I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Class x skill - some quick thoughts

It is a discussion almost as old as RPGs: is it better to have distinct classes (fighter, mage, thief, etc.) or different skills (combat, magic, stealth, nature, etc.) that everyone can access?

There are also hybrid approaches - my Dark Fantasy Basic, for example, uses classes as a "shortcut" for certain skills and feats. Elthos has classes that allow you to become better with certain skills. D&D 5e has skills that basically anyone can pick with the right feat, but certain classes get more/better skills.

It is a matter of taste, of course, but each method has its pros and cons.

Class-based games are great when your group is a "Fellowship of the Ring", where everyone has different abilities that are clearly defined by their archetypes: the warrior, the mage, the ranger, and even the elf, the hobbit, etc.

Skill-based games excel in a "Knights of the Round Table"* scenario. Everyone has similar abilities**, but some are more skilled than others. It is also perfect for teams of detectives, soldiers, criminals ***, etc.

* I've found a similar comparison reading "Of Dice and Men", which inspired this post. Expect a review soon!

** Notice that Arthurian knights are also archetypes - but maybe these archetypes are less obvious, and also maybe not as strong as the "knight" archetype that includes all of them.

*** And elves! If you have an "elf" class, a band of elves can become too uniform; it would be better if they had different classes or skills. If you have a single elf in the party, however, it can be an archetype in itself.

Skill-based games seem suited for realistic games - because in real life, archetypes are vague and abstract, while in myth they are much stronger. In any case, archetypes are incredibly useful to create characters - even in skill-based games, it is good to have some archetypes to play with (which justifies hybrid approaches).

In theory, you could use professions or specialties instead of archetypes to create a team: say, a quarterback, a running back, a receiver, a kicker, a punter, etc. However, this cannot be "classes" in most games because a profession or job is insufficient to describe a real person - unlike archetypes, that are much broader. In other words, even games that have "profession" as an important part of PC creation usually include skills.

Classes are also very useful for world building; creating skills for every NPC is a hassle, but it is great for "player character building".

On the other hand, one should be careful to avoid creating a boring/weak class system by adopting classes do not represent strong archetypes. For example, archetypes such as "Strong Guy" or "Half-caster" might make sense within the rules, but are not by themselves strong enough to represent a class.  A "Witcher" class, on the other hand, is only a strong archetype because it has been drilled into our mind through books, games and the TV series. Likewise for paladins (D&D), Night's Watch (ASOIAF), etc. They are familiar enough to represent archetypes of their own. If you do not have specific in-universe archetypes, considering falling back into more recognizable ones: "Arcane Warrior", Holy Knight, Ranger, etc.

My preference? As suggested above, I like the hybrid approach. Start with an archetype that suggests some skills (and feats, etc.) and then add more details as you go. This allows quickly PC (and NPC) creation while also leaving room for customization. This is the approach I used with Old School Feats. Here is one example:

So, the "class packages" are ready for you if you just want to choose one. But you can also customize your characters or create multi-classes by simply picking form other lists. For me, this is the best of both worlds.


  1. Have you looked at Worlds Without Number? I'm struggling to figure out how I feel about it on exactly this grounds: the archetypes for non-magic-users are very broad, and give you a couple of special powers, leaving everything else to the simple skill system. For magic use you slot in what can be very campaign-customised half-classes.

    1. I have looked at it briefly; it looks like a good game that will work perfectly in play if you know which archetype you want to build, and pick the right feats/talents.

      However, I do feel that generic classes lack this "archetypal" strength. It is good to have a fighter, a paladin, a ranger, instead of having to build you own, IMO.

      Once again, I prefer the hybrid approach: class packages that you can customize, but you can also pick directly if you want, as exemplified in the image form OS feats, above (post updated).

  2. I prefer classes. I played a lot of RuneQuest back in the day and every character felt very similar. That might actually be more real, but it didn't feel right.

  3. This is what Dragonbane from Free League is doing - starting class/profession package with class skills & recommended 'heroic ability', but very customisable. It's kind of a BRP/5e D&D mash up.

    1. Hadn't heard of Dragonbane... Sounds interesting!

    2. Here it is https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192053011/drakar-och-demoner-dragonbane