Classes... or not?

Back in the day, I feel like there was a backlash against D&D’s classes as “too restrictive” and many RPGs eschewed classes in response. However, with PbtA and Blades in the Dark being so popular these days, it seems maybe that was just a phase, at least for medium-complexity games.

Personally, I find classes a lot easier to design for, since you don’t have to worry about how every single ability interacts with every other ability… and I feel like it’s easier to communicate your game’s style and feel through pre-made classes. As a player, I find classes evocative, inspiring, and easier to onboard, since I can get a rough idea of what I want to play and then deep dive only on what that one class offers without having to look at every ability in the entire rulebook.

How about you? Are you a fan of classes in RPGs or not? Are you going to use them in games you design?

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I decided against classes in my game. I just like less restriction when possible. I have archetypes which are sorta like “mini classes”, a small bundle of abilities/mechanics based on a theme or concept.

For me it depends on the game, for sure. For example, when I created the first version of Anima Prime (2011), I eschewed classes. You pick all your abilities from a huge list. Though there are packages available if you want to be quick and thematic about it. But for the sequel Anima Prime: Resurgence, every PC has a profession with an ability grid. It’s a much quicker way to start and still allows for choices along the way.

I think that’s always my perspective: what do classes do in a specific design, do they help or hinder the vision, fun, handling time, etc. Just like any other design element.

Classes and class uniqueness are a staple of RPGs. Pigeon-holed roles serve to validate members of the party whether they’re optimized or not. The rogue might be a new player and less valuable in combat (due to poor character creation choices, lack of tactical knowledge, etc.) but still have a vital role to play.

When all characters are blank slate, it encourages homogeneity at the expense of a varied toolkit of characters that the party brings together as a cohesive whole.

I think jack-of-all-trades characters are fine for solo experiences. In a party setting, each character should bring something unique and valuable to the table.

I disagree that it creates homogeneity. I would say its classes that do that. In 5e, for example, you have like 10 classes and 2-3 sub classes each. And realistically, sorcerers and wizards are very similar. So are clerics and paladins.

In a system like mine, there are 32 (currently) archetypes. You get 2 to start, and 4 more over the campaign. Thats 4294967296 possible starting combos and 7.958661109946400884391936 × 10^24 possible level capped combos.

Theres basically no chance of overlap.

I don’t think you can compare classes to playbooks first of all.

A playbook is an outline but there are still lots of variations that can be created from the playbook, it’s more of a middle ground between archetypes as someone was saying and classes.

Classes I feel are a rigid construct of days gone by. Players pick a race, pick a class and select the necessary spells or equipment. There are people who want more creative input these days.

I’m also not really about the playbook side of things but that I prefer over classes. The one part that is most daunting for newer DND players is classes and actions. Actions can be remedied by just playing. But classes require so much more reading and planning.

Players and min maxing walk hand in hand. How do I exploit the system for as much as I can get. New players who build wrong end up with characters they think weak when they get into later games.

I feel classes limit players entry into games, give advantage to established players and can lead to lazy rpg.

Playbooks don’t give the options generally to be a power gamer. Players have more flexibility to develop their character. The game relies more on roleplay.

I feel like that concept of rigid classes is pretty outdated. Maybe D&D classes weren’t very customizable in the past, but that really hasn’t been true in a couple editions. 5e classes get many options, subclasses, features, etc.

Also, the idea that playbooks are more flexible is really just a matter of implementation. Playbook and class are just different names for the same kind of thing - a collection of abilities or options granted to a character. That’s really it.

I don’t know how either one helps min maxers. I would think that being able to take any combination of abilities you want (classless) would lead to the most broken combinations, whereas classes and playbooks limit the number of combinations of abilities.

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One of the things I value in a game is the ability to get to playing it quickly. With the way many games do character creation, class becomes a barrier to getting to play rather than a way of restricting player choice so that decisions can be made with speed. Many classes, many abilities to choose from easily leads to analysis paralysis.

I want class to be a useful restriction in my games that makes it easier for players to get to playing. For example, in Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave the first ability a player character gets is randomly chosen. This prevents the player from having to make a choice and helps speed along the game, though players get to choose the rest of their abilities when they level up.

