Classic versions of d&d have only a handful of classes.  Newer RPGs either have lots of classes, or they have no classes at all, and you pick or buy powers/traits with some sort of build currency.  The players have pretty clearly communicated their desire to have lots of build options, so the old-school option here is out.  I don’t see much reason for tightly restricting player class options besides a lack of creativity or a lack of time to play-test balance.  I’m pretty squarely in the second camp, so if I’m going to meet my customization goals, I’ll have to trust my game design instincts, feedback from written drafts, and hope that my players will understand if something needs to be changed during play.

The next question is whether to have a rigid class system, or a free-form pool of abilities that players can select or purchase.  I’m open to the idea of a class-less game, but I think classes are useful, especially to less experienced players.  Classes are really nothing more than ready-made themes, pre-approved for a modicum of game balance and player satisfaction.  My players are pretty split on having the time and motivation to go through a long list of options and select ones that they like thematically.  I’m afraid that they’d instead feel pressure to go through everything and find the “optimal” mix of powers, and I don’t really want the game to be about that.  Creating static classes helps absolve them of the need to figure out how to thematically mix and match powers, create a balanced character, and saves everyone some time and energy when we’re all pretty busy.

So if I go with having classes, the desire to allow for a high amount of customization suggests that I either have a lot of classes, or that the classes I do have all support multiple options or paths.  I’m leaning towards a longer list of core classes.  I’m not sure what the benefit of paths/options within a class really is.  It almost seems like an attempt to compromise with the class system by still allowing you to select or purchase abilities and traits.  If you instead offered three times as many classes, I feel like you could better identify with the classes, make them more distinct for the players, and give a little more thematic flavor to them since they no longer have to share the same base.  I’m thinking that a list of classes with different names would help players identify with the characters they create, more than using different build options within a class.

So to start with, the core set of classes could contain:

The Big 4

  1. Fighter
  2. Wizard
  3. Cleric
  4. Thief

Comments: Nothing surprising here, just the basics.

The Classic Additions

  1. Ranger
  2. Barbarian
  3. Druid
  4. Paladin
  5. Monk
  6. Bard

Comments: I sometimes think of a Paladin as starting out as a Fighter or Cleric and earning the right to be a Paladin through joining an organization in play.  This might make the Paladin something like a Prestige Class from 3.5 and Pathfinder, which is something to consider.  The Monk always seems a little goofy and out-of-place in a Euro-style RPG game, but I won’t scratch it yet (customization!).  The bard though, that class ruins the mood of the game for me.  Are we really going to have a guy or gal who starts singing or playing the lute as a response to every combat?  Aren’t we going to feel ridiculous about that?  I may scratch it.  If you want to play a lute, maybe build it into your background?  The only example I can think of for a bard that doesn’t suck is Gurney Halleck and he could just be a fighter with a cool background as a minstrel.

Some New Additions

  1. Archer
  2. Cavalier
  3. Inquisitor
  4. Psion
  5. Assassin
  6. Shaman

Comments: I never understood why the game didn’t just support an Archer and call it that.  The genre stems from war games for crying out loud.  Before you start pointing at the ranger, remember I’ve basically decided to do away with class-paths in favor of more thematic classes.  The archer or two-weapon ranger paths were really the first “archetypes” that really started making the build mechanic prevalent.   I’m banishing it here and differentiating characters who really specialize in bows from characters who fight with a weapon in each hand.  A lot of these additional classes look like “advanced classes” or prestige classes from other versions of the game.  If I use prestige classes, some of them may end up on that list instead.

One final bit for this post.  Despite my idea of having plenty of core classes to select from, I’m still very open to the idea of either having a pool of skills/abilities with which to build-your-own class, or for custom content classes.  I’ve never had anyone come to me though wanting to play a customized core class, so I’m not sure it’s really much of an issue.  It occurs to me though that there is only one way to meet my first design principle without also overloading the players with a massive list of pre-built options: provide a clear framework for custom content.  I think the rules, once written, will need to actively acknowledge that the game is modular and built to accept custom content.  That means that classes, races, abilities, and other components need to have a clear and consistent structure allowing you to plug in custom content (as long as it meets the required structure).

