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Classes & Skills

Classes & Skills

If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read.  You may also wish to read the previous article.

In RPGs, you typically have two types of characterization from a gameplay standpoint: either you have characters who are what they are and develop the same way every time you play, or you have a class system that allows you to choose specific skillsets to develop as you level up.  The way these developments are handled can have a very significant impact on the overall quality of the game as a whole.  Ideally, a preset system creates a well-balanced party, whereas a class system provides the player with a wide variety, accommodating a great number of diverse play styles.  Each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, especially if the systems are not particularly well crafted.  Sometimes preset systems can leave you with a lousy or overpowered party, and sometimes class systems can provide game-breaking exploits.

The most typical way to gain skills, especially in a preset system, is the method laid down all the way back in the original Dragon Warrior: you learn certain spells or skills at a preset experience level.  It’s a tried and true method, and works well, even if it isn’t particularly dynamic or exciting.  So many games have fallen back on this that it’s a bit of a cliché at this point, but as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don‘t fix it.”  There are those, however, who were not content to stick to such conventions, each with varying degrees of success.

Mother, known to some as Earthbound Zero, decided to use experience levels as little more than a guideline as to when certain characters learn skills.  For example, the main character, Ninten, will learn his first psychic ability sometime around level 3 or 4; it just happens randomly after a battle sometime in that approximate range.  It’s different, sure, but all it really changes is that it removes any sense of consistency.  Mother 3 has a similar system, but it makes the process more painful by having your characters come down with a case of nausea for a period of time before the ability “breaks through”, almost as though the character vomits out the ability.  Mind you, the nausea inhibits you in battle, so the best thing you can do for nausea is to run in circles in a safe area until it breaks (which, I assure you, will not work very well in real life).  It’s certainly a good thing that you can see enemy encounters wandering around and evade them.

SaGa Frontier does a slightly better job with randomly learned skills by having learning algorithms so deep that they took a team of walkthrough writers several years to finally crack and understand.  In battle, when you attack, if you have an open skill slot, your character may instead randomly use another technique that he or she does not yet know, learning it permanently.  This only applies to martial arts and sword techniques, though; spells and gun skills are learned in a similar manner, but the acquisition happens after battle, and no empty slots are needed.  Some techniques are better learned from similar techniques than from others.  As I said, it’s all very complicated, but it’s still rather engaging and very exciting when you learn something new.  Sometimes, the tease makes the real thing that much more special.  What were we talking about again?  Oh yeah, Lennus.

The Lennus series has a very unique approach to magic in general; you don’t have MP, but rather, you use your HP to cast spells.  In the first game, released in North America as Paladin’s Quest, everyone but your two main characters will have his or her spirits (schools of magic) predetermined, but your hero and heroine will have to purchase their spirits from the spiritual centers you find in towns.  Every spell in the game is comprised of two of the eight spirits, even if it’s two of the same one.  For example, you start out with Fire.  Fire and Fire make the spell, Fire S, which is a fire attack on a single target.  When you buy Sphere, you have the spells for Fire and Fire, Sphere and Sphere, and Sphere and Fire.  The efficacy of those spells is determined by the level of the spirits that comprise it, which are strengthened each time you use them.  All in all, it’s not a bad system, but stay close to an inn while you’re grinding, because even if you don’t take any hits, you’ll still be consuming HP through spell use.

Two spirits make a spell; here are a few.

The sequel, Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito, takes a different approach, having each enemy you kill drop a predetermined spirit or spirits, which will boost the strength of those spirits of everyone in your party equipped with them.  The spirits themselves no longer strengthen gradually, but have eight dedicated levels of strength, each achieved after a certain number of dropped spirits have been collected.  You, the hero, are now capable of equipping only 4 spirits, and only when you have earned enough of the 8, which are now acquired by battling a Spirit Guardian.  You now have to wisely choose which spirits to bring with you, both for the purpose of building them up based upon what the enemies in your current area will drop, and what resulting spells will be useful.  It accommodates a nice variety of play styles, much like a class system would.  It’s a pretty cool system, just be careful of how you build the spirits, lest you be stuck in a dry spell with their growth due to the enemy drops in your current area.

