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5.5E Theory of Class Design

Paul Smart

Explorer
When thinking of a class design, the designer must answer these central questions.

What is my character concept?
What do you do?
How do you do it?
What stat do you use?

Character concept is what you envision your character to be. It can be almost anything.

For Example:

A tough frontline fighter using a sword and shield
A knight in shining armour
A sneaky assassin
An exiled barbarian chief
A spymaster
An old wizard who lives in a tower

What do you do breaks down into the following:
Note: Pick 2 of these

  • Damage Dealer
  • Tank
  • Battlefield Control
  • Support (non-heal buffing, enhancement, divination, etc.; all distinct from battlefield control)
  • Skill Expert (pick locks, sneak, create things etc.)
  • Sage (you know things)
  • Face (good in social situations)
  • Healer
  • Explorer
How do you do it breaks down into the following:
Note: One primary and one secondary

  • Use Weapons - Strength or Dexterity or Intelligence
  • Use Technology - Intelligence or Wisdom or Dexterity
  • Use Arcane Magic - Intelligence or Wisdom or Constitution - Primary Full Caster Secondary 1/2 Caster
  • Use Divine Magic - Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma - Primary Full Caster Secondary 1/2 Caster
  • Use Psychic Power - Intelligence or Wisdom or Constitution - Primary Full Caster Secondary 1/2 Caster
  • Use Yourself - Constitution or Charisma
  • Use other creatures - Any stat
(For example, Warlord with Troops, Necromancer with the undead, Druid with animals)

Stats are straightforward - the standard 6.

Newer players have some pre-built classes. For more advanced players, make your own.

For example:

Pre Built Fighter:
What do they do? Tank and Damage Dealer
How do they do it? Use weapons and use Technology
What stat do they use? Chose 1 for Weapons Use and 1 for Technology

For Example:
Chooses Strength for Heavy Armour and Weapons and selects Intelligence for Technology.
They see themself as a Heavy Armed combat Engineer.

Chooses Dexterity for Light Armour and Missle Weapons and selects Dexterity for Technology.
They see themself as a sniper.

Pre Built Paladin

What do they do? Tank and Damage Dealer
How do they do it? Use weapons (primary) Use Divine Magic (Secondary)
What stats do they use? Chose 1 from Weapons Use and 1 from Divine Magic

For Example:
Chooses Strength for Heavy Armour and Weapons and Wisdom for Divine Magic
They see themself as an elite religious warrior.

Pre Built War Priest

What do they do? Healer and Damage Dealer
How do they do it? Lead Troops (primary) Use Divine Magic (Secondary)
What stats do they use? Choose 1 from Leading Troops and 1 from Divine Magic

Example
Chooses Charisma for Leading Troops and Charisma for Divine Magic
They see themself as a Devoted Religious Leader using Divine Miracles to inspire their troops

Pre Built Mage:

What do they do? Battlefield Control and Sage
How do they do it? Arcane Magic (primary) and Leading Troops (summoning) (secondary)
What stats do they use? Choose 1 for using Arcane Magic and 1 for Leading Troops.

Example:
Use Intelligence for using Arcane Magic and Cha for controlling the arcane creatures they summon and consult. They see themself as a Sage conversing with other planes of existence.


Custom Built Wizard:
What do they do? Sage and Skill Expert
How do they do it? Use Arcane Magic and Use Psychic Power
What stats do they use? Choose 1 for using Arcane Magic and 1 for using Psychic Power.

Example:
Uses Wisdom for spell casting (Wizard means wise one) and Intelligence for Skill Use. They see themself as an expert archeologist and treasure hunter.

Custom Built Blood Mage:

What do they do? Damage and Battlefield Control
How do they do it? Use Arcane Magic and Lead Troops
What stats do they use? Choose 1 for using Arcane Magic and 1 for Leading Troops.

Example:
Uses Con for Arcane Magic (they fuel it with their blood) and Intelligence to lead their undead hoards. They see themself as a necromancer.

Custom Built Warlord:

What do they do? Damage and Battlefield Control
How do they do it? Lead Troops (primary) and Use Weapons (Secondary)
What stat do they use? Choose 1 for Leading Troops and One for using Weapons.

Example:

Chooses Intelligence for leading troops and selects Dexterity for Light Armour and Missle Weapons. They see themself as a Tactician and Scout Leader.

