April 10, 2009

The Farchives: Why have classes at all?

Here's the second in a new series on The Core Mechanic: The Farchives. Every Friday I will re-post a popular TCM post from the previous year. I've included a post that was one of the first "popular" ones I had the first month the blog was in existence. This post was originally posted on July 30th, 2008. Hopefully you'll enjoy it.

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 PHB1 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.


  1. I have asked that question and even written an article about game design & classes.

    I do believe that classes are integral to look & feel of D&D, but it's not the only way to go.

  2. My experimental system (which is working quite well) has no classes, built on a basic d20 system. Everything is skill-based. You choose 5 skills to be class skills, the rest are not, and you get 4 points a level to spend on increasing them, just like in d20 system. You choose feats at first level which can include magic use, etc. and gain another feat every 2 levels.

    I have included a skill for combat, and skills for saving throws (one of which also determines your hit points).

    It's very flexible and so far seems to be well balanced. And although people choose to play a character based on an archetype (thief, etc.) the characters they actually play are unique. We have a torturer, enchantress, quite combative priest, archer/spy, demon-summoning fighter, and ranger.

    d20 system is really flexible for these types of modifications. The key is liberating saving throws and hit points from class definitions, and the rest flows.

  3. You missed out on important reason (why the game still has classes):

    It allows WotC to package content piecemeal, selling us more supplements.

    Think about it. If the game allowed all possible combinations of powers from the PHB1, do you think the "demand" for more would have been as great?

    Specifically, the demand for classes that in part are multiclass concepts (swordmage?) would disappear almost completely.

  4. I've been experimenting with a "subjective" class concept.

    At chargen, you choose your class as an archetype. From there, you may pick and choose powers to your hearts content.

    Racials are the only restriction. It has worked so far...

  5. I would love a classless D&D. It would be neat if you had a choice to start out classless but the option to gain a class in order to specialize. For instance you would have to fulfill the requirements to join groups, guilds, etc... to gain a class. It could work more like prestige classes did in third edition.

  6. @Keosdad - you bring up an interesting point that maybe I should expand on later - that is: If you houseruled 4E to remove classes; what changes would have to be made for prereqs of Paragon Paths? Epic Paths? No longer could a paragon path requirement be, for example, simply "Requirement: Bard" . In a classless system of 4E D&D you would have to be be a badass bard-like character to qualify for some paragon paths.

  7. Remember Player's Option?

    I feel like it could work, and be really cool, but it could also get very complicated (not so much the actual playing, but Chargen and leveling up). Classes are all about reducing the learning curve, and reducing the time spent on (what to me at least is) the tedious stuff so you can "get to the fun" as the DMG puts it.

    Some kind of "Jack of all trades" class might be cool - then you could take whatever paragon path you qualified for, but I have trouble envisioning a Classless D&D without introducing a lot of extra work for the DM. Some DM like that kind of work, mind you, so it's definitely an option.


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