Friday, February 15, 2019

Why Class

Wednesday's post about "team building" in a supers RPG mentioned Dungeons & Dragons as a "successful concept" because it forces players to cooperate based on its design choice of including character classifications ("class"); my point being that A) because classes have different strengths/limitations, then clearly B) players must work together to be successful (supplementing each others' limitations with their strengths).

However, Alexis over at the Tao (smart cookie that he is) was more than happy to poke holes in this idea, pointing out that (for example) an additional fighter, especially in early edition D&D, is going to absorb far more damage than a cleric (in place of said fighter) is going to be able to heal. Specific classes aren't inherently "more necessary" to a party than another type of character, unless a DM is specifically crafting challenges that REQUIRE some particular class's power set...and clearly this was never a design choice as the vast repertoire of character classes in the game have only appeared over time.

Alexis fails to mention another truth that points out the lie of my original statement: nothing in the game rules requires players to select a certain variety of classes. If all your B/X players roll high Intelligence scores, they might ALL choose to play magic-users (if they want). Likewise, if all your 5th edition players want to play dragonborn druids (*gag*), I don't see anything in the new PHB that prevents them from doing so. 

And that's fine! In a sandbox-y campaign, players can (and should) seek out adventures they appear capable of tackling (in one of the last games I ran, my players chose to deliberately leave and avoid a carefully constructed three-level necropolis because they felt it had too many undead and they were too light on clerical power)...and even in one-off, episodic adventures, it's presumed that characters can employ henchmen and hirelings to fill out missing skill-sets. 

So, then...why have classes? Just because they allow players to do the same things (kill monsters, loot treasure) in different, interesting ways? Just to give DMs excuses to throw different types of challenges at the players (undead, traps, magical obstacles, etc.) that add variety to an otherwise dull slog through a goblin-infested hole in the ground? Just so players (and DMs) can easily pigeon-hole each character's particular job/role in the game?

I've been thinking about it a lot over the last 24 hours, and I think there are a couple-three main reasons for using classes:

Classes are Expedient: a player rolls up their ability scores and chooses a class. A class provides a certain skill set (not to be confused with "skill systems!"), without too much thought being needed. Fighters wear armor and use weapons. Magic-users have no armor but get spells. Clerics get a little of both. Species (dwarf, elf, halfling) modifies these basics somewhat. Go!

You could have a chargen system that allows/requires players to build characters from a number of different "building blocks:" skills known, talents possessed, equipment desired (as opposed to proscribed). Lots of fantasy RPGs do this: Chaosium's various BRP systems, The Riddle of Steel, and Ars Magica all come to mind immediately. For players who have strong "character concepts" and love micro-managing point-buy systems, this works well (I guess). But it's not easy or expedient...especially for new players. Especially for people who just want to sit down and play the frigging game already. Some people like screwing around with GURPS or HERO System, spending whole sessions to create their perfect snowflake. Other people just want to get going.

From Moldvay
Classes are Recognizable: most classes tend to be "archetypal," based on tropes people are familiar with. Knights. Wizards. Skulky, stealthy types. Etc. The little bits and pieces add nuance (paladins as saintly warriors, for example), but the basics of a class are easily least in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons (can the average person grasp the difference between a warlock, sorcerer, and wizard without reading the page-long class descriptions? Probably not). While the set "power suite" of each class offers expedience of getting to actual play, using recognizable tropes helps players (easily, expediently) decide which direction they wish to go when building their character and gives them some idea of how their character will function within the game (based on established stereotypes)...assuming the skill set of the class matches the stereotype (as they generally do in early editions). 

Classes are Distinct: for the most part character classes do operate in distinctly different ways from each other. Yes, they all have hit points, saving throws, etc. But their unique abilities (a spell list, suite of "thief skills," full access to the game's arms and armor, etc.) gives players VARIETY in how they choose to interact with the fantasy game world. "I want to be an archer, like Robin Hood." "I want to be crafty and magical like Morgan Le Fay." Whatever floats your particular boat, there's probably a way to get to it (or close to it) using the class system...and because different players have different likes and interests, you need the variety to accommodate them. If everyone wants to play a wizard, maybe Ars Magica is a better game for you. If everyone wants to be a Pini-esque elf, maybe you should look at the ElfQuest RPG. But if you've got a grab-bag of personalities at your game table (as most of us do), having a number of different options from which players can choose is exactly what your game needs.

