Now obviously there are many players with experience in other systems such as AD&D, and some of those players would really like to run a Paladin or a Druid or an Illusionist or whatnot. There are plenty of resources that provide those classes (and many more) as additions for B/X D&D or compatible systems such as Labyrinth Lord. But I still prefer the purity of just four core classes and so I usually negotiate with players like that, granting their characters a "small edge" that goes in the right direction but doesn't mess with the game too much. Dyson's random sub-classes are an excellent example of the kind of thing I tend to do.
Then along comes Zach H of Zenopus Archives fame with a G+ post that gets me thinking. Here's that post:
Idle thought on adding subclasses to whitebox OD&D or Holmes, but without adding any new rules.
Paladin = Fighter/Cleric
Ranger = Fighter/Thief
Monk = Cleric/Thief
Druid = Cleric/MU
Bard = Thief/MU
Subclasses are for humans only (Fighter/MU is still just elves). Use whatever multi-class rules you use for elves.
One can obviously debate whether the suggested "breakdown" for each of these is the best possible one, but the idea of "mixing and matching" the core classes to re-create approximations of other popular classes is genius! And although Zach's "idle thought" is not explicitly targetting B/X it can certainly work there as well, once we add some kind of multi-classing mechanic anyway.
As luck would have it, I already added such a mechanic in support of my take on demi-humans: I am using a variant of archetypal multi-classing! And one of the cool things about that approach is that Fighter/Thief and Thief/Fighter are not the same thing: The secondary class is always at half the level of the primary class, so those combinations feel very different in play.
Applied to Zach's idea this gives us a number of additional possibilities for "mixing" classes together. For example we can interpret Fighter/Thief as "Ranger" or maybe "Scout" whereas Thief/Fighter might be "Thug" or "Assassin" if we squint a little.
But I got my real Christmas present when I tried to figure out the difference between a Fighter/Cleric and a Cleric/Fighter. I agreed with Zach that a Fighter/Cleric should be a "Paladin", but what the heck is a Cleric/Fighter if not also a "Paladin", albeit of a slightly different bent? (Yes, I could make up another name for that combination, but it still seems too redundant.)
What hit me at that point was that the Cleric is already a multi-classed character: Clerics combine "divine spell-casting" with "decent combat-ability" after all! So if there was a class that only focused on the divine stuff, a Priest class say, then I would get a much more sensible result: The Fighter/Priest would be the "Paladin" but the Priest/Fighter would now be the "Cleric," reconstituted from salvaged parts.
Praise be to that glorious redemption from the interwebz!
This little insight fixes so much for me. I've always looked at Paladins with a critical eye, mostly because I felt like the Cleric was already some kind of Paladin to begin with. The "heavily armored guy bashing orcs with a mace while waving a cross" just never really worked for me as something a "run of the mill" religious person should be. So I found it necessary to cast the Cleric as a "militant fanatic" of sorts to make sense of it all and I assumed some "less militant" religious folks in the background as non-player characters: tending to the sick, writing history and philosophy tracts, celebrating "mass" of one sort or another, herding the undead pets of their EHP, etc.
Now I can finally remedy this situation in a framework that makes sense to me. I'll throw out the existing Cleric class and replace it with a Priest class that gets "divine spell-casting" and "turn undead" but nothing else. Priests are of a scholarly bent, sort of like Wizards (or Magic-Users or whatever). Priests get the Wizard's hit die, combat progression, weapon selection, and armor restrictions, but (just for kicks) they keep the old Cleric's saving throws. And of course Priests have to memorize spells from their "prayer books" just like Clerics had to already in my campaign. (This allows me to cut down on Dan's old complaint that Clerics have access to too many spells.) Now if players want to have a priestly character, one that's not also a slaughter-house, they finally can! And if they want to be something with more "oomph" in battle, well, just multi-class the right way and become either a Paladin or a Cleric.
Having said all that, the one thing I am not sure about is whether this added complexity is worth it in the end. Don't get me wrong, I really like this approach. But the old "just give them a special thing" worked as well and in the end it's more flexible since the referee is involved and can "grant" something that's very special and not in the "official" rules.
In any case, I still need to "interpret" all the possible class combinations in a useful way, and I am still having trouble with some of them. Maybe you can help by suggesting something I have not thought of? Here's what I have now:
Fighter / Priest = Paladin
Fighter / Rogue = Scout or Ranger
Fighter / Wizard = Warlock?
Priest / Fighter = Cleric
Priest / Rogue = Monk? Inquisitor?
Priest / Wizard = Druid? Shaman?
Rogue / Fighter = Thug or Assassin
Rogue / Priest = Charlatan? Agitator?
Rogue / Wizard = Bard?
Wizard / Fighter = ?
Wizard / Priest = Thaumaturgist? Theurge?
Wizard / Rogue = Illusionist? Mountebank? Trickster?
And with that I am putting my behind on a plane to Germany. Merry Christmas (or whatever it is you celebrate) and a Happy New Year!