Categories

010: Class Mechanics

On their quest for the most usable game our heroes encounter a forest of skill trees shaped by the artificial constraints of character class.

In this episode we talked about:

  • 6:29 AD&D 2nd Edition
  • 12:25 Starfinder
  • 16:17 Pathfinder 2nd Edition
  • 18:30 Battlefied
  • 20:25 Mork Borg
  • 21:30 Marvel Superhero RPG
  • 27:28 Vampire: the Masquerade
  • 31:30 New World

Introductory Guy  

Hello. Welcome to design thinking games,s a fantasy and user experience podcast. Each episode, your podcast hosts, Tim Broadwater and Michael Schofield, will examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games, mobile games, and video games. You can find every episode, including this one on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at designthinkinggames.com.

Michael Schofield  

So last night is Thursday evening, which for many a  Dungeons and Dragons player is their game night as a holy day of the week. We had a couple of our players who had guests in town, and so I was able to randomly generate a class for them. Here’s an example of kind of like, what was counterintuitive for a new d&d fifth edition player who [Schofield gibberish] about the class system. They come into play a game. In this scenario that they’re dropping into, the Quarriors have found their way into Temple of Deneir out in the Living Dunes, deep in the sands. 

Tim Broadwater  

This is your homebrew, right? 

Michael Schofield  

Think of Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy. Right?

Tim Broadwater  

I love that movie. It’s a good movie.

Michael Schofield  

So here they are, trying to get into the heart of this mysterious sand-covered temple. The new players, our party guests, are picking up the roles of a couple of the retainers that the party had hired to help them, you know, do some of the labor around traveling, but here we are. Okay, so these players who are guests of the party are picking up the roles of some of the retainers that helped the party do some laborious travel. They’re the ones who carry all the heavy packs, things like that. I happen to know because of the mechanics of the game and some of the homebrew that we’re playing that one of these is a lower class or lower level Ranger and the other as a lower level barbarian. So I randomly generate these characters at that level and dole them out. The issue is that this first scenario for two people in the session is one full of puzzles. They are deep in this temple, and they’re not fighting bad guys or zombies or sand creatures. They are trying to get from chamber to chamber by solving riddles. It’s one of those things. So what do players do around the table? They start solving the riddles, and riddle time is one of those parts of a game where… 

Riddle time is the part of the game where I think the line between the player and the character really blurs right. You can sometimes have a character who’s smarter than you. And they may roll to get some added insight that you as a player might not actually know. But generally, you, the player, are the one who is trying to solve the puzzle. It’s no longer your character tit’s you. So what we had was this person who’s playing Hither the Barbarian was making really good guesses at some of these puzzles as they go all the while when periodically she had to roll ln arcana check or a history check, she had a negative one. Right? So her character is by class and just especially by the random assortment, or the random allotment of skills for this barbarian class, is dumb as rocks, but the player is quite smart. And when she failed every single intelligence check that was made, she was really confused because she’s like, Damn, I  the player solved the riddle or could solve this riddle, but my character is stupid. And it’s one of those things where she found that the constraint of the class was was really confusing. So all this to say, this is the anecdote that I want to lead into when we start talking about the mechanics and the design of particularly like RPGs, where powers and skills and capacities are organized in classes, engineers or soldiers or adepts or barbarians as opposed to the alternative, which is some sort of like classless game design where you level up a certain ability through use.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, there are a couple things there. I know you told me in the past that you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons before the fifth edition. That’s a grasping the pearls moment for me. Because that’s, I’m just like, how is that even possible? Because I know you, you know,

Michael Schofield  

I brought that up because there’s a lot of discussion about the constraints of classes and d&d fifth edition and going classless, and I thought this was new. 

