Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's A Class?

RPGs generally follow one of two paradigms for determining the abilities a character possesses: class-based and skill-based.
Examples of class-based games are D&D, Pathfinder, World of Warcraft, etc.
Examples of skill-based games are The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Traveler, Runequest, Burning Wheel, GURPS (as I understand it, haven't played), etc.

Skill-based first, because that's not what this article is about,  but skills are something we need to talk about first:

Skills are tools for problem-solving.
Got a problem in the shape of a hungry monster? You could hit it with a sword (Fighting/Melee Weapons/etc.), shoot it (Archery/Ranged Weapons/Firearms/etc.), use magic on it (Wizardry/Sorcery/etc.), hide from it (Stealth), run away from it (Athletics/Climbing/Running/etc.), persuade it do go away or be nice (Diplomacy/Persuasion/Intimidation/etc.)... you get the point.
Got a problem in the shape of a wall? You could climb it (Athletics/Acrobatics/Climbing/etc.), tunnel through or under it (Mining/Masonry/Artifice), use magic on it (as above)... same paradigm.
Skills are tools.

Classes aren't. Classes are often associated with tools or toolsets (which is why many classes come pre-packaged with skills) but that is not what makes them a class.

Neither are classes backgrounds, or professions. They may SOUND LIKE backgrounds at times (Thief, Wizard, Cleric), but that's not what a class is about. (At least, that's not what a class SHOULD be. Sometimes games get this confused.)

A class is an approach to problems, a method of solving them. It is also a worldview.

A Fighter isn't necessarily someone who was once a soldier or a warrior (although they often are); what makes a Fighter a Fighter is that they see all problems as problems that can be solved by the application of violence; all problems are foes that need to be defeated.
A Rogue isn't necessarily a thief or a scoundrel or a criminal (although they often are); what makes a Rogue a Rogue is that they see all problems as barriers that need to be circumvented, avoided, undermined, exploited.
A Wizard isn't necessarily a trained magician or a learned scholar (although they often are); what makes a Wizard a Wizard is that they see all problems as malformations of the structure of existence itself; only by altering this structure of existence (by means of various forms of esoterica) are problems truly solved.

This is what makes a class a good class: a worldview.
An Alchemist is a good class because they see all problems as lumps of matter that can be refined and rearranged, and all lumps of matter as potential tools and weapons. (Engineers are all Alchemists. Many scientists are not, though; they may deal entirely with lumps of matter, but their tools and goals are all esoteric. They are usually Wizards, actually.)
A Cleric is a good class because they see all problems as consequences of the absence of their god(s), and themselves as vessels and vehicles of that god's presence and power. (A "god" need not be personal, with sapience and will. A god is an ideal. Karl Marx was a Cleric. He would roll over in his grave to hear me say this, though.)
A Knight is a good class because they see all problems as breaches of chivalry, and themselves as questors whose goal is to restore chivalry and honor. (Chivalry is a code of rules or regulations. Any code. Any good judge is a Knight. Note that a code is not necessarily an ideal; an ideal is a unified concept of how things should be - often embodied in the person of a god - while a code is a set of rules that maintain order. A Cleric may follow rules, but only in service of an ideal; a Knight may believe in a god, but only as a giver or guarantor of a code.)
A Warlock is a good class because they see all problems as disadvantageous power relations, and themselves as the nexus of advantageous power relations that they must maintain and leverage. (Any good Secretary of State is a Warlock.)
A Bard is a good class because they see all problems as lexical or symbolic vacuums (things not named, things without meaning), and themselves as users of words and symbols and arts to recast the very meaning of things. (Most good philosophers are Bards. So are most poets.)

A class without a worldview is a bad class.
A monk is a bad class because it is nothing but a background (it's not even a profession, as a "professional" monk wouldn't be adventuring, but rather secluded in contemplation). A monk should be some sort of Fighter or some sort of Wizard or some sort of Cleric (depending on the paradigm the game adopts), as those are the worldviews that are actually at play.
A paladin is a bad class because it is nothing but a profession or a background. A paladin is either a Cleric (if they seek to embody an ideal) or a Knight (if they seek to follow and enforce a code).
A druid is a bad class because it is nothing but a profession or a background. A druid is just a cleric minus the metal (Nature is merely another god).

