We know the four big classes: fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric. Each one has an archetypal role in the classic D&D party and is a staple of the fantasy genre. They’re shoe-ins for inclusion in the next edition, as it would not be D&D – let alone a fantasy TTRPG – with those four.
The Big Four should be the baseline; they should set the bar for all the other classes. The barbarian might hit harder than the fighter while raging, but be (slightly) less effective the rest of the time, such as being easier to hit or less skilled with armour. The druid might be able to offer some utility and interesting spell effects when needed, but nothing close to the versatility of the wizard. And so on.
With all the fuss over what is unique to the paladin – what separates a pally from a multiclassed cleric-fighter – I started wondering about all the classes. And decided it was a good filler blog while I digested the 5e playtest for a while.
Archetypes and Alternates
I tend to alternate between the term “archetype” and “build”. Archetypes are the term Pathdfinder uses for a class’ build, basically combinations of alternate class features. The difference between in archetype and an alternate class is that the former replaces a few class features and is generally much smaller, taking-up a page or less. Conversely, an alternate class is a revision of a class with almost all the powers being revised or replaced. The advantage of alternate classes being you cannot take match levels of an alternate class with its base, such as combining levels of a ninja and a rogue.
The unique features of the paladin are its tie to mounted combat, its ability to smite evil, and its alignment restriction. Mounted combat is tricky and is a nice side benefit, but the latter two provide a good class framework. Paladins get better when they oppose evil (or their opposite number, be it evil or goodness or tyranny). They’re defenders but also holy warriors.
The iconic paladin is Lawful Good, and I think this important. That’s a huge differentiation from other classes or combinations of classes: the baked-in moral element. Why play a paladin without the moral quandaries or behaviour restrictions? That’s the point of being a paladin. It’s not meant to be easy. The anti-LG camp really strikes me as people who chaff under restrictions and being told how to play their character, so maybe, just maybe, the paladin isn’t the class for them.
An important design consideration for 5e is: not every class has to appeal to every player. They can’t. The tastes of players simply vary too much. Instead, there should be a couple classes for everyone.
That said, limiting the paladin to just Lawful Good is a tad, well, limited. There should be paladins of other gods or causes. So while the LG pally could be the baseline, there could be alternate builds with different alignments. Different builds of paladins could be defined by their codes. This is a lovely pre-build flavourful rules element: different paladin orders with different restrictions and guidelines. With penalties for violation. So instead of the weird loss of paladin powers reducing a paladin into a warrior (or fighter without bonus feats) there could be class and order based penalties and complications with related means of removal. If a paladin of virtue (or something else LG) commits an evil deed they might have to perform a series of good deeds as atonement, possibly with some restriction (good deeds performed without their weapon, without using their ability to smite, etc), while a paladin of freedom (chaotic or chaotic good) who forces his will upon another might have to supplicate himself and follow the dictates of the church for a set period of time.
Paladins are defined by their Codes of Conduct. Done.
Warlocks are tricky. They’re a fun, flavourful class, but at their core they’re wizards who gain spells or magic through a pact instead of studying. That’s not so much a class as a back-story. Warlocks could easily be subsumed by a build or sub-class of the wizard. Warlocks could work well as a wizard alternative class.
But warlocks should stay as there’s a nice amount of built-in versatility & variety to the class, via the source of their pact. And they can be designed to appeal to a different kind of player than the standard wizard fan. More at-will powers would help the warlock in this respect, as would limiting their Vancian magic. This helps provide an alternate spellcaster choice for people who don’t like Vancian classes. This makes the class a little more 4e: fewer spells and more powers ‘n’ abilities. It might also be fun to add some classical warlock/witch flavour to the class, emphasising curses, hexes, and maybe even a dash of the evil eye.
There needs to be a quasi-magical element to the monk. Otherwise what separates a monk from a fighter who uses his fists? There should be a nice mix of realism and Wuxia with monks, so players can pick their preferred amount of crazy Chi action.
Because there’s such a long tradition of mystic warriors there’s a lot of variety and diversity to monks. There are classic unarmed monks, there are monks with Eastern weapons, there are monks with chi powers who are able to shoot fireballs, and there are monks that use Western weapons (swords, quarterstaffs) in very different styles. This makes them an excellent class to include in the game.
They’re a very easy class to find a niche for; monks just need to be carefully balanced so we don’t end up with a repeat of 3e.
I love the warlord. It’s such an interesting class with a great role. They do a lot of very fun things.
But they don’t need to exist.
What is a warlord? Well, they’re a martial class that has heavy armour, uses weapons, and directs the battlefield. That pretty much also defines a fighter with leader abilities. All the flavour of a warlord can be applied with minimal effort to the fighter, there is only minor mechanical differences. Whenever I’ve seen someone look for an example of a warlords from the fiction of an earlier edition (Tanis Half-Elven, Roy Greenhilt from the 4e version of the OotS) they’re always fighters until updated. And when you start thinking of what a warlord would look like as a DPS or tank it ends up identical to the fighter.
