I think it’s about high time I address a topic which is near and dear to my gaming heart: multiclassing. There are many different angles to approach this topic from, and, as always, I choose all of them. But we have to start somewehere, and I think it makes the most sense to start with the history of multiclassing in D&D.1
The early editions of D&D were fairly adamant about every player having exactly one class. Because fighters always fight, and magic users always use magic, and nobody ever does both, in any fantasy story ever. Yeah, early D&D players didn’t buy that either. So the concept of having more than one class—
We could start with 1st edition, but from what the Internet tells me, it’s not significantly different from 2nd ed; I personally have very limited experience with 1st edition—
2e proper actually had 2 forms of multiclassing: one was actually called “multiclassing,” while the other was called “dual-classing.” From the names, you might imagine that dual-classing was when you chose 2 classes, and multiclassing was when you chose more than 2; not so: multiclassing most commonly involved 2 classes (though it could involve more, in rare cases), and dual-classing involved as many damn classes as you liked (although admittedly it was more often 2 than any other number). So what was the difference? Well, we could talk about the distinction that one was only for humans and the other was only for non-humans, but I don’t think that’s particularly productive. Now, I don’t want to get into whether or not limiting things to humans or non-humans is a good idea or not—
So the more interesting distinction is that multiclassing was something you picked at the beginning of your career. If you wanted to be a fighter/thief, for instance, you chose to be a fighter/thief at level 1, and you were a fighter/thief forever. Which, if you think about it, is a strangely inflexible way of providing more flexibility than you could get with a single-classed character. Dual-classing was a bit better, but also somewhat inflexible. You could change your mind about your class after level 1, but you did so by abandoning your original class entirely and choosing a new class. So still not really ideal.
The nice thing about multiclassing was that the way experience progressions worked made it so multiclassed characters were never too far behind their single-classed brethren. So a figher/thief had to divide all their experience in half, true—
Dual-classed was way more complicated. Once you switched from one class to another, you kept all your old hit points, but you weren’t allowed to use any of the other class features, either at all (early versions), or you could use a feature, but then you lost all your experience points for that session (later versions). This went on until your new class level exceeded your old class level, at which point you could start using the features of both classes. But of course remember that those first few levels require much fewer XP to level up. So, to take another example, let’s say you started out as a fighter and got to level 4, at which point you decided you were going to switch over to being a thief. To get to level 5 of fighter, you’d need 8,000 more XP (on top of the 8,000 you already had). But those 8,000 XP are also enough to get you 4+ levels of thief, so while the rest of your party is hitting 5th level, you, once again, are 4/4, only 1 level behind everyone else. And, once you get just 2,000 XP ahead of everyone else, you hit 4/5 and now you can do all the fighter things and all the thief things, and then you’re really set.
So the good is that you can multiclass, and that your multiclass character stays fairly viable throughout all of its career (if multiclassing) or most of its career (if dual-classing). In fact, as far as effectiveness goes, multiclassing is pretty solid, regardless of what combo you use. Dual-classing is more limited, in that not only are certain combinations sub-par, but it depends on what order you do them in. Starting out as a fighter and switching to mage, for instance, is a pretty workable plan. But starting out as a mage and switching to fighter is just terrible. Plus, since you can never go back and gain levels in the original class, you have to be very precise in the level you achieve before you switch over. Adding a third (or more) class just complicates things, no matter which method you’re using. And therein lies the bad: multiclassing is hard. It’s complicated, and difficult to predict whether it’ll work out, and may involve temporary stretches of suckiness. But at least it’s possible.
Now, this history is primarily intended to be a history of the mechanics of multiclassing, but I want to diverge just a bit to talk about my personal history with multiclassing. See, I was never too much into the 4 base classes: fighter, mage, cleric, thief.4 My earliest D&D PCs were druids and bards.5 So, in a sense, I was reaching for multiclassing even while I was single-classing. And then Skills & Powers came out, which opened up your class options considerably. For a while I became obsessed with creating the perfect blend of wizard and rogue;6 S&P gave me the opportunity to try it both as a wizard with some rogue skills and as a rogue with some wizard features. It never quite jelled either way, but it was an interesting experiment.
S&P took nearly every possible class feature and assigned a point value to it. It didn’t really turn D&D into a classless system ... but it could come close, if you were willing to house rule a little. You could pick and choose your features from a smorgasbord of class choices, so you could effectively “multiclass” by just allowing one class to pick a few options off another class’s menu.7 The biggest problem with this was that the points you got for different classes weren’t particularly balanced against each other. For instance, fighters got 15 points, while mages got 40. Now, you could make an argument that fighters got a lot of non-class-feature bonuses—
Directly after a few aborted attempts at campaigns using the Player’s Option books,10 which many folks called (in retrospect, at least) 2.5e, we strayed from D&D for a while. I invented my own, completely classless system, using the character points from S&P as a jumping-off point, and both I and another member of our group ran campaigns using those rules.11 We had just about come to the conclusion that, while having a classless system sounded good on paper, in practice it left you with a paralyzing amount of choice and no structure to help you resolve it, when along came 3rd edition.
Next time, we’ll look at how 3e revolutionized the concept of multiclassing ... for better, and for worse.
1 Note: For this installment, I was obviously inspired by Brandes Stoddard’s excellent History of the Classes series, which you should absolutely read.
2 Remember that each class leveled up at different rates. Thieves leveled up the fastest.
3 Specifically, a 2e fighter needs 2,000 XP for 2nd level, and a 2e thief needs 1,250. So a fighter/thief hits 2/2 at 3,250, whereas fighter 3 takes 4,000.
4 Yes, yes, I know: “magic-user.” I refuse.
5 Not the original bard, where you had to dual-class for aeons before you eventually got to be cool. Rather the bard based on the Dragon Magazine article “A different bard, not quite so hard.”
6 No, not a bard! This would be a totally different thing, which I have a tendency to refer to as a “nightblade.” Since 2e, I’ve tried to create the nightblade as a 3e class and a Pathfinder class, and I’m thinking about trying it out as a 5e subclass, probably a rogue archetype, but possibly as a warlock ... something. Warlocks are somewhat frustrating to design for, as they have a huge amount of fun design space to play in, but patrons are somewhat thematically limited and pact boons are extremely mechanically limited. But I’m pretty sure I could get something to work in that space.
7 Again, I must stress that this was a house rule. I don’t wish to accuse the writers of S&P of any more insanity than they actually perpetrated, which was already quite a bit.
8 You could debate saves. Saves in 2e were super-funky, so they were nearly always debatable.
9 She was sort of an extreme version of a tiefling well before we had tieflings as a racial option.
10 In addition to Skills & Powers, there was Combat & Tactics and Spells & Magic, and we used ’em all. We were starved for character-building options back in those days.
11 Obviously he tweaked some of my rules for his own purposes. But I expected no less.