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The One True Path: Attitudes toward Multiclassing

Posted By Scott Martin On February 23, 2012 @ 1:02 am In GMing Advice,Specific RPGs | 16 Comments

No matter what game you play, some people love pure concepts and others love a mix–or a stew. Some players will create an exemplar of a class–the perfect paladin, a unique warrior, an ideal wizard–while others build gish–a fighter/wizard/cyber-dragon hybrid with a dash of paprika.

Sometimes a hybrid becomes a new “class” over time–or disappears when a rules update invalidates an old concept. For example, the Fighter/Wizard concept has been around for a long time; I wouldn’t want to cross swords with Ingold Inglorion, a deadly swordsman and one of Darwath’s greatest wizards. Nor would I cross blades or spells with Elric, Melnibon√©’s last emperor. You have to wait until late in 3.5 for “core classes” that match this blend–the PHB2 introduced the Duskblade, inspired by the old “Elf” class from basic D&D, which vanished when Pathfinder rebooted to 11 classes.

Meanwhile, there is a whole continuum of Fighter/Healer classes in D&D and Pathfinder. They range from Cloistered Clerics (modeled on European monks, some going all the way to vows of non-violence), to fighting priests (Clerics), to priestly fighters (Paladins). They’re rarely slandered as gish, despite having fighting, healing, and spellcasting components. Part of that greater acceptance comes from having a class title and supportive legends and stories from history. (I suspect another element of the difference stems from spells being exciting, but healing being much less so…)

Degrees of Encouragement

Different rules sets, for D&D alone, have encouraged very different levels of role blurring. Back in AD&D, “blending” a new class into an existing character required setting aside everything of the old class–say, nine levels of reflex, the habit of fighting as a warrior–and acting solely as the new class until the experience from each of the two was roughly balanced.

Similarly, some concepts were only available as the culmination of several paths of study; you had to finish 5 levels of fighter and 5 levels of thief before the bard became a class option. Questing with a party that let you start over a first level twice–that was a rare group!

Third edition greatly eased multi-classing (and abandoned the “set your old tools aside” completely); if a warrior began studying a captured spell book at night, he might be casting spells from its pages as soon as he gained experience enough to level up. Custom hybrids proliferated, many as an expression of a character’s adventures or the game world’s history–instead of drawing on the myths and legends of our world. Some hybrids came about as an expression of game rules and character optimization; sometimes accurately projected, other times perfect on paper and a failure in actual play.

Cleaving to an Ideal

If you have a strong preference as a GM, you should let your players know about your vision. You should also study your game, and make sure that your expectations match the game rules–or consider introducing house rules to match. If you want characters to grow organically and add new flair every so often, you’ll succeed more often with third edition’s multi-classing than second’s. If you want the converse–characters who transition between classes less quickly–then second or fourth edition will match your preferences better than Pathfinder or D&D 3.5.

Pathfinder’s authors realized that the incentives to remain single classed were too few in third edition; even players relatively committed to a single class ideal might stray because the mechanical rewards for their dedication were so slight. They revised the class progressions to eliminate dead levels and added an ultimate ability at 20th level.

For a few players, the new abilities are enough to tip them in favor of pursuing a single path for their character’s career. For many, the changes are too small or too late to change the existing calculus–or their concept always involved a blend of classes. Conversely, many spell casters feel that falling behind for a level or two as a caster is penalty enough to keep them on the straight and narrow–unless there’s a prestige class that keeps the full spell progression.

In Play

As a GM, I’ve found it difficult to balance the expectations of players on both sides of the line. Players of tight concept characters are rightly annoyed when a hybrid performs to par in their field–and other fields too. Conversely, some interesting character concepts don’t work in a game system that doesn’t have a matching class; sometimes the sacrifices result in a character that’s useless in two or three fields.

At my table, I keep an eye on the characters’ core role, and try to make sure that each player can feel like their character is the greatest embodiment of their core concept. When a hybrid starts outshining narrow characters in their roles, I start looking for ways to reinforce the narrow characters, whether through items found, opponent tactics and vulnerabilities, or some other way. If the hybrids are successfully squeezing multiple characters out of their niches, it might even be time to look at house rules or double checking to make sure that their abilities all work together the way they claim.

As a player, I tend to follow the system’s cues; for an early third edition lightly armored fighter, I multi-classed between fighter and rogue to develop the fighting style I’d envisioned. Conversely, as a cleric or sorcerer, it’s hard to lure me into multi-classing–giving up high level spells is painful! In older editions, my humans remained pure classed–who wanted to restart at first level, abandoning everything they’d learned, to miss their foes round after round instead of blasting them with those hard won fireballs?

