Artificial Restrictions: Classes

It’s no secret that I’m the opposite of a fan of artificial restrictions. When you could logically do something but are restricted completely from doing so, it suspends suspension of disbelief. While I’m not deluded to the point that I believe it’s possible to achieve complete immersion, I do wholeheartedly believe we should take all possible measures in trying to preserve it.

On to what I think is the most difficult artificial restriction to argue against: a class system. Most games have one, and class systems are generally good in that the developer can inject classes with flavor. Class systems also making balancing a game much more manageable. I’m getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that there are many positive aspects of having a class system in a massively multiplayer game.

Why, then, am I going to argue that classes suck? A few reasons: One, they infringe upon the freedom I value so highly. Two, because I would be a hypocrite if I were to argue against all forms of artificial restrictions except class systems. And three, so I can convince myself that there is a better alternative.

To begin with, let’s look at why the opposite of a class system–that is, an open skill system–sucks. Naturally, since balance is a plus in a class system, imbalance is a drawback in its opposite. Since injecting flavor is relatively easy in a class system, it is relatively hard to do in a skill system (it’s harder to determine what type of character you are dealing with algorithmically).

So, the greatest benefit to an open skill system is enhanced freedom. I might argue precisely the converse. An open skill system means players will create templates (which are fundamentally the same as classes, only player-created). The problem with player-created templates is that players have the freedom to create them without the all-balancing eye of developers. This means that certain templates will reign supreme. The flavor of the month.

Assimilate or perish. If you don’t go with one of the uber templates or create one of your own, you will suck. You now have less freedom in an open skill system than a class system, which is exactly the reverse of what the developers were going for (unless you like to suck, in which case you have the freedom to do so).

Even in a perfectly mechanically balanced skill system, there will still be flavors of the month. Player perception will dictate what is seen as the superior template, and it will be so (indeed, player perception is to blame for most “imbalances” in any game, including those with class systems). So in a perfectly balanced system (which I’ll probably eventually argue that a mechanically balanced game would be altogether boring, I won’t do that here), you’ll still have templates that are seen as superior.

How do you conquer this roadblock? Logical counterbalancing. An eye for an eye. Everything at a cost. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whatever other quotes I came up with in my last entry on artificial restrictions.

Essentially, this means that every attribute and every set of skills has an “opposite” (in quotes because they don’t have to be diametrically opposed). Gaining in one means sacrificing in other nonreciprocal areas.

Note how I just used the words “skill” and “set.” This is important. I’m not in favor of a completely open skill system because logically counterbalancing in such a system would both be difficult to represent visually and would still be a royal pain to balance.

What I am in favor of is an archetypically structured system. Knowing one skill (or combination of skills) may lead to greater understanding of that skill set, allowing you to become better in your area of expertise. There is nothing barring one character from learning what you want it to. You don’t actually “choose” an archetype, except by how you decide to train that character.

For example, training with a hammer will improve my skills with blunt weapons, battle tactics, parrying, etc. (assuming that training is against an opponent). The main attribute tied to blunt weapons is strength, with stamina/endurance as secondary, and probably some dexterity sprinkled in there. Improving my skills with the hammer will allow me to train bigger, badder abilities.

Since I’m focusing on improving my physical prowess, my mental processes (intelligence, wisdom, etc.) begin to atrophy because they aren’t being actively maintained. Any character has a certain limit to how many attribute or skill points it can have, so skills/attributes in opposition to what you are training would start to deteriorate.

While the attribute and skill cap is itself somewhat artificial, it could be integrated fairly seamlessly and may even serve as a cool feature. What if someone could train hardcore in opposing archetypal roles and go beyond the cap temporarily? For as long as you are actively honing the roles, the skills and attributes you are training would not deteriorate (of course, the farther you get above the camp, the harder it is to maintain and faster it will deteriorate afterwards–think “hot water loses its heat faster than cold.”)

I don’t think I need to go into much detail about how to inject flavor into characters with this system. NPC reactions and the like can be based on the role tendencies of a character. Ultima Online already does it to some degree; your title is based on your highest skill. In this system, a cloth-wearing avatar with many elemental powers would be a sorcerer. A plate-wearing, bastard sword-wielding, horse-riding avatar would be a knight. You get the idea.

At some point I may describe what I’m talking about visually, but if you’ve made it this far you’re probably one of few and I don’t want to drone on longer. The gist of it is that certain skills naturally complement each other based on the attributes they are tied to, and certain attributes are mechanically opposed to each other (strength vs. intelligence/wisdom, dexterity vs. strength/stamina, etc.). Opposing skills are determined based on what attributes they are tied to, not on a complex matrix of potentially dozens of skills and how they related to dozens of others.

Designing for such a system would be a careful process of checks and balances. But the result could be something truly amazing. Freedom with real repercussions for each decision made. A system that lets players decide what their character is rather than developers. A system that is fun.

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