And that's about it. Those are the main arguments I can think of for having a class-based system, and they are linked to the fact that D&D is (I believe) supposed to be a fast-paced, fantasy adventure game. For this type of RPG (there are other types of RPG, offering their own brand of enjoyment) having an expedient system of distinct, recognizable options for play is exactly what's needed to get players up and running and adventuring. That's what the players want, right? I mean, isn't that the reason they're coming to play D&D?

But lest you think the inclusion of a class system is solely for the players' benefit, keep in mind the boon such a system is to the Dungeon Master. How much time goes un-wasted when it comes to character creation? How much less time is required to explain recognizable tropes to players? How much easier is it for a DM to understand and help her players get the desired type of game play with the availability of classes at hand?

With a class system, it is dead simple to get your players settled and ready to play. After having players roll ability scores and selecting a class, what's left to explain? Attack rolls, saving throws, hit points, and alignment? Anything else? Buy some equipment (a list which is cut-down based on the character's class limitations). Pick a spell or two (maybe). Explain how experience points and level works, I suppose...though even the newest of newbies quickly grasps that "treasure is good...dying is bad," yeah?  You're off to the races...and that's thanks in large part to having a class system.

There's a follow-up post that I want to get to on this subject, but it's going to have to wait till tomorrow (or later). Folks wishing to voice their own thoughts on why (or why not) to include classes in a fantasy RPG are welcome to leave comments's quite possible I've missed something blatantly obvious.

[hmm...I'm not sure I've ever written a blog post with so many "?s" in it. Usually, I try to stay away from rhetorical questions...but maybe the whole question of "why class" is kind of rhetorical]


  1. Reading your excellent post, I think there's one you "fail to mention" ... heh heh heh.

    Choosing a class is a strategy; picking the fighter over the cleric (with all due respect to Scott) might say to a player, "I think I have a better chance of surviving in this world with this DM if I run a fighter." I grant this wouldn't be a common way of looking at things, but I might look at it that way and I'm sure there are those in my game who have.

    1. I was being twee of course. There are plenty of great reasons to choose any class.

      And I think we can observe where de-classing characters can go a little haywire when we look at 3.5 + all the splatbooks and the nonsense people get into.

      To me the best reason for classes is the archetypes are all easy and accessible. People know what a fighter or a wizard are. You grab one and go.

      Furthermore, what you learn playing one fighter is very translatable to every subsequent fighter - something maybe Champions can't do for you.

      Also, Clerics are the best not because of any raw power but because of their versatility. They can mimic all the other classes (at lower power level) depending on their spell loadouts.

    2. @ Alexis:

      I’m sure some of my past players adopted that particular “strategy” ...and for the same reason you cite.
      ; )

  2. Please don't be abusive about other peoples choice of games. When Runquest became available in 1979 many of us were happy to see the end of classes. We were never in the majority but that may in part be baby duck syndrome. People think classes are good because classes are what they understand. But classes are just so limiting both in character construction and in the kind of game you can play using those characters. I can push out a 100pt (1st level equivalent) GURPS character in less time than takes most people to roll a D&D character and agonise over the race and class. But then analysis paralysis is a thing.

    1. Stephen Gunnell, I want to be the first to thank you for mansplaining role-playing games to us. We're just so darn stupid with our class-liking and our inability to push out so many characters in so short a time. I for one feel like such the little lady.

      Stephen, you're a dear.

    2. @ Stephen:

      Sorry. I have a tendency to snark when I talk about some of the crunchier systems on the market.

      And later edition D&D (especially 3 and 3.5) have plenty of crunch, especially when you include the various source books.

      That being said, I stand by my points (as reasons a class system is useful), at least with regard to earlier editions. It starts to fall down with too much “class proliferation”...but that’s part of what I wanted to address in my next post.

    3. @Alexis, you need a dictionary and some blood pressure medication. You are very sad.

      @JB, at what point does a proliferation of character classes become indistinguishable from a classless system? Does the absence of a meta-system to even out the classes become a problem? Or is that a feature? Having observed a friend generate a 5e (or was it Pathfinder) character it seemed to have all the "downsides" of GURPS with respect to min-maxing and choice paralysis.

