In AD&D 2e you could choose your weapon and nonweapon proficiencies (optional rule), thieves could choose how to distribute their skill points, and (in the Complete Priests Handbook) speciality priests could have different ‘spheres’ that controlled what spells they had access to and influenced the powers they received.
D&D 3e started making classes even more flexible. In all cases you can choose the skills you learn and to what degree, and all characters get feats that can change aspects of the character. The multiclassing options were greater than before and offered even more flexibility.
Many classes also had options for customization as well. Spell casters could select spells that suited their concept (such as a ‘fire mage’ or ‘necromancer’), clerics could choose domains that affected spell selection and granted powers specific to the domains, fighter could pick even more feats, rangers could pick favored enemies, and so on. Barbarians, not so much.
This covers just the D&D core rules. Over time even more options became available. Among them,
- Green Ronin, in Book of the Righteous, provided the “holy warrior” class as an alternative to the core rules paladin. Like clerics, holy warriors had domains that governed the powers and spells they gained through their class.
- Unearthed Arcana described variant classes and class options that could change a character class. For instance, class options that changed barbarian ‘rage’ to ‘frenzy’ (strength vs. speed), changed druidic wildshape to ‘aspects’, and replacement abilities for specialist wizards.
- A number of supplements and Dragon Magazine articles presented ‘substitution levels’ that replaced, for some characters, specific class abilities. For instance, a ‘dwarven paladin’ might have a substitution level that changes his remove disease ability to something involving stone or divination.
- Fantasy Flight Games, in their Path of… series and Dawnforge presented ‘legendary classes’ that gave some basic class benefits (base attack bonus and saving throws, possibly continuing spell casting) and then had the specific abilities for each such character chosen at each level. Each level in the class would provide the character a new benefit (ability, power, or the like) scaled by the class level at which it was taken.
- Pathfinder expanded the flexible nature of the classes. Even more classes gained choices and alternate abilities and so on.
From an engineering perspective, I like this. I’m all about flexibility and tend to dislike designs that restrict that. A tool that may be used in many ways is, to my mind, a good tool. If this tool can be used in ways that were not planned (or necessarily even imagined) by the designer it is even better.
However, as a GM and player… it might be a bit much, really. The increase in flexibility brings with it the need for players (and GMs during preparation) to make more choices. While choice is good, the sheer volume (not number, volume) of choices is starting to reduce the value of the decisions (and the ease of making them; “I can heal stuff” is an easy decision, “I can heal this and this, but not that” can be higher-resolution decision-making than it needs to be).
Echelon simplifies this by having talents that try to include as much as possible of the things people with the talent should be able to do. When building a character you simply choose the broad categories of things that the character can do and work out how they fit together (since most talents don’t directly interact this should be fairly straightforward). On one hand this is even more flexible (you have pretty free choice of talents) and thus would be even more time-consuming, but the pieces are large enough that they can be easily worked with (and don’t interact much directly, reducing the effort of connecting things).
This post isn’t about Echelon, though, but about how the increasing flexibility of class design in D&D may be used more efficiently and easily.