Massively Overthinking: Disentangling MMO classes and races

Last week, a guildie of mine mentioned that he’d been interested in Crowfall until he realized he couldn’t be a gerbil (Guineacean) of the class of his choosing. It was a total coincidence that the Crowfall devs had literally that same week announced they were nuking their race/class-locked archetype system and disentangling races and classes, so I got to tell him his wish had been granted.

I think this pushes the game more solidly into MMORPG territory, so I’m happy to see it: More customization and choice and variety is what I’m all about. But I was going to play it before, too. For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’m presenting the idea of locked vs. unlocked archetypes to our staff to mull over. How important is it to you to be able to play any race/class combo in a game? Is it something you see as critical to MMORPGs? Is archetype-locking more the domain of MOBAs and ARPGs? When do you let it slide to play a fun game?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I have mixed feelings about archetype locking. For one, it does help with roleplay immersion if you’re into that. Dark Elf Paladins are “cool” because they’re not the norm, right? But if a game has racials that give bonuses to, say, Dark Elf Dread Knights, that feels like it pigeonholes the race for min-maxers who are also RPers.

What I’m more comfortable with is skill-based systems and making certain skills quest rewards. That way, if you want to be a Dark Elf Paladin, you’ll have to go out and earn that, rather than just being one from the get go. Not only does that help make them a little more rare, but also helps the player build a journey to earn that right. While it’s slightly different, I remember spending about a year on a sword quest in Asheron’s Call, and every time I’d come back to the game, I’d just sit in wonder of it. I have so many stories about getting that sword, in and out of character, and it matched my RP style, even if the stats were garbage. It was mostly for looks, but seeing my black-clad character walking around with a black blade dripping blood sent a message to other players. Customization is cool, but we’re playing in persistent worlds for an experience, not instant gratification, right?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I let it slide in some games. For example, I remember the uproar when Marvel Universe Online became Marvel Heroes and the playable toons were no longer going to be customizable. That was the point at which it stopped being a true MMORPG and became an ARPG or MMOARPG. I’m OK with that as long as it’s being honest about what it is. I don’t really think there’d be much benefit to, for example, creating a zillion body type models for every class in Diablo III. It adds a tremendous amount of meshing work for no appreciable gain in a game that isn’t really about that.

MMORPGs, however, are about that. So I expect a full variety of gender, class, bodies, everything options when I’m rolling the character I choose to roleplay. And locking up certain classes and genders or even factions usually earns a side-eye from me – two side-eyes when there’s a weak lore justification made for what is actually a budget reason. There are surely games where I’ve looked the other way on the topic, but there are a few more recent ones (Black Desert comes to mind) where it was too big a turn-off.

So good on Crowfall. To butcher the quote: You had my curiosity, as well as my idle Kickstarter money, but now you have my attention.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): You know, I liked Crowfall’s whole race/class archetype split. I thought it had some distinct character. But I’m much happier to hear that I can make every single class into a centaur because why would you make things other than centaurs? You can play some designated cute race in tons of games. You can’t usually play a centaur.

Frankly, I’m always of the mind that fewer restrictions here is a good thing. I’m usually more forgiving of race restrictions than I am of gender restrictions, which is something that I hit up against hard with Warhammer Online. It endlessly bothered me, for example, that Chaos – the universal, corrupting, inimical force of disorder – would never choose a woman as a champion to wear the ominous black armor because that would just be… too unpredictable? But I’m generally not in favor of having locked classes at all.

Yes, I can totally see the point being made that according to lore, some of these configurations should be rare as heck. But player characters are already supposed to be at least somewhat outside of the norm. Look at Final Fantasy XIV; Ishgard might be the source of all Dragoons, but the story makes it perfectly clear that being a Dragoon isn’t a matter of being an Elezen or a Hyur. All of the major NPC Warriors are Roegadyn, and that’s the source of the job, but there are plenty of non-Roegadyn characters who can learn the same art.

