Ala Carte Build vs Classes


When I started creating Unchained Heroes it was designed with the idea of Ala Carte character building rather than Classes. I had a great vision that when players would ask me what they could be in my game, I could say, “Whatever you want!” with a nice glowy feeling inside. They could pick any combination of powers and abilities, only Skill Levels and Attribute levels would be their restrictions. That was the Ala Carte Method of building a character and I was very keen on it. However, playtesting changed things, as it always does, and which evolved into the Class setup in Unchained Heroes today. Here we explore that journey.

The Ala Carte Method of Character Creation was based on a sandbox style of play. I didn’t want to be in the business of giving players guidance with Unchained Heroes. Their character concepts and imagination was supposed to do that for them. I wanted them to choose their own path, no matter where it might take them. I would give players the tools to create their character so they could shape it into anything they might want. I had the same Battle Skills and similar Character Skills as the current version, but instead of classes, a player picked an Archetype as a character concept which gave them a bonus to a few abilities.  All Attributes, Skills, and similar statistics were purchased at Character Creation and then enhanced by using Experience Points later on. There were a limited number of Abilities available and you didn’t get them often. The process would start with picking an Archetype, such as Warrior, and then you would build them in into any style Warrior you wished, even a Paladin or a Dread Knight. I wanted players to have a lot of different choices and have an open ended method to build a character.

Didn’t Survive Engagement with the Enemy

The Ala Carte character creation did not survive the first few gaming sessions. Right away players were looking at the list of powers, abilities, skills, and other statistics and asking me what they should do with them. They were already learning a new system and they didn’t know what to choose to make the character they wanted. Many statements of: “I just want to play a Rogue” or questions of: “How do I make this guy a Cleric?” began popping up. I needed to walk each person through the concepts and statistics required to match their idea of the character they wanted. They were veteran role-players, so they knew some of it, but the sheer open-ended nature of the system was too much to take in. It was akin to writer’s block or the artist’s blank canvas conundrum, only this time, they were making a character for a roleplaying game, not a work of art. Ever been faced with coming up with a story or a report and not know where to begin? I forcing that feeling on my players and that was not what I had intended.

At first, I stubbornly stuck with Ala Carte. I explained the style, helped them get through Character Creation and we made it through a session or two, but again the world of wide open choices was paralyzing them into indecision. Each time they advanced in levels they were given an ever growing tree of options and without the full knowledge of the bigger picture, it wasn’t fun; it was a chore. On top of that, I was getting problems with the system where certain combinations in the hands of players were not only ludicrously overpowered, but also conflicted with any logical character concept or archetype we had. Something had to give, so it was time to go back to the drawing board.

My Analysis

Thinking about the psychological stress of the situation started me on the path to alleviate that problem. I began to think about it. Why have so many games always used Classes in the past? Was this inadvertent or by design to help the players? My first guess is that it was always done that way. We label things to understand them and then we expect to have them follow certain standards. A lot of the times people would like to believe a game creator came up with some in-depth reason for doing everything–the same for writers of a story or series–but I surmise that classes “just happened” and now we have the expectation that they will exist. It just so happens that Classes are helpful for creating a character, but I don’t think the answer stops at a label.

My hypothesis is that the act of naming an archetype as a Fighter, Ranger, or Wizard was not enough; they had to have a context to draw from with examples and flavor. Think of a Ranger in fiction and you probably imagine Aragorn and all of his skillsets. Think of a Wizard and you get imagines of Merlin or Gandalf performing a spell or cantrip. The label plus the context of their powers, gives an overall impression. My Archetypes were giving a label, but the power context was getting lost in the many options. With a traditional game Class, players would get the mental imagine and the context; armed with that knowledge they would know how to play it. It gave them direction. On top of character direction, it was comforting; a safety net to catch them if they made the wrong choice or didn’t know what to choose.

My Compromise

I knew full Ala Carte was not the way to go for Unchained Heroes. It ruined balance for players to pick any ability from any discipline for the archetypes. It also ruined player interest to be offered so many options. My solution was to build Classes with themes and give them a subset of abilities to choose from. It boils down to the concept that if you give a person 5 choices of what to do in a situation, they can be more creative than if you told them they could do anything. When given the option to do anything at all, people fall back on their habits and what they know. They would look for examples in their experiences and work with those. With that philosophy in mind, I needed to direct their choices into a consistent way of thinking, while at the same time defining and limiting these choices. Having options was still very important for me, there would be no static builds. Static builds that tell me what abilities and powers are not my style. My task would be to make consistent options to choose from and give more direction.

I built each class with 3-4 starting abilities that would be universally consistent to a class. They would provide a theme and ability palette. Players would get to choose 1 ability or power at 1st level and then one more every few levels after that. The abilities and powers would incorporate a theme about the class and I would build abilities that would work around that theme. For example, the Warrior was going to be an in-your-face guardian, a hack-and-slash whirlwind style damage dealer, and I-know-best battle commander all wrapped up in one. With that idea in mind, I began expanding it. I would make them very mobile, let them manipulate Tactical Points(TP), and have interesting options for vectors to add to their attacks. They would have powerful defensive capabilities and special immunities due to their experience on the battlefield. This was the how I created direction and options all at once.

I applied this methodology to every class, coming up with 30+ abilities for each that would allow for various styles of play, but at the same time have a cohesive theme. The results were a success. Character Creation became something my players could enjoy, rather than give them anxiety. Now when you pick a Class, you have a strong feeling of where it can go. Abilities are balanced within the Classes with prerequisites that allow me to defer the more powerful abilities until particularly significant levels. Each level where you gained more powers, you could keep with your ongoing theme or branch out, but always within the same overall feel of your Class. Rogues could be striking from the shadows with daggers or slinging bolts from crossbows in the back row; Alchemists could be offering fantastic support actions or blasting foes with grenades; Sorcerers could decide to focus on keeping their foes on the ropes or igniting them in flames. With these choices being laid out before my players, they could see cool combinations and interesting paths to choose from without the overwhelming lack of direction.

Lessons Learned

If I learned nothing else, it was that direction was important. The Ala Carte method could have had more success if I would have offered more player coaching from the beginning, but it would have taken a lot of time and effort to do so and the Class method was a much easier route. It broke down to the fact that Class method carried with it years of fantasy canon for players to draw upon, giving them a direction to take without additional coaching. The Ala Carte or “choose anything” method did not. Lesson learned: All future attempts at creating game systems need a healthy dose of direction from the very beginning.


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