Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Classy. A Short Essay.

There's a lot of room for disagreement when we talk about the basics of role-playing games. Trying to form the most bare-bones definition of role-playing, I've come up with the following qualities a game must have to be considered a role-playing game:
  • One or more humans gather within a physical, written, or auditory space.
  • There is a story.
  • There is at least one rule that dictates the behavior, actions, and/or thoughts of the individual(s) involved.
That's pretty much it. Games don't have to have dice, they don't have to be at an actual table, they don't need a GM or even more than one player. Really it's just any number of human minds gathering together in one format or another (not even necessarily at the same time) to create some kind of narrative in a manner dictated by at least one formally-recognized rule. These leaves room for the most lite and fluffy of indie games - even some common ice breaker and party games fit in with this definition - and the crunchiest of crunchy games such as Burning Wheel that actively works to dictate a very specific type of collaborative story telling.

However, I'd argue that this type of definition for tabletop RPGs is only a more recent development. It would probably be the late 90's/early 00's when this paradigm shift really took hold and many, many indie games started popping up and change how we think about our organized make-believing.

So what's this all about? Well, nowadays we have a lot of ways to create characters for our games whether it's point-buy, life paths, or simply filling out a sheet with 15 questions. But back in the day classes ruled the world. I read probably too frequently, and there are quite a few people there that just seem to rag on classes. Having not grown into the hobby playing 3.X edition D&D, I probably have a very different view on classes and levels than those who have been in the hobby for quite awhile. I respect the differing opinions, and I'm not trying to convince anyone to like classes (or really any other part of a game) but rather hope to express why I like classes.

I like classes because they're short hand for something that would otherwise take a long time to explain and build mechanically. When someone says their character is a ranger, my mind automatically goes to the image of a ranger in D&D. Either their character uses a range, non-firearm weapon or two one-handed melee weapons. He's wise in the ways of nature and hunting, and he may even have an animal companion. I know all these things share a common, mechanical foundation upon which their built, and so, much like many other disciplines and hobbies, we use such short hand because it makes things easier.

Speaking of easier, I like classes because they give me a structure within which I can make meaningful choices and know (hope) that the choices I make our balanced and have some heft to them. Don't get me wrong, this is by no means a rant against point-buy systems, but sometimes I just don't get a real strong feeling for what kind of skills and advantages my character will need if I just have a big list. It's a fine balance to strike between too much and too little freedom. To be fair, there is at least one great example of too many options in a class-based system as well - D&D 4e. There's just so many options there that character generation falls into an analysis paralysis of sorts (which is why I love Essentials so much).

I understand the limitations of a class-based system and why people prefer other character generation methods - mainly that class-bsed character generation feels too limiting. That's alright. I'm happy to agree to disagree on this topic. For my money, Warhammer Fantasy RPG nails classes with offering pretty much unlimited careers to choose from while giving you very few choices to have to make beyond your career. It's a system I strive toward emulating and matching in its balance between freedom and restriction for my own designs.

For what it's worth, keep it classy.


  1. Your definition of roleplaying is too broad. It doesn't include any element of actually playing a role.

    Many modern indie story games are NOT roleplaying games, because you are not roleplaying a character, you are making author decisions about shared fiction. People just don't want to admit this.

    Just because something isnt a roleplaying game doesnt mean it is bad. It is just not an RPG.

  2. I think there's a real advantage to these kinds of things- especially when trying to bring players into a new setting. Some games tried for a compromise by having Archetypes, Kits, Builds and whatnot. My only problem with classes would be when games start to splinter them so far- a fractal array of classes each trying to strike out some turf. If a system has narrower approaches, that can often make a players conception obsolete. I wanted to have some acrobatic aspects to my rogue,but now I have to make them an acrobat or whatever. But that's a rare set of cases (Rolemaster, some d20). I like "classes" which have some openess to their approach, some built in options (like the WoD clans and the like).

  3. Let me add that I do like classes. To stay on topic. ;)

    I have designed games both ways though.

  4. @Greg I definitely appreciate your point of view on story gaming versus role playing. Perhaps I should amend the second point thusly:

    "There is a story in which at least one of the players acts out or describes the actions, dialogue, and/or general behavior of at least one specific character."

    @Lowell I definitely agree that we don't need a class for every single character variation a player could conjure up. I think your example of rogue versus acrobat is a really great, simply way to think about it. Look at games like Dragon Age that offer only three (very basic) character classes - Rogue, Mage, Warrior - and offer you a chance later on to better differentiate yourself and pick a specialty (Blood Mage, Bard, whatever).

    I do think this is different from a careers system that focuses on giving players a place in the world with a specific career but also doesn't constrict your choices too much beyond that. I think of a class as a way of life and a career simply as a starting place and what others think of when you present yourself.

  5. @Greg

    By the same definition many players of table top games aren't playing role playing games because they don't do any role playing at all with their characters. They fill out the character sheets with stats, kill the monsters, go home, come back, rinse lather and repeat. How is doing that any different than playing monopoly or risk?

    I've known people who get very involved in any game they play. One friend of mine would always go for the top hat in monopoly and he would turn into Mr. Moneybags at the table. How is that not roleplaying?

    "One or more humans gather within a physical, written, or auditory space.
    There is a story.
    There is at least one rule that dictates the behavior, actions, and/or thoughts of the individual(s) involved."

    Is improv a role playing game? Many improv games involve a story, as well as various rules on how the characters interact with each other?

  6. I would definitely say that improv is role playing, no doubt. You could easily play Fiasco as a diceless improv game, and it'd still be role playing.

  7. I prefer systems with either classes or careers as well, even though I mainly GM in a system without them. Distinct mechanical advantages and limitations based on specific paths your character has chosen adds something of great value to a system, in my opinion. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had one of the most interesting takes on this, and the new Arcanis RPG emulates their system in this regard.

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