroes and super heroes of the Chainmail (1971) miniatures game, who were “well-known knights, leaders of army contingents, and similar men”. However fighters more obviously appeared in their modern form as the “fighting men” of OD&D (1974)—who became heroes at 4th level and super heroes at 8th.
From there, D&D fighters embarked on a long road to balance their power levels with their magical brethren. When they picked up the name “fighters” in AD&D (1977-1979), they also got multiple attacks a round, going as high as two attacks per round at 13th level; while Unearthed Arcana (1985) introduced weapon mastery and specialization for fighters only. Meanwhile new subclasses like the ranger, the paladin, the cavalier, and the barbarian were proliferating—and usually overshadowing the original fighter class. AD&D 2e (1989) was more of the same, except the fighter was temporarily a member of the warrior category.
The 21st century has seen the biggest changes to fighters. With D&D 3e (2000) their damage potential went through the roof, helped in part by the game’s new feats, which made high-level fighters truly dangerous for perhaps the first time. Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords (2006) made fighters even more interesting by giving them evocative special attacks, an idea that also underlay D&D 4e (2008).
In D&D 5e (2014), fighters now lie somewhere between earlier editions. The base class has more class features than early incarnations, while players who want to have more tactical options can play the Battle Master archetype and select different fighting maneuvers each turn.
Like fighters, wizards originated with Chainmail (1971). They appear there in a surprisingly mature form, already possessing well-known spells like fireball, lightning bolt, phantasmal force, protection from evil, cloudkill, and anti-magic shell. Seers, magicians, warlocks, and sorcerers also appear as less powerful wizard variants.
When the wizard returned in OD&D (1974), he was now called the magic-user, but all the wizardly variants from Chainmail appear as level titles: seer at 2nd level, magician at 6th, warlock at 8th, sorcerer at 9th, and wizard at 11th. Magic-users now also had to memorize their spells, then lost them when casting. Those primeval OD&D wizards got just six levels of spells; they’d have to wait for Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) to learn higher level spells like power word: kill, time stop, and wish.
AD&D (1977-1979) kept magic-users largely the same, though the illusionist subclass from The Strategic Review #4 (Winter 1975) also appeared. 2nd Edition (1989) saw magic-users reclassified as mages, who were a member of the wizard category—which once more became their official name. More importantly, mages could now specialize in specific types of magic, changing the special rules for illusionists into a much more general framework that allowed for eight types of magicians. When Dark Sun (1991) was published a few years later, it introduced even more variety with defilers and preservers who cast magic in connection with the world (parasitically or cooperatively).
More variants appeared in D&D 3e (2000), which introduced new sorts of magic-users who cast their spells in different ways: the core rules brought in sorcerers, who didn’t need to memorize spells; while Complete Arcane (2004) premiered warlocks, who could cast spell-like invocations at will. These ideas created a foundation for D&D 4e (2008), which allowed wizards to cast many of their spells round after round—with more powerful spells limited to fewer uses.
More recently, D&D 5e (2014) brought back the fire-and-forget mage of old with a few compromises: wizards can recover a few spells more quickly through the study of the spellbooks in the middle of day and at high levels can cast a few spells constantly. Meanwhile, fans of other styles of casting can still play the newest versions of the sorcerer and the warlock.
As a wargame, Chainmail (1971) didn’t include any options for healing. D&D’s third core class, the cleric, thus didn’t appear until the release of OD&D (1974) itself. Mike Carr says that it may have originated in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, where he played Bishop Carr, a vampire-fighting clergyman.
The cleric published in OD&D was part fighting man and part magic-user. They also had rules of their own: they could turn undead, but were restricted from using edged weapons. The rules additionally provided for five levels of cleric spells, from cure light wounds to insect plague. Much like wizards, clerics had to memorize these spells each morning. Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) extended clerical spells up to 7th level, including classics like holy word and restoration; while Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes (1976) gave them someone to worship.
The AD&D (1977-1979) clerics were largely the same except with Deities & Demigods (1980) book providing even more deities. In AD&D 2e (1989) clerics temporarily became a member of the priest category. More importantly, the new rules also expanded on clerical ideas introduced in Dragonlance Adventures (1987). Clerics were now differentiated based on their “mythoi” and some could even use edged weapons! They could also choose specific spheres of magic to master. Later 2e rules more fully detailed “specialty priests”, which were priests of specific gods who had unique spells and abilities. Though some special rules for individual priests were found in Legends & Lore (1990), specialty priests reached their full embodiment in late 2e books like Faiths & Avatars (1996), a deity book for the Forgotten Realms.
