Thursday, September 26, 2013

Classes Revisited - With Some Help

    Talysman over at 9and30kingdoms wrote a post about classes to which I commented and mentioned my own post about classes, which then led him to comment on my post.
    God I love the Internet :)
    All this back and forth got me thinking that maybe I didn't quite say what I meant to say, so let me try again.
    To summarize my original post, I don't like classes as they are used in most games.  I feel that they conflate (don't know why but I love that word) three different things: what a character does, what a character has and how a character acts.  My idea is to instead address each one separately, adding them together to form the final character picture.  So let me hit on each of those ideas and try to say what I'm thinking clearly.

    First, why I don't like classes.  Now, let me preface this by saying that I am not trying to suggest I have the One True Way Of Game Design.  This is my opinion, my crazy thinking, and my take on the games I've played and GMed.  I could be, and most likely am, wrong - or at least incomplete.  I am very grateful to Talysman for taking his valuable time to read and reply to my idea to help me re-examine it and hopefully formulate it better this time around.  So take all this with a grain of the proverbial salt.
    I am a tinker, I can't help it.  It's some sort of undiagnosed gamer OCD that I have to pull apart every system I can get my hands on and debate how I'd do it differently.  So I like games where you can get to the most fundamental core of the mechanics, makes it easier to start redecorating.  Which is one part of my problem with classes, they tend to be a sort of black box.  Some things are easy to understand, fighters get better base attack bonuses than wizards because they hit things more often.  Some things are harder to divine, why in Pathfinder are there 8 different numbers of class skills for 11 classes?  What was the underlying balance the designers were trying to go for?  That way, when I start mixing things up, I'll have a better feel for what I'm changing.  More component-based games, like GURPS or Hero System, allow you to build LEGO-like a character out of specific abilities, so it's easy to see how much the designers though something was worth, they gave it a point total.
    Another thing that turns me off about classes is the limited amount of customization.  Original D&D gave you a class and that was it.  Anything you wanted to do to make yourself unique was outside the rules, a sort of "bring your own one special unique snowflake."  There's nothing wrong with that.  I'm not saying there is.  I just don't like it myself.  I prefer it when the rules make some allowance for me to add my own unique stamp on the ideas they present.  Now, let me illustrate this with 13th Age.  In 13th Age you have your One Unique Thing, something that only you, out of all the others characters, have/are/do/whatever.  While I kind of like the system, I kind of don't.  I don't have to be the only guy in the whole world who is whatever, I just want to more clearly distinguish me from the other guys at the table.  If every one of us decided to be fighters, I'd like it to be easy to see the differences between us.  It's an interesting rule, but actually goes a little farther than I'd like myself.  I like Pathfinder with the feat system, doesn't go crazy but allows some mechanically-rewarded customization - except for the fact that Pathfinder has way, way, way too many feats.

    So, after complaining, what would I do instead?  Glad you asked.  As I started with, I see three different things, and so we need to look at each of them to make a character.  Now, you can't take just one, you have to take all three together.  Talysman said that I was throwing up a "smokescreen" here, so I think this is where my explanation stunk then because it's actually the core of everything I'm trying to present.   As he rightly points out, what's really important is what you do.  That is first and foremost, because the game is going to be about you doing things with your character.  So let me re-name this "Purpose," and posit that there are 5 Purposes-

Fighter - defeats obstacles (kill, defend, disable...)
Explorer - interacts with the world (sneak, traps, travel/wilderness...)
Investigator - gathers information (knowledge, perception...)
Worker - makes changes (healing, crafting...)
Talker - interacts with NPCs (intimidate, charm, bluff...)

