Thoughts on Character Classes and Skills

Fighter, Wizard, Thief, Priest. These, of course, represent the “core” character classes found across the spectrum of many FRPGs, and has been a staple since very early on in the hobby. Not everyone agrees with these choices, of course. James Maliszewski is famed far and wide for his low opinion of the thief class, and I myself have questioned the inclusion of the cleric/priest as an archetype. Some games add more, some few trim down the list, still others expand them greatly through sub-classes, prestige classes, kits, etc.

There is another school of thought that says that classes as a concept are flawed and limiting. These are the designers who give us systems built on skills, or skill bundles. By careful choice, using such rules, one is able to come up with the precise “character concept” that one desires, whether it be a demon-summoning swordsman or a wizard who’s a gourmet chef and wields a pair of pistol-crossbows. Some systems attempt to split the baby by having both classes and skills.

I make no claim as to one method being more “old school” than the other; the one was used by A/D&D for many years, and the other was used at least as early as the first edition of RuneQuest, and I for one would be the last person to question the old-school “chops” of RQ. I think it ultimately boils down to personal preference.

As the skill system was introduced as a reaction to the class system (by the nature of the timeline of development of RPGs), it stands to reason to discuss why character classes were considered the standard in the first place. Coming from the world of miniatures wargaming, a “wizard” or “hero” was just another unit type. A single figure represented only a single individual, but that individual was worth the same as a squad of normal soldiers, or had special abilities akin to a catapult or cannon. An “arch-mage” or “super-hero” was merely one such special unit writ large (thence the notion of level advancement, but I anticipate myself).

When the Great Leap Forward came, and players took on those single characters as their own, it made sense that they would not want to play one of the “grunts”, but rather one of the special types. This makes sense on a practical level as well; stick a sword in a grunt, and he dies. Stick a sword in a super-hero-type, and he has at least a chance of surviving. Long-term character survival makes for more enjoyable games, as it reduces the need to play a new character every one or two games just because an orc rolled a hit with an arrow.

Not wanting to get all Joe Campbell-esque, I should point out that three of the four archetypes named at the beginning of this post are to be found in Tolkien. They cover the three bases by which most games describe the abilities of any character; physicality, mentality, and nimbleness, thus covering in a broad sense most of the threats they are likely to encounter in the game. (These are, by design and necessity, generalizations of course.) I am halfway tempted to add bard as an archetype, and pursuasiveness as a fundamental base, but I resist for a variety of reasons, chief of which will be touched on below.

In a very real sense, character classes represent a intentional break on the creativity and boundary-pushing of the player, allowing the designer to build in implicit limitations and assumptions about the campaign setting by limiting such choices. In a campaign loosely based on medieval Europe, for instance, allowing players to choose to play a Japanese Ninja or an Aztec Jaguar Warrior might prove problematical. (Of course some settings are deliberately “wild and woolly” in such regards, but that’s a little beyond the scope of this post

A skill-based system, on the other hand, is a bit harder for the designer to “reign in” the creative impulses of the player. Much more scrutiny is required on the part of the game master, who is placed in the position of at least having a cursory examination of all the characters’ chosen skills so that nothing potentially setting-bending is within. And this need not be intentional on the part of the player, or even an example of min/maxing; it’s impossible to fully explain all of the implications of any setting at the time of character creation, thus leading to inadvertently inappropriate choices of skills. For example, if I have a vaguely Polynesian-based setting where short island-hopping is the norm, a character taking Oceanic Navigation is going to throw a monkey-wrench into the works if long cross-ocean trips are the purview of chiefs and the sons of chiefs and I didn’t happen to mention it (or did, and the player took the skill anyway).

The concept of skill-bundles is an interesting one, and represents a sort of cross between the two concepts. That is, skills aren’t taken a la carte, but rather in, well, bundles of related skills. A warrior-type might take a skill bundle including swordsmanship, archery, forced marching, and mounted combat. A wizard-type might take a skill bundle including ancient languages, basic alchemy, and thaumaturgy. And so forth. That gives some control to the game designer, who can craft the skill bundles into appropriate groupings, while giving some more flexibility to the players, who could choose several skill bundles to create their character

I confess I find the concept of specific skills limiting in another way, however. By defining every single skill a character possesses, everything that is not permitted becomes forbidden. For example, I might have a thief character who grew up in a lakefront community. But unless I specifically take the swimming skill, I can’t swim. Compare this to the situation in a class-based game, where that same character might either a) reasonably be assumed to be able to swim based on his background or, b) at least be given the chance to have such knowledge by the game master. But where swimming is a skill that must be deliberately chosen, it can’t just be assumed.

