In the L&L column A Matter of Priorities, Mearls spoke about how your Class is the most important defining aspect of your character. Around the same time I read through the Dungeon World RPG. It gave me a fantastic idea to give each class some ability that really exemplifies how they interact with the world around them. Not just in combat, but all of the time.
So I came up with a system that gives each class a specific abilty that answers the question: Why do I want the XXXX class in my party?
The ability must be something that is flexible, not too overpowered, and fun to use. Something that is very light on rules and heavy on roleplaying. I've been using this system for a while in my current compaign and thought I'd share. A class gains their ability at level 1.
In no particular order, I present to you Ramzour's Class Defining Ability system.
Wizard. You want a Wizard in your party because they can literally see magic.
Wizard Sight: Your knowledge of magic allows you to see what most people cannot. Your arcane mind has access to an extra sense called Wizard Sight. When you view the world with your Wizard Sight you can detect the presence of magic and identify magical effects. You spend a moment to open your Wizard Sight and look at the world around you. Make an Intelligence (Arcana) check and tell the DM what you are looking for. Depending on your result, the DM will describe one or more magical effects, possibly including their relative power level, type of magic, and an explanation of the effect. If you fail your check, you suffer a backlash of magic and you cannot use your Wizard’s Eye again until you take a Short Rest. This ability does not allow you to identify the specific properties of magical items.
[Note: I am aware that this renders Detect Magic obsolete. I'm okay with this. This ability is a combination of the 4e Arcana check and the Wizard Sight from the Dresden Files book series. I love how this ability makes wizards the amazing magic users they are supposed to be. They just don't cast magic...they understand magic. I'm also fond of the "backlash" from a failed check. It shows that magic isn't always easy to use and it can be dangerous.]
Ranger. You want a Ranger in your party because they know a lot about the creatures in the world.
Hunter’s Instincts: Your connection with the wild gives you supernatural instincts about the creatures you encounter. You spend a moment to observe a creature and its behavior. Make a Wisdom (Perception) check and ask the DM any one question about the creature. The DM will tell you something useful about the creature that you notice or discover. A failed check might reveal false information.
[Note: I love how this ties in with Tracking and Favored Enemy, both things the Ranger is known for. A Ranger isn't just good at fighting creatures. They are good at understanding their behavior as well. Using their Hunter's Instincts, the Ranger might sense that a creature is close to fleeing due to low morale. Or perhaps they notice that the Manticore is out of tail spikes. Or perhaps they realize that one of those goblins is a sorcerer!]
Cleric. You want a Cleric in your party because the gods are on their side.
Favor of [deity name]: When you complete religious acts in the name of your deity, you may be granted Favor from the deity. When you are Favored, you may pray to your deity for the answer to a single question or help completing a single task. The DM will determine how to answer the question or how to provide with you a boon to completing the task. You can only benefit from being Favored once per Short Rest.
[Note: How you gain favor is up to the DM and the player. One example could be destroying an evil altar with a prayer and a vial of holy water. The benefits are also intentionally vague. "The lord works in mysterious ways," as the saying goes. I like how this ability has almost unlimited potential. And I absolutely love how this ability really exemplifies where a Cleric's power comes from.]
Monk. You want a Monk in your party because they provide invaluable insight about the world around them.
Meditation: You are in tune with the world around you, both physically and spiritualls. After you spend a moment in meditation, everything comes into focus and you can achieve a momentary insight of clarity. Make a Wisdom (Insight) check and ask the DM a single question about a difficult task at hand. The DM will reveal something useful to you about completing the task. Perhaps the answer was there all along...perhaps not.
[Note: Monks have a serious lack of non-combat abilities. This one reinforces the inner calm and wisdom of the Monk. Aside from bonus AC and Ki DCs, a Monk's Wisdom has never really mattered much to their behavior as a class. How is the Monk different from a naked Fighter with "magical powers"? This is how. Being a Monk isn't just about combat training. It's a way of being. Say the Monk wants to enter a guarded castle. This ability might reveal any one of the following bits of knowledge: a) You see the best way to climb the castle walls without being seen, b) You intuitively understand what the guards would accept as a bribe to enter the castle, or c) You correctly guess about a small service gate down by the river. This ability provides knowledge and it's up to the Monk how to use it.]
Paladin. You want a Paladin in your party because once they vow to do something they never give up until it's done.
