Table of Contents
...Static, Stacking Modifiers
Bounded Accuracy and AC
Bonuses and Modifiers
Tiers of Play
Features at each Class Level
Work in Progress
Hi, I’m Leuku “Mcclure”. You may remember me from such hits like... and there would normally be a handful of links here to reddit posts I've made, but I learned that on google drive pdf it's kinda difficult to click on any specific link, so trying to click on one will send you to the a different one. So if you want to see some of my prior works, please find the links at the end of the document.
Today I am here to explain and clarify the multiple processes by which I understand, develop, and judge the balance of homebrew classes.
In the following, I will:
- Define what “balance” is and means, as well as provide some other definitions
- Detail the Fundamentals of 5e Design Philosophy
- Summarize the Fundamentals of 5e Design Philosopher into a Dos and Don'ts List, and lastly
- Explain what is and isn’t good balancing advice, and in which scenarios some balancing advice is more appropriate than others
And so without further ado,
Balance, What Is It?
Put simply, it is Relative Comparative Compensation. What was that?
Relative Comparative Compensation
Relative Comparative Compensation can be broken down into its component words and the question that arises from each:
“How does feature A relate to and interact with features B and C?
“How does this feature or group of features at X level compare to a similar feature or group of features of an official class at approximately X level?” and
“What strengths compensate for what weaknesses in my class, and how do they compare to the compensations of official classes?”
Mechanical Balance is having your class’ strengths and weaknesses be compensated for in ways that are on comparably even terms with official classes.
Understanding balance means understanding what makes each official class tick. What are their strengths, their weaknesses? How do the strengths and weaknesses of their features interact? How are they compensated for? How do these compensations compare to the compensations in other classes?
If you read WOTC’s article Modifying Classes, you will see that when they are doing their class breakdowns they are essentially answering the above questions. How this essay will differ from theirs is that instead of merely examining homebrew subclasses and feature replacement in an existing class, it will dive deeper into full class design.
The number of actions, bonus actions, reactions, movement, and more available to any given creature. Encounters are destroyed or are made overwhelming based on the amount of action economy made available to each side of the conflict. It is why Solo Boss fights are difficult to execute.
“Weak” and “Strong” saving throws
Strong saving throws are Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. They are called "strong" because they come up much more frequently in official published material compared to the "weak". Weak saving throws are Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma. This definition will be repeated later in the document.
“Fullcaster”, “halfcaster”, and “thirdcaster/quartercaster”
A fullcaster has a spell slot level progression like the Bard, Wizard, Sorcerer, Druid, and Cleric. The Warlock is an outlier with its own unique spell slot progression, which at the end of the day is intended to just about meet the potency of normal fullcasting.
A halfcaster has a spell slot level progression like the Ranger and Paladin, and are called "half" because they have half the rate of spellcasting progression as a fullcaster.
A thirdcaster/quartercaster has a spell slot level progression like the Eldritch Knight Fighter subclass and the Arcane Trickster Rogue subclass - thirdcasters typically don’t warrant “dead” levels. “Third”-caster is technically more accurate than “Quarter”-caster, as the spell slot progression rate is approximately 1/3rd a Fullcaster’s, but quartercaster sounds better off the tongue.
A dead level is a level in which there appears to be no distinctly named feature. Dead levels appear on full and halfcasters. They appear whenever a class gains access to a higher level spell slot of 3rd or greater. They appear because gaining access to a higher level spell slot is a powerful “feature” in its own right.
MAD and SAD
MAD is Multiple Ability score Dependent and SAD is Single Ability score Dependent. If a class is MAD, then it relies on at least 3 or more of the 6 available ability scores for its core abilities and needs. If a class is SAD, then it relies on just 1 ability score to cover the majority of its abilities and needs. The Barbarian, who generally requires minimum investments in STR, CON, and DEX, is MAD. There really isn’t a SAD class in 5e, as casters will often still need DEX for AC, STR or DEX for weapon attacks, and CON for health. An example of a SAD class would be a CON-based spellcasting class who can use a single score for all of spell attack/damage/save DC and health, especially so if it also gets a feature that allows using CON for AC.
Class Level Scaling
Class Level Scaling means that some aspect of a feature scales in power according to class level, as opposed to, say, a feature that scales according to total level (cantrips), a feature that scales according to subclass level (Battlemaster maneuvers), or a feature that does not scale at all. The Rogue’s Sneak Attack scales according to class level. In contrast, the Hunter Ranger’s Hunter’s Prey feature does not scale with class level.
The Fundamentals of 5e Design Philosophy:
This section covers what I believe to be the fundamental aspects of 5e design that inform much of the class design direction within the PHB. This section is dense and riddled with examples, so if you don’t want to read so much, then skip past it to the much shorter Dos and Don’ts summary section.
The 3 Pillars: Combat, Exploration, Interaction
The foundation of 5e DnD is supported atop the three aforementioned pillars. What are these pillars?
Combat is fighting against enemy forces or elements.
Exploration is navigating the world around you - any feature that enables and encourages you to better explore the world (like Champion Fighter’s Remarkable Athlete’s improved jumping ability).
Interaction is any kind of feature that enables and encourages you to interact with creatures and objects outside of a combat setting, such as the Battlemaster Fighter’s Know Your Enemy. It’s the kind of feature that helps reduce Murder-hoboing.
While features for combat are the easiest to design for due to being largely numbers oriented, the two other pillars are no less important. Your class must live in this world as much as they fight in it.
