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3E/3.5 Multiclassing in D&D 3rd Edition

My best friend Rob Heinsoo was the lead designer on 4th Ed, and one of his jobs was to fix things that 3rd Ed hadn’t fixed. Multiclassing was on that list of systems that needed work. At one point when playing 3rd Ed, Rob was running a 3rd level barbarian-fighter-ranger. Given the way multiclassing worked, why not?

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Meanwhile, the barbarian-cleric I ran in the RPGA never gained a 2nd level in barbarian. Giving up cleric spells would have been too high a price to pay, and in fact the one level of barbarian that I had given this character was a nod to style and a tactical mistake. (Arguably playing anything other than a full-on cleric in 3rd Ed RPGA games was a mistake.) The Third Ed version of multiclassing “worked” in that you could mix and match as you pleased, but it didn’t really work in that most combinations were a mess. Multiclassing rules are a bitch.

When we started design on 3rd Ed, we knew that multiclassing would be an issue. The earliest takes were basically classes that combined the traits of two base classes, with a slightly steeper XP curve for leveling up. Theoretically, this system is like the Elf class in Red Box. The approach was solid in that it would have let us balance each “multiclasses” like we balanced the base classes. But this system seemed too limited for our purposes. Third Ed was about busting open limits, and combo class system seemed to make multiclassing more restricted than before. Today, after seeing the “mix-and-match” system in play for 20 years, I wonder whether we might have done better by developing that original system.

As it is, we got pretty far in the design process without solving the multiclass problem. In the end, I proposed more or less the current system, with levels from different classes stacking benefits on top of each other. The best thing about the system, I figure, was the concept of prestige classes. They were basically “multiclass only” classes. The prestige class concept was pretty exciting and made all sorts of interesting designs possible. And the beauty of the “libertarian” approach is that it required almost no work to balance. It wasn’t balanced.

One of the guiding tenets of the 3rd Ed design was “consequence, not restrictions.” It meant that we wouldn’t tell you that you can’t play a halforc paladin. Now halforcs have a Charisma penalty, so there will be consequences, but you can do what you want. This approach can be something of a disaster when it comes to making permanent choices about your character. And with the “anything goes” rules for multiclassing, there were more ways to build a weak character than to build a strong one.

On some level, balanced, anything-goes multiclassing rules are systemically impossible, and here’s a thought experiment to help you see what I mean. Suppose that the game designers hand-balance the base classes so that they play well next to each other. These base classes have the right power level and that right number of options: not too many or too few. That’s where you want the classes to be. Now imagine that you add on an algorithmic system for taking any two of those classes and combining them in any combination of levels. Maybe throw in a couple extra classes, up to as many classes as you have levels. What sort of “class” are you going to end up with when you combine different classes into one? The ideal result is that the character has more options balanced against less overall power. In addition, the increase in the number of options has to be modest enough that the player doesn’t get burdened by having too many. If you hit that ideal sweet spot that balances power with options, you’re lucky. Most combinations, especially with spellcasters, come with too harsh a penalty for the benefit. For others, like the fighter-ranger-barbarians, there was an increase not only versatility but also in effectiveness.

The multiclass rules are a dramatic example of how treating things the same is a mistake if those things are different. The rules allow players to mix and match classes in virtually any combination, as if the Nth level of any class is the equivalent of the 1st level (or Nth level) of any other class, even when combined. With this “wild west” or “libertarian” approach to multiclassing, combinations are bound to vary from weaker to stronger depending on how well the classes line up. Two classes that rely on Strength and Dexterity, like fighter and ranger combo up pretty well. But what about a Strength-based, heavily armored class with an Intelligence-based class with spellcaster that’s penalized for wearing armor? Any system that makes the fighter-ranger OK is going to be hard going for the fighter-wizard. If the game designers balance the system to makes the fighter-wizard OK, then the fighter-ranger is too strong. Those two combinations are quite different, so using the same rules for both of them leads to imbalance somewhere in the system.

To complicate things further, there were countless ways to combine two classes. If the fighter-1/wizard-9 is balanced, can the fighter-5/wizard-5 be balanced, and the fighter-9/wizard-1? Not really. There are so many multiclass options that inevitably most of them are going to be too strong or, more likely, too weak.

One problem with multiclassing is that classes came front-loaded with lots of great stuff at 1st level. If you’re a barbarian, the reasoning went, you want to be able to rage at 1st level. We toyed with the idea of giving each class a special feature that only single-class characters would get, but it was a new idea and it would have taken lots of work to get right, and we passed.

