Class vs Skills

Yesteday’s post about levels has spawned an interesting and long running conversation.

Today I want to look at a related issue. Class-based vs Skill-based character systems. This question dovetails nicely with some of the side-conversation of the levels discussion.

The first “mainstream” graphical internet-based MMO was Ultima Online, and it uses a skill-based system. In case you never played it, and going from more ancient memory, every character had the same bunch of skills, all level 0 when the character was created. By doing stuff, the character would improve the skill related to that activity. So fighting with a sword would increase your sword-fighting skill a lot, and your strength skill a little. Casting spells would improve your magic skill a lot, and your intelligence skill a little, and so on. The catch was, a character could only have a set number of skill points (I want to say it was 300). A skill maxed out at 100, at which point you would be a GrandMaster of that activity. If you were a grandmaster swordfighter then spent a ton of time doing Carpentry to get that skill to rise, your swordfighting skill would slowly drop (though they later added the ability to “lock” a skill so it would never atrophy).

This was a great system because everyone could be who they wanted to be. If you wanted to be a healer/archer, you could do that. If you wanted to be a Grandmaster Carpenter and Swordfighter, you could. But you could never be Grandmaster at more than 3 things, and realistically you could only be GM at 2 things (you needed some “extra” points for other stuff, like Magic Resistance).

Anyway, after UO came EQ and that was a class-based system. And so the epic battle between skill-based and class-based MMOs began. Back in those days, the proponents of Class Based systems said they were better because they limited players (I chaffed hard against the Class-based bit back in those days) which forced classes to work together to make up for each others’ deficiencies and to prevent everyone from Min/Maxing their way to cookie-cutter characters. The forum battles were bloody, bitter fights.

Fast forward a decade or so, and it feels to me like the pendulum is starting to swing back and that folks are getting tired of class-based systems (in part because class & Level – with a capital L – tend to go hand-in-hand) and starting to want skill-based systems.

So far I can’t think of any pure skill-based MMOs beyond UO. There are MMOs with Classes which contain sets of Skills that let the player sculpt a character within pre-set parameters, but have there been any other completely classless MMOs in recent years?

Should there be? In UO, the only way to determine if you could best an opponent (be it Mob or Player) was observing gear, engaging in battle or asking people how tough an ettin really was. Nothing had Levels and I don’t remember there being any kind of Con system (though maybe I’m forgetting). And since dying meant potentially losing everything (anyone coming along could loot your corpse) the world felt very dangerous indeed.

Are we ready for that again? In a purely skill-based system, how do you determine relative strength? If you’re a master swordsman and I’m a decent swordsman and a very good mage, who wins? Do we even *need* to know this ahead of time?