Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why I Hate Classes and How I'd Improve Them

    I've been following a lot of old-school blogs, that is, bloggers who love the original Dungeons & Dragons (usually pre-2nd edition) - which I find amusing because I am not an old school player/GM.  I have played D&D, starting with the Red Box and up to 3.5 with a detour to my current game of Pathfinder.  I like D&D well enough, but I don't love the system.  For two main reasons, first it is fantasy-based.  Now don't get me wrong, I love fantasy and I love magic - but I also like science-fiction, and I really love mash-ups of the two.  My favorite settings were Torg and RiftsTorg was an Earth almost like ours that had been invaded by other realities.  So England had been taken over by a fantasy reality, Egypt by a pulp fiction reality, parts of America by a cave-man prehistoric reality, and on and on.  By crossing state/country lines you could be changing more than the scenery.  Rifts was a far future post-apocalypse Earth where magic had been accidentally released and now 'rifts' - doorways between dimensions - open at random and drop all sorts of strange beings into the world.  This kind of cross-genera role-playing is impossible with D&D in any of its versions.

    But the biggest thing I don't like about D&D, and what I'd like to bend you ear (eyes?) about in this post, is the class system.  Classes bother me because they conflate at least three different things: what someone does, what someone has and how someone acts.  Let me explain by examining the core classes that have been (mostly) central to D&D through all the editions: the fighter, magic-user, thief and cleric.
    The fighter is the simplest class, and the one I like, because it is so focused.  The fighter fights.  That is, they hit things, shoot things, stab things, and generally kill things that get in their way.  This is class as "what someone does" in its purest and proper form.
    But add on the magic-user, and now things get muddy.  The magic-user, as the name suggests, uses magic.  They may use magic to fight, to kill things, or maybe not.  They may just fly off into space or turn invisible and hide.  Because unlike the fighter, the magic-user class is not about what someone does, it is about what someone has.  The magic-user has the ability to cast magic.  What they do with it is another matter entirely.  It is perfectly possible and common to see a magic-user slinging spells killing things alongside the fighter swinging a sword killing things - and while both are fighters, one has magic and one has steel.
    So let's throw in the thief and mix it up even more.  A thief class is not about what they have, or even what they do.  Let's back up, a thief is, at heart, a criminal, right?  And a criminal is someone who breaks the law, right?  That is class as how someone acts.  Criminals/thieves may "do" a wide variety of things (pick locks, hide in shadows and then back-stab/assassinate, fast-talk/con vulnerable old ladies, etc, etc, ad nauseam).  They may "have" all sorts of things (magic can help with a lot of those activities, so can weapons and tools, even just plain old innate charisma).  What defines them however is "how" they act.  And I think a part of the uproar over adding the thief class way back in the day, and why some hate it today, is because they unconsciously realize it is a different type of class (though most overlook the whole fighter-does/magic-user-has dichotomy) that does not fit quite right.
    The cleric is another, even worse, conflated class.  A cleric 'does', they are the only ones who can heal, a cleric 'has', since they cast magic, and a cleric 'acts', because they follow their deity of choice.  But a cleric of a rage deity should be doing a whole lot more fighting than the oddball "no sharp objects" class we originally got.  Even now, with Pathfinder, a cleric deity (as measured by the two Domains chosen) is frosting and fluff, not real substance.  So this class is the poor duck-billed-platypus of the game, a hybrid of ideas without any proper structure.
    Which is the other problem I have with a class.  When you choose a class, you are choosing a future.  You have locked and rail-roaded yourself through the grave.  Your class progression tells you exactly how you will advance, what you will become good at, and you don't get to change things.  This has been given a little more flex in recent years with multi-classing, and Pathfinder in particular with all the Alternate Classes in the Ultimate line of books.  Still, once you get on that train, it is hard to turn it.  Which amuses me since so many people hate, with a fiery passion hate, being rail-roaded in a game but do not blink an eye at doing it to their character's future.  One reason I like skills is that I can put points in the skills I want and leave points out of the ones I don't and so progress my character exactly how I think my character should progress (in fact, I would love to get rid of the "base attack bonus" and have a separate skill for every weapon group (so, say, "long blades" or "axes"), then also have a skill for every magic group (abjuration, evocation, etc), and then you could really and properly make a hybrid fighter-mage class)(but I digress).

