Monday, April 29, 2013

The Character Class Conundrum and the Axes of Awesome

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about character classes in RPGs. Classes are useful, in that they help to codify archetypes, and those archetypes help to provide conceptual cues related to game genre, power relationships among different classes, and so forth. They are, in effect, shorthand ways to speak of the applied, practical power of any particular character. They are the character's capabilities in short form.

So, if you've got a cleric, you know his powers derive from a relationhip to the Divine, however it might be conceived. Maybe it's a set of magical capabilities (spells) or the power of faith (turning undead). It's also about the characters relationship to combat. A cleric gets armor, or example (a wizard does not), but does not fulfill "fighting man" in the same way as a straight fighter. The paladin, of course, is the bridge between them, and a bullshit class in my opinion, but that's a fight for another day.

Then you have thieves. Thieves wear light armor, creep around stealing and backstabbing and doing all kinds of special thief stuff. They advance in their thievery and get better at it. They can also do some other things well, but the thing that makes a thief a thief is his or her unique skillset. And they're fun to play, so there's that as well.

Here's the thing though. Outside of the fighter and the wizard, the rest of the character classes are kind of bullshit. Wait! Hear me out!

When we think about the power of characters, part of what we're trying to say is, how does this guy (or girl) put a hurtin' on the bad guys? Only the fighter and wizard are purely what they are, simply by doing what they do. The fighter hits things until they die, and the wizard zaps them with arcane energies to do Bad Things to them. A cleric, well, that's sort of a fighterish, wizardlike, hyper-religious dude who hates skeletons (like a lot). A thief? Well that's sort of a fighter who attacks from hiding really well, and has some tinkering skills. Oh, and after a while the thief can use scrolls. Pretty cool, huh?

Here's the thing about clerics and thieves, though. Who freakin' needs 'em? I can do the same thing with just two classes, provided that character generation and development framework provides me with a way to do it. Games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Stars Without Number, for example, have specialists and experts to take the place of thieves, and provide a skill-driven conception of that character class. It makes them more flexible. Some systems don't have clerics, but instead have wizards who do healing magic.

Here's what I'd like to consider: All characters could conceivably be derived from the fighter or the wizard classes. From there, we can put them into a triaxial system to vary from the purity of those two archetypes.

The first axis is a continuum of power effects, from brute physicality to arcane magic. This represents how the character does big things in the world, how he or she kills the baddies (among other things). Very few characters would be purely one or the other, but doing so should allow him or her to enjoy benefits for doing one thing really, really well.

Add in a second axis where the continuum goes from Specialized to Eclectic. This represents how the character focuses his or her skills. At the specialized end, the Archetype is very pure; at the eclectic end, it is muddied by other influences. So, a player could have a wizard who specializes in arcane magic, but also is a scholar of relgion, has some tinkering skills, is excellent and interaction with NPCs, and you have the makings of a wizard with a healthy dash of the rogue in him. That's a playable character. At the specialized end, the character gets what goes with the wizard/fighter archetype, in terms of fulfilling each of those archetypes it the expected ways. He or she would be able to do things that less specialized characters could not, but would sacrifice the flexibility less specialized characters could do. For example, a specialized wizard might be able to keep spells after casting them, or learn more of them and at higher levels, or get Read Magic and Dispel Magic more or less as a freebie. There are a lot of ways you might approach that. I'm just spitballing some ideas here.

Finally, the third axis has to do with the characters relationship to the Divine, Spirit, the Winds of Magick, or the influence of the Hidden Realm, or whatever else you want to call it. At one end you have the Realist. This sort of character has no truck with gods, demons or other such creatures. Perhaps the character doesn't believe in them, perhaps he or she doesn't trust them. It literally doesn't matter why. As a result, perhaps the character is resistant to the effects associated with such things (effect: enhanced saving throws versus magic), or something of that nature. However, that character would never have a chance to get bailed out by those things without a significant life change. At the end of alignment with such powers, he or she is able to draw upon them in significant ways, but also is subject to the whims of whatever fates govern them. The end of the spectrum, I'll call the Idealist. So, I am in touch with the Winds of Magic. This gives my magic-attuned character the ability to detect such forces, or to more easily modulate them, or whatever. It also makes it more likely that he or she will get corrupted by chaos energies and grow tentacles, for example.

I think that there are a variety of games that take a very open approach to doing these things (SFX! and FATE are some good example systems for that kind of open approach). What I'm attempting to do here is to stay more constrained and limited to the fantasy roots of my original example. That said, there's no reason this couldn't open up into other genres, or that it wouldn't be a good way to mix up genres.

Anyway, there's a basic framework. Three axes related to Force, Skills, and Hidden Powers. Sometime soon, I'd like to develop mechanics for creation and development. In doing so, I'd like to avoid as much as possible the min/max problem. I'd also like to allow for further development of the character based on what happens in game play (i.e., development based on play, not plan). You start with a certain cluster of capabilties. Those can change over time. They can also develop and become more powerful.