Classes as Skill Bundles

While putting together the secondary skills section for Emprise!™, it struck me that it would be possible to describe the character classes in terms of collections of discrete skills, rather than as monolithic constructs.

For example, a ranger could said to be a class that consists of the following skills/advantages:

  • Experience point bonus
  • Multiple attacks per round
  • Weapon specialization
  • Bonuses in combat vs. giants and humanoids
  • Increased surprise
  • Tracking
  • Limited spell casting ability
  • Expanded magic item use
  • Attract followers at high level
  • Collect taxes after building strongholds

And the following disadvantages:

  • High minimum attributes
  • Alignment restriction
  • Weapon restrictions
  • Travelling light
  • Limits on hirelings

What this allows is not only for consistency in how skills are applied (the verbal patter of mountebanks and jesters, for example, or the woodcraft of barbarians and druids), but it allows for the eventual learning of those skills by other classes; there would be nothing preventing a magic-user from knowing how to disguise himself like an assassin, for example. Mechanically, this would work pretty well; it’s mostly a question of organization in the rulebook. The essential question is, does this move too far away from the core concept of a class-based game? I’m going to be having a skill system (inspired by that created by Gary Gygax for his Yggsburg setting in C&C), but does pulling all or most of the character abilities out and turning them into skills take the principle too far into the realm of all-skills games?

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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.

17 thoughts on “Classes as Skill Bundles

  1. I'm a bit doubtful. The name "Ranger" means so much more to me than that list of skills.

    For example, recently I gave a character an adventure hook to locate a wizard's tower. The hook was composed of local names for geographic features, various local flora and compass directions. What character classes could make use of those? Rangers certainly, as well as druids. But that's not quite "tracking" alone, is it?

    Or would you require the character following those directions to have some kind of 'wilderness lore' non-weapon proficiency/skill/character trait? And if a ranger didn't spend those skill points/experience points on wilderness lore would they be able to follow those directions?

    The iconic classes give us a skill set broader than any list of skills could ever be. But that's a common defense of pure class systems, albeit one I take to heart.

  2. Classes as skill bundles is, essentially, what was done with 3.X edition. You could buy "bundles" of class abilities at a time by taking a level in that appropriate class, or you could buy one ability at at time by spending the appropriate feat on it.

    It sounds like you want to do something that is akin to the 3.x skill system. I think the central issue in order to avoid losing the flavor of a class system is how difficult you make it for one class to acquire the skills of another. What you could do is have preset skill "packages" that reflect the traditional set of abilities for a particular class. Players could take a package and substitute skills in and out for a price, until they have the starting character they want.

    Say the assassin gets the disguise ability for free at first level. When he levels up, he can buy a 1 step increase in disguise for 1 skill points. The magic-user, on the other hand, has to spend 5 skill points to get the basic disguise ability, and 2 skill points for each subsequent increase.

  3. Well, the concept of a workable skill system has to be based on the concept that, in many cases, a character can still attempt to do things that are covered by a particular skill, just not as well as someone who actually has the skill.

    For example, anyone in my game can try to disarm a trap. They go about it in the same way a thief would; "I'm looking for any sort of tripwires, or hinges where there shouldn't be any, or paving stones that don't seem to 'fit' with the others," etc. Then I roll, and if it hits an arbitrarily-set (by me) number, it succeeds, even if it's not a thief who's making the attempt.

    Now, there are some skills that are just plain impossible without specialized training or experience, like casting spells, or creating potions. But those are in a different category (it seems to me) than, say, riding a horse or swimming.

    Red, to your specific question, I'd say the "wilderness lore" issue would fall into the "anyone can conceivably do it, but if you have the skill, you've got a much better chance" category. After all, anyone, regardless of class, would know where Hangman's Rock is, and even Sam Gamgee could identify kingswort by sight, even if he didn't know how to apply its healing properties…

  4. I dunno… One of my favorite things about first and second edition is not only the ease of character creation and leveling up but the strict adherence to class roles. Don't get me wrong; I'm not anti multi/dual-classing but one of my biggest problems with 3rd and 4th edition (besides the sheer number of books) is that there's too much character customization.

    Now ideally this sounds like a good thing but in my experience it diminishes the individuality of the characters. Suddenly the Fighter is better at disarming traps than the Rogue is, or everyone has the Fighter's weapon specialization. Not only does it take away from their uniqueness, it's also a system ripe for abuse by the power-gamer.

