Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

17 July, 2011

Weekend Design Challenge: Research
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:40 PM

Continuing the design of a classless d20 setting, this week we’ll look at research. Feel free to add your own in the comments if you found something interesting that I missed.

The purpose of research

So, why do research before doing game design? Many reasons, but the primary reason is to save time. If you want to do something new and someone has already done it before, then you can save yourself some time by not making the same mistakes. Knowing “where the bodies are hidden” can help you make something more interesting in less time. You can also draw inspiration from multiple sources, taking useful bits from different examples for your own purpose and creating something original.

Of course, you also have to make sure you’re not just copying someone else. Sadly, a lot of designers see someone else’s work and prefer to just copy it wholesale. But, doing research can give you context so that it doesn’t feel like you’re just ripping off another person’s work, even if it’s inadvertent. (We could go into a long digression about patents and willful infringement here, but you can do your own research on that; I won’t depress you here and now.)


My first trip was a search engine, of course. I did a search for “d20 classless” to see what I could find. Tabletop RPGs tend to have very strong communities, so I found quite a few message board threads. Of course, a lot of them were older, so some references weren’t fresh.

Here are a list of some of the threads I found:

BobTurkey also left a comment where he referenced a classless system for his game.

Specific systems

So, after digging through all that, let’s take a look at some of the systems in brief detail. I recommend going through these references and reading yourself, but I’ll cover the bits I find the most interesting right now.

One-page feats-based classless system

This was referenced in one of the threads above as a good, simple system. An interesting look at how a very simple classless system can go. Basically, everything is put in terms of feats spent and characters get 4 feats per level in addition to some minimum basic abilities.

On the downside, it’s not terribly true to the original system. Working out a character seems a bit more complex than the simple rules imply. If you’re using feats for basic abilities, then there’s sometimes not as much room to use feats for customizing your character, particularly at the beginning. For example, a Fighter would spend 1 feat for HPs (although 1d4+3 isn’t quite the same as 1d10, although the average is the same), 2 feats for +1 BAB, and 1 feat for armor or a martial weapon proficiency; this leaves them without many weapon proficiencies nor the “bonus” proficiency they are supposed to get at first level. After a while, the feats catch up. This might be better balanced for specific types of games, such as ones that start beyond first level.

Cludge – Classless, Levelless, Universal d20 Gaming Environment

This is a web copy of an article that originally appeared in Dragon magazine. It is a simple system with a bit more depth, but takes the further step in removing levels. (An interesting variation I’ll consider in a later post.) The added depth makes the system feel a bit more true to the original while still keeping the system relatively simple. It introduces a lot more pools of points, noticeably the Attribute pool (not to be confused with Ability scores like Strength or Dexterity) that give additional class-related powers. It gives spellcasting a relatively brief treatment, so that might be a source of problems.

The system definitely scores bonus points for a clever acronym. :)

Erden Classless System

Another system that keeps things relatively simple, allowing for normal character creation and then using “skill points” to buy specific powers associated with gaining levels. It uses buying maximum hit points instead of gaining hit dice per level, although there doesn’t seem to be rules for how constitution affects hit points.

Most special class powers have been converted to feats for characters to choose The system also uses a custom magic system that is quite different from the normal magical system in d20 rules. Looks like it also has the advantage of being used in a live environment.


A more in-depth system similar to the Erden classless system above, but everything is put in terms of feats that are earned as the character gains levels. Some abilities are translated into skills instead of being based entirely on a class level.

This system also has a custom magic system. Interestingly, they made the magical abilities into skills, and you have to take skills for each level of spells you want. There’s also a skill for casting level. It’s quite different from the core system, but allows for more precise control over spellcasting for a character. But, the rules seem a bit arcane at first glance.

Anime D20 SRD

A d20 book that is mostly class-based, but it has an “Adventurer” class that allows for a lot of customization. It works like the basic systems first mentioned above, where the character gets basic abilities then gets so many character points to enhance abilities. However, the system specifically says that the Adventurer gets about 6% less points than other classes over 20 levels and the flexibility is intended to make up the difference.

The system also talks about the core fantasy classes and offers suggestions on how to “balance” them, specifically giving more character points to most of the non-spellcasters. This might be more a question of taste in type of gameplay, for example, as in a combat-heavy game the ability to last longer and keep swinging when spell slots run out shouldn’t be underestimated. ;) It is useful for seeing how the abilities break down.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona

An interesting book in that it is “shareware”, free to download but the authors ask you to chip in a few bucks or buy a print copy if you like it. Nice system.

It’s a really long and detailed system for creating custom characters, even calling itself “the World’s Longest Character Class”. Again, we see custom magic systems and detailed. The system uses character points to buy abilities. I just scanned the contents, but I’ll probably go back and read it in more depth later.

