The Virtues of Classes and Levels

One of the biggest problems among RPG fandom (and, it must be said, all fandoms) is the prevalence of One True Wayism: “My preferences are objectively the best for everyone.”

Well, hooey! Simply, provably untrue. (Unless I’m saying it. Because, you know, I’m awesome.)

In my experience, any game designer (or any designer, engineer, or artist, period) who can’t explain the drawbacks of his own choices, and the benefits other choices might offer, doesn’t understand his own work well enough to produce something great. (Unless it’s wholly by accident, like Kevin Siembieda or George Lucas.)

That said, let’s talk about class/level RPG systems. (Typified by the great-grandaddy of all RPG’s, D&D.)

Class/Levels offer some very real benefits, especially to novice or casual players and DM’s.

  • Clear goals and rewards for play.
  • Easy to judge relative power of PC’s and monsters.
  • Reducing cognitive load (i.e. fewer choices) — you get what the class offers at that level. (Research on why this is valuable.)
  • Easier to balance than skill systems.
  • (wrt OSR products) Known and tested starting point makes development simpler (as a lot of decisions have already been made).
  • Campaign color is easily implemented with classes. (See Arcana Evolved.)

That said, I find class-level systems incredibly stultifying. Seriously, they cause mental cramps each time I see people worrying about how to represent their exact character within the confines of a rigid system:

“I want a wizard with armor and a sword, like Gandalf.” “I want a fighter who can sneak.” “I want a trap-finding character who is aces at combat.”

Backgrounds, themes, all that — they’re attempts to evade restrictions that are fundamental to the mechanics. Nice, within their scope, but evidence that the mechanics are constrained — by deliberate design.

In other words, what makes them great for novices and causal players, is what makes them bad for me.

I don’t like levels, as a player or GM, and I’d never write them into a game. That said, as a person interested in RPG design, I’d be an idiot not to try and understand why they work and why people still play class-level games after all these years.

Length of Combat

Combat is a core part of RPG’s, for several reasons. But in some games it just lasts too damn long.

What I realized recently — after discussing the issue with some people online — is that combat length should vary. Fighting a crowd of mooks can go quickly. An epic battle against a main villain may take a bit longer.

In Infinity, the primary limiter on combat length is morale. Morale is “the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time”.

In plain English, “how much crap you can take and still be in the fight”. People with low morale break at the slightest sign of resistance. People with high morale will fight to the death.

Obviously, how long combat is will depend on where you set that slider for this group of combatants. “To the death” = “me fight you long time.” “Don’t shoot me, G-Man!” = “it’s over already?”

Morale measures how many Wounds a character is can suffer before breaking*. If their side has the Advantage, each point adds to their Morale. If the enemy does, each point subtracts from it.

Easy. Simple. Direct.

Good enough to take to testing, at least.

(*Player Characters are immune from Morale mechanics. Players, OTOH, can definitely be spooked.)

LucasArts is No More

The Star Wars software studio is no more. Read the (kind-of) sad news here.

My first reaction was to blame Disney. “Heartless corporation, blah, blah, blah.”

Then I remembered how long its been since LucasArts did anything worthwhile (the linked article has the dirty details). And how much they tried to force us to accept the deep-dish shit sandwich that is the Prologue Trilogy Era.

And the fact that the last great Star Wars games — Star Wars: Battlefront I and II — weren’t done by LucasArts. And the fact that, despite the two being the best-selling Star Wars games in history, how the studio never managed to produce a proper next-gen* (X-Box 360 and PS3) followup to the two, even after 8 years.

The studio died of its own incompetence.

And then I felt alright. Failure should have consequences. Too many incompetent businesses stumble on, protected from the ugly realities of failure by their corporate masters.

It’s good that this one example of failure should be allowed to fail. They’ve been coasting for over a decade. It was time to put the nag out of its misery.

LucasArts had become Old Yeller, I realized, and Disney shot it. And then I was happy.

(*Why do we still call the 360 and PS3 “next-gen”, when they’re on the verge of becoming last-gen? Makes no damn sense.)

The Walking Dead Controversy: Think of it as Evolution in Action

The third season of AMC’s The Walking Dead concluded on Sunday night with, it must be said, a damp squib of a finale. Readers of the comic know how the Prison Saga ended, and other than two cool explosions and a great use of a .50-cal machinegun, the TV show just didn’t live up to its illustrated predecessor.

That’s not what I wanted to talk about — I want to discuss one specific moment in the show, that has thrown some people into a moral panic. And it involves Carl.

(And, oh yes, SPOILERS! You’ve been warned.)

Spoil-less recap: The entire season has revolved around some bad guys, building up to an inevitable confrontation with the good guys. In Sunday’s episode, the anti-climactic showdown is depicted, in all its disappointing glory.

One bad guy (a young teen), running from the fracas encounters Carl and those he’s protecting. One of the good guys tells the kid to drop his gun.  Guy says “Here, take it”, and keeps coming closer. Carl, armed with a pistol that has an elongated barrel (due to a jury-rigged silencer), waits for a split second and shoots the man.

“Aieeeeee!” “Oh noes!” “Psychopath!”

Some of this moral panic comes from characters in the show, and others from commenters. Both are stupidly wrong. And it irritates me.

When a man has a gun to your face, and tells you to drop your firearm, you either comply or accept the consequences. Period. To disobey is to dice with your life.

When you’re involved in a fsck-ing battle, and a guy with a gun comes running at you, even giving him the chance to surrender is on the nice side. If he refuses to drop the gun, and begins edging towards you… you shoot. Period. Especially when you’re protecting two others, one of whom is a baby.

Was the kid trying something? I thought so, watching it the first time. Re-watching the scene just now, that may not have been the intention. Either way, it doesn’t matter. You can’t take the risk.

And killing an aggressor, in order to save your life and the lives of an old man, a young girl, and an infant is not immoral. Rick is wrong, the old guy is wrong, and the pundits are wrong.

And frankly, the angst over justifiable self-defense is kind of annoying. Not only is it unrealistic for the world they inhabit (facts Carl points out — it would have been better to kill the prisoners and the Governor), it’s out of character for Rick.

Just last season (less than a year ago, in-world), he shot two guys in a bar, just on the suspicion they might turn on the group. (A pretty solid suspicion, but just a suspicion.) Why excoriate Carl for what Rick himself did?

This same angst is poisoning Once Upon a Time, where Mary Margaret has killed an evil witch, the second most powerful person on the show, who was intent on murdering Mary and her family. Killing to save the lives of your husband, child, and grandchild is not immoral.

(And even if it were, angst isn’t a normal response. Guilt, sorrow, self hatred, but not adolescent “emo haircut and The Cure” angst.)

Justified had a similar situation in its penultimate episode — a bad guy who refused to drop his gun. He made a move, the deputy marshall put him down. No guilt, no angst, just a straightforward recognition that the crook caused his own death. Draw on a cop, get shot down.

(EDIT: Having just seen the season finale of Justified, an even better example cropped up their. Take a cop, his wife, and their baby hostage, get shot down.)

And in a world without cops, when dealing with proven murderers and liars, protecting yourself with lethal force isn’t just the only right move, it’s the only sane move.

The guy chose to die. Carl said “do you want to survive to pass on your DNA?” The kid replied, “no, I’m okay with dying a virgin.” So he did.

Think of it as evolution in action.