Classes, skills, or descriptors: which sucks less?

Who is your character? The definition can be whatever you want in your head and how you play, but for purposes of the game rules we need something stricter. A few possibilities that I’ve considered for Game XYZ:

Class-based systems assume that you have a bunch of related skills. Example: I want to play a sneak-thief and burglar. So I pick the Thief class. Thieves are good at Sneaking, Pickpocketing, Traps and Locks, and Athletics.

Skill-based systems detail each skill. Example: I want to play a sneak-thief and burglar. So I pick the skills Sneaking, Pickpocketing, Traps and Locks, and Athletics.

Descriptor-based systems assume everyone has various skills but you are really good at the things described. Example: I want to play a sneak-thief and burglar. I choose the descriptors Quiet As A Mouse, Safecracker, and Nimble Athlete.

Now I want to tear down each of them a little, because there are things wrong with each.

Classes

Classes are easy to use, because there are few choices for the player to make, and packages are convenient. But they don’t allow for slight variation. In D&D you can have a Fighter who is tough in melee, or a Thief who is sneaky, but in order to be a sneaky tough guy you need to either combine the classes (Fighter/Thief), or create a whole new class.

Creating another class to solve a mix is a bad road to start on. If you have 7 plus or minus 2 class options already, you could be looking at several dozen classes by the time you finish all the viable permutations. That’s a confusing pile of rules that you don’t need.

Multi-classing, or combining classes, does virtually the same job.

A secondary fault of class systems is that they don’t take change of life into account. What happens when your Fighter/Thief gets recruited into the church and becomes a Cleric? Even simple rules added on become very messy.

A tertiary fault is that all your class abilities improve equally. If you’re a Fighter using an axe all the time, when you improve you get better at using your axe but you also get better at using a bow and a catapult. This is both problematic and beneficial: you can look at a 5th level Fighter and immediately know how good he is at a variety of tasks.

Skills

A skill system circumvents many problems of the class system, but introduces the problem of too many player choices. I’m assuming a skill system with plenty of well-defined skills that can be improved incrementally as you go.

Descriptors

Descriptors can be great in a loose game where players aren’t trying to strive against each other or the rules. Simply put, a vague descriptor is more powerful than a specific one. Compare the likely successes of two characters: one is an “Expert Interrogator” and the other is “Awesome at Communicating”. Because the descriptors use natural language, it’s difficult to assign less value to the former and more to the latter.

To Conclude
I’ve waved away descriptors as a possibility for Game XYZ. Too loose for my taste. Some may prefer them.

In one draft I had done away with classes and defined 40 skills for a medieval setting. Example: Outdoorsman skill covered Fire-Building, Shelter, Water-Finding, Navigation, Weather Sense, and Signaling; Ranger skill covered Hunting, Fishing, Foraging, Trapping, Tracking. The Outdoorsman skill was a Boy Scout, the Ranger skill was a Hardboiled Survivalist.

You would find yourself useful in a variety of ways within that skill’s sphere. In effect, in combining related skills I created 40 classes with absolutely loose multiclassing. It covered so many activities: you could play anything from a sailor who was a retired pit fighter and safecracker, to a farmer-turned-fur trader who later assisted a merchant and worked at a racetrack at night.

It was a bit too much to keep track of. Sure it was lovely and organic and fulfilled almost every goal but it failed to be as simple as possible. I might return to the system later as it was actually quite good. Extensible as well: add a Gunfighting skill and you’ve got a western. Tack on Driving, Pilot, and Mechanic and you’ve got a pulp action game. Add Computers and Electronics and you’ve got a modern game. There are limits of course. It isn’t strictly genre-neutral, but it can manage a lot.

Where I’m at now is a return to classes. There are five, plus NPC specialists (which are a type of descriptor I suppose, they’re not individually defined). You can multiclass: for example, Fighter/Magic-User, or Ranger/Sailor/Merchant (Sailor and Merchant being noncombative NPC classes). Most PCs will be of some standard adventurer skill sets. If I get a player who wants to be a Thief/Archaeologist, it’s already in there.

So how do I reconcile my complaints about classes? First, multiclassing is clean and simple, so slight character variations are easy to incorporate. The NPC classes add a dash of harmless descriptor to the mix, gaining the flexibility of natural-language rules without ruining the game.

Second, if I can’t work out a clean rule for change-of-life, it won’t wreck things. Players only occasionally do this anyway. The main concern is preventing people from taking the best of all worlds through class-juggling. I’m noodling around for an easy way to add or drop a class without mucking everything up. A multiclass character ends up more versatile but about one level lower until 10th. After that the single-class characters pull ahead farther and farther, and playing a multiclass character is less desirable.

I could honestly go either way as a player or as a DM. But as someone trying to help you learn to play the game, classes cannot be beat. If you want more crunch, the 40-skill system would be better. But it’s less like D&D. I’m still on the fence.

TL;DR
Assuming someone comments someday, would you rather play a character that has:

  • Some of a list of 40 broad skills that improve individually as you go, or
  • One to three broad classes of skills that all improve at the same time?
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