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A type of Game System where a character's abilities are determined by the class that they choose. Most common in Role-Playing Games, but recently it has begun appearing in other genres, particularly First Person Shooters. A character class is defined by the abilities that it lends to a character — as such, two different characters of the same class are theoretically interchangeable, in that they can play the same role in the game because of their similar abilities. However, character class systems have varying levels of Character Customization — ranging from characters of a given class being literally identical to having so much variety that character class is no longer even a good indicator of that character's abilities. Character class systems frequently include one or more Point Build Systems as part of their rules to increase customizability.
One of the major differences between these systems (besides the classes that they offer) is how they handle "multiclassing". Because classes determine a character's abilities, giving a character multiple classes is a good way to expand their abilities, but the extent to which this is possible differs greatly. Sometimes classes are completely mutually exclusive, and a character is stuck with whatever class they have until they die. Sometimes they can "upgrade" their class at a certain point, either plot-based or level-based — this upgrade may be linear (eg, a Squire becomes a Knight) or may allow for a branching path to different Prestige Classes (eg, a Knight can upgrade to The Paladinor a Black Knight, but not both). Some systems are more lenient about multiclassing, allowing characters to change classes whenever they want; however, these systems build in drawbacks as well. Usually, either you can only be one class at a time (eg, if you change classes from Knight to Mage, you lose all Knight abilities and gain all Mage abilities), or you can only advance one class at a time (eg, if you're a Knight/Mage, you have to choose whether to increase your combat skills as a Knight or your casting skills as a Mage; you can't do both at once). Both approaches have the advantage of increased versatility (a larger number of abilities) at the price of decreased potency (each individual ability is less powerful).
In RPGs, the most common type is the Class and Level System. See also Fighter, Mage, Thief for a common set of 3 types of classes seen in RPG class systems. However, many FPSes that feature classes don't have levels, relying instead on player skill. See Common Character Classes for a list of classes that frequently turn up in games with character class systems, and Modern Day & Sci-Fi RPG Class Equivalents for their counterparts outside of the classic Heroic Fantasy settings. See Point Build System for the main alternative to this (although, as mentioned, the two can be combined).
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Eastern RP Gs
Final Fantasy has used classes, usually called Jobs, from the very beginning. They run the gamut of "no class changes whatsoever" to "can change classes at will" to "can have all classes' abilities at once" to "doesn't actually use classes".
A staple of Dragon Quest as well, at least after the first game (where there was only one character in your party).
Completely inverted in The Last Remnant; the main character can use every ability in the game, and a character's class is based off the abilities they use, rather than the other way around. Using only item arts, for example, will change Rush to a class that does extra damage with items. Different character classes have different bonuses, so it can be worth only using certain skills in order to obtain a desired class.
Golden Sun: Classes are determined by the type of Djinn attached to a character. However, as using Djinn in battle also reverts those class changes (and stat boosts), many players simply give each character his own type of Djinn and bring down summon after summon on their hapless enemies' heads.
First Person Shooters
Team Fortress 2, and its predecessor Team Fortress Classic, (and its predecessor Team Fortress) are based entirely around classes. There are nine total, each balanced for different playstyles, situations, and enemies.
The Call of Duty series, starting from Modern Warfare, uses classes for its multiplayer, though unlike the above, each class's weapons, equipment, and whatnot are entirely decided by the player. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 notably also includes customizable classes for the singleplayer campaign mode.
The Battlefield series has had a class system since the beginning, though how many classes there are (from seven in Battlefield 2, to four from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 onwards) and how customizable they are varies by game.
The Mario Kart series divides character up based on weight (or size in Wii). Each category performs differently, and in Double Dash!! and Wii, racers have access to different karts depending on their class. There are typically three different categories (Light/Small, Medium, Heavy/Large), but 7 adds in the Cruiser (between Medium and Heavy) and Feather (below Light) for a total of five categories.
Wii and 8 also include different types of vehicles. In Wii, bikes were typically lighter and had better handling than karts, and they had the ability to do a wheelie to get a speed boost, at the cost of only having a single level of mini-turbo strength compared to the two that karts had. 8 makes the wheelie aesthetic and gives bikes back the ability to use the stronger mini-turbo, but keeps their proficiency at steering. ATV's were also added, and perform differently from both bikes and karts.
Real Time Strategy
World in Conflict had four "Roles", albeit only in team multiplayer: Armor (tanks roughly equivalent to RPG Fighers), Support (mainly AA+repair = Clerics, but also artillery = Long-Range Wizards), Air (attack helicopters = damage dealingrogues), and Infantry (...bards?). Each player can only assume one of them and has to rely on the rest of their "party" to compensate their role's weaknesses.
Rifts has a system that can get a bit confusing at times. There's O.C.C.s (Occupational Character Class), as well as R.C.C.s (Racial Character Class) for non-human characters. Where it gets confusing is that sometimes a character's R.C.C. doubles as his O.C.C, and sometimes a player has to pick an O.C.C. as well as an R.C.C. Then there's P.C.C.s, for Psychic Character class, but that terminology is barely ever used in the books since functionally they're no different from O.C.C.s.
Earthdawn calls them Disciplines. They're somewhat more fleshed out than in many cases, with social context given, as well as how the worldviews of different disciplines work together (or don't). Also, if you act against your discipline (wizards not thinking things through if they have the time, beastmasters hurting animals that aren't attacking them), you may lose some of your powers.
Ironclaw uses a mix between character classes and a Point Build System. Career is treated like an ability score (like Body, Mind, Speed, Will, and Species) that is applied to certain skills, and in 2nd edition comes with three traits. Players can increase their Career with experience, or buy a secondary one if they have the associated traits, or spend their XP on their other abilities or skills or traits.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown has each rookie soldier (randomly) specialize in one of the four fields upon reaching the Squaddie rank: Assault (close-range frontline combat), Sniper (long-range damage dealing), Heavy (suppressive fire and explosives), and Support (healing and buffing allies). Each class has a separate Skill Tree that gives them unique abilities and bonuses as they Level Up.
Mass Effect has three ability types, Combat, Tech, and Biotic, from which the classes pick up to two for six classes altogether. Soldiers are pure combat, Engineers are pure tech, Adepts are pure biotic. Infiltrators are combat/tech, Vanguards are combat/biotic, and Sentinels are tech/biotic.
World of Warcraft has quite an extensive system where the classes are further subdivided by ability selection and PVP/non-PVP and restricted by race and faction. Many of its classes stem from units in Warcraft.
In Homestuck, SBURB assigns each player character to a mythological role with the title [Class] of [Aspect] that determines their powers and shapes their personal quest arc within the session. Aspect determines what objects and forces within the game the player can influence and class determines the ways in which they can influence their aspect. For example, the Time aspect is Exactly What It Says on the Tin but a Seer of Time will have influence primarily through comprehension of past and future events while a Knight of Time will manipulate time travel for combat purposes. Aspect and class definitions are not always immediately obvious from their names, as Light denotes luck instead of literal light, and Bards are highly destructive. While aspect seems to be largely innate player class is more closely tied to acquired personality traits—Thief characters tend towards pathological narcissism, Knights have a strong compulsion to protect others at all costs. There is in-game speculation about a possible underlying active/passive class stat and perceived gender bias in class assignment.