Paladin Quest: You dedicate yourself to a mission or cause through prayer and ritual cleansing. When you choose to embark upon a Paladin Quest, you state your quest to the DM. While you are undertaking your chosen Quest, your deity grants you specific Boons to help you, but also requires you to keep a Vow to maintain your blessing. You and the DM determine what the Boons and Vows will be and how many of each. You can only undertake one Quest at a time.
[Note: Who doesn't love the classic "holy quest"? This one really emphasizes that the Paladin isn't a just Fighter/Cleric. They are champions dedicated to a cause. They swear oaths and form bonds and uphold good conduct. They are honorable and reliable. The details of the quest, boons, and vows are up to you, which makes it an awesome roleplaying tool. A Paladin is only as good as their word and that word has POWER. ]
Rogue. You want a Rogue in your party because they always have a trick up their sleeve to gain the upperhand.
The Upperhand: You have knack for finding solutions to just about any problem. You spend a moment to survey the area around you. Make an Intelligence (Search) check to see what you find. You may ask the DM to reveal a hidden danger in the area or to grant you a useful piece of information about the environment that can exploit to gain the upperhand. A failed check might result in false information.
[Note: This expands upon the normal Search check to give Rogues opportunities to exploit their surroundings. This ability doesn't just discover traps...it tells the Rogue how to use the trap to their advantage. e.g. "You could modify this trap to swing the other way and hit the enemy". The ability could also tell the rogue something like "You notice a rope hanging from the wall. If you cut it, the chandelier will fall on the enemies." I like that this isn't always successful and that the Rogue has a chance of getting false information too. I think that's a lot more fun than just saying: "you don't find anything useful." The DM gets a chance to put the Rogue in a tough spot because they picked up on some shoddy information. A really clever Player might even be able to turn false information to their advantage anyway. Players always find a way to surprise the DM and Rogues should be the king of this. ]
Druid. You want a Druid in your party because they can literally speak with nature.
Druidic: You speak and write Druidic, the secret language of druids. You can use it to leave hidden messages for anyone else that also knows the secret language. Druidic is also used to communicate with beasts and plants. The communication and quality of information is limited by the creature's intelligence. The information might also be biased by the creature's own temperment and natural instincts.
[Note: I am aware that this renders Speak with Animals obsolete. I'm okay with this. The Druidic language has always been mostly useless because no one but druids speak it. Why not let it be a universal language of sorts to communicate with the wild? Druids SHOULD be able to do this. I love how this ability lets the Druids interact with the world by communicating with nature. Also, it turns an existing "meh" ability into something really useful and character defining.]
Bard. You want a Bard in your party because they know a little bit about everything.
Bardic Knowledge: As written in the Class document.
[Note: I think this ability already sums up the Bard pretty well. No need to change/add anything.]
Fighter. You want a Fighter in your party because they always a good ally to have when things get tough.
Warrior Strategy. Your skill at battle lends itself to all kinds of situations. A negotiation is nothing but a mental sword duel. Your instincts tell you that running across that rickety bridge is a bad idea right now. Everything you do is influenced by your martial skills and training. Before you perform a dangerous or difficult task, you spend a moment considering strategy. Once you pick a strategy, you may ask the DM one question about your strategy. The DM will try to best answer your question and tell you if that strategy is likely to work or not. If you still fail at the task, even after using your Warrior Strategy, then you begin to doubt yourself and cannot use this ability again until after you complete a Short Rest.
[Note: I like this because it represents a Fighter's survivability in more ways than just "more hit points". Essentially, this ability is a way to give Fighters some "Plot Armor". By applying their skill at combat to all situations, Fighters tap into a sort of sixth sense that guides their actions towards more favorable outcomes. Victory or success is never certain, but when you have a Fighter with you, your chances greatly improve! This ability is also kind of like gaining Advantage without rolling. The Fighter can basically ask the DM, "will this strategy work?" And the DM's answer will give the Fighter a chance to confirm a good idea or decide against a bad idea.]
[Note: I have not come up with anything for these classes yet, but that's mostly because we don't have a Barbarian or Fighter in our current playtest group. I might think of something to add later and edit the thread.]
EDIT: added a Class Defining Ability for the Fighter.
Please introduce yourself to the new D&D 5e forums in this very friendly thread started by Pukunui!
Make 5e Saving Throws better using Ramzour's Six Ability Save System!
Giving classes iconic abilities that don't break the game: Ramzour's Class Defining Ability system.
Rules for a simple non-XP based leveling up system, using the Proficiency Bonus.