July 30, 2008

Why Have Classes At All?

There is a super ridiculously large amount of chatter in forums, blogs, and other websites about the over- or under- powered effects of multiclassing in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. So, given the way that Wizards of the Coast designed the new game: why have classes at all?

Think about it...

  • All the classes use the same progression table (p28 PHB I think).

  • The powers, at each given level, are comparable across classes. Level 1 powers are just as "powerful" no matter what class you choose. OK, sure, some people will no doubt argue this fact - but that's a topic for another day.

  • Removing the choice to multiclass from the game entirely eliminates the bitching associated with it.

The way I see it, 3rd Edition D&D (and 3.5) was already heading towards a super-hybrid play style already. Every character had dozens of choices for so-called prestige classes; there was no limit to the number of multi-classes you could choose; and everyone chose Rogue for first level (for the skill bonus) and had 2 levels of Fighter (for the free feats and BAB, right?). By eliminating classes completely, then the game system would be wide open for people to make whatever kind of character they want.

Now, from a game designers point of view (not that I am one, but...) I could see the need to keep the whole notion of classes in D&D

  1. It's just the way things should be. Without classes, the game would not be D&D anymore.

  2. It provides easy, self-contained choices for new players to choose from. This facilitates people learning the game, and wanting to play. Too many options at the start can be daunting and will scare people off.

  3. An open, class-free game system would be too hard for a DM to keep track of and the level of player to DM abuse would skyrocket. Munchkins and PowerGamers would be roaming the streets, frothing at the mouth - and that is something we just can't have.

No, but seriously.. why not? Another way to look at it is to examine the Monster Manual. Each monster presented therein is, in many respects, a new class. Obviously, the secrete-cabal-of-game-designers must have used some sort of system for assigning powers and abilities to each monster. You think Rob Heinsoo ever said to James Wyatt, "Hey man... you can't make Goblins have that power, they first need to take the [Acolyte of Doom] feat so that can qualify for it!" No, not likely. They just made them; and they made them using a class-free system that was balanced and scalable.

The way WoTC has encapsulated each class's abilities into fixed powers, at nearly every level of the game makes me scratch my head and think: Why the hell do we even need classes anymore? If my player wants to make a fireball throwing, healing, rogue who wears plate mail -- FINE! I mean, you could do that in 3.5, right?

The biggest obstacle I would see about a class-free system would be how to allocate Class Features, starting skills, etc. You know, all the stuff you get at 1st level. But - beyond that - if you make the prerequisites for some power or feat or something; take it!

Let me know what you think. I'm going to be thinking about this hard for a while I think - the idea just seems so "OMFG, of course!" I can't ignore it.

OCTOBER 2008 POST EDIT: This topic was also later addressed by Avaril over at DireKraken.com.


  1. Hi Jonathan, I stumbled across the link to your blog over at "all your dungeons are ..." and though the title very interesting.

    Still I think I have to disagree a bit, while you're absolutely right that class-less gaming would probably be a great experience, it opens to many loopholes and will (at least I am pretty certain) the fun for many players. It sounds to me like the exact opposite of the current situation of 4th edition - and I doubt that any of the extremes will do any good.

    While we are currently facing the problem of utter balance and all options tend to result in "the same", it's just the uniqueness (at least the way I understand your posting) that will result in frustration for some players around the table - and there will always be "cooler" characters, abilities and so on.

    For my part I very much like a lot of diversity with the classes, so you got pretty unique characters in the end... For example the Pathfinder RPG has added great diversity to the Sorcerer by adding various bloodlines (Abyssal, Abberant, Celestial, Infernal, Undead, Fey, ...) - so every single character will be a bit more unique than they were in 3.5 - and that's not the only thing they changed.

    (I know if someone would read all my comments on various blogs, they will find out, that I'm pretty much a fan of this system - sorry ;) - can't keep quite about it at the moment - has to be mixture of frustration with 4e and curiosity about the Pathfinder Beta in August).

    Thanks for sharing.
    *is adding blog to reader* - very nice thing you got here ;).

  2. You're not the only one to be thinking about this; check out this system for starting bonuses:


  3. @thelemming - Welcome! Thanks for posting and adding me to your reader! You said: "it opens too many loopholes". OK, lets assume that some fair system is worked out for how 1st level class features, skills, etc would get assigned: beyond that, what loopholes? I'd be curious to see an example or two as food for thought.

  4. @ben - thanks for the link! I'll check it out for sure.

  5. Well maybe my imagination is wrong here, but I'll try to explain how I would see this. Classes are limiting players options - so you either have to be very restrictive and say every player has the same options where he can pick his favorite four (at level x) - and gets a new option ever y levels (or xp or whatever)...
    The problem with this system is - it's even more restrictive than 4e is over the previous editions.

    With the class-less system in mind I would say 4e is half-way to class-less from the older systems. - In fact they reduced the system to four "classes" which will be very much needed in the game (tank/striker/controller/leader) or which are at least helpful if at least a combination of them is in game. But my feeling was - they are very much the same - even the powers from each categorie were not that different from each other.

    Alternatively it's an open, non-restrictive system where everyone can make up (or pick from) several options which vary widely in power, usefulness,... - and I think this is where the class-less system that isn't restrictive on powers will provoke a lot of discussions and problems. It will lead to a lot more min-maxing in the system - and while it will ensure the maximum diversity and best mix of different skills, you'll probably run out of boundaries in many concepts. So a lot of work for the GM/DM to adapt the player concepts and powers in such a system, and still it will probably leave some characters stronger than others, or - end up with someone feeling unsatisfied.