Chooses Charisma for Leading Troops and selects Strength for Heavy Armour and Heavy Weapons. They see themself as a Charismatic Captain leading from the front.

Note: Edited with expanded lists and an additional question based on feedback.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
A couple of issues with this.

First, before you even have any of the questions, you have the more general "what do we need to tell the stories" - the archetypes of the heroes and villians. How you sort them, into the same or different hats, will make a large impact on your first questions. For example D&D separated arcane and divine back in the earliest edition. What if that was just magic, but things like ranged vs. melee in combat were separated out. 5e fighter, ranger, rogue would look very different.

And this is just one way. A single edition back we broke up by a list of combat roles and by power source - martial, arcane, divine, primal, etc.

You need to have a design philosophy before you can make meaningful choices to the first question.

The second question has a few warts. First, based off it's wargaming roots, D&D has always had that every character can contribute roughly equally in combat. So you need to be able to balance a number of different points from this list, plus the ones that have gotten left off it like action denial, crowd control, and the like. And to balance you need to be able to pick not some static number, but fractions of many of them. How those fractions have are represented can change mechanically - this one has some control by having limited usage or targeting, this one also has some control but it does it by making it soft control instead of hard.

But it's also been a team game, where characters can't do everything themselves. So trying to pick these out in a vacuum is not D&D.

And then, all classes are supposed to have features in various other pillars of play. That needs to come from a separate pool than from combat - that's a failing design pattern we've learned from games like Mechwarrior. The quick of that is that your starting mech, your skills pilotting a mech, and everything else that you do in an RPG come from the same pool. You can and will end up with a party where half of them are gods on the hexes and the DM can't challenge them without killing the rest of the party, and the same half are likely to kill themselves the first time they try to drive or do anything else remotely dangerous out of their mechs. Protecting people from shooting themselves in the foot is an important aspect of character creation, especially in a game that wants to attract new roleplayers like D&D always has.

Which brings us back to new player friendliness. Roll some states, pick background, race, and class, is already a challenge at time. Especially for people who aren't joining existing groups but trying to pull themselves up just by reading. Having to juggle the value of a large amount of options, and how the interact with other options, isn't really on the table. It's why feats and multiclassing are optional - to reduce starting complexity.

What you have may work for a more crunchy RPG, but it doesn't meet that simplicity test for new players, even with a couple of pre-built archetypes.
 

A couple of issues with this.

First, before you even have any of the questions, you have the more general "what do we need to tell the stories" - the archetypes of the heroes and villians. How you sort them, into the same or different hats, will make a large impact on your first questions. For example D&D separated arcane and divine back in the earliest edition. What if that was just magic, but things like ranged vs. melee in combat were separated out. 5e fighter, ranger, rogue would look very different.

And this is just one way. A single edition back we broke up by a list of combat roles and by power source - martial, arcane, divine, primal, etc.

You need to have a design philosophy before you can make meaningful choices to the first question.

The second question has a few warts. First, based off it's wargaming roots, D&D has always had that every character can contribute roughly equally in combat. So you need to be able to balance a number of different points from this list, plus the ones that have gotten left off it like action denial, crowd control, and the like. And to balance you need to be able to pick not some static number, but fractions of many of them. How those fractions have are represented can change mechanically - this one has some control by having limited usage or targeting, this one also has some control but it does it by making it soft control instead of hard.

But it's also been a team game, where characters can't do everything themselves. So trying to pick these out in a vacuum is not D&D.

And then, all classes are supposed to have features in various other pillars of play. That needs to come from a separate pool than from combat - that's a failing design pattern we've learned from games like Mechwarrior. The quick of that is that your starting mech, your skills pilotting a mech, and everything else that you do in an RPG come from the same pool. You can and will end up with a party where half of them are gods on the hexes and the DM can't challenge them without killing the rest of the party, and the same half are likely to kill themselves the first time they try to drive or do anything else remotely dangerous out of their mechs. Protecting people from shooting themselves in the foot is an important aspect of character creation, especially in a game that wants to attract new roleplayers like D&D always has.

Which brings us back to new player friendliness. Roll some states, pick background, race, and class, is already a challenge at time. Especially for people who aren't joining existing groups but trying to pull themselves up just by reading. Having to juggle the value of a large amount of options, and how the interact with other options, isn't really on the table. It's why feats and multiclassing are optional - to reduce starting complexity.

