Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mind of the Beholder
Part 5

Looking for group!
Pictured: Ranger, Wizard, Hunter, Guardian, Berserker, Gardener, Ring Bearer, Esquire, Paladin.

Most of the role playing games I like have a class-based and party-based system, a fact that must colour everything I write in this series. They're in the Hybrids I like, MMOs I dabble with, the old D&D Infinity Engine Games I remember fondly, and the modern RPGs they influenced. They're in the Japanese RPGs I am tangentially interested in, the occasional Pokemons, some pixel based Final Fantasy games, an archaic thing called Dragon Quest, the brilliant Nintendo masterpieces called Fire Emblem and the RPG that turns boys into men, Dark Souls.
A subset of western RPG are the European RPGs, a rare and interesting breed. Woefully underrepresented on my played-list, even if I started with them as far back as Rage Of Mages. I still need to play any of the Witcher games and I could have spend a few more hours with our own Larian games. As far as mainstream RPGs go I'm still very much a fan of what Bioware and Obsidian put out. The same goes for Blizzard. I was infatuated with Guild Wars, a game I can't keep thinking about when playing its successor. The monumental RPGs of the last 15 years define much of my tastes in RPGs today and all of them had their own take on the class system.

Role playing games literally fill my days. The RPG I'm currently working on at Larian Studios has me involved in the modest roles of Graphics and User Interface Designer but the fact that I get to work on an actual Computer Role Playing Game that topped the Steam best-seller chart for weeks is enough to make me gag with pride.
The thought that kicked off this series of Mind Of The Beholder was the fact that Divinity: Original Sin is a Classless RPG, which a rare beast to me. 'What is a classless RPG?' I asked myself. I thought the term sets wrong expectations, maybe 'free flow class system' would be more accurate if it allows for characters to use skills and embody traits from both Warriors and Mages. Literally mixing classes. In a classless system the expectation is that words like "Warrior" or "Mage" and the structure they represent would be expunged. I am splitting hairs. Admittedly, most role playing games I stick by, play with this idea. Not by chance, I like such systems.

Defining a class cordons off parts of gameplay. But what happens when those boundaries aren't there? Change is the spice of life so it stands to reason to allow for more freedom. RPGs run the gamut, some games allow complete reclassing, dual classing, multi classing, etc. But even classes themselves could become more flexible. Why not have a sword-wielding Mage? After all, it doesn't take much effort to think of all the magical tricks that could apply to a sword. Why stop there? There's plenty of precedence too: Link wields a sword that shoots magical bolts. this Quan Chi fatality, Mesmers, Guild Wars' illusionist swashbuckler, use swords as a magical conduit. Drizzt Do'Urden dual wields a pair of scimitars, he even named them. Gandalf dual wields a staff and sword. I dual wield a fork and knife on a daily basis.

Drizzt, the Drow, the legend Rangers, like Drizzt Do'Urden, are famous for their dual wielding.

Character Class?

A character's class could be described as its role or profession in the world and is defined by traits, restrictions, rules, playstyle; A Warrior wears heavy armour and wields melee weapons and shields in close combat. The Warrior is usually suited for absorbing damage, taking hits on behalf of the party as he is most resistant to physical abuse. Or he takes the one to take the slow but sure approach to combat, low damage but high survivability. Depending on the system, a Warrior could also be cast in a ranged or melee DPS role, focusing on dealing damage instead. The particulars of classes often depends on the fiction or context they inhabit.

In many cases classes are derived from the fiction. From Tolkien to Gygax to Miyazaki. The class descriptions are a result of the stories that birthed them. Sometimes classes can be problematic for story reasons. I had a hard time believing Mass Effect's Shepard would be an adept, given the amount of grief Biotics get and the rigours they endure during training. It seems very unlikely that Shepard could get a similar training given his possible origin stories. He also doesn't suffer any from the side effects from Biotic implants. Dragon Age: Origins did this more convincingly. Every Race/Class combination had its own unique origin story that explained them in the fiction. And why there are no Dwarf Mages. It gave the character a motivation to get involved with the main story. Likewise with Star Wars: The Old Republic, where each class starts out in its own corner of the universe, with a unique storyline. Subsequent Bioware games haven't bothered as much with explaining its classes.

On the whole, Bioware class systems are very much inspired by classic D&D. Luckily they aren't the only developer thinking about classes. To name but one, Squaresoft was equally inspired by D&D and rethought classes for their Final Fantasy game and called them jobs. Each character could become whatever job and grow stronger in said job. At any given time, the player is allowed to switch jobs or resume an old one. This new job would start the character from scratch, but the old job would retain its level and benefits gained would carry over. So it became possible to use Warrior perks as a newly reclassed Mage. The more high level jobs, the more character perks.

Final Fantasy job system Final Fantasy V's range of jobs, props if you can name them all.

