Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Totally Hypothetical

Does anyone think it is possible to make a traditional RPG where...

Okay, okay, wait a second.

I'm not setting a hard, fast rule for what a "traditional RPG" is...I'm not sure such a thing even exists. HOWEVER, for the purpose of this post (only) I refer to an RPG in which:

- the structure divides narrative powers between players and "GM" with the GM having the bulk of responsibility and players having responsibility only for their individual character
- the game involves exploration of an imaginary game environment, only incidentally addressing exploration of a character's psyche
- expects any "story" that develops to develop out of actions that occur "in-game" rather than player choices through metagame thinking (i.e. this ain't no "story now" game); in other words, any story that arises from play is going to be of the "talking about what happened in today's adventure" rather than actual pursuit of a story bolstered by game mechanics.

OKAY, SO...given that I am defining "traditional RPG" in that way for the purpose of this post only:

Does anyone think it is possible to make a traditional RPG that is both class-less (in the "character class" sense of the term) and skill-less?

Or to be a bit more specific: does anyone think it is possible to do such and still have a game that is both fun to play AND that actually works well?

Hmm...now that I think of it, I do know of at least TWO such games: Amber and Boot Hill (pre-skill edition)...the latter, of course, being one of my favorites in terms of game design, theme, and Old School goodness.

Okay, I guess I answered my own question: it IS possible. So here's the follow-up question: what other "traditional RPGs" have a class-less, skill-less system for player characters (and, no, Gamma World and Top Secret don't count: "species" and "bureau" are both classifications or "classes" even if they aren't specifically named as such).

Secondary, follow-up question: any specific thoughts on these types of games (the lack of archetypal classes and skills)...especially IN-PLAY.

Thanks folks.


  1. Dude, you're speaking my language now, my friend. I was a LOOOONG-time player of Amber DRPG back in the day (about 10 or so years ago now...damn). Anyway, me and a couple friends ran a good amount of Amber sessions, and had a great time. We fancied ourselves very much beyond what we considered the "simplistic" RPGs like D&D (especially D&D, I should say. We were sort of elitists, in a way.

    Amber definitely requires a closer relationship/interaction with the GM, IMHO. The very nature of the game (again, the "system and style of play" thing) requires the players and GM to work harder on the problem solving, the creative thinking aspect, since there are no dice rolls that one can fall back on. The GM's job is harder because he needs to think of something more challenging than "kill hordes of orcs." This is especially true of random encounters. You really need to walk a thin like between freedom of play and railroading. The players, as stated above, don't have dice to save them. They need to really think, and they can't just fall back on "kill!" in order to solve problems. There are a lot of beings out there that can trounce the average Amber character, so there is a lot of scheming that needs to be done in order to survive.

    Of course, the Amber milieu is very specific, tied as it is to Zelazny's fictional universe. We became cult-like in our devotion to the novels and the RPG. All in all, it was one of the high points of my RPG career so far (besides my initial years of play with D&D and my current return to gaming).

  2. Is skill-less also attribute-less in a D&D sense? Otherwise, PDQ derivatives and Risus have phrases or Clichés with numerical values. You could call them free-form skills, if you want. Or you could say that if there is anything quantitative on the character sheet, then phrases with numbers is the bare minimum. You can be a sheriff +2, fast +2, a lover +2 or in love with the mayor's wife +2.

    If you want to get away from the numbers, take a look at Lady Blackbird.

    Here's what it says on your character sheet:

    Trait: Pit-Fighter, with the following tags: Combat Tested, Brutal, Living Weapon, Fast, Hard.

    Here's how to use it:

    When you try to overcome an obstacle, you roll dice. Start with one die. Add a die if you have a trait that can help you. If that trait has any tags that apply, add another die for each tag. [...] Roll all the dice you’ve gathered. Each die that shows 4 or higher is a hit. You need hits equal to the difficulty level (usually 3) to pass the obstacle.

    Essentially the sum of a trait and all the tags you have for that trait are the maximum number of dice you might roll, ie. they are equivalent to a numerical skill but every tag may or may not apply, so it's "more flexible".

    As for playing it: I ran a two and a half hour session of Lady Blackbird and everybody thought it was AWESOME.

  3. I also liked the two and a half session of Zorceror of Zo (a PDQ game) that I ran, but it wasn't as awesome as Lady Blackbird. I only have a German write-up for that session.

