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Monday, January 20, 2020

Classifying Game Structures: Classes, Skills, Resources

Time to continue the classification system first started here, the one built around How PCs do things (Structure,) What PCs do to advance (Focus,) and Where PCs do it (Setting). Previous posts in this series:

  1. focus (four options)
  2. setting (and mood) (two options, not counting mood)

Changes since those posts:

  • Ditching the fifth focus (Undefined)
  • Ditching the third setting (Cosmic)
  • The Action focus is now Arena.

On to RPG structures. Class and Level games have just a few broad descriptors that can be improved, while Skill and Talent games have many specific descriptors that can be added or improved. But there’s a little more to it than that.

Class and Level systems assume everyone is able to walk, run, notice danger, get in a fist fight, build a fire, and possibly other things as well. Class abilities are a little something extra: exceptional combat ability, ability to cast spells, boosted stealth abilities. They usually start at the bottom (level 1 or level 0) and work their way up.

Skill and Talent systems assume everyone has some default skills and trains (adds skill points) to raise some of those defaults or add additional skills like blacksmithing. The finer the distinctions between skills, the more skills there are (Melee Weapon skill vs. Sword skill, Ax/Mace skill, Spear/Polearm skill.) The skill levels may start higher than class levels, and there’s a lot more character variety. Talents are pseudo skills that are harder to add or improve and may have less range for development.

Either system may have limited features of the other type, for example general ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity) as default human skills that are very difficult or impossible to improve.

Let’s contrast some examples:


OD&D is the quintessential Class and Level Exploration Fantasy game. There are six ability scores, but by default they aren’t even used as a typical skill system, just a guideline to what the character is good or bad at. Characters have only one broad class ability – Fighting-Man, Magic-User, Cleric – at the start, and it begins at level 1. Level improves when characters explore, quantified as bringing back treasure from adventures.

Chaosium’s Stormbringer is a Skill and Talent Exploration Fantasy game. It, too, has ability scores and several default skills. Skills improve when used while exploring.


Contrast Stormbringer to The Fantasy Trip. The later version covered by In the Labyrinth is a Skill and Talent Exploration Fantasy, although the mechanics are quite different and there is a rudimentary class system, which really only affects the costs of talents (skills.) But in its first incarnation as Melee and Wizard, it was a Skill and Talent Arena Fantasy game. The focus was on fighting, physically or magically.

I’ve mentioned before that there’s probably only one other structure type. I’m more certain of that now, and I’ve finally settled on a name: Point Resource. Whereas the other two types focus on resolving conflicts based on character statistics, Point Resource games have point pools that are detached from character abilities and instead affect the flow of the game. Here is another game contrast:


TOON announces in its introduction that you should forget everything you know about roleplaying games. It starts with what looks like a simple Skill and Talent system: four abilities, 23 skills, and a bunch of schticks (talents.) But it’s worth noting that players can spend 3 plot points to pick up a schtick temporarily for one session, or 1 plot point to use a schtick once, so characters are more fluid than you’d expect. But despite the fact that you can superficially run a session as an Arena challenge (like the example cartoon olympics adventure) or as Exploration or Investigation, the real focus in TOON is on Other. Experience points, called “Plot Points”, are earned by being funny, and can be spent to make other funny things happen. This is why it’s a STOF game.

Contrast to a much later game like InSpectres. Again, there’s a rudimentary resemblance to Skill and Talent systems (four broad abilities.) But the focus is not on improving the character, although that’s possible. It’s on improving the franchise the characters work for. Investigating the mystery earns a pool of dice, and these can be spent to improve the franchise or eliminate Stress characters may have acquired. This is moving closer to a PROF game. It’s more obvious in the UnSpeakable (Lovecraft-influenced) variant, which doesn’t even have the four main abilities of InSpectres. Every character starts with one skill, and there are no skill levels. The game starts with a communal pool of dice called The Pit. To do things, players must roll dice: if their skill covers what they want to do, they roll one die, otherwise they must take dice from the pool or take an automatic failure. When the pool runs out, the game is going to end soon, and probably most characters will die or go insane. The dice pool, in this case, truly governs the way the story evolves, and acts like a Point Resource.

Story Games are almost always PROF/PROM games, or hybrids that lean towards PROF/PROM.

So, that gives us three Structures X four Foci X two Settings = 24 possible game types, although I’m guessing a couple of those types have barely been explored. I may want to do follow-up posts classifying some well-known games, or discussing how some games change type, either as play progresses or when using certain subsystems.

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