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

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
I hope this isn't veering off-topic -- yet it's related to the general theme of the entire series of J. Tweet articles here at EN World. Namely, beyond recounting the innovations which came through 3E and 13th Age (and how they compare with 4E and 5E) -- the question arises: in Tweet's mind's eye, what would be the next innovation beyond those?

I'd love to see an article by Johnathan which spells out what he'd like to see for a "6th Edition", or, more specifically, for a 13th Age Second Edition. (14th Age? 20th Age? 6th Age? 6th Era? 6th Epoch?)

And I have one suggestion for Pelgrane Press in that regard. It's not a rules suggestion, but a business suggestion. Something which no one has ever done, or even tried before. Not Paizo, not WotC, not anyone.

Namely this:

Be the first iteration of D&D to covert the entire contents of the 3E SRD, 5E SRD, PF1 SRD (including the massive amount of 3PP PF1 material on the PFRD), and PF2 SRD, into your new game system, on the release date, so that even a long-standing game group with tons of homebrew, supplemental, and 3PP content, could literally switch their entire game library and world and characters over to your system, in one fell swoop.

This would of course require an exceptionally huge design effort before the game is even released. But if you Kickstartered that with the design goal advertised ahead of time, it would make waves. Through this approach, I think Pelgrane could become the next Paizo. Picture this Kickstarter announcement:

"Pelgrane Press' 20th Era (20E) is pre-converting literally every 13th Age book to the new 20E system, along with the entire contents of the 3.5 SRD, d20 Modern SRD, d20 Anime SRD, PFRD, PFSRD 3PP, Starfinder SRD, Dungeon World SRD, 5E SRD, Mutants & Masterminds SRD, The Black Hack SRD, and PF2 SRD. 20th Era offers a complete evolution of the entire body of Open Game material...all in one go!"

Could also look into extracting the Open Game Content from DCC, C&C, WOIN, and various OGL/OSR systems which do or don't have SRDs. And include all genres from the start: fantasy, sci-fi, supers, modern, anime, etc.

Also, proactively seek out existing fantasy and sci-fi IPs for conversion, so as to increase the player network from the start. Solicit essentially every RPG publisher (large, medium, small, and one-person affairs), offering early-bird collaboration and conversion, for some or all of their settings.
***
So those are the business approaches I'd love to see. Never been done before.

The only rules suggestion I have is to really consider making the game to be hardly more complex than The Black Hack, Knave, and/or Maze Rats; but at the same time, takes into account the leading edge of uber-complex PF2. You've already got a great combo of simplicity+complexity there in 13th Age. I wonder though, if in some regards, 13A2 could be taken even further in a simplistic direction. As long as all the character options (classes, races, feats, spells, magic items) and monsters from all the Open SRDs are pre-converted to the system, then the system itself can be satisfyingly simple.

-Travis
 
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FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Be the first iteration of D&D to covert the entire contents of the 3E SRD, 5E SRD, PF1 SRD (including the massive amount of 3PP PF1 material on the PFRD), and PF2 SRD, into your new game system, on the release date, so that even a long-standing game group with tons of homebrew, supplemental, and 3PP content, could literally switch their entire game library and world and characters over to your system, in one fell sweep.
If Pelgrane Press somehow recruited Paizo and WotC for this project and their entire combined staff worked on it full-time and nonstop, they could not complete what you are suggesting within the time it would take them to design a whole new system from scratch, publish it with support materials, and then retire it.
 

Saelorn

Hero
It isn't hard to balance level N of class A with level 1 of class B. You just need a linear power curve. The underlying problem is that going from level (N-1) to level N (where N > 2) gives a bigger boost than going from level 1 to level 2, but there's no reason why it needs to be that way.

Once you solve that, there are only a few contradictions to resolve (like rage/spellcasting, and arcane/armor). And honestly, if the underlying math is balanced around the assumption that you gain the full benefits of each level, you could just outright remove those restrictions.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
If Pelgrane Press somehow recruited Paizo and WotC for this project and their entire combined staff worked on it full-time and nonstop, they could not complete what you are suggesting within the time it would take them to design a whole new system from scratch, publish it with support materials, and then retire it.
Haha - you may be right. But sometimes ya gotta think big. A 5-million dollar Kickstarter would go a long way toward that, enabling the tapping of a huge network of capable freelancers.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
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.
I think I would quibble with this a little bit. There's nothing about D&D class design that requires that ascending levels within a class be asymmetric. You could certainly have design where taking a level in a class gives increased access to a particular menu of abilities, but more potent powers are gated by overall character level, not class level.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
You could certainly have design where taking a level in a class gives increased access to a particular menu of abilities, but more potent powers are gated by overall character level, not class level.
Yes, this. Or even both, if you a given ability requires a given class investment in addition to minimum character level. Simply separating the two opens the designers' options up considerably.
 