These lists are not exhaustive.
I am exhausted, so my syntax my be less good than usual. I hope the ideas are good, though. What do you think: are they?
If not, how would you formulate them differently?


  1. I think this would be a really cool way to look at classes in one's house rules or homebrew game system. It would be a great way to choose which classes to include in your game, and to differentiate those classes from one another.

    But I don't think this is necessarily true of all class-based games, or all versions of D&D, or necessarily even the particular set of rules/rulings/campaign elements I would personally be likely to prefer in my own games. I think you've identified a very important PART of what makes a class a class, something that helps make a class great instead of merely good-at-best. But I think that the skills, abilities, powers, stats, etc. of character classes are still important, both in designing a class and in choosing a class to play. If you want to play a character who resorts to violence at the drop of a hat, but you don't like melee combat, there's a good chance you'll shy away from the Fighter and load your Magic-User up with Fireballs and Lightning Bolts. I think players certainly take the "flavor" or implied worldview of a class into consideration, but I don't think it's generally the only factor they consider when choosing a class. Some people like to start out with a Fighter when learning a new set of rules just because it's generally a "simpler" class to play from a mechanical standpoint than something like a Wizard or a Thief, for example. Some people might pick a Fighter because they don't want to start out with barely any HP. Some people might like being able to choose between a Cleric, a Paladin, a Monk, and a Druid when making a religion-obsessed character because they like having a choice about how their character uses their faith to interact with the world, rather than just saying "I want to play a religious zealot, so I guess I'm stuck being the guy who knows Cure Light Wounds and Sticks to Snakes."

    (continued in next comment)

    1. Furthermore, I'm not entirely on board with the idea of one's class dictating one's worldview beyond a certain degree (although that degree would certainly differ from player to player). I might want to play a Fighter who prefers to talk things out as much as possible, while maintaining the capability of resorting to extreme violence if it becomes absolutely necessary. I don't think such a Fighter would see ALL problems as being solvable with violence, at least not in a satisfactory way. Yet such a character would be no less of a Fighter: when it comes to stuff that involves rolling dice and checking things on the character sheet, this character is a Fighter through-and-through. Part of being a member of a class is determining when, how, and why to use one's class-based abilities. I'd hate to try and decide the "why" FOR players. They can figure that out themselves.

      Maybe the Fighter sees most people as friends, but trains in combat because realistically, some people are going to be enemies, and enemies need to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. Maybe the Cleric only worships their god because they believe that someone has to do it to prevent the god from going on a rampage, and it might as well be the Cleric instead of someone else, but they don't actually LIKE their god and use the god's power sparingly so as not to inspire too many witnesses to also start worshiping the god and make it even more powerful. Maybe the Thief, of all people, sees every problem as a foe to be defeated, but long ago decided that head-on melee is a sucker's game, and thus prefers backstabs and ambushes, which the Fighter, mechanically-speaking, is not as suited for as far as the Thief's player is concerned. Maybe the Wizard doesn't actually believe that they're fundamentally changing anything within the structure of existence because magic is just another part of nature, not "supernatural" at all - maybe the Wizard worships magic itself, Cleric-style. Maybe the Druid is a good class as far as a particular player is concerned because the Cleric doesn't fit the way they view religion or doesn't have a set of abilities which match what that character worships - "Why is my Death-Worshiping, Survival-of-the-Fittest-preaching religious extremist character unable to wield a blade and able to cast heretical healing spells? Can't I just be a 'bad' class like a Druid or a Paladin?"

      All that said, I don't like it when a class is completely lacking in some kind of characterization or implied worldview or "flavor," though. When someone says "Paladin" or "Wizard," there are powerful and distinct images that come to mind, not to mention fun roleplaying possibilities. I do think you're really onto something here.