    So far as character customization goes, I think second edition had the right idea with their kits. It keeps the core of the character the same while providing additional benefits and penalties to balance those benefits out. There are also additional role-playing benefits/penalties.

    So far as multi-classing, I think it has a place but that it should be difficult to do. For example, I remember in the 2E Player's Guide it said Mages couldn't wear armor because their training and discipline was so arduous and strict they didn't have the time it took to learn how to wear armor. Is it, then, reasonable for them to learn how to do so over the course of one level?

    If you want to make multi-classing a bigger part of the game, I think it's appropriate to limit the number of abilities you have available to you at any given time. For example, in the most inexorable of circumstances, your Paladin spends some time as a Thief. When he goes back to being a Paladin, he still wants to be able to use back-stab. Well, to do so, he has to give up the use of one of his other Paladin powers (one of equal power, or maybe two of lesser power, if you're shooting for game balance) to do so. This is not to say these powers are gone forever but simply unavailable to him in his current character configuration. So, for back-stab, maybe he swaps out his warhorse or immunity to disease. In a system where it's easy to multi-class, this keeps the characters from getting too ridiculous.

    Alternatively, each character could only have access to one multi-class ability at time (ala Final Fantasy V/Final Fantasy Tactics). Leveling up as a class would give you access to that class' primary ability at that class' level when you're another class (IE fighter = multi-attacks, magic-user = magic, thief = back-stab). So if you spend 2 levels as a Magic-user and go back to being a Fighter, you have access to the same spells as a second level Magic-user. Then, if that character wants to spend three levels as a Thief before returning to being a Fighter, he has a choice of either using the second-level Magic-user's spells or the third-level Thief's back-stab ability as his multi-class ability.

    In the end, I have faith that whatever you come up with will be fine. My one question, however, is you listed the Ranger's EXP bonuses as one of his abilities. Does that mean that a Fighter could learn that ability and get a further 10% EXP for having his stats above a certain level? That notion seems a little overpowered to me.

  5. Flip: What I'm thinking about is even less flexible than what you're suggesting.

    In my concept, if you picked a particular class, you would start with the skills that made up that class. Later on, you'd have the option (by spending x.p.) of buying a proficiency in some skill outside the base list for your class. So, a magic-user could, if he wanted to, use some of his earned x.p. to learn how to do ranger-like tracking.

    Of course, spending x.p. like that would mean it would take him all the longer to advance to the next level as a magic-user, and it wouldn't be the same as "taking a level of ranger", because you'd only be getting that one specific skill, not the entire panoply of ranger abilities.

  6. Chris: That was just a cut-and-paste from the ability checklist I've currently got in the Players Manual. I break out each special feature of each class, and give a quick explanation. My theory is that doing so will make choosing classes a little easier for newcomers, since the salient features of each class would be laid out in bullet point format.

    I can't see, realistically or mechanically, how setting "10% x.p. bonus for INT over 15" as one skill, and "10% x.p. bonus for WIS over 15" would be workable.

  7. I was a little intimidated to weigh in at first, but after your further elucidation in the comments here, I don't think that it is a bad idea. It's obviously something that's been overdone in a lot of people's opinions (mixing class & skill) but what you're presenting doesn't seem bad to me.

  8. Dragon Issue #109 had an article on creating character classes that essentially let you pick and choose these skill bundles to make a new class.

  9. David: Yeah, it struck me that way, too. Perhaps it's just a function of the fact that it's the direction he was moving in, and since I'm basing my skills system on his, there are going to be inevitable similarities.

    I dunno. Maybe I'm just over-thinking it.

  10. @Joseph

    I think your formulation still retains the feel and nature of a class-based system. Characters will still accumulate abilities much faster if they stick to their own "field", as it were.

    One tricky and potentially laborious issue to deal with is going to be how much each particular skill costs in XP? A Magic-User's ability to cast 1st Level spells is far more valuable than a Thief's ability to pick locks.

    Then there's the issue of when skills become available. Can a 2nd level Fighter buy the Paladin's ability to summon a special mount? Or does he have to wait until he himself reaches 4th level? It would probably be easiest to add a rule that characters can't buy abilities from other classes until they've at least reached the level at which the other class can get the ability.

  11. I like skill bundles. The problem with a class system like D&D is that if you want a fighting sort of Thief, you can go with a multiclass Fighter/Thief, or a Ranger, or a Monk, but you get all the extra baggage. Honestly the Fighter/Thief is the better option. But if you want a wilderness bandit Thief that doesn't need the fighting skill? You're stuck.

