Some ways of handling character rules

Some people like class-based games, and others like skill-based games. Here’s a quick list of the variations I’ve found / come up with. I define a class / feats as the powerful things you get to do, while a skill is a side thing like basket-weaving or fire-starting.

Primary Color Classes
You have some basic classes that describe skill groups. One example is Fighter / Magic-User / Cleric / Thief. Players can mix classes to form “secondary colors” like the Conan-type Fighter / Thief or the Grey Mouser type Fighter / Thief / M-U. It helps a lot if players can level up each class separately because then you can do the above Grey Mouser as mostly Thief, with some Fighter, and a minor smattering of M-U.

If Primary Colors feel like only a couple class choices and the ability to mix them, try this list of classes.

Profusion of Classes
You have a buttload of classes because each class does a different thing. While the M-U above might have been able to cast all kinds of spells (except healing) and able to make all kinds of magic items, maybe you want an Alchemist who just does Transmutation spells and can make only Potion magic items and specifically Transmutation other magic items. You don’t need multiclassing, but it helps to cut down on the volume of classes. See selective multiclassing above.

Classes + Feats
Here classes are modified in some way by the player. The 2E D&D Player’s Option let you customize your class by swapping out class abilities. 3E D&D was a Profusion of Classes plus Feat selection. I count Prestige classes as regular classes here.

You can also have Classes + Delayed Feats. For example, in 1E D&D, an Assassin could learn special poison training after name level (9th). This gives him a mechanical bonus to using and making poisons. That sure sounds like a Feat. The cost is money and time. You could make up a list of feats available after name level to specialize high-level characters to make them cooler.

Just Feats
No classes. Everyone just picks feats to create a customized character. This is what my Game XYZ does.

No Classes Or Feats
Here we assume the characters are all mechanically the same in the important ways even though their skills may differ. This would be like playing 0-level men at arms in D&D, or else everyone restricted to the same class.

Classes Morph
Your Fighter, at a certain level, gets to choose whether to remain a Fighter or else switch to another class. They did this in the Rules Cyclopedia for BECMI D&D but it might be in earlier sets of those rules. A Fighter could become a Paladin at name level (9th) if he was Lawful I believe. This is cool because it does the same thing as level-titles from 1E D&D (I’m a Superhero! “Oooh”) but without the difficulty of coming up with 9 level titles per class and with some ambiguity in exact level.

I also saw this done in a Playstation game Vandal Hearts. Your archers could for example change into either flying dudes or just better archers at a certain level. It was done in 1E D&D with the Bard and the Thief-Acrobat in Unearthed Arcana. As a Thief you choose whether to switch to Acrobat or else remain a Thief at 6th level.

Following are the skill variations:

No Classes – Basic Skills
Here we have skills separated into task type, like GURPS. Your character doesn’t have a class. Effectively you create your own class by choosing skills. Skills do basic mechanical things.

Classes + Proficiencies
Here the skills are bolted on to the class system. Skill choice may be regulated by class. This is the standard 2E and 3E/3.5 D&D way of handling it.

Classes + Secondary Skills (Minor Class)
This is the 1E / optional 2E D&D way of handling skills: you get a secondary class that’s vaguely defined and gives few mechanical effects compared to the main class. An example might be a Fighter who is also a Sailor.

Some games don’t care about skills. They’re not important enough to write down except for roleplaying purposes. We assume adventurers know how to set up camp and make fires. We assume people are literate (or not!) depending on class.

Other games have skill lists, but a lot of skills are stupid and worthless. This is the 2E D&D proficiency system, Car Wars 2E, and Shadowrun 2E. Take D&D 2E: you need Swimming and Read/Write because otherwise you’ll suck. After that, Tumbling is completely awesome because you get a defensive option, unarmed attack roll bonus, and reduced falling damage. Or you could choose Juggling, which gives a chance to catch thrown weapons if you’re unarmed. Or you could choose Agriculture, which you’ll almost certainly never use and has no detailed mechanical benefit. My Car Wars examples are Bodybuilding, Driver, Gunner (Great) vs. Journalist etc. (Terrible). In Shadowrun you could spend the same number of points to become an expert at pistols, or an expert at playing the guitar. No, guitar-playing had no mechanical effect. Pistol-shooting could blow a dude’s eyeball out James Bond style.

Alternately, your Feats can include skill-like things but give important mechanical advantages to them. In Game XYZ I give people with Mining skill the ability to oversee other miners, act as multiple men when mining, and gain a combat bonus against Earth and Stone creatures. My goal is to make any Feat choice potentially worthwhile on an adventure even though the list has to include the types of things a non-adventurer might know.

Here is where Adventurer Conquerer King / ACKS comes in. From what I’ve heard, it’s a class-based game with feat-like choices restricted by class. Class is restricted by race, which along with a lot of other things make it feel like B/X D&D. I think that’s pretty groovy, and I’ll get my hands on a copy as soon as I can. I wonder if it will be the kind of thing I use straight (with new monsters and magic etc. of course, and things that I enjoy like squandering treasure = XP) or whether I’ll just use it as another print example for different character-rule structures.

Not described here is how you gain levels, whether you can add or remove classes, etc. That also modifies how the players percieve the game and their characters.

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