As discussed last week, I think D&D 5e is very well designed in terms of encouraging homebrew material, especially for new class options. However, there are still a number of character archetypes that aren’t really covered under the existing classes. Taking a look at other media and even previous incarnations of D&D, we can see some base classes that exist in those games. Shouldn’t these be options–or at least starting points–for creating new classes out of whole cloth? We’ll begin this series’ more detailed look today by talking about the dimension of thematics for creating new classes.
Theme is a difficult thing to discuss, as its somewhat subjective and there’s no “correct” answer when it comes to whether a certain class can be a certain theme or not. On one hand, you probably have people who wish we had the basic Thief, Fighter, and Magic User classes and could differentiate all character archetypes through them. Rangers are nature-themed Thieves, and monks are Thieves who studied unarmed combat. Your barbarian is an angry Fighter, while the paladin is a divine fighter. Clerics are Magic Users who pray to gods for power; warlocks make bargains for it. To be honest, I think this works if the game is designed that way, but 5e has given each of the base classes mechanically distinct options that differentiate them more than just what you call their power source or specialization, and I like that.
On the other, you have people like me who think that a class is worthy of introduction if it can offer a unique space according to the game’s principles. Even as someone who’s not a fan of D&D 4e, I still enjoy that they tried to create classes for each of the power sources and roles in the game (even if some of them seemed a bit forced). For the dimension of thematics, then, let’s look at how the existing base classes flavor themselves to see what we might be missing. Because these themes tie into other components of class design for this particular RPG, we’ll revisit these descriptions in other parts of the series.
- Barbarian: An angry, primitive warrior, exhibiting incredible strength and toughness and going into a berserk rage that improves her might.
- Bard: A musician who harnesses the arcane power of song to support his allies.
- Cleric: A magic user who prays to the gods for strength, wielding powerful magical abilities.
- Druid: A magic user who uses the power of nature, shapeshifting into animals and maintaining nature’s balance.
- Fighter: A trained warrior, using discipline and equipment to be the consummate soldier.
- Monk: A mystical unarmed warrior with great mobility and strange spiritual powers.
- Paladin: A mystical warrior equally adept with sword and spell who calls on divine power to protect her allies.
- Ranger: A nature-themed warrior at home in the wilderness with some primal power as well.
- Rogue: A skill-based martial character adept at exploration, scouting, and interaction with other game elements, who also uses stealthy attacks to defeat his foes.
- Sorcerer: A magic user with innate magical ability.
- Warlock: A magic user who cheated to get it by making a pact with a powerful supernatural entity.
- Wizard: A magic user who harnesses arcane power through disciplined study.
These are all good and thematically distinct, but can we think of other class themes still missing from this list? If we look briefly back to previous editions, there seem to be some archetypes left out. For starters, the Hexblade, a mystical warrior who curses her foes, wouldn’t work very well in this new edition. Paladins and rangers are similar, maybe, but they don’t really inhibit enemies with arcane magic. The Warlord, a martial leader who shouts commands to his allies, would be difficult to develop at 1st level; fighters are more attack-oriented and don’t get support features early while bards have a strong magical flavor that is difficult if not impossible to overlook. And what about runic magic? It’s a strong fantasy trope that has no immediate support.
Even worse is how the class options system restricts us. Due to the way that works, even if you design class options to support these thematics (like the Battlemaster fighter, for example), it’s still not quite the archetype because it isn’t present for a few levels.* Additionally, our Battlemaster will always be more “fight” than “support” because of its base chassis–no matter how many supportive maneuvers you take, .you will still be encouraged to use the basic Fighter features and often.
As broad as these classes are, there are a number of themes that can’t be supported from 1st level. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does mean that even some pretty typical archetypes aren’t present in the game on a basic level. If you want to design an entirely new class, this is a good starting point–what archetype can you imagine that would make sense as a low-level character that isn’t currently in the game?
Next time, we’ll keep looking at these holes for what might work as new material.
* I realize that there are a few (well-designed, in my opinion) exceptions: clerics, sorcerers, and warlocks. However, as “full casters,” these only work for themes that would use a lot of magic.