Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Elements of a Classy RPG: Final Fantasy

This post is part of a series concerning Class within the context of Role-Playing Games.  For an introduction to the series, see The Elements of a Classy RPG: Introduction.

So many jobs, so many different abilities!
After reviewing the system used in Rifts, it seemed appropriate to consider a system that feels completely different than the epic Palladium system.  I looked around, hoping to find a system that de-emphasized the character elements (story, background, history, etc) part of a character's class.  Final Fantasy is not a tabletop RPG, but it still has a lot to say about the concept of class (or “job”) within the realm of role-playing games.  Although different games within the series used somewhat different game mechanics for character improvement, especially regarding how new abilities or skills are acquired, the “job system” has been popular enough in the series to reappear several times in several slightly varied forms.  First introduced in Final Fantasy III, the system reappeared in Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy Tactics (et seq.), and Final Fantasy X-2. When considering the different class systems in various role-playing games, this "job system" within the Final Fantasy series presents a sort of extreme for what class means within a role-playing game.  The way that the game handles class is different and interesting enough that it warrants consideration in the grand analysis of class-based systems.  This is especially relevant when you consider that most people are first exposed to a class-based RPG system from games like Final Fantasy, so it informs what expectations people bring to the table.

The “job system” is interesting because it feels a lot like a class system mechanically but does not necessarily feel like one thematically.  When I say it has no effect thematically, I mean to say that it has no effect on the character's story.  Just because your character is now a Dragoon or a Dancer is irrelevant to the character outside of powers and abilities.  The character’s history, background, story, personality, training, and place within the story are completely independent of what job they may have selected.  Faris, the pirate captain in Final Fantasy V, can be a Red Mage, a Thief, a Geomancer, or any job you want.  The job system is flexible enough that you can even change a character’s job whenever not in combat.  Yet, despite whatever class you may choose for her, Faris is still the pirate captain and lost heir of the Kingdom of Tycoon.  Whether she be a Black Mage or a Mime, her place within the greater story remains exactly the same.  In fact, there are no circumstances whatsoever where a character’s job (or job experience) will impact the story elements.

So much to master, so little time!
This idea seems somewhat contrary to how class is normally presented.  In a game like Final Fantasy V, a character’s class (or job) is nothing more than an expression of what that character does in battle.  It provides abilities, powers, features, and other ways to interact in battle.  The player selects a specific class for each character and that determines what that character can do.  As they fight battles, characters gain “job points” along with their experience points.  While experience points influence the character’s level, affecting their game statistics, these job points are used to advance the progress within that specific job.  Eventually, more job-based abilities become available.  Some abilities are passive while others are new active abilities available for use in battle.  This kind of advancement, gaining new abilities and powers, is comparable to the kind of advancement one sees in other role-playing games.  However, a major difference here is that a character can change their class at any time outside of combat with no penalty.  Further, the system allows some unique blending of the jobs.  These features are what make the Final Fantasy V system so interesting mechanically.

Assign abilities as you will, no matter how absurd.
Every character has four basic combat ability slots: Fight (for attacking foes), a job based ability (based on which job is currently selected), an optional slot (for equipping additional abilities), and Item (for using items).  The interesting feature in that set of abilities is the optional slot.  The optional slot serves two purposes.  The more obvious purpose of the slot is to allow a character to equip an optional ability gained by advancing within the class.  For example, the Monk class learns both “Focus” and “Chakra,” abilities that can be equipped to the optional slot.  Some passive abilities can also be equipped in that optional slot, such as “HP +20%,” which boosts a character’s overall hit points.  But, the more interesting feature of the optional slot is the ability to equip abilities learned from other jobs.  Want to use Chakra as a Knight?  Get to job level 3 as a Monk, change to the Knight class, and equip it in the optional slot.  Want to fight bare-fisted as a White Mage?  Get to job level 2 as a Monk, change to White Mage, and equip Barehanded.  With this, you can have Black Mages wielding two-handed swords, Blue Mages casting White Magic, or any sort of ridiculous combination.  This becomes even more interesting when a character selects the “Freelancer” job, which has the innate abilities of every “mastered” job and to equip two different job abilities.  Thus, by mastering a job, that character’s “default” job becomes more powerful.

What is important to understand about the Final Fantasy V job system, as I stated before, was that all of this was independent of the character’s role in the story.  The same is true of the system that appeared in Final Fantasy Tactics.  Galuf, Lenna, Ramza, or T.G. Cid have no different interactions with the characters, locations, or events within the story based on their currently selected job or any previously trained jobs.  It just does not matter at all.  This seems peculiar when you consider how much weight people give to class as a definition of character in tabletop role-playing games.  Yet, the idea of having character class provide abilities, traits, or powers is not unusual in tabletop games.  Examining this kind of job system provides a perspective worth considering when thinking about what the concept of class means within role-playing games.

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