Saturday, January 3, 2009

Thinking Way Too Hard About: Character Classes

Despite the similarities between RPGs and epic stories, there is a fundamental difference between them. Epic stories are, fundamentally, about one person: Conan is about Conan, Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker, Dune is about Paul Atreides. RPGs, on the other hand, are about groups of people, or parties. The limelight and the glory get spread around evenly in RPGs (at least ideally, when the DM knows what (s)he's doing and the players are at about the same level of roleplaying skill).

While Star Wars includes Han, Chewie, Leia, R2, and Threepio, the story is really about Luke. Luke is a good shot, a good pilot, and good with the Force. Similarly, Conan is good at all sorts of things. He's an accomplished thief, sailor, general, and king, and of course he can kick ass with any weapon, including his mighty fists.

If these characters were in an RPG, though, they would have to pick character classes, at which point they would choose which things they could be good at. If Luke wanted to be good at using the Force, he'd have to give up his amazing piloting skills. If Conan wanted to be able to take on ten sword-wielding barbarians at once, he would have to give up his stealthy thieving skills. So on, and so forth.

This is one of the reasons why it's so dangerous to think about an RPG storyline as an epic story. It's really not. Despite what R. A. Salvatore might have led you to believe, it takes more than a single ranger to make a good D&D party. This is purposeful, of course: it encourages the party to act as a team, with various team members contributing in various ways so that everybody is integral to the party's victory. If a cleric's player would otherwise fade into the background while the more showy players of the warrior and thief take the center stage and dominate the game, that cleric will at least have a moment in the sun when the party comes across a buch of skeletons, or an ancient curse, or at least when they take some bashes around the skull and need the cleric for some healing. The formula is well-known: the warrior soaks up damage, the cleric heals it, the wizard causes it, and the thief gets the party around traps and locks. Everyone has a role to play; everyone is guaranteed an area where they, and only they, can contribute.

Unfortunately, by making certain areas integral to certain classes, RPG designers have made those same areas off-limits to the other classes. Would you like to play a warrior who excels in shadowy assassinations just as much as open combat? Too bad. Would you like your (good-aligned) cleric to be as good at dealing damage as healing it? Suck it up. That's just not your area. I'm not saying that fighters can't put ranks into Stealth, or that clerics don't have spells that do damage. But why bother making a fighter marginally good at sneaking, at the expense of far more useful fighter-y skills, when a thief could excel at sneaking so much more easily?

I can understand the reasoning behind this, but my complaint is simple: it's not fun to suck. It's not fun to be a one-trick pony who fails at everything else. Luke Skywalker may not be Han Solo, but he's not such a bad pilot himself. He's also quite self-sufficient: he can fire a blaster, swing a lightsaber, use the Force, repair his X-Wing, do some fancy acrobatics, etc. For a Player Character, however, it's hard to feel badass knowing that you're only effective as part of a group. Sure, a thief could go out on his own and make Stealth checks to avoid dangers that would normally be overcome by the rest of the party... until he fails a Stealth check. At that point, he's too weak to stand and fight, so he can only run like hell. Similarly, a wizard could fling fireballs at every door, zap trap-filled rooms with lightning, and never let anything get close enough for his lack of armor and scrawniness to come into play... until he runs out of spells, when he has to run like hell.

Running like hell should never be a necessary part of a plan. Maybe Plan C, but definitely not the last step of Plan A.

One possible way around this is with multi-class characters. The rules for multi-class characters have become a lot more simplified in recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, so they do make a viable alternative. Unfortunately, multi-classing replaces the necessity of being a one-trick pony with being a two-half-trick pony. You can do two things marginally well, but only half as well as someone who specializes. Maybe this makes sense, so I shouldn't whine about it, but it seems like it should be a whole lot easier to be a decent wizard and a decent warrior than it is to be the greatest wizard or the greatest warrior in the land.

Which leads me to my suggestion. First, the way multiclassing currently works in D&D: Say you're a tenth-level wizard, and you decide to take a level of fighter. It takes just as much experience to get that first level of fighter as it would have to take an eleventh level of wizard. If you go on to get a second level of fighter, it costs as much as a twelfth level of wizard would have. Which is a lot.

So what I would suggest would be a system in which picking up a new class is much easier than advancing to extremely high levels of your existing classes. Maybe each new class you pick up should advance along a separate experience track, and each new one should cost twice as much to level up as it would have if it had been your starting class. So characters who take fighter as their second class pay twice as much to level it up, while characters who take it as their third pay four times as much, etc. This sounds expensive, but it would still be a whole lot less expensive than paying high-level experience costs for low-level classes.

Of course, if you're a low-level wizard who wants low-level fighter classes, my remedy above would end up costing you more than it otherwise would have. For this reason, it should be optional which route you take.

Obviously, I have never playtested this rule (or even thought it out very far), so it might make no sense at all. Feel free to point out any obvious glaring problems in the comments! See you next time!

1 comment:

Brian said...

Hmm, I like this idea. A super high level wizard shouldn't have THAT much difficulty learning some noob fighter tactics, unless they're totally clumsy or something. As a kid, I had my own pen and paper game where you had skills with types of things, like weapons or magic types, and your general talent and intelligence ratings determined how easy they were to build. Then again, over time my system became incredibly clunky and just playing through a single fight started taking too long as I simulated the hell out of every aspect.