Designer Diary #3: RPG Classes or Not?!


Welcome to our 3rd Designer Diary in which we go behind the scenes on the Cosmothea Blended-Genre Roleplaying Game. Today I’d like to discuss classes (careers, professions, archetypes, affiliations, whatever you want to call them) and what we ultimately decided to do about them in Cosmothea (more often than not I use the term “we” very loosely—I’ve gathered a team to work on Cosmothea before and will again, but am currently going it alone due to financial constraints). I think we’ve hit the sweet spot regarding classes—if there is one, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Some love classes and some hate ’em. That’s how it is with many rpg mechanics, and as I’ve said before, there’s no pleasing everyone. We use classes in Cosmothea (we call ’em paths currently, but that might change as the game’s still under construction). Despite the problems D&D had with them (read dead levels and uber rigid), we like the basic concept. It’s an easy one for players to wrap their heads around, especially new ones, and they are a great launch off point to quickly establish a theme.

I’ve always approached classes in a very loose manner, not wanting to straight jacket players. As I said, I’m pretty sure we’re doing it right, and as that was our approach in all earlier versions of Cosmothea, I’m carrying it over and building in even more customization in 5.0.

Let me back up and start at the beginning because “class” isn’t a straight jacket, like many gamers think—if done right. D&D both popularized the concept of class and gave it a bad name at the same time. Their classes were very rigid and a bit messed up right out of the gate with oddities like dwarf being a class instead of a race. Classes used to have lots of restrictions and even in more recent years still had “dead” levels—times when it just stunk to be a particular class because after attaining certain levels (some classes were really awful every other level) you didn’t have much to show for it. The concept improved but in most games has been pretty flawed, which is why many look down upon classes today.

But classes do have their place and can be used effectively and minus the straight jacket. In early editions of Cosmothea, I broke classes down into packages—sets of goodies you could take or leave as you built your own class. It was an easy system and popular among my gaming groups over the years. If you wanted to build a super tough warrior you could, but he would gain levels more slowly. If you wanted a mage that had learned the art of warfare, and always used weapons along with her spells, being very combat-focused, you could do that. That was way back in the 80’s, and my classes are still very flexible today, though the mechanics are quite different and even simpler now.

Where classes go downhill is in games that once you pick a class you are stuck with what they give you, often before you know what you really know your character’s goals. This results in frustration at the gaming table, playing a character recklessly so they’ll die and let you start over, or retiring them early. I never liked that about D&D and never made my classes cookie cutter like that. I’m not really trying to pick on D&D, but it’s the best known example, so I figured more of you could relate to it.

In Cosmothea, I provide numerous themes you can build off of, and easily customize throughout the life of the character and also provide the means to build your path from scratch. It’s easy. The hardest part is likely having many options, which can slow down character creation if you let it, just as when you make a superhero character in any supers game (Cosmothea has supers too, though we call the “mutant” and artificially augmented types Augments). You might get a bit bogged down trying to decide between super strength and flight and that sort of thing can happen in Cosmothea too.

Character creation was designed so that you can create a character as fast and as thorough as you want, or get up and running fairly fast and even flesh out your character during play. There are many sample packages you can take to help flesh out your theme and individual talents to ensure you build exactly what you want throughout the life of the character. Since most of the customization is done along the way, creating characters is pretty easy, fun and there’s never any regrets.

Even if you make a mistake, Cosmothea includes roleplaying and mechanics in place for further refining your character, changing directions or simply dumping early “mistakes”—poor choices you might have made. i.e. After rewatching an old Conan movie you get a notion to play an armor-less warrior (or warrior/thief) but then you quickly realize after a game session or two that you really wanted something a little different and were just riding the high of watching Conan. You can fix that along the way.

In Cosmothea there is a single path that guides you in creating any sort of path you want (Archaeologist, Engineer, Entertainer and Medic, Artist, Filmmaker, Journalist, etc.), and then there are also lots of fleshed out Themes that include talents for those that want to start with a predefined theme and then tweak and build from there. As for fleshed out themes (and I do mean fleshed out) we’ve got adepts (divine miracle workers of many flavors), artificers (including biomancers and technomancers), dignitaries (various types specializing in social talents), shadow runners, agents, mages (we call ’em shapers and they use magic way different than I’ve seen elsewhere—our magic system is our pride and joy and we’ve got a card game version for dueling coming out eventually), gun mages, gatekeepers, and various warrior types.

Heck, you could make a magical plumber if you really wanted to. You decide what you run. Cosmothea provides the tools and options for if you change your mind or just want to expand your vision for your character.

Without classes or something like them, you have to work a little harder to define a theme for your character, to make sure the other players and your GM understand and respond appropriately to your theme. Classes can be a beautiful thing and help keep your game organized and approachable. They can simplify things and still get the job done, at least in games like Cosmothea. ‘Nuff said.

Next week I’ll tackle something else. Maybe the concept of levels or character creation. Haven’t decided yet, but I hope you return. (One of these days I’ll sort out how to make a meaty post that isn’t long for those that just want a nibble). Even so, be sure to subscribe if you haven’t (and tell your friends—why not. 🙂 and keep an eye out for Arcane Synthesis: A Blended-Genre Anthology coming out soon! Thanks and as always, feedback is not only welcome, but encouraged!


About Bob Whitely/QT Games

Welcome to QT Games! Mission Never publish junk or waste people's time. Publish only high-quality fiction and games. 'Nuff said. Company Overview QT Games LLC was created to publish blended-genre (fantasy blended with sci-fi, etc.) fiction, board, card and roleplaying games for a discerning gaming community. Unlike most small press, we have very strict standards: Only pro writing, pro editing and pro art. That means that if we can't get it right, we find someone who can. We pay well for what we don't do in-house. We don't cut corners on quality. This means we stand to make less money than other small publishers, but that's okay with us. We value your time and money, so we're willing to take the bullet. We've designed a large number of games and written a pile of stories. Now we're polishing some of them and getting them out the door. 'Bout time, we know. Good stuff ahead!
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2 Responses to Designer Diary #3: RPG Classes or Not?!

  1. rpgunion15 says:

    Good insight. I’m far from developing actual classes or roles but I have an idea for the future of my game. This helps me think a bit more on what I want to do myself. Good work.

  2. cosmothea says:

    Thanks my friend. I’ve been enjoying your blog as well. I have to say that designing an rpg is very hard work, but it sure is fun! I wish you loads of fun with yours!

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