Ask Angry: Class! Hunh! What Is It Good For?

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It’s Ask Angry time again. If you want to Ask Angry, e-mail and put ‘Ask Angry’ in the subject so I know you mean to Ask Angry! Don’t forget to tell me how you want to be credited.

Kevin M. asks

If you were to make your own game system (and no one is saying that you are. This is just, you know, hypothetical), what would be your opinion on either having classes, or no classes? I ask this from a player’s standpoint because I am 99% player. Classes give more structure with clearly defined roles, while no classes are more free form in choice giving players the ability to make concepts that don’t fit into defined roles. Both methods can result in (mechanically) fun characters, but is there one that you would prefer, and why?

You’re damned right it’s hypothetical. If I WERE writing an RPG, I wouldn’t talk about it until it was ready. And I wouldn’t give away any awesome secrets. But I’ll talk about how I would think about this decision.

The first thing I would note is that all of the most popular and approachable games on the market use some form of character archetype. That is to say, most games – including many, MANY video games – use classes. RPGs that don’t use classes tend to be less popular or more esoteric niche products. Now, that point might make you uncomfortable, especially because it is my first point. It might seem like pandering or like I’m letting marketing write the game (the hypothetical game), but it’s kind of stupid to ignore that data. Because clearly classes are doing something good for the game. And if we understand what that is, we can make a more informed decision as to whether the game should have classes.

Classes actually do a HELL OF A LOT. They do a lot of heavy lifting for your game. First, they provide an easy way into the game. The idea of classes is ubiquitous. And even if a player doesn’t know about classes because they have never played an RPG or a video game that used them before, they are pretty easy to explain.

Classes also help prevent the blank-page option. While some people enjoy the prospect of a blank sheet of paper on which to create anything, the vast majority of people panic when they see a blank page and have no idea how to begin. A completely blank character sheet filled with dozens of choices is scary. Classes provide an easy decision that helps start the process, filling in some of the bigger spaces and also providing guidance for smaller choices. It can lubricate character generation.

Because classes speed character generation, they also lower the time it takes to get back into the game should something terrible happen (like a dead PC). You can think of this as “iteration time.” The reason games like Super Meat Boy and the first Dark Souls could get away with being so difficult is that it was relatively quick to get back into the game. The reason I quit Watch_Dogs was because I hit one mission that took me three or four tries to complete and the load times killed me. KILLED ME. So, classes are helpful in any game where death is a possibility.

But those are the obvious benefits. Let’s talk about the non-obvious benefits.

Imagine you see this list of classes in the table of contents. “Marine, Diplomat, Pilot, Engineer, Technician, Operative, Psion.” What type of game is it? What sorts of things are going to happen? What kind of game play? What is possible in that universe? Now, imagine this one: “Infantry, Heavy Trooper, SpecOp, Field Tech, Med Tech, Field Officer.” Even if there are spaceships and aliens on the front cover of both of those games, they feel different. You can tell that right from the class list. A class list – a well-designed class list – tells the players a lot about the type of gameplay they will encounter. And it can even talk about the lore of the game world. The more specific your classes, the more it says about your world. If the only arcane spellcaster in your game world is called “warlock” or “diabolist,” that says something about the role of magic in your world.

In addition, classes provide a design framework, they provide a structure that allows you to guarantee that all players and characters enter the game with certain minimum requirements. In D&D, for example, every class starts play with a certain number of weapon proficiencies. That says something about D&D. You can’t get by in this world without combat training. Every character has to be able to fight.

And you can hang a lot of mechanics off the classes. Things like hit points, skills, basic stats, features, and so on. You can balance them against each other and work with whole chunks of the game at one time without worrying that people are going to cherry pick. If D&D didn’t have classes, for example, you’d have a harder time balancing s$&% because every single option would have to be balanced against every other option. Instead, D&D can balance packages of options. I don’t have to care how much Wizard spellcasting compares to Ranger Two-Weapon Style. I compare the total package: all the ranger s$&% to all the wizard s$&%. And then, if things aren’t balanced,instead of f$&%ing with individual abilities, I can add more or take abilities away. The ranger is weak? Well, we’ll give him a pet.

So, there’s a lot to love about classes. They do a lot of good things and what they do isn’t always obvious. But then, you get the negatives.