For 4th Edition, an overarching goal was to prevent players from making choices that led to them being disappointed. They headed off the problem of multiclass characters by not allowing regular multiclassing. A fighter could pick up some bits from the wizard class, and you could play a class built from scratch to be an arcane spellcasting warrior, but you couldn’t give yourself a bad experience by building a fighter-5/wizard-5.

For 13th Age, Rob and I forced a solution. For one thing, the rules support only an even split between two classes, reducing the complexity by at least two-thirds. The rules ended up somewhat resembling the AD&D multiclass rules, combining reduced-power versions of two classes. We also force every class/class combination to care equally about two different abilities. That way there’s no natural advantage for a combination of two classes with the same main ability, such as the bard-sorcerer, who needs Dex as much as Cha. Each class-class combination also got hand-balanced with power possibly adjusted up or down and special rules provided when necessary.

Fifth edition gets a lot of things right. It has some forms of “multiclassing” built into the classes, such as the fighter’s eldritch knight option, which is a nice touch and easy to balance. Fifth Ed also returns to the mix-and-match system, but they plug a lot of holes when they do. Many rules contribute to a smoother multiclassing system: ability minimums, limited proficiencies, more generous spellcasting, classes getting cool stuff at 2nd level, and the universal proficiency bonus. These concise, useful rules obviously come from people who played the hell out of 3rd Ed and knew exactly what was wrong with multiclassing. Even so, the various combinations all are going to work more or less well, and only some of those combinations can be balanced right. Spellcasters still lose out on their most powerful spellcasting levels, making it painful to multiclass with a non-casting class. Multiclass rules are a pain to design.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

AriochQ

Adventurer
5e multiclass rules are getting worse as more content gets released. The 1, or 2, level dip becomes incredibly powerful with front-loaded archetypes like the Hexblade. Personally, I think there should be a rule that class levels need to be within 3 of each other. Anyone looking for a 'dip' usually has an archetype option in their base class (e.g. Eldritch Knight for the fighter that wants to dip into Wizard).
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
I am going to go to my grave spitting my venom onto the multiclassing rules you designed, but not upon you and your colleagues yourselves. If I am spitting upon any aspect of your work from a great height, I must acknowledge that my great height comes from standing upon your shoulders. So, thank you.

I'm glad that the D&D team found better solutions for 4e, and that you found better solutions for 13th Age.

I would disagree with your assessment that the multiclassing rules in 5th are a substantial improvement over the rules you designed, however. They did remove many of the benefits of the 1-level class dip-- replacing them with 2- and 3-level dips as you've noted-- but they did absolutely nothing to address what I'd consider the most pressing faults in 3.X multiclassing: the poor ratio of viable "builds" to trap options, and the system's complete inability to faithfully recreate iconic multiclass combinations from AD&D.

The problem isn't that better solutions weren't sought, or even that better (partial) solutions weren't found-- it's that better solutions were discarded. This problem, in my opinion, is the basis of all of 5e's problems.

5e multiclass rules are getting worse as more content gets released. The 1, or 2, level dip becomes incredibly powerful with front-loaded archetypes like the Hexblade. Personally, I think there should be a rule that class levels need to be within 3 of each other. Anyone looking for a 'dip' usually has an archetype option in their base class (e.g. Eldritch Knight for the fighter that wants to dip into Wizard).
Might as well ban it, then. I am not trying to advocate for class dips and pinpoint charop... but fundamentally, the 5e rules do not work and will not work in the way you want to force them to. There is no combination of classes in which a 6/4 is capable of pulling their own weight in a party of 10th level characters.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
Thanks for this John T.

For "my own Sixth Edition", I'm working on a libertarian approach that doesn't even attempt to be balanced. Basically, every racial trait, background feature, class feature, skill, proficiency, and spell is stripped out to be a standalone "power." And all powers from all editions of D&D (and PF, 13th Age, etc) are included.

The Powers are still grouped into Race and Class lists. (And Monster power lists.) Backgrounds are just another kind of (un-prestige) Class. A character simply gains one new Power at the end of each Session.

And can freely multiclass (and multirace!). So after 30 Sessions, one PC might be a Halfling 10 / Urchin 10 / Fighter 10; another might be a Wood Elf 5/ Pixie 5 / Hill Giant 5/ Sailor 5/ Warlord 5 / Cavalier 5. The monster and racial powers can be justified not only by manifesting previously-unknown blood-ancestry, but also by training with, or fighting against those monsters (even if the event happened off-screen via a flashback).

