Posted by : David Guyll February 12, 2009

An acquaintance of mine just asked me two questions: "Why have levels?" and "Why have classes?" This is interesting from both the designer's and player's standpoint, as the inclusion of either of these elements effects how you create and play the game.
I've played a lot of RPGs in my time aside from D&D: Rifts, GURPS, Shadowrun, Dragonball Z, Macross II, System Failure, Star Wars (WEG and d20), most stuff from White Wolf, and Elric! (the exclamation point is part of the title, I swear). Most of those didnt have classes or levels. Actually, I think out of all of them, Palladium products are the only ones that did. Shadowrun came close with archetypes, but those were mostly just pre-genned characters (kind of like D&D builds).

I personally find that a bad thing. For one, it requires much more reading about the game in order to actually get to the character creation stage. In Shadowrun, you will want to know what each attribute, skill, and bit of gear does before you get it, and it doesnt always do what you might think it does. Add to that the ability to specialize skills, toss in cybernetics, and even go so far as to use magic, and you're going to have a fair share of homework on your hands. If you consider Mage's very free-form magic system, well...thats another thing entirely.
I remember playing Shadowrun, making a street samurai that used two Smartlinked uzis, had wired reflexes, and then super high Quickness and Intelligence (for intiative, I think). To top it off, I maxed out and specialized in specifically the Uzi III. This lead to combats where I ended up having like, four actions, dealt horrendous amounts of damage, and was very difficult to hit. The other members of the group were a rigger and combat mage, so if the GM tried to make an encounter hard for me, it basically made it impossible for them. If he tried to make encounters where they had an easy time hitting me, he basically hit them every time (and did craptons of damage to boot).
This wasnt me being a dick and trying to make the most super-powered character I could. I was quite a bit younger at the time and just wanted to make sure that I could do stuff with the guns I took, and that bit of caution went a long way. When I went to make a new character, well, I wasnt sure what an "average" character was compared to the stuff we would normally fight. How much was too much? How much was good enough? What was the middle ground?

This all leads to a kind of system mastery-learning curve where you gradually learn more about a game as you create characters and play it. Some combinations work, some work okay, and some just plain suck. My experiences tended to extremes, so I was either not having a lot of fun due to a sucky character or boredon. In the end, "freeform" character creation system arent really that freefrom: eventually a few solid combinations float to the top of the soup while the rest settle at the bottom like so much sludge.
System mastery is a very bad thing. The longer a player has to learn and study to actually get to the fun part of the game, the less likely they are going to have fun, or even play it. Why go through all the motions of learning all the intricacies of Elric! when I can just crack open D&D, make a fighter (or frankly any class), and start rolling dice?

This is probably why I prefer D&D over other RPGs. Classes and levels help make it extremely easy for players to determine what they want to make, and allow them to make a functional character without a lot of trial and error. From the DM's perspective, levels make it extremely easy for me to determine the overall power level of my group. I can comfortably know that I am not going to overpower and possibly kill my group...unless thats my aim, of course.
The point is, its not hard for anyone to build characters or encounters anymore, and I think that the people who dislike levels and/or classes are the very people that enjoyed that system mastery and felt themselves empowered by their knowledge.
Well, too bad. Unless I end up falling into the Character Optimization forum, I dont feel like the choices I make are bad ones (because everything sucks). My players dont need someone else to explain to them what feats and powers are good or bad. They can play halfling tempest fighters with two daggers, and do well enough to feel like that their character is functional. They know what the middle ground is, and can plan accordingly.

I guess the short(er) answer is that classes make it easy for players to play the game, and levels make it easier for DMs to run the game.

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