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.