Chrono Cross has an excellent MP-free skill system.  As I’ve mentioned before, it uses energy that you’ve built up via physical attacks to charge your spells.  If you have any energy left over at the end of battle, you are given the choice to let it expire or spend it on healing elements, meaning that if you manage your energy wisely, you will never have to heal between battles.  Almost every character’s grid has eight levels – the grid expands as you gain more stars – and every element has a range within which it can be placed.  Place it below its base level and its effect will be diminished; place it above that level and its effect will be increased.  Certain elements can only be used by characters whose base color is the same, though that applies mostly to higher-level elements.  Almost every character also has his or her own unique skill for the third, fifth, and seventh levels, some of which must be acquired independently of the grid’s expansion.  So, the question becomes whether you wish to load your character up with his or her same color elements for maximum efficacy, or whether you would rather keep each character well-rounded.  In either case, it is very strategic, and without the use of MP, it allows you to use elements to your heart’s desire without fear of running out.  The only exception to this is consumable elements, which function more like items, anyway.

Yes, I keep all of my character's grids this organized.

Yes, I keep all of my character’s grids this organized.

Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom had a similar spell system in that it was customizable.  You have a grid for your magic – one for each school – and at special centers in towns, you can adjust the center of that grid to bias it more toward any of the four spells represented by its corners.  Doing so would strengthen some spells and weaken others, meaning that a careful balance is needed.  For me, it didn’t make much of a difference, since there was usually only one that I would’ve used anyway, but your experience may vary.  It’s not a terribly deep level of customization, but it’s noteworthy for its time.

Wild Arms has a neat way of implementing skills; each character learns them differently. Rudy has the titular ARMs, which are poweful guns that act as his magic. Each of the eight has its own attack power, accuracy, and number of shots that can be fired before you have to reload. This alone would be interesting, but each of these three attributes can be upgraded for money in almost any town in the game, so if you don’t like one, you can improve it. Jack gets Fast Draws at certain points in the game, but he only receives a hint. You repeatedly use this hint – which costs nothing if it fails – until you actually learn the skill, as in SaGa Frontier. You can also find Secret Signs, which permantently lower a Fast Draw’s MP cost by one; you can effectively have a powerful all-target attack that costs 1 MP, if you’re dilligent in collecting them. Cecilia has boring old magic, but you get spells when you get Crest Graphs. These Crest Graphs are taken to the magic guild, and you place a gem, either black or white, at a spot on the grid, which determines which spell you get. You can dissolve them at any time, allowing you to make your own personal library for each new challenge.

In addition to all of this, you have Force techniques, which work a bit like Lufia 2’s IP techniques. Every round, every action, and every time you’re hit, your Force gauge goes up a little, and when it reaches the appropriate level, you can use that technique or any below it. For example, if Rudy’s Force reaches level 3, and you want to use the level 1 technique, you can, and it only lowers your gauge to level 2. There are stronger attacks, double commands, summons, and more from which to choose, but you are also stronger when your Force is higher, so you have to think before just blowing off a technique. On top of that, when the gauge completely fills at level 4, your status ailments all completely vanish at once, so you can conserve status healing items, if you can last that long, and you’re never stuck forever in paralysis or the like. None of this is really that new, but like much of Wild Arms, it’s been tweaked to perfection.

Some games, like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 9, just add a separate experience bar for skills, usually called something like AP.  In Chrono Trigger, characters get Tech Points at the end of each battle, which go toward learning the next of their eight total techniques.  Final Fantasy 9 takes a neat approach to this by tying skills, both passive and active, to the equipment that the characters wear.  Each weapon, armor, or what have you, will have one to three skills attached to it.  While you are equipped with it, you can use that skill, but gaining AP from battles causes an special bar tied to the skill in question to fill.  Once that bar is filled, the skill is mastered, which means you can use it without having the equipment in question.  It doesn’t give the player a choice as to which skills a character will have in his or her full skillset, but it’s an interesting way to learn them, and can be quite fun and engaging, making new equipment more exciting, even if it happens to be inferior to what you already have.

Showing off? Why, whatever do you mean?