It’s one of those perpetual things that bothers me about World of Warcraft. Yes, I totally understand that Blood Elves are not Druids as a rule, but even in The Burning Crusade it was clear that this was not a law. There was a whole dungeon about fighting Blood Elf Druids. Making them uncommonly seen among NPCs sends the message clearly enough. You can’t convince me that, say, Trolls just can’t grow a Paladin Gland to play the class.

There are a very small number of cases where the lore argument can be made convincingly; I totally will believe that yes, only Night Elves and Blood Elves can be Demon Hunters. But even that should be a limited-time thing. Next expansion, let everyone be Demon Hunters, now they’re established. There! Problem solved.

Crowfall had its reasons for the split, and I understand and respect them. But I also respect the fact that the designers ditched that split as soon as they could. Now, it’s time for me to make an army of horses. Just think of a centaur galloping across the battlefield to heal someone, shouting, “They think we shall fall, but I say neigh!” And then I’ll get kicked off the servers. It’ll be great.

Fight like you want to not lose!

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Honestly, unlocked archetypes should be the baseline, the bare minimum for the start of character customization. We really need more! MMORPGs have such limited creation options (and I’m not talking visually, although those too) in comparison with many computer and pen-and-paper RPGs. What about picking a background? Perks? Advantages and disadvantages? Roleplaying flavor options?

But back to the question at hand, RPG-ish games that feature locked archetypes are harder (but not impossible) for me to get into and get invested with my character. I am more the type of player who wants to pour a lot of time into molding one character the way I see fit instead of collecting a few dozen pre-built characters to use as disposable tools on the battlefield.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I really, really, really, really hate when classes are race- or gender-locked. I myself tend to be a bit quirky and not fit a standard mold, so why should I be forced to play a standard mold? There are variations in life, from decisions to mutations to circumstances to desires, that would mold and shape a person/character, so why place arbitrary restrictions on gameplay? It’s very frustrating to me. I like diversity. Why can’t someone have a personal story that’s a bit different than the norm? The only time this practice gets a pass from me is when a game is built on pre-existing lore which has specific things as canon, such as a known IP. I am not especially fond when games create their lore to support gender- or race-locking, but a rich lore is definitely better than “just because is easier to only make armor for a since mesh.” And hopefully doing such is used sparingly, not for every playable race/class.

I am a stickler for agency and choice, both from the perspective of what a player wants to experience in gameplay as well as the life of the character itself. I appreciated how EverQuest II allowed for characters of a race to choose a different life path from what was taught in their home city. Even though some races were locked to a specific alignment when starting the game (and therefore locked into specific classes), players could utilize the betrayal system to pursue a class tied to the other alignment, such as trading life as a necromancer to become a conjuror or switching from a swashbuckler to an assassin. You didn’t necessarily see tons of this in the beginning because the betrayal quest was a doozy, but the option was there for those who didn’t want to fit into a forced mold. If lore dictates that there is a need for a restriction, make a system that will allow for those who really want to be different. It’s OK to make them really work for it! It can be tough to do and have real consequences (like being banished, or kill on sight to your kind, etc.), but it should be possible.

Your turn!

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60 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Disentangling MMO classes and races"

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Alie Busby

What most miss in this unlock is that there are racial active and passive powers, there are class based active and passive powers AND there are crafted disciplines; Major discs with 3-4 active powers and a passive (or two) that take finding and capturing a rare thrall spirit out in the world, minor discs that give one active ability or passive, or a weapon disc to mix up your build further. Thing is that races and classes always have restrictions and they should, disciplines have restrictions as well, some builds would just have too much combat power whether its DPS burst, CC, or unkillable mitigations. Crowfall will have 300 disciplines, some restricted and some not. Every power and build will have many ways to hard counter but in the end you can only slot so many active and passive powers… the variety of builds is however has grown exponentially in just a few weeks.


Shame on me for not seeing this early earlier and shame on you @Bree for calling guinea pigs gerbils! The guinecean warriors in crowfall are guinea pigs! I’ve been triggered, heading back to my safe space now.

