Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 2)

Last week we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We tackled a number of questions about the concept for you class then, and now it’s time to look at taking that concept and turning it into playable game mechanics.

And that starts with the tools d20 games give you to define the base competencies of your class, and how quickly they progress.

Class Progression Tools

The heart of a good character class is its special abilities, but you don’t have to start with those. In fact, beyond a general idea of what you want its special abilities to be able to do, as part of settling on a class concept, I prefer not to focus on special abilities until I have more of the class’s framework in place. That framework is made up of various progressions — health, skill points, class skills, beginning proficiency, base attack bonus, base saving throws, and spell progression.

In most d20 games, there are only a few progressions available for these, and they are often interconnected in non-obvious ways. For example, in 1st edition Pathfinder, a class that gets a “full” base attack bonus progression (+1 to bab per level gained) always has at least a d10 Hit Points per level (the sole non d10 full-bab class is the Barbarian, who gets the slightly-larger d12), and no one gets a d10 or higher Hit Die unless they have a full bab progression.

In general, you want to have a balance of good, moderate, and bad progressions. In some cases those progressions already come in those quality levels–in most d20 games your base attack bonus progression can be good (+1/class level, like the barbarian, cavalier, fighter, soldier, and so on, also known as a “full” bab progression), moderate (+2/3 levels, like the bard, cleric, envoy, mechanic, and so on), or poor (+1/2 class levels, such as the sorcerer, witch, and wizard–interestingly Starfinder has no classes with this progression). In these systems it’s easy to see that if you give a class a good attack progression the focus of that class is combat, if you give moderate bab progression it is going to have numerous combat options but will either need abilities to make it more effective, or must accept that combat is a secondary function, and if you give it a poor progression it’s never going to be good at combat without special abilities.

There are some built in potential problems with those progressions that show up over 20 levels of play (the gap between a fighter’s chance to hit and a wizards goes from as little as 5% at 1st level to 50% or more at 20th), which several newer d20 games have tried to solve by having very different ways of rating who is combat. pathfinder 2nd edition has a flat progression of everything from level (+1 to attacks per level for all classes), and uses five ranks of proficiency (untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary, or U/T/E/M/L) and class features to differentiate which classes are combat-focused. Most classes are at-best trained in various weapon categories, while the fighter begins play  expert in some attack options. Similarly 5e has a flat “proficiency bonus) (ranging from +2 to +6) which classes can add to various attacks, defenses, skills, and ability score checks, and class features (the barbarian’s rage, the fighter’s fighting style) determine who is good at the raw math of combat.

The best way to begin a character class is to see how many good, moderate, and poor progressions (or whatever similar mechanics the game in question uses) a typical class gets and which classes have which progressions. Normally a class that is strong in combat has weaker skill options but more HP, and characters with strong spell abilities have weaker saving throws. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but you want to make sure every class both has strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s bonuses and game mechanics support what the description and flavor tell players the class is good at.

That last element can be tricky, of course. If you have a Combatant class (not a great name, but fine for example purposes) which you describe as the best class at combat, and a Big Boxer class which you describe as the best at unarmed combat, it’s going to be frustrating for Big Boxer players of the Combatant is better even at unarmed combat than Big Boxers are. On the other hand, you don’t want all the flavor and mechanics of a class to just be a difference on where they get their bonuses. You could have an Archer class and a Smasher class and have their only different be the Archer gets big bonuses to ranged weapons and the Smasher gets them to hammer attacks, but that gets boring and tightly locks those classes into narrow character concepts.

Spellcasting deserves a special note here, because not every class gets it, and it has a huge impact on character effectiveness. The most obvious variable in levels of spellcasting is what level spell a character gains access to–in early d20 games it’s often a question of 4-level spellcasting (such as the paladin and ranger), 6-level (such as the bard and all official Starfinder spellcasting classes), and 9-level (such as clerics, druids, and wizards). But even within that there are important distinctions such as how effective a spell list is at specific things (the wizard spell list has more and better offensive options than the cleric, for example).

Again, not every d20 game keeps this set of progressions (5e has 5-level and 9-level casting, PF2 has 10-level casting and access to specific focus spells), but each game generally has a few standards you can borrow when building the superstructure of your character class. If you don’t feel like you know what the progressions and proficiencies of the core classes of the game you are designing for are, you need to do some study and analysis before you try to write a character class for that game.

You don’t have to get all this right in your first pass–if a class initially feels like it’s going to be strong at skills and spellcasting and weak on everything else, and then analysis or playtesting reveals that limits its options too much, you can go back and beef up some other progression to give it more core competency. But handling your initial idea of progressions, proficiencies, skills, and spells up front also helps define where things like special abilities should go. If a class doesn’t gain any spellcasting (or mutations, psionics, superpowers, miracles, or whatever) in a game where such powers exist, it’s worth thinking about how that class is going to deal with things that DO have supernatural powers when writing the class’s special abilities.

Because special abilities are the heart and soul of most classes. And we’ll look at them, especially fixed abilities versus customizable abilities, 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 30, 2019, in Game Design, Pathfinder Development, Starfinder Development, Writing Basics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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