Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: Do You Wanna Have Skillz or Have Some Class?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 28, 2011

There are two very broad approaches in RPG character rules systems: Class-based and skill-based.

Class-based systems define characters by their class – some sort of role or archetype, and improvements to the character are usually determined by one’s level within the class (though equipment usually plays a role as well). The most famous example of this is the earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons. You had very few choices as you leveled, as your character’s abilities were largely dictated by a combination of your randomly-rolled attributes and your original class and race choice (in some editions, that choice was actually combined – a non-human race WAS your class).  Diablo had a pretty strong class-based system, and most jRPG or jRPG-style games have pretty strict class-based design. For an indie example, I’d point to the Aveyond series (or most RPG-maker games) or Din’s Curse as an example.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the skill-based approach. In a skill-based game system, your character progresses by individually increasing or acquiring each different skill and ability individually, without a predetermined class framework to guide or limit the choices. Oftentimes, there isn’t even a concept of “level” – the improvements are bought directly with experience points. I think my first skill-based RPG was the pen-and-paper RPG Top Secret, also by D&D-maker TSR. Though my favorite over the years was Champions, later to become the generic “Hero System” RPG. The Fallout series are solid skill-based RPGs, and Skyrim, the latest of the Elder Scrolls games, has moved almost entirely to the skill-based camp. A recent indie example would be Hanako Games’ Magical Diary, where you literally plan your character’s development on a week-by-week basis.

I should note that there are some exceptions to this spectrum, such as games that might be loosely termed RPGs where a character’s abilities are governed solely by level and their equipment. When a character can be so easily redefined by donning a different suit of armor, I’m not sure if I’d really call it much of an RPG, personally. But I’ll leave it open here to suggest that the class / skill axis isn’t all there is.

Then you have the hybrids. Most class-based games (the good ones, anyway, IMO) do offer some flexibility and plenty of choice in the evolution of your character. And those who make skill-based games learned long ago that offering some kind of simplified template – such as a class – can really help inexperienced players who would otherwise be bombarded with choices they don’t fully understand. Exemplifying the latter principle is the Eschalon series, which is really a skill-based system but has you choose a class at the start of the game which serves no purpose that I can see other than providing you with simple, default starting skills.

The older Elder Scrolls games were also weak-class hybrids. Class dictated which skills progressed the easiest, and which counted towards level progression. You were free to create your own “class” if you wished, which really just gave a name to whichever custom collection of favored skills you wanted to combine.

The loose implementations of the Vampire: The Masquerade system in the two CRPGs that drew from the system are, in my opinion, pretty evenly split in terms of class or skill focus. Much of the character dynamics are purely in skill-based territory, but some very key elements of the game are based upon the character’s clan. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines did a fantastic job of making much of the game truly different for some clan choices, particularly the Malkavian or Nosferatu clans.

D&D 3.x – used in the Neverwinter Nights series, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Icewind Dale 2, etc., is a strong class-based hybrid. While there are plenty of skills (mainly non-combat based) and a common pool of feats that theoretically any character of any class can acquire, and one’s “class” is pretty flexible where class choice can change from level to level, most of the more significant upgrades and choices are dictated by class. While it’s possible for a wizard to pick a bunch of fighter-type abilities, it’s almost always a very poor choice. I’m really looking forward to any games (including the announced MMO) using the Pathfinder system, which is the spiritual sequel to third generation Dungeons & Dragons.

My own Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon is a hybrid. While I like to think of it being a middle-of-the-road hybrid, it errs on the side of class-based, particularly in the lower levels available in the first game.

In a later articles, I’ll discuss some of the pros and cons of the different styles of systems. I just wanted to make sure this introductory article was up to be a reference for anyone unfamiliar with the game styles.  However, a very simple rule-of-thumb is this: Class-based games tend to be better for “party-based” gameplay, such as your average MMO, or single-player games where you are usually running a group of characters, such as Dragon Age. This is due to its simplicity of character upgrades (what’s fun to micro-manage for a single character can be tedious to do for all four to six characters), and to provide specialization for more interesting group dynamics. Heavily skill-based systems are generally better for games that only let you play a single character (or character + henchman), as your lone character will be called upon to be more of a generalist in most games.

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