    Hope my thoughts are clear enough to be followed.

  6. I would add one clarification. The monsters in the MM were designed using their races as the "class" template. This acts in all ways that count as "classes" for them, as it dictates saves, skill points, feats, and hit dice. The problem with applying it anywhere but with generic monsters, is that ALL player races fall under humanoid...or at best monstrous humanoid. They are pretty bland.

    This was done to allow the teplates and PC/NPC classes to be applied seamlessly to them for customization purposes. It is a great system, that will be missed dearly.

    Unfortunately, this led to the "homework" aspect of the game. A good example would be a fiendish red dragon/Disciple of ashardalon that I drew up as a BBEG the other day. Took just shy of 3 hours to do, and will only be used for 1-3 encounters, tops.

    While I enjoyed every crunchy minute of it, it left no time to stat out his cultists, or roll up the treasure. THIS is where 3.5 blew it. Wizards should have released supplements that targetted this aspect specifically, items such as:

    A.)The tome of treasures - pregenerated treasures, say 5 unique ones for each CR range. Good opportunity to add spellbooks, and new magic items as well...and we all know how much we all like new spells and items ;)

    B.)A 300 page book of enemies. 5-10 fully statted and equipped bad guys for each CR, with the last one being either a party of NPC's or a group encounter of some kind. One paragraph of fluff for each.

    This comment is getting awfully long, but a single (or I daresay) series of these books would demolish one of 3.5's biggest complaints eh?

    As to classless gaming...they approached it with d20 modern, using stats as classes. Seems that it was tried before...with limited success. I'll have to ponder this.

    Thanks for coming over guys!

  7. @Danny the DM : Welcome! Thanks for the walk through on the monster templates, etc. ANd I 100% agree - one of my biggest complaints with 3.x is the shear ammount of prep time it took to get ready for each game day. Anything, anything, that was even moderately customized would take double or triple the time to put together. Heck, half the time I just fudged it: "Oh, i want this Goblin to be the tribal shaman - so I'll just have her throw a couple of Curses and Lighting Bolts every so often and boost her CR a bit; the player will never know" And you know what... they never did. But the "no one is looking over your shoulder, so just fudge it" aspect of DM'ing doesn't come easily to some DMs - that's a post for another day i think.

    again.. thanks for stopping by!

  8. D20 modern was actually a fun system to play, but it would never get the fan base that D&D had because roleplaying in the mdern era is limited by a number of factors.

    Jon, were you in the Call of Cthulu D20 campaign?

  9. OE : yes. at least at the start. I don't remember that campaign ever "finishing", so either Savage stopped running it or I missed the last couple of sessions.

    I assume, by your alias, that you are one of my geek friends that works in a building no so far from mine?

  10. OCTOBER 2008 POST EDIT: This topic was also later addressed by Avaril over at DireKraken.com.

  11. Classes is more then what powers a character has. How could you explain any character being able to access divine powers, for example? A class is necessary to explain those powers. Without classes, an individual player can become all roles- healer, tank, striker, etc. Classes restrict roles, makes you depend on the players around you to survive, creating an inter-dependency that forms the party. Without classes, you are merely four individual adventurers. D&D without classes would be a joke and the restrictive elements of 4e multi-classing is one of the editions strengths

  12. I personally hate class systems. But, everyone plays D&D and so everyone plays a class based system. So, therefore, I play a class based system. *sigh*

    My problem with class based systems is that they restrict the player's imagination. For example, what if I want to play a completely unthought of character, which is always the most interesting and fun? How about a spy/information gatherer for a Druidic Circle? I imagine a character that has the shape change abilities of a druid, but employs them for infiltration. I've never seen a set of D&D rules that really allows for this kind of character to be fleshed out.

    Typically what you would do is create a rogue/druid, but from the multi-classing rules of D&D (2e, 3e, or 4e), this character would be underpowered, which creates other problems in the group.

    The most compelling classless systems that I've seen use a point allocation concept. The 2 examples that come to mind are:

    a) Hero System, a build point based system. Each player is allocated a certain number of build points. Play balance is achieved by making more powerful abilities more expensive. Bonus points are awarded for tight character concept (elemental control construct)

    b) Rolemaster, a skill based system. Every level, each player receives a certain number of skill points. Those skill points are allocated among abilities as desired. Again, play balance is achieved by making more powerful skills more expensive.

    While the character creation is very flexible with both of these systems, the main drawback of both these systems is playability. The Hero system seemed to have a gazillion formulas, which was tedious to look up and calculate. Rolemaster solved this by doing a lot precalculation by producing tables. But the large number of tables got cumbersome, hence the game's nickname, "Tablemaster."

    So, perhaps there is a fundamental trade-off between character creation flexibility vs. game playability, but I'm not so convinced.

    Really, character creation systems, whether class based or build point based or skill point based, are attempts to create a system that enforces game balance.

    Perhaps there is a flexible, playable system out there that can do that, but a dumb system is never going to be able to control power-optimizer players, who are always going to exploit rules to create the most powerful character.

    Ultimately, the solution is a playing with a group of experienced players who are over the whole power thing and are much more into the storytelling. I know that's hard to find, but not impossible, I hope.


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