A Distinct Lack of Class

I don’t know why I find this aspect of mainstream RPGs particularly troublesome, but classes leave me cold. More so than most other quibbles I have with games. Perhaps it’s the sheer pervasiveness – most elements of D&D are subverted in homebrew games on a regular basis, but the same class system pops up in so many of them. You want to be decent at hitting things? You should be a fighter. Ah, but you want to cast spells? Better be a wizard, then. Want to do both? Well, I guess we could allow multiclassing, or perhaps we can find a class with includes aspects of both. Oh, and we need someone to be a cleric ‘cos we definitely someone whose class can do healing…
I don’t like the way a class system encourages a compartmentalising of character playstyles. Players subconsciously (and often explicitly) assign themselves and each other roles, and try and stick to them through thick and thin. The Rogue always scouts ahead silently. The Barbarian always wades in to a fray. The Wizard always casts a fireball. That’s not to disparage these ways of playing as foolish – they aren’t, because these classes are good at doing these things.
But I don’t like how other classes then close off those avenues because they don’t feel they can ‘compete’. The Barbarian won’t conduct delicate negotiations because everyone knows that Barbarians don’t do diplomacy. The Wizard knows they aren’t going to do much damage with a sword, and because is a part of every RPG ever they know they need to hurl fire to be able to contribute in the Combat Mode that is Initiative. The Rogue gets frustrated because everything they’re good at involves everyone else shutting up and being good for a couple of hours while they do their thing.
And if a player insists on joining in on all areas of play, then we’ll all complain about Bards being a ridiculous concept.
The problem is that a character becomes primarily identified as their class* and what that class is best at doing. That has an advantage if you are looking to craft a balanced party ready to present whichever party member is quantifiably better at completing a particular task, but that can lead to hyper-extended character creation sessions as every player debates who should prep their character to do what. Then every level up, if the class provides options, leads to more discussion. Assuming every player already knows the system well enough to know what makes an effective character build, and not get overwhelmed by all the uninformed choices they have to make to have fun.
* and race, but that’s another blog post.
And character creation gets boring after a short while. I have so little opportunity to game – I don’t want to spend that valuable game time theorising about gaming.
So I want my homebrew system to have a nice quick character creation system, and to facilitate that I would look to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Zweihander for inspiration: random backgrounds. You show up to the table not knowing whether in five minutes’ time you are going to end up with a slave, a member of the nobility or a rat catcher. A newcomer to RPGs may not know much about the difference between a Wizard and a Sorceror, but most will understand the sort of things a blacksmith might be good at compared to a carpenter.
Fundamentally, though, I think it avoids characters being forever assigned a category. A class describes who the character has beenis and will be, whereas a background profession describes who a character was. It allows for an appropriate set of starting equipment, and an indication as to what sort of activities the character might be good at, but if there are no arbitrarily assigned skills then it’s up to player imagination as to how those background talents might be put to use. The background essentially becomes a Skill itself.
The wonder that is the catalogue of OSR-orientated blogs provides many different background lists to steal from.
Other aspects of character creation will also be randomly generated. Each player will get a base stat block and then roll to see what gets boosted for their initial character. Anyone who feels particularly inclined towards magic, combat or skills can upgrade their magic die, armed damage die or luck die respectively. The same table can also be used for characters leveling up, or the GM might be kind and allow players to choose what aspects of the character improve over time.
I’d like to add in something else to distinguish characters a little bit more mechanically to encourage a bit more investment in character development over the course of a campaign, something like class-like abilities which anyone can earn. However, I want it to be more than simply being this PC getting Advantage in this situation and that PC getting a +1 to a stat in that situation, as well as avoiding combat-only maneuvres – I don’t want characters thinking they can’t do unusual things in combat just because they haven’t got a specific ability. Each would also need to be worth a character’s investment over a simple upgraded stamina die, but not such an obvious pick that every character ends up taking it. Limited use abilities are one option, perhaps have them be usable once-per-session to limit the complexity of book-keeping.
More thought needed here…

5 thoughts on “A Distinct Lack of Class

  1. Tremendous – you, sir, are a gent and a marvel! I often find myself overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of good idea blog posts out there, and you have a knack (both here and on Discord) for rooting out the many gems that I've missed. Thanks!


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