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The size of your brush

Posting here will be infrequent and brief until I get my current chapter finished. Alas.

James M muses on class and skill based systems, and how the latter seems more appropriate for SF gaming.

My immediate objection is that SF is way too broad a genre/tendency to classify in this way. Sword and Planet seems to work just fine with classes (and the biggest sword and planet franchise of them all, Star Wars, seems practically to beg for classes – provided, as always, that you can invent your own classes as needed). A bunch of SF settings pretty much demand classes: anything kinda military has them built right in as job descriptions (Star Trek, anyone? How many classes were there in original Battlestar Galactica?).

But all these settings assume clear genres of action – a particular style of adventuring, certain well-developed archetypical roles for the PCs in the world – and all the ones I’ve mentioned have historically been represented by skill based systems or hybrid skill/archetype systems anyway.


Take Traveller as a shining example. Like D&D, it was blazing a trail into unknown roleplaying territory. Like D&D it assumed a limited set of possible backgrounds for PCs, and those backgrounds often looked a whole lot like possible fantasy equivalents. Scout. Um, like Strider? Army/marines. Like a fighter? The novel, specifically SF category, Navy, was still easy to find fantasy equivalents for: somewhere between Pirate and Paladin, and defined by what you need to operate a ship.

But it didn’t do character classes. Instead you had to go through this whole minigame to get skill levels: it wasn’t enough to say “I’m a marine.” Even though the tramp trader/patrons/missions scheme was as ironclad in its way as the dungeon. Even though it assumed your adventures began with mustering out and had nothing to say about employment or unemployment in the civilian world. Even though, in its sketchy outlines, it encouraged you to paint your world with a pretty broad brush (while Star Wars pretty much only had size 36s available – if you want to run a game of subtle politics and/or subsistence farming in the Star Wars universe, good luck).

Why skills? I don’t know. I wonder, though, if there’s some sense that a man’s fate shouldn’t be decided for him in SF. I wonder if there’s some American Revolution thing going on here. Because back in the bad old days people thought in archetypes (so we’re told). And fantasy encourages a certain kind of brushwork (so we’re lead to believe) that tends to repeat old familiar gestures. And maybe in fantasy we create worlds that we wouldn’t actually want to inhabit ourselves, but which we appreciate as a kind of ballet or opera: something with a known level of artifice? (although see Robin Laws’ discussion on the gender politics of fantasy worlds for how well-recognised and tolerated such artifice really is). And maybe in SF there’s always more overt connection to our own world and way of life – some utopian dream or dystopian warning, and if we’re playing in those worlds then in some way we’re more concretely playing us, and there’s no way you’re judging me by my job.

Maybe. The real test of that idea would be Western games, and whether they use class or skill systems, but I can only think of Boot Hill and I never played it myself. My other hypothesis is that SF worlds tend to promise more open-ended play and therefore cannot be as well-defined as fantasy ones. There’s always some other swathe of planets or countries or peoples the stories haven’t visited yet, some other way of doing things, of interacting, and in the end a class is a closed set of ideas about what you do in a game – the tools you bring to bear, that fit you for a specific context. What’s Conan the Destroyer going to do when he gets to Starfleet Academy? (and on that point see Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles). And maybe that’s why skills seem to fit them better, because as a Modern Man you know you always have to retrain. Brash Pilot? It’s a job. One day you’ll settle down and become a responsible pilot. Or fisherman, until you can get that stardrive repaired and get off this  uninhabited swamp.

  1. April 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Good post.

    I think that peculiar skill-infused version of the class-based game, the archetype based game works well for games like Star Wars, Star Trek and probably Western games.

    The probably with purest (oldest style) class games and some more “modern” settings is that they don’t allow for enough deferentiation of characters of similar types. If you’re playing Aliens the Rpg just having “Space Marine” as a class probably doesn’t do justice to the variety of different roles they fill. But, if you give space marines a whole bunch of different classes, why are you treating them differently that pilots, or corporate cronies, or lost little girls?

    I think skills help this problem–though I don’t think going to a strictly skill based system is the only solution to the problem.

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