If you know anything about D&D history, you know that multiclassing has undergone a lot of radical change since the game’s inception, and nearly everyone has an opinion on the topic. In fact originally, there was no multiclassing!
(See below for a summary of D&D’s history of multiclassing.)
Fulfilling Two Desires
What may not be obvious to everyone, and what often goes unspoken in internet debates, is that multiclassing fulfills two very different desires. The first desire is to play a character outside D&D’s rigid class structure; to mix and match two or more classes into one character from campaign’s start. The second desire is to change a character’s nature and skillset, as inspired by campaign events and relationships.
(Multiclassing can also fulfill a desire to optimize, but this desire isn’t unique to multiclassing, so it’s not relevant to this particular point.)
One of the realities of multiclassing is that different approaches to it may only fulfill one of these two desires. Original and Basic D&D’s approach, for example, does nothing to satisfy the changing-character desire and only satisfies the mix n match desire in the most limited and superficial way. 3e D&D’s approach satisfies the changing-character desire (with a few provisos), but doesn’t satisfy the mix n match desire (unless a campaign starts above 1st level). Meanwhile, 4e D&D’s two approaches each satisfy a different desire. Thus, different editions satisfy different groups of players, with varying degrees of success.
The Nature of D&D
Once again, if you’ve spent much time on internet forums devoted to D&D, you know that multiclassing is a controversial topic, and even fans of each edition can have radically different opinions on that edition’s approach to it. In fact many fans — including yours truly — will say that multiclassing has been a continual disappointment of every single edition. Original and Basic D&D pleases fans who don’t like the idea of multiclassing to begin with; 1e and 2e AD&D arguably make multiclassing a power gamer’s wet dream; 3e’s approach to multiclassing is revolutionary, but similarly incentivizes a lot of system mastery; and 4e multiclassing either feels a bit anemic or lacks this edition’s usual rigor, depending on approach.
I like aspects of certain D&D approaches to multiclassing, but there isn’t a single one of them that I can unequivocally say “Yes, this is the way I want to do multiclassing!” And there’s a reason for that.
At its core D&D is a class-based game, and multiclassing is a structural afterthought. Not that some future edition of D&D couldn’t fundamentally shift away from its class-based structure, or that the game’s developers don’t think much about multiclassing. But D&D began without multiclassing at all, and classes — even in the more open WotC editions — are still structured around the assumption that a character is defined by her class, from level 1 to max. Classes often, especially in pre-WotC editions, have restrictions and features which exist to protect class niches and are entirely dependent on their class-hood. (Allowed weapon & armor lists, allowed magical item lists (particularly in pre-WotC editions), the pre-4e paladin’s evil-detection ability, name-level followers, etc..) Additionally, WotC editions have given each class a hearty competence-boost at 1st level: 2-3 later levels worth of hit points, bonuses, and features. To a large extent, class defines character.
Structurally, multiclassing is an awkward wrinkle in this unspoken assumption, a bone thrown to players not entirely satisfied with D&D’s class structure. No doubt this is one reason why so many gamers move on to other tabletop RPGs after entering the hobby through D&D, and it’s the reason that I’ve never been entirely satisfied with D&D’s multiclassing.
Though I have come to understand why some fans would rather not have multiclassing at all, particularly if there are a myriad of classes to choose from, I do think that the mix n match and the changing-character desires are worth catering to. And while I do understand why some gamers prefer to avoid class structures to begin with, I do like a certain degree of structure that classes can afford. So what’s a gamer like me to do?
…Well, that’s a discussion for another post. 😉
D&D’s History of Multiclassing
Original and Basic (B/X, BECMI, Classic) D&D: There is no multiclassing, and in fact each demihuman race was originally its own class. While the elf class is similar to a fighter/magic-user hybrid, and some supplements add more hybrid-ish classes like the dwarf-cleric (fighter/cleric), there is no way to directly mix and match classes.
Advanced (1e & 2e) D&D: There are two multiclassing subsystems, one called multiclassing and one called dual-classing. Multiclassing is restricted to demihuman races, and is a character creation choice. A multiclassed demihuman starts as two or three classes — each race has a list of predefined class combos which can be chosen from — and XP is then split between each class.
Dual-classing is restricted to humans, and happens after 1st level. A human who meets the high ability score requirements can begin advancing in a new class, though there are a couple of noteworthy restrictions: The character is penalized for using spells and abilities from his old class, until his new class’ level equals his old class’ level. And he can never again advance in her old class.
3e D&D: Multiclassing is an a la carte subsystem, where each level of each class is treated as a building block which is used to create and advance a character. Hypothetically, these levels can be combined in any number and order, but a favored-class sub-subsystem penalizes multiclass characters who don’t build around it.
Pathfinder uses a favored-class sub-subsystem which rewards single-classed characters with various extra benefits, rather than penalizing carelessly multiclassed characters.
Fantasy Craft designates certain 1st-level features and abilities as 1st-level 1st-class only, rather than using any favored-class sub-subsystem.
4e D&D: Multiclass feats are the original means of multiclassing. Each class has an associated multiclass feat which grants a skill and a class feature. Each character is restricted to one of these feats, but separate power-swap feats allow multiclassed characters to gain powers from their new class.
The 4e PHB added another multiclass option, called hybriding, which combines two classes into one character at level 1.
13th Age uses a multiclassing subsystem much like 4e hybriding.
Points of Light has both multiclass feats and a hybrid-like subsystem. Its multiclass feats grant fewer benefits and more options than their 4e equivalents, while PoL’s dual-classing subsystem is more even than 4e’s hybriding subsystem.
5e D&D: This edition takes a page from 3e, Fantasy Craft, and from 2e. Each level is a building block, but there are ability requirements to multiclass, and certain class features are 1st-level only.