Making Class Matter
Posted by: Jendor -- June 22, 2015


Derek Rawlings | @dmrawlings

It's too easy to think of classes just as things we tack onto characters to help them be better at going into dungeons and beating up monsters. What's harder is to remember classes serve a purpose in fantasy medieval society, and we can leverage that social purpose to make our games more consistent and interactive.

The Role of Class in the Worlds We Make

Classes exist primarily because they have a role in a fantasy society. Yes, some of them branch out and go on adventures and save the world. But I feel it's worth reminding ourselves adventurers represent a smaller subset of their respective classes:

  • For every Bard that delves dungeons there are two or three or twenty that stick to taverns, work as street performances, or engage in acts of charlatanism.
  • For every Wizard that travels the world righting wrongs there are many that hang out in towers, run apothecaries, and make ends meet by peddling minor magical items.

If your party wanders into a smaller town lacking NPCs with heroic classes, why shouldn't they be called upon to perform those pedestrian duties of their class? Why shouldn't a traveling Fighter be asked to instruct a lesson at the local barracks, for instance?

A DM should know the roles, expectations, and perceptions of a given class in their world. And since PCs (mostly) wear uniforms that identify them by their class, they should be approached to perform duties befitting their role in society.

Classes Have Responsibilities and Obligations

Becoming a member of a class requires a character to be special. They must have training, be imbued with power, or be naturally gifted in an art that makes them better than the average denizen of the realm. Sure there are lots of priests that perform ceremonies, but this PC is a Cleric. Clerics have roles and duties:

  • Presiding over funerals, weddings, and other ceremonies
  • Blessing births, businesses, fairs, and journeys
  • Delivering sermons
  • Converting and instructing others in the faith
  • Listening to confessions and providing guidance in ethical affairs
  • Ordaining other clergy
  • Mediating disputes or even judging when another is wronged according to the tenets of their faith

This is true of every class:

  • Bards might be called to entertain the local noble or to consult with historians
  • Fighters might be called upon to teach the noble's idiot son how to fight or give tactical advice on how to protect the town
  • Wizards might be asked to fix a magic doohickey that's not working right (i.e. fantasy tech support)
  • Rogues might be hired like Private Investigators to track someone in an urban environment or uncover whether someone's husband is cheating on her

Classes are also often fraternal. Even if the local populace doesn't have any work for your PCs to do, the characters still have potential obligations to professional organizations related to their class. We love making elaborate Thieves' Guilds that control the underworld of cities, but there's a lot more out there to play with:

  • Druids have Circles with vast expanses of nature to protect from tree-toppling troublemakers
  • Wizards have Schools and colleagues with an endless amount of arcane issues
  • Paladins have Holy Orders with untold divine threats to overcome

Making Class Matter in Your Game

So what can we do as GMs to give the role of classes a stronger presence in our games?

Step 1: Define how characters gain their class and what their class does

The method by which classes are gained creates a framework for how those classes interact with society in your world. Start with your PC classes and work your way out from there. Determine how characters come to their class. Where possible, involve your players and give them agency to define their character's origins. Ensure there is conflict built into each class, such as rivalries, stigmas, bigotries, or agendas.

I find there are five broad ways a character could gain a class:

  • Many teachers and many students - as in an academy or college
  • One teacher to one student - a master/apprentice relationship
  • One teacher to many students - a master to apprentices scenario
  • Empowerment by selection - a character is granted mystical power
  • Self-taught - school of hard knocks

Each of these give us opportunities to make class matter. If in a college setting, for instance:

  • Where are your schools?
  • What are they like? How prestigious are they? What are their specialties?
  • Who runs them? What is their alignment and what are their goals?
  • What rivalries exist between schools? How serious are they?

Professional societies help give context and purpose to the classes. They create specializations for a class that make it unique and can create conflict:

  • A Bard's guild is exorbitantly driving up prices for pub performances.
  • A cadre of local Good-aligned Clerics refuses healing in the town until the Mayor banishes a Lawful Evil priest who's been doing missionary work in the neighbourhood.
  • A visiting, arrogant Monk is challenging all the local masters to prove the Iron Fang Style is the strongest.

Step 2: Encourage your players to get involved with professional societies

Characters may want to petition for membership (which should have some reasonable perks), may need something only the professional society knows, or may simply want to do heroic work for them.

With the details down, you have a list of components you can plug into your setting. If your PCs wander into a new town you can pick and choose these components to make the town more interesting and drive some action in your game:

  • Is there a wizard with two apprentices who hate each other so much they want their opponent "taken care of"?
  • Is there a rival martial academy (to one of the PCs) that is voraciously recruiting?
  • Is there a teenager that just manifested sorcerous powers who's scared and confused and just needs another Sorcerer (PC) to talk to?

Take Advantage of Your Setting's Unique Scarcities

Scarcity is a wonderful tool to drive action in your game. If there isn't enough of something then people want it. Get inspired by the world you've created. Start by looking at a map and circling all the cool stuff. Look for scarce resources with unusual properties worth fighting over. Once you've isolated what makes your setting unique, build class-specific duties and organizations surrounding it.

For example:

  • If your world has a magical reagent that's required for making magic items, create an organization of wizards responsible for mining it, protecting it, or for making sure that they sell impure versions of it at an unfair price.
  • If your world has a massive chasm to the realms below, create a Ranger Guild that prides themselves on its exploration, or protecting people from getting too close to it.
  • If your world has a tall mountain, create a grand master Monk who lives on it who only accepts students that can reach him.

In addition to scarce resources, also pay attention to classes under-represented in an area. If there is a deficiency of Wizards in a town and suddenly a wandering wizard arrives, their services are going to be fiercely desired. That's just supply and demand.

At each new location determine which classes are underrepresented. Is there an important professional society not represented? If one of those classes is a PC's class, harass them with innocuous requests. As the PCs walk through town, show them examples of how the lack of that class makes normal peoples' lives worse:

  • Perhaps no one has been married for over a year because the local priest died.
  • Perhaps the tavern suffers because there's been no Bard to get people through the front door.
  • Perhaps the town lives in fear because the sheriff, the only Fighter in town, was driven out by bandits.

Alternatively, there might be a surplus of a class in a town. If a particular professional society is well-off in a town full of the not-so-affluent, it's easy for a class to be disliked, mistreated, or even feared as a result. At the least, a PC might be dismissed because they're nothing special. I get a lot of enjoyment in surprising my players by having their characters treated unusually.

Last, when you build a history for your town, don't forget to include an anecdote or two relating to different classes. If something of note happened, it's easy for prejudice to live on. Maybe it was something a member of a professional society did. Maybe it was something they didn't do. Maybe a PC is considered heroic just because of their class (we all loved "Jaynestown", right?), or they could just as easily be chased out of town. We can express these events in our game byadding monuments, favourite songs, holidays, or feasts in their honour.

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