Gaming Thursday: RPG System 7: Layers

January 22, 2015

Some random musings on the idea of character classes, brought on by the reading of the new PHB. While fifth edition has gone a ways to tweak its traditional model for character classes, especially with the inclusion of backgrounds, it remains that many character classes still possess a mix of combat abilities, non-combat abilities, and specific story elements in them. I think there’s an opportunity missed there that could’ve been gained by taking it further. (And I totally understand why they didn’t do so.)

While I wasn’t thinking of my system as necessarily having character classes, it might have some semblance of professions, backgrounds, and more, that would fit this model. A model where each character has:

  • A prime “power” source
  • A “profession”
  • A background

The power source is the way a character interacts in encounters; it is their prime skill in the world: sword, shield and heavy armour; skill, fleetness of foot, and a rapier (and rapier wit!); spells that shape the world from the weave; hacking computers and sending out little drones.

The profession is not necessarily an actual job, but moreso how the character makes their way in the world. A “ranger” lives out in the wilds, tracking and being aware; a monk lives a simple life and practices self cultivation of mind and body; a street samurai lives on the edge and is a sword for hire; a soldier works within a military.

The background is the character’s upbringing and formative years. The street urchin; the noble; the slave; the military brat; the merchant space marine.

So what do we gain with this separation? I think a greater amount of flexibility to craft character types.

For example, take the monk class in the current D&D. If you want to play a martial artist who isn’t magically focussed (through Ki) and who isn’t the model of the devout monk, you either have to play a fighter with a feat to allow them to do a little bit of damage, or play a monk and handwave away some of their abilities. With the three-part system, you could play the martial artist (that would be the power source) with a different profession – say mercenary. Now you have a burly dude who excels in hand to hand combat, but who doesn’t become immune to poison, or learn how to slow their fall, or can’t be aged magically, or become invisible. Instead, from their mercenary training, they’ll gain different abilities (maybe find weakness, bonus HP, …., etc) and a more appropriate selection of skills.   The background then tweaks it delightfully. Was the person a street urchin first? Or did they start in a monastery and go rogue? Each background will give some skill selection, and some background abilities and benefits.

The example that keeps coming to mind the most for me is that of a “ranger” party, a band of forest adventurers out protecting the hinterlands. Your traditional party may have an actual ranger class, a druid, a fighter, a thief, a cleric. But for a group who’s out purposefully in the forest every day of their adventuring lives, only the druid and ranger get nifty abilities related to the wilderness. The fighter and cleric may have the survival skill, but otherwise they’re kinda dead weight in travel, tracking, and being specialists of the wilds. With this three-part system, each could take (if desired) the “Ranger” profession, gaining the bennies of a wilderness company. Each character’s power, however, would be different: divine spellcaster (cleric), nature enchanter (druid), and three different kinds of blade users (fighter with longsword and shield, ranger with bow, thief using agility and daggers).   And five potentially different backgrounds.

Like the “regular” D&D party, they’d all feel very different in combat and in their schtick for solving problems/obstacles and could have different personalities and backgrounds; unlike the regular party they would all be more or less equally capable as befitting a ranger party (and the intent here is that each profession could also provide some variation and specializations so not every ranger would be identical either).

I wonder too if this would make the game easier to design and balance. If you’re only looking at power source vs power source, and only profession vs profession, it’d be easier than having to look at a class that combined both. (ie, not having to decide what non-combat interesting bits are worth X of the conflict/combat bits)

So while I wasn’t considering my game system to be a class based system, and it likely won’t have “levels”, in a way it will have at least as suggested archetypes, and this may well be worthwhile for siloing for certain nifty abilities and bennies. Huh, I just realized that it also is more “modules” that fit in with my thoughts on the racial designs, where I had the racial physiological traits and the upbringing traits separated (for those cases of humans raised in dwarven lands, etc). So now I’d have five modules: physiological traits (species), upbringing (racial), background (upbringing/experience), profession (way to make a living), power (prime skill/schtick/abilities). I’m not adverse to that, but I also don’t want it to become too convoluted. Something to note going forward.

One comment

  1. […] want to pull more from the previous post, digging into the idea of a multi-layered system and looking at the “prime power” […]

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