Class Construction System (PDF link)

This system is more for creating custom classes with abilities from multiple classes rather than allowing for the advancement of characters outside the stricture of classes, but it seems pretty interesting. A good reverse engineering job showing the relative balance of the different abilities in the core game and how they fit within the class structure.

The system requires some really complex calculations for making spellcasting work right, though. This isn’t quite as clean and nice as other systems, and can be a bit off-putting with the more complicated math. But, if we’re going to do this for a computer-based game, then the computer can handle the math instead of a human. Might be worth considering how to design this in another way to make the tradeoffs easier to understand.

DrSpunj’s Class Balance Spreadsheet

Not exactly a system, but a set of spreadsheets to help work out balance for new classes. Useful for looking at the relative power of different abilities offered by classes.

Manadrive d20 and ClassCalc

I found references to this system, but couldn’t find any examples online. Anyone who knows this system, feel free to share in the comments.

Commercial products

Since I’m cheap, and doing this as an example, I didn’t focus much on commercial books. Here are some I found. If you have specific experiences with these books, feel free to pipe up.

Buy the Numbers, reviewed at Sounds like a good system, although I’ve read some complaints on other sites that the system has some oddities that make the system fall down at certain points.

Mutants and MastermindsThe Wikipedia article covers some of the major features. The concept of a general “Power Level” that limits the characters sounds like a nice addition to keep things in check, similar to what was described in the Cludge system above. Power escalation from buying specific abilities to insane levels is a common problem when you remove structures like classes or levels from games.

Initial thoughts

The general strategy is to come up with some form of “currency” to buy abilities. This can be feats or other types of points. The simpler systems used one pool of points, but the ones that tried to mimic the original system more used multiple pools of points.

Magic systems seemed to be where the real difficulty hid. Many systems created their own unique magic systems. The ones that tried to remain true to the original system came up with complex calculations for how magic systems were purchased. The variety of magic is probably because opinions on how powerful magic is vary a lot between different people. But, magic is definitely something to keep in mind as we continue the design.

The other big issue to keep in mind is degenerate strategies that create characters that break the mechanics. Taking too much magical ability when the general power level is assumed to be low, or taking excessive hit points or damage abilities to the point of wiping the floor with all comers needs to be watched. Limiting what one can buy based on level or some power calculation seems to be a popular option, such as the “Power Level” in Mutants and Masterminds.

Next week: Goals

Okay, so we’ve got our research going here. Our next step is to look at what our goals are and plan out the rest of the design now that we have a good idea of the landscape of the design space. So, for next week, take whatever research you’ve found and think of what specific goals you want to accomplish.


  1. I love Mutants and Masterminds. Second edition is absolutely brilliant and I’ve yet to find a classless D20 system that can top it. Its biggest downfall, however, is also its greatest strength. You have so much freedom that you can spend hours and hours figuring out how to perfectly represent your character. You’ve got basic ‘archetypes’ you can go off of for quick play, though.

    Unfortunately, for any genre BUT superheroes, I still find Savage Worlds to be a better (yet not D20) classless system.

    Comment by NordicNinja — 17 July, 2011 @ 11:00 PM

  2. My favourite classless system was in the old RPG “Over the Edge”, and it was because you were allowed to define your own abilities and then the GM would assign a power to them depending on how broad they were.

    So if you wanted, “Just like Indiana Jones” as a powerset, that’s fairly broad because Indy does quite a lot of things. So you might be assigned a higher difficulty on actually succeeding in all of them all of the time. Whereas the guy who picks, “Has a really nice smile” as one of their abilities might end up being supernaturally charming.

    IIRC you got to assign your drawbacks in a similar way. It just made the whole process of character creation and scenario design very fun and free wheeling.

    I find d20 quite limiting.

    Comment by Spinks — 17 July, 2011 @ 11:14 PM

  3. Our magic system ( is heavily based on Ars Magica.

    Examples of the implimentation of our system can be seen in the character sheets (XLS format) linked from here:

    This above is a steam punk type campaign. A more traditional fantasy campaign (our previous and recently concluded campaign) has similar links here:

    We have had about half a dozen draft replacement magic systems prior to this one. None quite clicked as being simple, scaleable and fun. Our latest is the first to do so. It took ten years of fiddling before we got to this one :-)

    My suggestion is that you make what ever system you design as simple as possible. Complex systems just don’t survive the test of time.

    Interesting read. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. We are always looking to tinker with and improve our system so i’m watching for new ideas.

    Gobble gobble.

    Comment by BobTurkey — 18 July, 2011 @ 12:01 AM

  4. A German (class-based) system called Midgard treats experience points as the currency with which you buy skill points, spells, extra stat points, etc. I’d have to dig it up to provide details; as far as I can remember you can supplement some of the currency with gold, too. That’s based on what I remember on the Midgard 3 set of rules, I should say.