Another great way to have your characters learn skills is by unlocking them from some sort of web.  Rogue Galaxy did a great job with this, because unlike Final Fantasy 10‘s absolutely overwhelming Sphere Grid system, it was very easy to manage, and didn’t really govern your stats.  You had your experience levels, but there were many different skills for each character to unlock, and it wasn’t terribly complicated to do.  Each skill has a box, and that box will have any number of shapes.  These shapes represent items found throughout the game, which have other uses as well.  One might think that randomly dropped items might be poor gateways to new skills, but two things make this work.  For one, each and every item has a unique shape, so the silhouettes aren’t ambiguous, and they get you excitedly wondering what kind of item will get you that great new skill.  This only compounds the excitement of finally finding the item and shouting, “Hey! I know where that goes!”  The other reason that this works is how common most of these items are; if you stop to farm them, you might become a bit frustrated at times, but just going through the adventure, you should find more than enough of everything.

A Revelation Flow chart. Not to be confused with a Jump To Conclusions Mat.

One of the most unique ideas I’ve ever seen for a spell system is from Rudra no Hihou, often translated as “Treasure of the Rudras”.  You don’t learn spells from leveling, nor do you buy them from shops; you don’t learn them at all.  Instead of learning spells, you make them yourself through linguistics.  There are small words to be learned, and you put them together to make full spells.  There are base words for fire, ice, healing, and what have you.  You have prefixes and suffixes to add to them that can strengthen the effect, make it a multi-target spell, or even take an elemental and make it into a spell that gives a resistance to it.  What makes this even deeper is the interesting elemental dynamic.  You have three pairs of elementals: Fire and Ice, Lighting and Wind, and Light and Darkness.  If you have a resistance to one elemental in the pair, you have a weakness to the other, so you have to be very careful; there’s a lot more to equipping yourself than just the defense provided by your armor.  As a linguist (I spent several years of my life studying Spanish, and a few teaching it), I found this system very fun and engaging.  You can make any spell at all from the beginning of the game, so long as you know it.  This means that if an enemy hits you with a particularly nasty spell, you can use it, too.  I know you might be thinking that this breaks the difficulty curve, being able to start a new game with the spells you used to beat it last time, but if you do that, you’ll have a library of spells that you don’t have the MP to cast, so it is rather well-balanced.  It also provided a rewarding challenge because having just the right set of spells can make or break a boss fight.  It is one of the few instances in my gaming history that finally winning a boss fight after six consecutive losses was an exhilarating experience, rather than a frustrating one.

While this type of elemental setup is an interesting take on a standard fire and ice scenario – in which opposing elementals are strong against each other – it poses a problem: you’re inherently weak against the elemental against which you deal the most damage, and so, rather than giving you an advantage, it just makes the battle quicker.  Arcana is one of those rare games that solves this problem very intelligently.  The most common four elementals – earth, water, air, and fire – are those with which you’ll be working, but instead of a tug-of-war, you have a cyclical relationship, almost like a four-part rock-paper-scissors.  Fire beats air, air beats earth, earth beats water, and water beats fire, and if you try to go backwards, your spells will do very little damage.  Only the elementals that join your party can cast single-elemental spells, so some strategy is required in determining which one to have out at any given time.  It’s a great way to have a competent elemental system without going crazy with it like the Pokémon series did, and it’s also much easier to memorize the interactions between the elementals.

Live-A-Live has an interesting approach to skills, not in how they are acquired, but in how they are used.  Magic Points are completely removed from the equation, so my fantasy of taking a shrieking death-mage and blasting through a game using high-power spells with reckless abandon had finally become a reality.  It’s fairly well balanced; instead of MP conservation, you have to think about range, blast radius, and charge time, in addition to just power, so the system isn’t horribly broken from the outset.  Not much else is worth noting about the skills, but it is interesting that someone tried to balance a set of skills and spells without using a consumable resource.

One thing you should never do, however, is to put all of the power into one character.  Chou Mahou Tairiku Wozz fell into this trap with Chun.  You have Shot, who’s strong, Leona, who can build tanks and robots for use in combat, but Chun is the only one who does any real damage against bosses.  Normally, it’s not a problem to have a powerhouse in the party and relegate the rest to healing and support duties, but Chun is also the only one who can use healing magic.  So, either you use your MP on healing, or you use it to win the battle.  It gets worse: the technique that makes Chun deal so much damage, Telekinesis (which should be called Psychokinesis, but I digress) is wildly inconsistent; it has several different effects, which are chosen at random.  So, boss battles go something like this: Shot uses a healing item, Leona uses a healing item, Chun uses Telekinesis, and you, the player, will hope that the effect of Telekinesis is Rock Toss, because that’s the only one that does enough damage for you to be able to outlast the bosses.  You can have your other characters attack, but it’s totally pointless because the first boss has about two thousand hit points, and they will be lucky to get halfway to breaking triple digits; when bosses hit as hard as they do in this game, victory is impossible to achieve at such a slow pace.

