Many RPG systems lean on the concept of class. We all have a certain image that jumps to the mind when someone says rogue, fighter, cleric, and wizard. For me a rogue is a brash, cunning trickster who often finds his activities are less than legal. The sort of person who watches out for himself before all others and harbors a licentious obsession with the GP. It’s the sort of thing we expect from a ‘rogue’ in D&D.
There have been plenty of arguments for and against classes because they pigeonhole characters one way or another. A barbarian born naked with a broadsword in his hand’s characterization and role playing can be summed up with foam-flecked battle cries. If the party enters a city he becomes a simple oaf ignorant of common civilian conventions. But he doesn’t have to be. If as some people believe a character has eroded little more than a collection of stats, skills, and items it’s essentially a blank page for characterization.
In a recent game with my weekly group the setting was a large city. We knew the entire game would be taking place in the city. In a game of D&D 4e our group consisted of two elf rangers (Essentials Scout, PHB Ranger), a half-orc berserker and a tiefling bard. Common tropes dictate the majority of the party would sooner be found roaming the plains and trade towns, not confined to a large city. We talked some at character creation and the DM agreed to switch the rangers’ class Nature training for Streetwise. With the natural abilities for Athletics and Acrobatics the woodland rangers became free running, parkour enthusiasts. The half-orc berserker took the Firecrafter Dark Sun theme. The theme states Firecrafters are rare and generally avoided, the character was now more out of sorts than just being a wild berserker. Suddenly I hit on his motivation speaking with someone on the internet about something completely unrelated. I saw this image of this primordial touched half-orc in the robes of a classic Final Fantasy white mage. What if the half-orc tries to start a religious institution for the primordial who gifted him his abilities? A magic city where anything goes that is difficult for outsiders to find seems a prime place for persecuted firecrafters to worship a chaotic god in relative peace. I replaced the berserker rage as chaotic rage per channeling his fire elemental side. If I continue playing with the character I might ask the DM if the extra ‘rage’ damage can be amended as fire damage flaring from his attacks.
So the rangers played more like rogues and the berserker like an elemental cleric or avenger. One of the greatest things I have taken away from 4th edition is the idea of ‘re-skinning’, not just monsters and traps but anything. Most DMs in my experience are willing to work with a player to change small aspects of how a character plays. Changing the power source, keywords and even damage types of a power means very little mechanically. But be warned, abusing a DM’s flexibility never ends well.
Previously I skinned a ‘no-attack’ warlord build to be a tactician. He became a character with absolutely no talent for fighting (Base Ability Score 10 Strength & Dexterity) but was a prodigy when it came to tactics and commanding his allies (Base Ability Score 18 Intelligence & Charisma). Second son of a noble he did not stand to inherit anything from his family so he set off to make his own legacy. Pampered his whole life the tactician struggled with adventure life and was prone to whining and excuses but in a fight he would stand back with his hand fan and direct his comrades with brutal efficiency. The pampered characterization helped to rationalize why the character was so abysmally bad at most physical skill checks but had a decent repertoire of social and knowledge skills.
A class only constrains a character if the player decides not to consciously break the mold. A wizard can as easily be a Merlin as a Harry Dresden. Bards and rogues can equally be silver-tongued conmen selling snake oil. So keep your mind open, take class tropes where they work and discard the others. Doing so will leave you with a more unique character. If you do it well enough people around the table may even forget what class you’re playing. What unique characters have you played and how did they buck the traditional vision of their class?