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5E Subclass System in 5e- Too Much, Too Little, or Just Right (GOLDILOCKS POLL!)

Hey, Goldilocks- is the Subclass System in 5e ....

  • A. Too Limiting

    Votes: 31 38.8%
  • B. Just Right

    Votes: 46 57.5%
  • C. Too Open

    Votes: 3 3.8%

  • Total voters
    80
  • Poll closed .

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
One of the defining traits of A Fifth of D&D (not to confused with either a Fifth of Beethoven or a Fifth of Bourbon, aka how I go to sleep every night during the pandemic) is the Class / Subclass system. While there are variations on it, for the most part it works like this:

A. You pick a class. Your class defines almost all of your abilities.

B. Then you get a subclass (or archetype). This provides some additional "flavor" or "ribbons" or "crunch" at certain points.

How the subclass impacts the class can vary. Here's a quick rundown:

Barbarian
Subclass features at 3, 6, 10, and 14.

Bard
Subclass features at 3, 6 and 14.

Cleric
Subclass features at 1, 2, 6, 8, and 17.

Druid
Subclass features at 2, 6, 10, and 14.

Fighter
Subclass features at 3, 7, 10, 15, and 18.

Monk
Subclass features at 3, 6, 11 and 17.

Paladin
Subclass features at 3, 7, 15 and 20.

Ranger
Subclass features at 3, 7, 11, and 15.

Rogue
Subclass features at 3, 9, 13, and 17.

Sorcerer
Subclass features at 1, 6, 14, and 18.

Warlock
Subclass features at 1, 6, 10, and 14 (Pact)
Other subclass at 3 (Boon)

Wizard
Subclass features at 2, 6, 10 and 14.


What observations can we draw from this?

1. 5e made a very deliberate decision regarding classes in terms of design. I listed all of the 5e classes, but with the exception of the Artificer and (kind of) the Blood Hunter, 5e, in terms of official classes, hasn't really expanded. As such, the design space in 5e is almost entirely in the subclasses, which is why we see so many released either officially or for playtest.

2. The actual space for design is fairly limited. It is limited first in terms of space/slots. That is why, for example, the new College of Spirits just released has the same 3/6/14 abilities shared by all Bard subclasses. But, more importantly, it is limited by power. That's why, for example, the 7th level "ability" of fighter subclasses is usually kind of lower-powered. You don't want any particular subclass to easily outshine the rest.

3. As a general rule, martial classes get subclasses at level 3, while spellcasters get subclasses at 1 & 2.

4. Finally, the Warlock (arguably) has the only real "twist" when it comes to sublclasses, having two choice points due to the Pact/Boon combination. I do not believe that mechanic is reflected in any other class (yes, I know Totem Barbarians can choose ....).


Anyway, I think that there is a definite elegance to the design, but I also think it can be limiting; after a while, many subclasses often just seem like coats of a paint on a house. Sure, the color on the outside is different, but it still has the same interior.

So I thought I'd put up a simple Goldilocks Poll and open this up for conversation.

Is the Subclass System in 5e:

A. Too limiting.
B. Just right.
C. Too open.

For (A) "too limiting" I mean that the subclass system artificially limits your options. That there should be more choice points.
For (C) "too open" I mean that there are too many choice points in subclasses, and you'd prefer to go to a classic class system, where different abilities are gained through different classes, not just new subclasses.

For those people who have a different answer (you want a gestalt system, you refuse to answer because you are allergic to gold, etc.) either pick the one closest to your answer and you can explain, or feel free to kvetch about the unfairness of it all in the comments. :)
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I marked it as "just right," because while some additional flexibility might be nice I'm enjoying the simplicity of 5E. I like that I can keep track of a character pencil-on-paper without using dedicated software.

Also, there's an argument (I think) that clerics get domain features every odd level through ninth, when they gain domain spells.
 



CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I maintain that the subclass system should be condensed and reorganized to make a little more sense (to me). I think that:
Barbarian, Monk, and Ranger should all be subclasses of Fighter.​
Bard should be a subclass of Rogue​
Druid and Paladin should both be subclasses of Cleric.​
Artificer, Sorcerer, and Warlock should all be subclasses of Wizard.​
 

ccs

40th lv DM
While a bit more wouldnt be unwelcome, overall I think its about right.

Definitely don't want less.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
4. Finally, the Warlock (arguably) has the only real "twist" when it comes to sublclasses, having two choice points due to the Pact/Boon combination. I do not believe that mechanic is reflected in any other class (yes, I know Totem Barbarians can choose ....).
I would argue that Fighting Style also fits this mold. Martial characters differ based on Fighting Style in a way that I think is comparable to the Pact Boon.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
I picked "Just Right" because previous editions were replete with false choices -- you could pick your feats/powers freely, but in practice, certain combinations naturally went well together and people would wind up picking those. The community even came up with names for common builds (like "spring attacker"). So I really like the way that 5e formalized these builds into subclasses and gave them a healthy dose of flavor text.

I think the real design failure here is feats, because most feats are not worth giving up +1 to your primary ability modifier. So people often just don't take the feats. The ones they do take (GWM, Polearm Master, Heavy Armor Master) have obvious synergy with class abilities; it's false choice all over again.
 

ZeshinX

Adventurer
I voted "Too limiting", though I find I'm more between Too Limiting and Just Right (and could just as easily have chosen Just Right).

I do enjoy the ease of access and ease of use of the subclass system in 5e, generally speaking. It gets the job done and has enough mechanical and flavour variety...but also find it somewhat narrow in that I find it difficult (not impossible) to tinker with those abilities. Some (sub)classes I find a little easier to tinker with than others.

One in particular I find annoyingly tricky is the Warlock due to their dual choice points. Again, I like the class overall, but I've wanted to experiment with options where the Pact is more prevalent than the Patron, but find that notoriously difficult to do, as the Patron impacts the class from Level 1, whereas the Pact only comes into play at Level 3. I suppose that's more an issue with the class rather than subclass, but it does present an annoying barrier. The real goal is to try and find means to explore the design space of the Pact, allowing it to be more than just a one-trick pony (for the most part), since as is, it seems rather inconsequential to the class as a whole. The Hexblade kinda/sorta did something in this space (since Pact of the Blade seems specific to it). While the subclass is quite good, it's quite sloppy in terms of actually using the Pact for something. So how the subclasses operate for the Warlock feel limiting to me, beyond being able to easily add more patrons.

I found the Cleric somewhat tricky initially as well, given their strong leaning on Channel Divinity, which is absolutely appropriate for the class. The particular example here for me was the 'extra attack' option "missing" from the War Domain cleric. Sure, they got the bonus attack option at 1st through the War Priest ability (limited to a number of times per day)...but for a cleric devoted to war (combat)...and when even a Bard can get the full extra attack...I wanted to houserule this so that the War domain cleric had this option at 6th level...but their Channel Divinity ability at 6th level was in the way. It also meant changing the War Priest ability. Ultimately though, I just decided that the Channel Divinity at 6th for a War domain cleric would be extra attack (thematically, it felt appropriate and didn't break anything)...sure it's not an activated thing, but again, the flavour trumped the design precedent for me and it didn't break anything (that my group noticed anyway). As far as the War Priest ability, I just made that Weapon Bond (a la Eldritch Knight), as that also feels thematically fitting (potent at 1st level, sure, but I think a War priest should always have a weapon available to them). Again, we found it didn't break much (or anything as yet).
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
I voted 'too limiting'.

The good side of the current implementation of the subclasses is that they're really simple to understand and learn. You have only a handful of features to keep in your head. It's also quite easy to shuffle through the ones available to your class and make a choice.

