D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 3, Classes

Welcome to the third part of my Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition readthrough and review of the Player’s Handbook.  Last time, we got through the race section, and now it’s time for 112 pages of character classes!

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Chapter 3: Classes

Well, they sure don’t want to repeat what they did in 4e and make you wait till a later supplement for your favorite class to appear. They pack in twelve of them – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard. It lacks only the marshal from 4e.

Here’s the general format.  Each class gets saving throw proficiency in two saves (which means you add your proficiency bonus to those but not the third). It gets proficiencies in some armor, weapons, and tools and some number of skills (usually 2-3).  Hit dice and hit points are as in previous editions, though they list the average hit point roll and say you can just take that instead of rolling.

In a manner parallel to the subraces, every class has several paths or specializations under it which are mandatory to take at (usually) level 3. For many classes it’s a couple different paths; for wizards it’s school specializations, etc. This is one of the major expansion-content points in the game. There are 20 levels and you get something at most of them – a core class ability, a path feature, or at every fourth level an ability score improvement (which can be swapped out for a feat, if you’re using the optional feats rules).

Let’s dig into the classes, and I’ll point out interesting approaches as we go.

The barbarian is a raging wild fighter with d12 Ht Dice; their abilities are things like rage, reckless attack, and brutal critical – getting better attacks while taking risks. Rage is really boss – damage bonus but also melee damage resistance. “Resistance” (they wait to define this way later in the book, I’m not sure why they didn’t put it next to advantage) means half damage, period! You get a limited number of 1 minute rounds until you take a short rest. They have the Unarmored Defense feature (you’ll see it more later) that gives you CON bonus to AC when unarmored. At fifth level they get an extra attack, but this doesn’t also go up at 10th and 15th like it did in 3e – you get that one extra, and that’s the dealio. That’ll keep it cleaner at high level.

The barbarian’s paths are Berserker (rage is better) and Totem Warrior (choose a totem spirit, get some related buffs).

The bard is as usual a magical singy person with d8 Hit Dice. They get spells to cast off a custom spell list and have limited spells known. They have Bardic Inspiration, which is a bit of a disappointment from e.g. 3e; they can play at you and then you get a d6 bonus “inspiration die” to use. But instead of being able to buff the whole party, you can only do this a number of times equal to your Charisma mod until a long rest.  So… You get to give out 3-4 d6’s a day? Boo.

The paths are College of Valor (add the sucky inspiration d6’s to damage instead) and College of Lore (subtract an inspiration die from an enemy).  Maybe I’m missing something, but the extreme hobbling of how many times you can use Inspiration make it kinda terrible.  Instead, the bard becomes just a gishy “can fight OK and also has enchantment spells” person. I remember in Second Edition people would always try to give up the musical part of the bard with kits (e.g. gypsy bard) because it was so pointless and awful.

Aside: Spellcasting

Spells in 5e for all classes are “not quite Vancian” – you still have spells known and slots and levels, but you can use a slot to cast any spell you know of that level or lower on the fly instead of having to tightly specify “2 Cure Lights, 2 Bless…” This comes in two flavors; the “limited spells known, but you can cast any of them with those slots” model (the bard, sorcerer) or “you have access to a large set of spells, but for the day you have to choose a (level + stat mod) number you can cast using those slots” (the cleric, druid).  Save DCs are now 8 + proficiency bonus + stat modifier.

The cleric is a warrior healer with d8 Hit Dice. They only get up through Medium armor by default. They have spells off a custom list too. Unlike most other classes you have to pick your variant, in this case a deity, from level 1. You get a domain with powers and spells from that, and your ability to channel divinity to turn undead and/or do other stuff varies based on it. In a very First Edition callback, at 10th level the cleric starts to be able to use Divine Inspiration to call on their god for aid once a week by rolling percentile dice under their level. Make it and sha ZA something good happens. There’s only like 7 domains (Knowledge, Life, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, War) but it almost says “insert splatbook here” under the entry. Hint, Life is what turns your channel into Pathfinder style channeled healing. You can only use the channeling once between short rests though.

The druid is a nature-loving, spell-casting person who can turn into an animal, with d8 Hit Dice. They get spells of the “choose what you can cast today off the full list” type. Wild shaping into an animal starts at level 2 so the fun kicks in early. You can’t cast spells in beast form till like 18th level though. Oddly, there is no animal companion for the druid (despite what both pieces of art would have you believe). They don’t get many specials besides this – the wild shape is kinda cool because it loses its own hp till you turn back to yourself, but overall this still seems like it’s the third “d8 HD, can do a little fight, and casts spells” class in a row.

They have two path choices, Circle of the Land (recover some spell slots with a short rest, some extra spell choices based on terrain) and Circle of the Moon (faster, more violent wild shaping).

The fighter fights. And has d10 Hit Dice. At first level you pick a fighting style (archery/defense/dueling/great weapon/protection/two-weapon). He gets some nice little once-between-rests boosts (1 HD hp regain; 1 extra action). The fighter does extra attacks at levels 5/11/20.