Warlords are the the Leader build of the fighter, an alternate branch of the class designed around helping allies instead of laying a smack down or taking hits.
Warlord needs to go away. The fighter kills him and takes his stuff.
One of the more disputed classes has been the ranger. They share a place with the paladin as combo-classes that are less interesting with solid multiclassing rules. They’re a bit of a fighter-druid with dashes of the rogue. They’re not well defined in fiction, being easily amalgamated into the fighter.
But rangers have been around since 1st edition, so they’re harder to remove now. Like the paladin they get a legacy reprieve.
Fighters are a distinctly melee beast, as rogues have been excluding 3e. While rogues can (and should) be able to use some bows they’re not pure ranged combatants. As such, rangers work nicely as the masters of ranged combat.
Since 3e, there’s been the fight to divide rangers into weapon-based camps. “Is your ranger a two-weapon ranger or a bow ranger?” That might be something to jettison and make all rangers great with a bow and able to dual wield. They might specialize, but they can always switch. Drizzt regularly broke out a bow when it suited him and was written as being skilled with it.
The rest comes easy with some primal nature magic, an ability to track, animal companions, and other wilderness based talents.
There’s so much druids can do that it’s easy to define them. Like monks, the shapeshifting druid with animal and primal magic has become archetypal of the genre.
The problem with druids has not been finding something “uniquely druid” so much as limiting it to a playable amount of options. They control weather and plants through magic, they wild shape into animals, they have animal companions, they can summon allies, and they can heal. Phew.
As there’s so much players want a druid to be able to do, it might be an idea to give them some flexibility in low-level class features, giving players the choice of starting as pet druid with an animal companion, a shifter druid with the ability to wild shape, or delaying those options to focus on spellcasting. Spells can also be focused and specialized through daily spell selection or possibly the equivalent of domains or spheres or something. It’d be interesting to have druids picking a “circle” and gaining spells related to plants or weather or summoning.
This shouldn’t be an either/or choice. Higher level druids should be able to do it all. Instead, it’s letting players define the class from first level rather than deferring what they want to do until higher level.
I love the bard and adored playing one in 3e. I like support characters. I was happy standing back and making everyone else cool.
The bard is another hybrid class that doesn’t really need to exist in a system with flexible multiclassing. They’re rogue-wizards or rogue-sorcerers. Possibly with a dash of cleric or fighter.
The best idea for a bard “class” I saw was in the 3e Unearthed Arcana where the bard (and I believe the paladin) were 15 level Prestige Classes, so the player worked into the class after playing other classes for 4-6 levels. This is slightly similar to the 1e bard that was a unique result of humans dual-classing.
(As much the idea of making the combo classes into specialty classes you needed to multiclass into would be a very fun and interesting optional Rules Module, it shouldn’t be the baseline.)
The problem with this approach is that it makes it impossible to play a bard from first level. How do you make the bard unique from first level onward? Songs would be my hook. A while back I though an Essentials-style bard where they mixed-and-matched song elements into unique effects would be fun. This would still work and be fun. A nice list of possible song options with the character knowing so many and learning more as they gained levels. You basically build small spell effects through rhythms and choruses and refrains. This might be on top of limited spellcasting and other traditional bard perks.
Like the warlord, I don’t really see the need for the sorcerer.
Sorcerers were created solely to be a class that used the wizard spell list, so all that content would be used by only a single class. That’s not really a solid reason for a class. The flavour of a sorcerer is even weaker than the warlock. They’re not a class, they’re a character idea.
Provide an optional rules module for the wizard that replaces Vancian spellcasting with AEDU and you’ve got yourself a sorcerer. Add a couple sorcerer-like builds for the wizard and you’re good to go.
But, in the likely event WotC is playing it safe and releasing a separate sorcerer class there’s a few things they could to differentiate the sorcerer. After all, the need of a second class to use the wizard’s spell list still exists.
Really removing Vancian magic from the sorcerer seems to be the way to go. They would work nicely as an 4e-style AEDU class or something similar. There’s lots of ways you can mechanically make a sorcerer different, such as letting their magic be a little wilder and less controlled, allowing them to empower spells.
The sorcerer could fill the niche of the wild mage: a spellcaster powered by chaos or barely in control of their power. This might work better in 5e which seems more forgiving in terms of damage spikes. Sorcerers couldn't out-damage other strikers in 4e (and, as their extra damage was static, they were more reliable than rangers or rogues) but in a D&D Next – where the focus is on adventure balance and not encounter balance – it's permissible for one character to "own" a fight, so the sorcerer has more room for wild swings of power.