Tim Broadwater  

no, no, it’s always baked into d&d. I’d never played the original OG Gygax Dungeons and Dragons. I played Advanced and then Advanced second edition, and so on. So I played the first, second, and third edition Dungeons and Dragons. In the first edition, I can’t speak to it because I literally don’t remember. But I spent many years playing the second edition, Dungeons and Dragons, advanced dungeons and dragons. In the second edition, it was the kick in the gut to dual-class or multi-class. And the reason why is if you went along, and you were a barbarian. You got to the third or fourth level, and you’re like, hey, I want to pick up, you know, a thief kind of thing like to pull off maybe a barbarian thief, kind of like Conan is in the movie. It made no sense. Because to start over just to learn to pickpocket and use thieves tools and sneak, you didn’t retain anything in your brain about being a barbarian until you’ve got up to that third or fourth level again. And once you were third or fourth level, and you got to the same point we were with, like rogue or thief with a barbarian, then you could pursue both, like you would split your experience. Right?

Michael Schofield  

Wow. Wow, that’s hardcore. 

Tim Broadwater  

And it was just like, dude, there’s very, there’s a huge difference between a first and a fourth level character, you know, just like there’s a seventh and a 10th level character difference, right? And so when you are rolling with your buddies, and you’re playing, and you’re just like, oh, crap, now I go back to level one. They’re gonna have to carry me for like a while. And so it was really clumsily done, just for the reason that you specifically said, because it didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem that you could have a smart barbarian that you could have a magic-user who could fight, you know, like martial arts, not martial arts, but like melee, right? Could fight in melee. And but we all were raised with Gandalf and read Lord of the Rings. So we’re like, well, this doesn’t make sense. Gandalf had a sword, you know what I mean? And so I think it was, to me, and this is kind of stepping back and looking at it. It’s like, I think classes can be great. And they’ve worked for years. But I think what we see now is this push towards more sophisticated or realistic or advanced ways that we can put skills and proficiencies and abilities together than having it divided in these silos? Like if you want to heal someone, versus if you want to steal from someone versus if you want to be able to fight on a horse. I mean, those are like those three classes never shall the twain meet, you know. And I think that’s a lot of people’s experience with tabletop RPGs until maybe recently.

Michael Schofield  

It occurred to me while you’re talking, and I decided to Google just to see if there’s some evidence here. Still, to me, the idea of like classes plays really well when you think of the party as a single unit, right? The reality when you, as a group of players in a collaborative game, are playing against the big bad, you’re going after the white dragon, or you’re facing down Cthulhu, is that it’s not five individuals versus the hulking beast. It is a party unit, your coterie, your group that, together, composes a well-defined opponent to the bad guy cuz you have the tank. You have the healer, and you have the spell slinger, and so on. Right, but increasingly, you know, especially with the popularity of d&d, in the last couple of years, thanks in part to that pandemic And Critical Role before that, is that Dungeons and Dragons and these kinds of RPGs and maybe dovetails with the popularity and scale of single-player RPGs that have come out like Skyrim, and The Elder Scrolls games. But it seems to me that now when I’m playing with my group of players, where I’m playing by myself, or I’m listening to people talk about the kind of like the meta-conversation around d&d, it’s, the RPG is an exploration of the individual, as opposed to like the group dynamic. So it’s really highlighting those individual features.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so if you think of traditional role-playing games, to where it’s like, who’s our healer? We can’t even go if we don’t have a healer. So there’s some truth About that, you know, where it’s like we have to have a paladin who will not cut it. We need a cleric or, you know, something our Life Oracle or something like that, right. And I think that’s something that, over time, kind of evolves, not that it was bad. It’s just not realistic, right? And I think if you look at modern systems that I’m aware of, well, let me just say Starfinder, which is the sci-fi, tabletop role-playing game from Piso. Oh, are you aware of it?

Michael Schofield  

I’m aware of it because you talk about it all the time. But I’ve never once played it.

