Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Breaking Down 5E Class Design, Part 1: Defining Class and Class Archetypes

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome!
The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been critically acclaimed, winning numerous awards and bringing many new gamers into the hobby. In particular, it's been lauded for having exciting, engaging character classes. What makes them so great? In this multi-part article series, I'll break down the elements and design choices of a fifth edition character class.

The first post in this series will take some time understanding what a class represents in fifth edition and defining the broad archetypes each class draws from. Follow-up posts will break down the mechanics of class features (including spells) and subclasses, showing how these elements fit into the overall picture of a 5E class.

Analytical Methods
Our first step to understanding class design will be to examine the definition of a class. We'll then take a look at the elements of character building that are independent from class in order to understand the traits that class can't define. Next, we'll take a quick look at the three "pillars" of D&D play. Finally, we'll construct a model for four broad class archetypes - Warrior, Skilled, Mage, and Support - and discuss how each of the twelve Player's Handbook classes fit in.

Throughout this article series, expect references to the D&D Player's Handbook, the primary resource for D&D 5E classes. I've also drawn from Wizards' Unearthed Arcana series, a monthly column that releases playtest rules - including new classes and class options! In particular, Rodney Thompson's article "Modifying Classes" contains some very valuable insight on class design.

What defines a class?
Every adventurer is a member of a class. Class broadly describes a character's vocation, what special talents he or she possesses, and the tactics he or she is most likely to employ when exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, or engaging in a tense negotiation.
 - D&D Player's Handbook, page 11
Since the very first incarnation of D&D, character class has been arguably the most important defining trait for a character. Referring to your character as a "Wizard" or "Bard" immediately sums up your character's skills, abilities, and role in relation to other characters. More specifically, class in 5E has a large influence on combat style, problem-solving abilities, distinctive talents, and resource management. Class also plays a role in a character's story, background, and place in the world.

What isn't a class?
In fifth edition, it's important to understand what class isn't as well. We can do this primarily by examining the elements that a character chooses independent of class.
  • Ability scores show a character's innate aptitudes for a wide range of tasks.
  • A character's Race partially defines their cultural background and their innate skills and abilities.
  • Backgrounds also help define cultural background, along with showing the character's career or former career. Notably, in fifth edition backgrounds also determine some of the character's skills.
  • Equipment partially determines a character's fighting style and problem-solving options.
  • The optional Feat rule lets a character establish a particular area of specialty in combat, exploration, or interaction and further define their role in the party. Some feats enhance an area a character's already strong in, while others let them dabble in another area.
Looking at these other options in aggregate, we can see that the designers of fifth edition want characters to be modular. A character's class has some impact on nearly everything mentioned above, but it doesn't entirely define any of it. For example, a "thief" character could be a Rogue, but could also be another class with the Criminal background. By contrast, the Rogue isn't "locked in" to being a thief - he or she could be an archeologist, military scout, court-savvy heir to the throne, or swashbuckling pirate. Therefore, we see that classes can't be too restrictive and they can't claim a particular domain as totally unique.

Class Theme and Story
From simply reading the names of classes, we can see that each character class represents something unique in a character's story. A "Druid," "Bard," or "Barbarian" clearly has a place in the world, and even a "Fighter" or "Rogue" suggests something about that character's life path and narrative role. The paragraphs of description preceding a class's powers give a player plenty of narrative hooks to describe their character's place in the world. The abilities gained through leveling up also play a part, reflecting a character's increased competence with new and stronger abilities.

Some D&D classes are more strongly themed than others. Compare the Fighter to the Monk, for example: the Fighter's abilities are broad and could describe just about any sort of warrior, where the Monk's abilities highly suggest an Eastern unarmed warrior with mystical powers. While it is possible to build a class outside its suggested theme, the system does not encourage this. For example, a Monk described as an unarmed street fighter without supernatural ability will quickly challenge the player's ability to suspend disbelief; there's simply too many built-in mystic powers.

The class system is flexible. The above "street fighter" concept could be built as a Fighter, Rogue, or even Barbarian, depending on the fighting style and skills the player wanted to focus on. However, it is clear that classes carry narrative as well as mechanical weight.

