Echelon is a classless, level-based game framework, based originally on Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.
Classes have two primary purposes, ensuring a reasonable balance of abilities for a character, and enforcing character archetype.
In Echelon, all creatures have a baseline of ability based on their level, with Talents providing differentiation on top of that. Talents may complement each other, but only in certain cases do they actually stack (and this usually happens only for those archetypal elements that are ‘too big’ for a single Talent, where there can reasonably be a ‘lesser form’ of the archetype). Talents mostly provide specialization on top of the baseline, which causes the character or creature to be better at certain things, without becoming unbalanced.
Character and creature archetypes are implemented through the selection of Talents, the choice of what specializations a character or creature has. This allows a range of archetypes to be implemented within the same rule set, including blending of archetypes (spell casting swordsmen, for example) in a much simpler manner than using classes.
Levels are a useful mechanism for measuring relative ability. A level 10 creature should clearly be more powerful than a level 5 creature, but similarly outmatched by a level 15 creature.
In order to compete at any particular level, there is a certain baseline of ability that must be met. A character that is too imbalanced may be difficult to play. If offense greatly exceeds defense the character may be too fragile to survive, despite being able to easily defeat opponents that don’t get to beat his defense, but if defense greatly exceeds offense the character may be too boring to play because despite being able to take a beating, he can’t do anything.
In Echelon this baseline is largely implemented using a ‘Level Bonus’ as D&D 4e does. This Level Bonus ensures a character or creature will have some minimal ability to take part in a scene of a similar level. The Talents chosen determine which scenes a character or creature will excel at.
What Are Talents?
Talents are the building blocks on characters and a creatures are constructed. In many cases they may be learned through training (such as weapon use or spell casting), in others they may be intrinsic or inherent to the creature being modeled (such as sheer size — you can’t really train nine feet tall, or demonic bloodline… though you can argue that use of abilities gained from the bloodline may be trained). Talents are gained based on the level of the character or creature, as described in Talent Slots.
|Behind the Scenes: Why Classless?
Classes provide two useful purposes.
One is to provide thematic consistency — warriors get warrior abilities, wizards get wizard abilities, and so on. I find this is a simple way to do things that works okay for simple game models (such as BECMI D&D) but runs into difficulty as the archetypes become more detailed and complex.
In D&D this has led to a proliferation of classes specific to individual archetypes. I don’t like it, having to create a new class to cover slight differences in abilities between characters (a knight might be just a fighter with a different skill list!) is too much work, and complicates the mind space needed to play the game with the varying archtypes.
There have been several attempts over the years to allow players to blend archetypes though various forms of multiclassing. In all cases for this to work the classes must be constructed in such a manner to allow clean blending of the abilities at the desired level of blending. So far, I have not seen this done successfully.
In Echelon, I think archetypes are readily handled by choosing talents that support the archetype (a mounted warrior would take talents relating to fighting, riding, and fighting while riding), regardless of presupposed archetypes. There is no need to mix ‘warrior archetype’ and ‘wizard archetype’ to play a spell-casting warrior, you just take the talents needed to support that blended archetype, at the relative amounts needed.
Second, classes may be used to ensure a reasonable blend of abilities. This relates also the level-based design comments above, since both work together to ensure a character doesn’t just buy a BFG (Really Big Gun) and spam things with it because he lacks other options. A well-designed class will provide reasonable ability to act and to defend in a scene.
In Echelon this is not as necessary, because the things you ‘must have’ are provided ‘for free’. Everyone has defenses that scale with level, everyone has offenses that scale with level, and so on — at each level characters should have comparable base abilities, with talents providing differentiation and options, without diverging hugely from the baseline.
|Behind the Scenes: Why Level-Based?
Levels are a simple measure of relative power and ability that should be usable to compare player characters and other creatures. In D&D, from the original sets up to 3.5, this has not really been true (I have been told this is so in 4e, but I don’t have experience with 4e) because of the differences in power curves between class archetypes. As a rule in D&D, it seems spell casters get ‘nice stuff’ that scales quadratically with level, non-casters get a shiny sword and abilities that scale linearly with level.
Even ‘pure point-based systems’ advocate limits on how big powers and limitations can be in order to keep things on a more or less level playing field. The definition of these limits may be left unspecified (though examples given), but there can be limits set. For instance, HERO System rulebooks provide guidelines such as “heroic play is 75 points plus up to 75 points disadvantages, maximum disadvantage is 25 points, maximum Active Cost is 30 points” and so on. Even though it’s a pure points-based system mechanically, the recommendation is there in order to keep the game reasonably balanced.
So, I’m using levels as a guide to how capable a creature is. Tiers are then formed from the levels to make it clear which ‘power band’ the creature is in, which I then turn around to gauge how powerful a talent should be at various tiers.