What you have may work for a more crunchy RPG, but it doesn't meet that simplicity test for new players, even with a couple of pre-built archetypes.
More important questions are what sort of thematic archetype the class represents and what sort of mechanics would evoke it.
do you guys mean what is the fantasy that we wish to invoke?
 


Paul Smart

Explorer
My first question would be:
is the three pillars still the three pillars of the game?
If they do, how can we adjust existing classes to be more efficient and implicated in the three pillars.

That is an excellent question, Krachek. A character should be good at 2 of the 3 pillars, one being primary and one being secondary—that way, no one character can do it all. For example, a Fighter might be good at combat (primary) and exploration (secondary). A Paladin might be good at combat (primary) and social encounters (secondary). A ranger might put exploration as their primary while a bard might put social.
 

payn

Legend
That is an excellent question, Krachek. A character should be good at 2 of the 3 pillars, one being primary and one being secondary—that way, no one character can do it all. For example, a Fighter might be good at combat (primary) and exploration (secondary). A Paladin might be good at combat (primary) and social encounters (secondary). A ranger might put exploration as their primary while a bard might put social.
I'd prefer all classes can do things in all three pillars. Instead of worrying about one class/character that does everything, Id focus on classes doing everything, but differently. That way you dont have people sitting out any part of the game.
 

HammerMan

Legend
That is an excellent question, Krachek. A character should be good at 2 of the 3 pillars, one being primary and one being secondary—that way, no one character can do it all. For example, a Fighter might be good at combat (primary) and exploration (secondary). A Paladin might be good at combat (primary) and social encounters (secondary). A ranger might put exploration as their primary while a bard might put social.
Interesting theory (I would love to see it played out) but in a game system that isn't 33.3% each pillar how does it work out? I mean I would say most campaigns I have seen are closer to (and yes these numbers are both made up and situational) 60% combat 30% exploration 10% social
 

That is an excellent question, Krachek. A character should be good at 2 of the 3 pillars, one being primary and one being secondary—that way, no one character can do it all. For example, a Fighter might be good at combat (primary) and exploration (secondary). A Paladin might be good at combat (primary) and social encounters (secondary). A ranger might put exploration as their primary while a bard might put social.
I think that today, the trend is that no one want to be left behind in any aspect of the game. Two out of three is not enough!
 

Paul Smart

Explorer
A couple of issues with this.

First, before you even have any of the questions, you have the more general "what do we need to tell the stories" - the archetypes of the heroes and villians. How you sort them, into the same or different hats, will make a large impact on your first questions. For example D&D separated arcane and divine back in the earliest edition. What if that was just magic, but things like ranged vs. melee in combat were separated out. 5e fighter, ranger, rogue would look very different.

And this is just one way. A single edition back we broke up by a list of combat roles and by power source - martial, arcane, divine, primal, etc.

You need to have a design philosophy before you can make meaningful choices to the first question.
Hi Blue

Thanks for responding. The purpose of this thread is to generate discussion and refine my ideas. You bring up a great question. For me, the big five would be:

  • Arcane Magic
  • Divine Magic
  • Psychic Power
  • Physical Combat - subsections Melee with weapons, Hand to Hand, Ranged
  • Skills

Is there anything you would add to this?

The second question has a few warts. First, based off it's wargaming roots, D&D has always had that every character can contribute roughly equally in combat. So you need to be able to balance a number of different points from this list, plus the ones that have gotten left off it like action denial, crowd control, and the like. And to balance you need to be able to pick not some static number, but fractions of many of them. How those fractions have are represented can change mechanically - this one has some control by having limited usage or targeting, this one also has some control but it does it by making it soft control instead of hard.
While you are correct that D&D is based off of wargaming, I remember chainmail and the first box sets; I'm not at all convinced that every character should be able to contribute roughly equally in combat. Characters should contribute to combat, but a fighter should be better at it's their primary skillset. A ranger should be able to contribute to combat but will take the lead in exploration encounters. Have a skilled expert like a rogue take point if you want to deal with bobby traps or locked doors. As you say, it is a team game, and you need a team with different abilities to be effective. Every character should have something that they are specialized in (their primary skillset) and something that they are OK at (their secondary skillset).

But it's also been a team game, where characters can't do everything themselves. So trying to pick these out in a vacuum is not D&D.

