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Defending the Lack of Class…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 21, 2011

Brian “Psychochild” Green has a post today defending skill-based RPG systems versus class-based ones.

Stay Classy at Psychochild’s Blog

He’s responding to a post at Elder Game:

Classes vs. Open Skill Systems

This is an old argument that has been going around since at least the early 1980s.  And both authors here outline issues with both systems.

For those who don’t know what they are talking about here:

Class-based systems are those in which your character has a particular class, role, or profession that structures how you can increase your abilities. For example, if your character is a fighter, you may be given limited or no access to spellcasting abilities, whereas a wizard will be a poor fighter. In a “pure” class-based system (like the original D&D game), your class and “level” pretty much dictated everything there was to know about your character’s abilities. Otherwise, it was equipment and starting attributes that provided variation.

Purely skill-based games allow you to build your character’s abilities piecemeal, rather than as a “package” of benefits that comes with class-based increases. Want to hit better? Buy a better attack. Want to cast better spells? Upgrade your spellcasting and buy new spells. Something like that.

Skill-based systems grant much greater flexibility in customizing characters. That seems a clear advantage with veteran game-players. But it comes at a cost. And it’s much harder to balance, as a game designer.  Can you make sure that your game plays just as well for the player who put all his points into Basket Weaving and Joke-Telling as the player who put them all into Handgun Accuracy and Physical Fitness?

Then there are the hybrid systems, which most games tend to be these days – though that’s a pretty wide spectrum. These games may dictate some primary progression by class, but then leave the player with freedom to buy additional skills or abilities. That helps keep all players on a more even playing field, making sure characters always have their core bases covered, but still gives them the chance to be a fighting-mage or a rogue specializing in social skills.

Which is best? While it’s easy to note the clear advantage (and success) of systems that trend more towards the “class based” camp, I’m going to agree with Brian and say it really depends on what you are trying to achieve with your game.  My general rule-of-thumb is that if the game has you playing a solo character, more skill-based systems that allow the greatest flexibility work best. But where groups of characters need to work together in a team, it’s generally better for a system to lean more in the class-based camp with enforced complimentary abilities.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read



  • Fumarole said,

    I think your last two sentences are spot on. Ultimately what matters is having fun playing the game – how you get there can vary greatly.

  • Tesh said,

    Seems to me then that there are natural stresses in MMO design where soloing and grouping should both be viable.

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  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Re: Basket Weaving and Joke-Telling versus Handgun Accuracy and Physical Fitness, I often think of Fallout when such distinctions are made. You are able to make a character who specialises in non-combat skills, but that might not be a good idea, and the game will probably be exceptionally difficult.

    Of course, the intention there is that you should be able to make that choice.

    Ultima Online got this right, and in that particular case you could certainly play as a non-combat character and get lots of enjoyment out of the game.

    On the flip side though, I have always enjoyed class-based cRPGs. To give the example of Baldur’s Gate, it can change your experience of the game, since you’ll likely pick different companions and such.

    Oblivion, of course, does everything “wrong”. You pick a class (or make your own) which has very little effect, and then the open skill system itself was broken. Didn’t stop it becoming wildly popular though.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Well, I’ve played a lot of games, both on computer and pen-and-paper, that used just classes or just skills, I have to say I prefer skill-based.

    Classes are fine, but in my opinion are more “gamey”. They are artificial, like rules in a board game. They promote the idea of relentless progress, a goal unto themselves to be achieved and bragged about, a Pavlovian reward to numbers on a page or screen. They are a carrot on a stick in front of players – if they can just get to the next level, they will be more powerful, and that will help them get to the next level, etc. etc.

    Look at a lot of WOW players. Many will level a character to the max level limit and then move on to a new character. They reached the finish line represented by a number. And every D&D campaign I ever played, 1st Edition or 2nd, couldn’t survive the party reaching maximum level (20 at the time I think), regardless of how good the storyline was. There was no more reason to fight the dragons or the gods or haul all that gold back to town. (Gold giving XP in early editions of D&D.) After all, who cared about XP when you couldn’t go one number higher on your player sheet?

    I think skill-based systems promote more actual, you-know, ROLEPLAYING in RPGs. Especially in systems where there is no XP, only skill points ready for instant spending doled out at the discretion and whim of a Game Master. A common thing even in PC RPGs like this is to give 1 skill point for a completed quest, maybe 2 if you do something amazing and completed an optional goal, etc.

    It doesn’t matter whether you kill any enemies to achieve your goal either. No XP to be gained. In class systems, players whomp enemies for reward as surely as Mario breaks bricks for coins. It makes players feel obligated to skewer every orc in the dungeon – can’t let that XP go to waste! In a skill based game, if players fight the orc, sneak past it, teleport to the end of the dungeon, or any number of different actions, they get the same reward in the end because they completed the actual GOAL of the adventure or quest.

    Skill based systems more closely mirror real life. We don’t look at say, a Marine, and think “Oh, man. I wouldn’t want to mess with him. If he’s a Marine, he must be a Level 7 human at least!” No, we evaluate people we encounter based on skills. People don’t mess with Marines for instance because they are know they are highly SKILLED in shooting, hand-to-hand, etc.

    We gain experience or XP in real life, of course. But that XP is not generic. We can’t spend a year studying one thing and then apply that experience to instantly be better at some other thing. We have to train and gain experience by skill.

    My favorite PnP system is Alternity, a rule set put out in the last days of TSR. Player’s pick a class, but this just determines how easily they can acquire different skills from different categories. For instance, a Tech may have to spend more points to gain skill in Manipulation than a Diplomat. The classes represent innate talents or tendencies, but infer no specific skills in and of themselves. Players have to buy every skill that they start with, none are default for a ‘class’.