    4. @ Stephen:

      Wow. That's a big bunch of questions. At the risk of opening the worm can, here's my "from the hip" opinions:

      1) Class proliferation never becomes LITERALLY indistinguishable from a classless system, but (from my perspective) becomes EFFECTIVELY such, especially with the additional currency elements (feats, skill points, etc.) that can lead to "analysis paralysis," especially when one considers certain long-term ramifications (advancement "down the line" with regard to multi classing, favored classes, and prestige classes).

      2) Problem in what sense? At the cost of expedience, recognition, and distinction? Or in disgruntled players who want balance? Um...I don't think it's a problem, but maybe I don't understand the use of your term "meta-system."

      3) See last answer.

      Hopefully I'll be able to better address the issue in my next post on the subject.

    5. @ Stephen: a class-based system becomes indistinguishable from a class-less system under two conditions: 1) the player is unable to explain the difference between two classes in a meaningful manner and 2) the publisher fails to provide a meaningful difference between the classes.

      The latter case is problematic in more ways than just how the classes are structured. Indeed, the core issue goes to the heart of the game's rule system.

      Take, for example, hit points. In 3rd (and prior) Edition, a character suffered no penalties for anything less than full hit points (until reaching 0 or negative). 4th added the "bloodied" condition which opened up possibilities for new rule interactions and class-based distinctions.

      This example of a binary situation ~ no penalties for decreasing hit points vs penalties for decreasing hit points ~ can be applied to the entire game, i.e. the more detailed your rules, the more opportunity to make your classes distinct and unique (compared to each other).

      Also, "Please don't be abusive about other peoples choice of games," is something of a confrontational opening. This is JB's site. If you don't like the content, you don't have to comment; but if you do comment, you could try being respectful first (don't ask unless you're willing to give).

      (unless, of course, JB disagrees, in which case I'll leave off.)

  3. I would add another reason: design space.

    Adding new features in a game is easier when the design space forms discrete chunks. A designer can look at a class and add a new element or create an entirely new class with confidence that they will not create unforeseen, undesirable interactions with other classes.

    Adding features to free-form systems takes greater care to avoid pitfalls.

    1. @ Tyler:

      Speaking as someone who’s designed games (both with classes and without), I’m not sure that’s the case. In fact, I’d go so far as to say balancing currency is easier in a classless system, unless your classes are simply varying a balanced currency. My classes tend to be a bit more asymmetrical...probably (or definitely) because I’m influenced by D&D.

    2. @ JB:

      Please avoid using passive aggressive remarks. Your statement "Speaking as someone who’s designed games (both with classes and without)" implies that I have not designed games. If you must state your experience, I advise you to state it plainly.

      I appreciate that you find adding new elements easier in a free-form system, especially with a budget. I agree that the lack of an obvious class budget in D&D affects designers, but that affect can be positive and negative. Designing for class systems enables more outliers. You mention that your classes are more asymmetrical. When a system uses a budget, most elements end up falling neatly into the budget. Without the budget, designers create unusual, sometimes even unique elements.

      So, I will amend my original comment. The class system enables designers to create unusual and unique elements without compromising the other classes, adding to a greater diversity between elements.

    3. @ Tyler:

      I am "speaking plainly:" I am stating that my answer comes from my experience of attempting game designs both with and without class, and what my opinion is based on that experience (i.e. that I'm not simply talking out of my ass, which I sometimes do). I am not attempting to imply anything...though it's clear you infer this as a dig against you and your design chops. Sorry you feel offended; sometimes it's difficult to convey the full meaning/nuance in text that I could were we speaking face-to-face.

      Having cleared that up, allow me to say this:

      Don't fucking tell me how to write on my blog. That's pretty fucking rude of you. If you don't like how I write, you don't have to read my stuff. I don't pretend to be an eloquent writer, I didn't study english or writing at university, I'm doing my best to communicate my opinion and point of view, and yes, sometimes I do so in a way that's aggressive or snarky or that just plain rubs people the wrong way. It's a blog, dude; it's not edited for grammar or spelling, let alone content. You write how you want to on YOUR blog, and please allow me to do the same on mine.

