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
Comments: Nothing surprising here, just the basics.
The Classic Additions
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
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.