    Furthermore, there are no levels or XP. Each player starts with a certain amount of Life based off stats like STR and END or CON, and they get no more. Ever. It enforces roleplaying in a very natural way. A character starting the game will die just as easily from a bullet to the head as will a character with exceptional skills and adventures under his belt.

    I was thrilled at what this did for our group adventures. In D&D, if a warlord demands a party surrender lest he have his champion attack them with a broadsword, most players will evaluate the possible HP of all involved, know that broadswords only do 1d8 damage, and take their chances, knowing it will take many attacks to bring them down.

    In Alternity, if a mob boss tells the party he doesn’t want to talk and suggests they leave, motioning to a henchman that displays a gun under his jacket, a wonderful thing happens. Players actually stop and carefully weigh all the options in a realistic manner, because if the henchman gets off just ONE shot on their unprotected head or torso, it could kill you or put you in a coma, require surgery, etc. Most players will do what a real cop would do – back off. Even if they have a high Quickdraw skill, they may not be fast enough to shoot the henchman before he gets a shot off. And what if the mob boss has a gun as well? Players demonstrate the same fear and caution that their characters really would in those situations – and that comes naturally from the system. In Alternity, any fight was fast and terrifying for all involved, and players had no way to judge how powerful their enemy was except in real-world terms – military guys were probably better with guns than they were, etc.

    Eric at Elder Games kind of, well, pissed me off with his post. First, his argument involved nearly entirely around MMOs, then most of his arguments boiled down to it’s HARDER to balance a game that is skill-based. Of course it is. His position may be correct from a practical and business standpoint, but is the easier road the best road? And I am as tired of “design lessons” based on MMOs as I am of “level design lessons” based on deathmatch shooters.

    MMOs with classes, and even those without, are less like RPGs than board games like Monopoly. Everyone picks their shape and races around the board trying to get all the money and uber-properties that they can, with raiding to build that armor set little different on an objective level than trying to collect all 4 railroads.

    Now, to be clear, having classes is fine, but so is having skills. It all depends on what type of gameplay and environment you are trying to foster. Going back to my earlier D&D vs. Alternity comparison, sometimes you want to have epic, mythological fights against evil forces and be able to take bold chances and risks knowing they are likely to pay off. That is fun. Sometimes you want a more cerebral, thoughtful game, where you plan ahead, are cautious, and spend more time talking or solving problems with your own unique skill set than fighting. Also fun.

    Anyone that has played VTM: Bloodlines knows that a pure skill based system can work and is fun and rewarding. But the developers had to work hard to lay out multiple ways of solving every quest, and make sure that you didn’t even have to solve every quest. I’m sure that was hard, very hard. But I appreciate it every time I play the game and get a different experience or craft a new character based off my imagination, be it bookish serial killer, sexy computer tech, thuggish brute with a silver tongue, etc.

    You are right, Jay. Skill-based systems are probably best for solo characters, but I think if a game is balanced properly, a skill-based team works just as well as a class-based one, because most players are going to make sure everyone has complimentary abilities anyway.

  • McTeddy said,

    Sometimes you want a more cerebral, thoughtful game, where you plan ahead, are cautious, and spend more time talking or solving problems with your own unique skill set than fighting?

    Oh come on… LWR… thinking is soooo 10 years ago. :)

    Mostly, I do agree with everything that’s been said so far. Classes have their benefits, as does skill based.

    I’m just a bit tired of “Lessons” of game design in general.

    Sometimes, I like things to be unbalanced. I like taking Basket weaving and joke telling. I like being the healer who is afraid of blood. I like to experience new things and enjoy myself.

    I’m just tired of every class becoming so balanced that they play the same. I remember my Thieves being as squishy as a Wizard. I learned to think like a Thief so that could survive.

    But now… Thieves… Barbarians… Knights.. have spells? I mean… hell… if people are complaining that Rogues are overpowered in combat we’ve got a problem.

    Balance works for multiplayer… but if it’s just me… I like the choice to create my own balance, even if it means that I become a master hairstylist.

  • MadTinkerer said,

    As an avid tabletop RPG player, it saddens me to see the state of the class vs. skill debate in computer RPGs is still going strong when on the tabletop it’s moved far beyond that decades ago.

    (Well except the Final Fantasy guys, who sensibly try to come up with whole new systems for each game in the series, making each one a fresh start and dominating the jRPG scene.)

    Both “classes” and “skills” are abstractions, and there are a ton of other ways to model character development. My favorite model is Edges or “talents”. Binary you-have-it-or-you-don’t lists of perks you can choose at every level. The recent Fallout games are one of the best examples of this kind of system. Variants on this include the badges in the Paper Mario games which limit you to a certain number of active badges but an unlimited number of total badges. Also, the Bioshock games, which do something similar.

  • Xian said,

    I have to agree with your conclusion. The party mechanic seems to work better with everyone having clearly defined roles. Solo play could go either way, but I prefer the skills based approach in that situation.

    One thing that I don’t really care for in skills based scenarios are trainers or buying your skills. I prefer experienced based skill advancement. You gain proficiency as you use the skill. Your character is capable of anything at the beginning, it’s through the use of whatever fits your preferred style of play that you advance – repeated use of magic leads you down the wizard path where if you prefer your sword you progress towards a fighter profile.

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  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I just thought of the old 1st edition D&D rule for human dual-classing — you had to play strictly according to the rules of your new class — just practicing the skills of that class — in order to gain experience points for your new class. Only when the new class equaled (or exceeded?) the previous class level could you mix & match abilities.

    That was the only way to become a bard, back then.

    Not exactly the same, but it’s kind of interesting to see how that idea of practicing only one skill (or group of skills) could allow you to progress in that manner. Practice with a sword to the exclusion of magic skills, and your magic user COULD use a sword and become a competent fighter.

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