Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Talking about Character Class    

Let's take a break from heritage and race for a bit, and talk about class.  Class is another word that has a very different meaning in D&D than it typically does in the real world!  (It is hard for me to imagine being someone who has never been exposed to roleplaying games, but I can only wonder what such a person might think about our fantasy game where "race" and "class" are the way you describe your character.)  Character class serves the purpose of giving each character a specific set of skills and a role on the team.  Some versions of D&D, notably Fourth Edition, focus more on the role that your character serves from a tactics point of view.  Some versions are more concerned with the skills that your character has, such as fighting, spellcasting, healing, and finding traps.  Almost all fantasy RPGs attempt to "balance" classes, so let's first talk about what that means.

Balance is an elusive concept.  We can talk about mathematical balance:  If you and I have identical characters, but your character has much higher bonuses on their die rolls than I do, then you might say that our characters are imbalanced.  Of course, in all the systems that have individual random ability score generation, this is likely to be the case.  We can talk about balance in terms of challenge.  One of the guiding principles of D&D is that adventures should be dangerous and challenging, but that the players should often succeed in their goals.  Creating and maintaining that level of challenge, over the course of an epic tale, is probably the cornerstone of D&D's game design.  If I have a 4th level character for whom 4th level adventures are no longer challenging at all, then that character is not well-balanced.  Lastly, we can talk about balance in terms of "spotlight" time.  In early editions of D&D, my 1st level magic user had one spell.  When I cast it, I was (briefly) a rock star.  Once it was cast, however, it was gone for the day.  I was pretty much useless for the rest of the adventure.  In the meantime, the fighters and thieves were still busy doing things, since their abilities could be reused as often as they'd like.  That's one way to measure a "spotlight" time imbalance.

However, the way that it often gets measured is:  can my fighter beat up your wizard?  To me, this is the least interesting way of talking about character balance.  It requires a game designer to ignore what actually will happen in a typical fantasy game (the players working together to defeat a common foe), and design for a scenario that does nothing to contribute to the story (two players, on a desolate plain, a short distance apart, try to kill each other with all of the resources they have).

Instead, my rules of character balance are:
  • Does every character have a variety of interesting choices to make during the course of a typical adventure?
  • Are characters different enough that each has a relatively unique role to play, or are they interchangeable?
  • Will a team of characters of a given level be challenged, but often successful, in a typical adventure of that same level?

Lessons Learned from Skills & Powers

Player's Option:  Skills & Powers was a rules supplement for Second Edition D&D.  It appeared about halfway between the release dates of Second Edition (in 1989) and Third Edition (in 2000).  The changes to the rules were fairly simple, but so impactful that it was almost like a "2.5 Edition" for D&D.  Second Edition had allowed for very little customization of character classes.  You could take a kit, which gave you a few bonuses and maybe a special ability.  Kits were directly tied to particular classes.  So you randomly rolled ability scores, chose a race, a class, and a kit, and that was pretty much it.  Skills & Powers not only introduced a point-buy system for ability scores, it also allowed you to use the same sort of system to custom build races and classes.  Finally, it allowed you to customize ability scores so that you could tailor the bonuses to optimize your character.  For example, you could lower the "Endurance" part of your Strength score (carrying heavy things over long distances), in order to increase the "Muscle" part of your Strength score (bonuses to hit and damage with weapons).  You could reduce bonuses that were hardly ever used in the game (such as System Shock), and increase bonuses that were used constantly (such as Hit Points).

Some players loved Skills & Powers.  It let them build and customize their characters outside of the rigid class system.  Some players felt that Skills & Powers was too unbalanced.  It allowed players to make characters who were significantly stronger than the original Second Edition system had allowed.  D&D Third Edition attempted to strike a balance between rigid classes and unlimited character customization, while still maintaining "balance" between the classes.  What I will try to do, in the next few posts, is set out a way to be even more flexible, without drowning the player in class archetypes and options.


A Note About Balance and Player Restraint

One issue that often arises when we talk about system balance is: do we really need system balance at all, so long as we have "good" players?  This approach says that our problems with game balance are due to a certain kind of player, a "munchkin," who "min-maxes" the system in order to optimize their character.  They are "roll-players" and not "role-players" because they are only interested in dice rolling and combat and winning and magic items, and are not interested in making a story and an interesting character.  They are the "Mary Sue" of their fantasy game, good at everything, with no real flaws, other than perhaps a tendency to be a loner and not work well with others (Charisma is their dump stat).  And they don't need to work well with others, because they can already do everything themselves.  What we need, it is argued, are"good" players who are going to make characters that are interesting first, and competent second.  Who realize that the system can be abused, and choose not to abuse it.

I have always been adamantly opposed to this type of thinking.  First of all, it is often used as an excuse for poor game design.  And second, it demonizes people who want to play the dice rolling game that underlies the storytelling game, by telling them that they cannot do both.  If they are interested in optimizing game mechanics, they must not be interested in the story or in roleplaying or in teamwork. 

On the other side of things, there are people who revel in the "munchkin" label, who enjoy being "better" at the game than anyone else, and who place no value on whether the other players are having fun or whether an interesting story is being told.  This, to me, is just as bad.  It devalues people who enjoy story and roleplaying, telling them that they are avoiding the complex rules system because they are not capable of understanding it.  Again, it places a false dichotomy between story and game.

It will not come as a huge surprise that these differing points of view are often described as gendered.  I cannot count the number of people I have spoken with who believe that women like story and roleplaying, but don't like math and combat.  Whereas men like competition and rules mechanics, but aren't as good at emotionally evocative storytelling.  This is all bullshit gender essentialism.  And, just as it supports a view of gender that is binary and inflexible, it also supports a view of gaming that is binary and inflexible.  You can have both good storytelling and good system mechanics.  Well written game design requires it.

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