Designing Games with Class

I was thinking about what Brian stated over at Whitehall ParaIndustries on Mechanics Rationales and how many game designers seem to never ask why they choose to include a particular mechanic in their rules.  I imagine it is because they have a predisposition for the mechanic (i.e. their favorite game had it or because they think it’s unique).

So I am going to talk a bit about some of the design decisions I have made during some personal projects and why I made them.  Around the middle of last year (before I began blogging) I made a laundry list of features that I wanted to see in a roleplaying game.  The list looked similar to this:

  • Classless
  • Point-buy
  • Talent (Skill) Trees
  • Customizable
  • Scaling Abilities (Especially Racial)
  • Open Game Content (CC or OGL)

While many games met several, or most, of the criteria listed above, I didn’t find a single roleplaying game that had them all (the Open Content criteria is the clincher).  I should mention that Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds did meet these goals, but upon closer inspection there some minor things I wasn’t looking for (lack of hit points being one). So I decided that I would develop my set of rules, which would meet all the criteria.  Thus the Echelon Gaming System was born.  Development is still in its infancy, but is plodding ahead.

Echelon Decisions

When I decided make my own rules, I did a lot of research on design methods and questioned myself on why I chose the features on my list.  I also asked myself if it would live up to a design goal I had established years ago when I was developing MUDs:  A game should be easy to learn, yet difficult to master.

What I did not want was a jumble of disconnected mechanics that required an immense amount of time invested to even understand how to create a character.  Nor did I want a game that played the same after a year as it did after five minutes.

I also wanted a rules system that allowed for extensive character customization.  You want a plate armor wearing, a greatsword wielding, Arch Wizard?  It can do that.  You want a pirate-ninja-vampire monkey?  It can do that too.  Of course, with extensive customization issues there will be extensive balance issues.

One of the first decisions I made with Echelon was to go with a classless system.  Why?  I wanted flexibility and think that classes are too linear and restrictive when determining a character’s progression and concept.  Let’s take a closer look at class (and classless) systems.

Definition of Class

A class is an assembly of features (abilities, advantages, and/or hindrances) that are accessible by a character once the class is chosen.  Accessibility of class features may be dependent upon level or other requisite elements.  Classes are usually derived from genre archetypes, careers, or professions.  Classless systems usually employ skill or trait based methods to provide abilities to characters.

Example Systems

To get a better understanding of how other game designers had used classes (or lack thereof) in their games, I compiled a concise catalog of roleplaying games that featured a class or classless component.  I also saw there was a hybrid style approach that utilized classes as well a skill/trait based methods to provide a greater flexibility than a pure class system would allow.


One of the best examples of a pure class system is from the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.  You had Cleric, Druid, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic-User, Mystic, and Thief.  Yes, even the demihuman races were classes!  Thinking back now, I think everything one could do (except weapon mastery and general skills) was defined by class.


The classic classless system is probably GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System).  A player can pick advantages/perks, disadvantages/quirks, and skills for their character freely.  Another very good classless system is HERO System, which also has an amazing point-buy power creation system.


Both Dungeons & Dragons (since at least 2nd Edition) and the World of Darkness line of games I consider hybrid systems.  At first glance, late edition D&D appears like a pure class system, but then you add multi-classing, prestige classes or paragon paths, templates, and feats and you have a system far more flexible than a pure class system.

The World of Darkness does the same thing, but from the other end of the spectrum.  It appears classless, and the base World of Darkness setting (New WoD) is, but when you begin adding templates it reigns in some of the flexibility of a pure classless system.  In the World of Darkness, [supernatural] race becomes the class.

As you can see, two of the most popular roleplaying games are actually hybrids that strike an appealing balance between pure classed and pure classless systems.  I like this hybrid area and I think this will be where Echelon will fall, most likely sitting very close to the Storytelling System of the World of Darkness.



The intent of a class is usually to provide niche protection, power balance, and give direction to character roles within a group dynamic.  Classes also diminish the number of decisions a player needs to make during character creation as well provide a division between of rules so that players may ignore anything that does not pertain to their class.  This usually translates to a feeling that a game is easy to learn or needs little time invested.


A classless system allows for maximum character customization within the existing rules.  Many argue that classless systems help reinforce one of the primary attractions of roleplaying games: the freedom they provide players to freely interact in a shared world.  The complexity of a classless system is wholly dependent on the components of the rules and how many options are available.



The primary criticism of classes is the inherent lack of flexibility.  Often, when designers try to improve the flexibility of their game by adding sub-systems (multi-classing, talent/skill trees, class trees, etc.) they often increase complexity exponentially and create severe balance issues.


Some of the criticisms of classless systems are unbalancing specializations (via maximizing a single skill), too much choice leads to long character creations and advancement decisions,  and increased time investment learning the rules.  Another argument is that eventually, trends in choosing abilities leads to class-like builds anyways, which is counterproductive.

Questions of Balance

So after considering the options and the advantages and disadvantages of each, I went with implementing a hybrid system that could take the best of elements of classed and classless systems.  The key to making it work is by overcoming some of the balance concerns of the classless components.