Worrgrendel

Explorer
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.
You are the one who stated "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." (emphasis mine). To accurately answer your statement I only needed 1 "extremely specific counter-example" to disprove your overgeneralized argument with no evidence to support it. I will also point out that I stated we had one other multiclass character at the table (albeit not a 6/4) and Zardnaar pointed out several other completely viable 6/4 multiclassing combinations that work as well.

If you want to throw out false, inaccurate statements with no evidence to support them, that have holes large enough to drive an aircraft carrier through them and then get upset when someone actually drives an aircraft carrier through them, I suggest you revisit commenting on the internet.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The responses to this article serve to illustrate how, while there might be some agreement that 3E multiclassing was less than perfect (to put it mildly), there's no particular agreement on why that was or how to fix it. I see that as a function of the different ideas that people have regarding how the game is supposed to work, both at the mechanical level and in actual play.

For my part, I'm of the opinion that 1) options and balance are opposed to each other in what they're trying to accomplish, and 2) there's no practical definition of what "balance" means.

To elucidate those a little more, if we presume that "balance" is supposed to include some idea of option parity, then options - which include all feats, spells, each level of each class, etc. - will all need to be restrained in what they offer. That means a lot of them will need to be curtailed, and others will need to be disallowed (or rather, never written/published in the first place) altogether. What you can do is restricted in the name of balance. Of course, that's hard to do for any system that relies on successive option-filled supplements being published. After all, "meaningful" differences tend to be seen as "being able to do something new." It's why most people quickly grew bored of +2/+2 skill-booster feats.

More notable is the question of what exactly constitutes "balance" in practical terms. That last party is key: most people just say something along the lines of "every option should be as good as every other option" without getting into how that would work. There's also the question of what snapshot of the game is being examined: are you looking at the breadth of an entire campaign, or at one round's worth of actions.

To tie this back to multiclassing, 3E tried to make things more balanced by having everyone use a unified XP table, where you could gain 20 levels (at least before the Epic Level Handbook) and mix and match what class you advanced in at each level. (To be fair, it introduced XP penalties for uneven progression, waiving that with "favored classes" for various races.) This actually made things less "balanced" as people found most of the multiclassing options served to undercut the power-growth of taking successive levels in the same class (especially for spellcasters). It was the same reason that ECL/level adjustments for powerful monster PCs didn't work very well.

Maybe it's because communication wasn't as good back then, but I don't recall hearing this be nearly such a huge complaint with AD&D multiclassing (for demihumans) and dual-classing (for humans).
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
You are the one who stated ...
I am perfectly aware of what I said. I was sitting right here when I said it.

If you think that your ability to find a counter-example to an (admittedly) overly absolute statement means that the statement is not generally still true in the vast majority of cases, then you're either nowhere as adept at logical reasoning as you'd have us believe, or you're only interested in making yourself look smarter at others' expense rather than contributing meaningfully to the conversation.

Either way, don't bother replying.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
I limited multi-classing. Yes, I said the "L" word. I needed it to make sense in the game world going from 2E to 3/3.5E. I also had prerequisites to take a level in a class. You needed specific skills or feats in place to enter a class. There was more multiclassing, (than in 2E) but players didn't complain. Then again, my crew were centered on role playing, not optimization...
 

PMárk

Explorer
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.
Agree and with all due respect, I have to disagree with Mr. Tweet on this issue. Open multiclassing is one of the things I really-really like in 3.5 and Pathfinder. Yes, it could lead to disastrous combinations, but honestly, I don't mind. I don't see it as all of the classes should combine equally well with each other. Yes, figuring out what goes with what needs some system mastery, but I don't mind that either (on the other hand, I'm not a super-optimizer and I don't do organized play). I never liked the 4e style multiclassing (and was disappointed that PF2 went with a version of that). I just doesn't make possible to reproduce all the haracter concepts and lifepaths I want to create, because it forces you to stay with your primay class all along and only allows to dabble into the other classes' stuff. So, I prefer freedom of choice and the plethora of possibilities over "balance".

