Understanding WOTC's class design guidelines and subclass acquisition

Greg K

Adventurer
In various episodes of Mike Mearls's Happy Fun Hour, he revealed WOTC's class guidelines including the level of subclass acquisition. Below I have listed key episodes (for those that want to watch the episodes) and summarized key points. Also, in the Kraken Sorcerer episode, he reveals that some classes break these guidelines, because they were completed before the guidelines were finalized.

1/30/18 Kraken Sorcerer
2/16/18 Rogue Acrobat
3/16/18 Fighter Warlord
4/4/18 Thief Acrobat (at the start) and Barbarian Maurader see approx 24:02
9/11/18 Ranger Vigilante (Urban Ranger)

Key Points
1. Players should be playing the character they want to play at first level (Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18; 19:58). "We don't want you want you to feel like you have to wait to play the character that you want to play. We want you to feel you are playing the character as early as possible,preferably, 1st level. Then, as you gain levels, you gain more fun stuff to add to that character You are already playing what you want to play and then you just get more toys to play with as your character gets more abilities" (Happy Fun Hour 4/4/18 24:02-24:25).

2. Core class abilities should be something that all character of the class would want. The core class should allow you to portray the character you want "without gaining abilities that you stop using, feel are irrelevant, or go against what your character is" (Happy Fun Hour: Fighter Warlord 3/16/18 11:50).

3. A core class with a subclass at 3rd level means that "the core class identity is much more distinct, much stronger, and impactful on the character" ("Acrobat Rogue". Happy Fun Hour 2/6/18) which was also stated in Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18 (18:58). For example, all rogues pretty much use the same armor, similar weapons. They look the same and are good with skills, but the subclass is how they specialize ("Acrobat Rogue". Happy Fun Hour 2/6/18).

In contrast, a core class with a subclass at first level is "defined by the subclass and is driven by it"- a god of time and a god of war are very distinct and do very different things ("Acrobat Rogue". Happy Fun Hour 2/6/18). Having your class grant a subclass at first level means this how you want to present your self from the start (Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18; 18:48)

4. Taking a subclass should not "fundamentally change your character in a seemingly non-sensical way when you gain your subclass" (Happy Fun Hour 4/4 about 23:20), but further augment the concept. For example, when taking your subclass, you should not be changing your equipment (Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18; 19:22). The Valor Bard breaks this and Mike said that the Bard should have had its subclass at first level (Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18; 22:10).

5. Given the above, core classes that receive their subclass at 3rd level should be "seeded with enough options at first and second level" to avoid an "awkward transformation" (Happy Fun Hour Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18 21:16).

When coming up with his Vigilante (a.k.a Urban Ranger) subclass (Happy Hour 9/11/18), Mike ran into the problem that the Ranger class itself had no features or options supporting an urban environment. This meant that a player wanting the subclass would be stuck with wilderness abilities that did not fit the concept before finally acquiring the subclass. This meant that the player did not get to play the character concept from the beginning and would then be stuck with unwanted features. Therefore, it broke 1 and 2 in my accumulated list. It would would lead to an "awkward transformation". To rectify the issue, he created new options and a variant feature.
 
All this tells us is WotC ignores it's own rules.
4. Taking a subclass should not "fundamentally change your character in a seemingly non-sensical way when you gain your subclass"
The UA Revived rogue doesn't just break the rule, it annihilates it, by transforming into something completely different at third level.

Now, my feeling is the Revived Rogue will never make it into print, but the rule is also broken by the already in print Artificer. Just like the Valour Bard the Battlesmith gains martial weapons proficiency at 3rd level.
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
I believe he said something about how these guidelines weren't in place right off the bat which is why they have valor bard feeling a little off by suddenly gaining better armour and weapon proficiencies at level 3.
 
I believe he said something about how these guidelines weren't in place right off the bat which is why they have valor bard feeling a little off by suddenly gaining better armour and weapon proficiencies at level 3.
They where certainly "in place" when the Artificer and Revived where designed.

Unless they have already been discarded - all those references are from 2018.
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
All this tells us is WotC ignores it's own rules.

The UA Revived rogue doesn't just break the rule, it annihilates it, by transforming into something completely different at third level.

Now, my feeling is the Revived Rogue will never make it into print, but the rule is also broken by the already in print Artificer. Just like the Valour Bard the Battlesmith gains martial weapons proficiency at 3rd level.
Although it is broken, the artificer class has enough options at first level and is designed in a way, that such a transformation is not completely unjustified.
I think adding weapons is a lot less problematic than adding armor. Every weapon concept can be done with simple weapons and martial weapons are just a small upgrade.
Heavy armor and light armor use fundamentally different stats.

