A Memorandum on Class Design: Milestones, Thematics, and Details

Go read part 1 HERE.

All right, let’s review.

We now know the excitement curve—that’s what I’m calling it. A class builds in excitement, with a couple of dips, toward level 11, at which point there is a deep and immediate drop. Thereafter, there’s a slow, ten-level climb up to level 20. And this is intentional. The post-eleven levels are, in terms of experience points, designed to move by more quickly than the first 10. They’re about reveling in your skill and power, whereas the first 10 are about achieving mastery over your skillset. By level 11, you should have every core feature that a class offers. Any new features that come after that point should just be whipped cream and a cherry.

We also learned that 5e class design is very milestone-based, your primary milestones being level 3, 5, 11, and 20. Level 3 is the moment where you become a real member of your class, leaving that training period of levels 1 and 2 behind. Level 5 is where you really hit your stride. 3rd level spells, Extra Attack, and other important features arrive at this level. Level 11 is the climax of the whole class. It’s also where you prove your dedication to your class, as multiclassing to the same point in another class becomes impossible. Then, finally, we have level 20, where you gain your “capstone.” It’s not the be-all, end-all of the class, but it’s definitely a milestone in the class’s progression.

And now that we know the foundation of class design in 5e, it’s time to talk about the real meat of the issue. The brick-and-mortar stuff. How, in fact, does one design a class?

A Note Regarding Balance and Class Features

I’m not going to talk a lot about balance in this document. Yes, it’s important that you have balance in your class. Level 3 characters shouldn’t be swinging around +10 sticks that deal 25d10 damage. But balance, numerically, is actually pretty easy to achieve. There are 12 other classes out there, and a lot of areas for you to look in order to determine how powerful a class feature should be at a particular level.

Balance is a bit more challenging, though, when one talks about incomparables. What is an incomparable? It’s an ability that cannot be compared, numerically, with other abilities. What’s better? Being able to hide in a crowd, or the ability to track foes without error? Teleportation or mind control? Flight or Invisibility? These are incomparables, because the best answer to any of these questions is: “it depends.”

Balancing incomparables is, honestly, simply a matter of study and system mastery. The more you use the system, the greater understanding you’ll have over how incomparables should be used. Is a short-range teleport too powerful for a 1st-level character? Well, probably not, if you take into consideration the Eladrin in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. But you have to handle it carefully. And that goes for all types of abilities, not just the extraordinary and supernatural. When dealing with incomparables, it’s best to take some time to study other, similar classes and abilities to get an idea of how the ability trues up against its compatriots.

I’d also like to say that I’m not here to talk about how to develop cool class abilities. This is an article about how to put a class together, not on what to put in a class. If you want ideas, then I suggest you search them out for yourself. Look up historical documents on your class concept, research mythology, read books, watch movies and play video games. Absorb everything you can and use that to come up with ideas, because I am not here to teach creativity.

The Big Question

So…YOU want to build a class. Before you do anything else, you must first ask yourself this question: Does this idea you have need to be a class? The thing about 5e, you see, is that it actually has a REALLY robust class/subclass system that removes a lot of the necessity for genuine level 1-20 class design. Most of the time, with most classes, there is no need for a new base class, as most ideas fit perfectly into a subclass.

If you wanted to create a Final Fantasy Dark Knight, for example, then you do have the OPTION to create a full-blown level 1-20 class. That’s what I did back in the days of 3.5, and it’s probably the same thing I would have done in 4e, if I’d spent any genuine amount of time with it. In 5e, though? In 5e, you have a wealth of options where a dark knight would fit in as a subclass. The fighter is generic enough that adding a supernatural dark knight that fuels its powers with its own blood would feel right at home. The barbarian, too, already has a set of class features just waiting to be supplemented with the dark knight’s particular brand of occultism. Or maybe you want to go a bit more traditional with it, make a literal opposite to the paladin, as was the dark knight’s design in Final Fantasy 4. The Paladin already has the Oathbreaker in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and is just begging for more dark subclasses.

Compare this to, say, an inventor/gadgeteer/tech class. One COULD argue that it might fit into the rogue, creating a gadget-based infiltrator (James Bond, for example). Other than that, however, I don’t really see a good place for it, and the idea of an engineer extends far beyond the scope of a roguish archetype. In this case, a full class might be necessary. There’s actually more to be said on the subject of the rogue and skill-based classes in 5e, but this is not the time for that. It’s another article waiting in the wings.