When it's a free-for-all, then it's just part of the game that characters are going to wildly differ in fighting and roleplay potential. If I want to play a character who took 30 skill ranks in Basketweaving, while another character took 30 Wizard spells (but can't do anything else; they are a 0-level normal man in every other respect), that's just the way "my own 6th Edition" rolls! haha

Shane T.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
You have awareness of the flaws I find in multiclassing rules: the ability for players (esp. newer players) to shoot themselves in the foot by following something flavorful, but no less cherry-picking.

That said, I like and support the concept of multiclassing. My analogy is simple: picture an index card as character concepts you want to play, then scatter some coins on it. The coins represnt the classes, and they cover a good amount of the cards. Sometimes they stack or overlap, representing archetypes you can realize with multiple classes, like an archer in 5e. But there are places between coins that multiclassing lets you reach - concepts you couldn't do otherwise. (And, of course, places between coins and the edge of the index card - concepts the system can't build without adding more coins, erm, classes.)
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
Might as well ban it, then. I am not trying to advocate for class dips and pinpoint charop... but fundamentally, the 5e rules do not work and will not work in the way you want to force them to. There is no combination of classes in which a 6/4 is capable of pulling their own weight in a party of 10th level characters.
D&D isn't just about power curves, it is also about roleplaying. IMHO, Multi-classing should be a roleplay choice, not a munchkin tactic. Sure Min/Maxing is one style of play, but it doesn't really matter much where you draw the line, so long as the line is in the same spot for everyone.

Also, any DM worth their salt adapts encounters to fit the party their are running. Walking a fine line between tension and frustration. A 6/4 sacrifices power for versatility. That has always been the traditional tradeoff.
 

Enrico Poli1

Adventurer
The problem with multiclassing was that it contributed to make the game too complex to manage.
The problem with multiclassing was not a problem of balance. Actually the base classes were VERY unbalanced in 3e. Wizards, Clerics, Druids ruled; a single-class Wizard was basically omnipotent at high level.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
D&D isn't just about power curves, it is also about roleplaying.
This is a tired excuse for not trying to fix rules that don't do what they're supposed to do.

IMHO, Multi-classing should be a roleplay choice, not a munchkin tactic. Sure Min/Maxing is one style of play, but it doesn't really matter much where you draw the line, so long as the line is in the same spot for everyone.
If players are not capable of approximately equal contributions to the hard, mechanical portions of the game, then those "roleplaying choices" are closed off to them. Characters that aren't mechanically viable don't get to sit at the table long enough to explore their roleplaying hooks.

A 6/4 sacrifices power for versatility. That has always been the traditional tradeoff.
An AD&D Cleric/Mage 8/7 sacrifices power for versatility versus a Cleric 10 or Mage 10, and is capable of hanging in the same adventuring party as the higher-level characters.

A WotC D&D Cleric/Mage 6/4 is sacrificing power for a bitter lesson in the disparity between narrative and mechanics.
 
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Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
An AD&D Cleric/Mage 8/7 sacrifices power for versatility versus a Cleric 10 or Mage 10, and is capable of hanging in the same adventuring party as the higher-level characters.

A WotC D&D Cleric/Mage 6/4 is sacrificing power for a bitter lesson in the disparity between narrative and mechanics.
Hence, 3.5 added the Mystic Theurge.
 


2e multiclassing worked, but dual classing was broken as heck. We used to make uber characters by always dual classing. At least it lead to human centric parties.
 

Horwath

Hero
5e multiclass rules are getting worse as more content gets released. The 1, or 2, level dip becomes incredibly powerful with front-loaded archetypes like the Hexblade. Personally, I think there should be a rule that class levels need to be within 3 of each other. Anyone looking for a 'dip' usually has an archetype option in their base class (e.g. Eldritch Knight for the fighter that wants to dip into Wizard).
Dipping is a powercreep problem, but even split is a power problem in the opposite direction.

Suggestion is what they did in 3.5 with mystic theurge as mentioned by @Tyler Do'Urden

1. Multiclassing can be only with 2 classes.

2. classes MUST be within 1 level on each other.

3. Bonus class levels at levels 5,8,11,14,17 and 20. Average HP on those levels.

I.E. 5th level figter/wizard would have class features of 3rd level fighter and 3rd level wizard. But would be 5th level character with 2 d10 HDs, 2 d6 HDs and 1 d8 HD(average of d10 and d6)

8th level would be 5/5 split

11th level would be 7/7 split

14th level; 9/9 split

17th level; 11/11 split

20th level; 13/13 split
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Dipping is a powercreep problem, but even split is a power problem in the opposite direction.

