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, Melniboné’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.
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?