Wednesday, 4 July 2018

What We Learned In Class

haha, the title, it's a pun

I wrote before about designing the three basic classes for a particular game. Since being somewhat absorbed into the Graverobbers RPG, that project has been kinda shelved... I'll do something with it eventually.

Anyway, I'm currently muddling through character creation ideas for yet another project (I make a lot of games, ok?!), and I thought writing out some things I like about good class design would help me figure the direction I want to take with this, and how to go about it.

So here are some things that good class systems do.


"Story" can be a contentious term in game design but here I feel it's apposite. I really like the Crime system in Graverobbers. I like how they're "Crimes", I like how they give an idea of a character's "class" skills as well as background (5e's backgrounds are nice, but systems that combine those two elements just feel so much more streamlined). So, good class design should offer backstory elements, flavour, a character's place in the world of the game.

And that's valuable for another reason: by confirming things about the character's position in the game world, the game world is revealed to the player. A new player can have fun making their character, all while gleaning details about the expected setting and tone from the options given. In systems where you roll for stuff like this it's even more important to establish that fictional concept.

Having strong story flavour delivered through classes also stops that thing where people show up to games with a "character concept". That sometimes works better in narrative games, and even then not always or even often, but in challenge-based games like the ones we primarily focus on here, it's not a good foot to start on. Let the game tell you who you are, that way you're guaranteed to fit in - rather than whining about how the system can't deliver your winged assassin cat-man angel witch.

Oh, and I can't round off this section without at least mentioning Troika!, the game that aces this concept more than maybe any other I've read.


And while I'm tooting my own proverbial, another thing I appreciate about Graverobbers is how open a class is. In my first playtest a player rolled a Harlot - that already means a few different things to a few different people, but the guideline that a Crime is more about how society sees you than what you've actually done gave her leeway to adapt the meaning further.

Her character wasn't literally a prostitute, she was more a thief if anything, she just used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted. Add to that the fact that she rolled a 5 in her Sword stat, and the image of a femme fatale figure began to form.

While I don't mind systems that link stats to classes, like STR being important for fighters - I've made games like that! - I like the freedom offered by having a class or background be unaffected by the rest of who a character is mechanically. Those other things on the character sheet can then inform that character's relationship to the class, and result in more variation and personalised takes on a concept.

While we're on flexibility as a topic in general, I've been liking "builds" less and less - those systems where you get things by levelling up, choosing powers from a list as you get stronger. I'd much rather a class give me everything it has to offer at character creation, and let the rest develop through play.


Ugh. Hate that word. But it does something to us. Matt Colville mentioned in a video recently I think about how one of the strongest elements of game design - this is a man who's been in the industry for decades - is when players are offered a "tribe" to join: a team to root for, a tag to identify with.

Sure, we've talked about how good classes are flexible, but if anything that plays into the brand thing even more. You can get more people united under a banner if it's slightly vague what exactly that banner stands for. People pick Ranger in 5e for all sorts of reasons, but they all have that animal companion. Those guys over there with the owls and the wolves and the panthers - those are the Rangers. They like animals.

Also, buying in to a class because you like one aspect can cause you to eventually buy into that brand as a whole. Liking how something plays is a big step towards taking the flavour on board.

I think I've actually covered this bit in the game I'm working on, the one that prompted this post, but outside of character creation - slightly inspired by the Borderlands games and their many fictional weapons manufacturers. An element of it needs to be part of the characters themselves though. Hmm.


Ok, here's the thing, I don't really care about niche protection. I don't necessarily need a game to give me abilities that other classes don't get to feel special. I do want to feel powerful in at least some sense because of my class though - even in a game where all the characters are generally kinda crap at stuff and die a lot, like most of my games are.

I want a class to give me a Thing I can Do, even if it's just a Thing that other people can Do and I just Do it better. Sure, anyone with a lockpick can try to open that chest, but I'm the thief - leave it to me, guys.

This is maybe even more important in high-lethality games. When every dice roll can make things come tumbling down around you, being able to step forward and mitigate that risk for your friends with your character's particular proclivities is a big deal. Even if you're not using mechanics to do it: the feeling of payoff when you're the one cult-worshipping heathen on the squad and the GM tells you "oh, yeah, you can read those runes actually" is a nice one to have.


Well, those are the main things that come to mind at the time of writing. What do you look for in a game's classes?

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