Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Thursday, February 5, 2015

In Defense of Niche Protection

DISCLAIMER: We've played both class and skill-based systems, and there's no wrong way to do fantasy.  However, after stumbling upon yet another forum poster deriding class-based systems as though their favorite approach is self-evidently the best, we had to give our two cents on the subject.  We lose remarkably little sleep worrying about how other people game, but this hit a soft spot, so please excuse us this indulgence!     

Class-based systems are sometimes derided as being limiting and unrealistic, though this cuts both ways.  Herein, we argue that the reverse is actually true.  Class-based systems are more realistic and offer players more in-game choices... 

In OD&D (and our own P&P), characters are adventurers first, and everyone has the same opportunity to make decisions, solve problems, and work together to survive.  Yes, they also have class-specific powers and abilities, but this is just a bonus.

Need proof?  Consider the following:  

As a magician (magic user), have you ever gone an entire session without casting so much as a single spell?  Or has your fighter ever gone an entire adventure without dealing a single blow much less pulling a sword from its sheath?  It really depends on the campaign in question, but the fact that this is even possible argues very strongly for this particular hypothesis...    

In fact, one could play a game with only one class, and there would still be an immense variety of choices and approaches.

I'd find some clever solution here, but I don't
have the "solutions" skill...

This implies a tremendous amount of overlap.  There's no niche protection here.  So where do these classes fit in, and why are they better than a free selection of skills?

First, classes allow each player to have a unique set of abilities that sets them apart.  Everyone wants to be special, and fixed classes make this possible with relative ease.

Remember, when you choose your character's class, you choose their weaknesses too.  Now everyone is needed...

Secondly, it recognizes that some professions require extensive training that precludes other pursuits.  For instance, clerics spend years cloistered in their churches or monasteries, with precious little time for other things.  Ditto for spell casters, who suffer tough apprenticeships bordering on slavery!

Fighters and thieves, on the other hand, are probably illiterate, and entering religious life or undertaking magical study most likely means leaving the campaign altogether...

Finally, it lets each player to decide how they wish to approach challenges in the game.  A personal choice, but also one that demands cooperation and teamwork.  Everyone is special, and everyone contributes - but only when they work together! 

And it helps to remember those weaknesses...

On a side note, character creation is faster, and character development happens during actual play, something often overlooked when everyone strives to have an elaborate back story.

I learned fire magic last week when I
leveled up - hardest two minutes of my life!

Aside from abilities clearly reserved for a certain class (or skilled tradesmen), players (and their characters) are pretty much free to attempt anything they can think of!  

But what about skills?  Aren't skills more realistic, and don't they grant the player more freedom overall?

In some ways, sure.  But we're still skeptical:

First, while skills offer a unique combination of abilities, the player only has so many skill points.  Furthermore, such skills tend to appropriate actions that used to be available to everyone, so overall variety is actually much decreased!

Secondly, they perpetuate the notion that new abilities can be obtained between adventures.  Maybe.  But probably not.  It requires years of formation to become a priest and months of practice to master even the basics of a musical instrument...

And finally, while cooperation remains important, it's because there's safety in numbers.  When everyone can do a little bit of everything, something very important is lost.  Gone is the challenge of covering for one another's weaknesses, and everyone is just a little more like everyone else.  This undermines any attempt to be different or unique in any meaningful way.

As an ancillary effect, character creation takes longer, and most development occurs before a game, making actual play largely anticlimactic.  When success depends upon what you do before a game, something is definitely wrong!  Just our opinion...

Clearly, referees (and GMs) can do whatever they want, so none 
of this is fixed or absolute.  Even so, there's no point in having a skill when it isn't important or meaningful.  If there's a skill governing something, only those having that skill will attempt that action, which is really quite limiting.    

While skill-based systems allow for more different combinations, it's the original, class-based rules that provide the greater number of actual in-game choices.  Let's hear it for the old-school!


  1. eh. Some folks worry too much about how other people at other tables are playing. If you're playing, you're doing it right.

  2. You may be excused if you pay your Joesky Tax. :-)

  3. I love it when people get bent out of shape over "realism" in fantasy games. The sheer absurdity and mutual exclusiveness of both terms is enough to cause me a double hernia from laughing so hard! It isn't really realism they want. They want to exert more control over a perceived weakness of the game rules. The rules work fine, whatever they may be. This is the reason I gave up on D&D after 3rd edition. It catered to power gaming whiners and not to the imagination. I think Scott has the right of it in his comment. I'll second that Amen!

  4. No no!! Don't think Thieves are illiterate. Dr Jones!! DrJones!!

    Yikes! These guys aren't two-bit crooks. They have Dex+an ability. They have the dex to get them through and the strength to lift the door, the wisdom to remember tales of the lost. the intelligence to bust the code on the map. The charisma to bait the locals out of their lore!

    1. Thieves are the best class in P&P!!
      Conan is a Thief!

    2. You're correct! The whole way dexterity is handled in the game is to accommodate a Conan-type figure in play!

      And yes, thieves can be quite literate and super-smart...