First of all, they are restrictive. For a class to mean anything, certain distinctive abilities have to be rooted in class. That means, you can’t get a non-wizard doing wizard-specific spellcasting. Or else the wizard isn’t a wizard anymore. Signature abilities can’t be mixed and matched. If you want sneak attack, you have to take everything else that comes in that package. All the rogue stuff. And if you don’t keep those restrictions, you’re kind of ruining one of the major reasons to use classes: the balance and design framework that classes provide.

By the same token, the classes have to be shaped the same. They ARE a design framework. So every class has to find a way to do all the things that classes have to do. This was most obvious in 4E D&D when the designers decided every class had the same slate of powers: 2 At-Will, 1 Encounter, 1 Daily at first level, up to 2 At-Wills, 4 Encounters, and 4 Dailies at high levels. Because of the way the powers were structured, many people complained that the classes all essentially felt the same. Now, 4E was an extreme example. But all editions of D&D experience this to some extent. Take, for example, weapon proficiencies. Why do wizards have any? Because they have to. There is nothing inherently wizardy about quarterstaff training or dagger training. But classes MUST have weapon proficiencies. So, you get these oddball bits and pieces.

And then, there is the inevitable “been there, done that” problem. No matter how broad your classes are and how customizable, there’s a bit of psychological baggage attached to the class. First and foremost, your character is “the fighter” or “the rogue” or “the wizard.” And that means, once you’ve been playing for a while, you start to feel like you’ve done it all. Even if there are dozens of ways to build a fighter and they all play very differently, psychologically, players get bored with the class list.

The general solution to this has always been to keep adding more classes. But that leads to massive class bloat. And while some players appreciate the class bloat, most players and GMs hate getting overwhelmed by all of the new material they have to keep up with. GMs feel obligated to allow it and players feel obligated to check out the new options. Even worse, the class bloat accelerates the “been there, done that” problem. Because when you’ve played most of the classes in the core rules and it’s time to roll a new character, playing something else from the core book feels dull when there’s six new books of classes.

The other solution to this problem is generally multiclassing or hybrid characters or s$&% like that. And, at least in D&D, that s$&% always seems to be a poorly implemented afterthought that ruins all of the benefit you get to game balance by using classes.

Now, on top of that, I’m going to add another problem that is more community-based than game-based, and that is designers don’t actually think about classes anymore. Every edition of D&D will always have the fighter, rogue, cleric, wizard, ranger, and paladin at the very least. Those will ALWAYS be present. And the druid, barbarian, monk, bard, and sorcerer will usually appear shortly thereafter. And every f$&%ing fantasy RPG everyone ever creates will have the same basic list. And players of fantasy RPGs (and video games) will expect it. While familiarity is helpful for approachability, it also means that people come in with preconceived notions AND it means you’re losing the ability to define your world in your class list. Simply put, there is no care in designing class lists anymore. Every game designer is just tweaking their own version of the standard class list.

So in the end…

Classes make the game approachable and familiar and provide a shorthand for defining your world. They also provide a solid structure around which you can design and balance characters. But they are restrictive, they have odd dangly bits required by the game rather than the flavor of the class. Over time, they grow stale to experienced players limiting the staying power of your game, and the solution to that problem makes your game become more and more unapproachable as time goes on while only exacerbating the boredom problem, and classes tend to be used thoughtlessly leading to a standard fantasy list of stale archetypes that throws away half the strengths of using classes while accelerating the boredom problem.

End of the day though, classes win the popularity contest. Class-based games endure and the concept of classes has become ubiquitous enough that you can count on new players being familiar with it.

So, IF I were designing an RPG, I’d stick with classes. But, before I went any further, I’d be looking at ways to deal with the problems of classes: restriction, boredom, class bloat, unbalanced multiclassing, and avoiding a stale class list without making it too unfamiliar or unapproachable.

As to how I’d do this. Well, if I WERE designing an RPG, I’d have to keep some secrets until I was ready to announce the damned thing, wouldn’t I?

8 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Class! Hunh! What Is It Good For?

  1. Do you think it would help or hinder things to use generic labels, like having a “martial defender” instead of a “fighter”? And would it be more palatable to GM a player playing a small fey arcane leader, as opposed to a gnome bard?

