A Bit on Executing Character Concepts in 5e


I feel a bit like I’m struggling upstream when trying to create some kinds of characters in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Time for a bit of a rant about rules-enforced tropes.

I understand. 3.5 had a problem with keeping skillchains under control due to the massive amount of not just 3rd party but 1st party content. It became very difficult (from approximately the very outset) to keep 3.5 under control, especially with skilled powergamers at the table.

I get that.

I get that 5th edition is designed with the intent to prevent some of that craziness, both in terms of sidelining multiclassing, but also in the design philosophy of bounded accuracy and limited magic item distribution.

But the thing that I have a bit of a problem with in 5th edition is that it seems like it seems somewhat harder to make decently optimized characters to a specification you have in your head. I say this because I recently spent a huge amount of time crafting a character for an upcoming game, effectively trying to “min/max” just the basic abilities the character should have: skills, attacks, spells, etc. I my primary concern wasn’t really that the build wasn’t good enough, it was more that when I was exploring the class options related to what I wanted to do, I was met mostly with either A: just no mechanical support at all, which would force me to either homebrew something or abandon the character concept, or B: a combination of effects (usually via multiclassing or dips) that got me close to the effect, but not even remotely effective in combat.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t think that any edition of D&D has ever really been that much better at articulating character concepts that well. Even 3.5 had fairly limited mechanics, in the grand scheme of things. It was just that there were so freaking many that you could often dig up some published source that had a class you could multiclass with to make a desired build happen.

And again, let me stress this isn’t about making powerful characters. It’s more about building the right character. I would bet that most players who’ve been around for a while have encountered situations where some thing that they want to be able to do either simply didn’t exist or was so awkward to construct using the rules that it made it effectively useless.


Classes are part of the problem here. A class is a self-contained package of traits and powers, but each of those packages only has so much room to customize. Sure you can reskin spells or effects. Sure you can pick paths and select your spells. But so often there are choices that aren’t really choices because it’d be insane to take one thing over another if you wanted to be effective in the game.

Sidenote: I know a lot of people are going to rag on this outlook by saying that not everyone wants to play an optimized character, and I get that, but also consider that since this is a [role-playing] [game], that you shouldn’t be forced to choose between roleplaying and gaming.

Why does D&D have classes at all? Here are the main 3 reasons I can see at the moment.

ASI Lock-In

It’s almost a truism at this point that a game has to have choices that both matter and aren’t so obviously unbalanced that nobody ever takes one option over the other. But D&D has had a problem with this in terms of character creation from the very beginning. In early editions, you couldn’t even play both an Elf who was a Fighter. Later on, you were penalized for thinking outside the box or limited to certain things that particular races were good at. I’m looking at 2nd Ed class level limitations per race. In 3.5, we got more progressive and just applied Ability Score penalties to things a particular race wasn’t good at.

Here’s the deal though. Say I want to play a half-orc wizard. He was the runt of the litter, the smart one. In 3.5 my orc was just going to be a bad wizard. At least until he got some ASIs and magic equipment, but that -2 Int was going to stick with him his whole life, compared to an Elf or Human. The moment you want to renegotiate that with the GM, you’re off the reservation, firmly in the territory of “homebrew.” Which, like, I mean, I’ve done a shit-fucking-ton of in my time as a player and DM, but why should I have to do that in the first place? Why not have rules that support interesting character concepts rather than make you invent new rules to do the things you want? It’s not really good enough to allow people to change the rules, I want rules that actively help me in a positive way.

As an example, check out the chart here. Note how there are some class combinations that are just far and away more popular than others, by like an order of magnitude. That doesn’t follow with the totals per class and race either. It’s just that some combinations are good and some are bad. I wouldn’t call that great game design exactly, and the direction each edition has taken in progress seems to indicate that the designers tend to agree with me. Also note that the implication there seems to be that making “rare” and thus “unoptimized” characters is somehow a better or braver or more hardcore choice. Calling it “rare” paints it as desirable, which stands at odds with the reality shown in the chart. Most players are trying to play a useful character.

Some Ideas

If you’ve got anything else, let me know. I’d gladly add it to the article.


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