I still need to discuss the consider the concept of prestige classes and multi-classing.

14 thoughts on “Classes

  1. Brian

    I think I would prefer the idea of build points being used to create classes.So as not to overwhelm players that don’t have the time/energy to go pick from massive lists of options a set of ready to go classes can be available. Essentially just build points allocated to recreate any one of the above mentioned classes.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      What do you see as the advantage of build points over proposing a custom class? To me, if you use build points, you’re now forced to playtest and balance not only a class as a whole, but get a specific numeric value for each and every class power. This may not really be feasible, since some class powers may synergize with other class powers in ways not intended when they were isolated to their class.

      Encouraging custom class creation, even if you build the class level by level as you play the game (you really only need one level ahead set up for the class to play it!) solves the problem of customization better, I think. It allows the player to add a nearly limitless amount of customization compared to build points and buying powers, it means you don’t have to determine fair numeric values for every possible power, and it means that as the player, your main responsibility is picking a theme and playing, rather than trying to solve for the optimal class.

      1. Andy

        Ok so I spent a lot of time thinking about classes/levels. Based on the design goals and the overwhelming themes we’re looking at (low magic, low level cap, “low” quality weapons), does it really make sense that we could start a campaign as a Paladin, a Cavalier or whatever? I don’t think so.
        Do we all agree that lower level games are more fun? If so, then why not take it to the extreme? This may be unpopular, but I’m wondering if 1st-3rd level characters shouldn’t all be something like 0 level PCs are in Pathfinder. Warriors have a little more HPs and can use a few uncomplicated weapons they’ve picked up. Thieves (yes I think thieves should be 0 level, bare with me here) can sneak around a bit and steal something. Initiates may worship a deity and may be able to patch up some “fatigue” or throw holy water on a skeleton. Hedge wizards may be able to cast a minor cantrip or two a day. I’d say you can only start as one of those four classes.
        Imagine starting the campaign as humans from the same town. One of you may be in the town guard, using your father’s “poor” quality steel longsword to defend the village (1st LEVEL WARRIOR). You know what is scary when you’re a 0 level NPC (or a 1st level PC in this case)… a SINGLE goblin! You know what else this helps? It actually develops an origin story for each character instead of making you make it up. I think Dragon Age Origins is a very good example of how this can make you more invested in your character. Downside – requires more adventures from the DM. Do these low level scenarios need to be 1 on 1? Maybe this would encourage rotating DMs? I.E., maybe the players can run the origin stories for each other based on the DM module design?
        When you hit third level, maybe you are well trained to now be a FIGHTER (2nd LEVEL WARRIOR/1st LEVEL FIGHTER). You probably know how to use a variety of weapons. You are comfortable in a variety of armor. Maybe you now have an “average” quality steel longsword given to you by the mayor of your town. You’ve probably met a few friends to go explore the wider world… This is the equivalent of a 1st level character in PF. Although maybe you’ve “unlocked” a few interesting options for yourself, like the fact that you use a bow with great skill but have no clue how to use a polearm. This would make every character VERY different and origin shaped MOSTLY by in-game experience.
        When you’re 10th level or so, maybe you can “unlock” a prestige class. Like the Kingsguard if we’re still using GoT as an example. Even the worst fighter in the Kingsguard is a fighter of renown, but could certainly not defeat an army by himself. Even 10 3rd level fighters at once would be difficult. These guys likely have high quality equipment, maybe even magical equipment. This is about the equivalent of a 5th to 6th level character in PF.
        Jamie Lannister or the Hound are likely 15th level characters or so. They’d easily best a 10th level character in single combat, and certainly have a few magic items of moderate power. These types of characters are very powerful and could shape the entire landscape of the world, but would likely struggle to kill one hill Giant or something like that in single combat. This is about the equivalent of an 8th or 9th level character in PF.
        20th level characters are characters of legend. Maybe the Sword of the Morning (the greatest fighter who ever lived) is a 20th level character in this game. He could certainly defeat a few members of the kingsguard all at once (10th level LW characters). He has a few magic items, all of which are very powerful (within the scope of this setting) and maybe a few powerful characters of this level could slay a normal size dragon (but maybe not). His cleric buddy certainly couldn’t debuff something like the Tarrasquae so that he could do 200 damage per round until it died. This is the equivalent of an 11th or 12th level character in PF. Obviously, spells like WISH are impossible in this setting imo. Spells like fly would be limited to a wizard on the level of someone in the Kingsguard. To kill a LARGE dragon would take an army and could not be done by a normal 4 person party of 20th level characters unless they were extremely lucky.

