A while ago my youngest son had asked me why it was that clerics were not allowed to use swords and bows. I explained, from rote memory, that this was part of game balance as well as trying to emulate a particular archetype. He cocked his head at me which usually means he's not buying it.
Frankly, I don't like my answer either. I was spoon fed this explanation after years of playing and haven't really questioned it for a long time. I decided to take a long look at it since I've been formulating my plans for Icosa. I'm taking the 'question everything' approach.
Obviously the original three classes in OD&D (fighting-man, magic-user and cleric) were meant to bring to life a particular type of character from swords & sorcery literature and/or medieval history. The fact that magic-users (wizards) were limited to so few weapons and so narrow an archetype has rankled players for decades. Clerics too seem to be too narrowly focused.
My original thought was to free up at least the choice of weapons. S&W White Box gives 1d6 as the range of damage for all weapons (+1 for large weapons and -1 for small weapons). With every weapon essentially having the same mechanical effect, why not abolish weapon restrictions?
This line of thinking stems from the belief that amount of weapon damage is tied to the various classes - high damage weapons to fighters, average damage weapons to clerics and low damage to magic-users. This doesn't hold much water before some of the revisions in AD&D. Still, the White Box rules, based on OD&D, seems to level the playing field, so why the restrictions?
I stumbled on the answer as I was looking for aspects of D&D that would support elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was flipping through the listings of magic items searching for magical tomes when it hit me - magical weapons. The magical weapons, as well as other items, were clearly aligned with specific classes. Fighters get the widest selection of magical weapons, but they are the sole users of magic swords, the most common item in fantasy literature. This is why clerics can't use edged weapons - niche protection. So if I want to open up weapon choices in classes, how do I remedy this without seriously unbalancing the game and keeping the fighter's niche intact?
The solution seems pretty simple. Weapons of a magical sort could be used by any class just like normal weapons - a +1 sword works equally as well in hands of any of the classes. However, a sword +1, +3 vs. Dragons will only grant the additional bonus (special ability vs. Dragons) when wielded by fighters. A +1 blunt weapon that destroys undead will only act as a +1 weapon in anyone's hands except for clerics who can call upon the special ability. This opens up a world of variety now. The possibilites are endless for magical weapons (or armor) that only grant special abilities when wielded by a specific class or race.
Now this is not really a new thing. The venerable Holy Avenger has special properties that could be tapped by Paladins in AD&D and there have been many, many items before and after it that have done the same thing. For me this realization is the completing of a circuit in my brain that will let me do what I wanted to do with S&W for Icosa and not break the game. Now my son can have a sword-wielding, arrow-slinging cleric and not steal the fighter's thunder. Personally I'm looking forward some sword- or axe-wielding magic-users slinging spells into the fray. Maybe next I'll look at letting the magic-users wear armor (sacrilege!).
Follow Your Bliss,