  2. Two main points of response. :)

    1) My approach in this article is forensic ("what is actually going on beneath the skin of these classes?") rather than prescriptive ("THIS is how you should play a fighter, dolts!"). At least, it is not prescriptive toward PLAYERS - I hope it could be productively prescriptive for DMs and especially for game designers, though. Essentially, though, my goal is to understand what makes a class (and especially what makes a GOOD class).

    2) To follow from 1), a class' "worldview" or problem-solving approach is not prescriptively binding by any means! Sure, it is what a game designer should have in mind when creating the class. BUT, it is frankly awesome when a player subverts expectations and thinks outside the box - I would not view the examples you come up with above (a blaster-caster wizard, a diplomatic fighter) as defects in design, but rather as creative player-side acts! The game designer (which, in the case of DIY D&D, is often ALSO the DM), when designing or modifying classes, should have a strong vision of what makes that class special, what makes it different from the others, what makes it tick. The player, when actually playing the class, should feel free to take the provided tools and use them in unexpected ways and for unexpected purposes. I wholeheartedly agree that I should not decide "when, how, and why" a player should "use one's class-based abilities" - they CAN "figure that out themselves!" (And players who DON'T feel like being creative in that way should, then, already have a grounded class with a strong vision on their hands, ready to play.) And, certainly, a class' "vision" should not be a player's only criterion when deciding what to play. It is important for them to consider how a class' mechanical components mesh with their playstyle (the examples you give being perfectly valid: starting HP, mundane-vs.-magical, ease-of-play, etc.).

    A corollary: as I've implied, when a class is designed, all its mechanical components (the "skills, abilities, powers..." that you mention) should be oriented toward the class' unifying vision. BUT that does not mean the designer should seek to restrict or wall off other options, but rather create flexible mechanical components with many possible uses. This encourages the player creativity I have already mentioned.

    I will give an example of this by playing off of one of your examples: the Darwinian cleric who can't use blades but can cast healing spells. If forgoing blades and casting healing spells is what a cleric must do, then the class certainly is poorly designed. A cleric class, if I were to make one, should have its abilities dictated by the "god" that is worshiped (remember, a "god" may not be a personal divine being as we normally think of them, but rather any ideal!). So, a Darwinian cleric would have an array of murderous (and reproductive!) spells at his or her command, and would gain blessings from destroying creatures less fit to survive than him or her, and perhaps also from creating strong and fit progeny (though I understand your example DID say "Death-Worshiping," haha)! A cleric who worships a "god" of peace, however, would wield spells that create amity through charm and enchantment, and would gain blessings from righting ills and from ending conflicts without spilling blood. Both these characters are pursuing an ideal, drawing their power from their desire to bring this ideal to fruition, to make it real; thus, they are both clerics. A good ruleset would provide class options to make either of these characters work, but all without losing sight of what makes them both clerics.

    Perhaps this gives a better idea of what I am thinking?

    1. Oh yeah, I think we're on the same page, then. Sounds great. :D

      I guess the only thing left that gives me pause, then, is some of your examples of "bad" classes. I think a druid, for example, CAN be a good class, even if it really isn't in some given particular instances. But at that point we're hashing out details. Your core idea here seems super solid, as I now understand it.

      On a related note, as much as I tend to like both Clerics and Paladins from a mechanical point of view, I think a problem that these classes tend to have "flavor-wise" or "worldview-wise" is that they're too darn similar, to the point where I feel like they should be combined into one class (or two variations on the same class, if your system allows that kind of flexibility). I've seen some OD&D fans make similar complaints; we already have one holy warrior-type class in the form of the Cleric, so why do we need the Paladin? I can maybe see your suggestion of a Knight class solving that problem for some people by giving the ability-set of a Paladin a new coat of paint. Then again, a Knight doesn't feel that different from a Fighter to me, so maybe that creates a different problem. Maybe sub-classes are the way to go?