The martial archetypes are Champion, Battle Master, and Eldritch Knight.  Champions get an extra fighting style and better crits and Battle Masters get combat maneuvers (trip, parry, disarm, there’s a page full of them) that use “superiority dice” – 4 of them, replenished at a rest. Eldritch Knights get spellcasting! It’s limited, basically going up a spell level every 6 levels (no fireball till level 13!) but there you go. Armor doesn’t inhibit spellcasting in 5e so no need for powers around that.

The monk is a ki-powered martial artist with d8 Hit Dice. They get a nice Dex+Wis unarmored AC. They can also use Dex for attack and damage, so Strength need not apply. They can make another attack as a bonus action, can make another 2 by spending a ki point (flurry of blows)  and have unarmed damage that goes up some over time (just d4 to d10 at 17th level). They get all the traditional monk stuff – deflect arrows, slow fall. Their stunning fist just uses ki points, only comes at level 5, and stuns for a round if they fail a save.

Their two path options are Way of the Open Hand, Way of Shadow, and Way of the Four Elements.  Way of the Open Hand is pretty hardcore, whenever you hit with a flurry you can trip or push 15′ or deny reactions. Eventually you get Quivering Palm, which no one has ever failed a save against in 30 years at my gaming tables – maybe this’ll break the streak?

One complaint, instead of instant death it does “10d10 necrotic damage.” They kept some of the 4e damage keywords and they sound just as out of place in 5e as they do anywhere.  “Necrotic?” “Radiant?” “Psychic?” What are we, in a CSI lab now? They seem to have worked hard to make most of the rest of the rules non-jarring English, but this bit fails that test.

Way of Shadow is ninja/shadowdancer-ey, spend ki to do darkness or silence or stuff, jump from one shadow to another, eventually become invisible in shadows. Way of the Four Elements gets you a big long list of Dragonball Z/Book of Nine Swords style special moves you can spend your ki on.

The paladin is a holy warrior with d10 Hit Dice and limited-level spellcasting (like the Eldritch Knight). They get spellcasting like the EK, some fighter maneuvers, “divine sense” which is detect evil just for fiends and undead and such, and lay on hands for healing. You can burn spells to add damage as a “divine smite.” It’s pretty similar in concept to earlier paladins.

The paths are Sacred Oaths which come with a code of conduct – Oath of Devotion gives you power to make your weapon holy and turn fiends, Oath of the Ancients is weirdly druidy, and Oath of Vengeance is like Solmon Kane LG murderhobo style.

The ranger is a wilderness fighter with d10 Hit Dice. You get a favored enemy type (dragons, elementals, etc etc), you have advantage on checks against – but not combat, knowledge and survival and stuff. You can choose from a handful of the fighter fighting styles and get limited spellcasting. Senses and movement are a big thing.

The archetypes for the ranger are the Hunter and the Beast Master. The Hunter gets special moves against certain form factors of foes – like Giant Killer is for foes bigger for you. Beast Master gets an animal companion.  It doesn’t get more hit points as you level up which is odd, but it does get your proficiency bonus to attack and damage. Seems like it’s going to die a lot.

This, unfortunately, is where a bad bit of 4e-ism creeps in. Apparently, you have to use your action to command the animal to “take the Attack, Dash, Disengage, Dodge, or Help action.” But, like, every turn.  This is a clear “but we’re worried about the action economy” gamist move – I can see using an action to sic Rover on someone but then he’s damn well going to attack each round without me “spending an action to power him.” House rule time.

The rogue is like a thief and has d8 Hit Dice, but hews to the new post-2e world where of course it has to get sneak attacks all the time. It is limited to once a turn, but can happen basically if the person is in melee with anyone (or you have advantage from any other source). There’s also some skill boosts with a couple skills (double proficiency bonus) and various escape/evasion themed abilities.

Rogue archetypes include the Thief (no really 1e players we love you too!) which has some pocket-picking and second-story work, the Assassin which kills, mildly – advantage in surprise rounds and auto-crit on surprised folks, and the Arcane Trickster, which is mainly just low level spellcasting – there is a “spell thief” feature but it’s not till level 17.

The sorcerer is a self empowered magic machine with d6 Hit Dice. I was interested to read this; given the hybridization of spellcasting there’s not as wide a gap between the “kinda prepared” and “kinda not” spellcasting now – wizard vs sorcerer was frankly a somewhat arguable distinction in 3e and here it becomes quite the same unless they zazz it up somehow. This has the same standard 5e limited-spell-list model as the bard. But they go back and add extra flexibility with some “sorcery points” you can spend for spell slots (cost: level+2) or put metamagic on spells to make them longer, larger, badder, quieter, etc.

The archetypes are Draconic Bloodline and Wild Magic.  Draconic makes you a little tougher and boosts damage for your related element, and eventually sprout dragon wings.  Wild magic has a full page wild magic table.  This is a little weird because the way it’s stated is “Immediately after you cast a sorcerer spell of 1st level or higher, the DM can have you roll a d20. If you roll a 1, roll on the Wild Magic Surge table…” So that’s not “roll it all the time,” I guess the intent is for the DM to dial it back when it would be annoying or force the issue (well, 5% force at least) for critical things?