In Your Games

Do you tend to multi-class your characters? Do you wish there were stronger incentives to keep character concepts straightforward–to remain a fighter or a rogue throughout? As a GM, how have you tinkered with the rules to encourage or discourage multi-classing? Did you multi-class before it was popular?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "The One True Path: Attitudes toward Multiclassing"

#1 Comment By lordbyte On February 23, 2012 @ 3:55 am

Hah! I even dual-classed :)
But seriously, I think the best way it has been handled is 4E where both the hybrid and feat-based multi-classing filled pretty much any need there might be.
Funny enough it rarely got used, mostly because of the diversity in abilities for each class keeping them fresh enough that people didn’t feel the need to “add other stuff”.
That said I went away from 4E to Fate mostly because the rigidity of the class system was undermining the flavour of my world. The even more rigid 3.5E / Pathfinder rules would definitely not fit my game.

#2 Comment By XonImmortal On February 23, 2012 @ 4:11 am

I’ve done both. In some campaigns (okay with some players), I’ve learned to not let players homebrew – they’re too liable to combine greek fire, gunpowder, and universal solvent… and expect you to drink it once it’s aged properly.

I’ve had nothing but bad experience with the kit-me-to-death of AD&D 2nd ed, the thousand-and-one-class-variants of the expansions AD&D and D&D, and the throw-another-prestige-class-on-the-barbie of D&D. To be honest, those experiences were with players who were too new to understand what the core classes meant or experienced players who had to try every new variant of prestige class in the latest book they grabbed.

However, I’ve found that, when a system allows it, creating unique character classes through access to skills and other talents can be very fun. As long as the characters in the campaign have the necessary abilities to get things done, a certain fluidity makes the game new.

Your rogue might be more suited for running cons and scams in the city, but your artificer certainly knows enough about traps and locks to by-pass them. And the rogue, with bluff and diplomacy skills, can get materials at a lower cost (or, with palming and similar skills, at a negative cost). The mage might be more suited for analyzing complex wards and enchantments, but the warrior with the arquebus has her own brand of fireball. And who better to find the enchanted armor at the bottom of the pile than the mage?

This approach has served me well in writing fiction, and there’s no reason why players who are mature and creative can’t have fun with it.

Sometimes we get too locked into our visions of what a particular class is. It’s only a starting point.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On February 23, 2012 @ 7:43 am

For d20 games: 4E hybrids and Pathfinder alternative class features, have both gone a long way toward finding balance between class customization and the demands of the game that classes remain viable within a role to retain a party’s capacity to cope with appropriate level challenges.
The problem is really two-fold: Finding a means for enabling a character to craft the kind of character they desire while not impairing others’ enjoyment of the game. Sometimes a player’s custom build can impair others’ fun without being intentional — a lot of clunky mechanics is the most problematic. It means uncessary attention to that character for game — not roleplayinng — reasons. It becomes a spotlight hog of another stripe.
I’ve never seen much adantage for spellcasters — giving up more powerful spells is not an incentive. I do, however, think players who find within the skill and feat subsystems a way to give their character the flavor of a secondary class without sacrificing their main build are often the happiest with the characters.

#4 Comment By Volcarthe On February 23, 2012 @ 7:59 am

Rule of Cool’s Legend is an interesting d20 variant that does something really cool.

each class has three sets of powers called tracks, and if you want to multiclass you just swap out one track for one from another class.

the new track advances however the old one would have so there’s no loss of ability, just a change in what you get.

it’s really quite clever.

#5 Comment By BryanB On February 23, 2012 @ 9:36 am

I remember the days when multi-classing was actually kind of complex. You had to average certain abilities and rolling HP was kind of wonky. Back then, a lot of people I gamed with avoided multi-classing just because it was a pain in the butt to calculate leveling.

Third edition came along. It actually made multi-classing easy to calculate, probably with a lot more consistency in mechanical design. It started getting abused, however, when people stopped using XP penalties that were connected to multi-classing. Prestige classes added a whole new can of worms to the mix. Unfortunately, rather than be the easier to use model for having two or three classes blended into one PC, we ended up with a plethora of classes tacked on to one PC frame, in the effort to find the “uber build.” Bleh – not my cup of tea.