    2. Haha, cool! (And, I'm cool with hashing out details, too :p )

      Yeah, it would be possible to make the Druid a good class. Just a nature priest doesn't work - that would be a cleric, as established - but there are other influences that could be emphasized instead. I think, for example, of a more shamanistic direction, where the class' focus involves bargaining with spirits in order to obtain favors and boons. Or, taking a page out of 5th Edition's book, putting more emphasis on a shape-changing ability, with levels increasing the options to change shape into and the power of these changes (the class worldview, then, emphasizing loss of self into the unity of nature).

      I agree about clerics and paladins. It would be interesting to try to drop the "warrior" assumption about clerics - have them be, at heart, priests and not necessarily warriors - and then have the paladin be a conflict-oriented subclass of this.
      Yes, Knight would be a fine subclass of Fighter. I'm currently experimenting with having it be its own class, however; one of my players just rolled one up the week before last. We'll see how it goes, haha!

      Overall, I'm not sure how I feel about sub-classes, to be honest. I don't have any major complaint about them, but it becomes difficult to sort out the difference between a class and a sub-class, and I definitely dislike the kind of bloat present in game systems like 3rd Edition and Pathfinder. I'm currently running a HEAVILY house-ruled 5E game that eliminates subclasses, and am pleased overall.

    3. Semi-serious, really reaching, incomplete list of class worldviews:
      Fighters solve problems with MURDER.
      Thieves solve problems with TRICKERY.
      Clerics solve problems with THE POWER OF GOD.
      Wizards solve problems with MAGIC.
      Bards solve problems with MUSIC.
      Monks solve problems with FITNESS.
      Paladins solve problems with HONOR.
      Druids solve problems with NATURE.
      Barbarians solve problems with RUGGEDNESS.
      Artificers solve problems with SCIENCE but they don't call it that.
      Rangers solve problems with, uh, HUNTING.
      Assassins solve problems with AMBUSHING I guess.
      Illusionists solve problems with HOLOGRAMS.
      Sorcerers in 3.5E solve problems with MORE CONVENIENT MAGIC.
      Sorcerers on Carcosa solve problems with BAD THINGS.
      Warlocks solve problems with DEMONS AND CTHULHU.
      Warlords solve problems with BOSSINESS.
      Alices/Fools solve problems with EXASPERATED BLUNDERING, which is awesome.

    4. Er, well, TBH, this is kind of what I was trying to head off with the first section of the article ("Skills are tools for problem-solving" and following), haha. Most of the capitalized text above is really just a skill or two.

      I tried to frame what makes a class a class as the different ways in which they see the world (and, in particular but not exclusively, how they see the problems the world confronts them with.) And, yes, they end up using one skill or another to solve problems, and the skill(s) that they end up using are influenced by their worldview, but the skills ("tools for problem-solving," as I originally defined them) are not what define them.
      An example might be Fighters using Intimidation to solve problems. Is Intimidation murder? Nope. But it is violence of a sort - verbal or body-language violence, and a very fighter-like thing to do, flowing from their worldview that the world they inhabit is a succession of foes to be defeated (by one means or another). Or, Clerics using sermons to incite peasants to righteous revolution. Is that the power of their god? Nope. But it is the Cleric using their faith to accomplish a Clerical goal - the embodiment of their god's presence in earthly order, and a very Clerical thing to do.

      I admit, this MAY just be a difference in semantics. But I don't THINK it is, haha.

      Cheers, bro, and thanks for continuing to engage!

    5. Addendum: some of your "semi-serious, really reaching" characterizations WERE, nonetheless, right on. Paladins, Warlords, and Alices in particular :)

    6. Yeah, that last comment wasn't really meant as a criticism of your post, but more as a joking way of pointing out how some classes are a lot more focused and thematically unified than others. But I do wonder if it might not be somewhat difficult to separate a class/worldview from a set of skills? Like, if you have a certain worldview, it's going to lead you to see certain skills as important enough to practice and others as being outside your purview or unworthy of your time and effort, for whatever reason.