And then, all classes are supposed to have features in various other pillars of play. That needs to come from a separate pool than from combat - that's a failing design pattern we've learned from games like Mechwarrior. The quick of that is that your starting mech, your skills pilotting a mech, and everything else that you do in an RPG come from the same pool. You can and will end up with a party where half of them are gods on the hexes and the DM can't challenge them without killing the rest of the party, and the same half are likely to kill themselves the first time they try to drive or do anything else remotely dangerous out of their mechs. Protecting people from shooting themselves in the foot is an important aspect of character creation, especially in a game that wants to attract new roleplayers like D&D always has.
Yes, it is a team game. That is why you need different characters with different skillsets. See above for more detail.

Which brings us back to new player friendliness. Roll some states, pick background, race, and class, is already a challenge at time. Especially for people who aren't joining existing groups but trying to pull themselves up just by reading. Having to juggle the value of a large amount of options, and how the interact with other options, isn't really on the table. It's why feats and multiclassing are optional - to reduce starting complexity.

What you have may work for a more crunchy RPG, but it doesn't meet that simplicity test for new players, even with a couple of pre-built archetypes.

As I am keeping all the classes that have already been published as examples, I do not think it will be any more complicated than it already is. For more advanced players who want to make their own unique class, they now have that option.
 

Paul Smart

Explorer
I think that today, the trend is that no one want to be left behind in any aspect of the game. Two out of three is not enough!

I can totally agree with that Krachek, but no one class or character should be equally good at everything. My character might not be a bard or any other sort of social butterfly, but they can still talk and negotiate. If there is a bard in the party then they take the lead, and I support them by using the help action. Another possibility is my character is off doing something different that they are good at. The bard is negotiating for our supplies, the fighter is creating a new suit of armour as they are a skilled smith, and the mage is researching in the library. Everything is either settled with a few quick rolls and the party gets back together or we have separate scenes between games and then the party gets back together.
 

payn

Legend
I can totally agree with that Krachek, but no one class or character should be equally good at everything. My character might not be a bard or any other sort of social butterfly, but they can still talk and negotiate. If there is a bard in the party then they take the lead, and I support them by using the help action. Another possibility is my character is off doing something different that they are good at. The bard is negotiating for our supplies, the fighter is creating a new suit of armour as they are a skilled smith, and the mage is researching in the library. Everything is either settled with a few quick rolls and the party gets back together or we have separate scenes between games and then the party gets back together.
Not equally good, but everyone should be able to do things in every pillar. Beyond aid another, or go do something they can do for awhile.

Perhaps the fighter gets information at the local barracks or merc guild. The Bard hits the local taverns and play houses. The Wizard goes to the magic shop or mages tower. Etc.. Each class has some type of in with people and places they can do similar things. Take this example and just run with it.
 

HammerMan

Legend
I can totally agree with that Krachek, but no one class or character should be equally good at everything. My character might not be a bard or any other sort of social butterfly, but they can still talk and negotiate. If there is a bard in the party then they take the lead, and I support them by using the help action. Another possibility is my character is off doing something different that they are good at. The bard is negotiating for our supplies, the fighter is creating a new suit of armour as they are a skilled smith, and the mage is researching in the library. Everything is either settled with a few quick rolls and the party gets back together or we have separate scenes between games and then the party gets back together.

where I agree we should not all have the same skills, I think you miss the point. We should be able to CHOOSE to sit out of a pillar, but never be a loadstone by choosing to participate in it... but they can have different ways to contribute.

The wizard doesn't swing a greaat axe like a barbarian, the rogue doesn't throw a fireball like the wizard, but both still have there own tricks and class abilities for a fight.
 

I can totally agree with that Krachek, but no one class or character should be equally good at everything. My character might not be a bard or any other sort of social butterfly, but they can still talk and negotiate. If there is a bard in the party then they take the lead, and I support them by using the help action. Another possibility is my character is off doing something different that they are good at. The bard is negotiating for our supplies, the fighter is creating a new suit of armour as they are a skilled smith, and the mage is researching in the library. Everything is either settled with a few quick rolls and the party gets back together or we have separate scenes between games and then the party gets back together.
in combat all classes are useful. they may fight with different role, have strength and weakness but they are all useful.
in social and exploration it should be the same.
 

Hmm. Let's use this with my Summoner class concept (which is still VERY much a work-in-progress).

What is my character concept? Well, it's in the name: Summoner. One who calls the aid of otherworldly beings.
What do you do? Battlefield control; subclass determines secondary role (tank-or-damage, support, skill expert)
How do you do it? Use other creatures (Cha), use arcane magic (Cha).
What stat do you use? Charisma primary. Subclasses set secondary stat (Con, Wis, or Dex).