    The unfortunate effect of this is that there’s a tendency for fighter characters to gain skills faster. While there is an exact system in place for assigning experience points based on damage someone caused in battle, experience points for anything else is very much up to the DM.

    What I like is that this doesn’t introduce a new thing to track.

    Comment by unwesen — 18 July, 2011 @ 1:56 AM

  5. @unwesen – That’s how Mutants and Masterminds handles it too – they’ve distilled D20 down so far to its basic units that the experience points you gain after a session (not based on combat per se) can be directly applied to anything, and stay balanced.

    Which is another thing I like about it, you don’t really ‘level’ – when you reach a set amount of experience (usually 15), your ability cap increases. This is the Power Level mentioned above, and even then there’s some leeway with it. You can artificially raise the cap of one attribute by lowering your cap in another. This helps with making top-heavy characters still stay balanced, because it’s very easy to use either Extra Effort or a Hero Point (one makes your character tired, one is a roleplaying currency) to expand your powers into alternate effects.

    Comment by NordicNinja — 18 July, 2011 @ 10:07 AM

  6. A classless character generation option for FantasyCraft from the CraftyGames forums:

    Just to note, FantasyCraft itself is a SRD20-based game that has some significant differences from vanilla D20.

    Comment by Daniel — 18 July, 2011 @ 11:46 AM

  7. As I wrote in the first post, the goal here is to create a downloadable or Flash single player RPG. I picked the d20 system as something familiar with easy references.

    In most cases, as a designer, you won’t have free reign to do whatever you want, so I’m going to continue to work within the retrictions I set up before.

    NordicNinja wrote:
    I love Mutants and Masterminds.

    Yeah, the info I found online seemed that there was a lot of fans. Any details that are pertinent to the discussion here?

    Its biggest downfall, however, is also its greatest strength. You have so much freedom that you can spend hours and hours figuring out how to perfectly represent your character. You’ve got basic ‘archetypes’ you can go off of for quick play, though.

    In computer science, this is the trade-off of “ease of use vs. power”. You can customize a character more, but it’s not necessarily as easy as picking a class and going. Of course, in D&D, you’ve had kits (2nd edition) and prestige classes (3/3.5) to worry about, too, adding to the complication.

    Spinks wrote:
    I find d20 quite limiting.

    Yes, but it has a few advantages. It’s familiar to a lot of people, the basic rules are available online for free, and I think it works well enough for cinematic fantasy games. And if you let the computer adjudicate the rules, it removes some of what makes combat seem to drag on.

    BobTurkey wrote:
    My suggestion is that you make what ever system you design as simple as possible. Complex systems just don’t survive the test of time.

    Yeah, but with the computer helping out, it should work better. The old gold box games from SSI used the typical D&D slot-based spell system and worked well enough. We’ll see what options we’ll have.

    unwesen wrote:
    Midgard treats experience points as the currency with which you buy skill points, spells, extra stat points, etc.

    Yeah, that’s also what the “Buy the Numbers” rules do as well, using the usual D&D xp system. A lot of other tabletop RPGs do something similar.

    While there is an exact system in place for assigning experience points based on damage someone caused in battle, experience points for anything else is very much up to the DM.

    Seems like an odd system. Kinda like getting xp for wealth in older D&D games.

    Daniel wrote:
    A classless character generation option for FantasyCraft from the CraftyGames forums:

    Thanks for the additional reference! It does seem to assume familiarity with the specific rules there, but looks similar to other resources I listed.

    Thanks for the good discussion, all!

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 July, 2011 @ 10:23 AM

  8. Hi Psychochild,

    This is with regards to the Erden Classless System, specifically about “although there doesn’t seem to be rules for how constitution affects hit points”.

    We adopted a simple method of making your basic d20 Constitution stat = your stating hit points. So if you had a CON of 12, you started with 12 hit points for free. Then each hit point after that costs 2 SPs to purchase.

    If CON is affected in anyway (ie/ drops from 12 to 10) then you lose that many hitpoints as well. This has the effect (bonus?) of making Rage a little better (as our usage of that ability means your hitpoint increase is effectively doubled) but it also makes CON draining rather dangerous if you already have low hitpoints.

    Enjoying reading the discussions above and it’s nice to see that there’s still interest out there for a classless (and levelless) system :-)

    RdO IV

    Comment by RdO — 20 July, 2011 @ 3:34 PM

  9. Weekend Design Challenge: Goals

    [...] Last week we did our research, so this week we'll set some goals for our design. Let's do some planning for our design, and make a few hard decisions. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 25 July, 2011 @ 12:32 AM

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