RPG Talk: All in the Same Class

Meet up with a D&D party at an inn or whatever, and more than likely, it will contain an improbable mix of warriors, wizards, clerics and rogues. I say improbable because there's something to the old adage that birds of a feather indeed flock together. What is the cleric doing hanging out with a sinful thief? What do the burly fighter and intellectual mage talk about? Why don't these people ever seek the company of someone with their own background, traditions, and values? In short, why would people seek this kind of artificial balance unless they knew they were in a game.

But they ARE in a game, and it may seem wise to have a balance (there's that word again) of abilities and weaknesses so that the party can tackle most anything that's thrown at them. The fighter deals a lot of damage, the cleric is in charge of healing, the thief gets you through dungeon puzzles, and the magic-user demonstrates a versatility that patches up most any hole. And it's not jut D&D, a lot of role-playing games have a "class" system, and even in those that don't, players will try to balance each other out - this one a boxer, this one an engineer, this one a doctor, and so on. Video games like World of Warcraft have certainly cemented the idea in gamers' minds (their big "raids" are impossible without an exact mix of classes), and I'm reminded of City of Heroes, a superhero MMORPG that took what is usually a classless structure and turned into a simple Blaster-Scrapper-Defender-Tanker scheme.

In a video game, I get it. The scenarios and encounters are pre-programmed, and you might need a little bit of everything to get through them. But in a table-top game, where the GameMaster should tailor the story to his players and their characters, is an unbalanced party really that strange an idea? What about a party made up of members of only ONE class?

Ideas immediately come to mind: A Thieves' Guild campaign. An elite army unit of the best fighters in the kingdom. The Paladins of the Round Table (paladins). Wizard Academy. A holy order. A bardic band on tour. Having written that, there isn't one I wouldn't be interested in running.
On a mechanical level, is there a worry, in the one-class campaign, that the players will all be doing the same thing, having to roll generally the same dice over and over, have all the same options, and the same weaknesses? Happily, games usually allow for a lot of customization. I like AD&D 2nd's "Kits" because they essentially give you subclasses within a class, so your party could well have a swashbuckler, a savage warrior, a cavalier, and an Amazon, each with their own bonuses and penalties, special abilities and weaknesses, and quirks of background. You might still wonder what that special mix is doing together, of course.

Players could simply differentiate their warriors by making them experts in different weapons or fighting styles (that's how ensemble action movies work), or their thieves by jacking up different skills (one is a great pickpocket, another scales walls like you wouldn't believe). Bards are great because they're already one-man parties who know a little bit of fighting, a little bit of magic and a little bit of thievery. Indeed, nothing stops your character from BEHAVING like he's in another class. Your group of wizards might have extremely diverse spell books - combat spells, healing spells, stealth spells, and so on - or your rogue squad might have a Bandit (fighterly), a master of sleight of hand (faux wizard), one who knows first aid because this isn't his first scrape...

And then there's the role-playing aspect of it. No two fighters will be alike because they will have different personalities. The haunted veteran, the cocky troublemaker, the wise zen master, the dim-witted tank. RPGs are more than scenario-defeating games, they're about characters bouncing off each other, building relationships, joking around, creating drama, etc. And it doesn't matter if you're all equipped with the same short sword or start off with the same hit dice. Players are individuals who will turn that block of stats into an individual. It's up to you, as GM, to make sure the adventures fit the group, not the other way around.


Jack Gulick said...

Two systems I can think of that directly addressed this...

Iron Heroes, where everyone is a fighter but a very distinct kind of fighter, was an impressive 3E take on the idea, if mechanically complex with lots of token-based bookkeeping.

Fate Accelerated Edition allows all the characters to be very similar in what they can do, but differentiated by HOW they do things.

Doc_Loki said...

Aside from the Turtles, the only other really serious exploration of this concept I can think of is the various Green Lantern Corps series DC have done over the years. Mechanically, I think it works because Green Lantern is essentially a prestige class applied over the top of your existing class.


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