Behind the Gear-spun Curtain: A Purely Steampunk Look at Game Design

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Pure-Steam-logo-300x90Character classes are the gateways through which players enter our games. As DMs, it’s important for us to understand character class design and what kinds of classes our players might enjoy playing. Remember this maxim: “What works for one game or one set of players might not work for another!” I took the liberty to interview two other key members of the Pure Steam™ build-team to see what their thoughts were on the subject of class design.

“The one thing player classes can’t be is boring,” Davin ‘grimgrin4488’ reminds us in starting to think about the basic things we all might expect from a class, “and there are several pitfalls to avoid. The class needs to be fresh. It can’t be too derivative and needs a unique hook or cool factor. If the player feels he has seen this [or that class] before it won’t fly. The class needs to be flexible. [‘I can bend my wrist like this, how about you?’ said the double-jointed rogue to the paladin in full plate.] Players need to be able to personalize the character to feel a sense of ownership, and classes in most RPG campaigns need to have a role in and out of combat.” [‘I attack the barstool!’ said the fighter with ADHD.]

He further elaborates, “The character needs to be easy to play. If the class rules are too complex, the player may not understand the class or play will drag as the player or GM has to keep checking the rules of play. Alternatively, if a class has too may options, creating the character may feel like too much work. [‘Okay guys, so the next 6-hour session we’ll set aside for leveling-up. I need your forms in duplicate, and make sure you get them notarized.’] Finally, a campaign world needs a variety of classes. Not everyone likes the same things [Remember the maxim.] and you need a full spectrum of classes for wide game appeal.

On our work for Pure Steam, he says, “Developing classes for Pure Steam is a team effort. There is a synergy of ideas where others’ ideas spark your own and they can see the errors you will routinely overlook.

“For Westward classes and archetypes, we looked at actual history and ‘wild west’ tropes and imagined how they would mesh with the Pathfinder ruleset and interact in the campaign setting. We extracted the core character themes, fleshed them out, and made them into unique classes that Pathfinder gamers would enjoy playing, leveling-up, and customizing.”

Brennan ‘sellsword2587’ speaks more to this where archetypes are concerned: “Designing Pathfinder archetypes has similar challenges to base classes, but is a bit easier due to the preexisting framework, character archetypes, and themes of the Pathfinder base classes; how closely does this character concept, such as flavor and mechanics, relate to a Pathfinder base class? The Ructioneer, for example, is a rabble rouser with a love for brawling and an unorthodox fighting style. [‘My style? I call it, the art of fighting without relenting.’] While the Barbarian certainly fits that criteria, we wanted the Ructioneer to be a bit more formulaic and dedicated to his fighting style, not just a rampaging brute as steampunk-themed characters typically have an expected level of sophistication about them—as much as a Ructioneer could have, anyway. So, the Fighter base class served as the root for the Ructioneer’s abilities.

“The same design philosophy holds true for our Westward archetypes. In a wild west or frontier setting, you need cowboys and ranchers, characters that know the land and are good with animals [‘Uh-yeup! My gun’s named Bessie, and my horse’s Spitfire. Ironic, ain’t it!’], so using the Ranger base class as the foundation for our Cowboy archetype fit perfectly; a character specialized in riding a mount, shooting a firearm, and wrangling with a lasso or whip. What is the West without snake oil salesmen? [Ya got me!? A lot healthier, and friendlier to snakes?] The Huckster, an alchemist archetype, fills that role with his ability to create a ‘polypurpose panacea’ that he utilizes for both effect and profit. With the expanse of the steam-engine railway into the West, it seemed fitting to develop the Hobo archetype for the Rogue, a cunning loner good at surviving on the move by jumping trains and utilizing a network of geocaches and ciphered cant, known as the ‘hobo code,’ to find supplies and information. These, along with numerous other archetypes, stem from the need to match our steampunk-wild west theme where traditional fantasy character options would simply seem out-of-place.”

And that’s the way of it! Meet us back here next month when we bring you our recap of experiences and lessons learned from our upcoming GenCon appearance. Until then, we hope to see you there!

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