Three Pillars of D&D
Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: explorationsocial interaction, and combat.
-D&D Player's Handbook, page 8 
Before we dive into analyzing class mechanics, let's discuss one more design assumption. According to the designers, the actual gameplay of D&D is split into three parts - exploration, social interaction, and combat. Understanding these different areas will help us see where different class features fit into the larger picture of the game.
  • Exploration covers a wide variety of actives within D&D - solving a rune puzzle in a dungeon, finding a safe path through a forest, sneaking through an enemy stronghold, or chasing an assassin through busy city streets. What unites most exploration is its focus on overcoming static obstacles (climbing a cliff) in the pursuit of a larger goal (ambushing the orcish stronghold from the back without being noticed).
    The most basic Exploration feature is a skill like Athletics, Nature, or Perception, but some classes offer extra support for the pillar. Usually these features will either allow a character to perform a task easily (the Ranger's Natural Explorer allows stealth without moving slowly) or bypass an obstacle altogether (the Wizards' knock spell "solves" a locked door). Looking ahead, we'll see that some classes affect exploration more than others, with Skilled classes taking the lead.
  • Social Interaction is a bit different, as it involves interacting with characters controlled by the Dungeon Master. Some social interaction is purely "for fun," but most of it requires the characters to convince or manipulate a NPC to act in their best interests or give them information. This could be anything from negotiating an alliance with the hobgoblins to interrogating a prisoner to bluffing one's way into a fancy party.
    When we look at features, we'll see that very few of them directly affect social interaction, with the exception of skills like Intimidation, Insight, Persuasion, etc. and a few spells like charm person. Instead, much of a character's social interaction skills come from their ability scores and background.
  • The largest part of the rules, along with the vast majority of class features, focus on Combat. Essentially, combat is comprised of situations where you're pitted against other creatures in a physical challenge, often with the aim to knock out or kill the opposition.
    Features boosting combat run the gamut, from increasing survivability to dishing out extra damage to providing extra tactical versatility. Because of the omnipresence of combat in class, most of our analysis of a class's role will focus on combat features.
The "Three Pillars" aren't the most comprehensive definition of D&D gameplay situations, but they do cover most cases that arise in typical play. In our analysis of class features, we'll be looking for the situations the feature is designed for along with its applications in other pillars.

Class Archetypes
The next part of this article will focus on dissecting the twelve classes in the Player's Handbook. We'll see what these classes focus on, how they fulfill their roles, and what separates one class from another.

As a tool for grouping the classes, I've divided them into four archetypes based on the four iconic D&D classes (Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric). While the Fifth Edition designers may not have had these exact archetypes in mind while building the classes, they are a useful tool to understand where class abilities fit into the larger picture of class design. Furthermore, an archetype provides a "template" that can be helpful when deciding what features to assign to a class. Every class in the Player's Handbook can be described in terms of one of these four archetypes - the Warrior, the Skilled, the Mage, and the Support - and most fit into more than one category.

When we're discussing archetypes, we'll mostly be focusing on the features offered by the base class, not its "subclasses." In an upcoming article, we'll take a look at the subclasses - decision points early in a character's lifespan that determine a set of future abilities - and see that they offer the potential to diversify a class's role or further focus it toward a particular specialty. For now, though, we'll just look at the classes in broad strokes, disregarding their subclasses.

Analysis of a particular archetype will begin with a look at the core class features of the iconic class that fills that role - the Fighter for the Warrior archetype, the Rogue for the Skilled archetype, the Wizard for the Mage archetype, and the Cleric for the Support archetype. Core features are typically low-level abilities along with abilities gained when the class increases in tier (levels 5, 11, and 17). We'll then derive the core functions of that archetype and look at the methods the iconic class uses to fulfill them. Finally, we'll look at the other classes that fall under that archetype and see how they differ in fulfilling its role.

The basic Fighter supports a wide
variety of fighting styles. Fitting!
Fighter: The Warrior Archetype
The Fighter's classic model is simple: the warrior whose single speciality is combat with weapons and armor. Among the core features of the Fighter class, we see Extra Attack, a d10 hit die, and proficiency with all weapons and armor. This adds up to significant offensive and defensive strength, with an expectation that the character can hold up in a melee fight and dish out significant damage while they're at it. Out of combat, the Fighter has few specific options for Exploration and Social Interaction beyond a few skills. The Fighter's ideal ability score distribution does support Strength and Dexterity-based skills, which are typically focused on Exploration.

Looking at the Fighter in particular, we see that the class has significant flexibility in its fighting style. Most of the Fighter features can be used with melee or ranged weapons and apply to either Strength-based or Dexterity-based attacks. With the Fighter's exceptional access to Ability Score Improvements (which can be exchanged for Feats), the class can further specialize in a specific style or even multiple styles as necessary.  Furthermore, the Fighter focuses on the Combat pillar almost exclusively. While a few skills and potential Feats can apply to exploration or interaction, by default the Fighter is a combat master to the exclusion of other pillars.