The point is that you should really look at the scope of your class, and ask if it’s necessary for a full class. Sometimes, you can get away without it. Sometimes you can’t.And sometimes, to be quite frank, you don’t want to. The ranger is actually a perfect example of this. There are plenty of arguments to be made that a ranger is, in fact, a perfect candidate for subclass territory. It’s a fairly narrow theme that is based upon other, more broad classes. It’s a little bit fighter, a little bit rogue, a little bit druid, and a little bit paladin (which itself is a combination of classes, but doesn’t suffer from the specificity of the ranger). Paladin already has a subclass that makes it more rangery, and it wouldn’t be difficult to make fighter, rogue, and druid archetypes that make them all feel a bit more like rangers. Want to play a stealthy ranger, leaping from the shadows? Play the Predator rogue. Want to play a woodsman warrior, with a penchant for tracking foes? Play the Huntsman fighter! What if you wanted to play a battle shaman with a companion beast to aid in combat? Circle of Beasts druid, comin’ at ya! And then there’s the Oath of the Ancients for paladins, already an option in the Player’s Handbook.

And yet, we choose to design rangers as their own class. I decided to build a ranger as its own class, despite the fact that it would have been a lot easier to claim that the idea doesn’t need an entire 1-20 progression to get the point across. And, you know what? It doesn’t. But I want to do it anyway, because rangers are cool. And I don’t want to play a Huntsman fighter or a Predator rogue. I want to play a RANGER.

Now, before you look at the last two paragraphs and use them to justify your new class, let me reiterate what the previous four paragraphs were telling you. Most of the time, a new class is NOT necessary. Most of the time, a class concept will fit perfectly inside another class’s framework. Too many D&D systems have fallen into the trap of filling every new role with a brand new class. And, you know what? If the current D&D team gets any kind of real funding, then I expect them to fall into the same trap. But I am not going to fall into that trap. You won’t find any Loot the Body Codex: 10 New Base Classes coming from me.

Where do I Start?

Now that I’ve wasted everyone’s time by telling you how to not build a class, let’s actually talk about some class design. If you’ve got it in your head to design a class, then you’ve obviously got an idea. Nobody sits down to design something with a blank sheet of paper in front of them without SOME idea of what they want to design. A Final Fantasy Dark Knight, a Conduit from inFAMOUS, Batman, whatever. When you sit down to design a thing, you have an idea of what that thing is. That’s your first step. Write that down. What is it that you’re going to design?

Next, you want to answer two questions:

  • What is this class’s purpose?
  • What is the narrative of this class?

Let’s go over the first question, because there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. The Angry GM spoke a short while ago about Monster Design (I know, I link to him a lot. And I’m going to keep doing so as long as he puts out great content), and how one of the first things you should determine, when designing custom monsters, is the monster’s purpose. Is it a minion to harry the party, a guardian of some kind, a big boss, etc.? The same can be said for class design. Except, in class design, it’s a bit more complicated. The purpose of every class is actually the same, when you boil it down:

“This class’s purpose is to provide the player with an enjoyable experience that grows and evolves throughout the course of the game.”

See, but that doesn’t really help us. Instead, we need something like this:

“The fighter’s purpose is to be an active member of combat, without the major use of magic or thematically-specific class features. It grows in both offense and defense as it develops, with a heavy emphasis on character customization through Ability Score Increases or Feats.”

Or this:

“The wizard’s purpose is to be the definitive spellcasting class, focusing on the idea of practical mastery rather than innate power. As it progresses, it will convey the idea of achievement through study and focus, with great variance in style of play based on their arcane tradition.”

See what I mean? Effectively, you want to convey everything about the class, in admittedly general terms, in two to three sentences. It’s a thesis statement, like the ones your teachers taught you about in middle school. It should establish not only a class’s thematic ideas, but also a general idea of its mechanics. As a bit of a preview, here’s my thesis statement for my ranger:

“The ranger’s purpose is to be a wandering warrior with heavy emphasis on practical knowledge and tactics-based combat. It also possesses a strong tie to mysticism. As it grows, it becomes a more capable and skilled survivalist, and develops its combat skills through its chosen path.”

A little longer than the others, but the ranger isn’t quite as broad as the fighter or wizard. It has to cover more thematic bases than either of them. It speaks to the ranger’s attunement to the less-traveled places of the world, its magical talent, and how most of its combat strength is tied directly into its subclass.

The second question: “what is the narrative of this class?” is one of thematic consistency. Way back when I reviewed the Waterborne Adventures Unearthed Arcana, I talked about a class’s narrative when discussing the Storm Sorcerer. In that case, I talked about how the class abilities showed someone who didn’t necessarily know how to control their power, but slowly developed to the point of having total mastery over their tie to the storm.

Class narrative is something that more subtle in class design. Establishing a core concept for your class? A purpose? That’s the easy stuff. That’s what goes on the cover of the book, as it were. Narrative, though, is…difficult to describe.

Every class tells a story. It might not always be obvious, but it’s almost universally true. Especially in 5e, which is a system that has a unique view on how choice affects a class’s development. Or, at least it’s unique to me. As previously established, I come from a Pathfinder background. And in Pathfinder, choice is everything. Classes are incredibly customizable, occasionally to the point of absurdity (the original Summoner is a prime example). However, this makes for a very erratic progression, as you can choose basically whatever you want whenever you gain a level. You often end up choosing your favorite, most useful abilities as early as possible in order to maximize your effectiveness. This leads to certain levels where you look at a vast list of optional class features (I’m looking at you, Rogue Talent list) and have no idea what to choose. There’s a story to be told in Pathfinder class design, but it’s one of constant progression to the point of perfection. As we established last time, 5th edition D&D is built on peaks and valleys, not a constant march toward an ultimate goal. There are little victories along the way, as well as major milestones and simple moments to rest and digest.

Let’s take a look at my favorite example: The Champion Fighter.

It’s the story of a warrior trying to be the best. Early on, they focus on training and being relentless to achieve this (fighting style, action surge). As they grow, however, they begin to realize that there are other aspects to being a great warrior than being a master combatant. They explore other avenues and expand their knowledge (Ability Score Increases, Remarkable Athlete). After this departure, they return to their passion: battle, but with a greater respect for its various aspects, and use that to become a master (Indomitable, fighting style, extra attack). From there, they continue to expand their horizons (Ability Score Increases) as well as improve what they already know (indomitable, action surge, superior critical) before their survivability and skill in combat reach their ultimate peak (survivor, extra attack).

The Battle Master and Eldritch Knight are different takes on the same basic concept. One of the things I will note, however, is that the Eldritch Knight is the one option that never takes a definitive break from combat. Mechanically, I understand that this is because they’re actually giving up a lot of their raw power in combat by granting greater versatility through magic. However, thematically, this makes the class feel more like something out of 3.5, where the progression becomes a constant trudge forward and up, rather than a learning experience. This is bolstered by the fact that the Eldritch Knight’s most interesting abilities are its Eldritch Strike and Arcane Charge. Eldritch Strike arrives on the scene at the right time, as a perfect lead-in to their third attack. Eldritch Charge, however, is not something I would expect that late in the game. It feels like something that would have come earlier on a different class, and is only at level 15 because War Magic needed to be established before level 10.

In essence, a class’s progression should be able to tell us at least something about the character behind that progression. Obviously not every fighter is going to be the same. And different players are going to find enjoyment in different aspects of the level progression. Regardless of why people play the class, the class’s design remains the same, and gives you an idea of what you’re about to play. If you don’t like the idea of playing a warrior seeking physical perfection, and would rather play a warrior who explores the balance between self-growth and the necessity to aid others, then the Paladin is probably more your speed.

Yet again, though, this is subtle. And, often, it’s the reason you see people saying things like “I’m just not a fan of X class, but I really love Y.” They don’t like the story that’s being told, whether they realize it or not.

Using Milestones to Facilitate Design

All right. We have our idea, and we have our two questions answered. What’s next? Well, next, we build our class. Building a class in 5e isn’t actually that hard, because once you understand the system, a lot of the workload is done for you. Other than the obvious level-fillers (Ability Score Increases, New Spell Levels, etc.) our greatest advantage in 5e design is recognizing and utilizing the Milestone system.

Milestones help us design classes in chunks, rather than designing the whole damn thing at once. There’s a reason, after all, that the two new/variant classes that Wizards has released so far have had five levels, and not twenty.

When starting out, we begin with the first five levels. These five levels should be able to tell us about all of the core aspects of our class. Once a character has reached level 5, they should be considered, definitively, a member of their class. Anyone should be able to look at an average member of a class and say “that’s a ranger/wizard/bard/etc.” As we’ve established, though, this actually means we’re hitting two milestones. Because while level 5 establishes you as a definitive member of your class, level 3 is where you come into your own and leave behind the training wheels of the first two levels.

These first five levels have a pretty big job. And that means that you have to get a lot of the hard work done here. Let’s go level by level, because these really are some of the most important levels to get right.

Level 1. Generally, level 1 features should include something definitive and iconic to your class, but not necessarily something super-powerful. Barbarians get Rage, which is surprisingly defensive in 5e, considering its history. Bards get Bardic Inspiration. Fighters gain a fighting style. Monks gain Martial Arts. It’s an establishing level that gives you a good baseline.

Level 2. This is where a class gets to step up its game. Abilities here tend to synergize well with the abilities gained at level 1. Reckless Attack works surprisingly well with Rage. Action Surge has obvious uses to a fighter. The monk’s ki allows them to be the most rapid-striking class in the game, playing exceptionally well with its Martial Arts ability. You’ll also likely notice that many classes gain two abilities at this level. This isn’t 100% necessary, depending on the power of a class, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Level 3. For most classes, this is where they gain access to their subclasses. Note that primary spellcasters (wizards, sorcerers, clerics, druids, warlocks) actually tend to gain it earlier as a rule. This is usually because level 3 brings them 2nd level spells, so a major class feature at this level would generally be considered overkill.

Level 4. Ability Score Improvement. This is a hard and fast rule. Classes do not gain this earlier, nor later. Level 4 is THE level. This is actually a really effective way of keeping track of a class’s progression, as well. Ability Score Improvements always come at levels 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19. All classes gain those 5. This makes it easy to determine where other class abilities should fit in, as those slots are taken.

Level 5. Your first major milestone feature. Note that with most classes, this is a foregone conclusion. Martial classes (barbarian, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger) gain Extra Attack here, without fail, while magical classes (bard, cleric, druid, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard) gain 3rd level spells. Both of these are pretty big deals, and if you’re making a martial or magical class, you would do best to stick to this paradigm.

The odd man out, you’ll note, is the rogue. This is something I’d like to cover in more depth in a future article, but for now note that it does, in fact, gain both a Sneak Attack die, as well as Uncanny Dodge: arguably its most useful defensive class ability.

Post-level 5, we don’t really have to design level-by-level. You will, eventually, but it’s easier to design in chunks.

Levels 6-9. Levels 6-9 should generally be cooldown levels. You should gain a neat feature somewhere in there (Evasion on the aforementioned rogue, for example), but this is generally a time to rest and explore the features you’ve gained thus far. This is also the time for you to explore additional pillars of the game. What do I mean by pillars? Well, D&D 5e prides itself on its three-pillar design. I won’t go into too much detail here (this is neither the time nor place, and this article is already getting long), suffice it to say that the three are Combat, Exploration, and Social Interaction. Most classes focus on combat. The rogue, again, is a bit of an odd man out (don’t get me wrong. It focuses on combat, but is MUCH more free spirited in exploring other pillars throughout its development), but combat is the primary focus of every class. And that makes sense, because D&D is, ostensibly, a combat-based game. Combat is how you gain experience points and advance, after all. It’s the most robust and carefully-constructed feature in the entire system. It makes sense that most classes would focus on it. Use these levels, however, to expand your class’s horizons and see what else it can do. A swashbuckler might gain a fast-talker ability. A sage might gain a talent for research. An acrobat might gain traits that allow it to be mobile when exploring or moving in stealth. Let your imagination run wild.

Levels 10-11. Again we come to a milestone. And again, we build up to it. Level 10 should feel neat, but not impressive. Level 10 is the herald, you see, for level 11. The big kahuna. The feature you’ve been waiting for. The badass monkey with a big blue butt and teeth as long as your…pinky. I think we’ve talked enough about level 11, though. You get it by now.

Levels 12-19. Ideally, twelfth through nineteenth level should all be gradual buildup toward your capstone at level 20. Also ideally, it should primarily consist of class features advancing and improving from what they were before. There is, of course, room to introduce something new, but it should expand on a concept established in the first eleven levels. As I stated before, level 11 is where you prove your mastery over your class. Beyond that, it’s just self-improvement.

This is also a good opportunity to expand your secondary-pillar features. Maybe enhance your level 6-9 technique, or evolve the idea into something new. Play with the class a little, and have some fun.

Level 20. This is your capstone. It should be the logical conclusion to your class. A fourth attack for the fighter. A stroke of luck for the rogue. An ultra-demigod form for the self-righteous prick. Not quite the level 11 feature, but something that brings finality to the whole progression.

What About Subclasses?

Not that this article hasn’t gone on long enough, but we still have one last thing to talk about. Subclasses. Subclasses are the fine details of a class. They’re the variables that make it interesting. And the dirty little secret is that when you’re initially designing a class, you don’t actually have to design more than one subclass. Treat it like it belongs in the Basic Rules PDF. One and done. Once you have a basic, core idea for your class. A 1-20 progression that you’re proud of, then expand the idea and consider what else it could do with other subclasses.

And subclasses are, to be honest, pretty easy. A subclass is just a set of related abilities that scale in power over time. They’re always tied to a particular concept, and they stick to it throughout the class’s progression. The Oath of Devotion on the paladin is all about goodness, purity, and facing down evil. The Assassin is about infiltration and the efficient dispatch of foes. The college of valor is about bringing a bit of battle to the bard’s casty exterior. In this way, they’re pretty easy to design.

However, there is a bit of subtlety that should be noted. See, subclasses effect different classes in different ways. In the Modifying Classes Unearthed Arcana, there was some lip service paid to the fact that certain classes are influenced by their subclass choice more than others. A fighter has most of its core abilities tied into its base class structure, and the Martial Archetypes simply offer it new options to use in and out of combat, without altering its basic structure. The Warlock is the same way, with a very solid core that is influenced only in minor ways by its Otherworldly Patron (the warlock is more influenced by its Invocations, in fact). Compare that to the Druid, though, or the Wizard, and things are quite a different story. Classes like these, which possess a sparse smattering of class features to begin with, are very heavily influenced by their subclass choice. The druid’s entire combat philosophy is determined this way, and a wizard will base a large portion of its spell selection on which school it chooses. And since spell selection is truly what influences how a wizard plays, this means that a wizard’s Arcane Tradition is VERY meaningful in how the class develops over time.

What does this mean for you? It means that you have to decide to what degree your class is controlled by its subclasses. Is it a barbarian, in that it basically plays the same regardless of your choice? Or is it a cleric, whose entire life cycle can be determined by its choice in domain? More likely, it’s somewhere in between, like a rogue or a monk.

Determine how a subclass influences the rest of the class when you come up with its core, because that could determine how the class plays overall.

So, Are You Ready?

I have no idea. I certainly hope that reading this has helped you, but I also understand that I did speak in fairly vague terms throughout this article. Such vagueness, unfortunately, leaves a lot up to interpretation, which means that you may have just read 4500 words and come away with nothing. It is also unavoidable when it comes to class design.

Unlike monster design, which is mostly a science in D&D 5e, class design is primarily art. It’s structured art, with a consistent pattern, but it’s still art. It’s not about hard and fast rules so much as it is about understanding the flow and the shape the design takes. I know that sounds wishy-washy and less-than-useful, but it’s the truth. I’m going to be presenting my ranger next week, and it’s a class that went through at least 5 drafts before I came up with something that worked for me. And the reason it went through so many drafts isn’t because the balance was off. The version I post next week will undoubtedly be unbalanced in some—if not most—ways. I scrapped 5 versions of the class because it didn’t flow right. Because I hadn’t harnessed the thematics of the class. Because it wasn’t quite the ranger I was looking for. And, you know what? I still have time between now and then, and it’ll probably continue to change.

Because class design, for all of its rules (and it has many) is an art.

4 thoughts on “A Memorandum on Class Design: Milestones, Thematics, and Details

Add yours

  1. Loved this post. I’ve been using it as a guideline when creating a new class for an upcoming campaign and it’s been a big help. Mind if I toss a link to it when I finish?


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