There is another qualm I have about over-statisticating* character abilities. That is the elimination or restriction of actual player actions. This has been a tension inherent in the very concept of “charisma” as an attribute in A/D&D since the beginning. If my character has a charisma of 17, and I’m trying to convince the bandit chief to let me and my party go, how does the game master adjudicate my success? Do I just roll a die based on my statistic? Do we role-play out the situation, and if I as a player am convincing, we go free? Is it perhaps a mix of the two, with the game master either rolling with a modifier based on my performance, or being more lenient with my hemming and hawing because my character has a high charisma? I use charisma as an example, but the principle applies to skills as well as statistics. If I, as a player, know enough about sailing to build a raft, should my character be denied that same knowledge? Is that meta-gaming, or common knowledge? In a game with skills, it’s meta-gaming. In a game without them, where secondary knowledge is either assumed or left to common sense, it becomes more murky.

* I’m quite sure that’s not a real word. Well, it is now.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Character Classes and Skills

  1. Good overview of the topic. These days, I tend to come down on the class or “skill bundle” side for a few reasons.

    (1) I’ve come to see classes as very broad skills. This means that—in play—I don’t treat them as restrictive as I used to. e.g. “Fighter” means that the character is trained in all the skills a warrior in his society is normally trained in.

    (2) As you touched on above, I tended to find—in practice—that skill-based systems were actually more limiting than class-based systems. (Even when I played classes are fairly limiting.)

    (3) When I made the jump from AD&D to GURPS, the primary concern during character creation was to not “step on another PC’s toes”. For this reason, we each tended to specialize in a particular area. The end result? Each campaign we effectively reinvented classes the hard way. The “craft exactly the PC you want” that attracted us didn’t exactly pay off.

    That said, those “arguments” are pretty weak. They are based on how I and my friends have practiced more than on any real strengths or weaknesses of the mechanics, I think. The broader end of the continuum is, however, what works best for me right now.

  2. Great post! When creating PCs for a skill-based system, I also tend to recreated some class or other concept. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just means that I'll be able to craft the version of the class I really want. A stealthy warrior? No problem. Think of it as selective multi-classing. You can take some skills that would normally be taken by another class and incorporate them in you concept. Yes, this method can lead to abuses. But normally, a player designing a character with everything will be bad at everything.

    Of course, as it's been stated before, skill-based mechanics are limiting in a way that your character only knows what the sheet says he knows. Class based systems (systems without skills, that is) let the players and gamemaster decide what could be accomplished by a character just by looking at it's background. I don't think there's a way around this. Skill-based characters should be built with care in order to reflect their concept and background.

  3. One benefit of a class system is faster character generation with less risk of creating a sub-optimal character. Some audiences just do not want to invest the time in becoming rules experts, and then invest more time in creating a workable character.

    You might view it as two axis. One is the core skills. Martial combat and ability to cast spells are examples of core skills. To one side they are bundled in class groups; on the other side of the continuum they are open to full choice. The other axis is the non-core skills. Animal husbandry and sailing are examples of non-core skills. One one side of the axis the skills would be chosen and if you do not have a skill you do not know how to use it effectively. The other side of that continuum is the vaguer if you can convince the game master that it makes sense you could do it, you can do it.

    It is an imperfect model for sure. The first problem is determining what is and is not core from those skills that could go either way. The next problem is where do you cut off the entire skill list before it gets unmanageable. It is an excercise that might yield some interesting discussions. (but don't they all)

    I have struggled with the Charisma question for more years than I care to reveal. Since I am not designing a game to publish my personal resolution of that dilema is simple and yet purposely vague. I generally do not penalize good role playing. Now that said, if a character has a 6 Charisma (I have one of those!) I will make it more difficult to be successful and remind the party of who they are letting do the talking. That aside, I will let them role play the Charisma event. If they do a competant job or better, I am likely to give them success without a roll. If they fail in the role play attempt, assuming they do not do something foolish (like tell the king how much they lust after the wench at the pond who just happens to be his daughter), I will give them a shot at the Charisma roll.

    That may be hard for a novice game master to handle.

  4. Great post that covers a LOT of ground. Setting the foundations for the new blogsite well.

    I've played a number of RPGs, but not D&D, and have always looked in from the outside, wondering how the strange half-fossilised monolith of a system managed to do so well.

    I started with Rolemaster, and although the 1st edition did quite well with both professions and the ease/difficulty of gaining appropriate skills within those, it was clear that the professions matched a certain 'idea' for the game – mages have x skills and are better at y – your hypothetical Polynesian setting would not have worked well with it. But I could play a dual crossbow wielding shokunin sorcerer if I wanted. Flexibility is one of the fundamentals of the system. The current system is slow, overly complicated and at the stage of not-fun. Too much emphasis on skills.

