Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Class Struggles: What IS a Class Anyway?

For this week's Class Struggles I wanted to look into the idea of what a class is.

One of the things I remember the most about the gaming scene back in the mid 80s was the rallying against class/level based systems.  I can remember a fairly notorious article/editorial complaining about how classes don't represent real life.  The author as I recall lambasted the class system by asking people to describe what his "class" was.  He blaked at the idea of being called a "Bard".  Though to me it was obvious, he was only a 0-level human.  His "class" was human.

Dragon magazine would go on to produce 100s of classes. The OSR has followed in this same glorious tradition.  Even here I have dissected classes to point out that some with the same name are different (various Warlocks) and others with different names are largely the same.  If that is the case then it begs the question, "What is a Class?"

Broadly defined a class is a set of skills, powers and behaviors that a character will engage in or with.  I say "behaviors" since we expect a cleric to be different than a wizard or a fighter even though the cleric can have similar skills and powers.  But for the most part, we are talking skills.

In AD&D we later got a Proficiency system that was great and new for D&D but still behind games like Call of Cthulhu, Chill and GURPS. The evolution of this system appeared in AD&D2 and then later more robust skill system in D&D3.  In 3e, more so than any other edition before or since, the amount of skills and what skills you can or should take were central.  In fact one could say that "class" was only shorthand for the skill "Recipe".
This is the case with many point buy systems.  If in let's say Ghosts of Albion I want to play a "Wizard" I take levels in "Magic" and "Occult Library".   If I want to be a "witch" or a "runic caster" then I add the appropriate "Magical Tradition".

With the advent of 3e some games took this to the extreme.  True20 reduced the classes to three basic classes, Warrior, Expert and Adept, and gave them the ability to take different skills and powers each level.  Mutants & Masterminds took this one step further to have no-classes, only point-buy powers and skills per level.   At another extreme BESM d20 (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) reduced all the SRD classes down to their point-buy totals.  By the way, if you can get your hands on BESM d20 and are interested in how classes are made it is a good buy.   Course 3e also gave us some of the most flexible multiclassing rules ever in D&D; one of the places that 4e really took many steps backwards on.

Are classes a collection of skills or a collection of means to get the skills?  With skills, I am including things like "Turning Undead" or "Spells" or "Move Silently".

Going back to my Ghosts of Albion example.  I love Victorian Era games. I have played most of them and read the ones I have not played.  Give me a character from the Victorian era and I can replicate him or her in Ghosts fairly easily.  Isambard Kingdom Brunel, lots of Engineering and science, not a lot of social interaction. What is he in d20 Masque of the Red Death? Intellectual likely.  What about the 2nd Edition AD&D version?  Well, the only thing that really works is Tradesman.  A little unsatisfactory really.  Do we create an "Engineer" class?  Bring over the Gadgeteer from Amazing Adventures?  I think we begin to see the origins of the multitude of classes now.

Purists, and the central philosophy of games like S&W White Box and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, keep the classes limited.  I have discussed that here at length really; no need for a Witch, Warlock, Necromancer or whatever since those are all Magic-Users with different hats.

In general, the choice of classes needs to reflect the world the game is trying to emulate. Do I need to give Brunel a class? No, not if he is not going to be a PC.  If he is then I need to find a place for him in the game. That is to say what is it he will do.

So does a game need 3 or 4 classes or 100?

I think I am going to give this a try in my Second Campaign and open everything up. If there is a class in a book somewhere then it can be used in the game.  Knowing my group though I'll end up with a Slayer, a Bounty Hunter, a Thief and an Assassin.

1 comment:

Jonathan Linneman said...

Great post! Class variety is one of my favorite aspects of open gaming. At least half the fun of checking out any new book during the d20 boom (especially when a new genre was explored) was seeing what classes the authors decided on to "summarize" the setting.

And of course, classes usually bring levels along for the ride, and I've always had more fun thinking about how my character has become, say, a Level 3 Ranger than the less interesting (to me), "After the last adventure, my character gained a rank in tracking."