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A character class is a fundamental part of the identity and nature of characters in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. A character's capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses are largely defined by his or her chosen class; choosing a class is one of the first steps a player takes in order to create a Dungeons & Dragons player character. A well-rounded party of characters requires a variety of abilities offered by the diverse classes in the game. Dungeons & Dragons classes have generally been defined in the Player's Handbook, one of the three core rulebooks; a variety of alternate classes have also been defined in supplemental sourcebooks.
A character's class affects a character's skills and abilities directly. For instance, a fighter is likely to have large amounts of hit points and possess great skill at attacking an opponent directly in physical combat, while a wizard would be physically frail yet have a selection of powerful magic spells with which to aid the party.
As a character gains experience points, they are likely to increase the "level" of their class. Each increase grants the bonuses of the next level, strengthening the character. Throughout the editions of Dungeons & Dragons, an increase in level has generally brought about increased hit points, more skills / proficiencies, a bonus to the accuracy of physical strikes, more magical spells for spellcasters, and better "saving throw" bonuses at resisting hostile magical effects. In addition, each level grants special abilities specific to the class; for example, a Paladin gains the ability to "Turn" (Repel) undead at a certain level.
In the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, there were only three main classes: the Cleric, the Fighting man, and the Magic-User. The first supplement, Greyhawk, added the Thief as a fourth main class, as well as the Paladin as a fighter subclass. These four fantasy gaming archetypes represent four major tactical roles in play: the Fighter offers direct combat strength and durability; the Thief offers cunning and stealth; the Cleric provides support in both combat and magic; and the Magic-User has a variety of magical powers. In many ways, other classes are thought of as alternatives that refine or combine these functions. Dwarves and Halflings were restricted to the Fighting Man class, and Elves were restricted to the Fighting Man and Magic-User classes; all three races had limited level advancement.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons loosened the restrictions on race and class combinations, although non-human races often had restricted choices among classes and maximum levels they could reach in a class. The five standard base classes, five sub-classes in the Player's Handbook are listed in the table to the right.
The Player's Handbook also introduced the Bard as a sixth base class; however, its usage in 1st edition was more akin to what would be called a prestige class in later editions, as it was not a legal choice for a starting character. Instead, a character had to start as a Fighter, change classes to a Thief, and finally switch classes once more to become a Bard.
In the 1st edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a character's ability scores directly tied into what class choices were legal for them. For instance, a character wishing to be a Fighter required at least 9 Strength; the more discriminating Monk required 15 Strength, 15 Wisdom, 15 Dexterity, and 11 Constitution. Additionally, certain unusually high or low ability scores could proscribe class choice further; "too high" an Intelligence could disallow being a Fighter, while a Charisma of 5 or less would require the character to become an Assassin. High ability scores in statistics considered pertinent to the class would grant an experience bonus.
The Player's Handbook brought about other changes in the game and its character classes. Fighters, clerics and thieves have improved hit-dice (D10, D8 and D6 respectively) over the previous edition. The effects of a character's strength score on hit probability, damage, weight allowed, and open doors rolls were changed. High intelligence conferred an increased chance for both spell knowledge and ability to learn languages. The wisdom score now gave clerics a spell bonus, while low wisdom gave a chance of spell failure. New charts delineated the effects of constitution, dexterity and charisma. Each of the five main character classes and five sub-classes had its own experience table; for most classes it was now harder to gain promotion above third or fourth levels. Multi-classed characters were also introduced.
The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set combined the idea of race and class; non-human races did not have classes. Hence, a character might be a (human) Cleric or else simply an "Elf" or "Dwarf". The Basic Set presented four human classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic User and Thief, and three demi-human classes: Dwarf, Elf and Halfling. The Rules Cyclopedia introduced two optional classes: the Druid and the Mystic. The Gazzetteer series included many optional classes for humans and non-humans, including the shaman (GAZ12) and shamani (GAZ14). Additional human and race classes were also presented in other supplements.
