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A Brief Dream: Tabletop Tactics

September 13, 2012

Last night, two of my friends and I were reflecting back on our recent D&D game. The game itself is meeting an early end because of the departure of one of the players. Not all in sadness though, he is moving to another state because he just got a job there.

The other player present remarked on how the game reminded him of why he was happy that our group has largely shifted from D&D to the Hero system over the years. This then started a general discussion on the key mechanical differences between the two games, as well as other less obvious differences (available genres, how characters are built, distribution of a 3d6 roll versus a 1d20, etc).

Something interesting came up though as we were discussing the differences between class systems and class-less systems. For those of you unfamiliar, D&D and its many descendants often make use of character classes for constructing one’s character. These classes represent general archetypes in the fantasy genre, that allow the players to live out their dreams of being Conan the Barbarian or Legolas. In some editions of D&D, having more than one character class is easy, and in others it can be difficult. Sometimes, you can only access certain classes after attaining certain levels in various other classes.

The point that we raised as the detriment of class systems is that they are very restrictive. Not only in terms of how we approach characters mechanically (ie the Druid in the party built his character around having and buffing an animal companion, if said animal companion were to die he would basically be useless and thus adventure is over for him), but also in terms of the character concept. If you sat down in a D&D game, even a mid-level one, and wanted to play a character who was a sort of lightly armored duelist with a little bit of combat magic or the like you’d have the choice of hunting down some 3rd party book for some barely playtested possibly broken possibly underpowered class, playing a Bard, or some sort of weird sorcerer/rogue multiclass character. Note though, that your character will be penalized for trying to cast arcane magic and wear armor at the same time, so perhaps you should eschew multiclassing in favor of being a Bard or Ranger. Note that those classes will bundle you with other skills and connotations you might not want.

If you’re playing Second Edition D&D though your class might be Fighting Man but with some sort of Duelist kit, and then you multiclass into Magic User but probably not Cleric. If you’re playing Fourth, then it doesn’t really matter because everybody will just end up spamming their at-will attacks anyway.

Of course, that’s assuming that someone comes to the table with a character not already steeped in the D&D mechanics. D&D also offers the ease of just rolling up a Bard, and when someone asks you, “Well, what’s the deal with your character?”

You can just respond, “Dude, I just got back from work. I don’t know, I just want to play a Bard, he does Bard things and he has a Bardic backstory.” Some people might call that a detriment, and others a boon. Still, I always found it more problematic than not.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve always found the Class-based game to be narrow our imaginations and options more often than not. I also had problems with the fact that D&D emulates a certain genre (and pretty much just that genre), and champions a certain style of thinking that is not necessarily intuitive (it’s better to have a lot of little +1 items spread across various bonuses than one big item, for example). There are a lot of reasons why I turned away from D&D.

Not that Hero doesn’t also have its problems. It has a front loaded learning curve, its character creation process requires people to have some sort of backstory in mind, and its system favors those who spend the time to learn it. In D&D, while people searching through non-core books for whacky spells and prestige classes can be a problem, it’s not like Hero where some parts of the core rules have warning and stop signs next to them because of how they can affect the flow of a game. Also, having run many a game with players that understood the mechanics and those that didn’t, I have seen some very different character builds and enjoyment levels.

Of course, I have found that most of the players in my games have enjoyed themselves, and there has been an interesting mix of how people build their characters.

Another reason I like Hero, is because it can lead players to express their different philosophies on character builds, and thus, on some level, how they feel situations like combat and roleplaying should work out. These players can express these different philosophies in the same game, and it doesn’t seem to punish them for it.*

While having this pile on class systems, the Departing Player than raised the question of the game Final Fantasy Tactics. He did this knowing that myself and the other player both adore the game. Of course, ever at the ready the other player announced, “That’s a Job System, not a Class System!”

A statement which I have been quite struck by.

For those of you who have never played Final Fantasy Tactics, I pity you.

It was essentially the spiritual successor to the much beloved (and almost as awesome) Tactics Ogre, and had the Final Fantasy name plastered onto it. I assume this is because the plot line involves crystals. It utilizes a lot of the Jobs that appeared in previous Final Fantasy games, and more importantly in Final Fantasy V.

