Early in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s creators made classes that rewarded strict rules of behavior with extra power. For instance, a player taking the challenge of playing a chivalrous cavalier always fought fairly, but also gained a bonus to attack with sword and lance.
Arguably, cleric stands as the first class limited by rules of behavior. Some holy men in history attempted to straddle the gulf between peaceful servant of god and spilling the blood of enemies by opting to bash their foes’ skulls while claiming not to spill blood. Based on that lore, original D&D required clerics to choose not to wield edged weapons or arrows. Back then, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, so this limit only counted as a disadvantage because the treasure tables made magic swords 20 times more common than non-edged weapons.
Former Wizards of the Coast head Peter Adkison shepherded D&D’s third edition design. He wanted to purge “restrictions that did a good job of reinforcing play balance but still didn’t make sense.” Why would a cleric devoted to Apollo the Archer refuse a bow? For third edition, D&D’s designers replaced the rule that prevented clerics from using swords with a proficiency system that made swords a poor option. Modern D&D follows the same pattern, but it still includes a class that requires characters who choose to limit themselves. More on that at the end.
With D&D’s first Greyhawk supplement, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax started adding classes that clearly balanced extra power with limitations that required certain behavior. Paladins started as a version of fighter who always acted lawfully. (D&D lacked good and evil alignments then.) “Any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.” The paladin’s generosity required the class to give away inessential magic items and other loot. “Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game.”
The first editor of The Dragon, Tim Kask, wrote, “It was so rigid a PC class; that smacks of Gary’s fiendish wit. Make a character truly extraordinary and make it really tough to play in terms of always having to do the ‘right’ thing, ALWAYS.”
By the Unearthed Arcana book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, many classes offset power with a roleplaying catch. “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items.”
Gygax knew this created a recipe for party conflict and embraced it. “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at newly discovered magic items and rid the world of their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it, then…” When a monster turned Gygax’s barbarian to stone, it ended the character’s career. “No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in having the poor chap returned to life.”
In most games, players saw such restrictions as problems to solve with ingenuity. Part of the paladin’s reputation for lawful stupid comes from all the do-gooders conned into leaving the room when the thief wanted to question or kill prisoners. And how many barbarian players opted for characters just stupid enough to fail to realize that their +2 sword and cloak of protection happened to be magical? Sample dialog: “Tan-kor, you should wear this cloak we found because it, um, matches your eyes.”
Second edition introduced class kits that made characters more distinctive and powerful, often in exchange for behavior restrictions. For instance, the bladesinger from the Complete Book of Elves ranked as one of the most powerful kits. The catch: Having to protect elves whenever the opportunity comes. Players got a boost for simply committing to bite on a certain sort of adventure hook. A more onerous code weighed cavaliers, who always had to fight fairly and chivalrously. So if a cavalier’s foe slips off a cliff and hangs by the edge, the cavalier must help the foe up before resuming the fight.
Such restrictions only worked in campaigns where every player valued roleplaying. In a mix of actors and power gamers, behavior limits cause friction—even when the code doesn’t require destroying magic items. Players who value immersing into character grow annoyed by the players who just look for loopholes in codes of conduct. Dungeon masters dislike the role of mandating or penalizing behavior that ignores the hindrances built into a character kit.
By third edition, the D&D team mostly dropped roleplaying limits from the class-design toolbox.
Still, one code of conduct remains in the modern druid class. The fifth edition Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Druids don’t lack the ability to wear metal armor. They choose not to wear it. This choice is part of their identity as a mystical order. Think of it in these terms: a vegetarian can eat meat, but chooses not to.” This restriction brings enough teeth for class balance while proving clear enough to defy most players seeking loopholes.
The classes in today’s Dungeons & Dragons game are balanced to make sure that when players leave a session, everyone feels like their character contributed to the party’s success. No player should ever see their character routinely upstaged and wonder, “Why am I even here?” In a list of goals for fifth edition, designer Mike Mearlswrote, “All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels.”
The game’s designers didn’t always aim for this target, and when they did the methods often failed. What methods of class balance have the game’s designers abandoned?
1. Ineffective in one pillar, strong in another
The D&D game focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat.
In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. The original thieves lacked any combat assets—not even backstabbing—but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusable abilities. They shined in the exploration pillar, and floundered in combat.
In an interview for Drache issue 3, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax explained, “D&D’s team aspect is important. In a D&D game, each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”
Some of that spirit remains, Mearls writes, “We’re OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects.”
But the game no longer allows classes that prove ineffective in a pillar. “If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn’t account for that, the system falls apart,” Mearls wrote. Over the years, the thief class added a backstab feature, which became sneak attack and a suite of combat abilities.
In D&D’s early days, Gygax saw characters who survived to high level as proof of a player’s skills. By this notion, players able to raise a weak character to the top deserved rewards. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon magazine, echoed this perspective when he wrote, “Anyone that gets an Illusionist [to high level] deserves whatever they can achieve.”
