A Memorandum on Class Design: Peaks and Valleys

You know, it took me a long time to figure out how to write this article. I actually wrote it once, already, and then realized that I was going about it the wrong way. See, the first time I wrote this article, I wrote about how I’m building my ranger class. Well…that’s not exactly right. It’s less that I talked about how I was building it, and instead just built it in front of an audience. And while that can be fine and dandy, I realized something after I had finished. I hadn’t really conveyed what I meant to convey with that article.

See, the whole idea was that the third article in this series would be about me telling you “how” I’m building the ranger. I’d go over the core concept, and show you how I develop that into class features and evolve those features throughout the class’s progression.

But I couldn’t really figure out a way to talk about that without going in 1 of 2 directions:

  • Like I said, I just built the class, which left my final article (an actual draft of the class) superfluous and did not convey the grander ideas I wanted to convey.
  • I could write a more vague article wherein I went off on tangential topics the entire time in order to talk about general class design in the context of the ranger.

After writing about 3,000 words and realizing that I still had at least a thousand to go, and I wasn’t getting my point across, I decided to stop and re-evaluate what I was doing. So I did. I sat down, cracked my Player’s Handbook open, and looked over the classes as I ate some macaroni and cheese at 1 AM. Good times.

And that’s when I realized that I haven’t ever really talked about class design before. I’ve designed things, and I’ve deconstructed a class, but I’ve never actually discussed how class design works in any kind of detail. Which is kind of interesting, because that’s kind of my thing. I’m the class design guy.

So I decided to scrap my original idea for the third article and instead write this: my memorandum on class design.

Most of my history with class design comes from Pathfinder. I did a bit of it during the days of 3.5e D&D, but those were amateurish at best and weren’t studied or researched attempts at creating a class. It was really in Pathfinder where I started to find my love of class design. Part of that, likely, was the fact that I arrived upon Pathfinder after it had released, but before it had released more than 2 books. I picked up a copy of the Core Rulebook and the Bestiary, and then the Gamemastery Guide when it arrived. But the big deal for me was when they released the first round of playtests for the Advanced Player’s Guide. Never before had I heard of such a thing: an open playtest where you could examine beta versions of a class? It blew my mind, and I loved it. I pored over the documents as if they were scrolls from the library at Alexandria, printing them out at school and spending my study time studying them, instead of my actual academic books and papers. They fascinated me, and I fell in love with them. To this day, the Advanced Player’s Guide is my favorite book from Pathfinder. Seeing the second round of playtests come out, and then the final product was like a god watching evolution. I soaked in every little piece, trying to understand why they made the changes they did, and what that said about their design. It was an exciting time for me.

It wasn’t until their next major player release, Ultimate Magic, that I really started getting into the idea of designing my own classes, however. The Magus playtest brought with it a surge of new life from me. I loved spellblades, and was always fascinated on how to build and use them properly in D&D. I tinkered constantly with the magus, and came up with my own solutions to perceived problems with the class. As its playtest evolved, I compared my version to theirs, and found that I didn’t always agree with their decisions. This tinkering only further evolved as the Gunslinger playtest for Ultimate combat released, and the world as I knew it exploded. Everyone had their take on the gunslinger. Everyone was designing their own version of the class, including me. There were gun kata gunslingers, desperado gunslingers, flintlock arbequsiers, and everything in between. I had my own gunslinger that I had developed and used in my home games, and I was developing newer, even more original classes. The Avatar, my attempt at a warlock-type class in Pathfinder, and the Engineer—a steampunk/cyberpunk technomancer were the two I focused on most of all. The engineer found praise. The avatar fell by the wayside. I came to understand the core of what made Pathfinder tick, and I kept designing.

As battles arose about caster-martial disparity, I designed new and improved fighters and rogues. I have folders full of archetypes half-designed and completed with varying degrees of editorial oversight. Soon I was designing arcane paladins, sentinels, and warlocks. I knew Pathfinder. I knew what made it tick. I understood the flow of its lifeblood.

