Sunday 15 April 2018

Design Document: Three Basic Classes

Here's a little something about the game I'm working on. Specifically, how I approached class design, looking at the three "standard" classes: Warrior, Thief and Mage.

(I think there'll be one or two more posts in this vein for now, then we'll return to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming. Or maybe I'll start talking about another game! Who knows.)


Classes in this game are simple. At first, a class was just a single ability you got - like in Maze Rats or Songbirds. I expanded a bit on this concept, but didn't go far.

The basics of a class in this system are:
- a Stat requirement. You need a certain stat to have at least a positive modifier to take a class.
- Abilities. You get 3 - 2 passive and 1 active, that you activate by spending 1 HP. I talked a bit last post about how scarce and valuable HP is as a resource in this system; 1 HP is pretty significant.
- Starting items.

And that's it. The Stat requirement isn't a favourite feature of mine from other games or anything, but it makes sense in this system - you don't get new features or abilities as you level up. But your abilities are tied to your Stats, and so as they increase (every other level gets you a +1), your abilities become more potent by default.

The idea, as with much of this game, was keeping things minimal. Instead of introducing a new mechanic, have a mechanic that already exists power something else in the system.

(I try and do this as much as I can in games - it's just good design. Mario can run and jump, and that's it, but you're never bored or stuck for things to do in a Mario game. Jumping could mean over a pit, onto an enemy's head, to reach a platform or hit a box... permutations of a central mechanic, rather than new mechanics for no reason.)


The "fighter" class in this game is called the Knight. I could have just called it the Fighter, or the Warrior, but Knight invokes a particular image - that of a noble protector.

No class ability in this game is combat-specific. There are a few that are inherently useful in combat situations, but nothing powers up your attacks in that sense.

So, the Knight gets powers based on protection. Their AC can effectively go 1 higher than any other class - and in a game where the numbers are as tight as this one, +1 AC is massive. Their other passive is Expertise with several different weapons (Expertise gives advantage on rolls). It's pretty much an attack bonus, I suppose, but it also covers knowledge of weaponry and warfare, so it's not combat-specific. Again - nothing in the game is.

The Knight's active skill, the one that costs them 1 HP to use, negates all damage done to an ally from a single action. Falling into a spike trap? The Knight caught the scruff of your jacket and pulled you to safety, you take no damage. Dragon's breath? As you flinch and prepare to be burnt to charcoal, you feel a wave of heat but nothing more - you open your yes to see the Knight standing before you, shield raised, the flames streaming all around you but not touching you.

So, we have a character recognisable as an archetypal Knight. Trained with various weapons, well armoured and protective of both themselves and their friends. And we did it all without any abilities that only work in combat.


The rogue in D&D is second to only the Ranger in the way it has been forced and stuck into several different design corners by the game's long legacy. It's the dungeoneering class, a product of the game's own idiosyncracies. A rogue should be able to sneak around, to check for and disable traps, pick locks and climb walls, but also fight well and in a very particular way, and maybe assassinate people, oh, and be very charming and deceptive...

It's a lot more specific than the warrior archetype, that's for sure. For this game, I distilled the Shadow into one facet, one of the earliest aspects of its design - the sneaking.

A Shadow can roll any roll to hide or move unseen with advantage. That's huge. It's maybe the single most powerful passive ability in the game. Rolls in this game are like saving throws, not skill checks - you'd really rather not be making them at all. Flat advantage cements the Shadow as the party's master of stealth, in a game where character skill levels generally start out from average to appalling.

The other passive is Expertise with a light weapon - they need something to do other than hide. Their active ability is to double the bonus they get from their Stat when making the game's equivalent of DEX saves. If a +1 is huge, doubling a Stat is insane. At high levels, the Shadow can spend 1 HP to just straight up Not Fail - the bonus alone would go above the threshold for instant success without a die being rolled at all. Plus, this doubling can be done retroactively, so the player has the option to "fix" an unlucky roll.

Sneaky, backstabby. Done. All the other stuff is up to the player.


I don't like spell slots, or the way magic works in old-school games in general. I didn't grow up reading Vance, I didn't grow up playing D&D, so I have no nostalgia or love for the concept. The magic systems I'm familiar with involve something simple like Mana Points or just Doing The Magic, not waking up and preparing spells from spells you know but forgot but now you know them again except not really and you can't use this spell but you can use that one but it would mean you can't do any more of the other one until... the next day? What?

I get that it works, kind of, in a game mechanic way. It's just far too long a walk for what should be a short drink of water.

The Witch class is a gardener - their passives are knowledge of plants and fungi, and general plant-y abilities, including meditating to find food, light and/or water. Their active is their "proper" spellcasting, which instantly summons a full-grown plant.

D&D spells are great. Grease, Rope Trick, Speak with Dead... their inherent use is obvious, and their potential use so varied that a creative magic user always has some bonkers but surprisingly relevant trick up their sleeve. They're one of the best things about OSR gaming.

They can also all easily be plants. The Witch starts out able to grow trees and vines (ropes! cages! bridges! shields! growing a tree straight up into a guy and killing him outright!), and they can also study a plant for an hour to learn how to grow that one too. This allows for one concept of D&D spellcasting that I like quite a bit - copying things into your spellbook - but also lets the player take matters into their own hands a bit more, rather than waiting for the GM to throw them a bone with a scroll in a treasure chest or That One Book in a whole library.

And if the GM does want to throw them a bone: carnivorous plants, ones that put you to sleep if you smell them, ones with leaves big and buoyant enough to be rafts, ones that let you speak to ghosts if you shave the root and chew it betwixt your back teeth while standing in moonlight...

And so, we have a caster as versatile as a wizard, with a spellcasting system that can be explained in a sentence rather than half a core rulebook.


Job done.

There are other classes in the game - 9 total so far - and the others get weirder. I just thought that covering the bases people expect of a fantasy adventure game would be wise, and I want those bases covered as much as the next guy too.

Next week... I dunno. Something.

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