5E Using Subclasses at Level 1?

DEFCON 1

Legend
So what it seems like I'm getting here (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is that you are looking for a way to create a much more versatile game with more varied character options available (both narratively and mechanically) without raising PC power level so much that everything becomes a cakewalk.

Now that, I can understand.

I run two games with 7 players each and I give the PC little bennies along the way that reflect the character growth they make as they go. But with that many players and that much power, any attempt at running the game "standardly" is completely useless. I pretty much have to bump up all my opponents to max HP and max damage on attacks to even attempt to threaten them. Yes, it can be a bit annoying, but it is the price I am willing to play to have their characters show growth through the narrative.

So what it looks like is that you want to let PCs have many cool character options right off the bat... but still run the game at 1st level where there is more opportunity to truly threaten the PCs (because hit points are low enough to actually sometimes one-shot them, especially on crits.) If that is the case and I'm understanding you correctly... then I would say go ahead with your instinct:

Start every PC with all abilities up through 3rd level, but only have them have 1st level hit points.

If you do this... the PCs will have the functionality to take on pretty varied and strong monsters, but are also quite fragile all this considered. The chances of someone being knocked out go up greatly, and the chances of being insta-killed go up as well-- the threat is there. But... those issues can get smoothed over in that players can and will have to spend some of their actions in combat either healing or using Medicine to stabilize their compatriots. PCs won't often bleed out... but you'll also reduce the amount of direct damage your monsters receive in the round (and thus allowing twin or even solo monsters to stick around long enough to feel threatening.)

This is something I have indeed considered for a potential follow-up campaign myself (using the Basic Rules plus E5) and thus have thought about the positives and negative for it. In my particular case... I've worked the system in my head such that my thought was characters start with their max hit die + CON modifier at 1st level, and then only gaining CON modifier in hit points every level after 1st. This will greatly reduce the number of HP the PCs have... but if I run the game where they never are going to advance past 5th level, things will never get too out of hand (not when my table has 7 PCs at it and thus plenty of characters around to heal and stabilize each other when they get one-shotted.)

I've not actually run the game this way yet so I can't say how badly my guesstimations on this might be... but it might be something you can try out for a couple quick sessions-- 3rd level character abilities with only 1st level HP-- and see how it goes. The results might surprise you (to your benefit.)
 

dnd4vr

Hero
So what it seems like I'm getting here (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is that you are looking for a way to create a much more versatile game with more varied character options available (both narratively and mechanically) without raising PC power level so much that everything becomes a cakewalk.

Now that, I can understand.

I run two games with 7 players each and I give the PC little bennies along the way that reflect the character growth they make as they go. But with that many players and that much power, any attempt at running the game "standardly" is completely useless. I pretty much have to bump up all my opponents to max HP and max damage on attacks to even attempt to threaten them. Yes, it can be a bit annoying, but it is the price I am willing to play to have their characters show growth through the narrative.

So what it looks like is that you want to let PCs have many cool character options right off the bat... but still run the game at 1st level where there is more opportunity to truly threaten the PCs (because hit points are low enough to actually sometimes one-shot them, especially on crits.) If that is the case and I'm understanding you correctly... then I would say go ahead with your instinct:

Start every PC with all abilities up through 3rd level, but only have them have 1st level hit points.

If you do this... the PCs will have the functionality to take on pretty varied and strong monsters, but are also quite fragile all this considered. The chances of someone being knocked out go up greatly, and the chances of being insta-killed go up as well-- the threat is there. But... those issues can get smoothed over in that players can and will have to spend some of their actions in combat either healing or using Medicine to stabilize their compatriots. PCs won't often bleed out... but you'll also reduce the amount of direct damage your monsters receive in the round (and thus allowing twin or even solo monsters to stick around long enough to feel threatening.)

This is something I have indeed considered for a potential follow-up campaign myself (using the Basic Rules plus E5) and thus have thought about the positives and negative for it. In my particular case... I've worked the system in my head such that my thought was characters start with their max hit die + CON modifier at 1st level, and then only gaining CON modifier in hit points every level after 1st. This will greatly reduce the number of HP the PCs have... but if I run the game where they never are going to advance past 5th level, things will never get too out of hand (not when my table has 7 PCs at it and thus plenty of characters around to heal and stabilize each other when they get one-shotted.)

I've not actually run the game this way yet so I can't say how badly my guesstimations on this might be... but it might be something you can try out for a couple quick sessions-- 3rd level character abilities with only 1st level HP-- and see how it goes. The results might surprise you (to your benefit.)
Well, I don't know if that is right on the head of the nail, but probably close enough.

Having more options is part of it, but also the more I think about it I just feel like the subclass options should be there for all classes from the beginning. Nearly half the classes are at levels 1 and 2 anyway...