Tim Broadwater  

So it actually won in its first year, best RPG of the year, like the tabletop role-playing game of the year, because I just think it was a time when people …  like it was a good time. People were sick of high fantasy, and they wanted something different. And it’s kind of like Mass Effect, but the role-playing game, you know what I mean? So there’s like all these, like, an insane amount of player races that alien races you can play and whatever. But what Starfinder does that I really like is that, since it’s the future. It’s space, everyone if you think of these things that are like, okay, magical items, tech, cybernetics robots, those are things that anyone can have. That’s all kind of offloaded into the, like, a lot of skills are offloaded into that, like, you don’t need to play a winged race because dude, everyone can buy a jetpack, you know. And it’s kind of like everyone can buy anti-gravity boots, everyone can have a drone with a camera on it, you know, everyone can have, you know, these kinds of things. So it kind of levels a lot of the playing field. And then really what it is that I like, what I think a lot of people like about Star finder and find it refreshing is that it would be a combination of the unique eccentricities – I don’t know what word I’m looking for. But the unique characteristics of I guess what I’m trying to say is classes don’t matter so much anymore. Your alien race matters. And if you can all get magical items, and tech and cybernetics, and whatever, and a vehicle in a spaceship. You know, it adds enough play to it. So it really comes down to more of the character flavor that you want. It’s not limiting, right? There are many different ways you can heal yourself. You can do it with serums, you could do it with medkits, you can do it with magic, you know, and you can have access to all those things. So it’s a combination. So if you think of offloading all your skills that way, like hey, I don’t need to put a lot into computers or hacking, but I could have a robot with me that hacks computers for me, you know, or something like that. It kind of lets you kind of do whatever you want. And the classes themselves in Starfinder don’t have a lot of crazy abilities. I mean, there’s some cool stuff, but they can’t really only really do one thing and so like you’re either Everyone can fire laser weapons so everyone can range attack, right? Everyone can fire. Everyone can use a melee weapon. So the classes are like, well, this one’s maybe better at melee or this one’s better. This one inherently gets magic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use magic, so it opens it up enough to where you don’t have to worry about, you know, kind of being pigeonholed into being one thing like in older RPGs and Piso which does Pathfinder and StarFinder. And there’s Pathfinder first and second edition, first edition second edition, and Starfinder – well I will say this the first edition and second and Starfinder lets you add every level so at every level you can say like I’m going to be a Vanguard and the next level the class I’m going to take is an envoy. Then I’m going to take two Soldiers and then think so each level you can just add a new class. As long as you can meet the requirements for that class, like at least you have to have the basic strength or wisdom score whenever you can just custom build it as you level up, there is no kind of penalty; however, when they released Pathfinder second edition two years ago, they nerfed that because I think they found out like although people loved it because you could be a barbarian wizard Bard you know what I mean? If you want to and may have something cool. What they found is that characters got really OP quickly and became overpowered, so in second edition Pathfinder, when you level, if you start out as a, let’s say, a rogue or thief, you are always a rogue or a thief. However, they’ve tons of feats, and in the second edition, there are racial feats. There are class feats, you know, there are combat feats, and everyone gets everything right. You can sack some of your class feats as a rogue. So you’re like, I can pick pockets, But okay, I’m not gonna hide in the shadows. But I will sack my hide in shadows to get access to cleric abilities. Oh, so they’ve made it to where you can kind of like you can like learn and do things from other classes,  but it’s not you’re not going to advance as much as you do as a rogue if you are also going to heal people, but it doesn’t penalize you you know,

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, that’s interesting. I kind of want to rewind a minute to your mention that they discovered that players kind of doing a building however they wanted, ended up creating really overpowered characters. I think that’s probably what the argument for class is like in terms of the design of the system of the game. I imagine classes make it easier to balance right you see this kind of expressed and really counterintuitive ways in some shooters. I like my first-person shooters, and the war game I really like is I prefer the Battlefield series to just about everything else. Recently they have really excellent rifles class locked to a medic class that you would think would be available to a sniper class or class or any class really. But they do that precisely because the specific intricacies of Class A added to the buffs and abilities of Weapon B create something indomitable. It’s weird, and it’s hard as a player not to run into that cognitive leap. It’s almost like an uncanny valley where you’re like, wow, this is really not real this is not how it would be in an act like if you actually like setting foot in the game, which is probably exacerbated as games become increasingly realistic. 

Tim Broadwater  

There’s the opposite to that as well, like even more of rejection or run away from reality like I want fantasy isn’t ridiculous. I want overpowered. 

Michael Schofield  

One of the things that we’ve been talking about for you know, the many episodes now have been about like player like the role of Player customization and that like overall experience, and it’s one of those things where classes really get in the way. These are real barriers.

