One of the earliest questions asked when a group is planning their next campaign is occasionally "which system?". Usually this is asked right after someone utters the line of "Well, I guess I could run something next." and draws the attention of every gamer within earshot. When pitching an idea, this can be a make-or-break moment with a group of people with strong preferences. For instance, I know some gamers who are strongly against anything d20 based. Some visibly cringe at the mention of the words White Wolf. Some of us are averse to any system where character creation requires a tax expert. Today, however, I'm gonna babble on about point-buy and class-based systems.
It's All About the Idea
Character concept. The vast bulk of gamers, by nature or nurture, are creative individuals. Crafting a character is the first place this ability asserts itself. Some of us are comfortable rolling up some random stats and running with it, while others have a need to have every facet of a character meticulously planned out. Wherever you sit on this topic, choice of system can either help or hinder your concept.
Let's start with class-based systems. Every class you see in D&D or some other system is usually based off of some archetype which provides a firm base to work off of. Tons of options provide lots of parts to kludge together for a mechanical skeleton and all you need to do is provide context and personality and you're ready to go. This works for some, but not all. In D&D 4e, I can make a character in less than 5 mins out of what's available. If I want something that's not part of the designer's idea kit, though, I'm kinda boned.
Looking into Pathfinder, some of the class options actually take away other options I might have actually wanted also. I do have to wonder what the mentality was when, for example, when it was decided a ranger can take feats for dual wielding or improving his archery, but not both? What if I want to spread myself a bit thinner in exchange for wider options in a fight?
On the other hand, Fantasy Craft is probably the most concept-friendly level-based system I've seen, so far. Very few options actually restrict other options and any path you choose feels like a viable rout to go. I'll probably dig into this system sometime in the future for a full review.
Now onto Point-buy. Conceptualization is a bit more free in these types of systems. It's easier to build actual people rather than caricatures. In fact, some GMs remove point caps altogether and let players build their concepts to the letter. This takes a good bit of trust to do, but it's been known to happen. But, yeah, if you want to have a fighter who can pickpocket like a pro or a hacker who moonlights as a mage, point-buy systems can probably accommodate a bit easier. In fact, you can even un-specialize. Put points into everything a little at a time and it's easy to be a jack of all trades. On the downside, this can even lead to homogenization, which leads me to my next point.
Five Man Band
Some systems, by virtue of mechanical or narrative design, require characters to fulfill certain roles within the team dynamic. I like this in the narrative sense, as in Shadowrun needing mercs of differing skills to pull off a 'job', or in a more practical, tactical sense, when people just work together organically. When the game demands this because of base mechanical reasons I feel it's just bad design. Case in point, most MMORPGs. But whatever the reason, everyone has a spot to fill. (I'll dig into this more next week.)
In class-based systems, this is usually already instilled in the class' design. Fighters fight, mages cast magic, thieves sneak, courtiers use diplomacy. Every class has a strength and something to do via their very nature. But what about classless systems? It's very possible, and I've seen it happen, where everyone makes a concept that's only marginally different than the one next to him. There may also be instances where you've unspecialized enough that there isn't much you are good at. Except maybe beerpong. Yes, some systems allow you to put points into custom skills, so beerpong is a valid use of points. Silly but possible. Not saying these things will happen, but it's come up more than once. How exciting is it when your players can build anything but they choose instead to make a bunch of nearly identical goons who hit things with sticks? Or the skill-monkey who has ranks in everything, but only one or two and couldn't make a skill roll if the plot depended on it? Some sort of external character discussion or niche-protection policy is almost necessary to avoid this.
Come to think about it, if my gm made excellent use of someone's beerpong skills, I'd be quite impressed.
The eternal quest for the golden duckets: XP! Advancement is the biggest area that determines if I'm willing to run a system for more than a one-shot. If the advancement sucks, I'm gonna bypass it anyway I can, usually by only running a single session, or not advancing at all if it's only a few sessions.
An awful lot of Point-buy systems I've encountered average 2 to 3 xp per session. This happens no matter what you accomplished. Kill an army: 3xp. Research a megacorp: 3 xp. Eat a bag of chips: 3xp. If you do something rather strenuous, they recommend giving a little extra, but it's not much. The good thing is that you spend points as you get them, so you get a steady stream of increased ability. It's like a never ending stream of cupcakes. They're small, but you get them no matter what, and they're always delicious. On the downside, I have to wonder if this encourages people to show up but nothing else. When you level up just as much from pulling an exciting heist as you would from picking up hookers at the local dive, why bother? I thought the point of xp was encouragement to go DO STUFF.
Class-based systems tend to keep advancement slower, and usually have a level cap. The recommended amount of xp is regulated in such a way as to cause a level-up to happen in regular intervals. D&D 4e sets it about every 10 encounters or so, while Fantasy Craft goes about 1000 xp per adventure with levels arriving
over increasingly longer intervals. Once level-up has been achieved, though, it's like Christmas! Stats go up, abilities are acquired, and skills get better all in one go. You get an awful lot and won't have to worry about it again until you level up next time.
If Point-buy gives you cupcakes every day, Class-based gives you a whole cake but only on your birthday. Everyone is gonna have their own preference, but for me the steady but small advance seems to lose some of it's majesty while the occasional 'Ding' feels a bit more earned even if it is only once in a while.
Personal preference is always going to reign supreme, and there really is no one 'best' way of doing things, overall. However, there is always the right tool for the right job. While some people like to stick to a single system and master it, I like having options. These are only a few points that might be considered when making such a choice. And what about you? Have you ever had a character idea that just couldn't be done using the tools available in your favorite system? How loud do you cheer when you reach the next level? And when is the last time you made a character that was an ace with a ping pong ball and some booze?
See ya next time, and stay classy!