The shortcoming of classes I complained about–as did those with whom I played–in the Way Back had more to do with a lack of variety. I met some guys who’d implemented kits that worked to set apart members of classes, based on culture and so forth; other folks used other ways to add variety to the basic classes.

So we picked up games that lacked character classes…and ran into other problems. Traveller had its life path system, which was cool. It created characters with believable skillsets, though the character could died before finishing chargen. That was a nice approach that worked, while others didn’t.

GURPS characters, for example, could end up severely unbelievable. When thinking of fantasy settings–distinctly lacking junior colleges where folks could pop in for course on a variety of topics–a character that was created with a smattering of skills each from a variety of fields just wasn’t believable. No, it just doesn’t work to claim that your character somehow got apprenticed/trained to be a gladiator AND ninja AND magician…

Templates appeared as a way to make for reasonable starting characters that could then develop along different lines so that experienced characters showed a great variety, even after having begun in similar fashion. That was a very nice approach to character generation and development that I find appealing.

Indeed, I use character classes in my designs, though they’re actually templates. Players begin with a pretty standard set of skills and abilities (although there is some variation built in with secondary skill choices). How the characters then develop allows for a great more variety, so a mercenary soldier can slowly transform into an accomplished spy, for example.

That approach also reins in the “gladiator/ninja/wizard” circus sideshow characters that ruin any sense of setting for me. It would require a great deal of play for a character to develop such a wide-ranging skillset, plus the character’s ability with each skillset is going to be limited.

I really don’t care for classes myself, but think there are perfectly good reasons why someone (other than me :slight_smile: might pull them out of the design toolkit. Some of which already have been suggested. Certainly classes, like playbooks, are ways of forcing theme on players.

Given the overwhelming popularity of D&D and Pathfinder, games they’ve influenced, and OSR games, it’s pretty clear classes will be a part of how most people interact with RPGs. Just like, as has been the case since the 70s, there will be other games without them.

The problem I see with classes is more with coherence.
You level up going into dungeons healing all your friends and repelling undead. And you decide to put all that experience into a Wizard or Barbarian level. It doesn’t make sense. And it kind of kills the role play sensation.
But I get it that it’s easier to wrap your head around.
For the game (video) I’m designing, I want to have some class around, because it gives some status or belonging and I’d like to respect DnD.
But I would want to make the leveling the otherway around. By using skills/abilities, you level up those individually, and once they add up to a certain amount, it makes you level up. Based on those abilities you used since your last leveling up, it would color it more Wizard, or more Barbarian for example.

But it also means that you should be able to use those wizard-like abilities without being a wizard in the first place.
I haven’t found the correct way to deal with it for now. Still a WIP, 20 years in the making… Yaaay.

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I’ve definitely played video games where the more you used an ability, the better you get at it. That works great in video games, but in TTRPGs, it’s unfortunately just too much bookkeeping (though I know there are some RPGs that give you experience when you fail at a task).

It is an interesting chicken and egg problem of how you get the ability to attempt it at all. Can anyone try casting Fireball (or whatever)? Maybe if you make the abilities something you need to quest for. Like, anyone can learn fireball… from the wizard in the fire swamp surrounded by man eating alligators. Then there’s an implicit barrier of entry without actually having a rule around it.

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I enjoy classes in my ttrpgs. I have found that limitation will often breed creativity and guides new players. That being said, I usually only enjoy classes in systems with lots of options. Take Star Wars (FFG) as an example. It has a fantastic number of species you can play along with tons of careers and over 100 specializations. Without some sort of class system, the volume of talents could easily overwhelm a new player. I also find I prefer it strongly over Genesys which is basically the same system, only with less restrictions.
Contrast that with D&D 5e. In D&D 5e I am beginning to had the limited number of options the class system gives me. Back in 3.5 this was never an issue because there was always a new book with new content, but in 5e, I feel like I’ve played most every class combination from a mechanics perspective and there is nothing novel left to experience.
For my own game, I plan on having an open, non-level based system, but with lots of options being gated by race/class. Something perhaps a little more open than SWRPG but not as open as something like Genesys or Gurps.

I actually think classes can give a game more variety, because the designer can give powerful abilities to a class and not need to worry that it’ll “break” the game when combined with some other powerful ability in some other class (even in D&D term with multiclassing, two powerful 4th level abilities still require you to be 8th level to use them together, at which point you’re competing against other class’ 8th level abilities).