Tim Broadwater  

I also am, I don’t know, what other kind of class versus classes, classless mechanics you’re a fan of or you like, but I kind of like one of the things we talked about here recently, I think, was Mork Borg. Yeah, so Mork Borg is an old-school revival. It is a brutal, post-apocalyptic game. And it is, essentially, but you have limited stats. The cool thing about Mork Borg is, is you have limited stats, you have limited health damage attributes, or whatever, whenever you level up. It is basically like White Wolf or World of Darkness to where it’s like you get dots. Now, you can put those dots on whatever you want. It could be your vampire power of celerity. Or it could be your claws, as a werewolf, or it could be just your health. But it’s just like you actually choose what you want to be good at because you just get dots.

Michael Schofield  

It’s just a finite amount of dots.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, and so maybe you do a campaign, and at the end of the campaign, you level up, and it’s like, you get free dots. And so it’s really how you could then make yourself super fast or make yourself more healthy, or, you know, or whatever, or good at firearms. I mean, it’s really, you know, it’s kind of that open system. And Mirk Borg is like that as well, as well as the old school Marvel Superheroes role-playing game, like when you level up, you essentially can increase. Marvel Superheroes, the role-playing game, is an old tabletop role-playing game that I want to actually start running a campaign for here in the next couple of months, just because I hadn’t played it since I was in Middle School. And it’s fun. If you ever want to play a superhero-based tabletop role-playing game, I highly suggest Marvel superheroes role-playing game, but it is essentially the same, you have powers. However you get them, it doesn’t matter if they’re tech, alien magic, whatever, you have the knowledge, and you have resources. And so essentially, if you want to make yourself better at driving cars or make your laser eyes, like more powerful, or you want to have more money, I mean, it’s like the dots for like White Wolf, it’s where you put them. So it doesn’t really matter.

Michael Schofield  

When it comes to balance, where does having like a finite amount of points to expend how do you prevent that OP nature? What prevents you from putting, you know, five points into Firearms which maxes it out? 

Tim Broadwater  

know, it’s kind of how it’s what I like about White Wolf. And you may be able to speak to this too, like the White Wolf tabletop role-playing game, or Marvel Superheroes or Mork Borg or others that are classless systems have this, you know, kind of not a skill tree, but it’s like you get what you get, like experience, and you can put it however you want to your character in whatever way, it’s kind of just a note like, through role-playing, or through what you do in your downtime, quote, unquote, is that and so if you want your character to be like really good at ranged attacks, or firearms or weapons, you kind of that’s what you focused on when you’re working with your character, like, Hey, I started going to the gun range with my human friend, he doesn’t know I’m a vampire, but you know, and then I started getting really good at shooting and then that’s something that you can take over. Because you can also say that you worked on your speed or your celerity, right, so you could move super quick.  So it’s kind of like that, if it’s for richness or resources, then it’s basically like, Oh, you spent a month or two weeks or whatever your downtime is doing PR spinning up a website, doing some podcasts interviews there, you know, and then but then people know you and recognize you. So you know, it’s kind of so it lets you play whatever character you want to play and grow it however you want to grow it. And it doesn’t always have to be, “I will never get these powers or abilities. Because I’m limited by a class.” 

Michael Schofield  

And that’s the key. Let’s say you’re a ranger in fifth edition dungeons and dragons, and you are hanging out with wizards in your travails. You have lifted the spell books of many, many another wizard antagonist, right. So you have, like in your downtime, ample opportunity. Let’s say you have five spellbooks in your party, you know, one belonging to your own wizard, and then just four others that you’ve looted, you have ample opportunity in like a long rest, like over the course of a campaign to maybe study, but the system will not let you earn certain or use certain spells because you know, those spells are locked to the wizard class or something like that. And that’s, and that’s the main, that’s a particular gripe, right? Because the uncanny valley comes in when you are told for system reasons that under no circumstances could your forest-born wood elf ever learn this spell, Even if it’s taught to you by the creator of that spell or something like that.