    Now, the reason I hit on this system is because so far, as clearly as I have been able to define it, everything you could possibly do in the game is some combination of these.  So here is where I think I missed explaining my reasoning - your character has some measure of all of them.  The goal I have is to map the character with the game.  So let's say everybody gets 100% that represents all the time you're going to be playing the game - now divide that percentage across all the Purposes you want to play.
    Maybe I want to be the generic fighter, so I'm Fighter 100%, all others 0%.  All I wanna do is Hulk Smash everything in sight.  Maybe I want a sort of barbarian, so I'm Fighter 70% Explorer 30% because I live in the outdoors and stuff.  Maybe I want to be the dungeon-delving thief and split it as Explorer 70%, Fighter 30%.  Or maybe I want to be the shadowy, smooth talking thief and go Talker 50%, Explorer 50%.  By defining myself this way I've done something very, very useful - I've just told the GM what kind of adventure I want to play.
    Let me illustrate with an anecdote from my own recent experiences.  A friend was going to start a Pathfinder game a while back.  Two of my other friends were going to play.  It so happened that I would also be available to join them.  We were told that every character needed to be able to act without weapons, because there was going to be a city that you couldn't bring any weapons into.  My friends were a Psiblade (makes his own weapon from his mind) and Magus (can cast when not swinging).  Someone joked at the table that I should make a Ninja - a joke because I almost always play a mage, I'm not really a thief-type at all.  I decided to take up the challenge and made a character who could do some fighting unarmed, but was meant to be the fast talker, disguise, investigator type.  I thought that if we were going to be in a city with no weapons then we might have to do some interacting with NPCs, and the other two were not well equipped for that.  I would say I was going for a Talker 30%, Investigator 30%, Explorer 30%, Fighter 10%.  Sadly, the adventure did not go as I had hoped.  We had a few combat encounters, that were too easy, out in the wilderness, saw an NPC from a distance who seemed sneaky but never got to interact with him, escorted a few people who ignored us, and when we got to the city in question the GM just hand-waved the ending since it had gotten too late.  It was a bit of a let-down.  Still, I liked the idea of my character and we all decided to take this world and run with it, doing a rotating GM thing.  But even after, it was always a challenge to find an adventure where I could use my character the way I had hoped to.
    In part, I think it's because "Ninja," while a cool description, really doesn't say enough.  Some people might think shadowy assassin, which really wasn't the vibe I was going for, I should have just gone straight Rogue (I did not realize then that the ninja class was just a slightly re-skinned rogue anyways).  I was thinking more of the 'hides in plain sight' and 'sneaks around' myself.  Which is why I like the Purpose system, it seems a little more explicit.

    There are two other parts to going with Purpose, that's in building adventures and the game rules themselves.
    For the game, it needs some sort of rules for all five of these, because characters might want to do any of them.  Or, if it doesn't have those rules, then it needs to be clear the game is not designed for that style of play.  Pathfinder, much as I like it, is woefully lacking in anything related to the Investigator, and the Worker has healers and craftsmen that are short blocks of skill text, likewise only a little Talker (whole posts have been done about Diplomacy).  I've heard of other games, like Gumshoe, that focus on Investigator, and I saw a sample for Burning Wheel that looked like it had some pretty in-depth Talker stuff.  So it's important to match your character to your game, or else you're likely to be disappointed.
    The other thing is in building the adventure.  I take a Player-centric view of the hobby, I think the players are the reason for the game, and the GM is there to provide some challenge and the unexpected.  I like sandboxes because I don't care what the GM wants to happen in the story, the players are the ones actually playing it and he should be focused on them.  Having Purposes for each character shows what kinds of things they want to do.  And this is where I get crossed in my head with the board-game Descent.  In Descent the GM has a pool of 'doom counters' that he spends to play cards, each card being an obstacle like a monster or trap or curse or something.  I would totally love to steal that for an RPG.  The GM only has so many points to throw a problem at the players with, and the cost depends on the Purposes of the players.  If all the players are Fighters, then monsters are cheap, since apparently the players want to fight things.  But playing a Talker NPC or throwing in an Investigator mystery would cost more - something that can be done, but not done very often, because the players don't want to play that kind of adventure.  I see these challenges as cards, with the Purpose of the challenge on the back (visible to all while hiding the details), that the GM can lay down on the table to suggest what kinds of things are going on in the world.
    Another anecdote.  With the character I described above, and another friend who was an archer/thief, we went on an adventure.  The GM said we had to investigate some scary cult on a nearby island.  So we took a boat.  On the boat there were a few mysterious passengers.  We spent hours of real time, late into the night, investigating the passengers but could never find out anything about them.  Finally we landed.  It was getting late enough that I suggested we call it a night and finish the adventure another day.  I, and my fellow player, were exhausted from looking for clues we could never find, and actually we were both frustrated enough to be going postal (Fighter 200%, IRW).  At which point the GM tells us that we're just beginning the actual adventure and the boat ride wasn't meant to take so long.
    We both could have killed him.  We would have alibied each other too :)
    Now, in my mind I see us playing, and we get to the boat, and he puts down an "Investigation" card and so we can see that there's something fishy on the boat.  We could decide to investigate, or maybe decide we don't care since our goal was the island and just let the ride go by.  Or, we get to the boat and he doesn't do anything so we say we just wait out the ride.  Either way, we would have had a clue as to what was significant and what wasn't, so that we didn't waste our time and drive ourselves (and him no doubt, since he had to ad-lib all this stuff) insane.  And the end of our adventure was a huge fight with an anti-paladin that nearly slaughtered us in two turns (my friend was Fighter 50%, Explorer 50%, but remember I'm just Fighter 10% - even an on-level fight was a challenge for me).  Again I see his Investigation being fairly cheap to play, I had a character for it, but his combat more expensive because that wasn't the main purpose of either of us (adding us and dividing we had only a 30% Fighter Purpose, but say instead Interest.  We just weren't that interested in combat.  We were both Explorers though (40%), so some shadows to hide in, locks to pick, and traps to disarm would have been right up our alley).
    Class is a hint, but it just doesn't say enough for me about what the players want to do.  Though, admittedly, most games are designed for combat first and foremost, so there isn't as much rules variety as I'd like.  Still, I think it provides a useful starting point.