Classes that draw on the Warrior archetype usually have a d10 (or higher!) hit die and have access to Extra Attack. We see significant variation in the support for different weapon styles, the means of damage-dealing and survivability, and the other roles fulfilled by the class. One large split is whether the class supports a front-line (heavy defenses and hit points), skirmish-based (effective melee attacks, but mobility is more important than defenses), or ranged fighting style. The Fighter allows for all three, but many Warrior classes only support one or two of these styles.
The Barbarian is strong and tough, but does not use heavy armor, instead relying on the Rage feature for damage reduction and various other abilities to increase mobility and survivability. The Barbarian is also "locked in" to a front-line, strength-based fighting style - many of its core features do not work at range or with Dexterity-based attacks.
The Monk has significant damage-dealing features including Extra Attack, but lacks a core ability that increase survivability (note the d8 hit dice as well). To compensate for this, the Monk has access to various mobility features (lending themselves to a skirmish-based melee fighting style) along with a panoply of idiosyncratic abilities that protect it from various harms like falling damage, charms, and poison. The Monk's signature attack ability, Stunning Strike, suggests it as a "striker" class focused on taking down - or at least neutralizing - a single target. Finally, the class draws slightly from the Skilled archetype's playbook with a few Exploration features.
The Paladin shares the Fighter's weapons and armor speciality supporting itself with spell casting and the Divine Smite feature. We can see from Divine Smite and its spell selection that the Paladin is intended to be a melee-focused class, and the available fighting styles support this. The Paladin also draws significantly from the Support archetype, boasting numerous features and spells that heal and protect ones' companions.
Like the Paladin, the Ranger has access to spells that increase damage. However, many of those spells and special abilities, along with the lack of heavy armor and the available fighting styles, support the Ranger as a skirmishing or ranged-based Warrior, not a front-line fighter like the Paladin or Barbarian. The Ranger is also clearly a Skilled hybrid, as it has access to extra skills and features that make them stronger.

Rogue: The Skilled Archetype
The Rogue has expanded from its niche as a "Thief" in original D&D to a character capable of skirmish fighting with a distinct ability (Sneak Attack really packs a punch!) and a wide out-of-combat skill set. These core abilities of a secondary combat role focused on skirmishing, a unique way to contribute in a fight, and powerful skills in the Exploration and Interaction pillars together form the core of the Skilled archetype.

In particular, the Rogue gains four skills at first level along with the crucial Expertise feature, making sure that it's immediately the best at its chosen area of skill mastery. Meanwhile, access to the Sneak Attack and Cunning Action features suggest a highly maneuverable fighter, with the capability to deal critical blows while staying out of danger. Note that the Rogue is significantly restricted in fighting style, with Sneak Attack limiting weapons to the (generally weaker) finesse and ranged variety. Unlike the Fighter, the Rogue has significant access to the Exploration and Interaction pillars with its enhanced skill selection and Expertise.

Skilled classes most typically have a d8 hit die (providing for moderate survivability), access to more than two skills, and a skirmish-based or ranged combat role. Variance between these classes include their focus in combat capability (usually accomplished through damage boosts) and the bent of their skills toward either Exploration or Social Interaction.
The Bard, a classic do-everything character, gains abilities like Jack of All Trades and Expertise to support its role as a Skilled class. In combat, the Bard doesn't particularly resemble a Skilled character, focusing on supporting allies and controlling enemies (drawing from its Mage and Support archetypes); out of combat, the Bard's spells and features are geared toward knowledge and the Social Interaction pillar. Notably, the Bard blends the Support and Skilled archetypes by allowing the class to contribute out-of-combat utility by supporting allied skills.
By far, the Monk is mostly a Warrior. However, the class has a few features that extend to other pillars slightly, mostly abilities that expand movement capabilities across difficult or vertical terrain. The Monk is also a strong skirmish fighter, which draws more on the Skilled Archetype than the Warrior, and uses its Stunning Strike to take down single targets.
The Ranger is a nature-themed Skilled class hybridized with Warrior. While the class features the Warrior's d10 hit dice, its available fighting styles and lack of heavy armor suggest a skirmish-based combat style. The class notably lacks features that add durability in combat, though its spells offer significant add-on damage options, including the ability to attack multiple foes with ranged weapons. The Ranger's skill boosts are focused toward natural environments and specific enemies, playing into the class's theme of tracker and hunter - the Ranger is strongest in its home environment.
While the Warlock draws heavily on the Mage archetype, the Eldritch Invocations offered by the class actually allow it to fulfill many Skilled roles by using magical abilities repeatedly. The Warlock's features and spells, while varied, tend toward the Social Interaction pillar, offering deceit and disguise in keeping with the class's theme. The presence of a powerful at-will attack (Eldritch Blast, particularly with the Agonizing Blast invocation) gives the Warlock a different role in combat than the typical Mage, and spells like Hex allow it to target a single foe.

Wizard: The Mage Archetype
Arguably the most classic fantasy character, the Wizard represents the skilled magic-user in D&D. Initially, the class seems tough to analyze - it's nothing but spells! In fact, a closer look at the Wizard spell list reveals the roles the designers intended for it. In combat, the Wizard mostly has access to a mixture of direct damage (magic missile, fireball) and battlefield control (hold personweb) spells. Both categories are split between single target spells with larger potential damage/effects and multi-target spells that spread a weaker effect out over more enemies. In the exploration and interaction pillars, the Wizard's spells seem to focus on outright bypassing obstacles (levitatecharm persondispel magic).
It's important to notice the restrictions on Mage classes as well as their strengths. The Wizard is weak defensively, gaining no access to armor and only a d6 hit die. It can use spells like shield to protect itself, but these spells come at the cost of effectiveness. A Mage's second restriction is resource management. They must carefully ration their spell slots, splitting them between combat effectiveness, bypassing obstacles, and protecting themselves. We'll also see that no Mage class has access to all of the spells on its spell list, instead being limited to a selection of spells.

When we look at the Wizard in particular, we see that it accomplishes its goals of combat control and bypassing obstacles primarily through adaptability. The spellbook feature ensures the Wizard will have spell options for every adventure, and the expanded ritual casting gives the Wizard the ability to further expand its repertoire of spells available in a given situation. The Wizard's list of available spells is also the longest of any Mage class, further suggesting a focus on versatility.

The Warlock offers a different style of Mage class, focusing
on quickly-recharging resources juxtaposed with strong
at-will abilities.
Pure Mages have a d6 hit die with access to no armor and only a few weapons; they are clearly meant to rely on spells in combat. Nearly all members of the archetype have access to several damaging cantrips along with low-level damage and control spells, and most have some way of leveraging out-of-combat utility through their spells. To understand the differences between different Mage classes, we'll look at the way they use their spells as well as their secondary roles.
As a jack-of-all-trades, the Bard has a limited selection of battlefield control spells, but has fewer options for direct damage. The Bard's spells are mostly focused on enchantments and illusions, giving the class lots of Social Interaction utility. Of course, the Bard also draws from the Support and Skilled archetypes, which grants it better defenses than the typical Mage.
The Druid's wide selection of spells allow it to control a battlefield and damage multiple foes, while the class's Wild Shape ability gives it the ability to bypass many obstacles and access significant exploration utility. Druids have fewer effective single-target spells, but can also focus on aiding their party through healing, making this class a hybrid of the Mage and Support archetypes.
Sorcerers are pure Mages, but they trade out the Wizard's versatility in spells for raw power. With expanded spell slots from sorcery points and ways to empower their spells with metamagic, the Sorcerer is able to blast out spells more powerful and numerous than those of a typical Mage. The Sorcerer's spell list focuses more on damaging spells and less on situational-use spells, supporting a larger Combat focus for the class.
Warlock's Pact Magic means that this class has more endurance than other Mages. Given sufficient access to short rests, a Warlock can cast higher level spells for long periods of time and supplement them with the powerful at-will Eldritch Blast. The Warlock's Invocations also expand the class's at-will abilities, granting it powers that allow it to mimic the focus of a Skilled character.

The archetypical Cleric is able to heal wounded
allies, a key trait for a supportive character.
Cleric: The Support Archetype
In the Cleric, we see the archetypal "support" D&D character. Determining this is as simple as looking at the its spell list. While the Cleric gains a few offensive and utility spells, the majority of its spells are dedicated to bolstering allies by healing them and increasing their ability to be effective, in and out of combat. With d8 hit dice and medium armor proficiency, the Cleric is also an effective secondary front-line combatant, with its primary access to one-handed weapons and lack of strong ranged attacks (save for a few spells) suggesting a defensive, melee-based approach to combat. We'll see that Support classes tend to follow this approach, acting as secondary melee combatants with a wide variety of spells and other effects. Also notably, the Cleric can use its spells to impede a single target or take it out of the fight altogether, helping its allies focus their fire more effectively. When it comes to Exploration and Interaction, the Cleric doesn't stand out - although a few of its spells (particularly divinations) are helpful in this pillar, the class doesn't have a clear focus.

