Of course the ready answer for many old school devotees is of course not. But I've thought this out for some time now and keep coming to several impasses. If you'd like to take the time to read my thoughts I would love to get some feedback to maybe come to a more complete understanding on this issue.
Point 1: Classes are not realistic
We all know that classes are a construct that facilitates archetypal roleplay. Drawn almost exclusively from literature, they are storytelling devices. The reason that such metaphors are so powerful is that they appeal universally to certain motivating forces within the human psyche. And humans, being what they are, prefer things categorized and simplified. Thus archetypes are limited in number. This is also a result of the power of the archetypes themselves. They have a tendency to subsume variations on themes into themselves. For this reason we see, John Carter of Mars, Conan, Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, Miyamoto Musashi as variations on the warrior archetype. I suppose this might be said to be realistic in a subtle psychological sense. But not mechanically. By this I mean if we were to more closely mirror the way the mundane world works we would utilize a skill system such as that used in Runequest or GURPS.
This point is important exactly because classes are archetypal. They have power because they represent universal forces. The spirit of the warrior, wizard, priest and trickster. They are not designed to be realistic they are designed to be fantastic. They are meant to engage us on a mythic level. For this reason as well, the fewer classes the better. Fine distinctions to do not automatically assume different archetypes. For instance a sort of paladin-like character that devotes himself to capturing evil npcs instead of killing them, is simply a warrior or a cleric that fulfils his duties and role with unique flavor. He doesn't require a separate class like Inquisitor to be played properly.
However, can't it be said that there exists a Paladin archetype? A Ranger? The Assassin? The Monk? The Bard? And indeed an Inquisitor? Aren't they also worthy of experience and emulation? The argument that such subclasses are archetypes in and of themselves cannot be easily ignored. We can say they are simply variations on a theme, but are we missing something in doing so? After all a warrior or thief that plays a ranger-like character is still a warrior or a thief. A rose by any other name and all that. Is it right to deny a player's desire to identify with a more specific sub-archetype?
Point 2: Variations on a theme
Taking the last point home, several RPGs have chosen to create just such variations in their class structure. Taking their cues from D&D 2e all expression of a class are simply stylized variations on the warrior, mage, priest, rogue class structure. Via proficiency selection a player can customize their character to their liking. Using a base class as foundation they craft their ideal by choosing certain weapons, skills and the like. Other RPGs such as Dragon Age allow level advancement to differentiate PCs. As a character develops over time they are allowed to specialize or customize into various class-paths. Old Dragon, a South American fantasy RPG does something very similar based on alignment choices.
The idea being that four classes are plenty if we allow customization. For instance say someone wants to play a ranger type. So they roll up a thief, but use their hide in shadows as conceal in brush, set and disarm traps only for outdoor type traps such as deadfalls, pit traps, and snares. Move silently becomes a wilderness pass without trace and the like. The PC chooses a short sword and dagger dual wielded and a short bow. Viola! Instant Ranger. But we all can see he is not exactly a Ranger. And he won't be able to fight as well as any fighter. Fair trade? Why not just create a more explicit class and call it a ranger? The same can be said for many other situations. Do four sizes really fit all? But if we take customization too far we end up with an endless list of classes and customizability. And we're back at 3.5 again.
Point 3: Roleplay it.
0e and to an extent B/X solved this dilemma by simply encouraging roleplay. If you must play a monk type then roll up a cleric and write a backstory that creates the PC you desire. For instance, "My cleric was adopted by a reclusive hermit that was a high level priest long ago. This guru of mine became disenfranchised with the idea of worshipping an endlessly quarrelling pantheon of deities. He saw their immature antics as a bad example for humankind and thus cloistered himself to ponder the matter. He developed a method of prayer very similar to meditation where instead of communing with the gods he communed with the multiverse itself. He tapped into the very nature of good and law and devoted himself to perfecting his mind and body in accord with these universal forces. My cleric does the same, worshipping no gods but the ground of ultimate being itself. His spells are gained by meditation and manifest as power from the discipline he develops by adherence to the universal code of conduct my master discovered. He wields no weapons and fights only barehanded using a unique style of martial combat developed by the guru from his enlightened meditations."
Such an approach can even inspire DMs to create campaign touchstones, history and references that support such characters. Possibly even giving them special powers and abilities over time. But then again, are we not starting to develop what amounts to another class? Why not cut away the chafe and stop calling such PCs clerics any longer, since they really aren't and call them what they really are--monks. And there we are again back at the development of more classes.
It seems to me that any road you take circles you back to creating a number of classes to suit different tastes and desires. Is this an inevitable development in game design or am I missing something? I mean wasn't there a reason there were only a limited number of classes at the start? Or was it as simple as they hadn't gotten around to creating all the others yet. I mean at first we have Fighting Man, Cleric and Magic User. Thief is quickly added and then Assassin. Ranger is soon to follow and we're off to the races. By the time AD&D is around Gary has brought us up to like nine classes. And Dragon magazine is pumping out new classes to the tune of about one every other month or so. Same thing with races, but that's for another post.
Since Gary took it that way, does it make sense somehow? He must have seen the advantage of such a proliferation of classes. Was it just money? I really don't think so, but there is no way to be sure. UA brought us up to 11 official classes, but some were never very popular. 2e reigned us in some, but we can't say that was Gary's doing. He actually wanted to see several new classes added and some others changed. 2e spins the idea of classes into customization that exploded in 3e.
And yet there sits the very popular B/X play. So very popular while still being so minimalist. Do we really need all those other roles? Is this just a matter personal taste or is there some reason to keep it down to the "classic four"? I tell you, I really am uncertain on this myself. And reason keeps taking me away from the rather intuitive feeling that four is all we need. Ideas?