I also believe, the next book will contain options for all classes.
It is easy to make an urban ranger just allowing "city" as favoured terrain.
An eldritch knight could have a spellcasting fighting style. A warlord a warlordy one.
A bard could be allowed to chose int over cha as spellcasting attribute.
 

Greg K

Adventurer
All this tells us is WotC ignores it's own rules.

The UA Revived rogue doesn't just break the rule, it annihilates it, by transforming into something completely different at third level.

Now, my feeling is the Revived Rogue will never make it into print, but the rule is also broken by the already in print Artificer. Just like the Valour Bard the Battlesmith gains martial weapons proficiency at 3rd level.
You are not going to get any argument from me about them ignoring their own guidelines. In my opinion, they also ignored 2 and 5 on my list with the Scout Rogue when they decided it is the non-spellcasting ranger. They also did it again with the Swashbuckler Rogue.
From what I recall, part of the reason for assigning those subclasses to the rogue had to do with the rogue being the light armored skilled class while the Fighter is the heavy armor class and trained in a wider variety of weapons. However, in doing so and not providing new options variants for the base class, they stuck those archetypes with Thieves Cant and Thieves Tools which do not fit the archetypes for many wilderness specialist warrior types or swashbucklers in film or literature. For the Scout, they should have also provided official suggestions to swap some skills (Yes, a DM can house rule this, but many new DMs, in my experience, don't feel comfortable making such changes. Also, from my understanding Adventures League players would need official options).
Then again, as far back as the playtest, I have found the class design of the design team to be short-sighted and kind of "sloppy" (for the lack of a better term at 2;15 am).
 
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Although it is broken, the artificer class has enough options at first level and is designed in a way, that such a transformation is not completely unjustified.
I think adding weapons is a lot less problematic than adding armor. Every weapon concept can be done with simple weapons and martial weapons are just a small upgrade.
Heavy armor and light armor use fundamentally different stats.

I also believe, the next book will contain options for all classes.
It is easy to make an urban ranger just allowing "city" as favoured terrain.
An eldritch knight could have a spellcasting fighting style. A warlord a warlordy one.
A bard could be allowed to chose int over cha as spellcasting attribute.
True, I don't think the artificer is "wrong". I'm suggesting that the idea that WotC has these pinned up on a wall somewhere is wrong. It seems more like Mearls' personal philosophy.
 

tetrasodium

Adventurer
3. A core class with a subclass at 3rd level means that "the core class identity is much more distinct, much stronger, and impactful on the character" ("Acrobat Rogue". Happy Fun Hour 2/6/18) which was also stated in Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18 (18:58). For example, all rogues pretty much use the same armor, similar weapons. They look the same and are good with skills, but the subclass is how they specialize ("Acrobat Rogue". Happy Fun Hour 2/
In contrast, a core class with a subclass at first level is "defined by the subclass and is driven by it"- a god of time and a god of war are very distinct and do very different things ("Acrobat Rogue". Happy Fun Hour 2/6/18). Having your class grant a subclass at first level means this how you want to present your self from the start (Happy Fun Hour: Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18; 18:48)

5. Given the above, core classes that receive their subclass at 3rd level should be "seeded with enough options at first and second level" to avoid an "awkward transformation" (Happy Fun Hour Kraken Sorcerer 1/30/18 21:16).

When coming up with his Vigilante (a.k.a Urban Ranger) subclass (Happy Hour 9/11/18), Mike ran into the problem that the Ranger class itself had no features or options supporting an urban environment. This meant that a player wanting the subclass would be stuck with wilderness abilities that did not fit the concept before finally acquiring the subclass. This meant that the player did not get to play the character concept from the beginning and would then be stuck with unwanted features. Therefore, it broke 1 and 2 in my accumulated list. It would would lead to an "awkward transformation". To rectify the issue, he created new options and a variant feature.
3&5 are a mess as applied to wizard since it pretty much* has no core class abilities but a spell list largely shared by the core class and archetype feature loaded sorcerer and 5 tries to avoid changing that oversight when they reach third and higher.

*sure they have a nice ritual mechanic but it's largely unfinished after third level spells, pretty niche even if maybe useful before, and if you take out detect magic/tiny hut it would be not that unusual to come across wizards who consider it something they never really use because too niche &those niche edge cases are infrequent or they didn't have the right tiny niche rituals when the party hit an edge case and the niche came up.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
I have said some times in the past the keys for a class should be:

- Right balance of power, of course.

- Fun gameplay. A example of bad design would the phsychic enervation by the psionic wilder. If I want one, then I would use the optional penalty, dazed for a round, from the Pathfinder version by Dreamscarred Press.

