In our last post on this topic, we put up a very formalized classification scheme to look at the D&D 5e base classes as a group. I think this is a useful way to describe them, but I also want to be clear that there are definitely thematic considerations that didn’t really become part of the scheme. Bards, for instance, have a musical flavor that none of the other classes really replicate, while monks are about inner discipline and power that, again, don’t find as much representation in the others. There are probably some themes not found in 5e that fit into this more nebulous descriptive realm, so don’t feel like the last post was intended to be a comprehensive description.
While each of the base classes in 5e have their own thematics, it’s important to remember that each of them also have a specific distinct mechanic, and new base classes should similarly introduce something new. The descriptions in our last post were basically mechanical–the amount of magic a class can do is represented mechanically, as is the distance at which they fight. Roles, too, are a combination of theme and mechanics, so considering more specific mechanics as our next step makes a lot of sense. For this post, we’ll look at some of the PHB classes and discuss what unique mechanics they bring. We’ll first focus our attention on the “basic” classes: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard.
- Cleric: Mechanically, we would describe this character as a full caster with supportive abilities. The class options specialize spells (and therefore role) more specifically: Life Domain is very good at healing, while Light can function as an artillery caster. War is a front-line fighter, while Knowledge gains skills and out-of-combat exploration and utility. Beyond that, however, Clerics get two class features that really reinforce their theme as servants of the gods: Channel Divinity and Divine Intervention. Additionally, their class options, because they are chosen at level 1, reinforce the idea of dedication to their deity’s cause and really differentiate Clerics from each other. While I’m thinking about it, notice also that all of a class’s unique mechanics aren’t given from level 1–they’re generally spread out over the first 3ish levels, at which point a class feels recognizably itself.
- Fighter: The Fighter is probably the simplest class in the game, so mechanically you might think we wouldn’t have too much to describe other than that. This was even a stated design goal. However, this simplicity is notable for what else it requires: an abundance of class features and Ability Score Increases. We would also probably identify Second Wind as uniquely Fighter and a better version of Extra Attack that no one else gets. Finally, the Battlemaster also gets Superiority Dice, and several of the Unearthed Arcana variant classes (including a mundane Ranger option) have made use of them as pretty specifically a Fighter, or at least a martial, thing.
- Rogue: I would argue that the Rogue is probably the best defined class when it comes to all three of D&D‘s pillars: combat, exploration, and interaction. Interestingly, its mechanics give it unique things to cover all of these. Sneak Attacks keep them relevant when it comes to damage, while Cunning Action, Expertise, and extra skills give them flexibility in the exploration and interaction pillars.
- Wizard: As another full caster, a lot of the mechanics come from the spell list. However, the spellbook (as a more restrictive casting mechanic) and Arcane Recovery both also distinguish the wizard from its arcane fellows. The ability to learn every possible Wizard spell and store them reinforces the class as a true master of arcane might, and the high-level class features further establish them here. We could probably even throw Intelligence-based casting into the pile, as the other three arcane full casters use Charisma for their powers.
Even looking at just these four classes, we can see some big differences in how their mechanics come together. The Cleric petitions for magic and gets divine aid when appropriate, the Fighter hits things hard and often, the Rogue is precise and interactionally flexible, and the Wizard just wields magic. Although the class options system means that we can make hybrids within the classes instead of developing new ones like in the previous editions (more or less), there’s still a lot of room to ponder new things. However, we need to make sure that we have a unique mechanic for each class; otherwise, we could just as easily make it a class option for the existing ones.
In the future, we’ll break down some of the other classes and how they were designed to occupy mechanically unique positions. Eventually, we’ll look at some new mechanics (some even rejected in this edition so far) and how they could tie into new classes.