However, in my opinion, the reality is that there is such a big number of features that are barely impactful or just not exciting at all. My number one criticism of 5th edition is the lack of mechanical variety in characters. If more of the subclass features were really gamechangers, I'd probably be quite happy. The reality is that if you see two characters of a certain class/subclass combo, they will mechanically be the same. I think feats being sidetracked is also one of the causes of this problem.

I've delved in Starfinder and Pathfinder 2E in the last six months and I was blown away by how my players had more choices when creating their Starfinder characters at level 1 than their whole level one to twenty in D&D (for some classes). I also think Pathfinder 2E has hit something very interesting with the racial feats, and general feats, and class feats where it offers you options often, but never overwhelms you will a humongous list of feats.

So, something similar in 5E where you'd get to choose between certain features, or through a specific list of feats for your subclass would definitely be great. Oh, and a revamp of some boring or unimpactful features.

However, I still think the current implementation of class/subclasses of 5E has more advantages than disadvantages. It's a problem for me on the long term, but it serves the game well.
 

Parmandur

Legend
I voted just right, though it would be better if all Subclasses were locked in at Level 1, and the Warlock is a bit too messy.
 

ZeshinX

Adventurer
I also find there's a certain "broken record" aspect to most subclasses.

Templating is great, as it allows for easier (and possibly quicker) design...but it does show a tendency to stagnation. Not destructively necessarily, just with uninspiring results.

Take the Cleric. At 8th level, they all get either Potent Spellcasting or Divine Strike. Great abilities otherwise, but ALL Cleric subclasses do one or the other. I've not yet seen one released domain that broke from that (even the UA Blessed Strikes option practically just marries the two options into one). Templating is nice, but for a game that explores imagination, this is disappointing (and boring).

Keeping the format of subclasses gaining things at specific levels is great, but many of them already seem stagnant and repetitive.
 
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I maintain that the subclass system should be condensed and reorganized to make a little more sense (to me). I think that
I reject that position, and renounce the clear demonic influence of Grazzt that leads you to advocate it...😈.....jokes aside: I disagree...strenuously!

I find the tripartite structure of a character: Class/Subclass/Background(including Race here) is both broadly modular and capable of being further refined and defined through use of Feats, and
quotidien selections like spell selection, weapon selection, Wildshape form selection etc.

This is before localized campaign factors....things like a DM giving the role playing hook that people with the a Healer feat trained with the Maesters of Oldtown, for example, even come into play.

The system, largely, produces characters that are unique, allow the player to make meaningful choices from a manageable list of options and still retain parity with other PCs, and is, overall relatively, quick in terms of time invested.

I like that there are many different avenues to approach a design goal in 5e.

Knights of Solamnia could be represented as an organization like the Order of the Gauntlet in the Forgotten Realms, or like Guilds in Ravinica, or even as a subclass available to Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers.
One does not need to build bespoke 'classes' like in prior editions.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Most classes are too limiting. Warlock is just right. Between Patron, Pact Boon, and Invocations, I feel like I can actually make warlocks that feel meaningfully different from each other. Every other class, with subclass being the only point of differentiation and subclass abilities being fixed and several levels apart, feel extremely boring.
 

jmartkdr2

Adventurer
I voted too limiting, but that's not quite the right way to phrase what I mean.

I wish they left just a bit more design space to subclasses, so that the subclass could have a little more impact. That would allow a lot more variety without a lot of added complexity, because you wouldn't need to balance individual subclass features quite so tightly.

But that's not my biggest issue with the 5e uses classes, and overall I really like the game.
 

jmartkdr2

Adventurer
I maintain that the subclass system should be condensed and reorganized to make a little more sense (to me). I think that:
Barbarian, Monk, and Ranger should all be subclasses of Fighter.​
Bard should be a subclass of Rogue​
Druid and Paladin should both be subclasses of Cleric.​
Artificer, Sorcerer, and Warlock should all be subclasses of Wizard.​
I see this suggestion a lot, but I never understood how it would improve the game to switch. To me, it looks like just adding a layer of taxonomy to the classes.
 