Tim Broadwater  

 100% Yeah, it’s like, you’re never going to learn. In Pathfinder Second Edition, they actually have, like, occult magic, nature magic, arcane magic, and divine magic, right? They have four magic systems. They used to have psychic magic too, which was, basically, mind magic. I mean, it’s what they called it, you know what I mean? But it’s basically everything you think of a scientist or, you know, you know, telepathic or whatever. But, but no, I agree with you. And I think the reason why, and I’m not gonna say it’s lazy, is because I think it has to work, like content-wise and map to a game, and you’re not super powerful, super early. But the reason why the White Wolf, Mork Borg, Marvel Superhero systems like the dots, like you get dots and points, whatever you want to call them. It maps to video games really easily. You know, whenever you complete a class, or you kill X amount of people, and you get to experience, you level up, boom, you get a dot.

And so if you want to be faster, or you want a lot of people in games, go to the strategy, like, dude, I’m gonna max out my health first. So I have just huge health. Or I’m gonna max out my defense, so I don’t wear my attack. So you know, everyone plays differently. And it’s not lazy. I think it’s a little lazy. But, but it’s like, that’s an easy go-to experience system. But the thing it affords you, we call it lazy you’re not, is also you can kind of work to what you want. You’re not locked into trees or in a class.

Michael Schofield  

In Vampire there, there is a kind of class, however, right, and it’s your vampire clan, where I think classes play a role, which I think is interesting because I play, I like to play low fantasy gritty games that deal with real things hashtag. And that’s one of the reasons that I liked the World of Darkness when we talked about in that episode is because it’s this world is just a little more supernatural. One of the things where I think classes work, and vampires have, you know, veiled the vampire class system is their clan, which does restrict I mean, for the most part, like with different disciplines, the vampire powers that you have access to, like only the Brujah have, maybe potency and celerity. And you know, that kind of like, the powers that you think of in terms of vampires being super strong and super fast. And the clan that you choose as a player tailors your experience, not to the skills that you can develop, but like the potential for your vampiric power.

Tim Broadwater  

I think what you’re saying and this is it’s been a while it’s been a minute since I’ve played, you know, Vampire, that or werewolf is that the whole point of the clan or werewolf tribe, or whatever it is, is that there are actually certain powers that only that that clan gets access to that are passed down through turning. But then there’s a general vampire pool, right? Like werewolf to where you can just kind of get general powers that all vampires could get. Yeah. Is that correct? No.

Michael Schofield  

No. Like, at least not in the Old World of Darkness. Right? Like it really is that the idea of the clan, like what, like when I think of a class that works a class system, the idea of the clan is really on the nose because the clan is effectively about the in this case, vampiric but the social strata into which you are born, you can’t escape the nature of your clan. Now all vampires have things in common. They’re pretty hungry, they have things, and they have something within them called the beast that wants to come out whenever there’s a hint of blood in the air. Or

Tim Broadwater  

Claws? Not all know like vampires have claws?

Michael Schofield  

Not in the original. Well, so in “OWOD.” So we know there’s World of Darkness one, and now we’re in World of Darkness Three (?). I made a huge caveat when we talked on this episode that I played in the late 90s through the early 2000s. 

Tim Broadwater  

First, like Gangrels can get claws.

Michael Schofield  

Only Gangrels can get class. Now, how do you let’s say, one of the Toradora? Who are who’s considered sort of like the bougie clan?  How do you get Gangrel powers? Well, you kill one, you kill a Gangrel, and you suck their soul out of them.

Tim Broadwater  

Right? Like you drink, you kill one and drink their blood, and you can get it that way.

Michael Schofield  

You may do more than drink their blood. You literally consume their very essence and, and there’s a game mechanic. It’s called Diablerie. And there’s a mechanic where that can go awful for you. But if it works,

Tim Broadwater  

You get powers from other bloodlines.

Michael Schofield  

Exactly what I like about certain, I’ve seen some homebrews and Dungeons and Dragons that I’ve, I’ve considered because I feel constrained by classes now. But one of the things I like is like class or a kind of certain features or skills that are unlocked by your background, like, I think there’s something kind of interesting about the ideas like, Oh, my family is a noble, my family are nobles, and we have all these resources. And thus, I am an excellent researcher. Right. But like, Oh, it was like I was a peasant child born like, next to a wood – like a lumber mill. You’re probably illiterate. I think that’s compelling. And I love the idea. Whereas like, you know, I when there’s a game that Amazon is developing called New World that you put me on to that I’ve been watching interested because I’m pretty sure. Although I’m pretty sure that it is a classless MMO