As a support class, I want to like the artificer. It takes a combination of an Enchanter/Abjurer-speciality wizard and turns that up to 11. They’re a wizard that focuses on buffing allies.
Again, like the warlord and sorcerer, I just don’t think this is a full class so much as a build for an existing class. Again, when you start thinking about what alternate builds of an artificer, or alternate roles in combat, it seems very similar to a wizard with a focus on enchantment.
I’m reluctant to suggest killing a class that’s been around for two editions (like the sorcerer) but as long as there was a solid option provided with the same name it should satisfy fans of the class. Something WotC can point to and say “this is the artificer build, play it and it will feel familiar even if your character sheet says “wizard”.
There was a lot of reimagining when updating 3e characters to 4e (Playing a finesse fighter? Congrats, you’re now a rogue.), so the same would apply to 5e.
It’s a paladin. Or a rogue multiclassed with a cleric (or paladin). Or a fighter multiclassed with a cleric (or paladin). Come up with a multiclass-only sub-class (an "Advanced Class" or "Combo Class" ) an "Avenger" might work, but it doesn’t deserve to be a class on its own. It’s a neat character concept not a class. A re-roll mechanic and a restriction on armour does not make for a class.
I’m dismissive of most combo-classes but the idea of “bladesingers” or “spell-swords” or gish have been around a long time. There are examples from Elric to Garion to Geran. Every OD&D elves was a fighter/mage. There does need to be a solid “Gish” class that combines arcane magic with weaponry, and the swordmage chassis is as a good framework 'n' name as any.
The swordmage should be toned down at lower levels to be a little less magical. Teleporting around like a caffeinated Nightcrawler hurts my image of “low magic”. They should be lesser mages and never the equal of the wizard in spellcasting. Unlike the wizard – who shouldn’t have to fall back on hitting something with a weapon – a swordmage can and should be hitting things with his sword. As such, a 5e swordmaghe could work as a Vancian class with no at-will magical powers. An occasional magic user.
Tying the classical Vancian magic system to the swordmage makes it a much more interesting class. You can build an offensive swordmage that enchants his sword for offence, or buffs himself for defence, or defends others, or swap out the option depending on the needs of that day.
As a classic 1e character the psionicist is here to stay. Psionics are a great example of a potential optional rules module with an extra class or two. Psionics hasn’t always worked well in the past, but with a more balanced system most of the problems vanish. And the only remaining complaint (too sci-fi or unwanted in a game) also goes away if it’s an optional rules module (or is mitigated if psionics is continued to be tied into the Far Realms).
I've thought psionicists need level 1-9 powers like other spellcasters. Instead of a full power point system (which leads to potent math at mid to high levels) they could have standard spells and augment via power points. Instead of the 4e system where every power had its own list of augments, there could be a pre-built list of augments allowing a psionicst to modify power on the fly. Which feels mechanically very different than the sorcerer and wizard.
Ardent, Warden, Shaman, Seeker, Runepriest
I have no patience for overly narrow classes. Classes should be big, all encompassing tents. Too many needless classes has led to bloat in every single edition. And more often than not, new classes take the focus away from the Core books, which must always be the key books. Once you can build a character without using the PHB you’ve cost WotC money.
The above classes are the definition of grid fillers. In a revised edition without classes being limited to a single role or power source, all of the above have no reason to exist.
The ardent is just a psion that heals. The warden is just a tanking druid. The seeker is a ranger. The shaman is a leader druid with a spirit for a pet. The runepriest... well they’re a very specialized cleric even in 4e.
They all need to go away. Join the incarnate, healer, archivist, dragon shaman, beguiler, warmage, and swashbuckler in obscurity in the special limbo for classes that were never updated between editions.
There’s nothing salvageable about the battlemind. It has all the problems of the other grid-filler classes but even less flavour. It’s such an inconsistent class. While there's some flavour, but it doesn’t mesh with most of the builds and powers and each build is radically different with no common element (save a propensity for attacking when it's not their turn). There’s no solid justification for why its primary attack stat is Constitution, or how that works. Someone just liked a defender hitting off Con. It feels like they had some other ideas for a psionic defender that never worked and this was the best they could come up with on an inflexible deadline.
But... the idea of a psionic gish is not a bad one. There was the psionic warrior and soul knife in 3e for a reason and lots of melee builds for psionicists in 2e. And there should be multiple classes that use psionic powers like there are multiple classes that use arcane or divine. An armoured melee character is the opposite of the robe-wearing psion – which is often hard to build effectively – so there’s conceptual design space for the battlemind. It just needs a better hook, better implementation, and more consistent design.
Honestly... working off the 3e soul knife might be fun. Separating the two by letting the psion focus on altering the world via psioics while the “battlemind” alters themselves through buff spells, psionically augmented weaponry, self-healing (biofeedback), and the like.