Saturday, July 21, 2012

Classes, Skills,Feats and Powers an analysis

Classes, Skills, Feats and Powers, Fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons has included all of these, and its beginning to look like fifth edition will also. Therefore, I thought it might be a good time for for discussion of their origins and purposes.

Class is of course the oldest showing up in 0e D&D. It for the most part a simple and straight forward way of distinguishing roles within the party. Chose a class and you have chosen your role. I feel many people turn to OSR rules to retrieve this simplicity. However, to me it has always felt arbitrary (of course I was always notorious for my 2nd edition Fighter/Magic-user/Thief characters). 3rd edition byzantine labyrinth of classes, prestige classes and subclasses I did not enjoy.

Skills are the next to show up, first as an augment to class in Empire of the Petal Throne, then as the only distinguisher in Runequest. I have always admired Runequest's skills only approach to character building, although starting skills and skill advancement proved challenging for me in actual play. The min-max'ers I played with made a total farce of Runequest, by trying to spot and dodge everything, and switching through a Swiss army array of weapons during combat to maximize their chances of advancement. Many online roleplaying games seem skill based as well (although tracking actual skill usage in computer games is much easier than than a table top game). I do like the Elder Scrolls Morrowwinds combing of class and skill by giving each particular grouping of skills a cool class name. Skills begin to creep into D&D with the late edition Advanced Dungeon and Dragons supplements Dungeoneers Survival Guide and Wilderness Survival Guide non-weapon proficiencies (people always have a bad reaction to these supplements, I always thought they plugged some holes which needed filling and were much better than the gamebreaking classes {*cough* cavalier} introduced in the prior Unearthed Arcana). 3rd edition of course has baroque plethora of skills with weird and arbitrary restrictions on which classes can take which skills (Pathfinder does not seem to fix this). 4th edition does a brilliant job of skill simplification reducing down to 17 skills, although they retain the arbitrary class restrictions. However in 4th edition I miss both the craft and profession skills for making stuff, and think the four social skills (bluff, diplomacy. intimidate, and streetwise) a bit redundant (especially since they are all charisma based).

Feats, although foreshadowed in point buy systems such as the Fantasy Trip and Fantasy Hero, come into full bloom in 3rd edition. At first glance they just seem like a extra something that is reasonably harmless. However with hundreds of them, some are so poorly written that they are just the loophole required to turn a cleverly min-maxed character into to a total game wrecker, things like a sixth level bard with +30 diplomacy, or a druid capable of turning into a Stoper and ripping the arms off of Bluespawn Godslayers (O.K. it was an 18 level druid). 4th edition the feats are a little more controlled, but still remain the pry bar for total game wreckage. I also see everyone taking the exact same feats, so as something to act as a distinguisher between characters (I believe that was their original purpose) they are a total failure. If I was writing 5th edition they would go away.

Power are new with 4th edition, although they were certainly foreshadowed in computer games, and bear a strong kinship with spells which have been around since the beginning. It is perfect solution to the inequality power between the exponentially increasing power of 0e spellcasters, and the linear power increase of the 0e fighters. Now rather than waiting around while the spellcasters mow down the ravening hordes, the melee specialists have some explosive fireworks of their own. I do have some problems with 4th edition turning down the room clearing powers of prior edition spellcasters (this is usually downplayed by making the monsters come at the players in evenly paired groups, but does make the hundred orc rushes of 0e to 3e {usually manned by my warhammer fantasy army} a thing of the past). All in all powers (I like to think of them as fighter spells) were a decent addition to the game (I mean why should magic users have all the fun?).

In summary: Classes good for their time but obsolete, Skills good in small quantities with strict controls, Feats no thank you!, Powers good but need to be balanced. So my ideal game is a game of skills and powers (with perhaps cool class names for different mixes). Since 5th edition seems unlikely to head in this direction I guess I'll have to write my own.

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