On Class Design and how to Limit Optimization (or why the Fighter Sucks)
by, 03-13-2010 at 09:21 AM (11718 Views)
Yes. You read that right. Let me explain.
PCs are going to play a class throughout their entire progression, and you can't really change it (barring rebuilding, of course, but that's a whole other bag, and admits that the [insert class here] sucks). This means that their choice is pretty much set--if you've got X levels in class X, you're going to have that many levels in class X until you roll a new character. And the Fighter sucks. No, I'm not even talking about its power, since you can build a really powerful fighter if you go dumpster-diving through feats. The part about it that sucks is that it's a complete newbie trap. Let's take two examples to illustrate this.
First, the cleric. They don't really have much in the way of class abilities apart from their spells and Turn Undead. So a newbie looks over the spells, and thinks to themselves, "Hey--Hide from Undead! That sounds really cool. I think I'll prepare that. And while I'm at it, Remove Fear and Curse Water look awesome as well! Let's go with those." Thus, the first combat occurs, and he finds his spells relatively useless. So the next day, he looks over his spells left, and switches them for things that are better. And every "day" in-game he can look over the spells he has access to, trying different ones, and keeping the ones that were effective in combat while discarding those that weren't.
Now let's look at the Fighter. The newbie sees the Fighter and thinks, "Oooh, feats. Those are supposed to be awesome, right? I mean, everyone else gets only 7 of them unless they're human. Think of how many awesome things I'll be able to do!" So he goes forward and grabs Acrobatic, Endurance, Deft Hands, Nimble Fingers, Persuasive, and Self-Sufficient. He should be just great at all those things--and he's called a Fighter, so he'll obviously be able to fight well! The first combat comes around--and there's very little he can do, since he has feats that don't support whatever shtick he can do. But... there's nothing he can do, unlike the cleric. He's stuck with the feats he picked, and has to suffer them for the rest of his career, as debilitating as they might be.
Thus the newbie trap is born. But it goes farther than this. A newbie might choose feats that suck at every time. But a class should be good regardless of what feats one takes, what skills one has, what spells/maneuvers/powers one chooses, and so on. Think about that for a second. That a class can be good taking all the above feats I mentioned, or even Toughness x10. Think how much min-maxing that reduces--people can be good regardless of the feats they take, and thus don't have to dumpster-dive for feats. But I'll add another prerequisite for class to be good; that any attempts to strongly optimize it are fairly worthless, and it should have very little change in power regardless of what feats one takes, as long as the feats themselves aren't completely overpowered.
Think about that for a moment. Think about the way that could change the game. People might optimize, but characters wouldn't be very different in actual power regardless of whether one optimized or not. People who dumpster-dived for feats wouldn't be much better than those who picked feats at random for flavor. You could pick any stylistic feat without feeling as though you lost a sizable amount of power. Optimization would be almost worthless. People could pick whatever they wanted and still be awesome. Newbies would feel powerful and cool without having to have complete game mastery of the game. And newbie traps would completely disappear.
In this manner, virtually no class published by WotC is good. A wizard can choose crappy spells, as could a cleric or sorcerer, though this is mitigated by the fact that they can get new/switch out spells at a later date. Martial adepts can choose bad feats and bad maneuvers, making them far lower in power than a well-built martial adept. The druid might be the closest thing, since it's got powerful class abilities--but even then, the optimization potential between feats, spell choice, choice of animal companion and choice of wildshape form make it a bad class as well on the "overpowered" side, while bad choices for all of those can make one drastically underpowered.
"But Ghostwheel," you might exclaim. "That's a fantasy--classes like that don't exist! They could never exist! A class that was both balanced, strong, and unable to be optimized? Such rubbish!"
I might have written this blog with hands empty, simply ranting and raving with no actual examples to show. Yet I didn't and will now reveal not one, not two, but three examples of classes that follow these requirements, and explain how they do so.
The first example is the Toxinblade, a class that I made to be a dedicated tank. The toxinblade works by targetting foes, and creating a requirement: they need to damage him, or take damage. Pretty simply, but effective for getting enemies to target him. Simple, really, hit me or you get hurt. On top of that, it has various abilities that allow it to take the damage dealt, while not ignoring it completely. Either way, it does its job well. On one hand, the targeted enemy needs to target the character (upon which the character has fulfilled his job as a tank, drawing attacks away from the squishier party members), and might still take damage, allowing the player to feel awesome, or it target someone else, upon which the toxinblade can continue dealing good damage. Furthermore, the class is well-made in that even a dip is worthwhile, making a tank far "stickier", since the damage scales and is thus a relative threat to a character at any level.
Furthermore, there's no real way to optimize the class much. Sure, you could pick up Stand Still, but that's going to make you slightly stickier, and not change the balance of the class on the whole as much as Natural Spell or Divine Metamagic would on a druid or cleric respectively. And the beauty is that you could take Toughness for all your feats and still be able to be effective.
Another upside to the class is its variable ability dependency. Unlike the wizard who has to have Intelligence, the toxinblade can have Constitution high (if they want to play a blaster-type, targeting enemies at range with Insidious Venom), Dexterity high with Weapon Finesse (if they want to play a fast, sneaky character, perhaps an assassin of sorts), or Strength high for the classic defender-knight. All of these ability scores are viable, allowing you to make a large range of different character concepts using the toxinblade as a base.
Note: some say that the flavor of the class is too specific... but that's just dumb. Flavor is mutable. For more information, take a look at the text under "Adaptation." There are a lot of classes that don't offer near the amount of options that toxinblades do in the number of concepts and flavors available, and no one says they're too narrow.
The second example is the Sharpshooter. From first level the sharpshooter is an effective ranged combatant, being able to hit targets in melee regardless of whether they're in melee, or behind another character. Furthermore, they don't rely on feats for their power--you could take Skill Focus five times and they don't fall far in power compared to a character who picks up Rapid Shot, Point Blank Shot, and Far Shot. Furthermore, it gets all kinds of interesting abilities at ranged combat, rather than the cumbersome, "I full attack... again," that most ranged combatants are forced to do every round. (Or, "I move... and then attack. Again," as it the case with scouts.) They can choose to hit multiple enemies at once, hit a single enemy with a debilitating effects, or boost their damage against a single enemy to try to bring them down quickly. This gives numerous options to players, allowing combat to stay interesting and cool, rather than repetitive and boring.
The last example is the Marshal, a character that can actually be a primary party "leader" all day long. The marshal can boost their allies' attacks, allow them to inflict status effects on enemies, help them resist special attacks, and more. As before, there aren't many feats that are going to boost a marshal much, since a primary cha-based marshal is going to be using just about all of his actions every round. Furthermore, you can play a melee-marshal, investing in str, a light marshal by investing in dex, or a pure cha marshal, and all are viable options. Furthermore, even a single level in Marshal allows you to act as a competent party leader, since the temp HP granted by "Stand Your Ground!" scale as your character level increases. Sure, it's not going to be nearly as effective against a level 20 threat as a level 20 marshal, but you're still helping yourself and your comrades in such situations.
All three of these classes may look powerful--but that's the point. Their class abilities are what makes them powerful, not their feats. Let's compare to a class that can use its feats to make itself stronger.
Let's take a level 9 cleric; he'll take Persistent Spell (Complete Arcane), Divine Metamagic: Persistent Spell (Complete Divine), and Extra Turning a few times. This will let us persist a number of spells at the cost of a few uses of turn. For a moment let's ignore the errata, and use what it says in the PHB; we'll be persisting Divine Favor, Divine Power, and Righteous Might.
(...More to follow, stupid word limit...)