Multiclassing in 3.5e…


On my D&D group’s board I have a quote in my signature, here it is:

“The essential truth here is that there is no moral superiority or role playing magic that comes from intentionally playing a mechanically weak character. Yes, the thrill of role playing can be its own reward, but in a game system where mechanical representations of role playing choices are built in and trade-offs are the order of the day, it is vanity and false modesty to pretend that choosing less-optimal choices is somehow more true or pure to the role playing spirit. D&D is a mechanical game in ways that freeform, diceless, and storytelling games are not, and using the mechanics is part of the game.”

This came from a Save My Game Artical written by Jason Nelson-Brown for Wizards. I put it there as a reminder for group members that denying yourself a class ability isn’t good RP, it’s moronic and if anything, goes completely against the role of the character. I’ve always argued there is a distinction between a role playing game and playing a part in a movie or play and some members disagreed. I think I went about explaining it wrong.

In D&D you’re playing a role that is defined by your class. It can be much like playing a part in a play, however you don’t ever stop to roll some dice in a play to see how things should work. In that way, D&D is more like improv than real acting. Either way, if you’re given or pick the role of “damsel in distress” and you start playing “the Terminator” you’re not playing your role no matter where you’re talking about playing it; D&D, a play or just some improv game.

Back on track, I’ll emphasize this part here, “but in a game system where mechanical representations of role playing choices are built in and trade-offs are the order of the day” because it’s a fundamental truth to 3.5e D&D. Every choice you make for your character when it advances has a trade off of some sort and it might not always be obvious.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a guide to min/maxing, it’s intent is to make sure people are aware of this underlying cost/gain fundamental and also to make sure DMs are aware of some of the challenges involved when you get a mix of pure classes and multiclassers.

Class/Class

When you multiclass, it appears like you’re gaining a lot of power but in truth, you’re trading away more than you actually get in most cases. If you multiclass and pick another class you are losing power or potential for the original class.

You’re also putting two eggs in one basket and you can usually only pull one out at a time. A member of our group was leveling as a Wizard/Cleric and had a really cool idea for the character. I won’t say it didn’t work, because it did and I think it did because we had another pure arcane caster and pure divine caster, but I did notice he found himself in situations where he had to choose between which ones to cast.

Another cost, especially painful to casters, is he also trailed behind the pure casters in what he had access to. While I (playing the pure arcane caster – a Sorcerer) was using Greater Teleport and Acid Storm he was just getting access to Dimension Door. While the Cleric was nearing the level to cast Resurrection he wasn’t yet able to cast Raise Dead.

Further still, his Caster Level was what ever level he had for that class. Caster Level is used for a lot of things like dispelling magic, durations, potency and bypassing Spell Resistance. While others in the group were getting +15 to their checks, he was only getting +7 or +8.

It’s quite a hefty cost to multiclass a caster.

On the positive side, when we did run into creatures with SR he couldn’t overcome or that were protected by a Globe of Invulnerability, he could still use his Cleric abilities to enhance and heal the party members. As I said above, it did work well with a party that already had one of each. Could you imagine if there wasn’t? Imagine you’re level 10 and your Cleric is also your Wizard and he’s got to keep three (we’ll use the designer’s expected group size instead of my group which ends up with seven players and a DM) other characters up while dealing with arcane situations?

For mundane types the cost is a little less severe however, you have to question the benefit. Do you give up an increase in Base Attack Bonus (BAB)? Do you give up Saves? Do you give up certain skills? Do you give up weapons, shields or armor? Do you give up bonus feats?

What are you really gaining?

Remember that creatures at the higher levels because they will scale up to be more challenging to your group’s average Character Level. Character Level being the sum of your class levels; Fighter 5/Rogue 5 would be considered a 10th level character. It’s important to remember you’re not really a level 10 character, you’re two level 5 characters in one body. Some abilities stack, but not to the extent they would if you specialized in one class. Traps, locks and other skill challenges will also scale up with the expectation of those levels of skill being available to characters.