Another take on skills and spells is allow them to be strengthened over time.  You’d be hard-pressed to find an RPG that has you using the same fire spell throughout, and while most choose to allow you to learn a stronger fire spell later on, there are others that offer a leveling system for the skills themselves, possibly to cut down on menu space, which is wise both for the programmers and for the players.  Remember, kids: clutter causes stress.  Some games, like Final Fantasy 2 and Legend of Dragoon give said skills – magic in the former and Additions in the latter – their own experience levels that increase each time it is used, eventually culminating in a level up.  This can be a double-edged sword with pacing.  On one hand, it gives the player another, more concrete goal than just gaining levels, but on the other, if done poorly, it can be just another set of things that need to be built up, rendering the game a tedious grindfest.  As usual, it all boils down to how the developers implement it.

Some RPGs give the player a choice as to how skills will develop over time.  The often reviled Quest 64 gives the player such a choice, however shallow.  You have the usual four elementals (Earth, Water, Air, and Fire), and you use them to cast spells.  Every time you earn a new spirit, you get to choose which elemental will receive it, strengthening all spells within its library, as well as earning you new ones.  It’s absolutely ludicrous to get the maximum fifty spirits for each elemental, so practically speaking, you will have to make some choices.  Dragon Quest 8 does much the same, eschewing its old class system (more on that later) for something smaller and simpler.  Each character can equip three different types of weapons or go without one.  Each of these four methods of combat have their own set of skills for each character, and there is a fifth skillset tied to the character’s personality.  This means deciding which types of weapons you like to use best, as well as how beneficial the skills they possess will be to your particular play style.  It was a nice, streamlined system compared to what had been in place previously, though it still had its fair share of bloat.  As with Quest 64, it is impractical to acquire every skill from every set, so choices must be made, unless you want to spend way more time with the game than is necessary.

Grandia, for all of its faults, does what Dragon Quest 8 does, only a little better.  You have several different types of weapons that each character can equip, and they all have levels that increase as you use them.  When each of them reach certain levels, you learn skills; for example, the main character gets a new skill when swords reach level six and maces reach level four.  It involves a lot of grinding, but it also provides sufficient motivation to spend a fair amount of time with each weapon type.  So many times in an RPG have I been excited to use a rare weapon type, like a spear or an axe (swords are so common), only to find that the swords in the game were better both in attack power and quality of skills.  Something like this would be great to implement in many other RPGs; use of all of a games’ content is always a good thing.

Breath of Fire 3 offers a bit more freedom in its skill distribution.  While every character has his own set of skills and spells that will be learned at predetermined levels, every character can also learn any single skill from a long list by one of two methods.  One such method is using a special command to observe an enemy; if said enemy uses a skill on that list that no one has yet learned, that person can learn the skill.  Of course, anyone who has ever used a Blue Mage from Final Fantasy 5, Strago from Final Fantasy 6, or the Enemy Skill Materia from Final Fantasy 7 will tell you that it can be a huge pain in the neck to sit and wait for an enemy to use that one special attack just so you can learn it; it is the bane of every completionist’s existence in an RPG.  The other method, which can be equally problematic, is learning the skill from a master.  The masters require a special action to be performed before they will teach you, such has having fifteen different weapons in your inventory, but worse is that you learn their skills by gaining a certain number of levels while under their tutelage.  At a certain point, gaining levels becomes a very lengthy process.  At another, you reach the level cap, and if you don’t have a specific skill you want, you’re screwed.  Breath of Fire 4 fixes this by requiring your party to perform specific tasks to learn the skills instead, such as performing combos with a certain number of hits, dealing a certain number of damage, or even playing the game for a certain amount of time.  It can still be obnoxious, but at least you’ll never be locked out of the system.