No class showed this attitude more than the magic user. Originally, magic users started with the no armor, the lowest hit points, feeble attacks, and just one magic missile or sleep spell. But while a high-level fighter just added more hit points and a higher attack bonus, wizards gained power in 3 ways: They gained more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. Their power grew to overshadow the other classes.
“Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level,” wrote third-edition designer Jonathan Tweet. “But we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.)”
The current edition starts to get the formula right. Mearls explained his goal for fifth edition. “Attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.”
3. Higher-powered classes require more experience points
Before third edition, every D&D class had a different table of experience points required to level. As far as I know, Gygax never explained this quirk. No one asked because everyone just assumed the higher-powered classes demanded more experience points to level. The charts hint at some of this: The mighty paladin requires more experience than the weaker rogue. But for the original classes of fighter, cleric, and wizard the differences seem quirky rather than systematic. “The system sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.” Until double-digit levels, the XP requirements for a magic user never left the wizard more than a level or two behind the other classes.
4. Classes with level maximums
Originally, Gary Gygax gave little thought to high-level characters. Kask recalled, “We figured the odds of even getting to level 9 or 10 were so high that it wouldn’t pose a problem. This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest-level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was a 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave Arneson’s.”
After D&D’s release, TSR co-owner Brian Blume lobbied to include the monk class in the game’s upcoming Blackmoor supplement. Kask wrote, “Brian rationalized the nearly super abilities of the monk’s high levels with the argument that nobody, or damned few, would ever get that high. (This illustrates a certain naivete that all of us shared back then. We had no idea people would play almost daily and rack up XP’s at a truly unimagined rate.)”
Gygax published a class that imposed harsh limits to high-level monks. For monks “there is only one man at each level above 6th.” So to rise above 6th level, a monk character had to find the one monk of that level and win a fair fight. “There will always be a higher level to fight, even if there is no player character in the role.” The class topped out at 16th level.
A year after Blackmoor, gamers had completely disproved the theory that few characters would rise to high level. So Gygax returned to the monk class’s scheme for limiting the new Druid class in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Kask explained, “Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat—and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one’s own to deal with!”
In practice such limits only steered players away from choosing the classes they wanted to play, or blocked characters from advancing with their peers in a high-level party.
More and more Dungeons & Dragons players keep learning a secret: The paladin class rates as one of the game’s strongest. In past editions, the paladin class weighed players with a need to play a faultless, lawful do-gooder who gave away most of their treasure, so the designers made paladins powerful to compensate. Fifth edition frees players of those old restrictions, but the class gets as many powerful features as ever.
As good as the class rates, players look to improve their paladins through multiclassing. The recipe seems strong. Combine the paladin’s martial prowess, armor, and divine smites with a Charisma-based spellcasting class that gains more spell slots to fuel extra smites. Compared to a level-10 paladin, a 10th-level character who mixes 2 levels of paladin with 8 levels of sorcerer or bard gains 1 level-3 slot, 3 level-4 slots, and 1 level-5 slot. The combination yields 24d8 extra total smite damage per day. Plus sorcerers gain sorcery points they can trade for even more slots. Of course, such combinations lack a bounty of paladin features. More on that at the end.
What multiclass combinations work best with paladin?
Paladin + Sorcerer
Multiclass paladin/sorcerers live their dreams by casting a quickened hold person or monster to paralyze a foe, and then following with paladin smites that automatically score criticals for twice the damage dice. Still, the combination suffers drawbacks that careful choices can help offset.
Sorcerers only gain d6 hit dice, so a lack of hit points limits characters who need to melee to smite. To compensate, pick the Draconic Bloodline origin for an extra hp per level. Prepare the shield spell and, later, mirror image, which rates as the best defense spell that works without concentration.
While paladins can cast their paladin spells using a holy symbol emblazoned on a shield as a focus, sorcerers need a free hand for the components of sorcerer spells. You can avoid this by focusing on the Great Weapon Fighting style, but the lack of a shield diminishes AC. To equip a shield, take the War Caster feat so that you can cast spells while holding it. This brings the added advantage of granting advantage on the Constitution saves needed to maintain concentration.
This class combination never gets an extra attack unless you invest five levels in paladin. To compensate, choose either the booming blade or green-flame blade cantrip to add extra damage to a single attack.
The class combination relies on multiple ability scores. Draconic Bloodline sorcerers gain in armor class if they focus on Dexterity over Strength, plus a high Dexterity offers more benefits than Strength, but these characters still need a 13 Strength to become a multiclass paladin. That hurts enough for most of these characters to opt for Strength over Dexterity. Half-elves work especially well with this class combination because of their choice of ability score increases.
Paladin + Bard
Multiclass paladin/bards boast one edge: When you join the bard’s College of Swords at 3rd level, you gain features that work in melee. Bards in the college gain an extra attack at level 6. These characters can start with 2 levels of paladin for Divine Smite, switch to bard, and still gain an extra attack at level 8. Plus, these sword bards can use their weapon as an arcane focus. The Defensive Flourish option lets you add a Bardic Inspiration die to AC. Combined with a paladin’s armor, this can yield an untouchable AC, at least for a turn.
