Class Design for 4th Edition

Working up an entirely new class for 4th edition is an interesting experience.  In some respects, it’s a more complicated process than 3rd edition; in other ways, it’s simpler.  A couple of thoughts on what my ongoing work on a 4e monk class has told me…

First, complexity.  In third edition, creating a new class — either base or prestige, though I’m dealing mostly with base classes here — would involve a few easy steps.  First, you’d choose a base attack bonus progression.  Second, one or more “good” saves, among the three.  Then, class skills and number of skill points per level.  Weapon and armor proficiencies.  For a prestige class, prerequisites and number of class levels.  And finally, you’d try to work out a list of class abilities.  In most cases, this step took the longest, but even for a base class, it would be no more than 20 levels’ worth of abilities, often working out to no more than one ability per level (although not necessarily evenly distributed).

In fourth edition, things are much the same.  There’s no more BAB to worry about, but now you have a base number of healing surges and a base amount healed per surge.  Most classes get either a +2 to one defense (Fortitude, Reflex, Will) or a +1 to two; one, the paladin, has a +1 to all three, so that’s still a valid option too.  There are still class skills, although the sheer number of skills has decreased and there are no more skill points.  There are still proficiencies.  Then there are class features — the four or so powers that both embody the essence of the class and allow it to (better) do what it’s meant to do.  The cleric’s healing word.  The warlock’s eldritch blast.  The fighter’s bonus to hit with either one-handed or two-handed weapons.  In the monk’s case, it’s ability with unarmed strikes and an armor bonus when unarmored.

The one exception in 3e was a spellcaster.  Creating a new spellcaster class which had its own unique spell list (and not merely use of other classes’ spells) was a long undertaking, because each spell needed to be written up separately.  That’s why so many new caster classes used old classes’ spell lists entirely, or filched most or all of their spells from a patchwork of other classes’.

That’s kind of what it’s like for every class in 4e.  Every class in the PHB offers a choice from among at least three powers at every level at which the character gains a new power.  Often there are four choices; occasionally, five or even six.  Over 30 levels, even though not every level offers a new power, that’s still a lot of powers to write up.

An analysis of the powers in the PHB will show that, when the descriptive fluff is removed, some powers of one class are remarkably similar in nature to those of another class.  So one option is to take existing powers, file off the serial numbers, add some fluff, and serve.  This works, although the particular mix of powers may still need balancing.

The other option is to come up with unique powers, at least to the extent that you can.  Obviously, quite a few possible powers for a weapon-using class are going to involve a combination of attacking the target and moving.  But there are different ways of doing this:

* You move, then attack.

* You attack, then step back a space.

* You make a full move, and make an attack against an enemy you’re adjacent to at any time during that move.  That enemy doesn’t get an opportunity attack against you.

* You attack, then move a few steps, then attack again.

* You charge, attack, and push the enemy with you for the rest of your move.

All of these are powers that appear in the PHB at least once, but they all feel like very different powers, even though their effect boils down to “a combination of moving and an attack.”  A class that offers each of these options feels diverse.  A class that offers 5 powers that do option 1 and 3 that do option 2… well, that starts to feel a little repetitious.  So it’s important to shake things up.  This is true even if you’re filing off serial numbers rather than baking from scratch.  (Way to mix metaphors, eh?)

The one thing that’s absolutely essential in my view is to give the new class a niche of its own.  If your concept for the class is “be sneaky and hit things,” then your creation is directly competing with the rogue, and likely to be found either redundant or overpowering.  If it’s “control the battlefield through the use of summoned monsters,” then you’re doing something no other class is.  Even if your spells are mechanically similar to the wizard’s — the PHB’s only controller — you still feel different in play.

This is one reason my monk is focused more on “disabling the enemy through martial arts expertise” and less on “doing damage with my fists.”  The rogue and ranger both do damage with weapons, stealth, and mobility; another class that does that isn’t needed.  In fact, Wizards of the Coast has published some guidelines for playing “missing” classes using 4e, and their suggestion for the monk is to use a two-weapon-style ranger with a few changes.  It’s a good stopgap, but it doesn’t satisfy me, so my work on my version of the class continues.

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2 Responses to Class Design for 4th Edition

  1. David says:

    Interesting… and well thought out. Are you working on any other classes?

  2. Scott says:

    Sort of. I’m not going all-out on any other class until I’ve got my monk refined a bit more, but I do have ideas.

    I’m planning on a druid-variant — the nature-controlling caster sort, not the wild-shaping melee combatant. Most likely a controller. I’ve also been playing with some ideas for an onmyoji — the main issue being, that’s probably a controller, too. So I’ll probably work out one of those and leave the other for a while.

    I’d considered some other Eastern-flavored classes, but I think a lot of them can be had through small variants in existing classes. I’m not sure I need a separate class for the ninja, for instance; rogues and rangers seem to cover the sneaky-striker ground pretty well already.

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