2005-02-09 : Archive 173


If I want to make a new class for d20, what are the major factors to consider? I'm interested in both the underlying math (how to make sure class features keep pace with other classes and rising CR levels) and more subtle issues around keeping the class interesting to players and useful to the overall party.

Undoable. Those three things - making sure its features keep pace with other classes', making sure it's interesting to players, and making sure it's useful to the overall party - contradict one another. As you move toward any one of them, you'll sacrifice the others.

Briefly, why they contradict: usefulosity contradicts keeping-pace-itude because usefulosity implies diversity (otherwise, why wouldn't you just play a fighter?) and there are only so many ways to be effective: keeping-pace-itude creates overlap in effectiveness, which undermines diversity, upon which a class's usefulosity depends. Interestingness contradicts usefulosity because what we're interested in is where characters break and where they don't, humanly speaking, not how useful they are. And interestingness contradicts keeping-pace-itude, as you can guess, because keeping pace with the fighter is stupifyingly dull.

I don't know D20 from a hole in the head, surprise surprise. So I'll grant that there may be arrangements of keeping-pace-itude, interestingness, and usefulosity that work. Sacrifice this and this just enough, twist this just the right way, angle the rules to collide with one another and get the player's buy-in, stir well and you've got productive dynamic tension instead of yet another lame class. Okay, I can buy that.

It's probably even pretty easy if by "interesting to players" you mean something stupid like "colorful." Being willing to sacrifice interestingness to zip means that you really only have to juggle keeping-pace-itude and usefulosity.

But even so, I bet ten bucks that other people have already found all of those arrangements. Any class you make now, my $10 says, is going to be either bad or a regurgitation of someone else's, probably lots of someone elses'.

And if you then go back and insist that "interesting" actually mean interesting, it just gets worse.

So stick to the tried and true.

1. On 2005-02-09, ScottM said:

If I hadn't read Blue Rose's fast play today, I'd have been tempted to agree more with Vincent. There are two good examples I've come across (Blue Rose and Rich Burlew's New World articles that do indicate a time to create a specific d20 class.

You create a class when you focus your world; when you take the generic d20 system and tweak it to fit your campaign, your world. Hopefully you can do this by adapting/renaming the classes (like WOTC's Wheel of Time book), but sometimes you want to reflect the world you've created more extensively.

So, I'd say—for the numbers, there are a ton of places that give you formulas and charts (EnWorld and point based class design stuff off RPGNow or the Class Construction Kit). Making the class interesting to the players is part of customizing the world—if you eliminate classes/niches, then that lets you replace them with more specific versions that match your world, while maintaining unique roles.

All that said, I think the core of Vincent's response is the best. There is so much out there that your problem is probably already solved. Let someone else solve the math—just adjust the flavor text to match your setting. If you're doing something unique, it'll be hard to balance without playtesting. If it ties into the world, there's your player interest. (Well, that and "shiny new toy" syndrome.)


2. On 2005-02-09, Ninja Hunter J said:

... is this question a troll?


3. On 2005-02-09, Vincent said:

I'm pretty sure it is, J.


4. On 2005-02-10, Brennan said:

I think I actually pulled this off in Bulldogs!, since I had to generate sci-fi classes on the generic d20 engine. I have to disagree with Vincent, in that I think it is possible to create classes that scale properly, are useful, and remain interesting. I don't use a mathematical formula to do it, though, because I hate math. I just try to make sure that at each level it is still useful and interesting to me, and that the other classes don't overpower it. Simple, really.

Nice of you to actually answer the trolling question, Vincent. Now no one can accuse you of elitism, despite the fact that I disagree with your answer!


5. On 2005-02-10, Vincent said:

I'll bet that switching genres helps a lot, now that you mention it. Suddenly you have a whole new batch of interesting and a whole new set of effectivenesses.

"[I]t is possible to create classes that scale properly, are useful, and remain interesting."

Do you think it's possible to infinitely create such classes, or do you think that sooner or later all the interesting classes will be already created? I'm speaking here of mechanical classes - obviously you can build one zillion classes off of one good mechanical class, by changing cosmetics.


6. On 2005-02-10, Brennan said:

Do you think it's possible to infinitely create such classes?

Actually, no, I don't. You're right, switching genres helped immensely, and even then I retained two classes from the fantasy D&D (a fighter is just a fighter, whether he's using a sword or a gun, same goes for rogue). I created six new base classes, and I considered a couple more but then decided that they weren't sufficiently robust.

