Monday, May 24, 2004

Classes, Skills, Lifepaths

posted by Andrew B. Watt

A remark here a short while ago, noting how role-playing games have evolved from war-game simulations, and from the desires of old-school grognards to play out the lives of their units' officers, touches upon my thoughts regarding class vs. skill-based characters.

D&D, of course, introduced the class-based system, where a fighter was good with weapons, a magic-user made use of a spellbook, and a cleric lifted her holy symbol. Vampire, with its storyteller system, was the first game that I'd ever encountered that didn't have classes, but rather had skills into which you could put starting points to get good at various tasks. I think my gaming groups in college all thought of Brujahs, Toreadors, Nosferatu and so on as being 'like' classes, defining to some degree who we were, in the same way that being a fighter simply meant that you were a knight in shining armor or a duellist, but not a thief or a magic-user. Indeed, my friend Chris W, who took to Vampire like a drowning man to a floating ring, being a Brujah meant wearing his leather jacket to a game, while being a Toreador meant wearing his black 'poet shirt', and being a Nosferatu meant hunching over and speaking with a strange accent. The clothes he wore helped define his 'class' -- rebel, artistic poseur, skanky sewer trash. My brief foray into Palladium's game system with Talis was a weird mixture of class and skill based systems -- I was a mecha pilot, but there were some other things I could do because I'd put points into certain skills.

Sometime around then, I remember a certain type of game became popular at school called a Rosenberg Game, in which people were expected to play themselves in a game. This became complicated when the game in question was Shadowrun -- certain people objected to metamorphizing into trolls rather than elves, some thought they should be shamans rather than mages, some thought they should be deckers rather than techies, and it became clear that a narrow and limited set of classes didn't really fit the human beings. It was fine, in a sense, when we ourselves chose to be a fighter or a troll -- it was not OK for someone else to give us a classed character the way they perceived us.

Yet the problem also showed up in a Champions-based superhero game, where some terrorist set off a genebomb on campus, and all of us mutated into superheroes. Now we were supposed to go out and fight crime -- in Hartford, all places. Of course we all wanted research and streetwise and intimidation and all these relevant skills. In point of fact, most of our real-life skills, like English literature, or ancient and medieval philosophy, or even Computer Repair, were really quite useless in the context of putting the smackdown on evildoers.

D20 Modern seems to resolve some of these class vs. skill problems by having generic types of classes -- strong hero, agile hero, charismatic hero, wise hero, and so on. Indeed, many games seem now to have a hybrid system, allowing a player to pick first an archetype of some sort, and then choose skills first from a featured list and then from a wider selection. Yet this tends to diminish the role in gaming that professions have in our society -- you wouldn't ask an interior decorator to build Hoover Dam any more that you would ask a civil engineer to teach Shakespeare. We do specialize, as human beings.

Is there a way to 'grow' a character more organically? Cyberpunk used to have a Lifepath, and Traveller had something similar, which allowed a PC to develop year by year. Older characters were more experienced, more skilled, but weaker in some ways. Younger PCs had more energy and vigor, but less experience and less skills. A PC could unlock a door and say something like, "just a little skill I picked up in the army." But what if that character said, "just a little something I picked up in seminary"?

Ideally, PCs are trouble magnets. Do trouble magnets come in specifically defined archetypes, as class-based systems would suggest? Or do they come as a result of having certain skill sets that make them useful as trouble-shooters and problem solvers?