In our game we have only a few regular players, but we have two characters each so our party size is around 5-7 characters most of the time. With our multiclassing options, it is definitely a high-powered game! Most of the players seem to like it that way, but I get bored quickly when most things aren't threats. Now, we are around 10th-11th levels and I am starting to see why some tables lose interest. Anyway, our DM has to throw crazy stuff at us at times to make it a challenge.

As for the hit point issue, I am thinking of decreasing HD sizes or awarding HP only every other level? You would still get your CON bonus each level.

Alternatively, you could award CON bonus only at level 1, and then just do regular HP (sans CON) for the other levels.

Finally, as far as HP go, the more I think about it the more I don't like different size HD. Following the hp threads, if you think of HP mostly as abstract, it makes no sense why warrior-types get more HP. Think about it, a fighter might be better at taking the hit or rolling with it, etc., but a rogue might just as easily have more luck, or a wizard a better sixth-sense, etc. With all the possible factors that contribute to abstract HP, there is not any good argument that I can see as to why warriors have better HD types, and consequently, more HP.

That is why I am exploring options for subclasses, multiclassing, hp, and other mechanics in the game.
 
Having more options is part of it, but also the more I think about it I just feel like the subclass options should be there for all classes from the beginning.
You don't need to change the rules to do that, you just need change the way you look at things. A Battlemaster is a battlemaster from level 1. At First level they learn a fighting style, at second level the learn to respond rapidly to threats, at third level they learn some specialised tricks.

i.e. you don't need to treat class abilities and subclass abilities as if distinct and separate things.
 

Ruin Explorer

Adventurer
Actually, I feel the opposite, personally. I find as character acquire more HP the game becomes too easy, especially in 5E. Then it no longer feels like it is playing like is should play. To me, the entire game should feel like survival mode.

I'll talk to our group Saturday and see what they think.
That's an interesting position and I can sympathize with it. I honestly feel like L3 HP is a good starting point for PCs but issue is HP goes up way, way too much, especially with CON bonuses, and unlike 2E it doesn't reach a point where the increase slows.

I think halving HP gain rate, including that from CON, and maybe starting at normal L3 HP might well make for an interesting approach. You could also have normal L1 HP and slow the gain but I feel like that would be a very one-shot-prone game where Healing Word became the best spell in the PHB.

Interested to hear what your group thinks.
 

dnd4vr

Hero
Well, you do need to press the party for the full 6-8 encounters for the guidelines to start living up to their labels.
I can see that during random encounters while traveling, but even when we do dungeon crawls or infiltrations (like right now) we do several encounters before we can even get in a short rest and it is the same problem.
 
I am just curious if anyone plays with choosing subclasses at level 1 instead of waiting until level 3 (in most cases)?

I was thinking about it for our next game and wanted feedback from people who have tired it.

EDIT: (just to address the questions so far)

No, I am not thinking of adding anything at level 3 to replace the subclass choice/features.
I am thinking I might delay level 1 and 2 features to level 2 and 3, respectively.

Ex. Fighter:
1 - subclass choice and features
2 - fighting style, second wind
3- action surge

I might or might not do this.

Thanks!
I love the idea, however for some classes it won't work well. Like the Monk, Wizard, Barbarian. Heck even Paladin would be iffy with this rule.
 
It's not uncommon for players to decide on a subclass at character creation, but I see no particular reason to change the levels of class features to reflect that.
Some choices don't make much since if you don't get them at level 1. Take Eldritch Knight for example. No hint of magic and then BAM!
 
Some choices don't make much since if you don't get them at level 1. Take Eldritch Knight for example. No hint of magic and then BAM!
My character is an Eldritch Knight, I wrote it into their backstory.

But yes, there are a couple of outliers where startlingly new abilities are gained, but these are the exceptions, not the majority. There is no need to change battlemasters if you have an issue is with Eldritch Knights (Which I would address by allowing them (as an option) to learn one of their cantrips at level 1 instead of level 3).
 
My character is an Eldritch Knight, I wrote it into their backstory.

But yes, there are a couple of outliers where startlingly new abilities are gained, but these are the exceptions, not the majority. There is no need to change battlemasters if you have an issue is with Eldritch Knights (Which I would address by allowing them (as an option) to learn one of their cantrips at level 1 instead of level 3).
No matter what I write for my backstory eldritch knight doesn't feel right because he is just as much of a mundane fighter as everyone else IMO. The cantrip change would do that, but there are other subclasses that have a similar effect?

The same issues with eldritch knight tend to apply for many barbarian subclasses as well.
 