And then they came out with the Advanced Class Guide. And Occult Adventures. And, suddenly, it all seemed for naught. I was designing more than ever, and yet all I could see before me was a wasteland full of generic classes designed not with some kind of thematic goal, but rather to fulfill a quota. Ten classes in this book. Six classes in the next one. Another class in the next one. A bestiary somewhere in between. And I realized that class design in a system like Pathfinder was, sadly, a field harvested. By the time they decided to shake things up with Pathfinder Unchained, I was well into D&D 5e.

And the thing about Pathfinder class design is that it’s pretty easy. It’s all about progression and repetition. A class’s 1-20 progress in Pathfinder isn’t divided into tiers like it is in other games (for an easy example of this, crack open the 4e Player’s Handbook). You gain a set number of abilities, and those abilities progress and become more powerful at regular intervals until you reach level 20, at which time you gain a powerful capstone ability. Toss in a few individual powers or feature expansions along the way, and you have an easy PF class. It’s practically paint-by-numbers. And there’s enough sample classes out, now, that comparing strengths and weaknesses is as easy as bringing up the d20pfsrd. Seriously, there’s between 38 and 42 official Pathfinder classes, depending on whether you count the Unchained classes. I do. And that doesn’t even count the wealth of well-designed 3rd party classes. My point, of course, is that it was easy to design new classes for Pathfinder because Pathfinder class design is so well fitted to newbie designers. There isn’t a whole lot of nuance to it unless you really want to step outside the box, as they did with the monk, summoner, and gunslinger.

5e class design, though? Well, there’s a reason I haven’t seriously dedicated myself to designing a 5e class until the game had been out for over a year. And keep in mind that I got my player’s handbook from a local game store before it actually hit shelves. I’ve had the time to study it. And the Unearthed Arcana on designing variants and class options was actually very helpful, as well, and I encourage anyone who is thinking about designing such things to read that document start to finish at least three times. And take notes. Because 5e class design is NOT paint-by-numbers. Class design in 5e is also much less DM-centric, now, since monsters and NPCs don’t actually use classes. But that’s neither here nor there.

The first thing to note about 5e class design is that, like 4e, they’re using a milestone-based system. Unlike 4e, though, the milestones they use are not specifically designed into the system so that every class gains similar abilities at the same time. 5e classes are much more loose with their design. I like to think of it as a line graph.

Excitement Graph See where those big peaks are? Levels 5, 11, and 20? Those are your big levels. Level 3 deserves some big props, as well. It’s fairly well-hidden, because the first 5 levels in 5e are designed to be all build-up, but level 3 is really your first milestone level. I’ll get to that later, though.

Notice anything interesting about this graph? About the way it’s designed? If you ever took any screenwriting or creative writing courses, then the first half of it probably looks a lot like this graph.


And, you’ll notice, post level 11, it basically repeats itself, except it doesn’t have the “falling action” bit at the end, because 5e dedicated themselves to the “capstone” idea that Pathfinder made so popular.

That’s the engagement/excitement/tension/whatever your professor called it graph for 90% of published fiction. It’s designed to give you peaks and valleys. Milestones and cooldown periods for you to take a breath and get ready as it ramps up once again toward a new, exciting moment. There’s a big climax, then you wind down as the story ends. Pretty basic stuff, and class design in 5th edition D&D follows this formula pretty well. Let’s take a look at one class that is, honestly, the paragon of this idea: the Fighter.

In fact, I’m pretty much convinced that, once they figured out their progression, the fighter was designed to conform to this graph almost perfectly. It’s the quintessential class in D&D, and using it as a baseline for the design of all of their classes would make all the sense in the world.

Level 1: Fighting style and second wind. A good place to start off, but nothing too flashy. A nice idea to give a minor choice to players at level 1, though.

Level 2: Action Surge. Boom! This is the fighter’s trump card. Sure, it gets a lot of abilities that it’ll use much more often, but this is the one that it uses either in dire circumstances or when it wants to prove itself.