The game’s storyline is sweeping and breathtaking, incorporating enough ideas and subverting a lot of tropes in a fairly Western fantasy setting that it would probably give George R.R. Martin a hard on. The characters are brilliantly constructed, and interwoven throughout the story. While the story is mostly relayed through cut scenes and in-battle dialogue, I’ve never found this to be a real detriment though I will be the first to cede that it does leave room for improvement. Of course, with the story being so well paced, and the combat system so solid, I’m not going to complain. Final Fantasy Tactics regularly ties for “Best Game I’ve Ever Played,” in my book.**

The important bit here is its Job system.

The game allows characters to be trained through a sprawling web of Jobs. Your character gains levels in one job (say Squire) that will unlock other jobs (like Knight, and Archer), and those jobs unlock other jobs, and when you combine levels in those jobs with others (like say having a few levels in Archer and Knight, or Archer and Thief), you may gain access to more jobs. While in that job, the player gains “Job points,” for performing various actions in combat, and they gain more for how successful said actions are as well as how much they relate to their current job. They then use this JP to unlock various abilities from that job.

Some of these abilities can be used while the character is actually another Job.

Now all of a sudden the game begins to take on a different characteristic.

Your characters are now more than the sum of their parts. While in games that allow multiclassing, you have access to your other abilities, the intermingling of different class abilities doesn’t necessarily affect each other. Whereas in Final Fantasy Tactics, your character is a blank slate until his Job is activated (there is no unemployment in Ivalice), and his Job then affects his various statistics. These statistics then can affect how well he can use some abilities.

This allows for some intense and complex manipulations of the system but it also allows for something much simpler: I’m a fighting class, and I want to have the ability to heal myself. I don’t want to be the best healer, I just want to heal myself and maybe fill the role of secondary healer if necessary.

In Final Fantasy Tactics there are multiple ways to achieve that, there were a few classes with healing abilities of various ease and use to learn for a random front line fighter. Maybe that character is an Archer with the Item ability, or a Dragoon with a Monk’s Ki Powers, or a Samurai with White Magic.

The interconnected nature of the Job system allowed for players to create characters that were more complex, and had more depth than someone who remains in a static “class.” While Final Fantasy Tactics didn’t have multiplayer in its original run, I can only imagine the fun that some players had when it was released for the PSP with multiplayer combat. How confused must someone have been when all of a sudden a Thief busted out a Fire spell, or a Bard was able to grasp the blade and stop their attack.

Most importantly the Job system allowed for something that you wouldn’t get from a free-form skill system like we see in say Skyrim. There was less of a chance of being overwhelmed by choice. You don’t have access to everything from the get go, and based on choices you make with your characters and the amount of time you’re willing to invest, you can unlock more choices and more combinations but from the outset, you are limited. You can explore and make bad decisions without being necessarily punished for them.

Whereas, in say World of Warcraft if you start playing a Shaman and realize twenty levels in that you don’t like being a Shaman, and it’s only after playing in some raids with people that you realized that you didn’t like the role…well, you have to create a new character. In video games, even MMOs, you can grind and power level a character fast enough that it’s not a major problem, however think about a tabletop game. In tabletop RPGs if you roll up a certain class and then realize after learning the system, or just find that in this specific campaign, that this character isn’t working or what you wanted there can be story ramifications for that since the story is being built by these characters as they go along.

I suppose this leads me to just wonder if the free-flowing nature of a Job system that allows characters to pick and build as they go might be an interesting route in table top gaming. While I still think that free-form point buy systems like Hero, and GURPs might be the best to represent a wide range of ideas, and they produce the best characters when players stop and think about what they want to do, I wonder if the Job system might be plainly superior to the Class system. However, the Job system might be difficult to emulate with dice and the like…

Still, a man can dream…



*: Cross-class skills?! Why would you take those?–Most Out-of-the-Box D&D Players

**: The other is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which if you think is just a dumb game about murdering prostitutes then you have just revealed that you are indeed a philistine.


From → Opinions, Video Games

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