Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Class Struggle

Taking time out from my Star Trek RPG work to talk about one of my other projects, the Old School SF game I'm designing, Aliens & Astrobases. I want to take a look at the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Classes. My apologies Mr. Gorilla but I'm not a fan.

I've never liked Classes as presented in the old school format. I find the concept OK but in execution most Classes in most games suffer from a most difficult to remedy paradox.

1) They are too rigid and don't always represent the character the player has in mind.

2) They are not distinct or different enough that playing one over another is all the special.

These may seem to contradict each other and I'll admit that they do a bit but hear me out on this...

If you are going to create Classes than make them feel different. Let either the mechanics or the atmosphere generated by nifty mechanics make each class feel distinct. The Wizard's spellcasting should not feel exactly the same as the Cleric's spellcasting. The Thief at least often had skills not one else had (pre-3rd Edition). The Fighter...uhg. The Fighter.

I've noticed in some of the retroclones, blogger's houserules and other Old School idea sets, the Thief and/or Cleric is removed for whatever reason. This strikes me as strange since...well OK, maybe the Thief could go. I mean, in D&D, isn't everyone the Thief? The big focus is crawling through ruins, tombs and such stealing their stuff or killing monsters and stealing their stuff. The Cleric on the other hand is like the driving force of medieval society to some extent. The Cleric is my favorite Class. Its the one with the most built in role playing potential because of your need to interact with your Deity and those who worship them. Plus, its the All-Around-Class. I'm a big fan of that type of character. I don't want to be the strongest, the smartest or the fastest. I'd rather be second best at EVERYTHING. My favorite superheroes aren't Flash and the Hulk. I prefer Green Lantern and Iron Man. A power theme with multiple applications. Give me versatility over raw power any day.

No dear reader, if I were to tell you the Class I think is most deserving of being dumped I assure you that you'd think me mad. Eh? You already do? Fine then...The Fighter.

Oh lord how I despise the Fighter. More hit points, any weapon, any armor and nothing else interesting at all. This has to be the single most boring class from OD&D all the way to World of Warcraft. Why don't we just have a class called Average Person. I mean the average person in a fantasy town is a Fighter no? He can use a sword or an axe! A Peasant, a Carpenter, a town Guard, a Blacksmith and pretty much any other able bodied individual can probably also do that. These games even contrive the idea that a Wizard can't use a sword (like Gandalf and freakin' Merlin) just to give the Fighter something to be proud of.

One of the biggest inspirations to creating my houseruled D&D-for-those-who-don't-like-D&D was to create a system where a Fighter felt like the hero of so many books, movies and comics. Where a guy or gal with enough training and physical prowess could actually stand up to a Wizard and vanquish them like they do in myth and legend. In D&D a 10th level Wizard is going to turn a 10th level Fighter into beef jerky in a few rounds.

What does this have to do with Aliens & Astrobases. Simple, do we need a Fighting class? Is there anyone running around the Star Wars universe who can't fire a blaster besides C-3PO? Keith Laumer's Retief is a Diplomat who can fight and shoot a laser gun. He's more of a Scoundrel in some ways. The same can be said for the Stainless Steel Rat. Do we really have to have a guy whose speciality is something everyone in the genre can do?

Yes. Surprised by my answer? Don't be. You see, it isn't that I find the Fighter class unnecessary, its that I find nothing exceptional about Fighters. That's why my Fighter in my D&D-But-Not game is exceptionally good at fighting. Not just more hit points and the ability to buy more from the Hunting and Sporting section of the medieval WalMart. No, he has various abilities the make him the King of Battle when doing what he does.

So I'm thinking of a similar idea for A&A but without my skill/Talent system. What if the Fighting Class character can, by virtue of his incredible ability with weaponry, cause more damage with a given weapon than anyone else. Say a ray gun does 3D6. The same ray gun in the hands of a Fighting Class character does 3D6+2 per level. This would help offset that annoying feature where the Wizard causes an increasing amount of damage thanks to level and better spells but the Fighter does 1D8+Strength bonus with a sword on day 1 of 1st level and 1D8+Strength bonus day 10 of 8th level.

Just some thoughts that came to me while being unable to sleep. I haven't decided to completely rule out adding my Talent system to this game but right now I'm trying to keep it skill-less as best as I can.

Barking Alien


  1. Interesting choice on class. I'm one of the guys that wants to do away with the cleric for a variety of reasons (I'm not saying you're wrong - I like your reasons, I just am wanting a different feel). 1) I think the wizard and the warrior are the more iconic figures of fantasy literature and will fit the tone of my world. 2) I want a dark, gritty world where death comes easy. 3) I'm really using fighter and magic user as stand ins for person of physical action or person of intellectual persuit. 4) I'm going to use divine magic as an add on system of incantations, rituals, and prayers that are usable by everyone, but have preconditions for success based on factors such as relationship to the divine, prevailing conditions at the time, etc. 5) I wanted divine magic to not just be limited to a specific class. If I want a fighter that happens to be the next Joan of Arc, then she should be able to be primarily a fighter, but use her divine favor to be granted a boon.

    I completely agree on the rigidness of classes. I think by paring it down a bit and giving add ons, it makes it easier to craft the type of character you want. I'm trying to avoid skill and feats as well, but I'll have to see how it goes when I really start tinkering with stuff. I'm finding it difficult to articulate just yet as I have a specific feel in mind and once I have the mechanics laid out, I think it'll be easier to explain.

  2. I'm not a big fan of classes, either. The ones that work best for me are the ones where the classes are not so much of a stick ("This is what you can do in this class and only this.") as a carrot ("Sure other people can do this, but you can do it better/faster/harder/etc.")

    Alternity and Decipher Trek met this standard for me, though I haven't played either, so YMMV.

  3. Classes were a carryover of the origins of RPGs which were miniature wargames circa mid 1970’s: troop type = class. Light infantry behaved differently than heavy cavalry on the battlefield, and rules for the tabletop reflected this – no matter how poorly. :) So, when D&D was first published, it carried on with this habit. They simply translated a unit or stand of figures into one figure or character, keeping many of the miniature wargaming conventions of the time. Fighters would behave differently from Magic Users, who were different from Theives, etc. So, numeric values like troop quality, combat ability, morale value, and other comforting numbers became what we know as Stats, Levels, Saves, Hit Points, Armor Class, Spell Levels, Bend Bars / Lift Gates, Pick Pockets, racial modifiers and so on.

    That being said, I'm a big fan of Mekton for its skill-based character design.

  4. Dude, that better not be the Aliens & Astrobases cover art. If I have to play bishonen in space, I am *right* out. :-)

  5. No, lol, that is just an image of what OD&D classes might look like Japanese Anime style. The picture is actually from the box and advertising art of a Japanese console RPG.

    It would perfectly represent characters in my D&D-But-Not game though. :)

  6. Yeah, you're right about the thief. I suppose that if you made those options that everyone could take, but they got a bonus for long experience, etc. it might make more sense. It always annoyed me that my fighter couldn't learn to pick pockets.