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My experience RPGing has thusfar been limited to Dungeons and Dragons v3.5. As I've grown more experienced playing the game, I've toyed with creating my own campaign settings and am now playing with the idea of running a campaign where the characters start as class-less and then, through their actions, earn DM-assigned class feats/proficiencies/skills/spells (and eventually class levels). For example, choosing to fight a monster earns one fighting feats/proficiencies, choosing to hide or cleverly detect and avoid a trap improves one's Rogue skills, etc. Adventuring would be a process of DM-assisted "uncovering" one's true class (or more likely, multiclass).

I'm wondering if there are any tabletop RPGs or campaign settings that have mechanics dealing with this sort of model (and what they are).... Please forgive me if the answer is DnD 4.0 or DnD Next, I haven't branched out that far.

I am interested in classless systems if they suggest a mechanism I can apply to the class system I'm used to working with ... but if you can argue why a classless system is even better, all the power to you!

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You might try blending in gestalt character abilities in 3.5. That way there's the choices the player makes (base class) and the choices the DM grants them (gestalt augmentation). Still experimenting with this one, myself –  LitheOhm Nov 2 '12 at 23:58
As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 3 '12 at 0:30
I just watched On The Table, in it they listed something new "Blade Raiders". Might want to consider googling that. –  DoStuffZ Nov 15 '12 at 20:51
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

7 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Well, there's any number of systems like BRP that improve specific skills based on use, but there are fewer that use classes (mainly because classes are fairly rare outside D&D derivatives and other super old school games).

I can think of two relevant games. The first is the zero-level rules for AD&D 2e, published in Greyhawk Adventures and used in a couple adventures, where you started out at zero level and then based on what you did over the course of the adventure, you became a level 1 whatever. You melee - fighter. You try to use the magic gizmos you come across - wizard, and so on. You could expand on that with a system where you track what people do and level them in an appropriate class.

The second and potentially more applicable is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1e-2e; Lord knows what 3e does). In WHFRP, there is a "career" system where you start in very entry level careers ("Ratcatcher" being one of the most infamous) and then once you buy various advances in the basic career, there are defined paths out to advanced careers. You could implement this where you could go from a core class like fighter to a more nuanced class like cavalier or ranger, from cavalier to Hellknight or some kind of prestige class.

I like this scheme, as it generally thwarts min-maxers hoping to get "that perfect dip" or whatever. Back in AD&D 2e days I made people justify new skills or whatnot to me in game, and old DMGs strongly encouraged that, before everything became computer-game-like "builds." Go for it!

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WFRP 3E does something similar. While you can swap out to any career, it costs less to do so based on how many traits they have in common and if you've fully completed your last one. –  Simon Gill Nov 3 '12 at 6:33
In WFRP (1-2e) picking/entering certain (advanced) careers requires good roleplaying (in theory), yes, but on the skill level it's your choice what skills you advance and when. Their development does not depend on the actions you take in-game, as far as I can remember. –  OpaCitiZen Nov 3 '12 at 23:24
But your choice of advancement is constrained by the game system to things that are, by definition, related to what you've been doing. It's not "I add a level of witch to my fighter levels," it's "I've been doing my stuff as an Apprentice Witch (or Ice Maiden, or the couple other entries) and thus I'm going to become a Witch." Meets the requirements IMO. –  mxyzplk Nov 3 '12 at 23:49
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I was going to suggest mouseguard, but then you elaborated: "I mean class in the DnD v3.5 sense" on chat.

Don't try to hack this into D&D 3.5. You'll run into abstraction problems. If you want a system designed for this level of abstraction try Ars Magica, GURPS, or Mouseguard.

You're operating at the wrong level of granularity, both in action and in consequence to produce characters. While rules exist for level 0 characters in 4e that provides a way for PCs to flesh out their choices in play, the level of control and restriction of agency you propose is far too broad.

Smaller choices

The reason why mouseguard works is that the players make the choices about their characters. However, the choice they make isn't at the "I'm a fighter" or "I'm a pirate 2" level, the choice is "I'm going to solve this problem in this way."

Mouseguard also doesn't dump all sorts of abilities aon a character based on a single roll. Character development requires an extended pattern of actions to determine a facet of character.

In the same way, Ars Magica provides for XP only in the abilities you use. As a note, you can see that both of these are effectively class-less systems, the abstraction of "class" and the abstraction of "fine-grained skill control" go together like chalk and cheese. Classes are designed to abstract away fine-grained skill control.

Larger Scope

Even worse, While skill-granularity is much finer in Mouseguard and in Ars Magica, action granularity is the opposite. In Mouseguard, especially, a single action determines the course of a scene. (Not... entirely true, but functionally true enough.) In Ars Magica, it tends to be (in my game at least) a single roll or spell determines the course for the next 15-20 minutes of game.

If you have to track every swing of a sword... and a combat has thirty of them, go play a computer game.

Granularity of choice and of action matters.

The explicit design of class-based systems concentrates player agency into the large "I'm an x" and the small "I'm going to hit you... again." This concentration is absolutely intentional, becuase it removes the complex eddies of the mid-level granularity where Mouseguard (and to a different degree, Ars Magica) sit. Skill-as-use-development works very well when you have few rolls of important skills. Not many rolls of unimportant abilities.

To quote from a surreal fanfic I'm reading:

But that wasn't the really weird thing. The more Milo watched these students in their classes, the harder a time he had sleeping at night. The way they were learning was wrong. It was oh, so, incredibly wrong. Ordinary people learned in discrete increments: they levelled up, their powers, skills, and abilities increased, and then they plateaued until attaining enough Experience Points to go up another level. It was just obvious. That was, intuitively, the way everyone – Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Kobolds, Mindflayers, small fluffy hamsters, everyone – learned.