For this combination, opt for the paladin’s Defense fighting style and choose the Dueling style available to the College of Swords. Half-Elves make a good choice of race.
Compared to the sorcerer combination, the bard multiclass lacks spells that complement the fighting style. You want spells like shield, but you have to wait for the 10th-level bard’s Magical Secrets feature to gain them.
Paladin + Warlock
The hexblade patron makes warlock a strong combination with paladin for several reasons:
Warlocks who choose the Pact of the Blade feature and the Improved Pact Weapon invocation can use their pact weapon as a spellcasting focus.
Warlocks who choose the Pact of the Blade feature and the 5th-level Thirsting Blade invocation can attack with their pact weapon twice whenever they take an attack action.
Most paladins need a high Strength to power their attack and damage rolls. For a pact weapon or for any weapon that lacks the two-handed property, a hexblade warlock can use Charisma instead. This frees the character from needing a strength higher than 13, the prerequisite for multiclassing. You can focus ability score improvements on Charisma, Constitution, and the Resilient (Constitution) feat that you want to improve concentration.
Hexblades get spells like shield that prove particularly useful.
The hexblade curse enables critical hits on 19-20, which doubles your chance of getting to roll twice as many damage dice on a divine smite. Plus you gain a damage bonus equal to your proficiency bonus. Plus when you kill your target, you regain hit points.
Warlocks regain spell slots after short rests. Often this provides more fuel for smites than comes from a full caster like a bard or sorcerer.
Warlock/paladin multiclass characters divide their loyalties between a sacred oath and, likely, a mysterious entity from the Shadowfell that manifests in sentient magic weapons carved from the stuff of shadow. To some players this presents a roleplaying challenge they feel eager to embrace.
Paladin + More Paladin
Paladin multiclass characters gain attention for racking heaps of smite damage and sometimes beating encounters single handed. A pure paladin can’t flash as often or as bright. Nonetheless, a pure paladin may lift a party’s strength more, creating a more powerful group.
Look at all the goodies a multi-class paladin may lose.
Characters who opt for just 2 levels of paladin never reach the ability score enhancement at level 4.
Those taking fewer than 5 levels never gain Extra Attack.
Quit before level 6 and you never gain that sweet, wonderful Aura of Protection that gives you and every ally within 10 feet a bonus to saving throws equal to your charisma bonus. That aura will make your paladin the party’s MVP of every single session.
The paladin’s benefits at level 7 and higher feel less essential, but multiclassers still miss some compelling features. At level 10, allies within 10 feet can’t be frightened. At level 11, all your melee attacks deal an extra 1d8 of damage. At 14, you can touch yourself and alies to remove spells. At 18, the range of your auras increases to 30 feet. Plus at level 7, if you follow the Path of the Ancients, you and allies in your aura gain resistance to spell damage.
All that, and unlike a 1st-edition paladin, you can keep all your magic items.
Concentration rates as one of the best additions to the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight layered with spells like haste, invisibility, fly, blur, protection from energy, and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while dungeon masters struggled to create any challenge. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.
In earlier editions, the same caster behind the buffs could also immobilize foes with Evard’s black tentacles, and then smother them with cloudkill. Now, the need for concentration limits the power of spellcasters, helping to eliminate D&D’s old problem of wizards who surged in power with every level until they overshadowed other classes. (See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.)
Plus, concentration enriches the game by adding a fresh, tactical element. Combatants can end spell effects by targeting casters and breaking their concentration.
While concentration improved D&D and put wizards in their place, the innovation proved mixed for class archetypes that cross swords and spells.
For exhibit A, see the paladin. In my last game, the party’s smite-happy paladin relished the chance to lock down a monster with compelled duel. This 1st-level spell boosts the paladin’s flavor of champion and protector. But compelled duel requires concentration, so while the paladin trades blows, every hit threatens to end the duel. Paladins want to bear the brunt of attacks, and they lack proficiency with Constitution saves, so their concentration is fragile. Why would a paladin ever cast shield of faith?
Worse, the paladin’s smite spells also require concentration, so even momentary attention to a smite spell ends the compelled duel. With smites serving as a cornerstone of the paladin’s offense, the need for concentration brings some frustration. Spells like magic weapon, heroism, and bless seem perfect for paladins, but all demand concentration.
In the D&D Next playtest, the paladins smite spells skipped the concentration requirement, but spells like banishing smite and blinding smite impose ongoing effects that merit concentration. The designers added concentration to add the tactical element where foes can break concentration to end punishing effects.
The same tension between concentration and a melee archetype hinders warlockhexblades and pact of the blade warlocks who aim to use their pact blade for more than posing. Hexblades gain smite spells that require concentration, yet the class also features spells like hex that demand attention.
Surely rangers suffer the most friction between concentration and the class’s featured abilities. The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark. (This exposes another spot where fifth edition punishes melee archetypes, but I’ve written about that already.)
The D&D design team uses their Unearthed Arcana series to test player reaction to potential game additions. A collection of class feature variants reveals one feature intended to smooth the rough spots from hunter’s mark. Read my annotated description.