I also find there's a certain "broken record" aspect to most subclasses.
That is more an artifact of the designers and the design process, than something inherent to the system.
The Psi Die mechanic was rejected by the playtest community, in part for being different.
The published Oath of Glory Paladin subclass was rejected by some on this board as being "Weak", when the published version focused on enhancing movement and granting Temp HP,
instead of being the Oath of Elven Crit-fishing it was initially in U/A.

The loudest voices in the D&D room are often those that prefer the reassurance of an extra 5% chance to score a critical hit, or a straight damage boost, then other options. Options to boost others are routinely less well regarded then options that boost solo DPS.
The particular example here for me was the 'extra attack' option "missing" from the War Domain cleric.
As someone that remembers 2e Warpiests, (either through Kit or through the FR Warpriest of Tempus), dominated and outshone Fighters, Paladins and Rangers, I appreciate the restraint shown in 5e.

A 5e War domain cleric has two methods of securing an Extra Attack like feature: War Priest or Spiritual Weapon....both are bonus actions.
 

ZeshinX

Adventurer
That is more an artifact of the designers and the design process, than something inherent to the system.
The Psi Die mechanic was rejected by the playtest community, in part for being different.
The published Oath of Glory Paladin subclass was rejected by some on this board as being "Weak", when the published version focused on enhancing movement and granting Temp HP,
instead of being the Oath of Elven Crit-fishing it was initially in U/A.

The loudest voices in the D&D room are often those that prefer the reassurance of an extra 5% chance to score a critical hit, or a straight damage boost, then other options. Options to boost others are routinely less well regarded then options that boost solo DPS.

As someone that remembers 2e Warpiests, either through Kit or through the FR Warpriest of Tempus, dominated and outshone Fighters, Paladins and Rangers, I appreciate the restraint shown in 5e.

A 5e War domain cleric has two methods of securing an Extra Attack like feature: War Priest or Spiritual Weapon....both are bonus actions.
Oh I see (and appreciate) very much WotC designing the Cleric to avoid, I'd say almost specifically, re-creating the monster that was the 3.x cleric (earlier editions as well, to be sure, but 3.x exponentially proved that reality). They've just moved it from the cleric to the bard as I see it with 5e.

And indeed, yes, offering different designs is often lamented, as I find it is those who very much lean on the "build" mentality that shout down such different ideas, as it confounds their spreadsheets and calculations. Obviously not unique to "builders", but I dare say they are the most vocal in those situations.

Clearly I have no love for those who favour "builds", but their opinion is as valued as any others, and their feedback is just as meaningful and useful for the game.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I voted "Too Limiting" in regard to my own personal needs, although I'd vote either "Just Right" or "Too Open" for 5E in regard to the entire player base. (I think either the current system or a system with lots of simple classes and discussion of how to reskin them would be best for the game as a whole.)

For my own preferences, I'd rather see one of two approaches:

1) Highly customizable, front-loaded character choices. Character building is a core part of the game, and campaigns revolve around challenging your character in multiple scenarios. Almost all core abilities are available upon character creation, and leveling up just makes you tougher and gives upgraded versions of your core capabilities. Closer to a supers game in feel than a zero-to-hero.

2) Focus on character growth and development through play, not on character build. Creation choices are constrained, between 1-3 choices made at start, gated through class or race/ancestry or background concepts. Reskin as needed. Character capabilities are gained through acquisition and training; mostly discovered via chance during gameplay, not choice.
 

commandercrud

Adventurer
More subclasses doesn't give more options, it actually limits them by making each so specific that it pigeonholes the player. The original 4 classes are all you need. Want to be a ranger? Play a fighter and wear leather and carry a bow and take the Survival skill. Want to be a paladin? Play a fighter/cleric. Want to be a barbarian? Be a naked fighter and yell a lot.
 

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