Friday, January 29, 2010

The Role of Class in RPGs

In considering game design, especially designing games of the 64 page and/or “retro” and “Old School” variety, I come to the sticky issue of class…specifically the question “to class or not to class.”

When considering the idea of class, most RPG designers draw directly from “the Granddaddy of them All,” OD&D. The first true RPG (in the way we consider the term today), it included several different character classes…basically “classifying” several distinct styles of play.

Where did this idea come from? That’s not a rhetorical question: I really don’t know. Off the top of my head, the only game I can think of that might have been an inspiration is chess. In chess, a player uses a variety of different pieces, with different functionality, to win the game. In D&D, a party uses its different members’ abilities to explore a dungeon and attempt to survive.

Heck, I can even equate the B/X classes with various chess pieces:

Rook = Fighter/Dwarf

Bishop = Cleric

Knight = Thief

Queen = Magic-User/Elf

There is no king, of course, because B/X doesn’t have “winners and losers” and a checkmate piece is not required. Halflings would probably be considered pawns as would low-level (under 4th) magic-users and hirelings. Although only magic-user “pawns” ever make it to the last file and become queens…a tricky road for sure.

Is a classifying of roles necessary to RPG play?

Mmm…it’s a sticky, semi-loaded question. Classes are an easy way for players to define what their role in a group is. Sometimes this is done by class ability (in B/X, for example), or by reward (Top Secret and possibly 2nd Edition AD&D are the only ones I can think of). Without a pre-defined class, players choose “role” based on skills/abilities or objectives of play, I suppose…the latter of which being the most advanced method of role-playing and not all that common.

Skills/abilities are the main way of classifying player role in “classless” RPGs. In Marvel for example, any character might have access to any power set (since powers are random)…and the type of powers determines the player character’s role in the super group. This is usual for most superhero games, though Heroes Unlimited provides an actual class system with some classes…notably the Bionics character…having fairly pre-defined roles (‘borgs have a hard time doing anything BUT playing “the heavy”).

In a game like Traveller, where no career path sets a particular role, it is the skills one has that will lead to classification…someone is going to be the main pilot, another person the main gun-bunny, etc. However, things start getting hazy as skill sets start looking the similar. How does one classify their character in ElfQuest or James Bond, for example?

Some RPGs like Hollow Earth Expedition and Shadow Run are “classless” but have pre-generated “archetypes” that help define roles for the players. Even though it divides character “type” into grogs, companions, and magi, Ars Magica (3rd edition) would also fall into this category. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of archetypes, but I see their value in helping players understand “what we’re supposed to do.” However, I consider this a fairly lazy approach to design (trying to straddle a line between open-ended and class/role oriented).

How about truly classless systems where there are no “pick and choose” power/skill sets or archetypes? Over the Edge comes to mind, as does Maelstrom (the Story Engine version), Amber, and The Dying Earth. A player’s "role" at the table is going to be based solely on what in-game actions are taken…basically, by whatever the player is bringing to the game. This can be challenging to players that aren’t used to metagaming character goals and objectives, or who aren’t practiced at coming up with backstories for their characters.

At least if the players want their characters to stand out as individuals it’s challenging. Look at Boot Hill for example. [man, can I say enough about this game? Probably not] There are no classes in Boot Hill, and no archetypes either (sorry Deadlands). There are no skills AT ALL, and all characters consist of a handful of attributes (fairly close to each other in rating due to the modification chart) and whatever equipment they choose to own.

As an exercise in playing an “adventuring party” this is fairly nightmarish for the average group of players (perhaps one of the reasons Boot Hill never had a soaring popularity rating)…what the hell am I supposed to do? How do I relate to the other PCs? Who’s in charge? Who’s walking point? Who’s in the support role?

[the guy that bought the dynamite I guess]

There’s no healer, there’s no wizard/huckster, there’s no thief/skill monkey. Just a bunch of “dudes with guns” (and probably with hats and boots).