Favored Foe 1st-level ranger feature (replaces Favored Enemy)¹
You can call on your bond with nature² to mark a creature as your favored enemy for a time: You know the hunter’s mark spell, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for it.³ You can use4 it a certain number of of times without expending a spell slot5 and without requiring concentration6—a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
When you gain the Spellcasting feature at 2nd level, hunter’s mark doesn’t count against the number of ranger spells you know7.
1. Instead of changing the base ranger class by adding a new feature missing from the Player’s Handbook, this variant adds an option that replaces a weak class feature. Most players would opt for Favored Foe, but rangers built from the core book keep a unique feature. The D&D design team has chosen not to make changes to the game that supplant anything in the published books. New players should never join a game and then learn that their Player’s Handbook character fails to match the latest rules.
2. The hunter’s mark spell implements a 4th-edition power called Hunter’s Quarry, a non-magical exploit that seemed to behave in some magical ways because the rules said so. Now, the replacement works like magic because it is.
3. First-level rangers can’t normally cast spells, but this feature needs the hunter’s mark spell. This line adds the one spell to a 1st-level ranger’s knowledge.
4. Oddly, the description says “use” rather than “cast”. This shows the designer thinking of this feature as an ability more than a spell. The whole feature description reads like something written by committee, but surely a final version will show more polish.
5. Because hunter’s mark implements a marquee ranger class feature, having to spend a spell slot on it feels like a tax. Here the ability goes tax free.
6. This waives the concentration requirement. Dual-wielding Drizzt admirers everywhere can cheer.
7.Hunter’s mark no longer taxes a ranger’s list of known spells either.
Favored Foe offers a good way eliminate a frustrating edge in the ranger class. I predict we’ll see it in a class options book toward the end of 2020.
Update: Unfortunately, the final version of Favored Foe in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything brings back the frustration. “When you hit a creature with an attack roll, you can call on your mystical bond with nature to mark the target as your favored enemy for 1 minute or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).”
The offhand mention of concentration confused me, but a ruling on another feature sharing the wording clears up the intent. The trickery domain cleric’s Invoke Duplicity feature also works “until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).” Lead rules designer Jeremey Crawfordexplained that this wording means that you must concentrate on the feature to maintain it, just like a spell.
The new Favored Foe skips the need to spend a bonus action, but otherwise it weakens the version tested in Unearthed Arcana in every way. In addition to requiring concentration, the new feature does less damage, only damages once per turn, just lasts a minute, and can’t be moved. Why do the D&D designers hate rangers?
Many Dungeons & Dragons players love animal companions for their characters, but the game’s fifth edition suffers uneven support for the archetype. Only specific character builds gain access to pets, and creating a character with an effective companion often requires a deep understanding of the game. For instance, of all the game’s class archetypes, the Beast Master ranger earns the most criticism for being too weak. To make beast masters able to hold their own, players must make some canny choices. More on that at the end.
The best route to an animal companion depends on what you want your companion to do. The more capable the pet, the more limited your options. A friendly mascot for your adventuring party hardly requires anything, but a pet capable of battling alongside a higher-level character confines you to just a few character options.
Ask yourself what you want from your pet. This post tells how to find the right creature companion.
For a friend or mascot, befriend and train a creature. In a tweet, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford writes, “Want your D&D character to have a pet or companion? Here’s a little secret: You don’t need special rules for this. Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy, as long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”
Dungeon masters: When players encounter hostile animals, the characters may try to make friends instead of fighting. Players love turning an angry beast into a mascot or companion to the party. Players attracted to this strategy love seeing it succeed. Treat the creature as a non-player character. As with any tag-along character, the best such animal companions prove useful, but never surpass characters.
Update: This simple approach poses one problem: After the party befriended a creature, the party leveled up to meet greater threats while the friend remained the same fragile creature. At just level 5, most characters survive a flameskull’s fireball, but an 11 hp wolf needs extraordinary luck to live, and a 5 hp tressym goes to meet Sharess, goddess of cats.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything offers a remedy: The sidekick rules offer an easy way to add a special companion to a group of adventurers. “A sidekick can be any type of creature with a stat block in the Monster Manual or another D&D book, but the challenge rating in its stat block must be 1/2 or lower.” This means that sidekicks could range from that wolf or tressym, to a bullywug rescued from a monster who enjoys frog legs, to the kobold Meepo, future dragonlord.
Whenever a group’s average level goes up, the companion gains a level in a sidekick class of warrior, expert, or spellcaster. They gain the additional abilities and hit points required to survive and contribute without ever overshadowing the rest of the party.
For a horse or similar mount, play a paladin. At level 5, paladins gain the ability to cast Find Steed which summons a spirit that takes the shape of a horse or similar mount. At level 9, Find Greater Steed brings a flying steed such as a Griffin. This mount lasts until you dismiss it or until it drops to 0 hit points. You and your mount can communicate telepathically.
The Find Steed spells share a feature and flaw with many of D&D’s pets. Rather than gaining a live companion worthy of an emotional attachment, the spell brings a spirit. The spiritual steeds boast the intelligence of Maximus, the determined horse in Tangled, but I wish for personality to match too.
