Sunday, November 15, 2015
Classes and Templates and Questions
I wrote a while ago about classes (here and here), and I never felt like I had really said what I wanted to on the subject. Some current thoughts have me revisiting the idea, so here goes another attempt to come up with something meaningful on the subject.
I first started role-playing with D&D, and core to it has been the concept of classes. I've played plenty of games since then, and overall I don't really like games that use the class system. Which was what I wanted to work out in my head with my last two posts on the subject. But recently I'm realizing something - in a way, I actually do like classes. For something that I overlooked before.
In my last posts I mentioned that I didn't like classes because I thought they conflated what a character did, what a character had, and why a character acted. My argument was not great, but I did have a point. There's another point I didn't bring up, and I'll illustrate it easily - Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and the Hero System. In the D&D 5th DMG there is a section on making a new class. It says, basically, look at the existing classes and make up something that seems to fit. Compare that to the Hero System where you have a giant list of powers (like "ranged killing attack" and "invisibility") that each have a point cost, and then there are lists of advantages and disadvantages that effect each power in a specific way and have a specific modifier to the cost of the power they modify. This is why I don't like most class-based systems - they are made up with no underlying structure. In the Hero System, with specific rules for how to build an ability (or power or weapon or spell, anything), you know what kinds of effects are considered by the game (or game designers) to be equivalent. So changing one ability for another is easy, swap same point cost for same point cost. But in most class-based systems the abilities were randomly created based on what "felt right" for that class and then playtested (worst way to test something, people can fix problems - make it a computer program, those are unforgiving of mistakes) and either approved or modified.
This is all subjective and leads to some weird results: in 5th edition the Barbarian can Rage at level 1. He basically gets 2 tries at every strength-related activity, does extra damage with melee weapons and takes 1/2 damage from all normal weapons for a minute (10 combat turns). He can do this 2 times per day (or long rest). Meanwhile the Bard, at level 1 as well, gets Inspiration. They can give one ally 1d6 that the ally can add to any roll, once, then it's lost. The Bard can do this his Cha modifier per long rest. How the hell are these equivalent? The Barbarian becomes a combat fiend, taking on enemies and surviving damage that should be impossible to take - and the Bard can kind of add a sort of benefit to one roll, though, granted to any roll not just combat (though it does have to be used within 10 min). The Barbarian's power can easily effect 2 rolls per turn (attack and defense) for 10 turns, so 20 rolls/effects, times 2 uses for 40 total rolls per rest - compared to the Bard's 1 effected roll, for about 3-5 rolls per rest total. Really? Am I the only one who thinks this is lop-sided?
And what happens when there is no visible structure, no limits on how much is too much; how is a GM supposed to be able to create a new class or modify an existing one? You end up where Pathfinder is, with a billion classes and abilities and feats and they form such a tangled mess that you can't objectively measure any of them.
Thing is, as much as I don't like that about class-based RPGs, that problem isn't really a problem of having a class. It's the problem of not having an explicit structure.
The Hero System's exposed structure allows you to make abilities. And if you create a bunch of abilities and package them together, now you have a template, and then if you spread out the acquisition of abilities over time, well, now you have a class. Because a class isn't about what you have, not really, it's about how you grow (essentially how you grew from being "class-less" to having a class and forward). It's a progression, a span of time, not a single moment or level.
That can be a very helpful thing. When you have to create all your own abilities from scratch, and keep making up new ones over time/growth, that's a lot of work. It's actually hard to be creative when anything is possible. A class simplifies things by making choices for you, and a well-designed class will make good choices and bundle together abilities that play well with each other and give you an effective role in the game. Also, the end-level abilities, that super-cool thing you can do, can become a reward to strive for in itself. A class gives you direction.
Thing is, like in the eternal "railroad vs sandbox" debate, too much direction can be as bad as too little. The trick is to find a happy medium. Here I think the archetypes in 5th edition and Pathfinder sort of touch on a very powerful concept. The thing about the traditional class is that it makes all the choices for you. You choose your class and after that everything is out of your hands. Or you choose an archetype to modify your class, and again after that choice you're on auto-pilot. My best example about why this is troublesome is when it comes to multiclassing. I really like the hybrids, like the fighter-wizard. Now, in early Pathfinder and D&D 3.x you had to take a whole level to multiclass. So you took, say, 3 levels of Fighter and then 1 level of Wizard, giving all the abilities of a Wizard, with the trade-off of those abilities being at a lower level than you should be at. Here's my problem though, I'm thinking of being a Fighter first, it was literally my first level, so I don't want to switch to being a Wizard - I want the Wizard abilities that compliment my being a fighter.
What I really want is to take only a sub-set of the Wizard. To be able to cast evocation spells so I can dish out elemental damage, or replace my bow/ ranged attack with spells. Or, maybe instead to take transmutation/ enchantment spells and be able to buff my attributes or polymorph into a more powerful form that still uses weapons (unless I'm an unarmed fighter in the first place). I don't want all the random stuff a Wizard can do, I want to make my Fighter side deeper and more versatile. Taking a whole level is stupid, it leaves you too weak for what you gain - since most of what you gain will not expand your core concept.
Which makes me think of a possible type of class progression. Let's say you want to be a "pure" class, like fighter or wizard. You gain proficiency in everything related to that class, so you can cast all spells or use all weapons. Let's take a page from 13th Age too, you also get a feat, a bonus to one of your abilities. So you can become a ranged or melee specialist as a fighter, a diviner or evoker as a wizard. Then, at level 2 or 3 your class asks you a question: do you want to gain another specialization, or do you want to gain a cross-class ability? If you "multiclass" then you get only one specific proficiency, so as a wizard you can add melee or ranged weapons (but not both), as a fighter you can add evocation or transmutation spells (again, not both or everything). Ideally these should either be from a list that is specifically helpful to your base class, or should explain how each can be useful to your base concept (always good when you ask questions to explain the reasons or consequences for that decision). This is a really cool class structure to me, a series of guided questions with the abilities built on an explicit framework. And as much as I like the Hero System, hopefully a framework that was as broad and flexible but maybe not so math-heavy.
Under the idea of "class as questions" you are not on a fixed path, so that every level 10 Fighter looks exactly the same, but you also are not doing a million random and prerequisite-dependant feats like in Pathfinder. Instead you're gaining abilities by asking yourself questions, and those questions are related to your class. Like, first of all, what do you want to do? Do you want to be the fighter, or the explorer, or the talker? Then you build on that first decision. For fighters, do you want to be melee or ranged? Offense or defense? And then you can grow over time. Do you want to add some arcane magic, or maybe some divine magic, to enhance your fighting abilities (after all fighter is "what you do," the weapons or spells is just "what you do it with")? Do you want to be the kensai, or "sword saint," and master a specific weapon? Do you fight solo or as part of a team?
All of these questions, layered one level at a time, builds your character under your control, based on your experiences playing the game. Not a path set in stone, but a journey of discovery.
That, I think, would be an awesome class system.