    So what, you may ask, who cares if classes conflate different ideas?  Well, firstly this is a game, and games have rules, and when things get muddy the rules can break down in new and interesting ways.  Take, for example, choosing an encounter.  As GM this is a difficult and important decision to make- what monster(s) should I throw at the party?  After all, we want to challenge the party, not kill them all (though, some GMs don't care, they figure the party should run away from any challenge too great - but that's not always as easy as it sounds).  So we need to know about how strong the party is, then compare that to the monster, no problem, right?  Ummm.... well, let's see.  The Base Attack Bonus is kind of the starting point, how likely you are to hit.  And every class has a different BAB.  But then you get magic items, which increase the chance to hit and the amount of damage done.  Then there are spells, which usually hit, and do variable damage based on the spell and the caster level and the number of said spells memorized, and for some spells the type of target changes the damage too.  The thief does only a little damage, unless he backstabs and then he does a lot of damage, but only to targets that take critical hits.  And then of course, what kind of damage?  Fire spells and magic items won't be very useful against a fire elemental who's immune to fire.  All of which is just the tip of the iceberg of considerations needed.
    Now, all of that is not just the fault of the class system, it's the abundance of mechanics in general (which I'm sure any old-schoolers reading this are screaming to their monitors).  However this does illustrate that when you conflate different concepts it makes measuring them more difficult.  A level 10 fighter could be horribly and quickly slaughtered by a level 5 fighter, if said level 5 had a ton of magic items.  Because the fighter class measures what you can do - but equipment measures what you have, and that influences what you can do.  The fighter armed with lots of magic items and the magic-user who can fight are roughly equal - both can do and have things.  By tracking them separately you can get a better feel for what is close; by merging them together, or not tracking them at all, you have a much harder time.  We track how much gold is in a character's pockets, but the amount of gold spent on items is just as much a measure of ability/power as the amount of xp spent on levels.
    Secondly, there is creating the character you want to play and keeping that character playable.  Sure, my fighter can splash some magic-user levels, and suck at two things.  But what about Gandalf, he sure could fight, and cast a few spells?  What about making a character along those lines?  The thing is that a class is all or nothing- you get the whole package or you get nada, zip, zero.  I mentioned above splitting weapons and spell-casting into different skills.  This way I can make a level 5 character who can swing a sword and cast a fireball like a level 5 fighter or wizard - but who can't shoot a bow or summon a monster at all (assuming a balanced skill point system).  Buy splitting the class into skills, which is the basis of class as what you can do, I can make myself good at one thing by being bad at another - and that is an interesting strategic decision.  By taking levels in multiple classes I just suck at everything.  Since this is my game and my character, I kind of figure I should be able to do whatever I want (within reason of course, again you take some sort of penalty or missed opportunity for your benefits).  Conflated classes make it easy to play that particular stereotype, but do not let you do anything outside that box (again, something key to old school play that is totally missing from old school character design).  I don't blame my friends for not wanting to ever play a paladin or cleric because those are very limited stereotypes with limited appeal, but I can describe or imagine one that might interest them (at the cost of having to make a custom/prestige/alternate class; and just how many classes can you track before your head explodes?).

    So now that I've ranted about why I don't like something, let me say how I'd fix it - or, at least, some of the basis of my own game, Travellers Beyond.
    First off, I like class as measuring what you can do, and that really means measuring skills.  I've created 5 classes: fighter, explorer, investigator, worker and talker.
  • Fighters, well, fight.  There's a reason that class has been around forever.  But fighter skills/abilities are broken down by the desired outcome for the fight: kill, cripple, incapacitate, subdue, and survive.  Kill abilities, well, kill things.  Cripple are the 'critical hits' that reduce the opponent's ability to act/fight (blind, deafen, dismember).  Incapacitate is like cripple but not as long-term or harsh: blocking a magic-user's ability to cast spells or disarming someone is incapacitating.  Subdue means to take someone alive, and includes grappling and entangling/paralysis.  While survive is meant to get you out of the fight in one piece, distractions, 'aid another' and reading an opponent's fighting style go here.
  • Explorers go places and see things.  Survival, trap disarming, finding secret doors, picking locks, navigation and transportation, carrying cargo, all of these are explorer things.
  • Investigators seek out information.  This is a class I'm having trouble with, because it is kinda conflated itself.  At the same time though it seems just different enough to possibly warrant its own class/abilities.  I may not keep this one (which is why TB is a work in progress).
  • Workers do work, they craft, heal, design, maintain.  A lot of these are 'downtime' activities, if you've got Ultimate Campaign.  Not always something you'd do in the adventure - though I'm trying to make a system where you could play as doctors investigating an outbreak of a new virus, or even just like the TV show House.
  • Talkers do all that interpersonal stuff.  They bluff, diplomacize, intimidate, etc.  The thing is, each person has a different personality and outlook, which sets the target numbers for using each different skill on them.  So you have to read the person and the feedback from your dice to see if what you're trying to do might work or if it will just make them storm off and stop talking to you.
    Those 5 classes cover the "what do you do" part, and also what do you want to do - that is, what kind of adventure do you want to play.  If everybody is a fighter, then you all want to fight things, and will likely become upset if I as GM throw a lot of political intrigue and talking at you.  If you're all explorers then you want to travel and see the world and get past all those traps and locks and find all those secret doors.  The classes tell the GM what sorts of things the players want to see from the adventure/campaign.