Though it is a bit more common of a more Western style RPG, some JRPGs offer skills through a warrior class system.  The two that stand out most in my mind are Dragon Quest 6 and Final Fantasy 5.  To learn certain skills, you spend a certain amount of time in a certain class, causing you to level up the class, so to speak.  If you want to learn sword techniques, become a warrior class; if you want to learn magic, become a mage class.  These sorts of systems, as I have mentioned previously, tend to accommodate diversity amongst players.  For example, I rarely use mages for anything other than healing, so in such a system, I can teach a character how to use healing magic, then transform him/her into a tank with healing skills.  I can also create a beefed up attack mage, so he or she has powerful physical attacks to use when low on MP.  The two games approach the skill acquisition in slightly different ways, however.  Dragon Quest 6 requires you to fight a certain number of battles as the desired class in order to progress to the next level and learn the next skill.  The catch is that you can only get credit if you’re fighting monsters deemed appropriate of your current experience level, which poses Breath of Fire 3’s problem of being locked out.  Final Fantasy 5 uses the acquisition of AP as a separate experience bar to level its classes.  Classes are a really neat concept, which I wish more JRPGs would have used to develop the idea into something truly spectacular.

On the topic of classes, they’ve undergone quite the evolution, especially along the Final Fantasy bloodline.  The first installment was one of the earliest JRPGs to feature a class system.  You were given the choice of six different classes, and your four party members could be any of them.  You could make a well-balanced team, a team of tanks, a team of mages; anything you wanted.  Personally, I prefer two Fighters, a Black Belt, and a White Mage (basically, two bulldozers, a dump truck, and a mechanic), but that’s only because mages and other non-juggernauts are things that I don’t like very much.  At any rate, it also introduced something that I feel makes the class system exciting: class changes.  There is a quest somewhat late in the game that allows you to upgrade your party members into more powerful versions of themselves (except for the Black Belt, who remains statistically identical due to a programming flaw).  You have no choice as to what your new class will be, but it was a step in the right direction.  Final Fantasy 3 had a far greater number of classes, and with them, greater diversity.  What made its class system even better was the fact that you could switch to any class at any time, provided you had enough change points, which were earned from battle.  Some classes were a lot better than the rest, while some were absolutely useless (Bard!), but the sheer variety was staggering, and made for an engaging experience.  Final Fantasy 5, however, was the one to bring home the bacon.  Gone was the restrictive system of change points, allowing you to switch at any time at all, outside of battle.  New, however, was the motivation to spend time with as many different classes as possible.  Now, you would learn skills from different classes, which could be used with other classes.  You could make a mage that could equip swords or armor, as well as a knight with magic.  The skill that teaches prowess with unarmed combat is particularly useful for the many classes with poor weapons.  They even made Bards useful; that takes some doing!  Creative building of characters makes the journey through classes just as exciting as the end result.

While not the battle system themselves, skills and classes are a big part of battles.  They are a large portion of what brings strategy into an RPG.  If your only option is to attack, battles are very cut and dry, making them boring.  Adding more variables into the equation causes the player to rely on creativity to tackle problems that don’t have one set solution.  It’s just that kind of intellectual stimulus that brought many of the older RPG fans, such as myself, to the genre in the first place.  Strategic challenge is also what makes an RPG fun to play; there will always be the draw of a good story, goading a player onward just to see what happens next, but causing the player to figure out ways to beat that next tough boss is loving the game for love of the game.  That is why a movie can never be an adequate substitute for a game, regardless of depth of story or flashy special effects; a movie can never be satisfying in quite the same way, because you have nothing to do with how it plays out.

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Works Cited:

Arcana (Card Master: Rimusaria no Fuuin; Japan). Hal, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/27/1992.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Chou Mahou Tairiku Wozz. RED Entertainment, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/04/1995.
Chrono Cross. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 11//18/1999.
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Dragon Quest 6: Maboroshi no Daichi. Heart Beat, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/9/1995.
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Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
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Legend of Dragoon. SCEI, Sony Playstation, 12/02/1999.
Paladin’s Quest (Lennus: Kodai Kikai no Kioku; Japan). Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 11/13/1992.
Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito. Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/26/1996.
Live-A-Live. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/02/1994.
Mother (Earthbound Zero; North America [Prototype]). Pax Softonica, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/27/1989.
Mother 3. Brownie Brown, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 04/20/2006.
Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom (Toki no Keishousha: Phantasy Star 3; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 04/20/1990.
Quest 64 (Eltale Monsters; Japan, Holy Magic Century; PAL). Imagineer, Nintendo 64, 06/01/1998.
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Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
SaGa Frontier. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/11/1997.
Wild Arms. Media Vision, Sony Playstation, 12/20/1996.

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