Wow…talk about wide-open possibility…for the ambitious group of players, that is. You’re free to create your own histories, backstory, sub plots, etc. Your character is solely defined by the actions you take in game…do you have a heart of gold and help every widow and orphan with a sob story? Are you an enterprising rascal, always with an eye towards making a buck? Are you a bloodthirsty gunman always challenging others at the slightest provocation? Are you a low-down, murderin’ back-shooter and outlaw?

The only rules that are defined in-game are how to conduct combat, how far one can ride a horse, and how to gamble (if you don’t want to actually play cards). Everything else is negotiable. Of course, the game doesn’t have anything that motivates you to do anything either (unlike, say, Dogs in the Vineyard). But then neither does Deadlands…and despite the cool additions to the world of the Weird West, I find the latter game and its systems over-burdened and too complex for my taste. ‘Course it does have archetypes.

So back to class…class seems to provide two things to a game:

- Often, a pre-defined role for a player character (notable OS exception: Gamma World)

- Often, a set of class abilities (notable OS exception: Top Secret)

If you don’t care about either of these things (for whatever reason), then I suppose having specific classes of character is unnecessary…probably even undesirable.

For the most recent games I’VE been considering writing, they’re mostly leaning toward the “classless” side of the RPG spectrum. I’ve got a total of 16 ideas (+1 supplement to an existing “classless” game), many of which are no more than a name and a few ideas regarding theme and game play. Of these sixteen, five have the potential for some sort of class, but only two are definitely slated for “choosing a class” (and one of those two is a retro-clone I’m tinkering with). None of my post-apocalyptic ideas have any intention at this time of including “class” as part of character gen.

But regarding PA play, it appears to me that different eras have different needs as far as systems go…though this certainly deserves its own post.


  1. In a homebrew Gamma World game I ran many eons ago we found that classes/rolls kind of emerged based on what tech the characters had figured out. (We were playing a customized mishmash of 1st. and 2nd. ed GW.) We had one guy end up as a driver, one guy end up as the heavy weapons guy, etc. The pattern of mutations kind of guided this as well, as characters with more psionic horsepower became the "wizards" if you will. We really kind of came to dig the idea of classlessness and emergent skill sets. I don't think it works for more socially organized milieus, like a modern day or tech future type game, but for Post Apocalypse it was pretty cool. Since then I've experimented with a system wherein you don't have a preset skill list so much as you accumulate skills through learning as you go, using a derivation of the old 1st Ed. artifact flowcharts. That's still very much up on the blocks, tho...

  2. I assumed class came from different types of units in miniature wargames; skirmish, calvary, heavy foot, etc. Fighting man, magic user, seem a direct decedent.

    I like hybrid "build your own class" systems. Bunch of "parts" which are put together to form classes. This way DM can pre build a few base archtypes classes for players who don't want to build/one shots/anytime spending hour+ creating char is bad. But builder types and/or after learning rules/world players can create a custom class out of the parts.

    Piecemeal and it's character pie pieces is a great example of this style.

  3. @ Bigfella: I consider Gamma World to HAVE classes: Pure Strain Human, Humanoid Mutant, and Mutant Animal. It doesn't matter whether a category is called a Class, Clan, Profession, Species, or whatnot...if the chargen system requires you to pick a "suite of options/abilities" then it's a "class system." It sounds to me like you and your players were able to RECLASSIFY your classes (or add additional "hats") assigning yourself unique roles based on equipment and powers.

    @ Norm: not sure which build-a-class systems you're referring to. Are you talking about Archetype-build systems? Like WEG Star Wars and Shadow Run? I don't really consider these "true" class systems. I'm not familiar with "Piecemeal;" is this an RPG?

    I guess Capes' "click-n-lock system" might be a version of this, now that I think about it. I've always liked Capes chargen system.
    : )

  4. I dig that, hadn't occurred to me because of the race/class division in a lot of games that arose in the wake of AD&D.

    Now that I've gone back to race AS class type gaming, with embracing Labyrinth Lord, what you say makes a lot of sense.