I wrote a classless hack for 5th edition D&D, How to DIY without Class like Aaron Parr, because it was fun to do, and for other reasons explained below.
I played my share of D&D in the distant past, and recently I have played again, here and there, mostly at the game store downtown, but online too. I still like to play role-playing games. My preference is my own game, Violence Spells Gods and Politics, but if the players are fun to play with, I will play any game with them. When it comes to RPGs however, 5th edition D&D is king for most people these days. So I wanted a hack of D&D that included one of my first ideas for VSGP: strip the game's character archetypes to the bone, and allow players to blend them however they wish.
I think that D&D's most appealing game mechanics focus on two fantasy archetypes, the "Fighter" which embodies the sword of sword and sorcery, and the "Magic-user" for the other half. 5th edition D&D has also invested in "Skills", so I decided to add a "Skilled expert" option in order to make it easier to entice players of 5th edition to play this hack with me. In truth, I would prefer to leave the "Skills" out, as you can probably tell from what more I have to say below, but this is a small compromise in exchange for broad appeal. Compromises for 'broad appeal' pave the way to game design hell, but fuck it this is just a hack.
What is the main benefit that I wanted from this hack? To reduce the number of mechanical details orbiting around character abilities. I think they are distracting, and a pain in the ass to remember. I rarely have much desire these days to read through all the fine print of a game text. And more importantly, I prefer that players focus on creatively solving the in-fiction problem their characters are facing rather than using the mechanical details of their character to solve it. I also like a game to focus on a particular kind of experience, and cutting off the game elements extraneous to that experience appeals to me. A narrow game experience is not a universally good design goal for an RPG, but for this game I think it is. I don't play long campaigns with this hack. This is for the occassional "one shots" or the "mini-series", casually picking up a game one night, putting it down, and maybe a month or two later picking it up again.
D&D when reduced is best reduced to a treasure hunting game. In the original game you were rewarded points for the value of the treasure your character took home on an adventure. This means that there are two problems to solve. The first is finding the treasure, and the second is dealing with some in-fiction challenge like a monster or a trap between your character and the treasure. So for me, that kind of play is what this hack is for. The other thing I would like to achieve is emphasize one method to solve these problems over anther. Looking at this reductively, there are two methods to solve these problems. Method one, the player considers the situation like a word problem and solves it with some lateral thinking, or method two, the player spends their character's resources (hitpoints, spells, equipment, etc...) to solve the problem. I think that the first method is the most fun. And so in order to "emphasize lateral thinking over system mastery" (as the game design buzz phrase goes), I prefer to de-emphasize the number of abilities on the character sheet geared toward solving problems for the player. Since I think my changes pretty much reduce the mechanical considerations to hitpoints, spells, and gear wielded versus the thing in the way of the treasure, I am happy with it.
There are probably better ways to design for this, and this may really just be my own problem, getting distracted by too many character abilities. And what I am talking about has already been talked to death and either laid to rest or put on a pedastel in the OSR/DIYRPG sphere of game designers. But I am not one of them, and I like finding out for myself so I'll just make this personal at this point. Often when I am playing a game with many different abilities on my character sheet, and I know the game well, I am tempted to look for ways to use those abilities to advantage during play. When playing a new game, one that I don't know well, I gloss over all that crap, and put more attention on what is happening in the fiction of the game. I tend to have a lot of fun with a new game because of this emphasis. I consider the possibilities suggested by the game master's description and focus on steering them to my advantage more often than I "look for answers on my character sheet". For example:
The game master says we are now on the docks, and leaves the details to our imagination. Considering my goal to find treasure, I start to imagine what is around my character and where the treasure is. There are probably ships out in the harbor and little row boats tied up here and rats and rope and gaff hooks and crates of miscellaneous stuff and probably warehouses full of riches but well guarded. Perhaps one of the ships is laden with riches. Perhaps one of them is a smuggler or doing something illegal. Those would be a good target. They have treasure, and they are not supposed to. The law might not protect them. With this in mind I start to ask the game master leading questions, trying to lead the adventure in this direction if any of the answers the GM gives me sound promissing.
This also applies to challenges like the monster in the room on the treasure.
After the GM describes the room, monster, and what appears to be a treasure chest, I ask questions. Is the monster sleeping? Is there something I know about the monster, like what it might want? The GM answers, yes, it is sleeping, but even sleeping it looks like your typical viscious, hungry beast. I recall that there was a big kennel room down the hall full of dogs. They could be lead into this room by a rabbit or something similar. That would probably wake up and distract the beast enough to get at its treasure. And if not it will probably be fun to see what happens anyway. So I try to persuade the other players to help me lead all the dogs in here. Typically a more cautious and methodical player will suggest rightly that bringing in the dogs will turn this into a combat encounter. We agree that perhaps the dogs are better as a back up plan that we should prepare now, but wait on, and they share their ideas, leading to more schemes, and eventually a crazy plan takes shape.
That is the kind of play I find most interesting, and fun. I think it is emphasized when character details, abilities, and perks are reduced to a minimum. If nothing else, all that extra stuff is on your mind if it is in play, and when it is not, you don't have to remember it, and so you have more room to think about other things. I think my classless hack here is one way, and an easy one, to achieve this while still using all the rest of the content and stuff published for 5th edition D&D or any other D&D adjacent kind of game. This later bit is also very appealing to me. After making my own game from scratch and slowly developing my own content for it, I see the benefits of a simple hack to a familiar game system. It makes it easy to take advantage of others' creative efforts and just play - the way I want to. People say this to me all the time. Yes, I get it. This hack is my answer for that. But I also like the act of designing a game too, and so that's why I will be working on VSGP until I am completely satisfied, and also why this hack is only intended as a one trick pony.