      2. Andy

        Ok so, using that as the backdrop of a gritty, low level, dangerous, magic light campaign setting, I’m going to push even further.
        New design goal – Less base classes. More prestige classes. Basic purpose – Have lots of stuff to look forward to! More time to develop your character into exactly what you want it to be based on your experiences in the game rather than design wins.
        First let me talk about the thief. I would replace the “thief” (now a 1st level origin PC only) with the assassin. I think the thief is criminally underpowered in PF/d20/3.5/etc and really needs an upgrade. Why would someone want to pick a dude who steals stuff and climbs walls over a great fighter or wizard. I think we need to pick up on the fact that the “thief” has come to mean guy who has “skills” and sucks in combat (except when the stars align) while the assassin implies “deadly combatant” in any situation who also has a variety of skills. Note that the assassin doesn’t actually have to murder people, could be lawful good, etc. It’s just a way of designating that this is more than a dude who comes and picks your pocket and then runs away. This is instead a dude who fights with light, fast weapons from a position of advantage if possible.
        New design goal – Every class is effective in and out of combat.
        Base classes (at 3rd level) – Fighter, barbarian, ranger, archer, assassin, cleric, druid, wizard, shaman, psion. Maybe bard if Brett wants to keep that (I don’t think its necessary). I think all of these are different enough to stand alone AND would be relatively common to the setting. Not sure how a Shaman is different from a cleric or druid. Psion is certainly different if we want Psionics in the game. I picked the classes where it didn’t seem like you’d have to have a TON of experience to even get started. To me, a Paladin (holy warrior), Cavalier, Inquisitor should all be both RARER and have a higher minimum base level of skill to get started. I think this topic could have a lot of debate. Surprised more people haven’t posted on it. I think we need to have a clear reason for having a class be a “base class” or a “prestige class” and the division should be based on whether we could imagine a low level version of it (and whether there should be lots of them).
        My thought is that the combat effectiveness of all classes should be based around the fighter, assassin, cleric and wizard. I’m wondering if these classes shouldn’t have something of a rock, paper, scissors relationship with each other. Maybe a fighter will usually beat an assassin of the same level (with 65% or so certainty) because the assassin’s small weapons can’t punch through the heavy armor the fighter is wearing. Bad news for the wizard is that the assassin can sneak up on lightly armored folk and kill them very quickly (bypassing fatique… again about 65% of the time). Meanwhile, a fighter’s armor may not provide resistance to a wizard spell like it does to an assassin’s blade, so a wizard would beat a fighter about 65% of the time all things being equal. I’m thinking if we can get the most common classes balanced as a design goal, we can likely build the rest of the classes around them. I think 3.5 screwed up by not even getting the core 4 properly balanced. This would also insure that every character (A) has other characters they can beat in combat, and (B) has reasons to be fearful in combat and a need to adventure as a group.
        While this would buff up the assassin (or thief) in combat, we’d also need to buff up the fighter out of combat. I associate ideas like leadership, loyalty, morale, intimidation with a “fighter” type character. Not sure how to do this exactly. Just brainstorming.

  2. JackOfHearts Post author

    There’s a ton of stuff here to respond to. Maybe I should get you an account to start posting! A few main themes:

    Starting at level 0 – that’s basically what I have in mind. My thought is that by the time you’re third level or so, you’ve acquired what 1st level would give you in Pathfinder. You gain levels more quickly, but overall power is reduced to levels of gritty and heroic fantasy.

    Power Progression – we’re exactly on the same page here I think. Your Game of Thrones comparisons are just right.

    Less core classes – This was one of my first thoughts. I think the idea works well for a low-power game and for a game that uses prestige classes as rewards. The main issue I have with it right now is that I don’t know that I want to make people wait and play a character that they didn’t really envision or want to play in order to get to the character they do want to play.

    Core vs Prestige classes – This is a tough decision to answer with my current framework. If I want to allow custom core classes to meet people’s needs, prestige classes need to have a clear differentiator. My thought was the clear difference is the story role-play requirement. In this sense, you might have a holy man that has completely different powers than a cleric who has been accepted into a formal network. I think there’s a lot of space to make some decisions in here. As for thief, I think that needs to be a base class with a major power upgrade, and make assassin a prestige class.

    In combat vs out of combat: I think some classes are going to have imbalance between their in-combat capabilities and their out-of-combat capabilities. I have one thought though to help everyone get more involved out-of-combat, but that’s a post I haven’t gotten around to writing yet. I’ll keep that one in development for now!

    1. Andy

      I don’t know why a thief should have to wait to be an “assassin” if a wizard doesn’t have to wait. Assassins are much more common than wizards I’d think, especially in this world. I can also envision low level assassins pretty easily. I think holding onto “thief” is just leftover thought from D&D. Maybe call it something new if you want to save assassin (or if assassin implies evil). Thief just implies a dude who steals stuff and climbs walls. Bottom line, “assassin” just sounds a lot cooler.

      1. Andy

        I’m also wondering if “Knight” shouldn’t be a base class. I always thought that was a very common fantasy archetype weirdly unused in PF/D&D. To me, Cavaliers and Paladins could just be prestige classes (or more specialized versions) of Knights.

  3. Andy

    Basically, using Game of Thrones as a comparison, Brom is a “fighter” while the Knight of Flowers is a “knight.”

    1. Andy

      I was able to come up with possible examples for barbarian, fighter, knight, ranger, assassin, wizard, cleric and druid from Game of Thrones. Still not sure a Shaman is different from a cleric or druid. Not sure its needed. Archer and Psion didn’t come up really, although they would certainly fit imo. Examples –

      Jaime Lannister – Fighter w/heavy Knight multiclass. Kingsguard prestige class? (level ~17)
      Jorah Mormont – Knight
      Jon Snow – Fighter/Ranger multiclass
      Tywin Lannister – Fighter
      Davos – Assassin (or thief)
      Robb Stark – Fighter
      The Hound – Fighter w/light Knight multiclass. Kingsguard prestige class?
      Stannis – Fighter
      Melisandre – Wizard or Cleric?
      Bronn – Fighter
      Theon Greyjoy – Fighter/Assassin multiclass?
      Varys – Assassin
      Eddard Stark – Fighter
      Khal Drogo – Barbarian
      Brienne of Tarth – Fighter/Knight multiclass
      Yara Greyjoy – Fighter
      The Mountain – Fighter w/light Knight multiclass.
      Shagga (and all mountain clans) – Barbarian
      Maester Luwin – Wizard?
      Jon Umber – Barbarian
      Meera Reed – Ranger
      Jojen Reed – Druid
      The Blackfish – Fighter w/heavy knight multiclass
      Loras Tyrell – Knight
      Qhorin Halfhand – Ranger
      Pyat Pree – Wizard
      Jaqen H’ghar – Assassin
      Syrio Forel – Fighter/Assassin
      Thoros of Myr – Cleric
      Barrison Selmy – Knight. Kingsguard prestige class.
      Mance Rayder – Fighter/Ranger multiclass

      1. JackOfHearts Post author

        Good list!

        I think of Knight as a prestige class for Fighter, but maybe not. I think that’s going to be worth another post – I’m pretty fuzzy on what should be core and what should be unlocked/prestige class. I’d like a clear bright line between those things.

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