Balance can be overcome by calculating the cost of acquiring abilities.  Since I also plan on using a point-buy system, cost will be a literal mechanic: experience.  Costs of increasing skills and abilities will be exponentially greater.  In the end, however, I am a firm believer that balance is the purview of the Game Master, and the really good ones excel at imposing balance without the players even knowing.

Listening to: Pennywise – Straight Ahead – Alien

16 thoughts on “Designing Games with Class

  1. I’ve never played an RPG that didn’t have some class mechanic. It sounds like an interesting idea.

    The idea of class as a specialized niche has become painstakingly apparent in 4e D&D with the release of the PHB2. When it was release we asked How Many Classes Are Too Many? The answer revealed a level of complexity and options that may fit your need, but precluded any realistic hope of ever playing all the classes available.

    Ameron’s last blog post..Skill Matrix by Class and Race

  2. I’ve always like the classless systems better. Here’ some more classless systems that I find pretty good: Cortex (Serenity/BSG/Supernatural/Demon Hunters), Savage Worlds, Unisystem (Buffy/Angel/AFME/Army Of Darkness/and more) and of course the good old D6 (original Star Wars RPG).

    Chuck’s last blog post..Legends of Steel For Savage Worlds

  3. Another function of classes is to make it difficult to design a useless character.

    If the GM has a specific scenario or situation in mind, then saying “make GURPS characters” is clearly not sufficient. Even specifying a setting, such as medieval France, is probably not enough; someone might build a haughty nobleman and another a crippled wise woman while the game is about brutal war-time scenarios.

    With class-based systems it is more often possible to simply say that we’ll be playing [some edition of] D&D, make 1st level characters, and the GM will roughly know that the characters will fit into a generic D&D game.

    Class is not the only reason this works, but it is a significant one.

  4. @Ameron: 4e definitely took niche protection seriously, though in the end, almost all classless feel the same to me during play.

    @Bonmaster: Thanks for adding some more systems to the list, though I have to say that AFMBE is more of a hybrid system (Character Types and Archetypes), but is obviously near the classless end of the spectrum.

    @Chuck: I too have always liked the classless stuff, thanks for adding to the list!

    @Tommi: I sort of glossed over that when I stated classes “give direction to character roles.” Though how useful a class is really depends on how well it was designed in the first place (as I have heard many players complain about how useless class X is).

  5. What do you mean by open game content? I don’t think I’ve heard that term before.

    From a game design perspective I think it’s important to design a game to be classless in that the abilities advantages and powers are balanced so that a player can min-max with a point-buy system to his heart’s content and not break the game. After that adding in classes is simple and won’t unbalance anything because the classes are built on a solid foundation. I too agree that a hybrid-class system is a good way to go because you’ve got the freedom, but for a new player who just wants to throw together a character in 15 minutes, having classes available to know what sorts of characters are viable in the game setting is pretty important.

    Helmsman’s last blog post..Justification for Simulationist RPG Rules

  6. In STTRPG(My homebrew) I use ability scores to limit the overloading of a single skill. I don’t really think it’s that huge a problem, but I wanted to try it and it worked out well at playtesting, so I kept it.

    Ambrose’s last blog post..Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-03-29

  7. This is the one of the reasons why I love Mutants & Masterminds so much. It’s a completely classless points-based system, but also provides and supports the idea of Archetypes – essentially pre-built class-like characters that are easily tweaked and customised as required. This gives the player freedom to choose. They can start from a blank character sheet, use an Archetype as a base, or just play the Archetype as-is.

    Even if the player doesn’t use them, the Archetypes help reinforce the game-world. For example, you could create an Archetypal Rogue, Fighter, Cleric, etc and this’ll show the players they’re in D&D-style territory. Give them a handful of sci-fi themed Archetypes (Scout, Merc, Merchant, etc) and it’s a whole different game. You’re defining the genre without limiting the scope.

    The best of all worlds!

  8. @Ambrose: I just found the Wiki for your STTRPG, I’ll have to read through it and look at how you used ability scores with skills. Interesting idea.

    @Greywulf: Yeah, I love Mutants & Masterminds…. AND they just released the Warriors & Warlocks book today which should allow some cool fantasy-based characters/powers.

    @Helmsman: Open Game Content is all the rules and whatnots that are “open sourced” for other developers to use in their games. The most popular open game content today is probably the d20 SRD (D&D 3.5), released under the OGL (Open Gaming License).

  9. My homebrew system, Compromise and Conceit, is classless based on d20 (well, 2d10 really) system. It seems quite well balanced so far, and it certainly enables diversity of character types. If you can liberate the saving throws and hit points aspect of the d20 system from the class definitions (which I have done by redefining all of them through the skill system) it works really well. I’ve also found a way to introduce partial failure into the skill system, which enables a huge amount of flexibility in magic and feats. I think based on 10 sessions of play-testing that it is working really well.

    faustusnotes’s last blog post..Some interrogations

  10. @Jonathan: Heh, I wish it were at a point to playtest. I’ve contracted that nasty disease called “project overload,” and I can’t ever get very far on any one thing…

    @Faustus: You can be I’ll be reading up on Compromise & Conceit this weekend (seeing how you have quite a few posts tagged with it)! Thanks for stopping by.

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