Consider that for a moment, you are potentially putting your level 5 Fighter abilities up against a creature aimed a level 10 Fighter. It’s going to be tough to hit, it’ll hit hard and do a fair bit of damage if not extra damage like attribute damage, poison, disease or level drain. You might be trying your level 5 Rogue skills against target numbers that are meant to be challenging for a level 10 Rogue. Does that seem right?

DMs will have to be careful of this and adjust accordingly. You have the added difficulty of balancing this sort of thing if their is a pure class in the same group because if you tone things down too far, you risk it being too easy for the pure class and if you don’t, you end up making it too hard for the multiclasser. Of course, you can design encounters that require cooperation be it requiring two Rogues to disable a vault door or one Fighter to deal with the leader of some Hobgoblins while the multiclass Fighter deals with the weaker minions (a.k.a. Trash Tank :)).

Ideally, if you’re going to allow multiclassing in your campaign, you might want to recommend everyone does it or you will really have to get creative.

Other places multiclassing could harm your character or campaign is when you’re reaching a point where certain spells are needed. If your casters are multiclassed they might not have access to these spells yet. Their advancement is going to be stunted in this regard. Also Saving Throw growth might be slower so higher target numbers for saves could become an issue. Saving Throws are a tricky area because it might appear you gain a benefit here but that’s just an initial boost. If you’re raising your levels as a pure class you’re getting bonuses about every two levels. If you’re a multiclass and raising the levels in parallel to avoid the XP penalty for being too far apart, you might only get an increase about every three levels. You might get a couple level after level, but remember, as the levels get higher, the XP cost to advance gets higher too so this increases will come a fair bit slower than you think.

There are some multiclass combos that work really well together, but it all comes down to situations, group make up and the type of campaign you are playing in. In fact, I’ve seen some combos work well with one character design and fail with another because the reason for taking the other class differed.

Take a good look at what you’re giving up for what you’re getting and consider if there might be another way to get what you’re looking for.

Class/Prestige Class

Prestige Classes (PrC) offer a number of things; they can either enhance your existing class or modify it in some fashion to blur the lines of what role that class performs. PrCs are really risky because they appear to offer a lot and they are really pretty damn cool.

If you multiclass into a PrC that enhances your character role you are usually gaining more than you would if you picked another static class but even then, there is a cost and sometimes it can be pretty severe. The most severe loss in taking a PrC is not advancing in a spell level – yes, this applies to casters mainly. While some melee types that gain a Base Attack Bonus (BAB) increase every level could miss out on this gain, it’s not as severe as losing a caster level because there are more enhancements for BAB than there are for increasing your Caster Level, gaining access to a new Spell Level or even being able to overcome Spell Resistence or dispell an effect.

Be wary of PrCs that change your role slightly, they usually come at extreme cost even if they sound cool.

The worst offender of this that I have in mind is the Dragon Disciple. Man, is that PrC ever neat sounding, heck, you’re evolving into a part dragon! Of course, you’re giving up a lot of spell levels to get some more natural armor, claws, wings and a breath weapon. All of which are easily replaced with some of the higher level spells you’ve delayed getting access to. What good are all these melee focused benefits when they don’t compare to being a pure fighter and they’re costing you spells that could easily replace these effects if not top them by a far margin?

Yeah it looks cool, but then so does casting Shapechange and turning into a real dragon. With this PrC you end up with a hybrid caster/melee that has sacrificed powerful spell advancement for mediocre melee abilities. Consider how many times per day you can use the breath weapon against how many spells and spell levels you would have gained in place of that. Is it really worth it?

No, not likely, unless your DM or campaign world is going to compensate or allow for those abilities to come into play.

On the other hand, a Rogue or Bard who picks up the Shadowdancer PrC is in for a lot of useful abilities. The same could be said for a Wizard or Sorcerer that picks up the Archmage PrC or a Cleric or a Druid that picks up the Hierophant PrC.

My opinion is, do not multiclass unless you carefully look at what you are giving up for what you’re getting. You don’t need to abandon a character concept, but maybe there is another way to get at it. Multiclassing by picking up a complimentary PrC is often safer than mixing two pure classes together.

If the campaign you’re going to play in can handle diluted classes then multiclass until your heart is content.

I’m sure role play focused folks might not like what is being said, but by no means is this disputable. You are making trade offs and most are more costly than most people realize.

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