It occurs me that “class” is not really an obvious word to use to describe the fighter, cleric, etc. Really these are better described as “jobs”. Still, most D&D-influenced games use a “class system” – offhand, the only games I can think of that use “job systems” are some of the Final Fantasy games.

I’ve seen “class” so many times to describe D&D jobs that I almost think it’s an official meaning of the word. Obviously, though, the official meaning being used is “classification”, as in “This character is classified as a fighter.” It’s an interesting implication: classifying something is almost like rating it. It’s a semi-judgment call: like you’re inspecting real heroes and deciding which arbitrary category they best fit into.

I decided to look through the old Chain Mail rules to see if I could find out more of the history of the term. I found that, as is not uncommon, the word is used as a technical term with many different meanings. I guess Gygax had the word “class” in his head when he wrote these rules.

Here are the different meanings of “class”/”classification” in Chain Mail:


“Regardless of the armor classification of their target, arquibusiers…”

This is the source of AC, Armor Class.


“Three classifications of Cannons are considered.”

This seems more like an offhand use of the word “class” and not really a technical usage.


“Examples of troop classifications are: Light foot… heavy foot…”

The classifications of troops were ranked, each more powerful than the last, sort of the way “levels” is used in D&D. “Units attacking from the flank are treated as the next higher class, ie, Heavy Foot equals Armor Foot”; “Treat all Polish troops as either elite or one class above their actual rating…”


“Melee Table: Note that each weapon listed has a number designating its class. The shorter and lighter the weapon, the lower its class.”
“The defender has a weapon which is two classes higher…”
“For any weapon 2 or more classes than the attacker…”

This is a separate meaning of “class” that didn’t make it into D&D. OD&D didn’t really differentiate between weapon types that much besides melee and ranged, and Basic D&D rules for weapons with different damage dice were optional. 1e had elaborate differentiation between each weapon, but they weren’t really divided into groups. Later editions sort of reinvented weapon classes, with 3e’s piercing/bludgeoning/slashing and reach weapons, and 4e’s keywords: light, offhand, versatile, two-handed, reach, etc.


That’s all the uses of “class” in the standard chainmail rules: it is also used the the Fantasy supplement.


“HEROES (and Anti-heroes): Included in this class are certain well-known knights, leaders of army contingents, and similar men. They have the fighting ability of four figures, the class being dependent on the arms and equipment of the Hero types themselves, who can range from Light Foot to Heavy Horse.”

This is a not unusual Gygaxian occurrence: a situation where a technical word like “class” is used in several different contexts in the same passage. The first instance, “included in this class”, is the first example of the term “class” describing characters, and is somewhat unusual: hero figures are usually referred to as “hero types”. This actually seems like a nontechnical usage. The second use of “class” in the passage refers to the “troop classification” technical meaning.

“WIZARDS (including Sorcerers at -1, Warlocks at -2, Magicians at -3, Seers at -4). In normal combat, all this class will fight as two Armored Foot…”

Here is a further example of the proto-character class. It’s also the source of level titles, which never made it out of D&D into its imitators. It seems analagous to the tiered troop-classification system, with better and better troops costing more points to put in your army. These titles for different-strength wizards probably predated the D&D idea that characters passed through each title as they leveled up.

“There are two classes of Elementals, those subject to fire (Air and Water Elementals) and those subject to electricity (Earth and Fire Elementals).”

This is kind of a puzzling passage: I guess instead of the traditional four-sided scissor-paper-stone-fire weakness system for elementals, he used them with the original two wizard powers, fireball and
lightning bolt, which themselves evolved from catapult and cannon.

“Wights and Ghouls: […] Zombies are in this class but attack as Orcs and move as Goblins.”

Another (perhaps non-technical) reference to the writeups of the different fantasy creatures as a class. Monsters and proto-character-classes are lumped together in the bestiary, all available for point-buy purchase. A class can be a collection of similar units who are treated almost the same way by the rules: sorcers and warlocks are in one class, zombies and ghouls are in another class.

Confusingly, inside the class of elementals, there are two “classes” of elementals, each of which contains two elements. The cavalier use of the same terms in different context can be confusing, but of course Gygax wasn’t polishing his early rules, carefully treating each term as a technical term, as he would do later: he was writing for a hobbyist audience which was comfortable with interpretation and extension of the written rules.

Interesting note: In Gygax’s next RPG incarnation after D&D, Dangerous Journeys, Gygax had to rename everything to avoid TSR lawsuits. Class was renamed Vocation. Dangerous Journeys PCs (or Heroic Personae) did have to choose a class, though: Socio-Economic Class, which determines which Vocations are available.


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