For me, choosing a class has always been one of the most fun and important decisions to make while playing Dungeons & Dragons. I can still remember the feeling of pure excitement I had when I first cracked open the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook and saw that Monk was a core class. I also remember our friends all having multiple discussions about what exactly the Sorcerer class was and how it was different from the Wizard. I view these discussions along the same lines as what would happen if the Fighter, Wizard, or Cleric were left out of the first Player’s Handbook for an edition. With the next edition of D&D now in open playtest, I felt it was a good time to discuss the varying levels of class distinction in D&D.
Considering the Monk is the class I played the most of in 3E, I was surprisingly happy it wasn’t included in the first PHB for 4th Edition. It never felt quite right to me as a class presented as an introductory option for D&D players unless it was specifically for an Oriental Adventures style of game. I think that if you boiled down the options for character classes to the most basic you would end up with Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and sometimes Thief/Rogue. Beyond these 3-4 options the list of secondary classes can vary greatly. Depending on player preferences, classes such as the Bard, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Barbarian, and many others can all be seen as important options for players. My opinion is that beyond the four main classes, most of the other options readily fall into two categories: specialization or combination.
Combinations / Multi-Classing
I would like to go through a quick experiment. Let’s put aside many of our assumptions/favorite characters and look at some of D&D’s classes in their raw forms. I don’t think it does any disservice to the Paladin class to say that it is a combination of the Cleric and Fighter concepts. In the same way, I believe you can say that most Bards fall somewhere between Rogue and Wizard, and that most Rangers can be put somewhere between Rogue and Fighter. The toughest combination I find is the Wizard/Cleric, but I keep coming back to the Druid as a class that often feels like it is somewhere between those two classes. Surely you can come up with a Bard, Ranger, or Druid that is nothing like any of the other classes, but I think having a class paradigm to begin with makes those break out concepts even more exciting and this is, after all, only an experiment.
This gives us a fairly clean wheel of class relationships:
Fighter – Paladin – Cleric – Druid – Wizard – Bard – Rogue – Ranger – Fighter (loop)
I really enjoy seeing a nice, clean, logical layout for classes and how they relate to one another. I enjoy thinking about the sliding scale between the primary classes and imaging what a Paladin would look like closer to the Fighter end (maybe close to or having already lost faith) or closer to the Cleric end (extremely dedicated, focused, and not rearing for a fight). I also think it gets interesting when you think about pushing a primary class closer to one or the other secondary classes. Imagine playing a Cleric or a Fighter that leans towards the Paladin concept between them, or a Rogue that dabbles in music/song and discovers a yet unknown arcane spark within themselves leaning towards Bard.
Another reason I really like this wheel of classes is that it shows the distant relationship between the Fighter/Wizard classes which leads to classes like the Spellsinger or Swordmage, which are often bizarre or hard to balance with other classes. I haven’t heard a lot of demand for a Cleric/Rogue class, but I’m sure it’s existed in the past and that people love playing that combination.
The important distinction for these classes is whether or not you can play a Paladin from the beginning, or if you have to start as a Fighter (or Cleric) and multi-class to become a Paladin. I believe that with the secondary classes I’ve presented here most players want to start playing as a Paladin/Druid/Bard/Ranger, they don’t want to slog through a level or three of being “another class” and then become what they wanted to be all along. Plus, while it might make sense for a Paladin to start out as a Cleric or Fighter in some worlds, it doesn’t always make sense and it stretches even more thin for Druids, Bards, and Rangers.
The first thing I think of for a class that defines this category is the Assassin. To me the Assassin class falls clearly into the wheelhouse of a specialized Rogue/Thief concept. Certainly not all Rogues are Assassins, but to me it seems a safe assumption for all classes involved to say that all Assassins are conceptually Rogues. Essentially, I’m saying the Assassin is a specialized Rogue. Several other classes feel like specializations as well, though they may not have as clear a connection to any one class. To me classes like the Barbarian, Monk, Sorcerer, Warlock, Necromancer, and even the Psion could all be considered specialized classes.
I believe that how classes are presented in any given edition of D&D is actually a big indication of how that game is going to feel. Being able to play a level 1 Assassin or Monk is a pretty big difference from having to go through 5 or even 10 levels of another class first. Taking all of this into consideration, I must say that the last thing I want to see in any D&D game is a player who wants to play a Psion being forced to play a classic Wizard character for 10 levels. I’m less scared by the idea of an Assassin player being a rogue that specializes in backstabs and then officially becoming an Assassin at a higher level. Would it all that different to play a Fighter specializing in unarmed combat/mobility for a few levels and then become a Monk than to play a Monk from the start?
I could even see adding a third level of classes to the scale I presented above, where Barbarian is placed somewhere between Ranger and Fighter. However, I feel that starts to get very muddy and I start to see classes getting restricted or feeling shoved into a place they don’t quite fit. I started thinking about this whole discussion because the playtest for the new version of D&D and the distinction of the Cleric as a more warrior-like class and the possible addition of a Priest class that would cover the less “fighty” side of the Cleric concept.
My personal feeling on the matter is if you can accomplish something simply and easily by providing more options for existing classes, then there is no need to add more classes. For example, a Monk can be a lot more than just a fighter that punches things and a Barbarian more than just a Fighter that gets angry. I feel that a Priest class would simply be a Cleric that casts spells instead of fighting, not a lot more to distinguish it other than the assumption that all Clerics wear armor and fight in melee. My inclination is that the Assassin should also not be an available class in the early game, because it mostly feels like a Rogue that specializes in killing, but if you explore ideas like mastering poisons then it starts to come into its own a little bit more.
What Does it Mean to be Level 1?
Something that I keep coming back to is that the spread of classes available to a player at 1st level can imply some incredible things about what it means to be a level 1 character. Surely a 1st level Wizard could be seen as only an apprentice/novice, but how much distinction is there between a 1st level rogue and a 1st level assassin? Does playing an Assassin or a Monk from level 1 limit a player’s opportunities for character growth and adaptability? There have been several times over the last few years where I, as a DM, have encountered a situation in play where it would be an interesting story for a player/character to switch classes and had backlash from it because the players were very hesitant to keep the same character but change their class.
As I continue to grow as a DM, I find myself questioning things like starting classes more often. If players can choose from a wide variety of very specialized classes right from the beginning, then what they choose becomes a very large part of their character’s identity. I feel that players could be just as satisfied making an archer Fighter and simply give the character the in-game title of “Ranger” (think about the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones) than they are if there is a Ranger class available to them, and this keeps the player’s options open to change and adapt with the story if the opportunity arises.