    7. Haha, I didn't take it as criticism - you made sure to label it as "semi-serious." (My favorite is still Warlord = BOSSINESS, btw. I briefly played a Warlord back when 4E was still the latest D&D, and spending half of every combat yelling at everyone what to do ALMOST made up for 4E's headache-inducing array of powers, haha.)

      Yep, it can be somewhat difficult to make that separation. It is certainly true that "if you have a certain worldview, it's going to lead you to see certain skills as important enough to practice and others as being outside your purview or unworthy of your time and effort." That is exactly why a character's class has such a large in-game impact on their mechanics and how they are played - if class was JUST dissociated worldview, it would be about as meaningless as the traditional two-axis alignment system, haha. (But that's another post!)

      So, given what you've said, it sounds like another good corollary to my post would be that a good class SHOULD imply a certain skillset, without being DEFINED by that skillset.

      I will use three core classes as an example, drawing directly from my original post.

      A fighter, thief, and wizard come across a barred door. They want to get to the other side.
      Fighters view problems as foes to be defeated. So, what will the fighter want to do? Break down the door.
      Thieves view problems as obstacles to be circumvented. So, what will the thief want to do? Find a way around. (This is assuming the relevant ruleset doesn't allow barred doors to be "picked.")
      Wizards view problems as malformations of existence itself. So, what will the wizard want to do? Rectify existence ("cast a spell") such that the problem simply NO LONGER IS. (...via spells like "knock" or "passwall" or whatever the relevant system provides.)

      So, being a Fighter IMPLIES a skillset that involves applying violence (usually via strength-dependent weapons) to problems. But obviously not everyone who carries a sword is a Fighter, yes? (Knights, Rogues, and many other characters besides often use weapons of all kinds. But for different reasons, and in different ways.) It is the worldview that defines the Fighter, and it is the worldview that implies the tools and skills that solve the problem.
      And being a Wizard IMPLIES a skillset that consists of reworking reality itself when problems arise. But obviously not everyone who uses magic is a Wizard, yes? (Clerics, Warlocks, and many other characters besides make use of magic. But for different reasons, and in different ways.) It is the worldview that defines the Wizard, and it is the worldview that implies the tools and skills that solve the problem.

      Haha, sorry for the long-windedness! (But I suppose I wouldn't be on here if I didn't enjoy splitting hairs and being long-winded, eh? Probably the same for you, haha.)

    8. Oh yeah, you don't have to apologize for being long-winded when talking about games with me! And yeah, I think what you're saying makes sense.

  3. What you have here is a good design philosophy! I do think the problem of paladins, monks, druids, etc stems from how specialized they are as classes. They answer problems similarly to other classes. The monk punches (fighter), the paladin smites undead (cleric), and the druid summons grasping vines (wizard)but they are deeply specialized in a certain field to be exceptionally better than those classes in certain situations. A paladin would be better than a fighter against undead. A druid would be better than a wizard against beasts or fae. A monk would be better than...I don't know a monster immune to metal! I think if designers build classes while asking "How does this class solve problems differently from X?", instead of just making certain classes better in certain situation, there would definitely be more classes with substance running around.

    1. Yes, a "situational" class is anathema. Who wants to play a character that's only a competitive option 30% of the time, haha?
      (Thanks for commenting!)

    2. (oops. Replied to you thinking you replied to me when you actually replied to Justin oh well!)

      I'm not a huge fan of sub-classes but I think there's something there. With requisites a class could become another class by giving something up. For example a fighter could become a paladin by giving up some of his fighting abilities. Instead he gains unique paladin spells and abilites. Likewise for Druid. They could originate from wizards who've given up their arcane studies to become one with nature.

      Overall I think 5e does a better job of adding substance to monks, fighters, and druids. Paladins can at least do stuff that clerics can't. Likewise for monks and druids.!

      Thanks for replying! Keep up the good work!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.