  4. I’m also wondering what isn’t included in the class-less and skill-less qualifiers. Abilities, attributes, classes, skills, etc. They’re all generally the same thing to me with some differences in breadth and details.

    That said, to me the Platonic traditional role-playing game is completely freeform. Rules are something I use only because I need the crutch or I just happen to enjoy them. (I’m not quite sure which or how much of each.) I have played that way a few times, and with the right group, it works very well. It keeps people from thinking in mechanics.

  5. Top Secret could easily be re-written to remove the bureaus, as they have next to zero mechanical effect on the game (pretty much just who gets XP/Payment bonuses for particular mission types, and which specific XP advancement chart to use). However, it does have skills. AOKs and College Courses (the latter from the Top Secret Companion or the original article in Dragon 51) provide necessary technical knowledge and activities (like SCUBA diving or flying aircraft) that can't be simulated by player ingenuity at the table.

    Does a game that allows any character to advance in all areas that would be covered by a character class count? Fantasy Wargaming gives every character three separate levels, one for "Combat/General Adventuring", one for "Magic", and one for "Religion". Experience is earned for each of these independently, based on actions appropriate to that area of activity. It's a much more playable game, as well, than the received wisdom would have it. Still, I suppose that these three areas of advancement could be seen as skills.

    The frankly bizarre Herbie Brennan game Timeship had no classes or skills. As I recall, everything was a function of "Personal Energy" (rolled anew each session) and stats (point-bought). It was a strange experience to play, but the lack of skills and classes wasn't the main reason for that. The tone set in the rulebook (Mr. Brennan is an occultist with some interesting theories about gaming as related to a sort of Qabalistic-style Pathworking) kind of overshadows all of my memories of play there. I'd like to get a copy, but I wouldn't pay $25 for one (which is the current going price on Amazon).

    The original game TWERPS ("The World's Easiest Role Playing System") had just one stat, Strength, and no other distinguishing features between characters. It quickly developed a system where points of Strength are exchanged for special abilities (in the first supplement, martial arts styles called "Fus" - Kung Fu, Lung Fu, Sna Fu, Toe Fu, and so on; later, magic spells and the like were added). Fun game, but more "beer and pretzels" than anything else.

  6. I would argue that Boot Hill and Amber are both "class" based games, with the class (Cowboy and Prince of Amber) being shared by all player characters.

    Characters in Boot Hill all share a variety of skills that are built into the game: Shooting, Fighting, Riding, etc

    Ditto for Amber, with several magic systems thrown in as well.

  7. Fighting Fantasy did it. Until it got all advanced.

    Depending on the setting one wants to play in and how they want the action to be focused on the attributes will become more important in a class-free/ skill-free game. Ability scores are really just skills with a great big wrapper.

  8. @ Alex: I am familiar with PDQ (and Risus to a lesser extent). The traits are very similar to a skill system, though (even if the traits aren't actual "skills," your character's effectiveness is limited by the traits on the page and players are forced to limit themselves based on their own choices).

    @ Faol: I think Fantasy Wargaming would qualify as classless and skill-less, and it does so in a rather unique way. Thanks!

    Timeship sounds interesting...I'll have to look into that!

    @ Steven (re BH and Amber being "class" systems): Hmm, you may have missed my point.

    What I'm looking for are chargen systems that do not require players to make choices in order to define their characters. In D&D, one chooses a "class" which defines how the character will operate. In RuneQuest, one chooses skills (or assigns points to skills) to define the role of the character in the game world.

    When I say "class system" I mean games that have a certain packaged way of play depending on an archtypal choice at character creation. Neither BH nor Amber have this.

    And while there are the presence of "skills" (shooting, riding, etc) in both, there is no mechanical system involving the players' choice of skills. I'm talking about game mechanics here.

    @ JDJarvis (re abilities being skills in a great big wrapper): See, I'm not so sure about that. I see abilities as (in a way) being descriptive of a character's capabilities, and (except in point-buy systems) being largely outside a player's control. More on THAT later.
    ; )

  9. One of my own attempts to see how much I could strip away from D&D yet still have a game I wanted to play got down to just levels. No abilities or classes or skills. (Which suddenly made me think I might actually enjoy TWERPS.) But then, it was done better by Searchers of the Unknown. Of course, this comes at the price of no PC spell-casters.

    I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet, but it looks good to me.

