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D&D 5E What I Don't Like About Subclasses, and Potential Solutions.


"If you aren't willing to conduct extensive organized design and testing, sit down and shut up."

Lol. Okay.
Yeah, threads like these never amount to anything.

I know it’s fun to discuss because you can just have a perfect system in your head that no-one will see. Already this thread is starting to unravel into discussions about the difference between a wizard and a sorcerer.

If you want to be taken seriously, test your idea. Write a mock up, do something constructive.

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Yeah, threads like these never amount to anything.

I know it’s fun to discuss because you can just have a perfect system in your head that no-one will see. Already this thread is starting to unravel into discussions about the difference between a wizard and a sorcerer.

If you want to be taken seriously, test your idea. Write a mock up, do something constructive.
Did you wander into the wrong website? You know this is a discussion forum, right? We're literally here just to talk about stuff.


I have never liked the subclass system in 5E, but it has taken me a while to really understand why. Specifically, it has taken me running Pathfinder 2E to help me to understand why. So there is going to be some comparison in this post. But I am not also just saying "play PF2!" There are a lot of things I do like about 5E, and so it is an interesting design challenge to look for an alternative to subclasses that fits into the overall design ethos of 5E. And that is true even if I never go farther with any design other than this post.

A Note: This is not a + thread because I don't want to give the impression that I want to shut down discussion. However, if your point of view is that the existing subclass system is not only good but the right way to do things, I am not sure there is much for us to discuss. You might be happier in another thread.

The first, biggest problem with subclass in 5E is that you are forced to choose it and have it define your character ever forward, but you explicitly don't get to do that at 1st level. So, what? You just build plan to 3rd instead? It is a very strange choice that does not seem to have much of an upside. It simply locks you out of your defining features until you have bypassed the "squishy" phase of the game. Folks who paid attention during the Next playtest might be able to shed some light on the design intent here, but I haven't read anything that makes it make sense.

One solution to this is to have players pick subclass at 1st level and provide something -- a class feature or whatever -- at first level. And that's fine, but it only solves one aspect of the problem.

Another problem with subclass in 5E is that they are generally pretty rigid. For most of them, you pick it at 2nd or 3rd and them make few choices going forward besides your ASIs or spells. Some, like the Warlock, are better than others, with lots of choices in the form of invocations. But the Warlock is a design outlier (and actually one of the best designed classes in the game; but that's another discussion) and most players won't have too many chances to make development choices over the next year or 18 months of play. That feels bad to me.

So what do we do about that? This is where my comparison to Pathfinder 2E comes to the fore. Classes should have lots of options in a few different archetypical paths. PF2 does this through Class Feats, but that isn't the only solution. I think something like Diablo style talent trees is another viable system. Some players will diversify and pick up a lot of different "initial" talents, while others will be happy to hyper focus and follow the tree all the way to the fruit (as it were). As long as there are no traps or taxes, this works fine.

Another idea is to pair class feats/talent trees with a reintroduction of prestige classes (and whatever they were called in 4E). Let players who want to decide on a very focused thing with in-fiction ramifications. Prestige classes are kind of a fraught subject, of course, but to be clear I am mostly talking about those that tie the PC to the world with some cool mechanical bits and bobs. I am not talking about combat monster hyper-specialization prestige classes like the chain fighter or whatever.

In the end, the goal is to allow players to both create the character they want and to let the character develop throughout the campaign informed by the campaign. I don't think subclasses are a good way to achieve that goal.

What do you think?
I am going to respond to this without reading the other responses, because it triggered some thoughts. Some along the lines you mention before I completely read your post.

Subclasses: Why third level;
In my opinion, the third level entry point for subclasses is that D&D classes have had a tendency to be front loaded and that makes multiclassing more powerful than it would otherwise be.
Power escalation is also a strike against Prestige classes as much as I love the concept. They need the power creep to make them attractive and this will then destabilise balance in multiclassing, unless some draconian restrictions are in place.

Why So Rigid?
Again, I think that this is a balance issue. Looser subclass structure will make it harder to design more subclasses due to balance issues and more subclasses is a way of selling books and, as long as individual subclasses are fairly restrained, there is room for a lot of subclasses.

I have not played or even read PF 2 but I get the impression that the base class balance is strong. This allows for a lot of lower power feats or talent tree like additions. D&D 4e has something similar, both with feats and the paragon paths.

So, What now?

In my opinion any addition of a talent tree or prestige classes could be added to the game, at the cost of some power creep and some added complexity.
Tables where 5e is the upper limit of crunch will not like it, nor will tables where class balance is a big deal. People that ban multiclassing or feats for instance.

It would be also my opinion that to make picking these talents attractive to players there would have to be some power creep and over time this could destabilise the class balance to the point where a new edition would be needed to reset the game. So, an official version is unlikely. It does strike me as an ideal project for a third party addon.

What I would like to see:
I would like to see prebuilt talent trees or prestige classes that would offer minor benefits to characters that the DM could use as an alternative to magic items. Or as a way to do magic items that evolve with the characters progression and that could be tied into the world building/backstory etc.

Edit: One day I will write a post with no spelling or grammar errors but not this day.
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Indeed, the problem isn't that the concept isn't sufficiently distinct, it's that the name isn't sufficiently distinct, sorcerer being an exact synonym for wizard in standard usage. If the class had been called Mutant it's inspiration and nature would have been far clearer, and would have lead to more mechanical distinction once spell memorisation was axed.
Please don’t. Give me my Medeas, my Circes, my Gandalfs without requiring them to be called Mutants.

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