In role-playing games, a common method of arbitrating the capabilities of different characters is to assign each one to a character class. A character class aggregates several abilities and aptitudes, and may also sometimes detail aspects of background and social standing or impose behaviour restrictions. Classes may be considered to represent archetypes, or specific careers. RPG systems that employ character classes often subdivide them into levels of accomplishment, to be attained by players during the course of the game. It is common for a character to remain in the same class for its lifetime; although some games allow characteers to change class, or attain multiple classes. Some systems eschew the use of classes and levels entirely; others hybridise them with skill-based systems or emulate them with character templates.
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the first formalised roleplaying game, introduced the use of classes, and many subsequent games adopted variations of the same idea. These games are sometimes referred to as 'class-based' systems. As well as tabletop games, character classes are found in many computer role-playing games and live action role-playing games. Many of the most popular role-playing games, such as D20 system and White Wolf games still use character classes in one way or another. Most games offer additional ways to systematically differentiate characters, such as race, skills, or affiliations.
For example, Dungeons & Dragons provided a set of four classes that many players consider archetypal among games with classes: Fighter (combat-based abilities, but almost non-existent magic), Rogue (with stealth, socialization-based abilities and capable of doing immense damage but their ability to take damage is sub-par.), Magic User (powerful magical abilities, but physically weak), and Cleric (healing, supportive magical abilities). Non-fantasy role-playing games often fill the place of the magic user with psychic- or scientist-like classes, and the Cleric with a medic or similarly supportive role.
There are also character classes that combine features of the classes listed above and are frequently called hybrid classes. Some examples include the Bard, a cross between the thief and mage with an emphasis on interpersonal skills, mental and visual spells, and supportive magical abilities - such as singing a positive stats-aiding song, or the Paladin, a cross between the fighter and cleric with slightly decreased combat skills but various innate abilities that are used to heal or protect allies and repel and/or smite evil opponents.
In the console RPG series Final Fantasy, character classes can be grouped similarly by characteristics like relative physical/magical/special attack/defense power, but distinguished by their skills and equipment. Among the generally physically strong character classes (and their common traits) are classes like knight (broadswords), monk ("buildup" and "kick" skills), dragoon ("jump" and spears) and berserker (character solely and automatically uses physical attacks). There are also various types of mages (black for mainly offensive magic, white for holy and mainly curative magic, blue for magic learned by experience/observation, summoner for calling creatures). Other classes include thief ("steal" skill and high speed), dancer (ability to equip ribbons), bard (musical instruments as weapons and songs that alter statuses), and scholar (books as weapons and 'seeing' enemy stats and properties).
Classes provide direction and limitations for characters. For example, a thief will usually be provided abilities such as lock picking, but probably would not be able to wield magic as well as a mage (or, depending on the game, possibly not at all). Game designers use the limitations provided by classes to encourage (or enforce) interdependence among characters. Some RPGs restrict the classes a character can choose based on alignment, race, or other statistics.
In White Wolf's World of Darkness games, rather than picking a career, one picks an affiliation (such as a vampire clan, werewolf tribe, or magical order) which grants a minor affinity and some bonus abilities, but otherwise has little effect on overall capability. Typically player groups represent only one kind, be they vampires, werewolves, or other.
Another way to differentiate within character classes is the use of skill points such as in the game World of Warcraft. As players advance in levels, "talent points" are awarded and used to branch skills and abilities within an archetype. A warlock for example can choose to specialise in affliction (skills based on constant, small amounts of damage), demonology (skills based on summoned demons) and destruction (skills based on large amounts of damage in sudden doses). As a result a warlock with talents in affliction plays very different than a warlock of the same level with destruction talents.
Some class-based systems allow options as the player progresses in level. These options include prestige classes (a form of sub-class that is only available to characters who meet certain prerequisites), multi-classing (advancing a character in two or more classes), and hybrid class/skill systems.
Classless games often provide templates for the player to work from, many of which are based on traditional character classes. Many classless games' settings or rules systems lend themselves to the creation of character following certain archetypal trends. For example, in the computer role-playing game Fallout, common character archetypes include the "shooter", "survivalist", "scientist", "smooth talker" and "sneaker", unofficial terms representing various possible means of solving or avoiding conflicts and puzzles in the game. Although Fallout is classless and there is no set limit on how a character's skills can grow or what image they may make the character into, their initial skills are specialized into three selected skills and are based directly on the character's other attributes. In Eve Online (a space-themed MMORPG) no strict classes exist but by training certain skills one can become a specialised player within certain archetypes such as combatant/pirate, constructor/inventor, miner/gatherer. The player can freely choose which abilities to train and choose to be specialised in one field or become an allrounder. While theoretically a player can excel in all fields over time by training all skills, usually players pick one field that matches their playing style, thus following the archetype model.
Like class-based systems, classless games have their own set of criticisms. One major problem is the tank mage syndrome. Even though a classless system typically restricts somehow the number or level of skills a player can have at any one time, the player can usually choose at least two, and some choose a defensive melee skill and an offensive spell skill. This takes advantage of the best defense and offense in the game, in effect turning a wizard from a powerful squishy into a nearly indestructable offensive cannon, and breaking the offense-defense inverse relationship considered central to balancing a game. Ultima Online suffered from tank mage syndrome, made all the worse by rampant PK. Additionally, instead of maxing out one defensive and one offensive skill, sometimes players can "pick and choose" a large number of low-level skills from many skill trees and thus achieve the same effect. Star Wars Galaxies suffered from this early on, where many skill trees offered some defensive choices at low levels, and players would pick many of them, achieving an armor class far greater than the designers envisioned, while advancing one shooting skill to maximum level. This was partially nerfed by preventing the player's AC from exceeding the max in any of their skill trees.
Typical "Classes" for tactical shooters include: