Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 1)

I have designed a lot of character classes for d20 games.

Many were based on specific exiting intellectual properties, such as the classes I did for the tabletop EverQuest RPG, Star Wars Saga Edition, Wheel of Time, and Black Company. Some were inspired by such an intellectual property, but not designed to emulate it exactly such as the Dragonrider, Godling, Solarian, and Time Thief. Others were just inspired by some niche I saw that looked like a good place for an entire character concept to live, but not inspired by any specific existing work, such as the Armiger, Magister, and Templar.

I have developed a lot of character classes designed by other game writers. Many of them fall into the same kinds of broad categories, though there are also those that simply had to exist in order for a game to have a broad range of playable options, such as Starfinder’s Envoy, Operative and Soldier, and others were specifically trying to stretch a game into new design spaces and experiences, including the Character Operation Manual’s Biohacker, Vanguard, and Witchwarper.

(And, it’s worth noting, in most d20 games the name of a character class is not capitalized. I’m bucking that trend here, because it makes it clearer to me when i am talking about a fighter, as a generic term for one who fights, and a Fighter, a specific d20 character class. That said, when you do your writing, match the style your publisher uses if writing for someone else, and know what conventions you are choosing to buck if you do it differently when writing for yourself.)

Designing a character class from scratch can be a great deal more challenging than designing some smaller element that existing in an already well-defined niche. If you create a new spell for example, you can compare it to other spells available to the same classes at the same spell level, as well as comparing it to spells of higher and lower level, to get a good grasp of how impactful the spell should be. Additionally, the spell only impacts the game if it is cast in a given encounter. If it turns out to be unbalanced, you can generally exclude it from the game environment with little fallout.

A new class, on the other hand, interacts with the entire game system, is the primary way players impact every encounter, and if a player takes one every aspect of its design is constantly being tested and explored and removing it from the game is much more difficult. If it’s a class that fills a specific conceptual niche, removing it from a game can skew the entire feel of the play experience.

That said, despite its increased complexity, import, interaction, and potential complications, designing a character class is at its core still a matter of using the tools available in a game and assembling them in a way that creates a new option. I find it is also generally both extremely fulfilling as a d20 designer, and a great way to learn how the intricacies of interconnected rules work in a specific d20 game.

But it can be extremely intimidating, and it’s useful to break it down into a few discrete steps, at least until you are far enough along in the design you have a framework to hold other ideas on.

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be doing weekly Design Diaries takign a look at the needs, tips, tricks, and pitfalls of d20 Class Design. And we’re going to start where I think all class design should — The Concept.

The Concept

I strongly believe that the first step of every class design should be to have a concept for what the class is supposed to do. This is a mix of how it should interact with the encounters you expect to be a major part of the game, what you expect it to do to help a team of adventurers overcome such encounters, what a player will expect a member of the class to be able to do, and what the class is going to look like.

Some of the “what does it do” questions are pretty obvious. Most d20 games have a heavy focus on combat, so you want to make sure the class has interesting and effective choices in combat. It doesn’t have to be the most effective combat class (in fact if the game already has classes in it, you likely don’t want to create one that’s better at combat than all of them or you’ll steal spotlight time from an older, better-established class). Most games also have at least a few noncombat challenges, which are often broken into social encounters, investigations, and physical challenges. Some games add specific other forms of encounter, such as starship combat in Starfinder.

You want to make sure you new class has something to contribute in all of these types of encounters. It can be less-good at one or more, both as a weakness to make up for being strong in other areas and as a way to help focus the class’s concept, but you never want encounters of a specific type to be no fun at all for a player. A great deal of classic d20 game class design is pretty weak in this area — most versions of the Fighter are pretty bad at social encounters, which can be more than half the game in some campaigns.

And you can’t fix a gap like that by giving a class an option to sacrifice its core function to pick up secondary competence. This is both because players are unlikely to make such a trade-off (and thus still aren’t having fun in encounters where their character class has no meaningful contribution), and because if they make the choice in too many ways to weaken their core competence, they may not be able to do what the game (and GM and other players) expect them to be able to. A Fighter who i a master negotiator and investigator and starship engineer, but who can’t *fight*, is likely to leave their party in a lurch in combat encounters.

On the other hand, you don’t want your concept to be that the character is good at everything all the time. First, that makes it difficult to have more than one class, since if all classes are good at all things they all feel the same. Second, it’s boring. Players want to have effective options in most encounters, but they also want to be challenged. Also, some players WANT to skip some encounters, or at least minimize their interaction with them, because they don;t like that kind of roleplaying. Some people choose the Fighter exactly because they want to avoid being pressed to be the voice of the party.

If your concept seems too one-note, it can be useful to look at how fictional characters of a similar trope act in various encounters. The surly warrior in fantasy shows and movies may seem not to do anything during social encounters, but if its a major character they actually normally are more impactful than you might think at first glance. That impact might be limited to telling the charismatic talker who the surly warrior does not trust, or glaring down opposing surly warriors, but those actions can easily be gamified as things a player can have their character be doing while the talking goes on, Perhaps the Fighter class should have an Aura of Confidence, which makes it more difficult for their allies to be intimidated or bluffed, but only if the Fighter has “sized up” specific NPCs. The sizing up and granting of confidence is largely invisible to an outside observer, but are still, game actions that allow the player to contribute.

Many concepts can be boiled down to being the Fighter, the Rogue, or the Spellcaster, so it’s a good idea to make your class concept broader than that (unless, like Fantasy AGE, you only want three classes in your game). Some other elements that can inform a concept are focus on a specific kind of magic or fighting (necromancers, summoners, archers, assassins, and so on), knowledge and wisdom (a form of skill expert different from the rogue), religious and spiritual elements, social skills, and unique power sources. You can flesh these out more as your design evolves, but it’s useful early on to decide your Priest has divine abilities gained from worship of a god, your Sorcerer has innate powers like a comicbook superhero, your Warlock has dark powers gained from a contract with some fel entity, and your Wizard is a learned sage who has picked up spells and incantations through pure study and dedication.

It’s also important for your concept to be one that is deserving of it’s own *class*, rather than being an option of a build within a broader class. For example, the Soldier in Starfinder has fighting styles, ranging from Arcane Assailant to Sharpshoot. The broad concept of professional fighter has lots more room to vary that way than if we had made Sniper its own class. A good test for a class concept is if you think any existing d20 class (even ones from other games) can easily have your concept as a sub-options. If yes, your concept may not be broad enough.

Also ask yourself if you can think of differing build options within your class concept which are different from build options appropriate to other classes within the same game. For example, if you wanted a Starfinder class that just controlled gravity, that feels a lot like a sub-build of Solarian, and most gravity-controlling sub-concepts are going to feel like they could be Solarian specialties. If you broaden the class concept out to be a telekinetic and telepath, that gives you much more scope to define a class and make it different and distinct from the Solarian, even if your Psychokinetic has gravity control as one of its specialties.

Once you have a rough concept, you should write it down. You can keep it flexible–it may evolve as the design progresses–but it’s worth looking at your original concept as a guiding principle if you want to course-correct later on.

Then you can begin looking at the tools the game give you to define your class and convey information about what it is supposed to do to the players and GM. But we’ll talk about that next week!

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on December 23, 2019, in Game Design, Pathfinder Development, Starfinder Development, Writing Basics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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