Watching his fellow Gryffindors, Milo wondered, though it seemed impossible, if their skills didn't develop gradually. There seemed to be a slow, constant growth in magical ability, historical knowledge, broomstick skills, or whatever, that depended on that student's particular aptitude in that area.

And it is * precisely* this issue that you're struggling with. The level of granularity in your learning and action systems is fundamentally tied to the model of the game. By interfering with this, you significantly diminish player agency.


This burning wheel derivative presents a character modelling system in such a way that the only way to advance is to fail and pass a roll a number of times. Therefore, the skills you use, and the way you solve problems directly determines how you solve problems. You can certainly get training in something, but that's by taking time to train

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I find this line of argument unconvincing. Sure, you diminish "player agency" - so what? Many games and gaming styles are fine with that. One may as well say that pure control over character builds is "power fulfillment fantasy" and have equally proven their case. –  mxyzplk Nov 3 '12 at 3:17
I would add that the asker could try any skill-based system. Additionally, I think Burning Wheel probably fits his use case better than Mouse Guard. –  gomad Nov 4 '12 at 17:11
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BRP (Basic Role-Playing), the system Call of Cthulhu, Elric!, RuneQuest, and a number of other games use (afaik, as I have actual experience mostly with CoC only, but with that, a real lot) is a system in which successful skill use may lead to the development of said skill. It might fit your needs and requirements.

Edit: Of course, even a CoC character starts out with a number of pre-selected and therefore better developed skills that most likely match the character's profession / role in life, but practically all skills are available to anyone, only it's hard to achieve successful use with the "underdeveloped" ones. (Like, if your character is a carpenter, for example, getting a chance to use - let alone successfully use - your surgery skill will be quite a challenge. :)) However, it would be very easy to tweak the system to allow a wider range of starting skills (with lower scores) that would provide a better chance for the character to develop into a more specific "role" later.

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+1 - Also, for some reason it was fairly common to see RuneQuest 2 characters starting out as 16 year olds with only basic human skills (so a little better with a club than a 2 handed sword). Things like learning a foreign language would happen between adventures via paid training. –  psr Nov 3 '12 at 2:39
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3.5 is actually not a bad system for this. Look at the rules for creating a commoner. I'm actually in a game right now like this. They way we're doing it is, first, we made commoners, level 1. We played a few sessions like this, obviously playing it safe. After a few levels of commoner, the DM gave us a level in a player class- one which fit what we'd been acting like. If we want to garentee what class we would get for the next level, we could train under a teacher (NPC) or just make sure we spent time working on those skills.

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Burning Wheel is a system where initial attributes and skills are determined by following a life path. This involves selecting a series of "What I did before I was an adventurer" (e.g. born in a town, became a pickpocket, turned into a street thug) which give points to spend on skills and stats, limit the available skills and determine which life path options you can take next. For example, if at some point the character is a Page then he may spend skill points on Ride, Brawl, Read, Scribe, and Sword.

This is probably as close as you can get to having starting skills determined by the characters actions.

After play begins, anything resembling a class is discarded and advancement is based on what skills you use. After a certain number of easy/moderate/difficult uses of a given skill, it advances to the next level. It doesn't matter if you succeed or not, the system assumes that you learn as much from failure as success.

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Burning Wheel characters don't acquire a class in anything like what is being asked. –  okeefe Nov 3 '12 at 6:40
Mechwarrior and Cyberpunk 2020 have similar lifepath systems. As has Reign. –  Urs Reupke Nov 4 '12 at 7:41
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Dungeon Crawl Classics comes to the closest to what you're asking.

PCs start as class-less, 0-level characters with randomly selected equipment and stats who are then thrown into a dungeon. If they survive the dungeon (which is not assured), they get 10 XP and advance to first level. It is then they choose a class—hopefully one that suits their randomly determined stats. You could also select class randomly, of course.

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This doesn't address the scenario in the question, where the specific class is earned through action/guided by play. It's just 'choose later,' which isn't relevant. –  mxyzplk Nov 3 '12 at 21:55
Hence closest. –  okeefe Nov 4 '12 at 5:50
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I think that a class-less system would fit what you need rather well. The GM could limit your experience point spending to areas that you had actually used or deliberately gone out of your way to studying. It's not so much about "discovering your class", per se, but about defining your own unique skillset.

There was a system (I can't remember which one - it was years ago) where your skills improved though use. Every time you made a skill roll, you recorded a tickmark by the skill, and when you had enough tickmarks it improved. You could conceivably apply that sort of mechanic to any system to replace or supplement traditional XP. Unfortunately, it was a very tedious mechanic that led itself to making skill checks just for the sake of improving them. "Hang on guys, I want to try to pick this lock while we're here!" :)

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Why the downvotes? The OP's question specifically said that classless systems weren't out of bounds. Is there something wrong with the particulars of the answer? –  Lynn Nov 6 '12 at 21:29
I didn't downvote, but I suspect the problem is that the answer lacks some particulars - the name of the game, for starters. –  Paul Marshall Nov 10 '12 at 0:51
@PaulMarshall - Fair enough. I was trying to make the point that you could apply a similar mechanic to any system, rather than advocating the use of that specific game. But I can see where it might put some folks off. Thanks for the input. –  Lynn Nov 10 '12 at 0:54
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