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, and I think that was one of the reasons, even in a general topic about it, because it looks amazing. And that’s the big selling point that they keep pushing. It’s like no classes, be whatever you want to be, build who you want to build. Everyone’s on the same playing field. You know,

Michael Schofield  

it’s amazing.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah. So for like New World, I know that there are a lot of people that I where I work who are interested in getting on board, and they’re doing a beta now or an alpha. Now, unfortunately, what you do in the alpha or beta doesn’t get copied over to

Michael Schofield  

I hate that. Yeah,

Tim Broadwater  

yeah, it doesn’t get copied over to the actual game. So to me, and every player is different. But for me, that is like, well, I’m just gonna wait till it starts. Right and, and I know, you’d pay more to get on the alpha or the beta just to get like a new custom item set, or like a cool armor piece or a cool mount. But that doesn’t appeal. That’s not enough spin for me to be like, you can play and waste it all. And it doesn’t go anywhere. But like what I like about the new world is exactly this thing to where it’s like we are totally embracing this classless system. It’s a point build, and my understanding of the limited stuff I’ve watched is if you think about Pirates of Caribbean time period, which I’m not exactly sure what that is, but it’s basically like, we have technology to some degree. We have simple Steam Machines, and there’s gunpowder, and there are muskets and guns, right. And there’s giant like armadas and sailing across the sea that basically it’s an alternate version of history where they find an island. I guess it’s named a Turnham or a Turnham. Like

Michael Schofield  

Aeternum. Yeah.

Tim Broadwater  

As you know, and I will be an Amazon fanboy and say, everything that Amazon touches is gold. Yeah, they know, desirability. They know the difference between usability and desirability, and they give people desirability, and so a lot of people are very excited for, you know, what Amazon can do to try to experience it, and I will definitely be checking it out.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, as much as I like to even treat in my normal life, like, you know, like, we, we utter the word Amazon and spit over our shoulder and sprinkle salt on our ancestors some shit, but like, they are winning, because they’re good. 

Tim Broadwater  

They know what people want and what will people pay for and they, and that’s what they give them. 

Michael Schofield  

When we get a chance to play this, I really want to break down some of the design choices they make. Is this style of classlessness, and do as you will like the future? I would love to really pick the mind of someone who’s working on the engines underneath something like this, about how they think about it because when I think about gosh, if I were to design a game, even at like a small level, like a game that just exists within the four corners of a table. To your point, I think classes are easier to balance. Right. The difficulty The development probably increases exponentially to give the player this kind of experience, but if they nail it, then you know this is going to be sticky. Because you know, and then and maybe this is a good dovetail into like a subsequent episode, something that we’ve never even put on our board, but I’m thinking about it. Because, you know, if this game gets legs and there’s a player base, and Amazon really leans into it, they’re going to embellish this experience with cross-platform opportunities. Imagine Alexa tells you, oh my gosh, there’s someone waiting for you at your fish market to make a transaction.

Tim Broadwater  

Oh, yeah. Microtransactions definitely baked into it. There’s also I think when you think about the quest for the most usable game, and we talked about yet another metric or slider, right, realism, some of the things that you said versus realism versus fantasy, where some people would say, well, that’s not realistic in the real world do you have to devote for years to just learn how to become a sword Master? So you should be if you’re a samurai class, you should only get this and people outside the class. Should it? Yeah, and I see that I get it. I’m like that. I do get it. That’s realism. Some people don’t want that in games. Like the realism piece of like, studying your class being locked down versus like being a phenomenal sniper, like, what’s my shooting time? And what’s the kickback of a gun? You know, that’s, that’s a type of realism. But there’s also this the fantasy side, right, which is, you know, why can’t I transform into a cat swing a giant magic sword and, and cast lightning fireballs, you know, you know, and be able to pickpockets, you know? So it’s like, oh, well, so it kind of also depends on what people want out of the game.

Michael Schofield  

Tim, if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the design thinking games podcast. To connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, please go to designthinkinggames.com, where you can request topics, ask questions, or see what else is going on. Until next time, game on.

Liked it? Take a second to support Design Thinking Games on Patreon!