Nintendo has its own take on the job system in its brilliant Fire Emblem series. Clear and simple as most Nintendo games are, it has base and advanced classes. Each receiving perks. For instance, a character that starts out as a Chevalier receives two class specific perks. It advances to the Paladin (mounted, speed, magic resistance, swords and lances) or Great Knight (mounted, physical defense, swords, axes, lances) class. Each of which yield their own pair of perks. Those perks persist through reclassing. Some of which counterbalance deficiencies from other classes. But it is the characters that makes the system stand out. Each of them has a natural inclination towards certain roles, collecting perks helps unlock their full potential. These inclinations and perks are inheritable, something to consider when you pair up characters and encourage them to have some offspring. Fire Emblem fully encourages the player to experiment.

Characters can serve more uses, for variation, for play styles (ranged combat vs melee combat), lore flavour (a party made up out of evil aligned classes). A class can be a job or role put on a character. A Necromancer conjures up different character image than a Cleric would. Of course those aren't set in stone. Obsessed with the undead, nefarious, self-loathing, eye twitching, nocturnally perverted... all realistic traits for a Cleric, putting those traits on a necromancer may provide an interesting twist on the player's expectations. Putting Malicia and Devotio together in a party where they need to cooperate sets up a comedy that writes itself: Hating each other at the onset, but then becoming fast, complimentary-role-filling-friends after they vanquish the ultimate evil. Each character is a tool in the shed, each challenge in the game could use a selection of these tools, which when put to good use form a sum greater then its parts. Cooperation is key.

Malicia in action Guild Wars 2 has a spectacular take on the Necromancer class.

Obsessed with the undead, nefarious, self-loathing, eye twitching, nocturnally perverted... all realistic traits for a Cleric, putting those traits on a Necromancer may provide an interesting twist on the player's expectations.

It's hard to mistake a Warrior with full plate armour for spellcaster. There are a lot of associations that go with the usual typecasting. Putting a type on characters also helps explain what they are supposed to do. It also makes it easy to explain what its options are. Focus on the weapon in your hand, or focus on the shield in the other. Or go hog wild and ditch the shield to use both hands for weapons. It's also easier to role play. It's easier to get that a Wizard is book smart and a Warrior would know thing or two about weapon smithing. Compartmentalizing reality is something we do naturally and it's no different in games. But there's merit in subverting the player's expectation. It's what makes Pratchett's Discworld novels such fun to read: A Wizard university where it's exceptional to care about books, a Wizard with no affinity for magic, an elderly Barbarian blind to his own age, a society where everyone eyerollingly knows what the deal with ceremony is... in this universe that turns the fantasy genre upside down, the long lost heir to the kingdom, pure as morning dew, strong as an ox and thick as treacle - the usual starry eyed golden boy we find in every fantasy is the subverted element.
It takes much more creativity to come up twists on known formulas than to copy them. One of those being the usual trinity suspects. But the trinity is a system, not a class definition, and it could be made to work with whatever classes you can invent. Who says a Warrior should draw enemy attention when a Jester, or even a Bard, seems much more suited.

As much as I am a fan of the trinity, I do think there's something to be said about breaking it. Especially the healer role is somewhat problematic, it's arguably the most valuable role but the least spectacular to play. It could be expanded to give it a bit more sheen. Either adding defensive skills or an entirely different take on the support class like Guild Wars (respectively: Monk, Ritualist and Paragon), make it an offensive class where its projectiles heal teammates like Wildstar or make it a Mage with an affinity for healing magic. But there's ways around getting health back without a healing class. Which is perhaps the best way forwards. If something doesn't work as well as intended there's merit in replacing or cutting it. In the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the healer was replaced with a limited stack of potions. This also prevents the party from healing back up to full in-between encounters. Reintroducing some risk to exploring. This seems to have been inspired by Dark Souls, which puts the fear of dying back into players because of its relentless difficulty and limited healing mechanic. Note the word limited mentioned again, I'm seeing a trend. All of this makes it easy for a game to qualify as hardcore. Otherwise, when healing is available on tap, each encounter has to be potentially lethal. The difference is that in the one you could die from a thousand papercuts, the other could provide a more puzzle like set of encounters where players need to formulate a battleplan. Obviously, I'm more partial to the latter.

If I want to talk about solo play and the god-character in context of this post, I really should mention a single player RPG, right? How about Fallout 3. It didn't have something called a class but specialization would occur anyway. This answers my earlier question of what happens when there is no class structure: I would effectively make my own "assault rifle class". My custom made AR class also had other specializations bolted on top, he was a pretty good hacker! So some solutions could result from hacking, and they may have had a different outcome that the other, more standard, solution of shooting until the conflict comes to a natural end.

Fallout 3 box art Fallout 3's box art made quite clear this wasn't a game to take lightly.