People say that the ninja/gladiator/wizard is weird, but wouldn’t the same be true if there were no classes and the PC took ninja stealth and gladiator flourish and low-level spellbook casting? Also, who says there isn’t a justification in the fiction? I generally think of a PC’s character sheet as an imperfect translation of the character in the fiction to the rules of the game. Maybe there isn’t a specific class for your ancient order of arcane ninjas, but by cobbling together these three unlikely classes, you can approximate it in the rules of the game. That seems totally fine to me.

That’s the problem with classless chargen. I don’t find ninja/gladiator/wizard characters believable, at all, and it kills any connection I’d otherwise have with the character or the setting. As I usually GM, I know such don’t fit within any of my settings. I’d be hard put as a player to connect with a setting in somebody else’s game that allowed for such.

I just may be too old school. I came RPGs via miniatures play and wargames and find the modern video game tropes that have moved into RPG space not very enjoyable.

Would you find somebody believable if they started their studies in History and get their master in it. Couldn’t find job, so they decided to to a school for web development so they can have some money and sustain their family. And a few years later, they become speaker about recruitment in IT?
I know a bunch of people that might have gone that route. Why would those specific skills in an RPG not be backed by real character background?

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Certainly. That is in no fashion equivalent to game mechanics wherein a PC suddenly gains capabilities in a shockingly short time.

If a beginning gladiator character is assumed to have trained with an arms master for months and been blooded in a few fights in the arena before beginning play as a competent fighter, I simply don’t buy into any character that hasn’t put in that time. The same for the ninja training and the wizard training. You can offer that the character is much older and spent the requisite time training in each, sure, though I reckon that certainly doesn’t qualify as a beginning character, as it would be much more developed than one newly trained in a single field. Or you could simply design things so all new characters are veterans in their fields, with those in single fields masters and the dilettante possessed of basic competence and not close to showing any mastery.

It all comes down to how believable it is for a character to possess the skillset it has. My threshold for suspension of disbelief is quite high.

With that in mind, the approach I’m taking in the current project to address this is simple. Each class (template, really) has a package of skills that lead to basic competency. A PC could be created, I reckon, that has only one or two of those, plus one or two of the basic skills of other classes. The PC won’t be recognized as being of any of the classes, not having even just the basic skills down (and none of the additional skills), and developing proficiency as one of the classes will prove difficult, with that PC always lagging behind in any of the classes. So our ninja/gladiator/wizard would be a poor ninja, inept gladiator, and bumbling wizard for a long while; that’s not the sort of character I find interesting to read about nor play, so I’m certainly not going to design for it.

Should a player want to begin with a character of one class and then immediately begin developing skills of another while allowing the initial skills to languish without further development, I’m good. That could actually be interesting–and it also passes as believable.

So I guess we agree. We just didn’t talk about the same “multiclassing” system.
I was talking about the DnD v3 system, where you can choose in what class you level in every time you gain a level. So start with just gladiator (and survived), get hired by a lord to become his ninja and as you accomplish mission, the lord (a wizard) start liking you and introduces you to the arcane arts.

Not the AD&D2 where only halflins, elves, gnomes and dwarves could multiclass and had to choose the bi/tri class right from the start (like fighter/priest). Which could make sense, but in very rare case.
And I’m not talking about the human-only option to dual-class which was complete nut and made no sense at all.

Only if the training for the new class takes a long, long time. Again, nobody’s gonna gain all of the class skills/abilities without the apprenticeship/training time. I don’t even buy into PCs gaining a dozen levels in a year, unless the abilities gained by those levels are reasonably limited. One doesn’t go from “newly competent enough to venture forth” to “powerful veteran and iconic figure” in a matter of months.

I’m all for characters developing and changing their focus over time. That’s not the issue. The issue is that of characters that gain new sets of skills and abilities in very short order–in an unbelievably quick time.

I could get behind that :slight_smile: Adding some extra XP needed to multiclass into a new class to get the 1st level.
In DnD 3/3.5, it’s true some class give great bonus at level 1. Like the monk with +2/+2/+2 in all saves. If you get it for the same price as getting better in a class you already know, it might sound a little bit too easy.
But you could make it harder as a DM to be able to become a monk, by just making access to a monastery harder.