In an interview, D&D Designer Mike Mearls said, “Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.” In fifth edition, the designers mainly chose the advantages of spirit companions.
Still, nothing says your spirit mount can’t show personality. Perhaps particularly brave and true horses serve in the afterlife as a paladin’s steed. Now I want to play a paladin who struggles with temptation paired with a horse whose spirit mission includes dragging my hero out of the tavern before he has one too many.
For a scout, helpful distraction, or spell conduit, learn Find Familiar. I’ve seen enough familiars in play to witness their utility, but before researching this post, I still underestimated their power. For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, Wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players made better use of familiars, the spell would count as broken.
Find Familiar lets you summon a spirit animal in a variety of forms: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish, rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Just about every animated sidekick matches something on the list of familiars. Want to play like an animated Disney hero with a wise or comical critter for a companion? Sadly, familiars can’t talk. The designers really missed an opportunity here. Even players who claim they can’t do voices can do a toad voice. It’s so fun.
Still, your sidekick can help. Try these uses:
Use your flying, creeping, or swimming critter to scout, while you watch through its eyes. My players used a familiar to explore five levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods while the party stood safely in the first hall. Doors stopped the creature, but so much of that dungeon stands open.
Use your flying familiar to perform the Help action on the battlefield, giving allies advantage on attack rolls. Eventually, an annoyed monster will smack down your bird, but that’s one less attack on friends, which may save a 50 gp healing potion. Re-summoning the familiar costs 10 gold, which counts as money well spent.
Use your flying familiar to target touch spells from a distance. For clerics who heal through touch, gaining a flying familiar might justify the cost of a feat. Play a grave cleric with a raven familiar.
Use your familiar to channel damaging spells like Dragon’s Breath. Familiars can’t attack, but with help, your little toad can spew acid in a 15-foot cone.
To gain a familiar, select one of these options:
Wizard: Learn Find Familiar
Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Chain
Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Tome and the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation. You get two level 1 rituals, plus the ability to inscribe any class ritual.
Bard: Choose the Lore archetype and use the Magical Secrets feature to learn the Find Familiar spell at 6th level. Or at level 10, any bard can use Magical Secrets to learn the spell.
Any Class: Take the Magic Initiate feat to get a 1st-level spell.
Any Class: Take the Ritual Caster feat to get any ritual spells.
For a more dangerous familiar, play a Pact of the Chain warlock. Warlocks who opt for the Pact of the Chain can choose an imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite as a familiar. These hardly count as animal companions. But unlike animal familiars, these creatures can attack—although after level 9 their bites and stings and tiny arrows amount to little. All these creatures fly and most turn invisible, so they make particularly good spies and spell conduits.
For an unusual mount, play a Beast Master ranger and a small character. Neither a familiar nor a paladin’s steed count as true animals. For a flesh and blood animal companion, opt for the Beast Master ranger archetype.
A small beast master such as a halfling or gnome can ride their medium animal companion as a mount. Ride a wolf for its pack tactics, 40-foot speed, and cool factor. Ride a giant wolf spider for its climb speed, poison bite, and creep factor. Ride a giant poisonous snake for its brazenly phallic implications.
For a partner in battle, play a Beast Master ranger and a creepy, crawly beast. Beast masters’ animal companions earn a reputation for weakness. At level 3, when the companion arrives, the poor beast has merely adequate hit points. As the party levels, the creature will have fewer hit points and worse AC than the wizard, despite having to fight in melee. Meanwhile, the wizard’s familiar makes a better scout.
The Beast Companion class description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillonsays that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4. If you want such a pet, follow Jeremy Crawford’s suggestion and train a creature to be your friend. Or spend a feat learning Find Familiar.
Unfortunately, warm, fuzzy, charismatic beasts like lions, tigers, and bears have size and challenge ratings that disqualify them as animal companions. If you want a furry friend, wolves rank as decent and panthers as adequate. But the very best companions make some folks say ick. For a pet that makes an able battle partner, choose one of these options:
A flying snake offers a 60-foot fly speed, flyby attack, and poison damage.
A giant crab brings decent AC, Blindsight 30 ft., grappling, and a swim speed. Plus, I understand such companions perform calypso-flavored musical numbers.
A giant wolf spider boasts Blindsight 10 ft., a climb speed, and poison.
A giant poisonous snake offers Blindsight 10 ft., a swim speed, and poison.
Dungeon masters: As special non-player characters, allow rangers’ animal companions to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points.
With the D&D rules as written, animal companions lack the armor proficiency required to wear barding without suffering disadvantage on attacks, checks, and saves. Nonetheless, I doubt allowing a few extra points of AC breaks anything. Besides, cats in armor look adorable.
Update: To enhance the beast master archetype, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything presents three primal companions typed for land, sea, and sky. Beastmasters can summon these primal beasts as a companion instead of befriending the creatures in D&D’s monster books. You can choose to describe your creature as a hawk or mastiff or anything that fits a type, without the risk of selecting a creature too weak to prove effective.
