Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Staying Classy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 29, 2011

Okay, after a little bit of basic background on class vs. skill based RPG systems yesterday, I’m going to talk about some of the advantages, disadvantages, and general design features of class-based RPGs.

Once upon a time, after I discovered the joy that was skill-based systems, I was really down on class-based design. Skill-based systems were so much more organic and realistic and flexible – why would anybody want to play a class-based game ever again?

I came around. I still marginally prefer skill-based games (or hybrids), but I’ve come to really appreciate class-based systems – both as a designer and a player.

Simplicity and Ease of Introduction: Class-based games break different styles of gameplay into simplified roles that are easier for newcomers (to that particular game system, or to RPGs in general). Particularly during initial character creation, it can be really hard to predict what skills or styles of play will be viable, and a smaller palette of roles can ease the guesswork a bit.

Enforces Specialization / Role Cohesion: Class-based games can make sure characters are really good at a few things rather than mediocre in a lot of areas. This is desirable in party-based games, especially in multiplayer games where it’s good to have each player feel like they are unique in some way, or at least “the best” at one or two things. It encourages cooperation and keeps any one player from hogging the limelight.

Restricted Content: This is both an advantage and limitation. If characters are missing certain classes and the key skills associated with the class, as a designer you may be forced to choose between denying access to the content, or watering down the specialization. A classic example of this is the rogue / thief class. In old-school D&D, at early levels, if you needed someone to climb a sheer wall, sneakily spy on the enemy, or unlock a door, the thief was your guy. If you had no thief in the party, you might be out of luck entirely (in a CRPG, this would mean being locked out of some content). However, at later levels in D&D, spellcasters had access to spells (levitate and fly, scrying, and door-opening spells) that rendered the thief’s specialization almost useless. This was partially rectified in 1st edition Advanced D&D by giving the high-level thief the oft-forgotten ability to cast spells from scrolls, further watering down specialization but at least giving the thief something useful to do now that his specializations had been trumped.

Unbalanced Content: Some content may be far too difficult or far too easy depending upon which classes are absent or available. An example would be the original Bard’s Tale, as far as I remember it correctly: If you had a bard in the party and the horn from the default starting party, surviving to level three or four was relatively possible. Without a bard and the magical horn, the early stages of the game were absolutely brutal. Another example is the cleric class in D&D (up through 3rd edition, not including Pathfinder) and undead encounters. The difference between an encounter being trivially simple and brutally devastating might be the presence of a cleric. One can argue (and I often do) that this simply means the class abilities are imbalanced with such an all-or-nothing difference in the experience, but the point of the specialization really is to make the character truly shine in particular circumstances, not to just provide a marginal advantage. It’s a fine line…

The “Ding“: By “ding” I’m referring to that wonderful chime sound that became synonymous with leveling up in EverQuest back in the day, and entered popular vernacular amongst gamers even when playing pen-and-paper systems. Gaining a new level which both increases power and grants access to new abilities is unrealistic, complicated, time consuming, and potentially imbalancing if it occurs in the middle of an adventure. But as a player, it’s also tremendously fun and empowering. That sudden stairstep of new power feels a lot more exciting than gradual increases in most skill-based systems.

Less Useful Skills Get Play: In skill-based systems, those skills of marginal utility will often be ignored entirely by players. By bundling these abilities with more critical ones in a class-based system, the designer can make sure that content utilizing those skills will be more likely to be enjoyed.

No “Bad Builds”: By making sure the limited number of classes (and any specializations within the classes) are fully playable through the entire game (or game system), the designer can make sure players won’t find themselves stuck with a character who cannot succeed in later stage – a common problem in skill-based systems.

Class Imbalance: This is really more of a problem in multiplayer games, especially in massively multiplayer games where there is competition between players for “slots” within parties.  It’s impossible – and even undesirable – to make classes “perfectly” balanced and equally useful in all circumstances. And even if it was possible, perceptions of imbalance would remain.

Restricted Customization: Pure class-based systems, like the earliest versions of D&D, tend to be so strict in class definition that every character of a particular class act almost identically, which gets pretty boring and frustrating to players who find that no class easily matches their character concept. Some hybridization and a greater difference in attribute bonuses and subclasses / multi-class additions can ease this a bit.

Easier to Design Around: In CRPGs (and pen-and-paper “modules” not customized around specific players and characters), the same abstraction of roles that makes the game easier for new players to get around is just as valuable for designers and developers. Content, AI behaviors, NPC dialogs – these can all be easier when you can create it for a limited palette of character types.

Class Explosion and Inflation: This is more of a problem with pen-and-paper RPGs when publishers are trying to entice players to buy more books, but also relates to CRPGs based on these systems, or CRPG expansions / DLC. Adding a new class that fits a particular niche or blends two other classes together becomes an easy (and brain-dead) way to add player content to the game. This became particularly bad in the D&D 3.x era, when almost every book featured new core or prestige classes that were often nothing more than a variant combination of game mechanics with some kind of tacked-on class description. Since publishers (and developers) really want to sell expansions, there was always a temptation to inflate the power level of these classes so that they were slightly more powerful than the original classes. After all, who’d bother playing a new class (or buying an expansion that activates that class) that is weaker than the originals, right?

Anyway, I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of other features / consequences / advantages / disadvantages here for class-based systems, but this should cover all of the basics and a bit more besides. I’ll cover more in a later article about skill-based systems… and many of the advantages of one system will be disadvantages of the other, and vice versa. So I’ve left things like skill-combo exploits for the next article.

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