Dungeons & Dragons

Essential Class Design

Originally, I was planning to post a review of the D&D Essentials line today, but I wasn’t happy with how that post was turning out.  Instead, I’m going to take a look at the changes to class design that Essentials has introduced.  Where almost all classes in previous supplements had followed the pattern established in the Player’s Handbook, the Essentials classes fully embrace a design philosophy where each class has its own unique structure.  Overall, I think this is a good change, but it is also what makes Essentials feel a little like a 4.5 release.

At-Will, Encounter and Daily, Shaken Up

While the psionic classes in Player’s Handbook 3 started the trend, the Essentials classes completely break with the uniform power progression that had previously been a staple of the class system.  Some classes, such as the new versions of the Rogue and Fighter, diverge a lot from this system and entirely eschew daily powers, while others such as the Wizard and Cleric stay much closer to the former power progression.

While some people have complained that this is a dumbing down of certain character classes, I actually like the change.  Having every class share the same power progression had begun to feel a bit monotonous, and I think the variety offered by the new classes is a good thing.  I also wonder if there would have been as many complaints if the “simplified” classes would have been spread throughout all of the power sources rather than all being martial classes*.

Earned Class Features

Where all class features used to be gained at first level, the Essentials classes now have multiple features that are gained at higher levels.  For instance, the new Paladin class gains resistance to necrotic and poison damage at level 27.  I think that this offers a way to really drive the story elements of classes in a ways that are difficult for powers to accomplish.  The best example of this is the Druid’s Timeless Body trait that prevents aging and grants immunity to some diseases.  The prevention of aging really doesn’t fit the mold of a power, but as a high level trait really says something cool about epic druids.

Subclasses vs. Builds

While most of the classes presented in Essentials have a single build, a handful have two options, and those options show off a willingness by the designers to broaden the definition of what a class is in the game.  Before Essentials, every class had a single character role that all builds fit.  This design is likely what led to the Druid from previous editions essentially being split into three classes:  Druid (controller), Shaman (leader), and Warden (defender).  In Essentials, the subclasses of a single class can have different roles.  For example, the Hunter Ranger is a controller while the Scout Ranger is a striker.

This change in design is easily my favorite out of the bunch.  As the Druid example illustrates, some classes in D&D lore are much broader in concept than a single role.  Previous class design in 4E handled these situations by introducing multiple classes while scoping down the class that uses the iconic class name compared to how it existed in previous editions.  Using the new class design, the designers can get far more out of the iconic classes by offering subclasses in different roles.  While players can stick to a single role, they also have the option of choosing powers from a different subclass in a way that allows deeper integration than multi-classing.  While some of the benefits of this system have been missed due to timing**, I think it will help with class design from this point forward and it is something I’d like to see carry over into future editions.

Mixing Power Sources

The new Ranger class shows a final new design option by using multiple power sources within a single class.  I think this is a great match for the ranger and would have been nice for the barbarian and monk too.  I’m also curious about how this idea will fit into future supplements and whether they will introduce cross-power source powers for existing classes.  For example, necromancers could be handled by adding Shadow powers to the Wizard class.

Faint Feeling of 4.5

I think these changes to the class structure are great, but they are also the part of the Essentials line that gives me the feeling that it is something like D&D 4.5***.  While the new subclasses will work side-by-side with previously published 4E material, the subclasses are different enough from the older material that it will be hard to re-use some options for one version of the class with the other.  Because Essentials are the new entry point to D&D, I expect that most new material will build on the new subclasses rather than older material.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, because the older classes already have a ton of published feats and powers.

As mentioned in a previous post (Confused about Essentials), I was originally unsure of whether older source books would be useful to players who start with Essentials, but the announcement of the Class Compendium has eased most of my worries.  It sounds like it should provide a path back to older releases for players that want to use those books without requiring them to buy a copy of the out-of-date Player’s Handbook.  That alone is a nice improvement over the transition from 3.0 to 3.5.

Would you like to see these design elements carry over into future classes?  Are there any existing classes for which you’d really like to see an Essentials-style subclass?

*:  I’d be interested to see a version of the Sorcerer class that was structured similarly to the  Essentials Fighter or Rogue.  It would focus on a small set of at-will powers and then have encounter powers and class traits to make those powers better.  A Warlock in the style of the 3.X Warlock could also make sense without daily powers.

**:  The Seeker and the Hunter Ranger seem to overlap a lot, and some other classes feel like they could be subclasses under the new design system:  Shaman and Warden as Druids, Warlord as a Fighter, Runepriest as a Cleric.

***:  It’s worth noting that, to me, saying Essentials is like D&D 4.5 isn’t really a negative statement.  I thought 3.5 was a great improvement over 3.0, and was happy to buy the new books.  Likewise, I like most of the changes in Essentials and have picked up most of the product line.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

One reply on “Essential Class Design”

[…] While the classes contained in both books have previously been published in other 4E books, the D&D Essentials versions are really new subclasses of those archetypes with altered mechanics.  The subclasses deviate from the standard 4E class design in several ways that I’ve talked about in an earlier post (Essential Class Design). […]

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