- Interesting concept, a cool mark of identity. The soulborn and the incarnate from "Magic of Incarnum" are two examples of failed ideas. They were too close to the paladins. A good concept should can be used in a fiction work without gameplay at all. If, for example, there is a totem shaman in the story, and it is work as a druid, then you are making it wrong. The player/reader/watcher public has to notice this is a totem shaman and not a druid.

---

I would rather subclasses from the 1st level to feel my PC is different.
 

dave2008

Legend
All this tells us is WotC ignores it's own rules.

The UA Revived rogue doesn't just break the rule, it annihilates it, by transforming into something completely different at third level.

Now, my feeling is the Revived Rogue will never make it into print, but the rule is also broken by the already in print Artificer. Just like the Valour Bard the Battlesmith gains martial weapons proficiency at 3rd level.
I think it would be a mistake to categorize them as rules. They are most likely simply guidelines.
 

dave2008

Legend
In my opinion, they also ignored 2 and 5 on my list with the Scout Rogue when they decided it is the non-spellcasting ranger. They also did it again with the Swashbuckler Rogue.
... However, in doing so and not providing new options variants for the base class, they stuck those archetypes with Thieves Cant and Thieves Tools which do not fit the archetypes for many wilderness specialist warrior types or swashbucklers in film or literature.
I agree, those are good fighter and ranger archtypes if you get rid of the thieves tools and cant. Did they address this at all in the recent UA on variant features? That would be a method to solve this issue.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I'm not getting this much from the game. There isn't really a lot of consistency of design principles in 5e. Things are done and then justifications are created later. Mearls even came out and said they really weren't doing much math in their day to day design work. Just a lot of eyeballing and throwing things out to the community. It's why the playtest documents could change so radically between releases. Not playtest so much, as bringing the public into the whole design process.

I just get a rather arbitrary feel about subclasses. If you gathered all the classes and subclasses together, (including UA, because presumably they'd be following theses guidelines), you should see a clear pattern, with a few outliers. I have my doubts.

Now despite my above comments, 5e is a fun game. It builds on earlier systems, with its own fun tweaks. The designers already had a lot of the heavy lifting done in previous editions, so it wasn't necessary to start from scratch, and you could go to the community and mine for player preferences throughout the process. But actual guiding principles? Maybe a few rough suggestions?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
You are not going to get any argument from me about them ignoring their own guidelines. In my opinion, they also ignored 2 and 5 on my list with the Scout Rogue when they decided it is the non-spellcasting ranger. They also did it again with the Swashbuckler Rogue.
From what I recall, part of the reason for assigning those subclasses to the rogue had to do with the rogue being the light armored skilled class while the Fighter is the heavy armor class and trained in a wider variety of weapons. However, in doing so and not providing new options variants for the base class, they stuck those archetypes with Thieves Cant and Thieves Tools which do not fit the archetypes for many wilderness specialist warrior types or swashbucklers in film or literature. For the Scout, they should have also provided official suggestions to swap some skills (Yes, a DM can house rule this, but many new DMs, in my experience, don't feel comfortable making such changes. Also, from my understanding Adventures League players would need official options).
Then again, as far back as the playtest, I have found the class design of the design team to be short-sighted and kind of "sloppy" (for the lack of a better term at 2;15 am).
Rogue probably should have gotten its subclass at 1st level, according to these guidelines. Give Thieves’ Tools and Thieves’ Cant to the Thief subclass, and make the base class the chassis for the lightly armored skirmisher.
 

Bacon Bits

Adventurer
All this tells us is WotC ignores it's own rules.

The UA Revived rogue doesn't just break the rule, it annihilates it, by transforming into something completely different at third level.

Now, my feeling is the Revived Rogue will never make it into print, but the rule is also broken by the already in print Artificer. Just like the Valour Bard the Battlesmith gains martial weapons proficiency at 3rd level.
Bladesinger breaks it, too, and it's definitely awkward because you have to use a shortsword for a level before picking up rapier. So does Swords Bard.

I think the issue is that the guideline is correct that this should not happen, but that WotC is not going to set aside design ideas just because the core design was awkward.
 

Greg K

Adventurer
Unless they have already been discarded - all those references are from 2018.
That is possible. In the Kraken Sorcerer episode 1/30/18, Mike said that those guidelines were supposed to be the basis for WOTC class design moving forward from the time the guidelines were finalized and those guidelines were consistent throughout his Happy Hour episodes. However, I do recall him stating in one episode that how they look at subclasses could possibly change in the future based upon audience preferences. I don't recall if that was in reference to the class design guidelines and subclass interaction. However, the class and subclass interactions for many concepts is among the reasons that I will not, currently, run/play 5e. If WOTC ever starts addressing it officially with variant class abilities and options, I may reconsider my decision.
 

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