Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 September, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Classes vs. Skills
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:58 AM

I’m still on the road, so posting is still slow. I’m not into the liveblogging like other people are. My laptop isn’t meant for portability. :P

A while ago Damion Schubert opened a can of worms about Classes vs. Skill-based systems. This caused a lot of discussion on many fronts. A good summary can be found at Slashdot.

Now that the dust has settled, I figure we can talk about it a bit more. :)

The challenge is this: Point out an advantage of either a class-based or skill-based system that hasn’t been discussed to death yet. Or, if you’re feeling bold, describe a system that goes beyond either of these systems.

As I have mentioned in comments on other blogs, these two systems are really on different ends of a continuum. Few games are strictly skill-based, allowing for no organization of the skills into categories (or proto-classes). I think the ultimate example of a strictly skill-based system with almost no organization into groups, at least on the paper gaming side, would be GURPS. Of course, this system is very complicated, even if it is very flexible and allows for an amazing range of character types to be created.

Now, I prefer skill-based systems, so this is easier for me to defend. A huge advantage that most people don’t talk about with skill-based systems is player control and identification. If I have more control over the character’s developments, I can create something more unique and meaningful to me. This is similar to the motivation that allows the player to customize their avatar to a high degree: It gives them a unique appearance and lets them customize the character in a way meaningful to the player. As in GURPS, you can create a lot of different characters and your character will likely be unique. Not to say that you can’t develop some kinds of templates for personal favorite character types, but it isn’t required. Of course, without structure it can be hard to develop an effective character type. Many people want power, especially in an online game where your worth is determined by your combat prowess. Therefore, people focus on optimizing for combat prowess and pick characters with the most measurable power.

But, class-based systems aren’t entirely worthless. One advantage that people haven’t talked about is the ease with which you can extend the classes. Giving a class a new featured skill can really breathe new life into it. For example, the moonkin form for druids in WoW changed the nature of the druid a bit, particularly in PvP. On the other hand, adding more classes can be a real pain. A designer I was talking to related the problems of trying to add more classes to a game. Adding the first few classes weren’t hard, she said, but adding ones after that meant adding classes that felt gimped. Compare this to a skill-based system where you can add a skill or two to mix up the current templates.

What are your thoughts?


  1. I agree with you that it is easier to add to a skill-based system. But Damion disagrees. :) He even used the opposite as a point in his talk, and I got into an argument with him after in the Speaker’s Lounge about it…

    Comment by Raph — 9 September, 2006 @ 6:37 PM

  2. I’m not sure if people among the blogsphere has mentioned it, but there is the point system that essentially put a “price tag” value on every attribute, skill, abilities and so forth in the game. Players get a set amount of points to spend in order to buy specific skill slots, create a new class template, or buy an pre-established template.

    The system I remembered using this was Battletech. Every premade mech and components had a point value, so when players bring mechs to the table, there is a way of valuing each mech. Another benefit of the Battletech/Mechwarrior metaphor for Fantasy-base games is that the character is the warrior and the gear is the mech. The system has both the benefit of a WOW and Guildwar design.

    Now, having played through a lot of different systems, I still like the D&D system. What I like about the system are:
    1. Under 10 primary base classes
    2. The logic of how to create classes are published
    3. New classes are added with expansion books (so you can create your own)
    4. A system of multi-classing (IMO too flexible)
    5. Advanced class templates (which also can be multi-classed)
    6. Secondary skills
    7. Using the concept of overlays and templates

    With #2 set as a design law, it’s not that hard to add new classes. Moreover, you can institutionalized a system where players can create their on classes in-game. Using RTS game as an example for an institutionalized system, if a player builds a Bladedancer Barracks then the player can start cranking out Bladedancers. This adds a new element to gameplay: class creation and optimization.

    Regardless of the system, the design should fit the overall game vision and be accessible to the consumer. A tiered system that matches the lifecycle of newbies would be the best.

    Comment by magicback (frank) — 10 September, 2006 @ 10:27 AM

  3. The DMG from AD&D 2e actually has a pane for creating new character classes, Frank. Just FYI.

    Comment by Michael Chui — 10 September, 2006 @ 12:56 PM

  4. [...] Raph Koster vs. Damion Schubert (see comments)? A throwdown in the Speaker’s Lounge at AGC? I would love to have heard that. [...]

    Pingback by Sierra Kilo — 11 September, 2006 @ 10:07 AM

  5. I am unsure if this just obvious, but the two systems of class-systems from Urban Dead and Nexus War feel different from the 3D MMOs of our time.

    In Urban Dead, the player chooses a class at character selection, which essentially determines if he is zombie or a human, and their starting skill. After that, it is essentially a skill-based XP system, with two classes. The human/zombie state determines which skill set you can use or learn from. The pvp action allows for a life cycle of “Human -Death-> Zombie -Death-> Zombie -Revive-> Human” and thus allowing each player access to both classes.

    In Nexus War the class structure is treed, so the starting class branching off into a second tier of classes, and each one of those classes branch off into a third tier of classes. Each class has a unique set of skills, and the player can learn from any of their chosen classes. This is similar to SWG, except that you cannot unlearn any of your skills, and a morality engine (use-based system) determines your class and thus restricting which classes a player can choose from. Spells are essentially another set of skills, which certain classes can choose from, but must find in-game rather than automatically having the choice of learning them.

    Each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and I believe the Nexus War engine is derivative of the Urban Dead on. Either way I think they are systems worth looking at.

    -Nathan J.

    Comment by Nathan Johnston — 12 September, 2006 @ 1:46 AM

  6. [...] (9.12.06) Psychochild’s weekend design challenge made me think a little more on the advantages of skill-based systems. In this post I focused mainly on the reasons for a developer to implement with the criteria of balancing ease, etc, but I think I overlooked the criterion of fun and playability. More on this later. [...]

    Pingback by A Touch of Class « Wondrous Inventions — 12 September, 2006 @ 2:12 PM

  7. [...] Horrible yet pertinent rap aside, Psychochild’s weekend design challenge made me think a little more on the advantages of skill-based systems over classes/levels. In A Touch of Class, I focused mainly on the reasons for the developer to use a skill-based system (with the criteria of ease of implementation, etc), but I think I overlooked the extremely important criterion of simple fun. [...]

    Pingback by Further Thoughts on Levels vs. Skills « Wondrous Inventions — 12 September, 2006 @ 8:08 PM

  8. Well, I accepted the challenge =/

    Comment by Wizzel Cogcarrier Wizzleton IV — 12 September, 2006 @ 8:11 PM

  9. [...] Psychochild’s latest weekend design challenge (hey, I caught up) asks us to: Point out an advantage of either a class-based or skill-based system that hasn’t been discussed to death yet. Or, if you’re feeling bold, describe a system that goes beyond either of these systems. [...]

    Pingback by Tattered Page — 13 September, 2006 @ 6:27 PM

  10. JdR: Classes ou Compétences ?…

    dans un précédent billet sur le jeu de rôle de mes rêves je parlait du fait d’utiliser un système de compétence au lieu d’un système de classes comme il se fait depuis longtemps. Je ne dis pas que le système par classe est obsolète mais ce q…

    Trackback by — 5 October, 2006 @ 3:23 PM

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