Monday, September 6, 2010

Class Warfare or Why I Hate Class/Level Systems

Pass me a fresh character sheet.

I guess I don't really hate class/level systems per se, I just feel like I've, I don't know, outgrown them. See, it seems the older I get, the more inclined I am toward more open ended, customizable gaming experiences. More specifically, what I like is to be able to build characters that meet my character concept without being limited by another game designer's ideas as to what makes a character. I dislike being told what skills or abilities I can or cannot take just because someone thinks that a fighter/warrior/soldier/whatever should have to pay extra for the ability to, say, read.

Like many gamers of my generation, I started out with Red Box D&D. This was as basic as it could be, with broad stereotypes that were easily groked by even the meanest understanding. You're a fighter, you swing a big-ass sword. You're a cleric, you're a walking band-aid. You're a dwarf (this was back in the day when demi-humans were character classes, not races), you have a beard and live in a hole. This was fine when I was twelve, but as I got  more and more into gaming I wanted more detail and more control. Eventually I started in on AD&D, which allowed a greater amount of customization, introduced skills, and had neato green and white character sheets you could buy by the bookful. Eventually, even this got tedious and I started looking about for more customization and more freedom.

I dabbled in all sorts of systems over the years, and came eventually to the character point style systems. Games like Vampire (and all the WoD games) and Shadowrun used a more archetype driven character model. They used archetypes (Street Samurai, Brujah, etc.) to give players an idea of what the character should be like, then allowed the player to imagine that archetype however they saw fit. Sadly, even with the freedom of archetypes there was still that game designer looking over your shoulder telling you how to make your character. White Wolf's system was a great example of this. It had a ton of wiggle room but was still tied to "classes" in the form of the Clans. This wasn't terrible, since even within the Clans you could pretty much build your own unique character as opposed to what Mark Rein-Hagen thought made a Toreador or Tremere.

What these systems did have, which was something I immediately glommed on to, was the ability to micro-manage your character development by allotting XP to skills and abilities that you wanted to improve. This was truly revolutionary game design to a young man more used to D&D and Palladium with its atrocious and counter-intuitive skill system and its rigid, poorly designed character classes that often didn't have the actual skills you needed to play (a robot pilot who can't pilot robots because he doesn't have the requisite skill in his "OCC" skill list? Great job).

Eventually I moved farther afield into the wild hinterlands of indie games, past the archetype games like Shadowrun and Vampire to a place where there were no character classes. Where I was going, we didn't need character sheets. Here in this glorious neverland I could gin up a character based solely on an idea and a handful of character creation points. My character in our BSG game was built like this. No rules, no class abilities, just an idea, a decent grasp of the rules, and some character points. Hell, for a mainstream game even Shadowrun 3rd edition, especially when using BeCKS to create characters, allows for an amazing amount of customization. When I sat down to make my Harn character my idea was, "Disgraced knight, Legion veteran, Siege Engineer", and BeCKS allowed me to make exactly what I was looking for.

I'm not saying this is for everyone. Making characters this way, without guidance and based solely on ideas, is pretty much graduate level gaming. Class/level systems certainly still have their place. They're simple, easy to grasp, and allow a player to more quickly grasp the concept of the character. For my money though, I'd rather design my own character than have one designed for me and a million of my closest gaming buddies by some game designer out in Seattle who doesn't know me from Adam.


A.L. said...

I'm curious how you feel about the more hybrid systems like L5R where characters pick a Clan/School that gives them a starting point, but aside from that are pretty free to go where they want in terms of character build.

Or Dark Heresy where you choose a class, but are free to build within the class, and take Elite Advances for other things.

Do you think they do a good job striking a middle ground? Or like them (if you do) more for their feel of old school gaming and nostalgia more than anything?

Jason Marker said...

I don't have any experience with the L5R system, but I like how the Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader/Deathwatch system works. It is a good hybrid of the two. The "classes" are distinct, but broad enough to allow for a lot of variance within them. One Void-master is not like another, as it were.

Thaumiel Nerub said...

Well, in Vampire: the Masquerade clans are just what blood you have in your vein. They tell more what disciplines you naturally learn (at character creation) and what is your weakness.

I've had business man Brujah in a suit, they all not drive with motorcycle wearing leather jackets. I've had artist Ventrue, Nosferatu poet etc.

It gets more interesting when you twist those archtypes.

Brujah are not bikers even if the illustration shows it. They are tempered and aggressive either physically or socially.

Sam said...

After having played some Shadowrun (and Vamp/Werewolf, back in the day—I think I'm old enough to say that non-ironically) I definitely find the freeform character creation settings a lot of fun.

There are a couple caveats I'd add from personal opinion. One is that I don't like a system that takes too long to make a character. I find Shadowrun on the upper end of that scale. I loved it, but anything more complex, and I think I'd tap out (sorry, HERO system!).

The only other thing is that the more free-form a system is, the more it seems to require a good, open communication between all the players and the GM, so everyone knows what to except and you don't get any "wait, you can do what?" situations. Of course, that's probably good for any game, right?

Jason Marker said...

Indeed. I don't mind character creation taking a while since I'm a detail oriented pedantic mouthbreather. As for the open communication, I agree. With the free-form type of games it's imperative that there is good communication between players and GM. And you're right, that's good for any game.

Levi said...

The simplicity of class/level base systems is nice. Unfortunately I haven’t really seen any that are all that great. Palladium was on the right track with skill packages in Ninjas and Super Spies and professions in the second addition of Beyond the Supernatural, but otherwise it is just another class based mess. Dual classing and prestige classes in D20 systems are kind of cool and can grant some flexibility, but also fall short. Some type of class/profession/skill package hybrid might work. I think that would still get too complicated and at that point you might as well move on to a point based system.

Point systems are great in theory, but tend to be complicated and cumbersome. I like the end results though. I played them a lot. I did like how character creation and progression work in White Wolfs system. It is pretty simple and has decent flexibility. I still have a hard time putting together characters that meet my concepts though. The Shadow Run system was cool too, but a bit overwhelming. I think with some more experience with the system I could build characters to my concepts.

Maybe in the near future I’ll be able to jump into another game that uses a point system so I can get more familiar with them.