Looking at the Cleric's spell selection, its primary focus is on healing allies and removing adverse conditions. The class has some combat spells, but they are primarily single-target; the Cleric can fall back on moderately effective weapon attacks while casting bonus action spells to bolster allies or sacrifice its own actions to further support its team. The Cleric is the most theme-driven of the four core classes, with access to abilities and spells that let it smite unholy creatures, perform "miracles," and beseech the aid of the gods through word or deed.

When we examine different incarnations of the Support classes, we'll see that the differences between them are dependent on focus. All of the Support classes have access to healing abilities, but they vary wildly in the way they support their allies, often aligning with another archetype.
The Bard dips its toe into many different archetypes, but the Support archetype is the closest to home. Through the Bardic Inspiration and Song of Rest abilities, we see that the Bard focuses on empowering allies' active traits (skills and attacks) and healing them when necessary. The Bard's Support spells show a further focus on healing and active support. Finally, of course, the class also has access to the Mage's control abilities and the Skilled archetypes' Exploration and Interaction boosts.
The Druid dips its toe into the Support waters with access to healing spells and secondary combat abilities. This class can support allied mobility with its spells, and extends a Mage-like focus on bypassing out-of-combat obstacles to the rest of the party.
Paladins, while appearing to be a classic "warrior" class, actually borrow significantly from the Support playbook. Lay on Hands grants effective healing, and the Paladin's multiple auras allow it to ward allies from adverse conditions. The Paladin, however, is more focused on bolstering allied defenses than making their actions effective - instead, it draws on its Warrior side to contribute offensively in battle.

Combining Archetypes
Interestingly, almost all of the fifth edition classes drew from multiple archetypes, with only the "core four," the Barbarian, and the Sorcerer standing out as single-archetype classes. The designers use this intersection to vary class design significantly. If 5E's options were simply three Fighter variants, three Rogue copycats, three types of Wizard, and three different Clerics, gameplay might start to feel awfully similar. Instead, we get to see what happens with a Support Warrior (the Paladin) or a Skilled Mage (the Warlock). At the same time, archetypes don't simply serve to check boxes. There's no single class that acts as a Warrior/Mage hybrid, and only the Bard covers three or more archetypes with any depth. Looking ahead, we'll see subclasses further diversify archetypes for a class, offering almost any class to "minor" in a specific field or double down on its strengths.

Class Specialities and Uniqueness
One thing we can glean from looking at all the classes is that every one has a distinct "shtick." This is most often shown through unique abilities that fundamentally change the class's role. No other class has access to the Fighter's Action Surge or the Rogue's Cunning Action - powerful abilities gained at low levels that significantly alter the play experience. Other times, we'll see this expressed through a class's approach. The Cleric doesn't offer a single ability, or even a few abilities, that shapes play for it. Instead, a wide assortment of healing spells solidify its role as the strongest class in terms of healing.

What have we learned?
Why all of this analysis?

First of all, it's instructive to see what the designers may have considered when they constructed the classes for Fifth Edition. But second - and more relevantly to many of you - we need a solid foundation for building our own classes, whether for publication or just personal use.

In summary, we've discovered that classes in 5E primarily determine a character's role in a party, resources for approaching a challenge, and fighting style. They don't hold a monopoly on a character's past and place in the world, but they affect these traits - and some classes are more restrictive on a character's narrative role than others.

Fifth edition classes represent a particular archetype (Warrior, Skilled, Mage, and Support) or combination of archetypes.

  • Warrior classes focus on offensive and defensive power and combat and choose between a front-line, skirmisher, or ranged combat role.
  • Skilled classes have exceptional utility in the Exploration and Interaction pillars and often function as skirmishers with unique ways of contributing to combat.
  • Mage classes are uniquely proficient at battlefield control and outright bypassing obstacles out of combat; they are more reliant on resource management to use their abilities effectively.
  • Support classes heal and bolster their allies while contributing in a secondary combat role, often with spells that boost allied abilities or weaken enemies.
Of course, archetypes aren't a straightjacket - most classes combine archetypes, and subclasses offer further opportunities to extend a character's focus. In addition, every class has a distinct "shtick," expressed either through unique, powerful abilities or an intense focus.

Join me next time on Pact of the Tome, where we'll break down class features in more detail and discuss how to design a class feature. See you then!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is a really great analysis of the class system and its many facets. I look forward to reading more of this series.