RRPGs are somewhat defined by the classes available to the player but lead designer Todd Howard explains why that choice will be much more organic in Skyrim..
The concept of class has always been a nebulous thing in Elder Scrolls games. With a skill based system of leveling (you gain power by performing the specified action), it was sometimes difficult to play if you were saddled with leveling skills that weren't fun for you just because they were part of your chosen class. In Oblivion, Bethesda attempted to alleviate that by letting you play the game for a while before forcing you to decide what your "class" was. An NPC basically said, "Hey, you seem to be using these skills in battle and to solve problems, why don't you become wizard/fighter/assassin etc?" With next the Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim due out 11.11.11, Todd Howard discussed why he decided to do away with that immersion-breaking question.
"What we found in Oblivion - you start the game, you pick your race, and you play for a while," Howard said. "One of the characters asks you 'Okay, what kind of class do you want to be? Here's my recommendation based on how you've been playing.' And sort of our thought process [with Skyrim] was, what if that guy never asked that?"
In other words, rather than forcing an artificial-feeling decision, Skyrim will form your "class" from the skills that you use the most. The change that Howard is making will basically extend the opening in Oblivion, because to him it felt good to just play with the mechanics of the game instead making that decision.
"I was perfectly happy right before then, ya know, I was just playing the game and skills were going up, so we just got rid of that," Howard said. "You just play, and your skills go up as you play and the higher your skill, the more it affects your leveling. So it's a really, really nice elegant system that kind of self-balances itself."
Hopefully, Howard's solution will solve the problem of picking a class that you just didn't want to play. "What we found in Oblivion is people would play, and even though they played for a half hour and then they picked their class, it's still not enough time to really understand all the skills and how they work. So people would play, and the general pattern would be they'd play for three hours and then say 'Oh, I picked the wrong skills, I'm going to start over.'"
As a game designer, Howard asked his team, "'Is there a way we can solve that? Is there a better way of doing it?' And we think [the solution outlined above] is it."
While it will feel weird playing a roleplaying game without picking a preconceived archetype before even starting to play, I think that Howard is moving in the same direction that a lot of tabletop roleplaying games are these days. Allowing players to form roles based on actually playing the game is exciting for a tabletop geek like myself.