I’ve deleted a post about class “purity”, and how adding more of them — or any asset, really — blurs and devalues the existing ones, but it was too generalized in tone. To help this time, I will employ some awesome photoshop skills.
Let’s say we’re making an rpg and we’ve established 10 fundamental skills. These are unique, arbitrary, independent, consistent among themselves, and non-contradictory. We’ve decided (so again, arbitrary but reasonable) that we will have 5 classes (I – V), each with its own unique pair of skills (A-J).
If this is too abstract, pretend that the skills are things like martial prowess, spellcasting, diplomacy, healing, mechanical ability, stealth, etc. The only restriction on a “fundamental” skill is that it reside at the lowest tier of definition, so you wouldn’t want a distinction between melee and ranged physical combat ability if you’ve only got a generalized spellcasting skill. It really depends on how you want to categorize the skills.
Because each skill is possessed by only one class, neither of the pair is seen as “primary” or more important, though one might more align with a preconceived class archetype. When the classes are as well-defined and unique as this, it is much more likely that an adventure can be constructed that allows each class to fulfill its role, in the true “role playing” sense. [The transformation of “role playing” from “role played in the party composition” to “let’s play dress-up like I’m on stage” is a totally different
rant topic.] This applies equally to pen & paper, where you will have different personalities with different preferences for what kind of character to play, as well as a crpg, where one player will want to have a different game experience based on playing a different class in subsequent playthroughs, or simply wants to enjoy having to manage party NPCs.
Now let’s do what even 1e did, and start making hybrids with the previous fundamental classes. We’ll add new class VI, which will have skills b and c. Instead of 6 distinct classes, we have 3 distinct classes, and a new, higher tier of class that is defined by skills b and c.
This new metaclass has a “pure” version, class VI, and two subclasses, I and II. Adventures must accomodate redundant roles now, and for the same reasons, obsolete roles. If a balanced party consisted of each of the 5 original classes, you’re now dealing with potential overlap between 3 classes, when at worst only 2 were needed. Even more detrimentally, you could “waste” a party slot in order to satisfy a required need from a role, using two or more classes to do what one used to or could.
So far, this has been at its simplest. Now (I wish I didn’t have to use this word so much, but I guess if I’m contrasting like this, it’s unavoidable?) let’s imagine that instead of simple and unique skills, we further break those skills down into their components and make those into subskills (such as the aforementioned melee vs ranged physical combat prowess, or arcane vs divine spellcasting).
When the classes simply become varying combinations of arbitrarily defined skills, the “role” the classes could play goes into the toilet. Consequently, in order to accomodate the virtual inevitability that a limited pool of players (in p&p) or preferences (single-player in a crpg), the adventures will have to be reduced to the lowest common denominating ratio of fun:challenge. Battles will become more generic and less tailored, requiring increasingly mindless stratagies to overcome. AD&D was already headed in this direction in 1e, but 2e solidified the bastardization of classes and skills, finally culminating in the robotic 3e and Pathfinder breed of rpg.