Class, Skill & Growth

I've been poking at a few concepts while working on the Starbound material, and one thing that's slowly coming to light is that, in some odd way, I'm not happy with class-based systems for RPGs anymore. For years, I've liked the way in which classes fit close to archetypes, which I've considered valuable for setting tone and style for fantasy campaigns. I'm starting to change my mind to the alternate - skills-based.

I've come across this concept in two places recently; comparing the class systems in most MMOs with the skills system in EVE Online, and looking at series of science fiction and fantasy novels. I've discussed the former a bit here, but I've been thinking about the latter since. Long series - not just trilogies, but quintets, decalogies, and the neverending polyology of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time - are becoming ordinary, even expected, in sf literature. I was rather surprised to find, a few weeks ago, that Dan Simmons' Olympos, the sequel to Iliad, was as far as it went - two books, no more.

But the fantasy series have a tendency to get dull after a bit. Characters grow in power, and suddenly you need bigger and bigger challenges, and once they've dealt with gods, things get a bit lost. Science fiction doesn't seem to suffer from this - Weber's Honor Harrington books are still moving along at a good clip despite his lead character's rise in power and influence, and the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold likewise. The difference, as far as I can see it, is that the increase in power is inherent in the fantasy characters - they're more powerful spellcasters, vastly more able fighters, or what-have-you, whereas the science fiction characters are just more experienced, and maybe have access to better equipment. That seems to map directly in my mind to the class/skill divide.

So I'm on the verge of having Starbound's RPG arm run as a skill-based system, rather than class, and I'm considering applying this to fantasy games in the more distant future as well.

Posted by Drew Shiel at February 7, 2006 11:57 AM

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I'd say that the difference is that in space opera there are an infinife number of spaceships around. So in every book Honor Harrington goes from being in charge of 10^n spaceships to being in charge of 10^(n+1) spaceships, and she never runs out of spaceships. Fantasy novels tend to be set on small parts of individual worlds with finite numbers of orcs, unicorns, and gods. I'd say the limit to the fantasy power curve has a lot more to do with the limited size of the world rather than whether the source of power is the characters' magical powers, or their gadgets, or the armies under their command.

Posted by: at February 11, 2006 6:34 PM