      Now, as for your amended comment:

      While I agree that a class system ALLOWS designers to create elements "without compromising the other classes," it doesn't PREVENT designers from inadvertently compromising existing classes. I think this is seen in first edition AD&D, in which certain sub-classes end up being "basic class PLUS" outstripping the original class on which the subclass was based. I've blogged about this before. This may not be the exact type of "compromise" you're talking about, but it is a compromise, and it's something that requires additional care and consideration (and thus time and effort) on the part of the designer.

      Still, I agree that it is a great design boon to be able to create new elements outside of universal currencies that ROBUST "classless" systems (like GURPS) tend to use. There are other systems (here I'm thinking systems like Over The Edge) that can add new and unique character elements rather easily, even elements that seem outside the parameters of the standard setting material.

      Just to be clear: I'm not just trying to play devil's advocate with you. However, I don't look at "design considerations" as a reason for including classes in play. I can see a way to design D&D as "classless" without a whole lot of can even take previously published "class building" systems (found in Dragon Magazine and elsewhere) and use them as "character building" systems, no "class" required. Individuals used to crunching points for games like GURPS and HERO would probably have no problem doing just that, assuming they wanted to retain the ease of D&D's basic systems. I had a similar "classless" design (with a B/X rule chassis) in my first few drafts of Cry Dark Future, based on the class-less, point-buy system of 3rd edition Shadowrun...and it worked just fine in play.

      In my opinion, the reason to include any element in a game is how it contributes to play at the table. Classes contribute something for D&D and the style of play it appears to want/promote. In a different style of game, perhaps one designed to be more "thoughtful" in nature, a class system might not be appropriate.

    4. @ JB:

      I enjoy reading your blog. I'll refrain from giving feedback in the future.

    5. @ Tyler:

      Yeah, it appears I'm a little "sensi-poo" when it comes to my inability to write, huh?

      Sorry to (electronically) jump down your throat, man...for whatever reason, you touched a nerve, and I made a (poor) choice to gnash and flail a bit. My apologies.

      I appreciate you taking the time to both read and comment. Thanks.

  4. First time I've seen you go off like that, JB. Careful. It's habit-forming.

    1. Yeah, I don't normally get so bent out of shape. Must have been especially grumpy that morning.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. To be honest, I felt a sort of aggression in Tyler's answer that i didn't feek in yours. Nowhere did I feel passive aggressiveness - well, not in the comments at least ^^.
      I'd have been seriously upset.

      Anyway, thank to Alexis, I've discovered your blog, and I really dig it too ! I'll have to read every now ...
      (Previous reply edited)

    4. @ Vlad:

      Welcome to the blog! I hope you find something interesting, entertaining, and/or inspiring.

      [if you don'!]

  5. Thanks for this blog post! I've recently come across Ben Milton's Knave! and it's classless, inventory based characters. I've always been a fan of simpler class systems in general, preferring to flesh out a character with background and personality traits, and I'm digging the idea of classless characters right now. That said, I appreciate a good discussion on the pros and cons of all things related to RPGS and I really enjoyed your views on class systems...which I think are great... and not at all inherently good or bad....remember's just a game.

    1. For you, maybe. For me, it is a passion, a love, a reason to get up in the morning, an endless source of spiritual satisfaction, a matter of art, creativity and soul, and essentially a means to changing the world for the better.

      It's really a matter of perspective, isn't it?

  6. I don't think I've seen this position represented above: another benefit of a class system is verisimilitude, of a sort.

    Real life is not a free form experience. We do not go about living, day-to-day and year-to-year, with absolute freedom of choice. Everything, from our family to our friends to our education to (yes) our jobs, is limited by our prior choices, by the choices of those around us and by the systems in place in the larger world.

    A class is a choice but it's also a limitation. And as is the case with limitations in a game, classes serve to define the boundaries of our play. In RPGs, those boundaries are pretty loose to begin with; arguing that we should do away with classes because they limit the players is like arguing that we should remove one wall from a child's sandbox. Sure, it's a wall and it limits their play, but the sandbox is already pretty close to being limitless; that one wall exists to keep the sand in.

    . . . not to muddy the waters with metaphors, of course.