Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Design Decision Tuesday: Classes

As often as I can, I've been devoting my Tuesday posts to the design decisions I made when crafting my on-going World of Samoth campaign. As a reminder to those new to the blog, I started work on a proto-Samoth campaign back in my high-school days, and then began developing it in earnest during my Winter Break as a college Freshman at UC Riverside. That means that I effectively started working on my campaign world back around 1986 or so.

I began using it as an actual active game setting starting in May 2001 using D&D 3rd Edition rules, and we're still playing to this day in the same campaign, using a sort of modified 3.5/Pathfinder/Trailblazer rules set.

Today's Design Decision discusses the use of classes in my campaign world. Firstly, we have to get out of the way that there are of course the two basic kinds of role-playing games: "Class-and-Level" systems (like D&D) and skill-based systems (like Traveler). I actually strongly prefer Class-and-Level systems - they're what I grew up with in gaming, and I guess I'm just more comfortable with them.

That doesn't mean that I dislike skill-based systems - I'm a huge fan of Savage Worlds, actually, so this isn't a case of one is better than the other. It's just that I slightly prefer Class-and-Level (hereafter, "C&L") games.

I think the main thing that I like about C&L systems is the inherent world-building that's present in the systems. World-building is second to playing for me in terms of the enjoyment I get out of role-playing games. I like world-building better than the actual process of running a game - I can do world building by myself, I'm never "wrong" (like you can be as a GM if you make a mistake in the game), and it stretches my creativity to try to come up with new ideas that I haven't seen before in other sources. As a GM using a C&L system, the way that you use the game's classes helps to shape the world and opens an instant gateway for a new player to get a feel for a particular area of the world.

Using D&D rules, if I say "This country is led by a paladin", that means something within the context of the rules. A prospective player for the campaign immediately knows that the country led by the paladin adheres to a certain code and it's probably a safe place to rest or buy supplies. Sure, in a skill-based system, I could say "This country is led by a good holy warrior" and that might mean the same thing to people, but I think that some of the substance is lost. On the other hand, I could also say, in a skill-based game, "This country is led by a paladin" (since paladin is a real world with a real-world meaning), but if the rules don't define what  a paladin is, the prospective player is left to wonder what exactly that means.

It's a simplistic example, but to finish the analogy, part of my world-building way back in those days with 1st Edition AD&D rules, especially when using Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures, was to figure out if certain classes from the rules were "allowed" in certain cultures, both political cultures as well as racial cultures. Noting in the World of Samoth that the countries of Esoría and Zhivod were political enemies and warred against each other, and yet both countries had paladins in their armies told me something not only about those two countries specifically, but also about the world as a whole. Paladins in my world could be on opposite sides of a political conflict. That's an important thing to note within the rules, given how paladins are defined and how they use their powers.

The same thing goes for all of the "alignment-based" classes - rangers and assassins in particular.

The "core four" classes are of course more generic in this regard and their usefulness in terms of "world-building" isn't quite as strong unless you get into situations where you forbid characters from certain cultures from taking magic-using classes, or on the other hand, mandate that all soldiers from a particular region have to be multi-classed fighter/wizards. Those types of "world-building" exercises can, again, somewhat be handled in skill-bases systems, but they're just a bit easier to do with C&L systems.

Then you get to classes like those in Oriental Adventures. That book caused me to create a whole new part of my world just so I could fit those classes in. I've never heard the terms "wu-jen," "shukenja," or "sohei" before I bought that particular book, and in a skill-based games, those terms most like would not have been defined, so their usefulness in terms of world-building would be lost. They would just be another run-of-the-mill wizard, priest, and holy warrior.

This starts to get into the discussion of whether the game needs so many classes, but that's really another discussion entirely. In a C&L system, I actually like having a lot of different classes for the variety and also for the world-building potential that they create, as long as the classes are actually different and not just something along the lines of "the samurai is a fighter but uses different weapons."

So, the way I look at it, classes are a great way for creating an instant "hook" into an unfamiliar world, and also can be used by a GM to help shape a particular political or racial culture in his game world.

Next time, I'll look at incorporating skills in a C&L system, creating custom classes for the World of Samoth, the d20 era and its proliferation of classes and how they impacted my world-building, and my current view on using classes in my game.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Alesmith I.P.A.
Listening: "Fascination Street" by the Cure


  1. I can see what your saying, though classes and levels aren't my favorites. Mainly, the levels--classes aren't so bad, though I probably prefer the looser "archetype."

    1. You know - I think "archetypes" are a good compromise for the point I'm trying to make.

      My experience has usually been a lot of skill-based systems is that they are more for experienced players - someone who has practice creating characters and knowing exactly what they want to do and doesn't need a "crutch." On the flip-side, that freedom can be intimidating for a new player, who might look at a set of numbers and skills and not have a good sense of what character type he can make, and may not stretch his imagination too much to try to come up with something.

      I may not be explaining that very well, but hopefully you get my drift.

  2. You may like Savage Worlds because while it is a skill-based system, it does also have levels. ;)

    My preference is for more freeform systems. I wouldn't say they're all skill-based but I think that's splitting hairs because building a character from a set of aspects or backgrounds isn't that different to building a character from a set of skills. Anyway, that freedom does mean that it's more difficult to use archetypes as a shorthand in world-building.

    I suppose you could still say "this country is ruled by a paladin" and build a skill-based character that is more or less a paladin and you'd get the best of both worlds, but you could argue that there's no point doing so when you could just use a class-and-level system. I wouldn't agree with that argument -- because I like skill-based systems -- but it's a valid one.

    1. I think part of the issue I was trying to get to in my admittedly not-entire-on-point post was your comment about "I suppose you could still say "this country is ruled by a paladin" and build a skill-based character that is more or less a paladin and you'd get the best of both worlds..." really only works for experienced players who understand what a paladin is and therefore can look at a set of abstract rules and figure out what skills, talents, edges, whatever-you-want-to-call-them to take in order to create that character.

      It's also a lot more open to interpretation. In a class-and-level system like D&D, the paladin (for example) is strictly defined in terms of what it can and can't do, so a player and a GM have an expectation of what a paladin means within the world. The downside is that it also means that all paladins are pretty much the same, mechanically, unless you add in things like skills and feats (or whatever) to a class-and-level system, which is something that I do like even though it can seem like a lot to keep track of.

    2. Oh, I think you were clear. I was just waffling on because your thoughts gave me an excuse to do so! ;)


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