The 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons attempted to streamline what had become an increasing hodgepodge of rules that only applied in specific cases in 1st edition. As such, it sought to simplify the rules and straighten out contradictions. Character classes were divided into four groups or "metaclasses" (see also "Roles" in 4th Edition): Warrior, Wizard, Priest, and Rogue. Each of these groups had a "base" class which only required at least a 9 in the "prime requisite" statistic in Fighter, Mage, Cleric, and Thief; these were intended to be playable in any setting. The Player's Handbook went on to say that "all of the other classes are optional." Each group of classes had the same Hit dice (determining hit point growth), THAC0 progression, and saving throw table. 2nd edition maintained minimums in certain statistics to qualify for some classes, but removed many of the other restrictions such as one extremely low statistic forcing a character into a specific class.
The Illusionist and Druid character classes were redesigned to work as variant classes in this new framework. Rather than specific spell lists for each class, 2nd edition had two unified lists: one for wizard spells and another for priest spells. These lists were then further subdivided by school of magic and sphere of influence. Classes still had distinct spells; in order to accomplish this, different classes had access to different spheres of magic. Thus the Illusionist class from 1st edition became a type of specialist wizard; specialists gained the ability to cast extra spells of their chosen school of magic in exchange for the inability to cast spells of "opposed" schools. A Transmuter, for example, would gain extra spells per day in the school of Alteration, but would be denied access to the schools of Abjuration and Necromancy. A similar distinction was made for priests. 2nd edition introduced priests of a specific mythology who would gain their own specific abilities, restrictions, and sphere of influence selection. The druid was provided as an example; the specification of other specialty priests was left to dungeon masters and setting books. As an example, a specialty priest of Tempus, the god of war in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, can incite a berserker rage in allies and lacks the "only blunt weapons" restriction of normal clerics. The selection of spheres of influence worked similarly to the allowed and forbidden schools of magic.
The Bard class, previously attainable only after switching from Fighter, to Thief, and lastly to Bard, was changed to be a normal class that could be chosen at character creation. The Assassin and Monk classes were removed from 2nd edition (though the concept of a bare-handed fighter or a killer for hire certainly remained legal, just not as a class). The Dungeon Master's Guide clarified the rationale behind the decision in a section on creating new character classes:
What is a Viking but a fighter with a certain outlook on life and warfare? A witch is really nothing but a female wizard. A vampire hunter is only a title assumed by a character of any class who is dedicated to the destruction and elimination of those loathsome creatures. The same is true of assassins. Killing for profit requires no special powers, only a specific reprehensible outlook. Choosing the title does not imply any special powers or abilities. The character just uses his current skills to fulfill a specific, personal set of goals.—Dungeon Master's Guide, 2nd edition
Nonetheless, second edition did introduce a number of additional classes and class modifications (called kits). The shaman, runecaster, assassin, barbarian and monk each were implemented many different ways, including as their own classes, though they were not included with the initial set of classes in the Player's Handbook.
The 3rd edition abolished the practice of grouping classes directly, allowing hit dice, attack bonus, and saving throws to vary for each particular class again. 3rd edition also saw the return of the Monk as a base class, the creation of the new Sorcerer class, and the inclusion of Barbarian as a base Player's Handbook class, previously described in 1st edition's Unearthed Arcana rules and as an optional kit in 2nd edition. Statistical requirements on classes and experience bonuses were abolished, though a low score in an important statistic to a class would still adversely affect a character in it. The eleven base classes presented in the 3rd edition Player's Handbook are:
Some of these classes were tweaked for balance in the 3.5 revision of the game.
3rd edition allows for a much more fluid idea of multi-classing than earlier editions, as one unified experience point to level table was made. Rather than earlier editions' rules on splitting experience, characters can simply choose which class they wish to take a new level in and add the appropriate bonus from the class.
Prestige classes were also introduced in the 3rd edition's Dungeon Master's Guide, with new classes only available at higher level and after meeting several prerequisites.
In addition to the eleven classes presented in the PHB, various alternate base classes were presented in supplements, and the Dungeon Master's Guide presented five weaker classes designed for NPCs.
4th Edition heavily retooled the class system, discarding varying base attack and save bonuses in favor of a more unified set of mechanics for characters. Rather than varying notably in passive elements, classes are differentiated primarily by what active-use class features and powers they give, all of which follow the same per-level assignments. At the same time, this unified mechanic helps reduce some of the perceived imbalance between spellcasters and non-spellcasters in 3rd edition.
4th Edition's Player's Handbook differs from that of 3rd Edition by excluding the Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, and Sorcerer (though these classes returned in the second and third editions of the Player's Handbook) in favor of the new Warlock and Warlord classes. With eight character classes in the first Player's Handbook, eight in the Player's Handbook 2, six in the Player's Handbook 3, and one in each of the Eberron and Forgotten Realms Player's Guides and one in Dragon (see tables), twenty-six classes have been released, excluding the Spellscarred class, which is only available through multiclassing. Each class has one power source and one primary role. Some classes also have one or two secondary roles.
The power sources used by the Player's Handbook classes are arcane, divine, and martial. Arcane classes gain magical energy from the cosmos, divine classes receive their power from the gods, and martial classes draw power from training and willpower. The Player's Handbook 2 expands the divine and arcane power sources and introduces the primal power source, which draws power from the spirits of the natural world and features transformation as a theme (for example, druids can take animal form while barbarians can infuse themselves with bestial spirits). Dragon 379 included the Assassin class, the first, and, until the release of the Vampire, only class to use the shadow power source. The Player's Handbook 3, in addition to adding new divine and primal classes, introduces the psionic power source, which draws power from the mind. Player's Option: Heroes of the Elemental Chaos introduced builds which use the elemental power source, including Elementalist (a Sorcerer build), Elemental Pact Warlock and Sha'ir (a Wizard build). The ki power source was announced, however it was abandoned during the development of Player's Handbook 3, and Monk, the only announced ki class, was rewritten to use the psionic power source.
The four roles are as follows:
|Controller||Controllers focus on affecting multiple targets at once, either damaging or debuffing them, or altering the battlefield's terrain. Some classes, such as Wizards and Invokers, are focused towards ranged combat, while Druids can specialize in ranged or melee combat.|
|Defender||Defenders focus on blocking attacking enemies and focusing their attacks on themselves. Defender classes are typically focused on melee combat, however some classes such as Swordmages also have ranged combat capabilities.|
|Leader||Leaders are focused on buffing and healing allies. Some Leader classes and builds are focused towards either melee or ranged combat, however the role as a whole is not.|
|Striker||Strikers are focused on mobility, dealing heavy damage to single targets and avoiding attacks. Some Striker classes and builds are focused towards either melee or ranged combat, however the role as a whole is not.|
After choosing a class, players select from a list of powers dictated by their chosen class, or from that of any class into which they choose to multiclass. Powers can include spells, but, unlike in previous editions, offer an equal number of options specifically for non-spell-using classes, such as powerful weapon blows or moments of evasiveness. Most powers are divided into attack and utility powers, and into Daily, Encounter and At-Will powers. A typical starting character has two At-Will attack powers, one Encounter attack power, one Daily attack power and no utility powers, while a typical high-level character has two At-Will attack powers, four Encounter attack powers (three class powers and one paragon path power), four Daily powers (three class powers and one paragon path power) and seven utility powers (five class powers, one paragon path power and one epic destiny power). Unlike attack powers, at-will, encounter and daily utility powers share the same slots.
|Daily||Each Daily power can only be used once a day; regaining use of the power typically involves a night of sleep. These are the strongest of the powers because they often have a number of secondary effects or have some effect even on a miss, in addition to inflicting more damage than an Encounter power of similar level.|
|Encounter||Each Encounter power can be used once between each short rest. As this rest interval only requires a few minutes, Encounter powers recharge fairly often. However, any time characters proceed directly from one fight to the next, these powers don't recharge.|
|At-Will||Characters can use At-Will powers as often as they want. However, they are less powerful than either Encounter or Daily powers.|
There are instances where characters are unable to use any power, such as when making opportunity attacks. In such cases, the character will have to resort to a "basic attack" in combat, which deals damage without any extra effects. This is comparable to a normal attack of 3rd edition that isn't modified by any feat or enhanced by any spell.
The optional prestige classes from earlier editions have instead been replaced by paragon paths and epic destinies, two types of class choices altering the final abilities of the character.
While the main character classes available have been fairly stable since the 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a variety of alternate base classes have been offered in supplemental books. The release of Unearthed Arcana in 1985, for instance, introduced the new (at the time) base class of Barbarian and reworked Paladins to be a type of the new base class Cavalier; Oriental Adventures also introduced a number of alternate classes more appropriate for an Eastern setting. 2nd edition added several completely new base classes (e.g. Barbarian, Runecaster, and Shaman); in addition, supplemental handbooks offered a variety of "kits" to customize each base class, and the Dungeon Master's Guide offered a guide of suggestions on how to balance custom new classes created by individual players. 3rd edition introduced five NPC classes not intended for player use in its Dungeon Master's Guide.
Non-core base classes are considered optional and do not always exist in all settings. For example, the alternate Samurai class introduced in the Oriental Adventures book may not make sense in a game set in a standard European-style realm. Similarly, classes associated with psionics such as the Psychic Warrior don't apply to worlds without psionics.
Besides TSR and Wizards of the Coast, other companies have published material including new base classes.
Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons have allowed for the possibility to either advance in more than one class simultaneously, alternately taking levels in more than one class, or branching out in a second (third etc.) class at a specific point defined by the first class. This concept is called multi-classing here, but went under various names in the different editions.
In 1st and 2nd editions, changing a character's class was difficult. Only humans could do it, and they had to meet some rather steep requirements to do so. This was called "dual-classing". Non-humans, on the other hand, could "multi-class" where they effectively learned two (or rarely even three) classes at the same time at the cost of a slower character level progression.
3rd Edition allowed players to mix and match levels from any number of classes, though certain combinations were more effective than others. In addition, Prestige classes added yet more options for multi-classing. This edition offers the most freedom regarding multi-classing. There are, however, penalties to the rate of experience point gained if classes are added haphazardly. The 3rd edition version of Unearthed Arcana includes rules for gestalt characters which combine the advantages of two classes.
4th Edition allows characters to take a Feat that gives a character access to specific facets of another class. The class-specific multiclass feats are also prerequisites for the power-swap feats, each of which allows the character to swap out a daily, encounter, or utility power from their first class for one from their second class. Also, at 11th level, a character with a multiclass feat and all of the power-swap feats is eligible for paragon multiclassing, which allows a character to gain additional powers from their second class in lieu of taking a Paragon Path. Some classes are only available through multiclassing, the first such class was Spellscarred, introduced in the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide. In 4th edition, each character can only multiclass into a single class, unless otherwise stated by their primary class (such as the Bard). The Player's Handbook III introduced "hybrid" classes, a deeper form of multiclassing in which elements of two classes are combined each level.
Prestige classes were introduced in third edition as a further means of individualizing a character. They expand upon the form of multiclassing and are inaccessible at 1st level, specifically meant to be multi-classed into from the base classes. To attain a specific prestige class, a character must first meet a number of prerequisites, such as certain feats or membership in a specific organization. Prestige classes offer a focus on different abilities that may be difficult to attain otherwise; for example, the 3rd edition version of the Assassin prestige class grants minor magical powers, more sneak attack damage, and better usage of poison.
While not calling them prestige classes, some 1st edition classes had a similar idea, such as the version of the Bard described in the Player's Handbook or the Thief-Acrobat described in Unearthed Arcana. Characters who met prerequisites and had progressed to a certain level could change into the new class.
Paragon paths and epic destinies are methods of character customization (similar to prestige classes) introduced in 4th edition. Each character may choose a paragon path upon reaching the paragon tier at level 11 and an epic destiny upon reaching the epic tier at level 21.
Paragon paths are often (though not always) class-specific, and some have additional prerequisites. Other paragon paths are restricted to members of a certain race or are associated with a nation or faction in a campaign setting. Paragon paths generally expand on a character's existing abilities. For example, fighter paragon paths improve a characters toughness, resilience, or damage with melee weapons.
Epic destinies generally have looser prerequisites than paragon paths; many are available to multiple classes, and some, such as Demigod and Eternal Seeker, have 21st level as their only prerequisite. Each epic destiny includes at least one way in which a character can establish a legacy and at least one way in which a character can retire. Most epic destinies provide fewer benefits than paragon paths, but the benefits that they provide are far more powerful. A common feature of an epic destiny is to allow characters to (usually once per day) return to life or otherwise continue to function after dying.
Unlike prestige classes, a character may only take a single paragon path and a single epic destiny, and path and destiny advancement is in addition to class advancement rather than being in lieu of it.