Now, d20 has something called Prestige Classes, which are little add-on classes with a much shorter run (only ten levels) that you are supposed to take after beginning with a base class. These are much more versatile, since you can hyperfocus on one thing without worrying as much about the utility of the class. The idea is that you had some usable abilities from your initial class, and are now hyperspecializing. These, I think, have more flexibility for creation, but don't fit your definition of a mechanical class, I would think.


7. On 2005-02-10, Eric Finley said:

Mmm - maybe not infinitely, but the switching-genres thing has a heck of a high ceiling.

Imagine, say, Transhuman Space d20 (yoicks). The XOXmancer would be a character whose profession is to make copies of intelligent beings - physical clones, uploaded copies, whatever. Creepy, weird, and sure as hell unique, just 'cause the setting is very provocative.

That's a sphere of human endeavour which just doesn't really have an equivalent in any other genre I can think of. (The computational aspects make this very much not the same thing as a 'cloner' in something more typically sci-fi. Not to mention the moral/ethical impact.)

I'm not sure there's a limit to settings this wild, other than the pool of wacked-out imaginations in the world. And anywhere you get a setting which implies massive differences in the stuff people will do, you can model it distinctly. Shy of that, no.

Trying to think of way-out universes which would imply this... playing a Mind in Iain M. Banks' Culture, perhaps. Or something post-Singularity from a Vernor Vinge book. A spanner from the RPG Continuum. Is there a limit to those? I'd say no.


8. On 2005-02-10, Ninja Hunter J said:

It never occurred to me how totally pointless it would be to run ThS with D20.

I guess maybe you could do it with Mutants and Masterminds, which is an enGURPSification of D20.

What I'd like to see is something like ThS with a truly Narrativist system, cuz there sure is a lot to say. I've been chewing on the problem for a while and I got nothin', though.

While there are plenty of areas of conflict in ThS, what the game's about isn't too terribly supported by the rules. It's about 'What does it mean to be human?' but the rules only cover tweaking your body and mind, and what happens to a unmodified body in a vacuum. 'Drowning rules', as Vincent once put it.

If someone has some idea of how to handle this in a post-modern way, I'd looove to hear it. If you've got an idea about having a 'humanity' score based on how much cybernetics you've got installed, don't bother writing it down. Cyberpunk already failed that route.


9. On 2005-02-10, Brennan said:

Well, a system like d20 is totally unsuited to answer the question, "What does it mean to be human?" D20 answers the question, "How do I make my character more effective?", and in a TransHuman space setting, that kind of obviously leads into making him less human. See, now he totally kicks butt!

P.S. What I think is totally cool is that we are having a real discussion based on a troll. Bait us if you like! We can talk about anything!


10. On 2005-02-10, Eric Finley said:

J, at some point I'll actually have a draft I can distribute for Heresy, in which I'm trying to make the cyberpunk elements (if you've seen the CCG) emerge through the apocalyptic collapse of a THS-like recent history. Heavy Nar, though I'm still trying to balance that out against heavy bricolage - it's such a fun setting dans lequel bricoler. "What does it mean to be human" exactly.

On the other hand, though, here's a thought on how to use d20 to address "What does it mean to be human?". Turn the usual paradigm around. Make the 'classes' varieties of inhumanity. Gaining a level means more power... and it's a bad thing. It's alienation, displacement, narrative tension. You gain XP by narratively addressing the downsides of the tradeoffs you've made so far, which spirals you further until the character snaps. Can you imagine gaining 100XP for no longer being able to answer one of the questions on the Amber character quiz? Cool.


11. On 2005-02-10, Ben Lehman said:

I think that it is possible to create new d20 base classes, but it is really difficult. For someone good at the system, it is less difficult (Monte Cook has a whole book of totally sweet classes called Arcana Unearthed. Fear my Akashic Diplomat! Fear him!)

Problem 1) Any new class must be balanced.D&D3 has perfect, razor-sharp class balance in terms of effectiveness over short time (one level increments) in the context of a standard D&D adventure module. 3.0 had minor imbalance issues (Sorcerer too weak, Bard and Ranger no good past level 1, Barbarian slightly too strong), and even then the fans were screeching about it—with good reason. The reason for this is that one of the main challenges of D&D3 is finding character effectiveness through building strategy. If one class is slightly overpowered, everyone will rush to it. If one class is slightly underpowered, no one will play it at all, even if it is only a little bit underpowered.

Problem 2) Unique NicheThis is easier than most people think. Classes in D&D can be divided up into the following niches:

1) Artillery2) Healing3) Buffing Magic4) Utility Magic5) Item Creation6) Movement Combat7) Tanking Combat8) Damage Combat9) Skills and Traps

Most classes do one of these things very well (Rogue, Sorcerer) or do two or three of these things (Ranger, Wizard) or are flexible enough to change (Fighter, Bard.)