Rangers can spend a bonus action to command the primal beasts to attack or to take an action other than the dodging they do on their own. This marks a big improvement from archtype’s original companions, which typically required an action to command.
The primal beasts offer effective companions that can feel warm, fuzzy, and charismatic. The primal companions tend offer more hit points than real creatures. Plus, if these spirt beasts drop to 0 hit points, you can revive them for the price of a spell slot. As spirit creatures, you can summon new and different beasts after a long rest.
During the unveiling of third-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I saw a member of the design team say multiclassing offered tempting options for every character, but that every class offered enough rewards to make the choice to multiclass tough. Ideally, D&D multiclassing strikes that balance. In play, third edition fell short of balancing multiclassing. Classes tended to stack extra features at level 1 and sometimes suffered “dead levels” offering few benefits, so multiclass characters tended to outshine their single-class peers.
In fifth edtion, multiclassing isn’t so optimal. The first level of an additional class delivers fewer proficiencies. Every class level delivers new features or at least more spell slots. So while each class brings goodies, characters that multiclass lose some advantages of focus.
Spellcasters pay the biggest price for multiclassing. The top level in each separate spellcasting class limits the highest level of spell a character can know or prepare, so every level of a multiclass slows progress to higher-level spells. Characters reach spell slots based on the sum of their spellcasting classes, so they may gain slots of a higher level than any spell they know. At most, they can use those slots to boost a lower-level spell. Spellcasters who veer from their main class for more than 3 levels will never gain 9th-level spells.
Most classes leap in power at 5th level. Barbarians, fighters, paladins, and rangers all get a second attack. Wizards and sorcerers gain Fireball. Bards and warlocks gain Hypnotic Pattern. Monks gain Stunning Strike. When single-class characters reach level 5, multiclass characters will fall behind until their main class hits level 5.
At level 4, every class delivers a +2 ability score boost. Until a character’s attack or spellcasting ability reaches 20, these ability boosts stand to improve almost every to-hit roll and to hinder every foes’ save. Multiclassers who stop leveling a class at 1, 2, or 3 miss a key upgrade.
Despite the offsetting drawbacks of multiclassing, just a level or two of a class can enrich a character. For some players, multiclassing yields the flexibility to match a character’s story concept. Other players just want power. Many players seek a unique concept.
Whatever your aim for your character, this list reveals the top 7 classes to add as a multiclass.
Generally, barbarian makes a poor second class. Few martial characters want to avoid armor. Spellcasters can’t cast while raging. Despite the limitations, 2 levels of barbarian make a gimmicky combination with rogue. The Reckless Attack feature lets your rogue gain advantage for Sneak Attack.
For spellcasters aiming to become much more durable, two cleric domains make a good start.
A character who starts as a Tempest cleric gains heavy armor proficiency. At 2nd level, the domain grants Destructive Wrath, which lets a cleric use Channel Divinity to deliver maximum lighting or thunder damage. Most spellcasters can find use a for that.
The Forge domain also grants new clerics heavy armor proficiency. At 1st level, these clerics can use Blessing of the Forge to add a +1 bonus to your armor or to a martial party member’s weapon.
Update: In the comments, Rooneg raises an important point. Heavy armor demands Strength scores higher than any spellcaster needs, so most characters only benefit from the medium armor proficiency granted by every cleric domain.
Unlike other classes that grant armor proficiency, a level of cleric keeps spellcasters on pace as they gain spell slots. As a drawback, your spellcaster will gain little benefit from the 13 Wisdom required to multiclass as a cleric.
At first level, bard delivers light armor proficiency, a skill, and Bardic Inspiration. Most multiclassers continue to gain Jack of All Trades at level 2. This adds half your proficiency bonus to every ability check where you lack proficiency.
Levels of bard combine easily with charisma-based spellcasters.
Characters dip into warlock for 2 levels to gain 2 Eldritch Invocations. For charisma-based casters, the Agonizing Blast invocation upgrades Eldritch Blast from an ordinary, weak, cantrip attack to a powerful option. Devils Sight makes a dangerous combination with the Darkness spell. Mask of Many Faces lets a deceptive character scheme past obstacles and break a few adventures. Ignore the shell-shocked look on your dungeon master’s face; they love it.
Many of the Sorcerous Origins bring appealing perks at level 1. The Divine Soul’s Favored By The Gods feature lets you add 2d4 to a failed save. I like mobile characters, so the Storm Sorcerer’s Tempestuous Magic strikes my fancy. Before or after casting a spell, the feature lets you fly 10 feet without provoking.
Multiclassers add sorcerer to gain the 2 metamagic options available at level 3. Quickened Spell, Twined Spell, and Heightened Spell may rank as the best. Subtle Spell helps in adventures that feature role play and intrigue.
Characters rising in other spellcasting classes can trade spell slots for the sorcery points that fuel metamagic options. Except in the sort of dungeon crawls that exhaust spell slots, most mid- to high-level casters rarely use all their slots anyway.