Level 3: Martial Archetype. The big choice. You have 3 choices, but we’ll stick with the Champion, since that’s the one we get in the basic rules. In this case: Improved Critical. This is super cool. It modifies one of the basic rules of the game, allowing fighters to be the “exception to the rule” when it comes to critical hits.

Level 4: Ability score improvement. This is cool for every class, because level 4 is the level at which every class gains their first Ability Score Improvement, and ASIs are really cool this early in the game.

Level 5: Extra Attack. The fighter’s bread and butter. Every martial class in the game gains Extra Attack at this level. The only exception is the College of Valor bard, which isn’t really a martial class, but gains it at level 6 anyway. This represents the moment where you really come into your own as a fighter. Two attacks is a big deal.

Level 6: And this is where things dip for the fighter. Another ASI is nice, but not exactly exciting when compared to previous levels. It’s there to give you a basic benefit and to let you cool down in preparation for the next level.

Level 7: Another Martial Archetype Feature. In the case of the Champion, it’s Remarkable Athlete. Not exactly the most exciting ability, but it’s neat, and very different from anything gained thus far. That makes it kind of exciting in its own way.

Level 8: Ability Score Improvement. This is the same for every class. Not exactly exciting, but not as big of a dip as last time, since you can see what’s coming next level.

Level 9: Indomitable. This is a pretty sweet ability, and other than armor and shield proficiency, is the fighter’s greatest defensive tool. Pretty cool for level 9, but then we hit level 10.

Level 10: Additional Fighting Style. This makes the fighter the best there can be at not just one, but two styles of combat. Usually, this means that the fighter gets to choose a ranged style, in addition to a melee style.

Level 11: Extra Attack. Can I just say how genius it is to place the biggest milestone of a class’s progression at level 11? Yeah, it’d be cool to make the biggest feature at level 20 (as Pathfinder did) in order to encourage single-classing, but 11 is just genius. Why? Multiclassing, that’s why. When you multiclass in D&D. And I mean real multiclassing, where you go as even as possible, you have to make a choice. You either go 10/10 the whole way, and miss out on both class’s big milestones, or you take that extra level in one or the other. In the case of fighter/whatever else, you have to choose between whatever that class gets, and getting THREE ATTACKS PER ROUND! It’s AGONIZING, and I love it.

Level 12: Ability Score Improvement. A perfect low to take you off of the level 11 high.

Level 13: Indomitable (two uses). Useful, sure, but not exactly exciting. It’s nice, though, to spend a couple of levels in the valley, just playing with your toys before you start building up again.

14: Ability Score Improvement. I know we just got one of those, but this is just a nice reminder that you are the fighter, and the variety offered to you is greater than any other class. Especially if your DM allows feats.

Level 15: Martial Archetype Feature. In the case of the fighter, this means Superior Critical. Sure, it’s just an improvement on an older ability, but it’s a pretty SWEET improvement.

Level 16: Ability Score Improvement. This, again, is an ability that all classes get at this level, and it’s intended to be a bridge moment between level 16 and level 17. And while it might be old hat at this point to get an ASI, one more is still helpful.

Level 17: Action Surge (two uses), Indomitable (three uses). Two uses of Action Surge? Hell to the YES! And three uses of Indomitable? Well, that’s just gravy.

Level 18: Martial Archetype Feature. Survivor, in this case, which is made of 100% awesome. Up to 10 hit points healed EVERY round, so long as you’re below half HP? Wicked.

Level 19: Ability Score Improvement. A little bit of a valley, and a little bit of a bridge to the final moment.

Level 20: Extra Attack. Four attacks per round. Just writing that, after writing everything else, feels like putting a cherry on the sundae. It’s not quite as fun as the extra attack you gained at 11th level (which was the moment where you surpasses basically every other martial class), but it feels like one last victory lap, solidifying your place as the Fighter.