All you need to do is find a novel set of niches. For instance, the new Scout from "The Complete Adventurer" is a Movement Combat / Damage Combat / Skills and Traps hybrid, which is a bit of a cross between Barbarian (Movement/Tanking) and Rogue (Damage/Skills) but not quite as good at any of the categories.

How about a pure skills class? I would love to see one of those...

3) Fun to play

This is, in many ways, the easiest. If the class has a unique set of niches and thus some effectiveness, it will be fun to play. Likewise, cool color really helps.

As far as Prestige Class go, pretty much the same as above, except give them one or two unique abilities. I'm not fond of prestige classes.



12. On 2005-02-10, Chris said:

Hi Ben,

"How about a pure skills class? I would love to see one of those..."

D&D needs some more solid rules on establishing Stakes for any given skill roll to make a skills based character a plausible idea. Luke addressed an issue in BW with his "Let it Ride" rules, because often in D&D or other task resolution based games, there's no real guidelines to tell people what a "success" means.

For example, a successful social roll means what? Did you get a person closer to liking you? Did they do what you asked of them? Was there costs to it? Was it a partial success, do you have to make another check?

Then there's also a problem that one of the designers(I think it was Ryan Dancey) mentioned that fixed DC's become meaningless after a point, basically to where specialized characters could-always- make their skill rolls, making it more of an "always on" ability rather than a skill check. He was referring to using Tumbling in combat- but I could see this getting really abused with Negotiation rolls that use the Fixed DCs in the book as well.

Though- I'd love to see a functional skills based class as well, though I figure it would mean some serious retooling of the skill system.



13. On 2005-02-10, anon. said:

Though- I'd love to see a functional skills based class as well, though I figure it would mean some serious retooling of the skill system.

It would require writing completely new rules for the skill resolution system, including reexamining the DC structure. DC is relevant for lower-levels, but in high-level games quickly becomes meaningless. I think their skill system still feels like an add-on.


14. On 2005-02-10, Ninja Hunter J said:

Chris, that's exactly not the game I want. What I want is something that passes no moral judgements on your characters at all for their humanity choices. What you propose is the equivalent of Empathy in Cyberpunk, and the mechanic was teh suxx.

What I want to say is that the parts of humanity that we care about don't have to do with being human. The game I want says that the more you do to your identity as a human - changing your body, or your mind, or your lifespan - the more you have to do human stuff to figure out what you are.

Penalizing the characters (and thence the players) for doing what the system does best is just a trap.

What Cyberpunk proposed is a variation on the fucking Frankenstein story, which is fine, it's a good story, good allegory, &c., but it's a 19th century story, and things are different now. We don't need to fear change, we need to be flexible and assume that the future will be different than the present. What your proposal says is, 'It is morally wrong for humans to change their self-definition.' It's a neo-Luddite perspective.

What I want is not apocalyptic, it's just an environment in which the players will experience culture shock. Apocalypses are a dime a dozen. It's survival and adaptation that makes the drama.


15. On 2005-02-10, Brennan said:

That was me. This typing the handle every time thing is really annoying.


16. On 2005-02-10, Eric Finley said:

J, I think you're talking to me, not Chris, with that. And I must have mis-expressed myself, given the strength of your reactions to both halves. Apocalypse as building tool for a survival/adaptation toolbox, for instance, not as an end in itself. Same thing for the Frankenstein d20 thing, though that one really was just a passing thought; the neo-Luddism was meant to be a viable option (one possible outcome), not a forced result.

However, I really like your phrasing here: The more you do to your identity as a human, the more you have to do human stuff to figure out who you are. Yes. Well said.

Same thing goes for intrinsically inhuman characters in that kind of setting, in two directions (IMO). An A.I. in a good transhuman game ought to face two simultaneous issues: (A) the less human you are on the face of it, the more you need to do human stuff to figure out where you stand; (B) the more human you are on the face of it, the more you need to break away from doing human stuff to establish identity.

If you want to tinker with future shock in a game, though, one cool starting point would be this analysis by Eliezer Yudkowsky. His look at how people, and cultures, move from one to another is interesting.


17. On 2005-02-10, Ninja Hunter J said:

Oh, yeah, I was going to say something to Chris, and then got distracted. Sorry about that.

Also, the strength of my reaction comes from the fact that I read what you said after just having an hours-long conversation about the poor state of science fiction of late. Part of our frustration was about the default to Apocalypse and Frankenstein to tell stories, when they're a shortcut.

The moral stance of the designer of the system will come out in the game. Having a quantitative, character design level cost for changing onesself says a different thing than making it so that your character's character changes with modification.