The first level of fighter ranks as the most useful single level in fifth edition. Characters who start as fighters gain heavy armor proficiency.
Level 1 also delivers a fighting style. The Archery style brings a +2 to ranged weapon attacks and benefits every sharpshooter. The Defense style grants +1 AC and keeps your spellcaster from harm. The Protection style helps save your allies. Protection lets a shield-bearing character impose disadvantage on an attack against a character within 5 feet. First-level fighters also gain Second Wind.
Levels 2 and 3 bring fewer rewards, but the features suit players who enjoy bringing big damage spikes. At 2nd, Action Surge lets fighter take an extra action once between rests. At 3rd, the Champion archetype scores critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20. This combines brilliantly with the paladin’s Divine Smite feature. If you stick with fighter through level 3, you should probably stay with the class to level 5 for the ability score boost and the Extra Attack feature.
At 1st level, the Rogue class delivers Sneak Attack, but the Expertise feature may benefit dabblers more. Expertise doubles your proficiency in two skills. Second level brings Cunning Action, the best prize for multiclassers. Use a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide.
As a bonus, characters who start as a rogue gain 4 skills while most other classes just get 2.
A level or two of rogue fits with most multiclass characters.
In my last post, I looked for an official way to make the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules for for spell components and free hands match the way players operated at the table—with little attention to what characters have in hand.
This may soon become obsolete, and that makes me happy. Alphastream, who has earned a much greater stature in the Dungeons & Dragons community than I have, gave my gripes a boost that garnered the attention of designer Jeremy Crawford.
If needed, I am prepared to take 100% of the credit for spurring Jeremy to act, although he probably had the article planned before I posted.
As I wrote my original post, I created the following suggestions for rulings and house rules, so you, dear reader, get them despite their brief relevance.
First, I suggest allowing the characters with the War Caster feat to use a weapon as a spellcasting focus. This small change offers a path that lets most martial-spellcasters to operate without headaches.
For many classes, I have a suggested rulings and additional house rules. The rulings steer close to the rules as written, while the house rules introduce small changes that makes classes work as players expect.
Bards need a free hand for components or their musical instrument. For El Kabong, the instrument doubles as a weapon.
Bards in the College of Valor may use a melee weapon as a bard spellcasting focus.
For clerics, brandishing a worn holy symbol or one on a shield satisfies the need for both somatic and material components.
Druids who wish to carry a shield can opt to use staff as a spellcasting focus in the other hand. The staff doubles as a weapon.
Druids may use visibly worn mistletoe, holly or totemic objects as a focus that satisfies the need for both somatic and material components.
Fighter – Eldritch Knight
Eldritch knights may cast while holding a two-handed weapon in one hand. Those who wish to carry a shield should plan on taking the War Caster feat.
Eldritch knights may use their bonded weapon as a spellcasting focus.
For paladins, brandishing a worn holy symbol or one on a shield satisfies the need for both somatic and material components.
Rangers who opt for the two-weapon fighting style should plan on taking the War Caster feat.
Rangers who choose the two-weapon fighting style may use a melee weapon as a ranger spellcasting focus.
When I saw the fifth-edition basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, I concluded that the designers wanted to make the rules match the way players obviously want to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and spell components. For example, the rules allow clerics and paladins to cast with a holy symbol worn or emblazoned on a shield. The text never connects the dots and says that a cleric or paladin can cast with a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, but we should know they can because clerics and paladins always have.
But the Player’s Handbook made me doubt the designers had given much thought to the matter. The full rules prompted more questions on hands and spellcasting than any other topic. Then the designers’ answers made the game convoluted. For exhibit A, see this September 5 tweet from Jeremy Crawford.
To follow Jeremy’s suggestion, players of clerics and paladins must sheath their weapon, cast the spell, and then wait until next turn to draw their weapon, but only for spells that just require somatic components. For the first time, players must account for components during ordinary play.
The rules seem just as awkward for dual-wielding rangers, shield-bearing druids in the College of Valor, and eldritch knights. These characters must sheath their weapon, cast the spell, and then wait until next turn to draw their weapon. In the past, similar character types never forced players to endure such friction. Even players careful enough to spend actions to switch gear would rather not play that game.
An ideal D&D game would allow characters that combine martial prowess with spellcasting to operate as they always have—without a worrying about stowing weapons to free a hand to cast.
Some dungeon masters will simply adapt and interpret the rules to suit a vision like mine, but those of us running games at conventions and stores lack that option. We must stick to the official rules. When players sit at my table, I want their dual-wielding ranger to play the way their intuition and past experience suggests.
The War Caster (p.170) feat could have let that dual-wielding ranger operate more freely, but it just adds complexity. The feat lets someone cast without a hand free for somatic components, but not material components. So dual-wielding rangers, shield-bearing druids, and eldritch knights now need to keep track of which spells require material components, and to swap gear to cast these spells. Good grief.
How should the game work? For answers, I scoured the rules and the advice of sages, but I failed to find any definitive answers that I can pass on. So I turned to my two imaginary fiends, Lawful DM and Chaotic DM, for answers. I will support their answers with responses tweeted by the designers. You can reference the tweets among many others on thesageadvice.wordpress.com. Although the tweets come from the designers, they represent unofficial, off-the-cuff guidance.