Suggestion is what they did in 3.5 with mystic theurge as mentioned by @Tyler Do'Urden
Simpler: Multiclassing costs a feat per base class. You gain virtual class levels equal to 1/2 your level in other classes (maximum twice your actual class level), with an XP penalty for any class that is "stalled". Prestige Classes contribute to multiclass class features, but don't benefit from them.

Your 10/10 becomes effectively a 15/15. A 6/6/6 is a 12/12/12.

A little more complicated would be combining Tipsy Tabby's Overhauling Multiclassing with Unearthed Arcana's Bloodlines. It would still require some accommodation for Prestige Classes, though, which Tipsy Tabby's rules don't provide.
 

Honestly, one of my group's most ignored rules was the multiclassing XP penalty. A level 1/1/1/1/1 cleric/wizard/bard/sorcerer/rogue (just an example, not anything actually viable) was nowhere near the power of any other Lvl 5 character, and having an XP penalty on top of that was ludicrous. Without it, our reasonably multiclassed characters were still quite balanced and enjoyable.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
This is a tired excuse for not trying to fix rules that don't do what they're supposed to do.
Meh.

The designers of a game should certainly have balance in mind as they create the various systems, including multi-classing . . . but, IMO, too many gamers have this weird fixation on finding an impossible level of "game balance".

During the 3E era, my group never had a problem with multi-classing at all. Looking backwards, I can see that we certainly came up against some of the balancing issues discussed in this thread (and others), but at the time we didn't even notice that there was a "problem". We were a roleplaying-focused group, and min-maxing just wasn't a thing. Our characters sometimes had a multi-class "level-dip" about as often as they had even level-spreads between classes. The choices were based on character concept, not mechanical advantage.

In retrospect, some of our characters were weaker or stronger than single-classed characters at the table . . . but we had fun roleplaying, didn't notice the "problem", and the multi-classing system (imperfect as it was) helped us more fully realize our characters.

I think the 5E system improves on the 3E system, although I'd like to see a return of prestige classes (if perhaps with less splat than in 3E). It also is imperfect, but again, with a relaxed view on "balance", it works just fine.
 

Worrgrendel

Explorer
There is no combination of classes in which a 6/4 is capable of pulling their own weight in a party of 10th level characters.
You've played or been at a table where every single 6/4 multiclassing option has been explored? Wow. I'm impressed. I'm also sorry becase this is an utterly false opinion without evidence. Are there some crappy 6/4 combinations? Sure, but let's not blanket that statement shall we? I am currently playing a character in a campaign that is a 6/3 Hexblade/Shadow Sorcerer (going 6/4 next level) and has been completely pulling his own weight in a party that includes 4 other non-multiclassed characters and 1 other multiclassed character that is 2/6/1 currently (also pulling her own weight). Everyone has their moment to shine and nobody is not pulling their weight.
 

jsaving

Adventurer
First time I've disagreed so thoroughly with one of Jonathan's articles. Why you'd close off options for everyone just so some people wouldn't be "disappointed" seems very strange. Not every multiclass combo has to be equally strong, if you go that route then you should make every stat distribution or set of feats equally strong too so players aren't disappointed that way. Which 4th edition went a long way toward doing, though I'd argue that was a detriment rather than an asset because it made characters feel cookie-cutter instead of distinctive.
 

Hurin88

Explorer
This was a very interesting article; thanks for that.

I have to agree though with those who argue that 5e's multiclassing rules are not much of an improvement over what earlier editions did. The 5e rules are very complex for a system that is trying to be simple. And the Hexblade really does threaten to break the system (I say this as a Bard contemplating a dip into Hexblade for Eldritch Blast, +5 AC, shields, all martial weapons and the ability to use Cha to attack with them, 2 cantrips, 2 spells and an additional spell slot).
 

Zardnaar

Legend
D&D is still suffering because of that decision.

By now its what the punters want.

AD&D MCing still the best and some clones have tweaked it.

6/4 MC can work fine in 5E. Eldritch Knight 6/Abjurer 4, Paladin 6/Hexblade 4 replace hexblade with Bard or Sorcerer.

Some combination of fighter, ranger, rogue 6/4 works well enough as well.

There's probably others I've missed.
 
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FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
You've played or been at a table where every single 6/4 multiclassing option has been explored? Wow. I'm impressed.
I'm sorry that I managed to overlook your extremely specific counter-example. I probably should also include the Coffeelock as proof that 5e's multiclassing rules work exactly as intended.
 

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