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Fiddly Bits: Game Archaeology

Fiddly 101: Character Classes

Larry D. Hols
August 23, 2001  
The topic of character classes is a flash point in many discussions about games. There are as many gamers who like classes as there are gamers who don't care for the constructs, and so many different concepts of what qualifies as a "class" structure and what doesn't that it's often difficult to determine exactly where the conflict in the argument lies.

A character class is simply a design structure intended to define a specific type of character for play in the game. There exist, however, several different approaches to providing structure to character definition that pinpointing exactly what a class structure is can be problematic.

There are classes that provide information on exactly what increases in ability occur and at what intervals. There are classes that provide an indication when abilities can increase, but don't specify exactly what those increases are (although chosen from primarily from a "core skills" list for the class). There are templates that indicate a mix of basic skills for the character type and allow for similar skills to be developed easier than skills that wouldn't be of great importance to most characters of that type. There are also systems that simply allow a linking of relevant skills without a formal designation and provide structure in that fashion.

Each of these approaches can provide cohesiveness to a character and clearly place it within the boundaries of a type. Not all of these approaches can be said to be a class structure, though, so the concept of character class can be limited in some regard. For the purposes of this discussion, a character class will be defined as follows:

A character class is a design structure intended to define a specific type of character for play in the game. A character class limits the character type in two fashions: first, a class limits a character by prescribing a specific set of primary capabilities; second, a class limits a character by proscribing other capabilities.

This is a fairly restrictive definition of character class, but it does serve to clearly differentiate a "class" structure from a "template" structure in the second regard. A template guides the development of a character by suggesting what abilities or skills would be appropriate for the character type and making the choice of those abilities attractive without proscribing other choices. A class structure may allow for choices outside the primary scope of type abilities, but it also forbids the acquisition of some abilities.

Character Type

What types of characters get defined by character classes? The most basic type of character defined by a class is that of an archetypal figure. The primary example is that of the armed warrior hero--the icon of many a myth or legend or tale. The warrior hero stands against the foes with only his might and his wits to serve him.

The problem with such an archetype is that so many different types of warrior heroes can appear within its bounds. Knights in shining armor, barbarian princes, stalwart legionaires, scrappy highlanders, and brave warchiefs all fall under this grand archetype. A more useful approach is to limit the classes more than this by providing various types under the grand archetype. In this fashion, the barbarian princes are set apart from the scrappy highlanders in qualitative terms, allowing each to be more tightly defined within the game structure.

Fiddling with Class

The first fashion in which to fiddle with a class system is that of using the archetypes offered in existing classes as sources for more tightly defined classes under that archetype. For example, the warrior hero archetype can give rise to lesser archetypes along the lines of knight, soldiers, barbarian warriors, and so on as mentioned above. This is useful, but the approach can provide even better service if diligently applied further. The limits provided at each step can then serve to provide a tighter definition of the character and how that character fits into a specific setting or world.

The grand archetype of warrior hero allows a great deal of latitude for development of warriors. Such latitude is welcomed by many players as allowing a great deal of individual development of a character; such latitude often prevents the character from having a close fit with the setting, however, as the resulting character doesn't really match any part of the setting closely.

Creating several lesser archetypes under the grand archetype allows for better grounding of the character in the setting. In our hypothetical game, for instance, we can allow for Soldiers, Knights, Scouts, and Warriors. Soldiers are troops trained for group actions, Knights are horse troops, Scouts are individuals that hunt or scout and have a wide range of non-combat skills, and Warriors are troops trained primarily in solo combat applications.

These lesser archetypes can be used for play--and there are published games that use archetypes of this sort as a basis for characters. How well characters defined in this fashion fit into the setting is an open question, however. Players may take great pains to work with the Game Master to provide enough specific definition to work the character into the setting, but such isn't guaranteed, nor does the system provide a great deal of support for that. In fiddling with this approach to character definition, it is possible to create even more character types under these archetypes.

For example:

Outrider Scout

More types can be described under each of the archetypes, but the two listed for each illustrates the concept. A Knight, then, can be an armored cavalryman (chevalier) or a mounted archer from a barbarian horde (horseman) or some other variation on the theme.

Another step can be made in the definition of the character types, too. The types listed above can be broken into specific corresponding types found in each culture or country in the setting and those offered as classes. That specific information could also appear as a "kit" of some sort detailing the important specifics.

This approach would lead to a tribesman from the Kashiki Valley being clearly differentiated from a tribesman from the Dalangali Plains, a foot soldier from the Empire of Vollurna being different from a footsoldier from far Nepoli, and so on. Each step of this defining process allows for the characters to be firmly planted in the setting.

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All Fiddly Bits columns by Larry D. Hols

  • FID 223: Analysis of die-roll methods by Torben Mogensen, 18jun02
  • Another Change February 28, 2002
  • Fiddly 101: 101 Character Classes November 28, 2001
  • Fiddly 101: Character Classes, Part Two: The Nuts and Bolts September 20, 2001
  • Fiddly 101: Character Classes August 23, 2001
  • In the Beginning... June 21, 2001
  • New Directions May 18, 2001
  • In Defense of Heroism April 25, 2000
  • A Philosophy of Realism December 30, 1999
  • A Philosophy of Fightin' Words November 9, 1999
  • The Philosophical Question May 18, 1999
  • Whittlin' Fiddly February 23, 1999
  • Fiddly to the Rescue, Part Two January 19, 1999
  • Fiddly to the Rescue December 15, 1998
  • Old-Fashioned Fiddly November 17, 1998
  • You Don't Know Fiddly September 22, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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