The warlock is some dark force’s butt puppet (not saying that’s a bad thing), and has d8 Hit Dice. Limited-list Charisma-based spellcasting but super limited, like “here’s 2 spell slots.” And then the star is Eldritch Invocations, which you choose from a big list of supernatural abilities that you can use either at will, or sometimes need to recharge with a rest.  Most are just spells, which is disappointing, but some are cooler.

The splat factor here is your otherworldly patron – the Archfey, the Fiend, the Great Old One. The abilities are themed predictably.

And finally, the wizard, the spell-chucking bookwork with d6 Hit Dice. Lots of Int-based spellcasting, learn spells and put them in a book, traditional 1e-3e flavor. You can recover some spells once used – which seems strangely exactly the same in effect, if different in implementation, than the sorcerer extra-spell-slot thing. They don’t get much in the way of specials, “let the casting do the talking” is the plan.

The paths are arcane traditions, in this case schools – abjuration, evocation, etc. (the full 8 from earlier editions are represented). Each one makes it cheaper and faster to get those spells, and then gives you a couple minor related superpowers.

Analysis

Well, that was quite a slog!  Going through this chapter in depth, I feel a little ambivalent about the overall feel.  The classes are fine, I guess.  Not many of them gave me any wow factor of “OMG I have to play that now!” The barbarian with their damage resistance did tempt me, though. Of course they are specifically trying to not innovate too much but bring back “what you all remember” in the classes, so that might be expected.

At times I felt like they strayed over the line to 4e-style “dang these classes feel all the same a little too much,” but after thinking about it I think that might just be a 1e and 2e thing as well – classes had less variation then (“You leveled?  Have a couple  hit points.  Move along!”), and the more extreme variation in 3e had its own problems (see Some Thoughts On 2e and 3e’s Legacy for more). The special abilities are nice, and often aren’t just a dinky “+1 to something,” so they really matter.

But many of the powers that aren’t just “get a proficiency” are very, very limited in number of uses. That’s very much not 1e/2e – you didn’t get cool new powers with each level, but the abilities you had you could use all day long. With spells it’s one thing, but I don’t like feeling like “sorry, you’ve used all your powers today” when that power seems like something you could do, you know, anytime. “Sorry, you already disarmed someone today, no more for you!”  A couple classes (ahem, bard) really suffer from this badly. And again, one of the problems with 4e was that suddenly it became a resource management game for everyone, instead of the more traditional approach of people that like resource management self-selecting into wizards and people that didn’t self-selecting into fighters.

But, I don’t know.  Am I just too used to 3e/3.5e/PF and so am jumping at shadows? I’ll withhold judgement for now. There’s only a couple things I specifically and acutely found objectionable in the writeups and they’re easily house-ruled; I hear happily that we’re “allowed” to do that again.

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7 responses to “D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 3, Classes

  1. I think it’s interesting that 5e too the Pathfinder approach to hit dice.

    I’m confused about your spellcasting aside, though:

    1) “you have access to the whole list, but for the day you have to choose a (level + stat mod) number you can cast” — how is this casting on the fly, as you mentioned earlier?

    2) How are wizards affected?

    • OK so that’s hard to describe in short. So you have access to a bunch of spells (all spells, your spellbook…). But for any given day you choose a smaller number that you’ve prepared to cast – but then you can spend spell slots on them on the fly. So if you’re second level, have 30 spells in your spellbook, but decide that today you’re preparing charm person, magic missile, and 3 others, and then have two spell slots, you can cast twice from any of those 5 spells. So more choices than just the 2 spell slots, but less choices than all your spells.

      And it doesn’t affect wizards any differently, they just have overall spells limited to what’s in their book not an artificially limited “spells known” (sorcerer) or a more generous “anything in the book” (cleric).

      • Oh, I get it! They’re selecting a pool of spells, but once selected they can cast any combination of spells from that pool, to to their daily amount. Right?

        But only 2 spells at second level? Ugh. I assume 5e ditched Cantrips and Orisons.

        • Right. Oh, that number was just an example, most classes get 3 1st level spells at second level. They do have cantrips for everyone. I’ll get more into the magic later, I just wanted to mention a little about it to explain one of the differentials between the classes.

        • The rules for preparing are similar to Pathfinder’s new arcanist class. But Pathfinder doesn’t allow for using a higher spell slot to “power up” a spell.

  2. At 5th level bards inspiration switches from recovering after a long rest to recovering after a short rest.

    • That makes it a little better, but it still kinda sucks; you might not even be able to buff your whole party depending on your Cha and their number – for a bonus they can use on exactly one roll. It’s basically worse, and certainly not better, than Bless (3 targets + 1/add’l spell level get +1d4 to *all* rolls while concentrating). So I get to do all kinds of resource tracking and stuff for the equivalent of a first level spell? Bah. It also starts to jar simulation since it’s not the people listening, it’s an arbitrary subset.

      I would immediately house rule “when you use it, it affects your whole party” and go from there. Maybe “for CHA mod rolls”, maybe for concentration (like Bless, and like bardic music used to be).

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