I've been building it using the Warlock chassis. The pact-vs-patron split manifests as "astral sign" vs "planar bond."

The Summoner has formed a bond with an extraplanar being called a Visitant; when that being manifests in the world for the first time, begins to manifest traits reflecting its origin: currently Elemental, Celestial, or Umbral. These Planar Bonds do not make them actually the same as celestial or elemental beings of the material plane. Visitants are always eldritch creatures from Beyond, they just may demonstrate that they come from planes with certain affinities. Elemental entities can resemble actual elementals, or other creatures with strong elemental affiliations, like dragons or genies. Celestial ones may resemble a variety of overall "friendly" outsiders, but they have very alien views about existence and thus can sometimes be antagonistic due to misunderstandings. Umbral beings are the darkest parts, the stuff usually associated with undeath or the Far Realm.

Further, each Summoner chooses a particular arcane geometry of stars--an Astral Sign--that shapes the way they interact with their Visitant. Those who use the Sign of the Chimaera bring the Visitant's power into themselves, bonding with it and becoming greater than the sum of the parts. Those who follow the Sign of the Muses learn how to use their magic to enhance both their Visitant and their other allies. And those who follow the Sign of the Protean learn how to adapt to almost any situation, preserving the fluidity and adaptability of their Visitant.

The Summoner gets Evolutions instead of Invocations, but they function similarly. Some Evolutions have level requirements, or require a particular Astral Sign or Planar Bond. Frex, nes that improve weapon damage or survivability would require the Sign of the Chimaera, while an evolution that permits a "dragon breath" attack might require the Elemental Planar Bond.

As noted, being Warlock-based, it would have short-rest spell slots, and Esoteric Asterisms for casting one spell each of levels 6th-9th each day. The core focus of the class would be on intelligently leveraging the abilities of the Visitant; the Summoner alone is relatively weak, and the Visitant alone is fragile and relatively inflexible. Only together can they truly achieve greatness.
 
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in combat all classes are useful. they may fight with different role, have strength and weakness but they are all useful.
in social and exploration it should be the same.
Agreed.

The way I like to say it is, everyone should have a meaningful contribution to make regardless of what pillar of play is currently in focus. That contribution does not need to be dramatic, but the player should always be able to point out at least one thing they can contribute that "matters" to some extent. (E.g., a Wizard throwing darts is not really making a meaningful contribution to combat, sorry early-edition fans!)

It can of course be a bit fraught to tell where the line between mattering and not-mattering falls. But I am definitely of the opinion that every class should at least eventually get at least one explicit Thing they can do in every pillar. Further, whatever that explicit Thing is, it must be more than just "you can use the generic mechanics everyone else has access to." AKA "you have skills, roll them!" is not enough, because everyone can roll skills--but Expertise (a la Rogue or Bard) or specialized features (e.g. look at Redemption Paladin) may be enough.
 

payn

Legend
It breaks down further when you think about 2/3 pillar design. It means everyone needs to be good in combat, but what if a class isnt? "Oh a combat? Fighter go take care of that while I scribe me some scrolls..." Nobody would be ok with that.
 

Paul Smart

Explorer
It breaks down further when you think about 2/3 pillar design. It means everyone needs to be good in combat, but what if a class isnt? "Oh a combat? Fighter go take care of that while I scribe me some scrolls..." Nobody would be ok with that.

I can understand that. Maybe I am not explaining things properly.

If anyone has played any of the White Wolf games, you chose primary, secondary, and tertiary attributes. Tertiary would be like a 10 to 12 stat (say strength), the secondary would be like a 14 -16 and the primary would be like an 18-20. So a front-line character like a fighter would be combat primary, chooses exploration secondary and social tertiary. A Bard might be Social primary, combat secondary and exploration tertiary. Does this make sense? Everyone can do everything but some are better at certain things while others are better at different things.
 

Scribe

Hero
in combat all classes are useful. they may fight with different role, have strength and weakness but they are all useful.
in social and exploration it should be the same.
Useful, or different, to various degrees.

Not everything should be as effective at hitting things.
Not everything should be as effective at doing damage, or taking damage.

Just as not every class should have the tools to perform exploration to the degree a Ranger would, or bluff, like a Bard or Rogue.

I worry that this push to have everyone be 'useful', can very easily push into 'homogenous' territory.
 

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