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The New You on Game and Player

The New You

Heather Richtmyre  //  March 1, 2010

More on RPG character customization.


hile, as I touched on in my last column, the appearance of a character can involve quite a few choices, it's generally not relevant to actual performance within a roleplaying game. Performance is the combination of skill and class choices, with the precise balance between class- and skill-based choices depending on the game.

This can be framed as both a contrast between classes being defined as limited choices within a certain range of abilities, or as merely a name given to certain combinations of skill-sets. In terms of improvement, characters can either become more powerful through honing skills (such the controversial system in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), or are given more opportunities to hone skills when they reach certain levels of power or experience (more traditional, and most, RPGs).

From the first perspective, class can be defined most tightly through such constraints as the weapons one is allowed to use, specific spell choices such as turning undead or evoking elements, or skills only being allowed to certain classes. In contrast, class can also be defined as say, a rogue possessing skills such as alchemy, and being better-than-average with a blade and light armor; while still retaining the ability to use an shield or cast the fireball. Think traditional boxes with some margin for customization. This does not, though, equate to proficiency with off-skills.

From the second perspective on classes, frequently used skills advance the character. The major disadvantage of this is that combat-related abilities may vastly outpace ones related to such things as opening locks or crafting items, especially if most quests or encounters are more focused on combat than solving puzzles. Given the various options, the selection of skills and classes is a rather complex endeavor.One example would be Oblivion's Mercantile skill, which often languished during entire playthroughs — while the Athletics skill could be raised simply by doing what a player is expected to do, like running forward.

In the other approach, progression is a result of obtaining a certain amount of general experience, whether from quests or kills. This then unlocks new abilities and increased ranks of current ones. One disadvantage: when just a few measly experience points separate a character from powerful spells or abilities, a single level can make all the difference between success and resurrection. If you've ever played World of Warcraft's feral druid in cat form and reached level 50 to gain Mangle — an ability that's central to competitive damage-dealing — you know what I mean.

Given the various options, along with such further complications as multi-classing, racial traits, or birth signs, the selection of skills and classes is a rather complex endeavor. Concerns about game balance, or, in multiplayer situations, concerns about the balance between players, can lead to limited choices, because they're easier to manage and reduce the likelihood of certain combinations being largely unplayable.

Personally, I've found cases where the introductory dungeon has lead to me wishing I had chosen a warrior or fighter type rather than a stealth character, simply because of difficulty and class ability concerns. I have also had cases of bemoaning the limited options of certain characters, where being able to pick up certain skills not included in the simple class would be quite fun and useful. Not surprisingly, vendors pop in fantasy worlds offering top-to-bottom class swaps.

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