Re-framing problems to solve issues
Starting off with the first of the classes as they appear in the book, the warrior was relatively easy to design for. Even before I had figured out all of the class identities and their paths, it was very clear from the get-go that there WILL be a “melee fighter” class. Exploring why that’s the case is interesting in itself, so I’ll dedicate a couple of paragraphs to it:
There are a plethora of reasons why almost every game should have a fighter class. In fact I’d conjecture that there isn’t a game that doesn’t need one, even if it’s exploring themes very far away from combat, a creative enough designer can re-flavour such a class to stick to that game’s themes and still offer a similar experience. Because it’s all about the type of gameplay experience. Fighters, alongside mages, are the primary draws to the RPG genre in the first place, and it’s important for a game to offer the experiences people are looking for when playing RPGs. A lot of that is tied to escapism – when given the option to be anyone we want (which is the “promise” of most RPGs, even if that’s limited to a game’s own universe and what “anyone you want” can encompass there), we tend to gravitate to the things that we can’t be outside of the game. Traditionally, that’s fighters and mages. The latter because well, there’s no real magic in our world, and magic is cool. The former because, let’s face it, the primary demographic of RPGs are people who are relatively far away from leading the action-packed life think is so cool. Strong, skilled at hand-to-hand combat, constantly in the thick of things, most often emerging the celebrated hero, the fighter fantasy encompasses everything that the vast majority of players aren’t. And, speaking of fighters and mages being popular, it should come as no surprise that fighter mages are the most popular classes in the games that offer them (primarily various digital RPGs and action games, most often coming from the east). At some point I should link data to support this statement, but I’m on the bus and damn it, it’s just true, roll with it.
There are also meta-reasons why melee fighters are so popular and crucial to games. This isn’t the case in 100% of cases, but most often these classes are the apotheosis of gameplay – they are relatively straightforward, explore the basic interactions of the game, and offer direct and engaging gameplay. By the very nature of melee, they are also the most engaged when it comes to the action, because getting in the middle of events usually leaves them open to interaction more so than other types of characters. There is also the itsy bitsy fact that this archetype is incredibly ingrained in the RPG community. Whether it’s for the reasons outlined above or not, it is and that’s a fact. People are used to playing fighters, and many many players will default to a type of gameplay they find comfortable and familiar, if they are afraid of trying something new (for one reason or another). From its roots in wargaming through the success of early D&D, this archetype has become a staple of the genre and not offering that experience to people is not a very smart thing for a designer to do. With this context in mind, it should come as no surprise that players gravitate toward fighters.
So, back to Balance, I knew there was going to be a melee fighter class. I don’t want to focus that game on combat too much, but at the end of the day the purpose of the whole thing is to explore balancing mechanisms, and in order to so I need to pit players against challenges. From a psychological perspective, solving problems with violence is not only natural to humans, it’s the most efficient way to prevent that problem from reoccurring in the future. That said, I don’t want to incentivise players turning into murder hobos, though I recognise that due to their exposure to D&D, they are still very likely to be.
Knowing the warrior will be a class, figuring out their identity wasn’t very hard – combat, their identity is combat. Later on, after having identified that I want to explore different pillars of gameplay, the fact that I had access to a guy that did combat as “their thing” helped solidify these concepts. So with the warrior being the combat strength-based class, their second identity was left to be determined. I thought of several directions to go into, but at that time I still didn’t know if combat will be their light or dark path. I explored the flavour of both, and I could see it going either way. In the end it came down to doing the maths on the table from the previous post, and I decided that it should be their light path. That’s when I started asking the question “Alright, we know that the warrior does combat, so how much can his second identity deviate from that, since it can’t be in the combat pillar of gameplay?” Turns out… not so much.
It took a long time to figure out what to do. In the end, it came down to a muddling of the pillars of gameplay. I had never codified them through mechanics, at least not in such a way as for things to reference “combat”, “stealth”, “tactics”, or “social”. Which I realised gave me the extra flexibility to nest that class in another pillar and still make them combat-oriented. By that time I knew that I wanted the Knight to be a social and tactics class, and I was really happy with their design, so that left stealth for the Warrior. Which seems like an opposite of combat… until you get creative enough – in the right mindset it’s not such a big deal. Going back to what I said in the intro article, the paths are different ways to explore a class identity through gameplay patterns. The key turned out to be to think more deeply about the classes I wanted and what it meant to be a character within that class. What is a Warrior? Is it somebody that “does combat”? It’s certainly what they are in gameplay, but what is the fantasy behind being a Warrior, or a melee fighter in general? Here’s what I think – it’s about being strong, an expert with weapons, proficient in hand-to-hand and armed combat. Finding how these things can be used in different gameplay patterns is significantly easier than finding how to use combat in stealth.
What is a Warrior on their light path? The name implies they “go to war”, and while I try to keep light and dark from corresponding strictly to “good and evil”, their general themes are not not so far from those concepts. What’s a “good” character that goes to war? My answer here is a soldier – perhaps a tad fanaticised by the Order, but otherwise a trained, loyal servant that goes and does their duty without question. Similarly, what is a Warrior on their dark path? They have to play around stealth somehow. What if they were to use stealth for combat? Now, I think that makes the most sense for a stealth-focused warrior. Who is a combat expert that tries to be as innocuous as possible, trying to complete their objective without combat, yet undisputedly superior when it comes down to it? My mind jumps to everyone’s favourite 007, but I try to generalise it – the spy, the infiltrator, the secret agent. So, with the right frame of mind, turns out that doing a stealth-focused combat class isn’t as counter-intuitive as one might originally assume.
The tale of the Warrior’s design is one I learned from quite a bit when doing Balance. The core concept of the class and what ultimately ended up being their light path was one of the very first things I designed, and one of the cornerstones of the game, while I was only able to settle on their dark path identity right at the very end of the process, after I let what I’ve done with the other classes lead me to the only possible place for it. By re-examining the concepts I had defined from the start and making them less rigid, I opened up a lot of room in the otherwise limited space I had left, so that ultimately I ended up with something that I’m quite satisfied with.