One of the things I love about Pathfinder is the rewarding of that player that choosed to be the single class for twenty levels. A special mastery ability that makes them second to none in that class. I think this shows us how expertise can be gained by working one’s whole life in one career path. Works for me anyway.

I’m not for or against multi-classing (I also remember Dual Classing for Humans)but I like rewarding single class stalwarts and allowing for those that like to dabble in other classes. I just don’t like seeing someone with four classes, five prestige classes, and two wonky levels in some class from a third-party book that I’ve never even heard of. :)

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On February 23, 2012 @ 10:44 am

@lordbyte – To be honest, I dual classed once… which is probably why I only did it once. ;) I agree that 4e “solved” some of the multi-classing issues from 3.5e–but once you’ve felt the freedom of multi-classing at will, 4e felt straight-jacketed.
@XonImmortal – I love your example paragraph about the rogue and artificer; that’s “how it should be” for me. Making the rules line up right, and ensuring that everyone gets to feel uniquely competent in their spotlight, takes effort, but when it works, it’s perfect.
@Troy E. Taylor – Clunky mechanics is the fly in the ointment. Effectiveness is an issue, but just staking a claim to someone else’s territory is what makes players feel their role’s being impinged on.
@Volcarthe – That sounds a bit like Saga Edition Starwars, which also did a good job with classes, organized in talent trees.
@BryanB – Christmas tree PCs; with classes hanging like ornaments. ;) I’ve been fortunate not to see many of those in play, but the mere rumor of them incites people! While I like Pathfinder’s ultimate ability… it’s also awfully late. Even if you finally achieve it, you’ll get to experience it for only one level. Maybe if they had similar ones at 10 and 15, so they’d actually see play in most campaigns? Or even listed “single classed only” on some abilities, the way some feats require “fighter 8″?

#7 Comment By BryanB On February 23, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

@Scott Martin – I really like the idea of a solo class benefit at level increments (perhaps 6, 12, 18). You are right. Level 20 isn’t seen in very many campaigns. Not in most of my campaigns at any rate. :)

#8 Comment By Svengaard On February 23, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

My personal take is that multi-classing is common with a min/maxing style of play. The players I know do it to get serious bonuses from taking the first level in a second class, such as fighter for the extra feat, barbarian for rage, or cleric for domain bonuses.
As a GM who leans towards the roleplaying side of the hobby I discourge the activity in my campaigns. If I were to allow it then I’d force the player to justify the new class long before taking it: that thief isn’t going to just go out and buy a holy symbol and expect to be throwing around buffs. Buy that symbol in advance, prove your devotion to your diety, and expect to lose a lot of down-time in study before your god will even give you the time of day.*
I’m also of the opinion that Pathfinder attempted to allievate the problem of multi-classing not just by the level 20 bonus, but by adding a ton of customization options to all the base classes. My sorceror and your sorceror are going to be very different by the time we get to about level ten and that isn’t including spells.

*And I just thought of an awesome idea for the next time it comes up in a campaign.

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On February 23, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

I ran at least one game with a dual-classed PC, I thought it worked OK– the other players knew to cover for the PC that was still working up. It helped that it was a new PC to the game, she was entering as a “new” fighter, and the wizard levels were never mentioned.

Campaign-Story-logic was always what bothered me the most about 3e’s style of multiclassing. Character A studies wizarding for years, apprenticeship or college, etc.. Character B builds up enough experience through whacking monsters with a sword, and takes up wizarding the day after partying in the local inn, with a full complement of spells. That hurts my brain. My DM solution (like Svengaard)has been to insist that a player inform me in advance what level changes one wants, and at least try to play it out in game. “Thrognar needs first watch to read his textbooks, so he’ll take second watch, after dark.”

Having said that, I am somewhat guilty of spreading a PC’s levels thinly. My two longest-running 3.5 characters have 3 classes apiece, including prestige class. Both of those, though, were thought out and cleared with the DM in advance.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On February 23, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

@Svengaard – The benefits of the new class are often incentive enough, but sometimes you take a class to get into a specific prestige class later. I like the thought… but it can get silly.
@Lee Hanna – Character B tends to be the issue–but similar things happen with typical campaign pacing. Lots of games feature little downtime, so your first level weakling returns to the city after a week and is teaching the tricks he’d begged to learn just a week ago. Or today’s humble apprentice is next Tuesday’s fireball slinging sorcerer. Thinking them through in advance heads off a lot of problems.