    For that, they started creating tons of different classes. Unfortunately, to balance out the different groups they ended up making a lot of "Fighters who fight just a little differently". Then they decided on Kits to modify your character, which worked as desired, but the profusion of kits and classes became unbearable.

    Think of the situation for the new player! Dozens of classes to choose from, and hundreds of kits, many races and subraces, and if you're in the Forgotten Realms you have a Homeland to choose!

    Instead, you get the same effect if you choose class features piecemeal.

    There is the danger of the Ranger who doesn't know anything about plants or animals, because the player didn't take the Nature Lore class feature. This was a problem in Skills and Powers. I once played a Fighter/Thief who didn't have any Thief percentage skills!

    And I think that's okay. The players need to negotiate amongst themselves during chargen to make sure SOMEONE picks wilderness skills, SOMEONE picks lock and trap skills, SOMEONE can heal, etc.

    Just be wary of making chargen take too long. But with this system. leveling up should take very little time, so that shouldn't be a problem.

  12. I suggest resisting this apple. Not that a skill based system is bad, only that abandoning the class based system is like eating pasta sauce with no garlic. Sure you can do it and some like it better, but it ain't the way Grandma made it.
    If your purpose is to give us what "grandma" would have done, then I say no. If it is to do something new and it inspires you then I say yes.

  13. @1d30 But if you want a wilderness bandit Thief that doesn't need the fighting skill? You're stuck. For that, they started creating tons of different classes.

    The other option, the "OD&D" option, is to go with less classes and importantly less predefined rules. Say just two; Fighting Man and Magic User.

    If you want to be a wilderness bandit, then act like one and you are. Want to be light skirmiser "fighter/thief" then wear light armor, use appropriate weapons and you are. The problem with this is it takes a great DM and imaginative, assertive players.

    Rules/classes/kits/feats/etc restrict your options, they don't increase them.

  14. I've been working on this same problem as part of an article (and later a old school supplement)

    As I see it, the problem actually started with the 'thieves skill" system being grafted onto what is essentially a "skill-less system"

    I think the trick to resolving it is to see skills are two separate categories.

    The 1st is adventuring tasks — stuff like climbing, sneaking up on people, swimming. Some of these are covered by subsystems such as surprise others are just a judgment call and alas some are covered by thief "skills" aka class abilities

    The second group are "things that the character knows" — usually these end up as proficiencies or secondary skills or sometimes class abilities. Ugh

    Really what I want to do is basically guess what a character can do based either on an existing system (roll for surprise) or based on a skill roll.

    Determining that ought to be based on

    Basic Tasks any Adventurer should know how to do. Everyone rolls full here

    Stuff from the background

    Stuff from the class and its lens

    The lens here being "what kind of fighter/mage/whatever they character is.

    In this case the player should roll full amount (d20 vs stat with maybe some bonus points based on level for certain tasks) for anything related to these and at a penalty for anything else

    For example, a sample party might consist of Sidrian Elf Crafter turned Wizard, Ankora Second Story Man (well woman in her case class fighter ) Bazi Pit Fighter (class fighter of course) and a Seymi Earth Witch (Cleric with custom spell list) and a Vor Bard (class fighter)

    Any task that is an related to those keywords is rolled at full, other tasks at a penalty

    Adventuring task are rolled against the subsystem in the book.

    If some kind of thief class is needed, it ought to get bonus points applied to adventuring task rolls (instead of surprise on a 1 or 2 on a d6, they surprise on a 1,2, or 3 and so on)

    This is maybe too coherent for D&D but its playable pretty easily and works well with race as class too.

  15. Let me add something i forgot. 2e D&D did the "class ability breakdown" not once but twice. Once in the DMG in the little used "custom class" subsystem and again in skills and powers.

    Interestingly the only mention of the DMG subsystem was in the Complete Thieves Handbook where a custom illusion slinging mage was presented.

    Similar systems also showed up in Dragon, #109 had the infamous Crabaugh Method for B/X and I think a couple of other times.

    Used correctly it was less crufty than kits but it still had its problems. D&D should not be skill based system.

    However used with care by the DM they provide decent tools to design class variants where they fit.

    Also the AD&D2 methods can be used to replace multi-classing if you feel daring. Its a bit B/X but it works better than dual/multi classing crud.

    Elf wants to be a Fighter/Mage fine, make a new class, d8 hit dice, cleric thaco , special abilities badabing …

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