Base classes are difficult to design in 5e. In no way does it mean that it is impossible, but there are a few big hurdles to overcome if you decide that you want to design your own base class. If you have spent more than three minutes on DMsGuild, you probably have noticed that there are so many community created base classes out there. Some of these base classes try to capture the same concept, so you might see many similar ideas floating around. At their best, they are inventive and fun, while at their least developed, they can be derivative copies of existing base classes to the degree of seeming obliviously reproduced. In today’s article, we’ll look at how base classes are built and what you need to do to carve out a new space among the twelve existing classes.
This will be a multi-part article about concepting base classes, and in a future article, we will cover mechanics!
The Dirty Dozen
D&D 5e has twelve base classes. Before you start trying to design anything for 5e, be familiar with them. You don’t need to learn them all, but you should be able to describe what they do and be able to distinguish how they are different.
Fighters– Fighters are a martial class that focus on weapon attacks. They get the most possible attacks of any class, and are built to survive combat. They can wield any weapon and wear any armor they want. Versatility on the battlefield is their forte.
Rangers– Rangers are ambushers, explorers, and hunters. They specialize in knowing their enemies and the terrain they hunt in. They get some magic to complement their abilities and tend to have specialized combat abilities.
Fighters vs Rangers– Fighters’ more generalized combat abilities make them more suited to combat than rangers. While rangers can hold their own, many of their reconnaissance and exploration abilities make rangers better infiltrators and trackers. Rangers often have more utility thanks to their spells, and they make up for their lack of pure combat focus through their flexibility.
By being able to even summarize the difference, you know what is covered in the existing base classes, you can better understand what is covered. Between Fighter and Druid, Ranger fills the space in between. Between Fighter and Cleric, Paladin fits in that spot. Between Fighter and Wizard, or Fighter and Sorcerer? You maybe have Warlock, but it isn’t concrete. We’ll talk about Warlocks later, they’re an interesting specimen in this whole discussion. If you understand how to compare the classes, you’re one step closer to being able to design a full base class.
The Class and the Three Pillars
D&D is built on three pillars of gameplay: Combat (its first and foremost), Exploration, and Social Interaction. Knowing where a base class stands in each of these pillars, and to what degree is extremely important. Most of the classes are built with combat in mind. It is the very root of the game. In today’s modern D&D community, some people might argue that it isn’t, but the fact that most of the class features are written as to how they function in relationship to combat and initiative is indicative of this. Each class is given a predominant role in combat. Fourth Edition tried to codify these roles into Defenders, Controllers, Leaders, and Strikers. While these distinctions have less hold over Fifth Edition, it gives an insight into how classes might be categorized based on similar traits. It should be worth noting that Fourth Edition’s approach to the Three Pillars was even more so focused on combat than 5e is, even now.
In order to give a class a clear identity, you should establish where the class fits in Combat. Your game might not be geared entirely towards combat, but if you want to make a base class that any game or player could pick up and use, that’s where you ought to begin. Sometimes creators will say, “I want to make a class that doesn’t have any function in combat.” At the right table, this could maybe work, but it is easier to play a class that has those options and not use them, then build something that doesn’t function in combat whatsoever. When establishing your class’ role in combat, it may be easiest to think in terms of what sort of focus these types of characters have. Are you are creating a spellcaster that would use big area of effect abilities, or a martial class that focuses on mobility or striking down one opponent? The class should stick to that theme, and then the subclasses can expand outwards on that concept.
Once you establish the role they have in combat, then decide their relationship to the other pillars. For instance, Ranger is more so geared towards Exploration, while Bard is more so geared towards Social Interaction. Part of the design of Rogues is that they are meant to be geared in whichever way you would prefer them to go, similar to Bards but with one major difference: Bard is dependent upon Charisma the second you build them. There is an implicit suggestion as to what kind of character you are going to make when you choose Bard. Rogues are not heavily dependent on any one ability score other than Dexterity from the start. Essentially, the game itself is not implicitly telling you from the beginning what sort of character your Rogue will be. Remember this as you are designing your base class. By assigning what other ability scores the class is going to be better at, you are partially informing what sort of relationship to the rest of the game the class has.
Each of the official twelve classes, and the upcoming official two (Artificer and Psion) have their own narrative. When establishing the identity of the class, this can usually be described in a single sentence. For instance to describe each of the arcane casters:
Bards are jacks-of-all-trades who cast arcane spells by way of moving performances and pure charisma.
Sorcerers are spellcasters who have an innate connection to arcane magic.
Warlocks are spellcasters who have gained their arcane abilities through a pact with an otherworldly power.
Wizards are spellcasters who have devoted themselves to the study of arcane magic.
Each of these gives an apt description of each unique relationship the class has to arcane magic. In creating the narrative for the class, you must distinguish them from the others. Sorcerers and Wizards exist in two different spaces in the narrative despite their similarities. The tricky part from this point on, is finding the narrative space for the subclasses. It could be argued that a Swashbuckler is a Fighter, or the Samurai is a monk, or any of the wizard subclasses could fit into Sorcerer, but ultimately in comes down to the narrative and the design.
In the next couple months, I will be adding a Shaman class to DMsGuild that will sit alongside Druid and Ranger. Part of the challenge of introducing the Shaman is clarifying where in this system of “primal” magic (thanks Fourth edition) the Shaman sits. Anyone could argue that a shamans and druids are the same thing, and the Circle of the Shepherd communes with spirits, but what if we made a class whose powers were driven by the spirits?
According to D&D Beyond and the Player’s handbook, Druid gains its power from the forces of nature. Compare that to the introduction to our new Shaman:
“Shamans derive their magic through practiced communion with primeval spirits. The more powerful the connection the shaman has to the Spirit Realm, the more powerful the manifestations of the shaman’s spiritual power.”
With this introduction the Shaman is clearly defined as a class that relies on their relationship to spirits, as opposed to communion with abstract nature or a nature deity. Now that the narrative portion is fleshed out, we can move to mechanics, which we will cover in our next installment of this series. Mechanics are such a huge part of class building, it requires its own article. During that article we will build a new class as we go, the Duelist. By the end, we will determine if we have a functioning new class or a base class disaster.
Until then, you can look forward to the Shaman coming on DMsGuild, and if you want to support us, consider subscribing to our Patreon. What did you think of this article? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below. Until then, keep creating and stay awesome!
Art: Urza’s Tome- Aaron Miller, Wizards of the Coast