    • Changing the name of a class gives the player a “feeling” of how the class will fit into the game play. There is a different internal connotation between a “fighter” and a “martial defender.” To me, I get a mental image of the later being a “paladin” but lacks the divine support. A barbaric paladin, perhaps (to use D&D archetypes)
      Angry shows this in the “fifth” paragraph (depending on how you count!) of his article when he compares the two “class lists.” The first tell ms that the game is focused on an entire world concept, that players are expected to interact and drive the story socially, economically, politically, technically, and endure combat along the way. The second set says the game play is going to focus on the combat almost exclusively, as all the classes are built around a combat unit and the roles within it.
      So, switching the name from fighter (a generic name indicating that the class is expected to go forth and smite the enemy) to martial defender ( indicating that the class will use combat skills to prevent harm or protect a cause) you change the “feel” and the “perception” of the class. You see this in the “Warlock” vs “Wizard” class in D&D. Both are magic users, both have low hit points, and relatively weak combat skills, but the “image” and “feel” are designed to be unique.

      • Except that “fighter” now has baggage associated with it by long association with DnD. “Fighter” is now an archetype, whereas using a generic label means you are just discussing a package of abilities, and you can refluff it as you see fit. The fact that I may have chosen an insufficiently generic label is irrelevant, the point is that the DM can apply new labels to generic classes to give his campaign whatever feel he wants. So Fighter, Ranger, Thief, and Wizard could also be Infantry, Scout, Engineer, and Psion, using the same basic packages.

        I’m not saying this is a good in itself. I am suggesting it addresses the issue highlighted in this passage:

        “And then, there is the inevitable “been there, done that” problem. No matter how broad your classes are and how customizable, there’s a bit of psychological baggage attached to the class. First and foremost, your character is “the fighter” or “the rogue” or “the wizard.” And that means, once you’ve been playing for a while, you start to feel like you’ve done it all. Even if there are dozens of ways to build a fighter and they all play very differently, psychologically, players get bored with the class list.”

        • This won’t work, sadly. Players will quickly figure out that the scout is the “rogue” in this game, and the problem isn’t solved. People aren’t *that* stupid. It might work for a few hours, but eventually it’ll just feel as dull as any other class-list. For example, ESO has renamed their classes. It feels new at a first glance, but very soon you’ll realise which one is the cleric once you start creating a decent PvE party in need of a healer.

  2. Recently I started designing an RPG of my own too. This has given me a different outlook on how classes actually change the game its self and also the perceived portion of the game…

    Thanks for the thoughts on this!

  3. Most classless games I’ve played rely heavily on attributes and skills over unique special powers. I think that makes balance easier, since everyone has the same, limited set of abilities.

    In the case of Marvel Superheroes, characters are classless and have unique talents and superpowers. But talents just modify attributes, and superpowers are vague and rules-lite.

    The one exception (that I’ve played) is Shadowrun, which has an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to game design, with tons of rules-heavy special powers. It’s probably not a coincidence that I’ve never played a Shadowrun game without a heavy hand in house ruling.

  4. Another classless system is the Storyteller system by White Wolf, famous for Vampire: The Masquerade, et al. In this system, a player may choose to play a social based character or a combat focussed character, etc., but there is no ‘path’ to do that by taking a specific class. You simply allocate your character creation points where you want. This isn’t newbie unfriendly, but because the choices are laid out well. Also, sample characters show how certain builds are implemented.

    A totally classless system can still work, but it helps totally new players if there are examples of certain types of common archetypes. Here is what you need to be a damage dealer, and so on.

    • Well, Storyteller is classless, but it’s still built on archetypes. The clans, tribes, Traditions, etc.–the “splats”. A friend of mine likes to say Vampire is particularly genius for new players, because you can point to any fictional vampire character and map them to one of the seven Camarilla clans. Dracula? He’s a Ventrue. Lestat? Toreador. The Lost Boys? Brujah. Count Orlock from Nosferatu–a Nosferatu! Your new player says “I want to be like Deacon Frost from the Blade movie,” you’re probably pointing them at Brujah.

      I think also, classes are more important the farther removed the game setting is from our modern-day real world. Medieval fantasy settings and galactic space opera are really far removed from early 21st century Western civilization, so classes are handy shortcuts to ground the players in those settings. Something that takes place essentially in our world–but with vampires, superheroes, secret conspiracies, Lovecraftian horrors, etc.–or maybe as far back as a century ago (e.g. Call of Cthulhu), it’s easier for a player to come up with a workable concept. They have a good idea what kind of skills a typical reporter or police officer would have as opposed to a wizard or MedTech, so point-buy systems are less intimidating in those cases.

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