What’s interesting, as well, is that the xp system bears this out to a degree, as well.

Experience Graph

Okay, I see that directly translating the xp table doesn’t really tell the right story. So let’s instead define it by something that can be evenly measured (relatively) across all levels. Encounters per day.

Encounters graph

You may be wondering: What the hell am I looking at? Well, let me interpret by asking you a question.

Notice anything? There are three things that really stick out to me. The first is that BIG jump in encounters needed at 3rd level. The second is that build-up between 7th and 11th level, where the highest number of necessary encounters peaks at level 10. The final thing I notice is the HUGE dip in necessary encounters starting at 11th level and persisting for the rest of the progression.

What does this mean? It means that you jump from needing six encounters to reach level 3 to needing a whopping FIFTEEN to get to level four. This signifies something that they’ve stated since before the Player’s Handbook launched. The first three levels of a given class are designed to get you used to the system. You aren’t really a full-fledged adventurer until level 3. This bears out in the xp system, as well. The first two levels of the game have you on training wheels, only needing you to get 6 encounters each in order to level. Then, you enter the big leagues, and there’s some build-up in the amount of experience you need until you get to level 5, which as we established, is a milestone level. Then, the amount of experience needed drops until level 8, when it starts building toward your next milestone. Then, at level 10, you need a whopping 17.5 encounters to finally reach your next milestone, at level 11.

Notice the huge drop, there? You can see a tiny divot in the actual experience graph here, as well. What does this mean? It means that Level 11 is the climax of the movie. It’s the biggest level in the game. And yet, if you check the graph again, it requires a minuscule amount of experience to continue as compared to its previous level. Not quite reaching the training wheels of levels 1-2, but a happy middle ground between them. Why? Because it’s the climax. It’s a big moment where you should feel super awesome, and then it’s over. Unlike level 3, which has the job of getting you used to playing in the big leagues, this is supposed to be like an explosion of awesome! And then you drop into the falling action. Every level from that point on requires nine or ten encounters to advance, as opposed to the fifteen to seventeen in prior levels. Level 11 is where you reached your peak. The rest is so constant because those are your Paragon levels, in 4e terms. They’re the levels where you’re supposed to feel like a superhero. There isn’t really anything new or special; you just kind of advance until you reach 20th level.

Want proof? Look at our breakdown of the fighter. Between levels 11 and 20, it gains ONE new class feature that isn’t just and advancement of another: Survivor. And that doesn’t come up until level 18. Everything else is either an Ability Score increase or an a progression of an existing feature. And if you check our encounter graph, you’ll see that level 17 has an uptick in number of encounters needed. This is because it’s a buildup to a pretty major level. Level 18 is, usually, kind of a big deal. It’s the level that signifies that you’re at the end of your progression, so getting to it should take a little more time.

Want further proof? Let’s look at the rogue. I’m not going to do a breakdown like I did for the fighter, but you can see it in the basic pdf. Almost all of the rogue’s REALLY cool abilities, such as Cunning Action, Uncanny Dodge, Evasion and Reliable Talent? They all come in the first 11 levels. And while it does have more unique abilities beyond that point than the fighter, let’s take a look at them, shall we? Blindsense is neat, but only works out to 10 feet. Slippery mind is…good, and gives you a third save, but it isn’t exactly exciting. Elusive another good ability, but it doesn’t exactly have the punch of the rogue’s other defensive techniques.

D&D classes are designed with the idea of peaks and valleys in mind. There are big moments in the class’s design, and then there are deep ravines where you get to simply enjoy the scenery and get familiar with your new toys.

Now, you might be wondering why I just spent 2000 words and three graphs telling you that classes have peaks and valleys in their design. It’s because what we just went over is the key to designing classes in 5e. It’s the blueprints which we can use to design any class our heart desires.

Next time, we’ll continue this discussion and talk about the actual building materials one needs to construct a class. Features and rules and how it all connects to D&D’s three-pillar design.

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