    Arguably you could add spell casting back in without introducing classes or skills with something like Arneson’s original system where PC develop it through play rather than getting it up-front. (Doesn’t Call of Cthulhu do something like that too?) And it isn’t something that is given a score. The PC just learns spells, formulas, or such.

  10. Come back to Moldvay we will take you

  11. @JB: I don't believe I missed your point, but perhaps I did not state my point clearly enough.

    Players do not make a decision as to class and skills when creating a Boot Hill character because they have already made that decision when choosing to play the game. Boot Hill gives the player one choice (Cowboy) and the skill system for being a Cowboy is the entirety of the system. If you wanted to allow Boot Hill characters to be eastern educated surgeons or native medicine men or Cowboys, then you would need to provide alternative systems if you wanted those choices to be mechanically meaningful within the game.

    This is all - of course - my opinion, and an attempt to present an alternative point of view, not an attempt to start an argument over the internet. Disagreeing, not trying to be disagreeable.

  12. My "Into the Odd" D&D variant doesn't use classes or skills. You have your Ability Scores, which give you your Defence and HP, and then you have equipment. That's all.

    It's about as traditional as you can get, aiming to distill the exploration and problem-solving elements of early D&D in particular. Feel free to check out the players' side of the game over here. It's very work-in-progress https://docs.google.com/document/d/15hf2UGKTvCftOJEIXz_JLG_1kS1nSwl3bOkFFDV3S0E/edit?hl=en_US

    I've only playtested it a few times (doing another session tomorrow, in fact) but have found it plays well so far. I may be cheating, though, as I have been known to draw on characters' backgrounds to give a little clue here and there, which I guess is a GM-regulated knowledge-skill-system of sorts. Still, by the word of your description it fits just fine!

  13. @ Sugar: Acually, that's the kind of thing I was talking about. Neat stuff! Do you still use levels?

    @ Steven: Um, right. I'm not talking about the decision to play the game...I'm asking for examples of games that (once chosen) have no "class system" which (from a design perspective) provides players with a certain "suite" of abilities/powers based on their choice. Boot Hill is not a class-based game in this sense.

    @ Timothy: Moldvay will always be in my heart.
    : )

    @ Robert: You could also add or substitute an ability score called "magic" or something, which would limit a character's potential for spellcasting. Available spells would still be based on level, perhaps modified by this score.

    For example, if maximum level of castable spell was equal to (character level -1) modified by Magic (assuming a B/X-like 3-18 range) than characters with a MAG under 13 would have no spell-casting ability (at least at 1st level). I mean, there ARE ways to work it.
    ; )

  14. @JB it's been a while since someone's misread my name as Sugar... but you're not the first!

    I don't use levels as such, at the moment. I'm working on an advancement system that will slowly improve characters' stats, especially their weaker ones, leaving them more rounded as they reach the peak of their career. The more controversial aspect is that after this I'd have them go into a decline, slowly reducing their stats, especially the highest ones, as they approach retirement age. If I do include this element it'll almost certainly be entirely optional.

  15. So, what about a game that has classes but they’re rolled randomly? I and another person in my group have sometimes created D&D PCs by rolling class and race and alignment randomly. (At first because we were having a hard time deciding...but then just because it was fun to replace our decisions with rolls.)

    Of course, when you get to gear, it starts getting harder to stick with random rolls. Though, I’ve seen games that had that as well.

    And it’s interesting how in a game like Searchers of the Unknown your choice of gear can say a lot about your character.

    Oh, and I think all of my Marvel Super Heroes characters have used the random generation too. I don’t recall there being any choices there, but I may be misremembering. And they’ve all been more memorable than PCs I crafted in GURPS or Champions.

  16. @ Supes: Um...yeah...sorry about that!

    Just by the way, I've been putting "negative development" (i.e. decrepitude) into my own game designs of late, though mine isn't optional.
    ; )

    @ Robert: Yeah, I though of Marvel, too, but character type is still a form of class (mutants, aliens, hi-tech wonders, etc.), AND it has both choice of skills (called "talents" in this case), and choice of powers (through bonus powers and non-random selection).

    Random class is pretty weird, but you see it in some games, including Marvel (with power type) and Warhammer FRP (with random occupations). You know, I can't help but think WFRP was the inspiration for D20's multi-classing scheme...

  17. @JB: Well, that post clears up a whole lot of confusion. I think I'm on the same page as you now. :D

    @Alex: Glad you mentioned Lady Blackbird - I'd never heard of it, but the system looks awesome (in spite of terms like "the developing fiction").