    I played 1st Ed Legend of the Five Rings, which was a blast, except that I ended up playing the same character each time just because of the way I perceived the skills working, and other players did the same. That's a danger with skills being more important than the profession (as everyone was a samurai).

    At present, and possibly as a result of rolemaster, I'm playing a campaign with my 1980s Dragon Warriors books – simple professions (longest part of character generation is rolling 5 lots of 3d6) & no skills – simple test of difficulty level against relevant attibute, if exceeded roll under stat with d20. I've tried to expand it with a bolt on skills system, but that's just for flavour more than anything else.

    Generally, professions give the core skills for a certain character type – saves having to take all the skills for a warrior individually – like a bundled package, providing the DM and the player share the same concept ('you mean I'm not a ninja?'). This saves each warrior having to individually choose 5 ranks in the optimum armour type at character creation.

    Sorry for the length – you've covered so much. I'm looking forward to seeing how this develops.

  5. Skills based system like Runequest, GURPS, etc, suffers from a diversity of choices. In that there so many customizations option it is hard for a player to figure out what he want. This was particularly true in GURPS Space games.

    GURPS and other skill based system solved this with the use of templates. Which package skills related to a profession, organizations, etc.

    The player is free to choose any or none of the items in the template it is a guide not a rule like in class based system.

    A GURPS DM can use templates to control the Japaness Ninja in Medieval France issue. By presenting the allowable templates at the beginning of a campaign the player still get a lot of customization but also some boundaries.

    In my current project adapting the Majestic Wilderlands to OD&D. I want classes that were good at other things than fighting, praying, or casting. I created a skill system for OD&D not for the sake of having a skill system. Nor to create some kind of universal mechanic. But as compromise to allow me to make classes that sacrificed fighting or spells ability in favor of being good at another actitivy. For example the Merchant Adventurers who can fight but not as good as a fighter but has abilities that will allow him to be a better merchant than other characters.

    Having a skill system allows me to add these special abilities to these classes without having to invent special mechanics for each class. So while the stealth skill may work for all the classes with stealth the mechanics are not the same as Oratory.

  6. A few semi-random comments:

    The everything not permitted is forbidden problem can be dealt with by having default skills; everyone, or maybe just everyone who grew up in a waterfront community, has a default level of swimming.

    When I used to GM GURPS, I would always prepare a handout for the players that included such things as a list of any skills that were either forbidden or had special restrictions due to the campaign setting. I never found players choosing skills that didn’t fit the setting to be much of a problem.

    There is another side to the “over-statisticating” question: what about the player who wants to play a character who is particularly good at something at which the player does not do so well? As a player in a James Bond 007 rpg, I had a GM who insisted we play out a gambling scenario by actually dealing out cards and playing a game. My character had a high gambling skill, but I personally suck at gambling games. I felt a bit cheated in that case.

  7. "But where swimming is a skill that must be deliberately chosen, it can't just be assumed."

    I think that assumption is wrong;

    – What if everyone, unless stated otherwise (more on that ahead), knows how to swim.

    – Someone with the skill/feat swim has swimming skills above the norm, so he can swim across a rapid easily, where the rest of the characters will have a hard time trying not to drown.

    – Someone may state that his character does not know how to swim, think of it as a negative skill/flaw, and let him take an extra skill or whatever seems appropriate (just take note and make him remember his choice later on, when everyone else is crossing the river to escape imminent danger).

    – Same goes for almost every "non-core skill"; Everyone knows how to punch someone in the face, but I've got a martial arts degree, according to my country's law on self defense, the other guy has to have a knife to make it a fair fight (same goes for a professional boxer, or also it could be aggravating if a Chef attacked me with a knife, making it non-fair again, etc..).

    "If my character has a charisma of 17, and I'm trying to convince the bandit chief to let me and my party go, how does the game master adjudicate my success?"

    – Roleplay it first, if I'm not buying it, roll (same goes for someone with low charisma, try to bluff me, if you can't, roll)

    "I would always prepare a handout for the players that included such things as a list of any skills that were either forbidden or had special restrictions due to the campaign setting."

    – This, plus templates, are the approach I like the best. Keeping in mind that having the skill means that you've got superior abilities (this goes for everything, as I know how to sum, multiply, divide, etc… but a mathematician can probably do it faster, failing less often, and does know a bigger array of operations, laws, shortcuts, etc…)

    – Keep that in mind if you develop a skill based system 😉

  8. Your post has kept resonating inside my head so i'll add a last comment (for today):

    – Everyone, unless stated otherwise, can walk, but you can make the case for someone with a "walk" skill.

    – Think of a supermodel walking down the thingie they walk on; camera flashes, slippery ground, high heels, uncomfortable clothing, loud noises, you have not eaten in a week…

    -It could be possible to say that they got several ranks in "walk"

    /End rant

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