Can you cast a spell that uses somatic components if you wield a two-handed weapon?
No. (Mike Mearls, August 2) Allowing this favors martial-spellcasters with a two-handed weapon over those with a shield. The game should not encourage more greatsword-wielding, spellcasting, chaotic Elric wannabes.
Yes. A two-handed weapon needs two hands to be used, but not two to be carried. (Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford, September 28)
Can the arcane or druidic focus staff double as a quarterstaff?
Yes. (Mike Mearls September 9)
Can a cleric or paladin cast a spell while wielding a weapon and brandishing a holy symbol worn or emblazoned on their shield?
Yes. Thankfully Jeremy Crawford’s answer does not represent an official ruling that players must follow. Instead, defer to 40 years of tradition.
Yes. (Mike Mearls September 9 and the entire history of the game from 1974 on.)
Can a Druid, Ranger, Eldritch Knight, or a Bard with shield proficiency cast spells while bearing a shield and wielding a weapon.
No. The character must take the War Caster feat (p.170) to gain some of this ability. Druids and Eldritch Knights may opt to use a staff that doubles as a weapon and focus, but Knights wielding staffs risk having Barbarians make fun of them.
Yes. Just stow that weapon in the shield hand for a moment. (Mike Mearls, August 28)
Can a character cast spells while wielding two weapons?
No. The character must take the War Caster feat (p.170) to gain some of this ability. Wizards have never dual-wielded daggers, and they should not start now.
Yes, because Rangers have cast spells while wielding two weapons since second edition in 1989. (But not since Drizzt first appeared in The Crystal Shard in 1988, because Drizzt doesn’t cast. He has a DM who respects the rules. – Lawful DM)
What if my dual-dagger-wielding wizard carries a lot of daggers and drops them when he needs a free hand to cast?
Okay, but your parents did not spend all that money on wizarding school so you could walk around with bandoliers of daggers like a common thief.
While Lawful DM and Chaotic DM may not help much, in my next post, I have some recommendations for your game.
In my last post, I discussed how expanding options and shrinking rounds turned what Dungeons & Dragons characters had in hand into something that mattered. I showed a mindset that avoids making gear in hand into a distraction at the table, but I dodged the area of the fifth-edition rules that leads to the most questions. What must a spellcaster have in hand to cast spells?
In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, no one worried what magic users could do with their hands. That changed when someone captured an enemy mage—or was captured themselves. Now players wondered if their imprisoned magic user could still cast. The 1977 Basic Set gave an official answer: A magic user “can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands. This means that a magic-user bound and gagged can not use his magic.” The set credits Eric Holmes as editor, but the rules came from Gary Gygax and previewed things to come in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
The Compleat Enchanter
By requiring wizards to speak and gesture, D&D enabled plots involving captive and helpless wizards, but Gary elected to go further. In The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt, a character explains, “The normal spell consists of several components, which may be termed the verbal, somatic and material.” Even though material components seldom affected play, Gary added them, probably because he relished inventing witty spell components. For example, the Fireball spell requires bat guano because guano once served as a source of saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder. Aside from tickling Gary’s fancy, material components only occasional saw play, and then only as a story device. For example, the second-edition Dark Sun setting turned material components into one of many resources players struggled to find in a resource-poor world.
By fourth-edition, material components only applied to rituals, and then only as a means to cap ritual use by attaching a gold cost. Of all the new changes that sparked protests, no one seemed to morn the loss of material components. Even the most hidebound players happily continued to ignore material components. Nonetheless, as a nod to tradition, fifth edition included material components. Many casters will opt to substitute a spellcasting focus instead.
Spellcasting alternative to material components
Musical instrument (Player’s Handbook p.53)
Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Druidic focus (PH p.151). May be a staff, which doubles as a quarterstaff weapon.
Fighter – Eldritch Knight
Arcane focus (PH p.151).
Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
No focus, so Rangers require material components to cast.
Rogue – Arcane Trickster
Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ignored the issue of how dual-wielding rangers and multiclassed elves could access material components while fighting with sword and shield. The game used minute-long combat rounds, and a first-level spell only took 6 seconds to cast, leaving plenty of extra time to gather components, repack a bag, and savor a juice box before the start of the next round. The second-edition Player’s Handbook grants even more wiggle room. “The caster must…have both arms free.” Not hands, arms. It’s all in the wrists.
Players imagine a round as an exchange of blows, making the 1-minute round seem ludicrously long. So in third-edition, the round shrank to a mere six seconds. This seemed more plausible, but suddenly players needed to account for time needed to switch weapons and to being spell components to hand. Mialee, third edition’s iconic elf wizard, wore practical garb covered with pockets for easy access to spell components. (Plus, the midriff-baring outfit can be worn throughout pregnancy.) As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action. In practice, few players paid much attention to what their characters held, with no more concern to freeing hands for spell gestures and components than in 1974.
Next: Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands