Classy Considerations: Thematics and Mechanics

How can we use thematic characteristics to determine which character classes might be lacking? We’re going to identify some spaces in these characteristics and what might be developed to fill them.


Last time, we talked about the thematics present in the PHB classes for D&D 5e. We even discussed a few classes that might occupy design space currently vacant: the Hexblade, as an arcane half-caster; the Warlord, as a martial support class; and the Runecaster, as a unique and mechanically distinct full caster. This time, we’re going to talk about a (non-exhaustive) list of mechanical characteristics that might make our task more sensible and easier. What are some characteristics to discuss?

  1. Role: Borrowing from 4e, we can think about what classes are supposed to do in combat. We could use 4e’s class roles directly (Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker), but I’m going to borrow something still different from that: the monster roles that generally described what creatures did in combat, and more broadly than the class ones. These were Artillery, Brutes, Controllers, Leaders, Lurkers, Skirmishers, and Soldiers. That provides a bit more useful differentiation, even if magic makes it hard to categorize some of the existing classes. We can also probably think of classes as thematic hybrids between different roles at times, which clarifies what we have. We have examples of all of these in the PHB classes, but there are probably a few unique niches or role hybrids that we could develop. If we wanted to be simpler, we could even borrow from League of Legends and talk about Assassins, Fighters, Mages, Marksmen, Support, and Tanks, but we’re mixing media a bit too much there.
  2.  Power source: Again building from 4e, which assigned classes a unique power source, we could discuss themes such as divine, primal / nature, elemental, arcane, martial, psionic, and death. This thematic isn’t enough on its own–it’s easy to imagine, say, a barbarian with a bit of primal magic or with necromantic abilities–but in combination with other characteristics it’s worthy of consideration and might urge us to make a new class from level 1.
  3. Magical ability: Here we have really three options. We can make a full caster that has up to 9th-level spells, a half-caster that has up to 5th-level spells, or a non-caster that doesn’t get magic (but might have a class option that gets up to 4th-level spells). All of the PHB classes fall into one of these three categories. Martial classes don’t make much sense as anything but non-casters, though.
  4. Ranged or melee focus. Pretty simple but useful for thinking about with some characters.

This really isn’t all that much, but it’s a good starting point. How can we use these characteristics to determine which characteristics might be lacking? Through the rest of this post, we’re going to identify briefly some spaces in these characteristics and what classes or archetypes might be developed to fill them.

With just these three characteristics, let’s see how each class measures up:

  • Barbarian: Primal / martial non-caster melee Brute. Paths seem to have slightly different power sources (the Berserker seems just martial with no real primal powers of which to speak).
  • Bard: Arcane full caster ranged Controller / Leader. Colleges play with role a bit, with more magic or more combat support.
  • Cleric: Divine full caster melee Leader / Controller. Domains provide a smattering of role elements (not really enough to overturn their initial classification), with everything from Artillery to Lurker to Soldier.
  • Druid: Primal full caster melee Controller / Leader. Circles also provide role differentiation–Land is Control focus while Moon makes for a bit of a Brute.
  • Fighter: Martial non-caster ranged / melee Soldier. In an interesting turn, Archetypes play more with mechanical complexity rather than these other features we’ve mentioned.
  • Monk: Martial (divine? psionic?) non-caster melee Skirmisher. Traditions sort of play with power source–they have strong thematics built in, with Open Hand being a “generic” enlightened monk, Shadow being death- or darkness-powered, and Four Elements being elementally powered.
  • Paladin: Divine half-caster melee Soldier / Leader. Oaths play a bit with power source and a bit with role: Devotion gives more support powers, Ancients feels like a primal option, and Vengeance adds some punch, making for more of a Brute character.
  • Ranger: Primal / martial half-caster ranged Artillery / Skirmisher. Archetypes either provide a damage increase or a new mechanic (pet); with a sample size of two it’s hard to generalize here.
  • Rogue: Martial non-caster melee Lurker / Skirmisher. Archetypes emphasize role elements, whether Skirmisher, Lurker, or Controller.
  • Sorcerer: Arcane full caster ranged Artillery / Controller. Origins emphasize power source, I guess: draconic magic or pure arcane energy. The Favored Soul is divine, and Storm Sorcerer is elemental.
  • Warlock: Arcane (mechanically odd) full caster ranged Artillery / Controller. Patrons mess with power source a bit, while pacts affect role and possibly range (melee Soldier, ranged Controller or Artillery). They’re kind of weird in that a simple description doesn’t really cut it for them.
  • Wizard: Arcane full caster ranged Controller / Artillery. Schools add mostly Controller elements but of wildly different kinds (sometimes tying into power source and sometimes affecting ranged focus). Unlike their arcane brethren, they are very heavy on Controller aspects when factoring in class features. Magic solves a lot of problems.

Having gone through all of that, we can see places where classes might be missing. There aren’t that many Brute, Lurker or Skirmisher options, and there is definitely some room for new Leaders. While we have quite a few class options that add to the number of, say, arcane-powered classes, death and elemental themes are rare. Psionics are (obviously) basically non-existent at this point, too. There also aren’t very many ranged classes, but it might be better to group that with another consideration: there are only so many ways to do different kinds of combat, and 5e (and 4e before it) focuses on smaller fighting areas. With all of this in mind, let’s point out a few iconic thematic suggestions for classes, some borrowed from previous editions, that might add to the variety of what we already have.

  • Death Knight: Death half-caster Soldier / Controller. Leader elements might seem a bit strange on a necrotic character, so this combination makes more sense to me.
  • Dervish: Martial non-caster melee Skirmisher. Unlike the rogue, this would focus more on mobility and less on lurking.
  • Runecaster: Runic full caster melee Controller / Leader. This is more due to a unique power source than anything but would also expand Leader options. Additionally, you could do runic versions of half-casters and non-casters for other roles.
  • Scout: Martial non-caster ranged Skirmisher. Basically a ranged rogue in combat, though the Ranger overlaps a bit here.
  • Shaman: Primal full caster melee Leader / Controller. While druids already exist, this would be a class that focus more on the supportive aspects instead of versatile use of magic.
  • Warlord: Martial non-caster melee Leader / Soldier. This is one of the only ways to get supportive abilities onto a martial chassis.
  • Warmage: Arcane (full? half-?) caster Artillery. This is design space currently occupied by the Evocation Wizard but might work as a unique thing, especially as a half-caster.

Whew! This post went longer than I thought it would, so I’ll say that next time we’ll continue talking about mechanical room for designing new classes. In the meantime, are there other options still missing from the list above?

Author: lpivellius

I am a gamer of all kinds. Sometimes I write about them.

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