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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.
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 three classes:
- Fighting Man, (renamed "Fighter" in later editions) focused on combat abilities, but almost entirely lacking in magical abilities
- 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
With later editions was added the Thief (later Rogue) class:
- 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
Non-fantasy role-playing games often fill the place of the Magic User with psychic or scientist classes, and the Cleric with a medic or similarly supportive role. 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).
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.
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.
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.
- Voorhees, Gerald (1 November 2009). "The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games". Game Studies. 9 (2). ISSN 1604-7982. Retrieved 12 June 2016.