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Building a Classless System | Making an RPG

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This article was originally found on the Grinning Rat Publications Medium account. It has been brought over and made free for viewers. Note: Some ideas and considerations may be out of date.

In most TTRPGs, choosing a class is one of the biggest decisions a player makes when creating a character. This usually requires the player to have made a decision about what their character is going to be — often before the player has even had a chance to really start playing the game.

There’s nothing worse than building out a character like a fighter, only to find out that the game is going to be more of a political / social game with little-to-no fighting.

But what if you didn’t need to pick a class? What if your character developed as the game developed; your character being built as a reaction to what was actually happening in the game?

How does it work?

For those who are familiar with classless systems, like those presented in Traveller, RuneQuest, or Tavern Tales, you’ve seen this played out before.

For those unfamiliar, however, you may be surprised that you’ve likely played role-playing games without classes. Most Bethesda games, like Skyrim or Fallout, are classless by their nature. You simply add points to particular abilities and skills, your ‘class’ developing as you customize your character.

In other words, you don’t choose to be a battle mage. You add points to magic and fighting skills and create a battle mage based on what abilities you have.

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What are the pros and cons?

As explained in the intro, a classless system can be extremely beneficial in games that transition from one theme to another, like in games that move from dungeon-crawling to political scheming. This allows for characters to develop skills that they’ll actually use as the game changes, rather than simply sitting out when their character isn’t relevant to the situation.

Another benefit of a classless system means that the characters built feel like people, rather than stereotypes or archetypes. A bookish barbarian is possible, just as a charismatic fighter is. These characters can have depth — and be represented by more than what is on their sheet.

Additionally, ‘dump stats’ become less of an issue in classless systems. These systems often have skills and abilities tied to certain number thresholds (for example, a Shield Bash skill requiring 13 Strength or an armor requiring 12 Dexterity to equip), which means that a character is putting points into abilities in order to get a very specific and tangible benefit. Compare this to something like DND, where putting points into Intelligence as a non-spellcasting class is essentially useless; there is no benefit to being a smart martial character beyond role-play.

However, like all things, it’s not a perfect system. When a character is not well-defined from the start, it can be confusing for some players. And while the system allows flexibility, it results in generally ill-defined characters at the start — where each character is more or less the same barring a few selected skills.

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Building a Classless System

So how do we actually build a classless system in role-playing games while attempting to minimize the cons? Each of the following headers represents a key factor in building a system like this, with each also defining how the player, DM, and game itself uses it.

Well-Defined Abilities

Abilities must be straightforward enough to be understood from the onset, with one or two sentences describing them. In Role of Three, we’ve defined the abilities as follows:

  • Intelligence: The knowledge of the character on a given subject.
  • Wisdom: The senses of the character and their perception of events.
  • Power: The physical strength of a character.
  • Agility: The quickness and accuracy of a character.
  • Charisma: The presence of a character and how well others receive it.
  • Credence: The conviction of a character in outside powers, beliefs, or a given set of rituals.

Rewards at Incremental Improvement

Essentially, when a character levels up an ability, they should receive tangible rewards every time. There are no “dump levels”, where a point goes into an ability for no real reason.

One idea we have for Role of Three is a noun-verb magic system. In this sort of system, there are no defined spells; rather, spells are built on combinations of nouns and verbs. For example, a spellcaster might select the verb “Charm” and the noun “Person” to create a “Charm Person” spell. Or, another spellcaster might select the same verb, but choose “Stone” as their noun — resulting in a very different kind of spell.

In a spellcasting system like this, we can assign certain nouns and verbs at each incremental point of Intelligence. We can say that spellcasting isn’t possible by a character unless they have 6 Intelligence or higher. There are many different rules that can be applied that allow for a character to not only get a sense of progression on each level up, but also know how far they want to go. By detailing exactly what a character gets at certain thresholds, they can plan their character appropriately.

Class Name Examples

In a system with this much flexibility, there must be some examples for players to glom onto — whether its for inspiration purposes or for clarity’s sake.

Maybe a character with high power and agility is an Athlete, mixing both their strength and speed for competitive purposes. A character with high intelligence and credence could be a Runesmith; their formulation of particular inscriptions being based on both a deep well of knowledge as well as the actual ritual of creating them.

These class names can help push a player towards a particular goal or idea, but don’t go so far as to prescribe what the character must be. In both examples above, neither require specific scores in power, agility, intelligence, or credence. Calling oneself an Athlete doesn’t effect the game beyond role-play purposes. It is strictly to offer an image of what the character is like.

Why are we using a classless system in Role of Three?

In our discussions of what we wanted the gameplay of Role of Three to look like, early on we decided we wanted to have a game that didn’t just run combat as a sport. By that, we meant we didn’t want the game to glorify or encourage killing as a form of progression like other systems (for more information on this, check out my article “Rewards and Progression” below).

In that discussion, we were debating on what classes to include in the game. One of us mentioned that “classes were dictated by what could be accomplished in combat”, which was illuminating in its own right. But as we were discussing the ramifications of combat and how we wanted less of it (or at least less of the ‘required’ combat), another mentioned how in our proposed system a character who was a fighter or barbarian might be dissuaded from playing — without combat, what would they be doing?

Then, finally, one of us responded: “If the issue is gameplay hampering certain classes, then why have classes at all?”

If DMs are running Role of Three with an emphasis on dungeon-delving and treasure hunting, the players have the flexibility to adjust their characters accordingly by dipping into Power, Agility, and Intelligence. Similarly, if the game focuses on political intrigue, players can move their characters to better fit in that genre by adding points to Charisma and Wisdom.

While the Role of Three team haven’t established individual rewards at each ability score yet, our talks on the matter have given us a lot of insight as to how particular problems in game design can be solved. More importantly, its illuminated one of the more devious issues with game design where you’re subtly — sometimes invisibly — influenced by the games you’ve played before. You’re tempted to not reinvent the wheel, instead opting to go with what’s familiar or comfortable. Worse, you may not even recognize the thing you take as gospel is simply a rule dictated in one game.

Questioning the rules in games and testing their boundaries is integral to creating unique games that feel different from others that are lateral competitors. While there is certainly value in the phrase “don’t fix what isn’t broken”, there are situations where the solution to a problem is only the solution because it was first — not best.