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Really disklike race/gender class locking. In most games, it doesn’t stop me from playing, but I always find it annoying. Like Bree, I found it particularly off-putting in BDO.


Again, in Crowfall they nuked race/class lock only halfway!
Not every class is for every race an option (only 3-4 classes per race)!

And that’s my gripe! Deciding for a hybrid, you get the problems of both sides! Less destinction for PvP, but also peer pressure to choose the FOTM race-abilities for your favorite class!

Benjamin Northrup
Benjamin Northrup

Its my general preference for classes to be race/gender locked. In a PVP situation, it makes it much easier to instantly recognize what you are fighting and what you should do to combat that class/race.

Melissa McDonald

seems to me that goes against the idea of open PvP. Just like squaring off in a bar against a guy… he could be a wuss, or a black belt. You took that risk when you challenged him.
“Don’t start none, won’t be none.”

peor togs

When I think of good racial flavors, I think of old WOW abilities like Dwarves “Stoneform” or Night Elves “Shadowmeld”. Neither were introducing massive mechanics or 5% stat bonuses that would affect min-maxing, but they did give you something fun and unique that was actually useful.

For example, I remember in Alterac Valley when a group of 3 night elves were guarding a tower. We all shadowmelded [stationary stealth, broken if you move] and guarded the tower with a surprise counter attack. It was just a unique skill that was fun to use but not critical or game-breaking.

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Tobasco da Gama

I mean, I’m honestly just pretty cool on the whole idea of classes right now anyway. Or, at least, the pick-it-once-and-keep-it-forever implementation of classes. Even D&D, which everyone else is more or less blatantly stealing from, gave players flexibility in the form of multi-classing and prestige/Paragon classes.

That said, for PvE-oriented MMOs, I do agree that race-locked classes are a bad idea.

For PvP-oriented MMOs like Crowfall, on the other hand, I think the all-in-one class/race archetypes are not only desirable but necessary. With competitive PvP, legibility beats all other considerations. And if you’re not willing, as a game designer, to make that sacrifice, then for the love of God don’t make a competitive PvP game.

Gender locking is almost always stupid, though.

MJ Guthrie
MJ Guthrie

I disagree. I don’t think PvP should be a one-glance activity. If you pick a fight, you don’t get to know what you are fighting based on the look of the character, be it clothing or race. You just have to deal with it. Want to jump that lone person out there, hoping you can take him? Take the chance, but you don’t get special labels to tip you off. Maybe you get smacked down hard, maybe it is easy pickings But you should have to risk it to find out.

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Now I see why homogenization has run wild.

Dread Quixadhal

So, here’s the thing. The idea of races and classes being locked started out in good old pen-and-paper RPG’s. In almost every one, humans were considered the “base” race, and could play any class. As each race was added, it got special inherent bonuses and weaknesses, and thus was more or less suited to various classes.

An ogre thief, for example, requires a good deal of role playing to work in any situation other than an all-ogre campaign. This is because ogres tend to be large, clumsy, not-too-smart, and incredibly strong. Exactly what you do NOT need to be a thief.

When MMORPG’s appeared, first as text games, then as the graphical ones we know, the role playing aspect was diminished in favor of faster paced and more generic combat. This had to be done, since you couldn’t always have a DM to facilitate the player describing the crazy thing he wanted to do, and the DM deciding how likely it was to work.

Since we had to automate things, this meant changing things so all those bizarre combinations would no longer be allowed. If your game is based on mechanics, and a given race/class combo only works with heavy role playing to overcome weak mechanics…. it’s just going to be weak and not fun to play.

Fast forward a decade. Now, developers have removed most of the racial perks so “race” is really mostly a cosmetic thing now. As such, there’s no longer a reason to restrict classes. If an ogre and a halfling can both have the same dexterity, and can both physically fit into the same gameworld spaces, there’s no reason not to allow ogre thieves.

Oleg Chebeneev

To hell with classes and archetypes, I want to theorycraft for hours how to combine various abilities into my own unique build. Its why Im so hyped about Project Ascension server that launches today: