D&D Meta-Classes

In AD&D 2e you could choose your weapon and nonweapon proficiencies (optional rule), thieves could choose how to distribute their skill points, and (in the Complete Priests Handbook) speciality priests could have different ‘spheres’ that controlled what spells they had access to and influenced the powers they received.

D&D 3e started making classes even more flexible.  In all cases you can choose the skills you learn and to what degree, and all characters get feats that can change aspects of the character.  The multiclassing options were greater than before and offered even more flexibility.

Many classes also had options for customization as well.  Spell casters could select spells that suited their concept (such as a ‘fire mage’ or ‘necromancer’), clerics could choose domains that affected spell selection and granted powers specific to the domains, fighter could pick even more feats, rangers could pick favored enemies, and so on.  Barbarians, not so much.

This covers just the D&D core rules.  Over time even more options became available.  Among them,

  • Green Ronin, in Book of the Righteous, provided the “holy warrior” class as an alternative to the core rules paladin.  Like clerics, holy warriors had domains that governed the powers and spells they gained through their class.
  • Unearthed Arcana described variant classes and class options that could change a character class.  For instance, class options that changed barbarian ‘rage’ to ‘frenzy’ (strength vs. speed), changed druidic wildshape to ‘aspects’, and replacement abilities for specialist wizards.
  • A number of supplements and Dragon Magazine articles presented ‘substitution levels’ that replaced, for some characters, specific class abilities.  For instance, a ‘dwarven paladin’ might have a substitution level that changes his remove disease ability to something involving stone or divination.
  • Fantasy Flight Games, in their Path of… series and Dawnforge presented ‘legendary classes’ that gave some basic class benefits (base attack bonus and saving throws, possibly continuing spell casting) and then had the specific abilities for each such character chosen at each level.  Each level in the class would provide the character a new benefit (ability, power, or the like) scaled by the class level at which it was taken.
  • Pathfinder expanded the flexible nature of the classes.  Even more classes gained choices and alternate abilities and so on.

From an engineering perspective, I like this.  I’m all about flexibility and tend to dislike designs that restrict that.  A tool that may be used in many ways is, to my mind, a good tool.  If this tool can be used in ways that were not planned (or necessarily even imagined) by the designer it is even better.

However, as a GM and player… it might be a bit much, really.  The increase in flexibility brings with it the need for players (and GMs during preparation) to make more choices.  While choice is good, the sheer volume (not number, volume) of choices is starting to reduce the value of the decisions (and the ease of making them; “I can heal stuff” is an easy decision, “I can heal this and this, but not that” can be higher-resolution decision-making than it needs to be).

Echelon simplifies this by having talents that try to include as much as possible of the things people with the talent should be able to do.  When building a character you simply choose the broad categories of things that the character can do and work out how they fit together (since most talents don’t directly interact this should be fairly straightforward).  On one hand this is even more flexible (you have pretty free choice of talents) and thus would be even more time-consuming, but the pieces are large enough that they can be easily worked with (and don’t interact much directly, reducing the effort of connecting things).

This post isn’t about Echelon, though, but about how the increasing flexibility of class design in D&D may be used more efficiently and easily.

Meta-Class Specialization

What if, instead of making direct use of the very flexible classes described above, they are treated as templates for the creation of concrete classes?  Disallow the direct use of such flexible classes and limit them to setting-specific specializations of these classes?

For instance, take the specialist wizard options from Unearthed Arcana and implement them in a manner similar to what is described there.  Instead of a necromancer being just a specialist wizard (+1 spell slot per spell level per day, as long as it has a necromancy spell in it, with a familiar and bonus metamagic or item creation feats), give him the creepy undead minion, necrotic body, and whatever the last power is.  Or some or all of the options available.  Replace the more generic powers and abilities with something more appropriate to being a necromancer.  In this particular case I would probably also modify the spell list somewhat — rather than the player choosing two schools that are unavailable, make that determination ahead of time (and possibly add some more spells appropriate to his specialization — you don’t have to stick to the RAW list).  As also suggested in Unearthed Arcana you might have multiple such specializations for each school.

Likewise, clerics of different gods can certainly be more distinctive.  Reduce the core list of cleric spells (it’s stupidly big anyway) and double or triple the spells in each domain.  A particular god’s clerics have access to all on their core list (which might differ between pantheons or other grouping) plus the spells in their domains.  They also get to choose two domains that they get the domain powers for and can cast the spells from those domains spontaneously.  This is also an opportunity to exchange other abilities (such as pulling in substitution levels).  While you’re at it, give them a few more skill points, or better yet (given the nature of this post) give them free skills (skill points specifically allocated to preselected skills).

Paladins can be replaced by holy warriors, and as demonstrated in Book of the Righteous their abilities can be similarly configured specifically for the gods they follow.  Rangers could be customized for their combat style, chosen enemies, and favored terrains (Mounted Combat rangers might wear heavier armor than usual or have better Hit Dice, or desert rangers have abilities to allow them to better-survive their arid environment).  In fact, as I’m considering with Echelon, ‘favored enemies’ might not give generic bonuses against the chosen favored enemies, but abilities more suited for fighting them.

Closing Comments

This post is a little disjoint, more than usual.  I’m feeling my way through some ideas here that I haven’t fully explored in D&D.

In short, though, I think the number of choices and decisions in character creation has gotten large enough to be unwieldy.  Between dumpster diving and looking for optimal solutions it is easy to build unbalanced characters (not just overpowered compared to their colleagues, but with distinct gaps in their own abilities).  Also, it can be difficult to decide on an appropriate build because there are so many possibilities.  This may be good from an engineering and decision perspective, but impractical for use in play.

Constraining the choices available at any given time by making them ahead of time and bundling them for selection later can streamline later use.  It also allows careful consideration of the chosen abilities and adjustment — if a particular combination seems too weak it may be improved (such as when two domains have considerable overlap in their spells), or if it seems too powerful it can be reduced (or other powers adjusted down).

Specialization at this level (setting design rather than character design) also makes it easier to make changes specific to the combination that will make them more distinct.  The generic construction of many abilities (+2 against enemies of this type, +1 spell slot per spell level, etc.) does nothing for me with regard to making things feel distinct.  Powers consisting of generic abilities applied generically tend to feel… generic.

I don’t want generic characters.  I don’t mind archetypal characters, but if the difference between clerics is the color of their holy robes I am not happy.  This may help address that.


  1. A slightly more controversial idea for clerics: remove the “core spell list” altogether, and put everything in the domain lists. Common spells (such as the ever-popular cure wounds series) can end up in multiple domains, increasing their accessibility (you can make a case for putting cure wounds in Healing, Sun, Protection, Community, Love, Renewal, Good, etc etc). Each cleric gets access to all spells on their deity’s domain lists, plus can pick two “speciality” domains as you mention.

  2. That’s an interesting idea, though it may dilute the meaning of the ‘domain’ as a discrete unit. Right now, as limited an effect on casting as domains have, they are generally fairly well-defined as to what they do or mean.

    If I were spending more time on 3.x right now I’d certain explore the idea further, though. I’d rather see one beefy “fire” domain than “fire”, “flame”, and “burnination” domains each with one spell per level.

  3. hadsil

    3E already provides for some specialized classes. Beguiler focuses on illusion and enchantment. Dread Necromancer is necromancy focused. The Sorcerer is a built in limited spell selection spellcaster. Personal anecdote: For my own amusement I already had divided up all the PHB and Spell Compendium cleric spells into Domains akin to Ye Older 2E sphere system.

    However, from a broad game design perspective, you can only do this up to a point. You can’t dictate every aspect of character design. As a game designer you provide options, but it’s not your place to force a player to play the One True Way of a particular character. As a designer it is important to try to prevent game breaking combinations of stuff and put limits on the more powerful abilities, but it is up to the players and DM to decide what to play. At best, you just publish more splat books containing specifically defined character types/classes. You can have a chapter or two to advise ways to make a “character theme” – to create a specialized character using an open ended template. For example, for my Pathfinder Sorcerer I’m purposely choosing spells based on a theme of colors. This forces some spells that must be taken (Prismatic Spray), some spells that could never be taken (Baleful Polymorph), and other spells could be finagled in flavor text to be taken (Teleport = Travel By Rainbow).

  4. “As a designer it is important to try to prevent game breaking combinations of stuff and put limits on the more powerful abilities”

    I don’t think it’s always necessary to do so mechanically, however. In WRPS I have allowed people to basically take whatever combination of things they want, as long as each character uses around the same points value in the end. There are guidelines to show what sort of attribute values typical humans would have and so on, but “abuses” of the system are classed as a social problem rather than a mechanical one, and hence I am including some text to advise players to solve the problem socially instead of mechanically. :-)

    One of my reasons is that I have the following conjecture: any system sufficiently complicated to be interesting will be complicated enough to have exploitable loopholes. And then people pick up this whole “meta-game” of trying to find those exploits and abuse the hell out of them, so you end up with as much nonsense than you started with, but now your rules are hideously complicated to try and patch over the holes. :-(

  5. Pingback: Polyhedral Pantheon Clerics | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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