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Rules FAQ How Does Multiclassing Work in D&D 5E?

Multiclassing has been in D&D since before WotC bought TSR, but different editions have handled the nuances of it differently. Third Edition favored it to the extent that single-classed characters were rare at many tables. Fifth Edition is more slanted toward single-classed characters, with multiclassing presented as an optional rule. But like feats, it’s a very popular option.

This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!


Black Powder Conjurer - Ellis Goodson.jpg


On the surface, D&D multiclassing is pretty simple. Just take a level of a different class when leveling up instead of the one your character currently has. However, there are a number of pitfalls in the process that can trip players up. The full multiclassing rules can be found on pages 163-165 of the Players Handbook, and if you’re considering a multiclass character, you really do need to read them, but even veteran players are occasionally caught out by a few nuances.

Prerequisites and Order​

When making a multiclassed character, it’s important to make sure you meet the multiclass prerequisites for the classes you’re multiclassing into and out of. A common stumbling block here is the Dexterity-based paladin build, or “dexadin.” Single-classed characters do not have any attribute requirements or minimums, and so it’s viable to make a paladin that focuses finesse weapons instead of strength ones. Players doing this will often “dump” Strength. This is fine until they decide they want some levels in another class. In order to multiclass into or out of paladin, you need a Strength score of 13 and a Charisma score of 13, even if you’re not “using” your strength score. You also need to meet the prerequisites for both classes. For example, paladin/ranger would need 13s in Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma.

You can raise those attributes with Ability Score Increases or feats and still meet the prerequisites. The game only cares about your abilities at the time you multiclass. Along those lines, though: Ability Score Increases are a class feature, not something that you automatically get based on character level, unlike a character’s proficiency bonus, which is based on total character level.

Similarly, the order you take your classes in matters. If you start as a fighter or paladin, your character will be proficient in heavy armor. However, multiclassing into fighter or paladin only grants proficiency with medium armor. If you want heavy armor proficiency after level 1, you’ll need to pick it up via a feat or a subclass that grants it, such as the cleric’s Life Domain subclass. The same applies to skill and tool proficiencies. It’s wise to figure out which proficiencies you care about the most and order your multiclassing progression accordingly.

Spellcasting​

The formula for determining spell slots for traditional casters is pretty simple: add together:
  • all of your primary spellcaster (bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, and wizard) levels;
  • half of your secondary spellcaster (paladin and ranger) levels, rounded down;
  • one third of your tertiary spellcaster (subclass-based spellcasting such as the Arcane Trickster subclass for the rogue) levels, also rounded down and consult the table in the multiclassing rules for how many spell slots of each level you have.
Warlock spell slots are an entirely separate thing and are not factored into the calculations above, but you do still have them—a multiclassed spellcaster/warlock will have their “normal” slots which recharge after a long rest (and possibly a few limited ones after a short rest from class or subclass abilities) and their warlock Pact Magic slots that come back after a short rest.

That’s the simple part. Here’s where it gets tricky: you prepare spells as if you were simultaneously a single-classed character for each of your spellcasting classes. So if you’re a cleric 3/fighter (eldritch knight 3), paladin 3, you prepare one set of spells as a third-level cleric, another as a third-level Eldritch Knight fighter, and another set as a third-level paladin. All of these spells can be cast with any spell slots of an appropriate level that you have, but they use the spellcasting modifier of the class they’re cast with.

This means that you can conceivably have multiple copies of the same spell available to cast and they could potentially have different save DCs, etc. It’s worth noting that there’s no benefit to this on purpose; you’re better off preparing different spells and eliminating overlap from your various spell lists, but sometimes subclass lists overlap. It also means that multiclassed spellcasters will typically have a lot more spells available to cast than single-classed ones, but they will be lower-level (though you can still upcast them).

It’s also advantageous to stick to classes that use a single spellcasting attribute; this is why multiclass combinations using some mix of bard, paladin, sorcerer, and warlock are so popular; they all use Charisma as their spellcasting modifier and raising Charisma makes all of the spells from all of those classes better.