    Then we have hooks, and those are the "what you have" section.  There are 2 groups of hooks, Metaphysical and Special Item, and each group has 5 individual hooks.  On the Metaphysical side:
  • Extraordinary Abilities are special, innate powers.  This could be low-key/realistic meaning you are an Olympic athlete or Nobel Prize-winning scientist.  Or they could mean leaping tall buildings with a single bound and moving anything made of metal with your mind.  Because these are innate, they are hard for others to take away from you or block, but they also are hard to control.  When you're strong enough to carry a plane, you have to hold yourself back to shake someone's hand and not crush it.
  • Martial Arts covers training and study to be the best at something.  I have long been and am still debating re-naming this to Kung Fu.  Both have 'fighter' connotations, but kung fu was really about being excellent at anything, not just combat (and it is still used this way sometimes).  Training is not very spectacular, and it grows slowly, but is also very reliable.
  • Pattern Users are what we call magic.  Defining and categorizing them has been the biggest headache of the whole game design process.  "Magic" encompasses so very many different things.  This is part innate and part learned and totally dependent on the character and nature of the person using it.  I've discarded dozens of systems for this and have yet to find one I like.
  •  Split Beings are characters who have been changed from their original state.  A vampire is a split being, the human base and the vampire transformation, so is a werewolf.  But even the Hulk, normal Bruce Banner and Giant Green Rage Monster in one body, is a split being.  The Sorcerer from Pathfinder, a person with an arcane/magical heritage, is also one.
  • Allies & Influence covers when what a character has is a tie or relationship to another character or group.  Animal companions, familiars, henchmen, being a soldier or city guard - even up to King or Media Tycoon; all fall in this hook.  Here what you have is not your own power, but rather you can call upon the powers of others to assist you.
    All the Metaphysical hooks are focused on the character, even Allies & Influence is about the character's relationships, actions and obligations to others.  The Special Item hooks are all things outside the character:
  • Cybernetic Implants are foreign objects implanted or attached to the character to give new abilities.  The cyberpunk metal limbs and cranial computers go here, but so do magic tattoos and grafted demonic wings.  The trick is that these are not innate like Extraordinary Abilities, this is something different, and unnatural, which damages the self-image and psyche of the character.
  • Weapons & Equipment is pretty much self-explanatory.  You have stuff.  By tracking it as a hook we can measure how much stuff you have objectively.  But remember, things that are outside you can be taken or disabled the easiest.  Disarming a sword-wielding fighter is a lot easier that disarming a spell-casting fighter.
  • Vehicles & Constructs covers boats, powered combat suits, houses, secret lairs and even starships.  These are the really big items, the ones that carry/hold you.  That size and scope also limits them (Moria is not a place for horses, after all).
  • Fabrication & Harvesting is the newest hook I've added.  It just seems like something that needs to be a bit bigger than a skill.  Batman has the bat-belt that always carries a new and unusual item, for whatever class/skill/purpose he needs.  This one is really rough though, and I'm not sure about its future.
  • Hacking/Cracking is the last hook (bet you're glad for that) and its all about taking over other things.  The traditional element of this hook is the computer hacker, but even the D&D 3.5 Use Magic Device skill is a part of this, so is a non-Pattern User disabling magical traps (hacking magic).  Even time travel (hacking reality) and psychological warfare (hacking people) can go here, as well as secret identities (hacking organizations).
    Between these 10 hooks and sub-hooks you can define any ability that any character in a game, book or movie has.  Combined with the classes you get a good image of what that character can do and what the player wants to do.  A Pattern User--Investigator is like an oracle or diviner, while a Pattern User--Fighter is the traditional fireball-throwing catapult.  A Hacking/Cracking--Explorer is the trap-disarming character, while the Hacking/Cracking--Talker might be a mentalist or hypnotist.  Most characters will have two, even three hooks (4+ should be rare).  A D&D fighter has Martial Arts for training and Weapons & Equipment for stuff.  A D&D magic-user is a Pattern User, but also Fabrication & Harvesting for creating magic items, and likely is carrying some Weapons & Equipment as well.

    The last part are 'class as actions' like our thief.  Sadly for this one I do not have a neat list of stuff to show you.  I've been creating and discarding about as many psychology systems as magic systems and have yet to find one I like (for either).  This is such an important part, to me, of building a character - and yet is so darn hard to make a group of categories or classes that isn't overly-broad or too-specific.  Someday I hope to have an epiphany and find something I like for this.

    Well, that's my rundown of classes and why I don't like them, as well as what I'm trying to do for my own game.  Is this any help to anyone else, or even interesting enough to read?  I don't know.  I love game design, as challenging and headache-inducing as it is, so it fascinates me.  As always feel free to leave your own comment below.

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