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

dave2008

Legend
Okay so keeping the +4 to STR, +1 to CON, +1 to INT, 0 to DES, +2 to WIS and -1 to CHA, I went and rolled a couple of 3d8s, dropping the lowest, and I got the followng results:

9, 9, 10, 6, 14, 15
8, 12, 6, 13, 15, 11
3, 9, 11, 8, 12, 14
15, 7, 15, 15, 14, 14
13, 14, 16, 11, 9, 5

Not a big fan of this much swinginess. I didn't bother calculating the bonuses as a result. The third guy is pitiful and the fourth array is over powered.
To be clear I am looking for a max score of 18. However, it seems a point-buy variant would be more up your alley. The % chance of scores is pretty close to 4d6 drop 1 so a point-buy or standard array would produce similar results. I am fine with this approach, but you could do something like 5d4 drop the lowest to narrow the range. That would make it less random, but to be honest I don't think random generation is what you want at anyway.
 

Weiley31

Adventurer
When 3E came out, the multiclass changes hit me hard. I was playing a mage/thief in a 2E campaign, and when we converted to 3E, I naively split my classes evenly. It left me with a useless PC who was incompetent at both stealth and magic.

That was a sharp lesson to me in the importance of planning one's build when multiclassing.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons WHY, aside from the mental math overload, I wasn't big on 3.5 Multi-Classing. How easy it was to make a guy that couldn't do crap if you weren't careful.
 

Undrave

Hero
To be clear I am looking for a max score of 18. However, it seems a point-buy variant would be more up your alley. The % chance of scores is pretty close to 4d6 drop 1 so a point-buy or standard array would produce similar results. I am fine with this approach, but you could do something like 5d4 drop the lowest to narrow the range. That would make it less random, but to be honest I don't think random generation is what you want at anyway.
I have a LOT of bad experience in boardgames where I get screwed over by bad dice rolls... It was particularly bad in Eclipse... Spend turn after turn and ressource after ressource to build up some decent spaceships only to roll crap in every combat, not matter how much I invested in upgrades and see all those turns WASTED.

But I guess a lot of people love their chance at god-tier stats...

I think I'd rather just let someone else design a working randomized generation method and just use my method as the basis around which the rest of my system would be built. Once there's a bigger picture it'd be easier to tack on a satisfactory method.

Or we could just straight up roll the starting modifiers! 1d6-1d4, in order for exemple!

0, 0, +1, +1, -1, -1
+1, 0, +2, +1, -2, +1
-1, +2, 0, +1, -1, +1

Add our exemple set of modifiers and you get:

STR +4, CON +1, INT +2, DEX +1, WIS +1, CHA -2, total: +7.
STR +5, CON +1, INT +3, DEX +1, WIS 0, CHA 0, total: +10
STR +3, CON +3, INT +1, DEX +1, WIS +1, CHA 0, total: +9

I know you like the ability score thing, but how's that for injecting randomness without removing the build concep from the different choices? It should be roughly equal to a starting 0 everywhere but you could always throw an extra floating +1 for those who forego rolling.
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
I want it to be: I rolled a 17 in Intelligence and can play any class I want.
Comments like that make me think of Fate Accelerated. You don't have "baseball card" stats like D&D (and most games). Instead, you have Forceful, Sneaky, Careful, Clever, Quick, and Flashy (and the words can be tweaked for setting). Any of the descriptors could apply to a character in any of the classes. Stuff like Physical Strength, which we usually associate with "stats" is left to other character traits.
 

dave2008

Legend
But I guess a lot of people love their chance at god-tier stats...
Or sub-optimal stats. Those can be some of the most fun characters.
I know you like the ability score thing, but how's that for injecting randomness without removing the build concep from the different choices? It should be roughly equal to a starting 0 everywhere but you could always throw an extra floating +1 for those who forego rolling.
Doesn't do anything for me, but if it works for you - have at it.
 

dave2008

Legend
Comments like that make me think of Fate Accelerated. You don't have "baseball card" stats like D&D (and most games). Instead, you have Forceful, Sneaky, Careful, Clever, Quick, and Flashy (and the words can be tweaked for setting). Any of the descriptors could apply to a character in any of the classes. Stuff like Physical Strength, which we usually associate with "stats" is left to other character traits.
Sure, but that was not my point. I reject the notion that if I have a certain stat, I have to be certain class. I prefer to pick a class and make it work with whatever stats I have. That is more interesting to me. I will never truly understand the plan your character out and/or optimize your character crowd. It is just not how a play RPGs.
 