No matter what I write for my backstory eldritch knight doesn't feel right because he is just as much of a mundane fighter as everyone else IMO. The cantrip change would do that, but there are other subclasses that have a similar effect?
Well, I chose a race that had a cantrip at level 1 anyway (Genasi). EK is kind of archetypically a High Elf. Obviously Arcane Trickster is similar.

Variant humans could get Magic Initiate or Ritual Caster at first level if it made them feel the character worked better that way.

The same issues with eldritch knight tend to apply for many barbarian subclasses as well.
I don't see an issue with barbarians, your barbarian probably has shamanistic beliefs from the start, and they only gradually become more magical, and that depends how you fluff it. A bear totem barbarian doesn't change into a bear, they are just as tough as a bear.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
To me, when I make changes, I try to meet the goal with the least change and risk.

One of the reasons abilities get divided is an attempt to balance multiclassing dips.

Given that 1st and 2nd go so quickly, I see simply starting at 3rd (a place you will get to anyway fairly soon anyway) solves any sequencing of sbilities at 1-3 concerns without really requiring any work or risk.

It's not worth it to me to spend effort shuffling sbilities that will impact MC choices for levels 3-20 in order to fine tune those 1-2 levels. The work and the risk are out of whack with that approach.

To me at least.
 

dnd4vr

Hero
Yeah, I am not a big fan of the "apprentice levels" concept that floats around about levels 1 and 2. If WotC wanted that as an option, I would have preferred a recasting of the 0-level concept for it.

One of the things that has always been an issue for me in 5E is characters rarely begin the game with a concept that feels fully formed. In some cases, not having the subclass at level 1 causes that. For example, we started a new game last night and I am playing an elven bladesinger. Oh, wait, no I am not. I am an elven wizard... because I am level one and have no bladesinging features or abilities until next level.

Another player has a lizardfolk beastmaster... oops! wrong again, he is a lizardfolk ranger because he won't get his beast until 3rd level. Rats! (Those aren't his beast, I think he is planning on a lizard of some sort).

Sure, it is only a level or two until those things are resolved, but damn that is annoying IMO.

I don't think reworking levels 1-3 will be that hard. I already have a rough draft done and might finish it today during the games.
 
Oh, wait, no I am not. I am an elven wizard... because I am level one and have no bladesinging features or abilities until next level.

Another player has a lizardfolk beastmaster... oops! wrong again, he is a lizardfolk ranger because he won't get his beast until 3rd level.
This is what I mean by needing to change the way you look at class powers. Your bladesinger is a bladesinger at level 1 because they know how to cast wizard spells. The fact that Illusionists also know how to cast wizard spells is irrelevant. Your character can cast wizard spells because they are a bladesinger.
 

GlassJaw

Adventurer
This is what I mean by needing to change the way you look at class powers. Your bladesinger is a bladesinger at level 1 because they know how to cast wizard spells. The fact that Illusionists also know how to cast wizard spells is irrelevant. Your character can cast wizard spells because they are a bladesinger.
You keep harping on this and I simply don't agree. I'm with dnd4vr. I want to feel like my character concept right out of the gate.

I don't think reworking levels 1-3 will be that hard. I already have a rough draft done and might finish it today during the games.
Agreed. Looking forward to seeing it!
 

dnd4vr

Hero
This is what I mean by needing to change the way you look at class powers. Your bladesinger is a bladesinger at level 1 because they know how to cast wizard spells. The fact that Illusionists also know how to cast wizard spells is irrelevant. Your character can cast wizard spells because they are a bladesinger.
But they really aren't. They might be "training" to be a bladesinger or something, but they are no different mechancially from any other elven wizard at level 1. That is what I mean by I don't like "apprentice" or training levels in this sense. As others have commented online, the same is true for the eldritch knight at levels 1 and 2, they are NO different from any other fighters and it isn't until level 3 that they have finally earned that distinction.
 

dnd4vr

Hero
You keep harping on this and I simply don't agree. I'm with dnd4vr. I want to feel like my character concept right out of the gate.

Agreed. Looking forward to seeing it!
Exactly! I'll really try to get it wrapped up today and post it sometime before I go to bed.
 

dnd4vr

Hero
@GlassJaw :

My schedule changed and I had time to polish this up this morning. Some things can be tweaked to personal preference of course (like switching Fighting Style and Second Wind), this is just my initial take on it:

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GlassJaw

Adventurer
So I’m assuming that with this, you are simply granting all the initial subclass abilities at 1st level, correct?

Might be a little more interesting to break them up, or even add an ability here and there.

Another thing that bugs me about subclasses is that for some classes, the abilities are really spread out. For example, the rogue had a huge gap: it get subclass abilities at 3 and then not until 9. That sucks.
 

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