#11 Comment By XonImmortal On February 23, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

@Scott Martin – I’ve seen too many GMs treat downtime badly. Downtime becomes the time in between sessions, even if a session ends in the middle of a scene where there will be no rest for the characters.

Downtime can be a source of fun, and having different character classes leveling up and learning new skills doesn’t have to mean splitting up the party. A ninja, samurai, and wu jen can go to the same monastery to meditate and receive instruction, and meanwhile learn more about various threats in the area.

Turn your local community college into a secret Miskatonic University, where the occult investigator, gun bunny, psychic, and urban shaman learn some new things while keeping an eye on the professor suspected of vivisection. And your gun bunny learns to mentally curve bullets in mid-air? Bonus!

If you have to split your party for downtime, include the whole party anyway. For each character, give the other players an NPC to play, and roleplay the training or the hunt for the spell-component. Roleplay a few dice-intensive arena fights for the warrior or martial artist. Create opportunities to make downtime just as fascinating as the dungeon crawl.

#12 Comment By randite On February 23, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

I haven’t run DnD in about 5 years, and I always ran second edition. I simply allowed my players (even with human characters) to multiclass as they saw fit. Assuming of course that their character concept made some sort of sense in our game world. I always found the splitting of XP evenly between the two classes and the averaging of HP to be enough of a balance.

In fact it was our inability to make exactly the character we wanted (even with multi/dual classing), that drove us, in part, to classless systems. It was the failings of class (and combat to some degree) in my beloved DND that drove me to create my own system.

#13 Comment By Tsenn On February 24, 2012 @ 5:51 am

I wouldn’t say my 7th Sea Ussuran scholar was multi-classed, but in mechanical terms, it made sense to pick up a raft of level one skills, which made for many amusing “in my country” moments. My Star Wars Sagas character, by comparison, was a soldier and little more. His only change was in picking up the Elite Trooper class as soon as it came up.

Our Scoundrel wanted to be the ship’s engineer, and was pretty much compelled to non-core multiclass to be able to fit her definition of the role (being able to build as well as repair). Later she picked up a level in Jedi to try and keep up in combat.

Something we as a group found limiting was that with only five core classes, talent trees aside, there was some fear of being seen to tread on each others toes. Could have been overcome.

#14 Comment By undermind On February 24, 2012 @ 11:15 am

Multiclassing in our D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder games has always been handled quite simply. No XP penalties or anything, basically do what you want. The most classes i’ve seen in a character in our group is two. perhaps 3, if you were qualifying for a prestige class, but i can’t recall that’s ever been the case

Multiclassing is good and dandy in my book, as long as it makes sense. I can live with a fighter/rogue or cleric/paladin or something like that. It’s when the Barbarian/Bard/Shadowdancer things start showing up i get suspicious. I also detest “dipping” more than anything related to character building. One level in paladin or monk just to get *insert kewl powarh* just breaks my suspension of Disbelief.

I really like what Paizo did with the Pathfinder Archetypes, where you swap out class abilities. That alone makes it easy to stand out from average joe fighter.

#15 Comment By Necrognomicon On February 25, 2012 @ 12:58 am

The biggest problem I’ve had with straight 3/3.5e is that I’ve seen too many players cobbling together weak and convoluted backstories to fit their overly strong multiclass character, and too many players with a strong backstory cobbling together an overly convoluted bunch of classes to create a weak character that fits their concept. The worst is when they are in the same party…

Personally I’m a fan of the Expert/Spellcaster/Warrior generic classes from Unearthed Arcana, buying class features with feats always made sense to me, from a kit-bashing standpoint. That said, the suggested list of buyable class features in UA is pretty paltry and definitely needs some extra DM attention if you go that route.

That customization is the main reason I’ve shifted more towards Savage Worlds now.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 29, 2012 @ 10:00 am

This is all my opinion; your mileage may vary.

Multiclassing is one of those things that looks good in theory, but ends up sabotaging many a game in reality. I like the idea of multiclassing, because I’ve always wanted to play Fafhrd in a game, but I always end up with a mediocre barbarian and a mediocre thief, while the munchkin across the table has a mechanically awesome character with just enough ‘character concept’ to hold all the disparate bits together.

When I GMed 3.5, I tried to limit class options, but that was counter to the “give the players what they want” trend. I also tried swapping out abilities, but it’s not easy to discern the relative power of class abilities in advance.

Another vote here for classless systems. Character classes are great for teaching RPGs, and for adding cohesion to a campaign or setting, but they can be limiting.


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