In role-playing games (RPG), a common method of arbitrating the capabilities of different game characters is to assign each one to a character class. A character class aggregates several abilities and aptitudes, and may also detail aspects of background and social standing, or impose behavior restrictions. Classes may be considered to represent archetypes, or specific careers. RPG systems that employ character classes often subdivide them into levels of accomplishment, to be attained by players during the course of the game. It is common for a character to remain in the same class for its lifetime; although some games allow characters to change class, or attain multiple classes. Some systems eschew the use of classes and levels entirely; others hybridise them with skill-based systems or emulate them with character templates.
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the first formalized roleplaying game, introduced the use of classes, and many subsequent games adopted variations of the same idea. These games are sometimes referred to as 'class-based' systems. As well as tabletop games, character classes are found in many role-playing video games and live action role-playing games. Many of the most popular role-playing games, such as D20 system and White Wolf games still use character classes in one way or another. Most games offer additional ways to systematically differentiate characters, such as race, skills, or affiliations.
Common types of classes
In fantasy games, where classes are more common, it is usual to find one (or more) class that excels in combat, several classes (called spell-casters) that are able to perform magic (often different kinds of magic), and classes that deal with professional or criminal skills. For example, the original Dungeons & Dragons provided a set of four classes:
- Fighting Man, (renamed "Fighter" in later editions) focused on combat abilities, but almost entirely lacking in magical abilities
- Thief, (renamed "Rogue" in later editions) nimble combatant focused on stealth and social skills, also capable of high-damage special attacks balanced by sub-par resistance to injury
- Magic User, (renamed "Mage" and then "Wizard" in later editions) featuring powerful magical abilities, but physically weak
- Cleric, specializing in healing and supportive magical abilities
There are also character classes that combine features of the classes listed above and are frequently called hybrid classes. Some examples include the Bard (a cross between the Thief and Mage with an emphasis on interpersonal skills, mental and visual spells, and supportive magical abilities), or the Paladin (a cross between the Fighter and Cleric with slightly decreased combat skills but various innate abilities that are used to heal or protect allies and repel and/or smite evil opponents).
In the console RPG series Final Fantasy, character classes can be grouped similarly by characteristics like relative physical/magical/special attack/defense power, but distinguished by their skills and equipment. Among the generally physically strong character classes (and their common traits) are classes like knight (broadswords), monk ("buildup" and "kick" skills), dragoon ("jump" and spears) and berserker (character solely and automatically uses physical attacks). There are also various types of mages (black for mainly offensive magic, white for holy and mainly curative magic, blue for magic learned by experience/observation, summoner for calling creatures). Other classes include thief ("steal" skill and high speed), dancer (ability to perform status-altering dances and equip ribbons, which protect against status ailments), bard (musical instruments as weapons and songs that alter statuses), and scholar (books as weapons and 'seeing' enemy stats and properties).
Classes provide direction and limitations for characters. For example, a thief will usually be provided abilities such as lock picking, but probably would not be able to wield magic as well as a mage (or, depending on the game, possibly not at all). Game designers use the limitations provided by classes to encourage (or enforce) interdependence among characters. Some RPGs restrict the classes a character can choose based on alignment, race, or other statistics.
In less simplistic RPGs, a category called utility exists, which is neither Damage or Healing Based. Utility classes often include "Grey Magic" or "Building" functions, such as crafting items useful for weapons, armor, or profit. Grey Magic also includes functions such as transportation and mobility, such as flight and teleportation, or special effects where combat potential is dubious, such as summoning or transmutation. Modern and Future variants include Pilots, Animal Trainers, Engineers, and Scientists whose abilities may have more strategic or plot driven value.
Variations on the classes concept
Some RPGs feature another variation on the classes mechanic. For example in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, players choose a career. The career works like a class with added bonuses or skills related to the selected career. However, as the player advances and gains more experience he or she may choose a new career according to a predefined career path. A player might start as a warrior and choose a career path to become a mercenary or choose a different path to become a dragonslayer. The warrior's available career paths do not allow the player to become a mage, similar to the restriction that one cannot change classes.
In White Wolf's World of Darkness games, rather than picking a career, one picks an affiliation (such as a vampire clan, werewolf tribe, or magical order) which grants a minor affinity and some bonus abilities, but otherwise has little effect on overall capability. Typically player groups represent only one kind, be they vampires, werewolves, or other.
Another way to differentiate within character classes is multiple 'specializations', as found in the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Each class features at least three specializations, with each representing a major variant of the basic class, and proving its own selection of passive and active abilities that serve to strongly define and differentiate that specialization, and provide a very different playing experience. The result of this system is to produce 34 major class variants, from 11 basic classes. For example, druids may choose to specialize as Balance (focusing on ranged spell attacks to blast opponents from afar), Feral (focusing on quick, agile melee attacks to tackle foes up close), Guardian (focusing on defensive and taunting abilities to draw enemies' attacks and soak up damage) or Restoration (focusing on healing abilities to restore and sustain friendly targets). Each specialization focuses on a specific role in group play, and has limited ability to perform other roles. World of Warcraft also features a selection of mutually exclusive talents for each class, with players able to choose one ability from each tier, further individualizing characters within each class.