In D&D 3e (2000) and 4e (2008), the story of clerics has been one of increasing variability and flexibility. 3e was the first edition to entirely abolish the edged weapon restriction and to give clerics on-demand healing that could replace other spells in their repertoire. It also provided some variability in using “channel positive energy” for things other than just turning undead. 4e then slotted cleric abilities like divine attacks and healing into the standard methodology of at-will, encounter, and daily powers.
Unsurprisingly D&D 5e (2014) is back to basics, with fire-and-forget clerical spellcasting, but clerics of different domains (spheres) are more different than ever, possessing unique spells, unique powers, and in some cases unique ways to channel divinity (positive energy). Divine intervention can also provide clerics with direct help from their gods.
Rogues have one of the more interesting histories among the D&D classes. Gygax liked the concept, creating his own thief for Great Plains Game Players Newsletter #9 (June 1974). It became an official part of the game a year later in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975)—which means that the D&D game was without its fourth core class for over a year.
The OD&D thief was quite innovative in that he had access to D&D’s first-ever skill system, which let him open locks, remove traps, pick pockets, move silently, and hide in shadows if he could roll low enough on a percentage die. He could also hear noises more easily than most characters.
From there, the story of the thief is one of slow evolution. In AD&D (1977-1979) he picked up a few new skills like climb walls and read languages, and also got a combat ability: back stabbing. Unfortunately, when a thief got to strike “from behind” was left fairly vague in those days, which meant that DMs always had to arbitrate the power’s usage. AD&D 2e (1989) was much the same, except thieves became a member of the rogue category—which has been their standard name ever since.
In the early days of D&D, rogues were always the odd man out because their skill system was unlike anything else in the game. This was true even after the introduction of non-weapon proficiencies in books like Oriental Adventures (1985) and the 2e rules (1989). It was finally corrected in D&D 3e (2000) when their skills were linked with the game’s general skill system.
The rules for sneak attacking were also integrated into D&D 3e’s combat system, allowing rogues to tactically sneak attack in a fight without DM arbitration. The rogue’s combative focus was increased even more by the tactical rules of D&D 4e (2008), which gave rogues cinematic combat maneuvers.
Though rogues in D&D 5e (2014) remain dangerous, the rules also remind players of their many other abilities—with the thief archetype having larcenous abilities and the assassin archetype focusing on disguise and infiltration.
The ranger hasn’t traditionally been a core D&D class, but his visibility has steadily increased as the mirror of the fighter—good with ranged weapons where the fighter is a melee expert. He previously hadn’t gotten the same exposure as the four original classes because he was introduced a little later in The Strategic Review #2 (Summer 1975), in an article by Joe Fischer.
Joe Fischer’s ranger is described as a “sub-class” of the fighting man, following on the paladin that had appeared in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975). This primeval ranger was likely influenced by Aragorn from Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), as its 2nd level title was “strider”. In those early days, rangers were also extra dangerous when fighting giants. The ability to cast spells only appeared with AD&D (1977-1979).
Rangers saw even bigger changes in AD&D 2e (1989) when they picked up the ability to dual-wield weapons, making them dangerous hand-to-hand fighters. This new ability is widely attributed to the popularity of Drizzt Do’Urden, a ranger from The Crystal Shard Trilogy (1988-1990) that could dual-wield due to his drow heritage. However 2e designer Zeb Cook says the new ability came from a more general desire to make rangers distinct. In any case, Drizzt was likely the character that made rangers more compelling throughout the ‘90s. Cook’s 2e rules also saw the premiere of the ranger’s animal empathy ability and the introduction of “species enemies” that a ranger was better against in combat (rather than just giants).
D&D 3e (2000) was the first edition to give rangers animal companions. Rangers then saw big changes with the release of D&D 3.5 (2003), which resolved the facts that they were both too front-loaded and underpowered.
Rangers moved more to the martial side of things in D&D 4e (2008). Rather than connecting them to primal power, 4e turned rangers into strikers who could choose between archery or two-weapon combat. Alternatively, Martial Power (2008) supported a beastmaster build that allowed for an animal companion. So, whichever of the three major types of rangers that you liked—archers, dual-wielders, or animal buddies—you could find it in 4e.
D&D 5e (2014) takes a similar tack: though archery is the most visible fighting style for the class, two-weapon fighting is once more an alternative, and beast master is an archetype that allows for an animal companion.
Some of these key classes have changed a lot over the years, while others have remained very steady. Now D&D 5e is reaching back across that entire rich history to provide some of the best class variants from a full 40 years of D&D.