Sure, but that was not my point. I reject the notion that if I have a certain stat, I have to be certain class. I prefer to pick a class and make it work with whatever stats I have. That is more interesting to me. I will never truly understand the plan your character out and/or optimize your character crowd. It is just not how a play RPGs.
It is when you are trying to emulate fictional characters - which while having some quirks are usually pretty good at their primary functions.
 

dave2008

Legend
It is when you are trying to emulate fictional characters - which while having some quirks are usually pretty good at their primary functions.
Trying to emulate someone else's fictional character? I guess I played that way many moons ago, but now I like different things.
 
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fearsomepirate

Explorer
I enjoyed this article, because I really like seeing how designers think. Every design choice, including the bad ones, had a rationale behind it, and it's great to see what sort of thought went into them.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
I don't know whose idea it was originally. Might even have been mine, but I'm not trying to take credit.

I am altogether fond of "use the better result from two different approaches", especially in Alternity where there are optional "random by species" and "random by profession" options-- which are each guaranteed to meet their respective minimums, but require some accommodation for species maximums.

I have been thinking a lot about trying to incorporate something like that into D&D...
Something I've been noodling with tangentially related to that is the idea of stat bonuses also giving a stat floor. Basicially, you roll 4d6k3 in order. Then you apply your racial bonuses, but if a stat you give a +1 bonus to is still less than 12, you make it a 12. If stat you give a +2 bonus to is still less than 14, make it a 14. Then your class gives a +3 bonus to its main stat, and it's still less than 16, you make it a 16. No stat can be higher than an 17 after bonuses (exception, a naturally rolled 18 can stay an 18).
 

gyor

Legend
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.
In 5e you can. If you take 50% Wizard (Bladesinger) and 50% Fighter (Eldrich Knight), you have more Spellcasting then a Paladin, and a load of useful combat and magic abilities. Go Eldrich Knight till level 5 then switch to Bladesinger for 5 levels, then decide if you want more EK or BS levels. Oh and get the Ritual Casting feat for more spellcasting.
 

fearsomepirate

Explorer
Generally speaking, multiclassing works fine in 5e when you are picking classes that have abilities that scale with level, synergize with other class abilities, or are level-independent. Upcasting spells also takes some of the bite out of losing your high-level spells, you just need to make sure to prepare/learn some spells that are actually worth upcasting. Hold Person with a 5th-level slot can be devastating...Magic Missile, not so much.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Something I've been noodling with tangentially related to that is the idea of stat bonuses also giving a stat floor. Basicially, you roll 4d6k3 in order. Then you apply your racial bonuses, but if a stat you give a +1 bonus to is still less than 12, you make it a 12. If stat you give a +2 bonus to is still less than 14, make it a 14. Then your class gives a +3 bonus to its main stat, and it's still less than 16, you make it a 16. No stat can be higher than an 17 after bonuses (exception, a naturally rolled 18 can stay an 18).
Am I reading this right - if a race has a +1 stat bonus then the effective racial minimum is set to 12, and +2 gives a racial minimum of 14?

Would this also apply to generic (as in, NPC or monster) members of said race?
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Am I reading this right - if a race has a +1 stat bonus then the effective racial minimum is set to 12, and +2 gives a racial minimum of 14?

Would this also apply to generic (as in, NPC or monster) members of said race?
Correct.

I mean, I guess it would, at least in terms of the narrative. Dwarves are tough, elves are dextrous, gnomes are smart, etc.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
Humans did get Dual Classing though. An interesting alternative that in some ways makes a little more sense. Choose a class until a certain point then completely refocus to another class. You throw yourself fully into it so that youdon’t get the class abilities of the first class until you surpass the first class in levels. I didn’t agree with you completely forgot how to be the first class for X levels but they had to make it distinctly different enough I guess.
Point of order: you never lost your abilities when dual-classing, though in some cases you wouldn't be able to use them effectively (a wizard dual-classing to a fighter wouldn't be able to cast spells if wearing armor). However, you were very heavily penalized for using those abilities - IIRC, you gained no XP for that particular encounter, and only half XP for the rest of the adventure.

This sort of makes sense – if you're trying to get good at fighting, you need to actually act like a fighter instead of a wizard.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
Currently I'm cautiously optimistic about the way Pathfinder 2 does multi-classing.

