Friday, January 3, 2020

The Case for Character Specialization

This is a bit weird coming from me because my favorite D&D class is the Bard, the archetypal Jack-of-All-Trades option. Then again, I’m almost never actually a player, so that may speak for itself. Yes, I think there’s something quite valuable to be found when characters are each pretty darn specialized to certain tasks and abilities. Instead of versatile characters or versatile mechanics, having player characters grow into each their own mold does more to foster teamwork than anything else you can implement at the table.

In Ben Milton’s Maze Rats RPG, in the section on gamemaster advice, he argues that “tools are better than upgrades”. I see his logic and I like it, but I don’t think I agree with “better.” For the purpose of creating more interesting gameplay, I think tools are definitely superior. But upgrades add something else. It’s one of the reasons I created skills for Knave, why so many people want some version of classes or perks or whatever in that game. Yes, part of the draw is that “your class is your equipment” and therefore you can change up your gameplay style whenever you want just by changing your loadout. That’s great. That’s fantastic, elegant design. But I’ve never actually seen players do it. Every time I have a player in Knave, even if they’ll do different gameplay styles across different characters, they tend to keep each individual character pretty darn consistent. The only exception is when my player who focused on spellcasting had all of his spell tomes stolen from him, so he had no choice but to try a different play style. Even then, he didn’t really commit to any other major niche, though.

Upgrades can not only be quite simple (+1 to all damage rolls? Nice and easy, feels good), but they also solidify a place for each person at the table. I’ve played with no small number of shy players before, and they often have to share the table with some very big personalities in their fellow party members. It can be difficult to get a word in edgewise if this is you. But when you have something that the party is looking for, like healing or meat-shielding, then they’ll keep you included.

What I’m talking about is not a question of game balance or mechanics or anything like that. We all know that party composition is important for strategy reasons. But I’m talking about the communal effect is has on the act of play. I’m talking about how it shapes the artistic experience, the nature of the medium and how we engage with it.

As a DM, one of the best skills I’ve cultivated (with a great deal of effort and intention! It didn’t come on its own!) is to keep all players as included as I can. Regularly check in on the quiet guys and solicit input from them, making sure to shut everyone else up for a second. Ask a follow up question so you can guide them towards better participation. However, not all players share this skill. Most people aren’t great at this in everyday life. While the game would be greatly improved by players learning this skill, it can also be improved by creating circumstances where it will emerge naturally.

I fucking love teamwork when it goes well, and D&D is one of the absolute best teamwork exercises out there. It was never really meant to be a competitive game and I wouldn’t say there’s any intrinsic quality that would encourage that, but I’ve nonetheless seen inexperienced or inconsiderate players manage to turn it into a competition anyway. A competition that no one really enjoys and that no one came to the table for. I’m sure you could reconfigure the game to be better optimized for that, but to that I say: 1) there are already plenty of really fucking competitive board games you’ll enjoy more, and 2) the game is already optimized for teamwork. This is why my favorite upgrades of all would be ones that open up entirely new doors for the entire party to take advantage of. For example, a Thief character gaining access to criminal contacts and a safehouse will benefit the entire party and give them a reason to want the Thief on their team.

My next update to Brave will see the introduction of character classes that, as you invest more into them, you’ll come to be more and more upgraded with specialization towards that class’s role. But there will also remain the “knave class” option for anyone who wants to keep it simple and murder hobo-y (the way the game was meant to be played, arguably!).


P.S. I won't have Internet for the next couple weeks so this will be my last post for a bit. I already have another couple articles in the works, though.

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