    Second (I'm afraid this is looking to be another long post, I will try to be brief without being incomplete), after your Purpose you need to look at your Tools.  This is the 'what you have' section.  A fighter's Purpose is, well, Fighter (one of the classes I do like because it does just what it says on the box).  How is he going to fight though?  Well, the typical fighter uses Weapons & Equipment.  The barbarian fighter uses Martial Arts (his rage power) and Weapons & Equipment.  The war-mage uses Pattern User (that's spellcaster).  Here is where, in my original post, I described my system of Hooks.  In literary-sort-of-speak a character's Hook is what makes them unique, draws the attention of the audience.  Somehow I appropriated that to mean 'what your character has' many years ago when I started working on my game and now I just can't give up the term.  Since Hooks start to get more specific, there are 10 of them, I'll summarize:

Extraordinary Abilities - you have some super-power, from running like Carl Lewis to leaping tall buildings
Martial Arts - you have mad skills, having trained your mind and body beyond most people
Pattern User - you can manipulate the Pattern, aka Reality, through 'magic'
Split Being - you are not quite human/whatever, like a werewolf or vampire
Allies & Influence - you have friends, from a gang to a corporation or army, that you work for or run
Cybernetic Implants - you have something added to your body, from a technological limb to a demon's wings
Weapons & Equipment - you use stuff, from short swords to ray-guns
Vehicles & Constructs - you have a vehicle or base
Fabrication & Harvesting - you can make your own stuff
Hacking/Cracking - you pown other people's stuff, from hacking their terminals to manipulating their magic or even minds

    Now, the thing about the Hooks is that they represent not only your strength, but also your kryptonite.  If you rely on your Weapons & Equipment, then what if you get disarmed?  Attacked in the middle of the night?  Have to swim for dear life?  If you are a Pattern User, what if someone sends nightmares to prevent you from getting a full night's sleep?  Throws itching powder on you to disrupt your spells?  If you keep adding the chrome with Cybernetic Implants, when do you start to lose your humanity, and how?  This takes your Purpose and starts to refine it, detailing what you can do, how you do it, and what you need to do it.  A mage with no spell slots is Purpose 0% in almost everything (okay, a bit of an exaggeration).  This helps us distinguish between characters nicely.  Lets take two Fighter 100% characters, one has Weapons & Equipment, the other has Allies & Influence as Hooks.  Well, the W&E character is independent, maybe a mercenary, while the A&I character was issued his weapons from the army he belongs to.  Or his super-secret-spy organization.  The first can go wherever he wants, but has to get by on his own wits.  The second gets ordered around, but likely has a friendly platoon somewhere nearby.  Likewise the Talker who is Extraordinary Abilities for her beauty is different from the Talker who has a Cybernetic Pheromone Implant.
    With our Hooks defined, we know what we need to act and the GM can see some fun ways to mess with us.  After all, the GM isn't the one driving the story, he's the one chortling with glee at the looks on everyone's faces when the rust monster shows up for lunch.

    Third, and I'm almost done, is the idea of how the character acts.  Are you charging that dragon for God and King, for the pile of loot it's sitting on, or because someone told you to?  This is the stuff of growth and development.  If, like Han Solo, you're only in it for the money - what happens when the farm boy you took a shine to goes off and the princess is in danger?  What, more importantly, does it say about your character, depending on how you react?  If you are a good soldier, always obeying, what happens when you get an order to commit an atrocity?  Again, this is a necessary part of defining your character, to help you role-play them (assuming you want to, maybe it's just Hulk Smash and let god sort 'em out).  I don't have a system here, yet, it's something I've been debating for a long time.  This is your character's reward system, being a good soldier is important to me/ I'm happy when I obey/ I like army life, and your challenge for growth all in one.  I'd call this section Psychology.  The closest game I've seen to this concept that I like is Fate.  In Fate you have Aspects, which are statements about your character, and they are both good and bad inherently.

