Stay Classy is a series of articles covering the immense topic of classes, backgrounds, professions, etc, both in and out of "sneak".
Classes in role-playing games have been a complex subject since at least D&D. In that very game, your class(es) will determine what restrictions you must live with, what bonuses you receive, your experience penalty, what types of equipment you might wear, your alignment, and ultimately molds the frame of your character out nicely. This is a fairly restricted model, but it is not without choice. The player can pick his feats, spells, and even multi-class (with some restrictions, of course). From the behemoth World of Warcraft to NetHack, the limited model is by far the most famous class model featured in the role-playing games of yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow.
I think the limited model has grown to such a level of popularity because of simplicity. The limited model is the easiest to understand as both a game designer and as a player. From a designer's point of view, giving the player a constrained amount of freedom makes it much easier to balance the game and ultimately provide an enjoyable experience. From the player's perspective, a limited class model gives the player a better idea of what he's getting into and how his character will play. I'm going to expand upon both perspectives and point out their flaws.
What is the difference between a: Wizard (NetHack), Mage (WoW), and Sorceress (Diablo 2)? What will they probably be described as? Long-ranged death dealer that uses some variation of magic seems likely. Here's a surprise: Wizards, Magi, and Sorceresses play nothing alike. Because of the limited description that tends to (unfortunately) accompany the limited class system, players will often pick a class that sounds familiar and end up sorely disappointed. I blame this problem on the fact that the limited class model encourages role stereotypes for players whereas designers will frequently come up with new ideas and play-styles. These two things will occasionally collide and lead to one (or several) disgruntled players who are forced to either give-up or start a new character.
As far as Roguelikes are concerned, NetHack is the most prominent one with a limited class system. Players choose a class at the beginning of a new character's life. Class will determine deity choices, what quest and associated artifact will be available, a couple of restrictions (notably so for Monks and Paladins), and also what skills players can master. Angband is interesting because its class system is slightly less limited. Your class in Angband will determine several important things, some of which will be important throughout the game. However, most players seem to be more successful when trying to expand their character's horizons in Angband than they do in NetHack. I suppose it's possible that all Angband players are simply better than all NetHack players, but that seems pretty unlikely.
It seems worthwhile to mention that I do not hate the limited class model. I feel it has a number of flaws, some of which can be fixed (more starting information for the player) and some of which just come with the territory of a limited class model (your character's ability to do stuff being confined to the class role). It is typically successful at accomplishing what it is best at among the various class systems: simplicity at both ends of the spectrum while still allowing both the designer and player a 'small but fair' amount of freedom. Still, I'm interested in taking "sneak" a different direction and will not utilize the limited class model.
The second part of the Stay Classy series will deal with the open class model. Anticipate numerous references to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.
You can continue this series of articles here (2).