A Distinct Lack of Class.

posted: July 18th, 2006

I’m not a 23rd level Artist or an 18th level Geek. I’m not even multiclassed as an Artist/Designer, but I don’t feel bad about this. The fact is that people in the real world simply aren’t divided into classes that dictate what they can and cannot do. So why do games do this?

Probably the greatest reason is because this is how Dungeons and Dragons works. You could argue that classes are a connection to that ancestry, a sort of homage, or you could simply say that it’s because designers tend to work through evolution rather than innovation, but either way the idea of classes in MMO’s comes to us from classes in Dungeons and Dragons.

Personally I haven’t really liked the concept of character classes for years. I’ve got two big objections to them. The first is the limitations.

To me it seems wrong to say that a person can’t learn to pick up a sword simply because somewhere along the line he identified himself as a ‘mage’. Even stranger to me is the limitation that he can’t put on a simple chain-mail shirt because he went to the wrong school. There are, of course, arguments that can be made for this. Armor is heavy and a mage does not devote enough of his attention to physical development to wear it. The metal of the armor interferes with the wizard’s ability to cast spells. Maneuvering in heavy armor is a skill and a wizard has no experience in how to do so. Well, since the physical power of a character is determined by an attribute rather than a class I don’t see why a mage with a higher strength than a fighter wouldn’t be able to wear the same armor. As for the spell casting, we aren’t talking about the wizard wearing armor and casting spells, we are just talking about the wearing of armor (and that doesn’t address leather armor, anyway). Finally, while an untrained wizard might not be able to maneuver as well in a chain-mail shirt as a highly trained fighter I have to remain dubious that a person with an IQ of 150 who spends his time unravelling the mysteries of the universe can’t figure out that his head goes through the big hole and his arms go through the two smaller ones.

The second objection I have to classes is almost the opposite of the first; the things a character can do simply because of their class. Actually I suppose I don’t object so much to the fact that a thief can sneak around simply because they are a thief. What I really object to is the fact that to get better at sneaking around a thief has to do things completely unassociated with sneaking around; namely killing monsters. Because skills for characters in most games are tied to levels and levels are tied to killing monsters characters improve in skills completely unrelated to what they are doing by beating up on orcs and kobolds.

So what’s the upside to classes? For one they give us defined roles. When a player is trying to form up a group they can search for a tank by looking for people who belong to a tanking class. When they need DPS they look for someone belonging to a DPS class.

Classes are also easier for inexperienced players to grasp. If you want to run around in heavy armor with a sword you chose a Fighter. You don’t select the sword skill, the shield skill, the light armor skill which you need to build the medium armor skill which you need for the heavy armor skill. The advantages of simplicity should never be underestimated.

Another thing that classes do is protect the value of certain skills. While it might be too expensive for a wizard to follow the entire skill path of a rogue it probably wouldn’t be that much to just pick up some skill at disarming traps or picking locks.

On the other hand classless systems give freedom. Properly designed they allow people to make whatever character they are interested in playing (within reason). This can give people a powerful ownership in their character.

So ultimately which one is better for the mass market? Is the more comfortable and established class system the way to go or would a well designed skills based system ultimately draw more players? Under the ‘something for everyone’ philosophy that I like to try to hold to can we bring the two systems together? Is there a way to make a system where players can choose either skill based or class based progression?

These questions are what I am turning around and around in my head right now.


I’m a solid advocate of the “skill” system, with a complex, class-independent (as opposed to SWG’s) “tree” of skills. Some “child” skills could default to the parent skill (at a penalty, of course) and the entire tree would be available to all professions.

As you’ve said, though… that’s alot to toss upon a starting player. That’s why I’d advocate “templates.”

What’s a template? Think of it as an “overlay” that’s applied over the tree, revealing only those skills most relevant to a particular class (and possibly even hilighting in colors which skill LEVELS are adequate or “need work”.

A new player can select a “template” of “Paladin” and see what skills the generic paladin would focus on. As the player gets more experienced and understands the game, he can shed the template and experiment with the whole tree, or even add another template to the mix, revealing different avenues of development.

Do we blur the lines defining roles? Most certainly, but I’d love to see a system where roles were more fluid… where if my adventurer put on the bulky armor & shield he’d be the tank, but by dropping into the lighter leathers and donning two swords, he could be an offensive powerhouse. A Magic user could be prepared with offensive spells or defensive spells- a tank or a blaster. Should magic fail him, he might pick up a sword or even don armor for protection.

Skill defines the range of capabilities, gear defines the role the character is playing at that time.

Comment by Chas — July 19, 2006

I’m not completely opposed to all of the ideas of a skill-tree system. I like the idea that certain skills can only be learned after some mastery of prerequisite skills. While this isn’t 100% realistic I think it may be a sacrifice worth making for simplicity while preventing a character from learning Surgery when they don’t even have a skill for basic anatomy.

I like the template idea a lot. I am use to thinking of templates as either starting templates (here’s your beginning stats) or ending templates for how to spend limited skill points, as in StarWars Galaxies. The idea of selecting a template that progresses with a character, offering advice in what skills should be trained would definitely make things easier on newbie players while still giving them the freedom to advance their character however they wish.

Comment by Evan — July 19, 2006

I’m all in favour of a classless system (provided, obviously, that it works). And I think that pre-requisites are essential too and not just skill based, but stats based so, for example, you might want to wield the large broadsword but you’re not strong enough so you can’t.

The idea of a template is interesting but again but I think it’s verging on simply saying “class” in a different way. Taking the commonly accepted notion of a Paladin (from D&D onwards), what differentiates a Paladin from your run of the mill, sword carrying warrior? Is it skills because he can “lay hands” or detect undead? Why can’t a fighter – or a fighter/cleric hybrid do that? Or is it because of his belief system and the way he lives his life?

I’d write more but you’re blinking comments box is annoying me.

Comment by Tom — July 20, 2006

In this case a template doesn’t govern how a character develops like classes do. Instead it’s a guide. If you are deficient in an area then it lets you know. It never forces you to raise the skill, unless you want to complete the template.

To use the Paladin as an example the template might require you to learn sword, shield, light armor, medium armor, and heavy armor to a certain level. With just those skills you would have completed the Fighter template but to complete the Paladin template you also need a skill of Miracles at a certain level as well as knowing the spells Lay Hands and Detect Evil.

That’s the template. Since most MMO’s don’t force paladins to play in a manner consistent with the D&D idea of a paladin you could leave it at that, but if you really wanted to make it so that not every Tom, Dick, and Harry fighter could become a paladin you could do things to restrict the Miracles stat. Players who take certain actions (accepting ‘evil’ missions, for example, learning the skill Necromancy, etc.) could be flagged so that their Miracles stat was capped at 0. Players who wished to become paladins would have to avoid these actions. Characters who complete the paladin template would continue to have to avoid these actions or else they would lose the stat of Miracles which would prevent them from being able to cast Lay Hands and Detect Evil.

Paladin still isn’t a class because other than certain actions that affect the Miracles stat a player would be free to develop however they wanted to. They could train heavy armor and shield way up like the typical D&D Paladin or they could train up light armor and dual wield and rely on parrying and dodging for their protection. Assuming it doesn’t violate the restrictions placed on Miracles they could learn unarmed combat and fight like a monk and still be a paladin as long as they had the minimum skills in armor and sword (though these skills might violate some of the restrictions for the special abilities of monks).

Also, unlike a class a player would be absolutely free to decide they wanted to try to fill out a new template. At any point a person who has completed the paladin template could decide ‘screw it’ and start on the template for an assassin. The would probably loose their Miracles stat pretty quickly but would otherwise retain all the combat skills they had learned.

As for the blinking comment box, what browser are you using? The comment box isn’t suppose to blink under W3C standards, but since most browsers will fumble certain parts of the standards it is sometimes necessary to add little hacks to the XHTML code to help them out.

Comment by Evan — July 20, 2006

The comment box isn’t blinking for me (firefix, fwiw.

You’ve expressed my view of “templates” perfectly. Using such an “overlay” you should be able to offer the ease of the “class” system to new players with the depth of skill trees for those more experienced. At least, that’s my hope

Comment by Chas — July 20, 2006

[…] If this system seems familiar, I first started advocating it in comments on Evan Sampson’s blog ( […]

Pingback by Tattered Page » Blog Archive » Class vs Skill — September 13, 2006

hey :-)
its very reasonable point of view.
Good post.
realy good post

thx :-)

Comment by giviollerbivege — September 2, 2008

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