What do I like? What do I dislike? The answer to both questions might be "limits on my characters." In this, our final installment of Matt Talks About Roleplaying At Greater Length Than Anyone Really Wanted, we examine one of my greatest Likes and quite probably my single biggest Dislike...
Two years ago I was running a D&D game for some teenagers. Most of them had little or no roleplaying experience, so I gave them some props to help with character creation. One was a notecard with around 9 different language options on it. The official D&D language options are boring, so it was a list of languages I made up along with notes like "The language of a rival nation" or "Obscure click-language known only to scholars." Nothing special there - except that they got sooo into it. Forget the decisions about race and class; these new players' imaginations were fired by the choice between speaking Rivan or Jajanya. And of course, most of them took the obscure click-language.
Languages are a fast, entertaining way to customize a character. They provide an interesting choice -- should you be practical or quirky? They also cause you to ask: where has your character gone and who have they known? When I make a 350-point Champions character, those 2 points I invest in Spanish or Arabic have as much to do with defining him as the 60 points I put into Energy Blast.
Languages also let the GM define a world very quickly. How many cultures are there? Are they related in some way? How prominent or obscure are they? Take 5 languages and come up with a sentence for each, explaining who speaks it and why. You've got the foundation of a world right there. Language lists are one of the best setting-generation tools out there.
Don't tell me how to play my character.
Don't tell me that there are only 8 ways to be, and that I have to pick one for all time. Don't tell me that characters are interchangeable units. Don't tell me that your game defines people by how well they fit an arbitratry role. Don't slap me with limits on how I can play.
Character classes are a barrier to fun and a prison for imagination. I have never seen a game that was improved by them. Aside from hanging out with my friends, I think PCs are the very best thing about roleplaying. My character is an expression of my interests; it tells the GM what kinds of things I want to do. Give me options. Don't give me classes - they're a straightjacket. Classes are a way of saying There Is One Right Way To Play. And there isn't. So get rid of them.
I've practiced what I preach here. My various abortive Cyberpunk games have been class-free. I created a pretty effective class-free version of D&D 4E. I didn't do the same with my 3.5 stuff, but I did create new classes with great abandon, so that players would have more freedom to play what they wanted to play. For what it's worth, I created a new core class that Monte Cook put in his "Year's Best d20." It's called the yogi, it's rooted in Hindu mythology (and my desire for a Constitution-based character), and it's pretty good. I think I know a few things about how to make classes work.
But it's better to not have classes at all.