To reiterate: any spell from any class can be cast with any qualifying spell slots you have, period. It makes no difference if they’re “standard” or pact magic slots. The same goes for alternate spell slot uses such as sorcery points and Divine Smite. (This also potentially enables some game-breaking cheese, but that is beyond the scope of this article.)

Another spellcasting-related issue that can trip players up is cantrips. Here’s all you need to know about cantrips: first, you always use the spellcasting attribute that corresponds to how you acquired the cantrip, whether that’s via a class or a feat. Second, they scale up by your total character level, regardless of how (or when!) you acquired them. The vicious mockery cantrip of a 17th-level bard and the vicious mockery spell of a 16th-level fighter/1st level bard will both do 4d4 damage.

Conclusion​

Hopefully the preceding text has helped to take some of the frustration and guesswork out of multiclass PCs. They really can be a fun option as long as care is taken to make sure the nuances of the multiclass rules are followed. Plan your builds accordingly!
 
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Peter N Martin

Peter N Martin


MarkB

Legend
Thanks for the article. I've been playing 5e since it came out, and I've never yet played a multiclass character.

One thing I've seen trip people up is that feats/ASIs are granted based on class level, not character level.
 



Which is why doing four levels at a time in one class is the best option, though convincing dippers of that is a lost cause. lol
Taking a single level dip has advantages and disadvantages. You are delayed certain benefits (ASI/Feats and higher level spells are most notable) but the assumption is that the benefit outweighs this delay. I don't necessarily agree, but I've only ever played 5E multiclass characters in one-shots. Taking more than 1 level delays things far too much IMO, so going 4 levels makes sense for anyone other than casters (losing those higher level spells is brutal).
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Feedback:

"you really do need to read them, but even veteran players are occasionally caught out by a few nuances"

Perhaps ",because" instead of ",but"?

"In order to multiclass into or out of paladin, you need a Strength score of 13 and a Charisma score of 13,"

You mentioned minimums in a previous paragraph, but it's best to be clear: "In order to multiclass into or out of paladin, you need a Strength score of 13 or higher" or perhaps "and a Charisma score of at least 13,"

"Players doing this will often “dump” Strength. This is fine until they decide they want some levels in another class."

You should probably clarify: "If you do this, you might find you cannot legally multiclass into the class you want, even using items or ability score increases. It is therefore important to plan ahead unless you are sure you want to stay in a single class the entire campaign."

What I mean here is that "You can raise those attributes with Ability Score Increases or feats and still meet the prerequisites." can be read as to say "Even if you forget about this, don't worry, you can fix it later on". This is very much a too sunny outlook. You can totally find that your idea to multiclass just doesn't work mechanically, because you didn't create the character with that multiclass in mind 12 levels prior.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Delaying or entirely losing the stat increase/feat every four levels is the largest stumbling block for multiclassing for me.
It is a significant cost/drawback to multiclassing yes. It is intentional and it is good. It helps balancing the game so multi-class characters doesn't totally outshine single-class characters. (y)
 

Taking a single level dip has advantages and disadvantages. You are delayed certain benefits (ASI/Feats and higher level spells are most notable) but the assumption is that the benefit outweighs this delay. I don't necessarily agree, but I've only ever played 5E multiclass characters in one-shots. Taking more than 1 level delays things far too much IMO, so going 4 levels makes sense for anyone other than casters (losing those higher level spells is brutal).
There are a lot of viable multiclass options.
It just depends on the game played.
If 20% less damage is acceptable for 50% more versatility, a lot can be achieved with multiclass.
Of course, high level spells also make you more versatile, but a lot of lower level spells are very useful and you can always find the use for more low level spells. Also quite a few buffs/debuffs can be upcast and are very good. Invisibility cast as level 5 spell can cloak your entire party of 4. Hold person can hold 4 enemies in place. You don't use them this way very often if they compete with a level 5 spell however.
 

