Picking up on where we left off in yesterday’s post, let’s take a look at the Classes and Level-based progression in D&D, and see how we can work around that sort of mechanic when running a Fantasy Campaign.
The most obvious workaround is to use a system that doesn’t use these mechanics. Games that often use point-based character creation mechanics such as Savage Worlds or HERO are an example of these. Characters of these systems don’t have a Class that they have to adhere to. People can pretty much slap together whatever combination of skills, traits and powers they see fitting to their concept. Likewise, when improving their characters, there’s no arbitrary milestone that they have to reach to simultaneously improve across the board as characters often do in Level-based advancement.
The advantage of this is that you really can make more complicated characters whose backgrounds impact the actual mechanics of the characters. Say, a Merchant Prince who was laid low by treachery and had to resort to joining a pirate crew (and lead a mutiny against the crew’s cruel Captain) to become who he is. While technically there might be some Corsair Class that might approximate it somewhere in the many supplements of an established game line, it’s just easier to put it all together via a point buy system.
But what if that’s not an option? What if you like the mechanics, but you want to try and somehow break out of the mechanics-oriented mindset of D&D when considering characters? That’s a lot more difficult to do.
In theory, one could simply just exercise discipline in enforcing the fact that nobody in the world you’ve established actually uses the names of the various Classes “in-character” to maintain the transparency of rules to narration. Avoiding the usual visual shorthand that we’re used to helps in this manner. Even something as encountering a beardless dwarf dressed in a silk doublet and hose is sufficient to snap people out of thinking “Hmm… he’s got to be some sort of Fighter, maybe a Rogue…”
I’ve had some success with the above, by avoiding mention of anything that might definitively shoehorn NPCs into a given build, the players are left guessing. That way, they’re forced to stop thinking mechanics, and work with the NPCs as characters rather than moving stat blocks. Not that it stops players from trying, as I’ve had a few players who were so annoyed by the fact that I didn’t rattle off a build when they meet an NPC that they started taking notes of what actions the NPCs was taking in the midst of combat just to figure out what the NPC actually was.
Another concern with Classes for character creation is that sometimes you run into a situation when a Class is this close to what you need, but then tacks on stuff that don’t really fit your concept. GMs might want to consider allowing swapping of skills or feats that don’t make sense with what character concept your players are gunning for. Just make sure that you keep an eye out for game balance, and that a given player doesn’t abuse your generosity.
Personally, Classes and Levels are handy mechanics for helping out in two things:
- They allow for a structured methodology of making characters based on templates, and advancing them in a manner that maintains balance across multiple Character types. New players are less intimidated, as the Class structure keeps their number of choices limited, and they don’t have to suffer from analysis paralysis.
- They enforce the stereotypes of the setting. Legend of the Five Rings is a prime example that uses Classes and Levels to great effect in maintaining the feel of the world. L5R relies heavily on character types falling into given niches that existed in the game world as defined by their Clan. A purely point-based system would homogenize things to the point that it would be difficult to display one Clan’s expertise over another.
Ultimately, I feel that the Classes and Levels mechanic constrains creative freedoms but to a positive end. The issue lies not necessarily in the mechanics themselves, but how a group ends up relying on them to define their characters and their play experience.
From my experience, the more transparent a system is in play, the better it is for suspension of disbelief. The moment you start seeing numbers and builds instead of characters, then you lose out on enjoyment of the immersion, and snap out into the tactical mindset.