Essentially, a PF2 class consists of three elements.
  1. A set of proficiencies that advance at various levels. Your proficiency bonus when actually doing any of the things in which you are proficient is your level +2/4/6/8, depending on proficiency level. These are what make you competent at what you're supposed to be doing.
  2. Class features. These are things that make the class unique and that all class members have, though they may have different spins on it. These are things like the barbarian's Rage, the rogue's Sneak attack, or a wizard's spells.
  3. Class feats. These are optional abilities which you get every even level, and you usually get to pick from 2-6 ones (or you can choose a lower-level one). These are the things that differentiate different members of a class – one barbarian might channel the might of draconic spirits in order to breathe energy, while another performs mighty feats of athleticism.
Multi-classing consists of spending one of your class feats on doing so, and gives you a limited version of what a full member of that class can do. Multi-classing as a wizard gets you training in the Arcana skill, in arcane spell attacks and save DCs, and lets you cast cantrips. Multi-classing as a monk gets you Powerful Fist (your unarmed attacks deal more damage and become a viable weapon) and training in monk class DCs and either Acrobatics or Athletics.

You can then spend more class feats to gain more abilities from the other class. Essentially, you're giving up your definition as your main class in order to gain abilities from another class. But since your core math is based on your class proficiencies and class features, you will always be able to keep up. But instead of being the barbarian that breathes fire, you get to be the barbarian that casts spells. Instead of being the rogue that dashes across the battlefield without enemy blades touching them, you get to be the rogue that knows kung fu.
 

Connorsrpg

Adventurer
Funny. We have never had a problem with multi-classing. But we have rarely hit high level, and don't play 'league' or organised play (whatever that is called).

I have found 5E PCs tend to be fairly robust so multi-class don't seem to have cost them at all. Also helps, my players are not power-gamers and just build what they like. Some have even dipped into other classes as it suited the story as it played out in the campaign.

Interesting thoughts on the design though. I love these articles :)
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
In 5e you can. If you take 50% Wizard (Bladesinger) and 50% Fighter (Eldrich Knight), you have more Spellcasting then a Paladin, and a load of useful combat and magic abilities. Go Eldrich Knight till level 5 then switch to Bladesinger for 5 levels, then decide if you want more EK or BS levels. Oh and get the Ritual Casting feat for more spellcasting.
Right now I am combining bard (college of sword) 5 and rogue (Arcane trickster) 3 and just added sorcerer (divine soul) 1 because it was just fitting the story and I don't feel as if my char is inferior. No, I don't have highest level spells, no I don't do too much damage and not all abilities synergize... but in a two man party I bring a lot to the table. I am a jack of many traits.
 

Worrgrendel

Explorer
Point of order: you never lost your abilities when dual-classing, though in some cases you wouldn't be able to use them effectively (a wizard dual-classing to a fighter wouldn't be able to cast spells if wearing armor). However, you were very heavily penalized for using those abilities - IIRC, you gained no XP for that particular encounter, and only half XP for the rest of the adventure.

This sort of makes sense – if you're trying to get good at fighting, you need to actually act like a fighter instead of a wizard.
Its been a looooooong time since I physically played that edition (outside of replaying BG1 and BG2 again right now, and the computer version my have just simplified the rules for ease of implementation) and my memory isn't what it used to be so I will defer on that to you.

I definitely agree with your last take. You need to do more fightering if you want to be a good fighter. I liked Dual Classing but understand that it's not everyone's bread and butter.
 

Worrgrendel

Explorer
Right now I am combining bard (college of sword) 5 and rogue (Arcane trickster) 3 and just added sorcerer (divine soul) 1 because it was just fitting the story and I don't feel as if my char is inferior. No, I don't have highest level spells, no I don't do too much damage and not all abilities synergize... but in a two man party I bring a lot to the table. I am a jack of many traits.
Not entirely related, but my wife is playing a straight class Bladesinger and not multiclassing, but her character build is interesting (and works for our party) as she is the party tank, the party wizard, and the party rogue. She is an "evasion" tank with high AC and blur/mirror image (reminds me of the Ninja/Warrior class from FFO) plus the Sentinel feat for "stickiness", still has all the spells available as any wizard and can back off "tanking" and be more "wizardy" when the situation calls for it, and through her background has Thieve's Tools proficiency and decent stealth because of her DEX/INT build. She is definitely a jack of many traits in just a single class!
 

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