When you say, 'Same thing goes for intrinsically inhuman characters in that kind of setting, in two directions (IMO). An A.I. in a good transhuman game ought to face two simultaneous issues: (A) the less human you are on the face of it, the more you need to do human stuff to figure out where you stand; (B) the more human you are on the face of it, the more you need to break away from doing human stuff to establish identity.'

... you say the kind of thing I'm working on, and beating me to it. Consider the possibility that androids don't know any more about computers than humans know about biology. Or the capacity to love is linked to having a social, reproductive life, so artificial, digital creatures express more love than humans who have some sort of virtual persona.

The analysis you give here is really useful. I've only read a couple of lines, but more reading will happen.......NOW!


18. On 2005-02-10, Chris said:

Hi Brennan-yeah, that's my position as well. There's a certain illusion that floats about with D20 that you can "do anything with it, if you retool it enough", but the fact is, after a point, you're not re-tooling, or even re-placing, you're building from the ground up. I've contemplated dragging over an equivalent version of the combat system to the skill system, and then I realized it would just be D20 HeroQuest. Perhaps something more akin to Trollbabe's resolution?

The only problem is that the linear progression makes it hard to keep a scale worthy of conflict. At a certain point, the lower DCs become gimmes and you can get away with all kinds of stupid stuff. Just imagine a shifty sort like Cudgel from Dying Earth getting good with Gather Info, Bluff, and Negotiation. All the 1st, 2nd & 3rd level NPCs will just bow and scrape and be tricked every step of the way. It's about two steps short of having the uber-dominating Vampire running around the city, scoring free snacks and gas for the crew.


19. On 2005-02-14, Tom said:

The question isn't...entirely a troll. I didn't necessarily expected it to be answered, but I'm not surprised it was either.

Actually, I was sloppy in my question, I should've defined the terms a bit more. D&D is a lot of things, but I think of it most strongly as a game of resource-management. So, under my definition...

Usefulness = Provides the party with unique and/or necessary resources or options for dealing with problems that they may face. Fighters provide violent, physical options, Magic users provide violent, magical options, Bards provide unique song-based resources, etc.

Keeping-Paceitude (Balance) = At any given level a class will provide roughly the same amount of options and resources as any other class. Alternatively, at any given level, no class exists which would consistently be chosen over any other because the options and resources available to it make it an optimal or above-averge solution to any problem. If Rouges gained permanent invisibility, sudden-death backstab, and 500 bonus skill points at 12th level, almost everyone would choose it.

Interesting = Within the class, the character has a great deal of options for solving problems, helping the party achieve it's goals and advancing in level. Some of this is out of the game's hands—if you play a fighter in a game that centers around world-shaking magic and wizards, you're probably going to be pretty bored. But a fighter, within his violent idiom, has a lot of choices about how he will solve problems. With his generous helping of bonus feats, fighters have a lot of choices about level progression. A party with two fighters (or clerics or barbarians) should be able to contain two completely different kinds of fighters. (this is, incidentally, one of the great things about 3rd ed.—fighters went from being cookie-cutter sword swingers to a diverse lot of mayhem wreakers). Note that if you don't want to play a fighter, no amount of bonus feat-itude will make you want to play one.

I've been discovering that with 3rd. ed. it's all about the choices. As you level up you can't be good at everything, so you need to figure out what it is that your guy is going to do and build him around that concept. Right now, I've got a Rouge and I'm positioning him to become a first-rate mage killer. I've got his feats plotted out, I'm well on my way to getting my prestige class requirements filled out, and I've just generally got a plan. In earlier games, I've been much more haphazard about things and it's really hurt. With Sesh, I've been having a great time becuase I'm choosing options rather than just trying them all on for size.


20. On 2005-02-14, Vincent said:

Ah! That's cool then.

I still think that usefulness and balance contradict, within a single genre and beyond the diversity that Ben lists above. As the very serious warrior class and the heavily close-combat-oriented wizard class (if there are such things) keep pace with one another, not only will neither be preferable to the other, they'll even be indistinguishable from one another, in every way that matters.

The way to make classes differently useful, in other words, is to trade off their balance to one another.


21. On 2005-02-14, Ben Lehman said:


Agreed in full, with the caveat that in the pre-existing frameworks D&D it is nearly impossible to design an identical warrior and close-combat mage. (Even if they both did the same thing for the party, the mage would be more effective less often and the warrior would have a fixed effectiveness all the time.)

The goal of a d20 class set is to be able to say "At any given level, it is difficult to distinguish which class would be the best one to take, and the differences in effectiveness are small, but noticeable."