However there was no way to hack, charm or buy your way out of a fight with super mutants. Which exposes a sore point in the system: one has to make and end up with a character that can overcome all obstacles. Or to put it differently, the game has to provide multiple solutions to a problem for a wider range of play styles. However, in a world of limited budgets, limited hard data storage this means either the game has to become relatively more simple or the player has to become, de facto, a god among mere mortals. Which is a way of letting the player brute force his way through the game. Personally I think it also breaks immersion, doubly so if the story casts you as a plebeian, inexplicably rising above the rank and file or worse still: it can make the game boring. While god characters games have to tone down the challenge. Death in a god character game is a problem. Obviously once your character goes down, the game ends. In a party based game there's more leeway, it doesn't finish the fight for the entire group. A downed character can get revived. It also opens the door for perma death, in which a downed character is gone forever. The perma death of a god character is a possibility as well, but it's pretty hard to weave it into the game's narrative if the game ends with it. The only real possible drama is when the player realizes he's wasted a life, possibly his own.

A Warrior using a wand? A Jedi Knight using a blaster rifle? Preposterous! Is it?

A salient problem with class-based structures is player freedom and flexibility. A class will often get skills that lack any ties to the weapon the character is wielding, which means this weapon becomes irrelevant as it basically gets demoted to 'something to hit the enemy with when not using skills' or is just another piece of gear to boost stats. This takes away from the character's uniqueness, leaving nothing but a vessel for whatever range of skills it carries. In most cases, classes get a limited set of equipable weapons. A Warrior using a wand? A Jedi Knight using a blaster rifle? Preposterous! Is it? Why not tie weapons to the greater web of mechanics?
A half-way solution is to specify skills that require X or Z weapon, but this also works against class flexibility - because X or Z skills is then linked to the sword-class, or bow-class. It's easy to see that weapons replace classes here, making them, in essence, one and the same. I would argue that weapons should have an impact. Just like Blizzard took a page out of the action game playbook with Diablo 3, RPG makers may consider taking inspiration from the unique weapon attack cycles in games like Darksiders or Dark Souls even if only for variation.

This is where the classless RPG could provide a solution where, ideally, all the skills have to be usable by all configurations of outfits and weapons. Skills that are weapon agnostic. Taking inspiration from Skyrim's infamous sword swinger. Let's say there exists a skill called 'Sweep Attack' that denotes the character use its weapon in a wide 120° arc in front of it. This could apply to melee weapons - resulting in a wide sweeping attack and hitting everyone in the arc. It could also apply to ranged weapons where it would mean the character fires a volley of arrows in an arc over a long distance. It could even apply to magical staves or wands where it casts an arc of magical fire or ice, burning or freezing enemies caught in the cone-like attack. This would make this skill truly classless since every character, no matter what its build or weapon, could use it.
This also means that weapons could slot their primary function or effect into skills, transforming them in a way. A magical projectile skill could gain a knockdown effect if a blunt weapon were used or become a fireball if a magic wand with a fire damage type is wielded. Weapons as part in the greater web of connected game mechanics, rather than an appendage that just needs to be there.

Dragon Age: Inquisition's Tank MageThough not classless but vehemently anti-min-max, Dragon Age: Inquisition let me play a Tank Mage anyway when I specialized my Mage as a Knight-Enchanter. Oh, the Irony!

As with all things, a classless system should have balance and proper restrictions. For instance to prevent Mage Tank Syndrome where players min-max their character for maximum offence and maximum defence. Another argument for limited skill bars, balanced stat allocation and a party with members specialized for their role in the gameplan. Additionally the power versus defense trade-off could be explained in the fiction.

Your energy is mine. Guild Wars has a class that manipulates the enemy's energy.

In the end it's impossible to remove specialization from RPGs and we shouldn't strive to. You may as well take the role out of role playing. Better to take the concept and run with it, the more creative the better. As with the theoretical classless system I mentioned. I like systems that lets one class bleed over into the other. I like the way a class or subclass can direct the way you play a character. I like the odd classes too. Final Fantasy Four Warriors Of Light had a Salve-Maker class, Fire Emblem has a Bride class. Think about Blue Mages, Red Mages, Mesmers, ritualists, wayfarers... any game that has odd classes able to play a vital part in a game's gameplay surely points to a game with interesting and creative systems. I like how certain classes are able to focus on specific elements or abilities of the enemy. In guild wars a Mesmer drains the energy pool and directs the enemy spell casting behavior. At the time, I hadn't seen the like. All of these mechanics, and those like it, are symptomatic of a system that offers more depth than the plain "A Warrior absorbs damage". Of course it doesn't exclude this basic function, dealing damage is a primary gameplay element and taking damage is pretty much a given. But allowing the player to pick apart all the different gameplay details and manipulate them is the hallmark of a system complex enough to accommodate it. A system made for player interaction and creativity. Something to aspire to.

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