    Let me try to make a few concrete examples to pull everything together.  Here are some sample characters (which I'm going to do tongue-firmly-in-cheek since this has been a rather dry dissertation so far):

Derf the Dwarven Fighter
Purpose:           Fighter 100% [attack +10]
Hooks:             Weapons & Equipment (axe and plate armor) [d8 damage, AC 16]
Psychology:     Gold, gold, gold, gold, gold

Bob the Befuddled Barbarian
Purpose:         Fighter 70%, Explorer 30% [attack +7, stealth +3]
Hooks:           Martial Arts (rage power), Weapons & Equipment (sword and manly loincloth)
                                 [d10 damage, AC 12, DR 2]
Psychology:    Crush his enemies and hear the lamentations of the women

Arky Sparky Boom-Boom Man (who is sadly a real character in my campaign)
Purpose:    Fighter 80%, Worker 20% [attack +8, craft +2]
Hooks:      Pattern User (arcane magic), Weapons & Equipment (longsword and chain),
                       Fabrication & Harvesting (magic item creation)
                  [10 spell slots, +2 any roll/slot spent, d8 damage, AC 14, can craft a
                       +2 one-shot item in-between every adventure]
Psychology:    Burn it all, burn baby burn - "Double Chaos Pulse!!!"

Snooty Halls the Private Investigator
Purpose:          Investigator 80%, Talker 20% [search +8, interrogate +2]
Hooks:             Extraordinary Abilities (geinus), Martial Arts (has studied everything)
                              [+2 to all mental-related tasks, can attempt any skill at 1/2 search level]
Psychology:    Solve the unsolvable, catch the uncatchable, prove I'm the greatest

Charley the Cop/Detective
Purpose:          Talker 50%, Investigator 40%, Fighter 10% [interrogate +5, search +4, attack +1]
Hooks:             Allies & Influence (police force) [requisitioned firearm d8 dmg, bullet-proof vest
                                 AC 14, can call for backup in d10 min]
Psychology:    Serve and protect, but stay alive doing it

    Is any of that terribly useful, I doubt it.  But I think it might help illustrate a little of what I'm trying to create.  Each character uses the base purposes, almost really like a traditional class, then gets modified by the Hooks and is driven by psychology.  And I think just the little three-line descriptions do a better job showing the character then the job title alone. This is a nice middle layer above me saying "I'm a Fighter Level 5" and the complex piece-by-piece description of, say, GURPS.

    Okay, let me wrap up.  And I'll go back to Talysman because I think we both want the same thing, and that got lost somewhere in my original explanation.  In his original post on classes he wrote:

Fighters can be recast as barbarians, gladiators, knights, and many other "classes", but it's really just a matter of changing the equipment and maybe adding some regional expertise or situational familiarity. Likewise, the Magic-User can be recast as a psychic, alchemist, druid, or many other "classes" just by changing the focus of the spell list and maybe the process of preparing and casting spells, without changing any of the class abilities.

    Well, that's kind of the same thing I was thinking (granted, his uses an existing system and mine requires making a new system - so apparently I'm crazier).  By using a solid base, in my case the 5 Purposes, and tying the core rules to them, you can then customize and skin your character by adding Hooks and Psychology.  I have a totally different terminology, but we're both looking at doing the same thing, a solid core that can flex to account for individual tastes.  So while he might be looking at the Fighter class, I'm just looking under the hood at Fighter 100%, Weapons & Equipment, Get Rich Quick.  And we both could tweak those definitions to suit several different character concepts.
    I also have to point out two things: first that none of this is revolutionary.  All classes have elements of purpose, hook, and psychology in them, either explicitly or implicitly.  My idea is to make it a little more explicit, and to re-organize things a bit.  Not a new thing as much as a change of presentation.  Also, I don't have a game that uses these concepts, not in the way I want/see in my head.  I can't point to something else out there and say, here, this is an example of what I'm thinking.  Many universal games like GURPS or Hero System have just the raw components, they haven't been categorized into Purpose or Hook.  Most class-based games mix the three together behind the scenes.  My own game I've been working on forever is something I hope will be written along these lines, but I'll admit it's a hard row to hoe.  It is a structural shift from traditional games, it seems to me, in some ways.
    And as my final word (for the moment) I have been playing Pathfinder for a while now and enjoying it.  I've played a lot of other games over the years and enjoyed them.  I don't want to suggest that any of them have been inferior, only that every game appeals to certain types of people by virtue of how it is structured.  Classes can be good, they can work great, and can lead to lots of fun times and happy memories.  They just rub me a little the wrong way so I feel the need to tinker with 'em.  Maybe someone else sees things the way I do, maybe I'm just a freak :)  But I am very grateful for the feedback and challenge to tidy up my own muddy thinking.  As always, you can leave your own thoughts below.

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