Honestly, the one thing I really hated about the 3e multiclassing was the favored class rules. That was one of the first things we changed in out recent game and opted to use the Pathfinder 1e version.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
... then you're either nowhere as adept at logical reasoning as you'd have us believe, or you're only interested in making yourself look smarter at others' expense rather than contributing meaningfully to the conversation.
Mod Note:

Arguments of the form "you must be stupid or a jerk to disagree with me" are both rhetorically weak, and rude, and pretty ad hominem. Please do not attribute character flaws to the poster based upon what they post. Because, if the tables were turned, you certainly wouldn't like the results. Golden Rule, and all that -treat others as you'd like to be treated.
 

dave2008

Legend
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.
That is not multi-classing, it is a class-less system. Which I would like to see in 6th edition, but I think it is unlikely.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Maybe it's because communication wasn't as good back then, but I don't recall hearing this be nearly such a huge complaint with AD&D multiclassing (for demihumans) and dual-classing (for humans).
There were people who complained about AD&D multiclassing and looked at it with disdain. They usually considered it overpowered because a two-class demi-human was, thanks to the XP tables, usually only about 1 level behind their single-classed peers. That meant their flexibility was actually quite powerful. That said, I don't believe the idea of the importance of the action economy was very well-developed at the time. Sure, that F/MU multi-class character had some potent options and only gave up a little of them, but he was funneling them through one character - a significant different from a fighter and a magic-user as 2 separate characters. As I remember it, the importance of the action economy as a major factor was only really emerging in 3e.
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
I think in 5e a chance was missed by not using subclasses as a way to multiclass. I think the idea of themes or feat chains in the play test was really nice too.

On the other hand, 5e multiclass works well enough. I don't see too many real trap options and no real overpowered built.
Even dipping hexblade reduces your max spellcasting ability if you were a caster. Power level are all at an acceptable level and although you might not be as powerful, you bring a lot more different abilities to the table. The first 3 levels of many classes are quite powerful. Often there a few levels were classes are lagging behind quite a bit and levels were you surpass a single class. But over 20 levels, balance is OK in most cases.

Still, eldritch knight would not be needed if you could merge fighter with wizard.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
I limited multi-classing. Yes, I said the "L" word.
You know, as much as I harp on the fact that the iconic multiclass combinations-- any proportional combination of Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Rogue-- are way, way too weak... there is the flipside that the first 1-3 levels in certain classes can be a massive improvement to almost any other class.

I've said before that it's the ability to stop advancing in a class that bothers me more than the ability to suddenly start advancing in two or three different classes in the middle of a PC's career.

Limiting multiclassing in 3.X makes sense and is probably necessary. Ability score prerequisites, feat prerequisites, limits on the number of classes all make sense... and as much as people keep bringing up enforced class level ratios, I really want to support them, but they won't work without substantial rules changes (or even feat/prc support) to make those characters viable.
 

Saelorn

Hero
As I remember it, the importance of the action economy as a major factor was only really emerging in 3e.
Wizards didn't really have an action economy, prior to 3E; or if they did, it was relatively minor, compared to their spell slot economy. You definitely weren't casting a spell every round, or even every combat, so the fact that you could only cast one spell per round (and had to give up your attack in order to do it) was rarely the limiting factor.
 

jmartkdr2

Explorer
It isn't hard to balance level N of class A with level 1 of class B. You just need a linear power curve. The underlying problem is that going from level (N-1) to level N (where N > 2) gives a bigger boost than going from level 1 to level 2, but there's no reason why it needs to be that way.

Once you solve that, there are only a few contradictions to resolve (like rage/spellcasting, and arcane/armor). And honestly, if the underlying math is balanced around the assumption that you gain the full benefits of each level, you could just outright remove those restrictions.
This would make for really weird scaling at the low end - worse than the current rules, even. A level 1 character would be close to useless in an adventure, since they'd pretty much be restricted to tiny bonuses overall. Look at how annoying hp scaling is at low levels where a firstie is always one crit from death, an issue that goes away almost completely by level 3.

Now, if the game just sort of starts at "level 5" to counter this, you're can skip that problem...

But at that point, the question really becomes "do we even need classes?"
 
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).
I fixed the dipping with a houserule requirement of staying in a new class for 3 levels before multiclassing into something else. So no one is taking a 2nd class til at least 4th level in my games. Or a 3rd class til at least 7th level, etc.

As to the main topic, I definitely prefer the AD&D version of multiclassing to the "here are your 20 levels, do what you want with them" version.
 

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