Rolemaster uses a skill-based class system in which no absolute restrictions on skill selection are employed. All character abilities (fighting, stealth, spell use, etc.) are ultimately handled through the skill system. A character's profession represents not a rigid set of abilities available to the character, but rather a set of natural proficiencies in numerous areas. These proficiencies are reflected in the costs expended to purchase the skills themselves.
Some class-based systems allow options as the player progresses in level. These options include advanced classes (a form of class that is only available to characters who meet certain prerequisites, such as advancement in another class), multi-classing (advancing a character in two or more classes), and hybrid class/skill systems..
A common alternative to class-based systems, skill-based systems are designed to give the player a stronger sense of control over how their character develops. In such systems, players choose the direction of their characters as they play, usually by assigning points to certain skills (such as "hiding" or "forgery").
Classless games often provide templates for the player to work from, many of which are based on traditional character classes. Many classless games' settings or rules systems lend themselves to the creation of character following certain archetypal trends. For example, in the role-playing video game Fallout, common character archetypes include the "shooter", "survivalist", "scientist", "smooth talker" and "sneaker", unofficial terms representing various possible means of solving or avoiding conflicts and puzzles in the game. Although Fallout is classless and there is no set limit on how a character's skills can grow or what image they may make the character into, their initial skills are specialized into three selected skills and are based directly on the character's other attributes. In Eve Online (a space-themed MMORPG) no strict classes exist but by training certain skills one can become a specialized player within certain archetypes such as combatant/pirate, constructor/inventor, miner/gatherer. The player can freely choose which abilities to train and choose to be specialized in one field or become an all-rounder. While theoretically a player can excel in all fields over time by training all skills, usually players pick one field that matches their playing style, thus following the archetype model. The Java-based MMORPG RuneScape, a player can choose to train up all aspects of the game's "combat triangle" (warrior, mage & ranger), and use any class whenever they choose, or can focus on only one type of combat. RuneScape's class system follows the rule of warriors having an advantage over rangers, rangers over mages and mages over warriors.
Like class-based systems, classless games have their own set of criticisms. One major problem is the tank mage syndrome. Even though a classless system typically restricts somehow the number or level of skills a player can have at any one time, the player can usually choose at least two, and some choose a defensive melee skill and an offensive spell skill. This takes advantage of the best defense and offense in the game, in effect turning a wizard from a powerful squishy into a nearly indestructible offensive cannon, and breaking the offense-defense inverse relationship considered central to balancing a game. Ultima Online suffered from tank mage syndrome, made all the worse by rampant PK. Additionally, instead of maxing out one defensive and one offensive skill, sometimes players can "pick and choose" a large number of low-level skills from many skill trees and thus achieve the same effect. Star Wars Galaxies suffered from this early on, where many skill trees offered some defensive choices at low levels, and players would pick many of them, achieving an armor class far greater than the designers envisioned, while advancing one shooting skill to maximum level. This was partially nerfed by preventing the player's AC from exceeding the max in any of their skill trees.
Outside of role-playing games, some other cooperative video games, such as Battlefield 2, Star Wars Battlefront II or multiplayer tactical shooters, use class-based systems to leverage the emphasis they provide on cooperation. Often, these games also include other elements traditionally found in role-playing games, such as experience points. This is a relatively new, but growing, genre, having been popularized by the Quake mod Team Fortress.
Typical "classes" for tactical shooters include:
- Heavy infantry: powerful weapons, extra armor, slow speed
- Sniper: very long range rifles, weak close fighting ability.
- Engineer: weaker than average firepower, but abilities such as repairing vehicles, creating automated turrets or planting mines or bombs
- Medic: weaker than average firepower, but can heal others
- Anti-aircraft/-tank (and other vehicles): slow, can destroy vehicles, weaker firepower against infantry
- Typical infantry: average firepower, possibly faster than support classes, few or no special abilities, ideal for taking down more specialized classes such as engineers or anti-vehicles
- Auxiliaries: weaker than average firepower, can give ammunition to other players
- Spy: can disguise or cloak himself, plant cameras for remote surveillance, hack enemy constructions, and stab foes in the back for one-hit kills; sometimes combined with the sniper to make a "Covert Ops" class
- Flamethrower infantry: slow or average speed, high power at close range, little or no long range capabilities, best at harassment and ambush tactics
- Scouts: fast speed, strong at close range, typically has low health; used for recon and flag-capture
- Demolition: slow or average speed, able to use a variety of explosives, typically rockets, grenades, and mines; typically used to clear map obstructions and destroy enemy constructions
- Captain: commands troops, usually heavier armor than other units, weapon choice is all up to the player; some games such as Battlefield 2 give the commander the ability to send supplies and vehicles to locations on the map
- "Combat Triangle and Tactics". RuneScape Knowledge Base. Jagex Ltd. Retrieved 2009-10-08.