Under the "the order you take the classes matters" section, you might want to point out that you can only get Unarmored Defense as a class feature once - a barbarian who adds monk levels does not have and therefore cannot use the monk's Unarmored Defense feature. They still have the barbarian version.
 


I don't see any mention of extra attacks, which both have a substantial rules pitfall (extra attacks from multiple classes don't stack) and are also one of the primary strategic concerns when planning the order of a multiclass, as delaying getting them for a martial character can be crippling if you don't have a very specific plan.
 

timespike

Adventurer
This discussion is good because it covers a number of things I cut from previous drafts for space reasons. To pull back the curtain a little bit, these articles have a length maximum that we need to stay under; this particular topic probably could have almost been a two-parter!

The extra attack, unarmored defense, and ASI timing are all fairly common traps in their own right, and those were solid observations on the part of those who mentioned them. Extra attacks in particular can sometimes catch people out when they assume it stacks (it doesn't).

However, as far as outlook goes, that's a whole discussion unto itself. (And also a good observation, but one I'd like to weigh in on a little more heavily.)

I think from a pure mechanical effectiveness standpoint, there are very few RPGs indeed (and none that I know of that are D&D editions or even similar games like OSR products or 13th Age) that don't benefit from advance planning where character builds are concerned. If you're looking to maximize the mechanical effectiveness of a PC, the better you know the rules (and the more experience you have actually using them in play) the better off you will be. I ran into this early on in my own time with 5e; my very first 5e PC was a Nature cleric, and aside from the thorn whip cantrip and heavy armor proficiency, I didn't use any of his subclass abilities. I never cast one of the nature domain spells, and I never used the ability to charm animals or plants. I'd have been much better off building him as a Life cleric instead because that's how I was playing him. (The GM let me respec him as a life cleric later in the campaign, which was nice of him.)

All this to say: while it's nice to be able to "follow one's heart" in character progression, that approach will usually fall behind careful advance planning in terms of raw mechanical power. The trade-off may still be worth it for other reasons pertaining to the game's fiction, however! That said, there's a wide spectrum of mechanical effectiveness and sometimes a specific player goal can be worth a slightly sub-optimal choice if it makes the game more enjoyable to that player; for example, in my Saturday group, the player playing the warlock multiclassed into cleric (I forget whether she took just one level or two) just for the sake of variety, even though sticking with warlock or going into another Charisma-based class like sorcerer or paladin would have been a more "optimal" choice. She's still been plenty effective, though.

None of this is to disregard the observation that if one isn't careful, the game can get away from you and you can wind up locked out of things you wish you had access to. It's absolutely true that you can paint yourself into a proverbial corner. However, you can often recover at least somewhat with ASIs if you're willing to delay your multiclass gratification. But if you're seriously considering multiclassing your PC, the sooner you start planning, the better chance you have of being able to actually accomplish what you want to.
 

timespike

Adventurer
Which is why doing four levels at a time in one class is the best option, though convincing dippers of that is a lost cause. lol
Sometimes those dips are good, though! Getting Divine Smite for my Valor bard was totally worth a 2-level dip into paladin, even if it slowed down my spellcasting and ASI progressions.
 

Horwath

Hero
I hate 1 or 2 level dips as that is cheesy powerplay move and even split 2 class characters are almost useless later on, so for me multiclassing does NOT work in 5E. At least not without house ruling.

So, I added a house rule that adds "extra" class levels at 5th character level and every 3 levels after.

I.E. 5th level fighter/wizard would have 3 class level of fighter and 3 of wizard. The 5th character level, that is counted as "double" level uses average HPs from both classes and average HD for healing. for fighter wizard that is 5 HP per level and d8 HD.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
Do you know, I actually totally overlooked the fact that the minimums apply to your original class, as well as the new one. You made me go and look to check if any of my players had been pulling a fast one.

Thankfully, it seems they know the multiclassing rules even if I don't!
 

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