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In role-playing games (RPG), a character class is a job or profession commonly used to differentiate the abilities of different game characters. A character class aggregates several abilities and aptitudes, and may also detail aspects of background and social standing, or impose behavior restrictions. Classes may be considered to represent archetypes, or specific careers. RPG systems that employ character classes often subdivide them into levels of accomplishment, to be attained by players during the course of the game. It is common for a character to remain in the same class for its lifetime; although some games allow characters to change class, or attain multiple classes. Some systems eschew the use of classes and levels entirely; others hybridise them with skill-based systems or emulate them with character templates.
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Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the first formalized roleplaying game, introduced the use of classes, which were inspired by the units in Miniature wargames such as Chainmail. Many subsequent games adopted variations of the same idea. These games are sometimes referred to as 'class-based' systems. As well as tabletop games, character classes are found in many role-playing video games and live action role-playing games. Many of the most popular role-playing games, such as D20 system and White Wolf games still use character classes in one way or another. Most games offer additional ways to systematically differentiate characters, such as race or species, skills, or affiliations.
In fantasy games Fighter, Mage and Thief form a common archetypal trio of basic classes; each ones abilities offsetting the other's weakness. The Fighter is strong and focuses on weapon based combat, Mage is a ranged fighter with a variety of magic and Thief is physically frail but focuses on speed or stealth. Thus it is usual to find one (or more) classes that excel in combat, several classes (called spell-casters) that are able to perform magic (often different kinds of magic), and one or more class that deals with stealth.
In its original release Dungeons & Dragons did not include a Thief class but instead provided the following set of three classes:
- Fighting Man (renamed "Fighter" in later editions), focused on combat abilities, but almost entirely lacking in magical abilities
- Magic User (renamed "Mage" and then "Wizard" in later editions), featuring powerful magical abilities, but physically weak
- Cleric, specializing in healing and supportive magical abilities
With later editions was added the Thief (later Rogue) and Ranger classes:
- Thief (renamed "Rogue" in later editions), nimble combatant focused on stealth and social skills, also capable of high-damage special attacks balanced by sub-par resistance to injury
- Ranger a ranged weapons specialist
In Science fiction and other non-fantasy role-playing games the role of magic user is often filled with a scientist or other intelligence based class, while the cleric becomes a medic or similarly supportive role, and the rogue and/or ranger with an explorer or assassin. Some Science fiction and Supernatural themed RPGs also use psychic powers as a stand in for magic. There are also character classes that combine features of the classes listed above and are frequently called hybrid classes. Some examples include the Bard (a cross between the Thief and Mage with an emphasis on interpersonal skills, mental and visual spells, and supportive magical abilities), or the Paladin (a cross between the Fighter and Cleric with slightly decreased combat skills relative to a fighter but various innate abilities that are used to heal or protect allies and repel and/or smite evil opponents).
Class system variations
Some RPGs feature another variation on the classes mechanic. For example, in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, players choose a career. The career works like a class with abilities (known in WFRP as skills and talents) added to the character based on the chosen career. However, as the player advances and gains more experience he or she may choose a new career according to a predefined career path or change to a completely different career. WFRP is also notable in that characters are encouraged to roll to determine their starting career which is compensated for by free XP which can be spent on more skills.
As an alternative to class-based systems, skill-based systems are designed to give the player a stronger sense of control over how their character develops. In such systems, players can often choose the direction of their characters as they play, usually by assigning points to certain skills. Classless games often provide templates for the player to work from, many of which are based on traditional character classes. Many classless games' settings or rules systems lend themselves to the creation of character following certain archetypal trends. For example, in the role-playing video game Fallout, common character archetypes include the "shooter", "survivalist", "scientist", "smooth talker" and "sneaker", unofficial terms representing various possible means of solving or avoiding conflicts and puzzles in the game. GURPS, which inspired Fallout's system, also used a classless system.
Outside of role-playing games, some other cooperative video games, such as Battlefield 2 and Star Wars Battlefront II use class-based systems to leverage the emphasis they provide on cooperation.
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