Yes. That's a pun.Over the last week, I've been pulled into a number of discussions regarding the concept of classes in Dungeons & Dragons' next iteration. It started at Points of Light, where I questioned the value of dual-classing when secondary classes like Paladin already seemed to be a combination of two core classes (Fighter and Cleric). Then CriticalHits.com put out an article on multi-classing and how the various classes fit together, and I weighed in quite a lot. Basically...
In the first conversation, I attacked dual-class characters for being a mechanical construct without any story flavor. Conan, for example, could be considered a dual-class Fighter/Thief, but I'd much rather play him as a Barbarian that would not only have abilities akin to those two core classes, but also some that are original to the combined subclass. In the end, I conceded that dual-classing should exist as a measure of things picked up by a character that aren't in its class usually. A Thief who picks up a little magic from a Mage in his party, a Cleric who suffers a crisis of faith and becomes a simple Fighter, etc. 5e could do with a way to trade some class abilities for others, representing a change in focus during training, or even the loss of divine abilities.
And while I think it's fine for mid-course changes - I do want characters to grow beyond the limits of their chargen selves, take advantage of story opportunities, and so on - I think character generation should allow players to create the characters they want from the start and have them be filled with story potential. "Fighter/Cleric" is no an evocative term, whereas Paladin is. The second discussion I got into dealt with just how to handle classes, subclasses and themes.
I would totally go for a streamlined system that featured combo classes with their own role and flavor in the game world, and use the concept of Themes (formerly Kits) to allow for specialization, based on culture or professional focus. Of course, I freely admit I haven’t read a D&D book since 2nd ed. (and I have yet to hear anything about 3-4 ed. that makes me want to “upgrade”. In the last 20 years, I’ve played a lot more games that were essentially of wholly classless. Players create a core concept with whatever abilities they can afford through the point-buy system (usually) and set goals for where they want to take the character, though such plans may change based on stories and opportunities. It can be argued that Classes are a limiting factor on story telling, but they ARE a component of D&D that won’t go away, and can be useful in teaching players how to build characters, balance them, even just know what to pick! However, more experienced players can certainly do more with a more complete and flexible tool kit.
One thing you do get with classless is a complete and satisfying core concept for your character, rather than a framework that requires a lot of play to flesh out. Classes and leveling are great for very regular campaigns, classless for occasional or infrequent play. If you can’t play often, you’ll like a character that can already do the stuff you want it to do. I think 5e may be moving towards more useful/powerful 1st level characters as a way to compensate for this, which is a reality facing more and more gamers (getting older, etc.).
When it comes to story telling, various things have been tried to make Classes more reality-compliant throughout the various editions.
-Multiply the number of classes so that more roles in society are covered (but you’re still stuck in a job all your life)
-Dual-classing (jack of two trades, master of less)
-Thematic overlays that differentiate one member of a class from another more effectively than class multiplication (Kits and specializations)
-The ability to switch gears mid-career (some wonky effects on reality there)
-Leveling up to a super-class with experience, with thematic branching off (Prestige classes)
I might be forgetting some, but which do you prefer?
Part of the problem of classes is their tradition. At some point, the game gave us Clerics and Monks and those character types have been called that ever since, except they are too culture-specific to fit seamlessly in any given campaign world. The Cleric word is fine, but should indicate a priest more than a crusader. Similarly, the Monk should be a martial artist of some kind, or really, a Fighter specialized in hand to hand combat, not a Shaolin Monk. (When I was a kid, I just didn’t get that Friar Tuck was supposed to have all those crazy abilities.) I mean, they didn’t call the Paladin a Samurai, right? Thief is equally problematical - why would the rest of the party hang out with a dishonest man? I think it's passed time the Subterfuge class got itself a more neutral name (Rogue will do) and a new role model. We can all look up to Aragorn for the Ranger, and Gandalf for the Mage, but to compete with those epic heroes, Thieves need abilities that put them in the same league with superspies (like Bond and Bourne) or silver-screen con men and heist masters (like Ocean's Eleven or the cast of Hustle).
I really do think that when it comes to classes, Wizards of the Coast should take a good honest look at what has gone before and ask themselves if they’re really just another class with the numbers filed off. I think Fighting/Magic/Faith/Subterfuge may be very well all you need, and then offer different builds, themes, kits, what have you, for each. And I think I’m being kind to spellcasters by separating Magic and Faith there. I guess I’m an old AD&D2nd GM, but I kind of liked what the game was doing back then. Your basic classes, with a number of secondary classes which you could overlay with Kits and Roles, and/or specialize by School, Sphere, and Deity. At that point, it seemed fairly easy to introduce a new school (like Wild or Elemental Magic), Kit (like Planewalker) or even secondary class (Dark Sun’s Gladiator) based on how the others were built. Easy to build for GMs and Players, and yet the possibility of publishing splatbooks which the gaming companies clearly love to do.
I'm not particularly fond of what they're doing with "Themes" at this point, being mechanical combat roles like Striker, Controller, Healer, etc. Your role in the STORY (as opposed to combat/adventuring) should be chosen first, followed by your role(s) and power source (divine, arcane, etc.). A player shouldn’t want to be a “striker”, he should want to be a Fighter (or really, let's call it the more evocative Warrior) or a Wizard. Then when the GM asks what KIND of fighter he wants to be, he can decide that he wants to be a Tank powered by Inner Strength (or Chi) of whatever. Even games like WoW which essentially popularized the idea of tank-DPS-Buff-Healing etc. schemes made you choose from an evocative class that had different builds.
So my 5th ed. ideal? A layered chargen process that starts with one of the four basic classes (say a Warrior, which sets up most of your stats, leveling goals, etc.), then adds elements such as subclasses (are you a Paladin, a Dire Wolf Rider or a Swashbuckler? these would add color, unique abilities and/or a dual-classing element), and roles (a place in society and personality type). These would in turn lead you to choose appropriate themes (a Priest of a God of War might be more of a Striker than a Healer) and power sources (a Rogue who can shadow-walk through arcane means is much different from one who uses Inner Strength). Note that I make no difference between a subclass like the Paladin or Illusionist and what used to be called Kits like the Myrmidon or Shaman. By starting with core classes that can be infinitely built upon, WotC would leave itself open to creating subclasses for every culture in its supported settings and I'm sure, a variety of spat books. Players would get some of the more popular examples in the Player's Handbook, and a way to create their own. I would love to play a version of D&D where players would be talking about their 1st-level Prophets, Spellsingers and Witch Hunters, rather than their Clerics, Magic-Users and Fighters. No one would be poured in the same mold, which is as near to classless (for experienced gamers at least) as possible, while still retaining the integrity of the class system.