There is a spectrum of how much Exploration and Interaction-based features any given class would warrant. The Fighter has the least. The Monk has the most. There’s a litany of arguments and explanations for why this is the case, but for now let us just think about ensuring that there are some features, at least 2 in the base class and maybe at least 1 in each subclass, that are relegated to those pillars.
Ultimately, what really determines how much of these your class must support depends on exactly what you put into the class.
Spellcasting can actually provide much of a class’ exploration/interaction needs as much as it provides its combat needs. If you’re making a spellcaster, you have to carefully handpick what spells go on the spell list. If the spells are mostly combat, then that likely warrants the base class having more Exploration/Interaction features.
Bounded Accuracy and AC
Unlike in 4e, DCs do not scale with class level. A DC20 at 1st level is still a DC 20 at 20th level. DCs will never exceed a certain point, nor will accuracy bonuses and or, for the most part, AC. Avoid features that break the expectations of these things.
For much of the game, ACs tend to not exceed 21 and can be as low as 8 even for high CR monsters. PC Accuracy tends to reach +11 at 17th level (+13 for Archery Fighting Style), but typically no further except in temporary, conditional circumstances. More specific cases will be expanded upon in the Proficiency Bonus section. Also see "Magic Item Bonus" green box at the bottom of this page.
Perhaps the most central defining mechanic of 5e. It streamlines play like no other. Take advantage of advantage/disadvantage. However, there are some places where you should avoid it.
Attacks: Avoid granting too easy a source of advantage on attacks. Either it must be limited or come at some cost. For example, the Barbarian’s Reckless Attack grants advantage at the significant cost of granting advantage to enemies attacking it
Skills: Avoid granting advantage flatly to skill checks, especially at early levels. WOTC tried with an early version of the elves race where they got advantage on all Perception checks that proved too powerful. If you are going to grant advantage to skills, either a) limit the number of uses, or b) restrict it to specific uses. For example, having advantage on all Charisma (Intimidation) checks related to haggling the price of an object.
Saving Throws: Similar as above, either limit it or gate it at high levels. For example, the Abjuration Wizard grants advantage on saving throws against spell effects, but at 14th level.
Magic Item Bonuses: Unlike in 4e, bonuses from magic items are not required to maintain PC combat competency at higher levels. Thus they could be entirely absent in a campaign. That doesn’t mean there won’t be magic items; I like to flood my worlds with +0 magic items. When designing your class, be aware that magic items and their bonuses will probably exist in most games, but don’t assume that a player using your class will have access to any specific magic item or any specific magic item bonus.
The proficiency bonus is an elegant mechanic that makes granting benefits and scaling easy. But like Advantage/Disadvantage, there are certain forms you should avoid.
Attacks and Damage
Do not double proficiency on accuracy rolls and in most cases do not add proficiency bonus to damage. The former breaks Bounded Accuracy/AC dynamic, and the latter does some funky things depending on when the feature is granted. At early levels, you get a character-wide scaling mechanic that functions independently of leveling your class, thus opening you up to multiclassing abuse. At later levels, it grants your class a massive damage boost seemingly out of nowhere.
The only official example of Proficiency bonus to damage is in the PHB Ranger/Revised Ranger’s animal companion. I play a beastmaster, so let me tell you that my animal hits like a truck. The imagined compensation is that the animal’s starting stats aren’t that good, if you lose your animal you lose access to virtually all of your subclass abilities, and your animal has less health than you as well as fewer survival options. Still, it hits like a truck and can be quite jarring to a DM. So generally avoid it.
Due to the Rogue’s Expertise feature, there is a great temptation to simply double one’s bonus to skill checks. If that’s something you want to do, then simply grant your class the Expertise feature and compensate for it properly.
What you should not do is "grant proficiency in a skill and if the PC is already proficiency in that skill, double that proficiency". There is precedence for this in UA articles, but I am making the argument that this is a bad idea. To me, it’s a kind of punishment to players who chose the “wrong” skill proficiency at character creation. Double proficiency in one skill is better than proficiency in two skills, because the former ultimately ensures that you will almost always pass your check, especially if it’s a skill you will use frequently (Perception, Insight, Stealth, Athletics). What to do instead? Either
a) grant proficiency in a skill and if they are already proficient grant proficiency in another skill from the class skill list. Or
b) regardless of whether you are proficient in a skill, grant double proficiency on that skill when used in a specific way.
For example, the Dwarf race’s Stonecunning grants double proficiency on Intelligence (History) checks related to the origin of stonework. This helps avoid the abuse of skills that can be used broadly or frequently.
P.S. If you do grant your class the Expertise feature, absolutely do not say “You have expertise in X skill”. Expertise is the name of a class feature, not a mechanic. If you could have advantage on a Wisdom saving throw once per long rest, you would not say you have Indomitable in Wisdom saving throws.
All official classes are proficient in one “weak” and one “strong” saving throw. The “weak” are so called because they appear infrequently in published material, making them less useful to PCs for much of any game.
“Weak”: Strength, Intelligence, Charisma
“Strong”: Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom
Do not grant two strong or two weak saving throws. Do grant one weak and one strong.
Do not double proficiency bonus on saving throws. Saving throw DCs only go as high as 19 for PCs and a few points higher from high CR monsters who have spellcasting ability scores that exceed 20. Also be wary not to grant proficiency in a saving throw too soon. The earliest example I think we get is one at 7th level for a UA Ranger subclass or some other.
Small, Temporary, Conditional, Static, Stacking Modifiers: Avoid like the plague!
Bounded Accuracy/AC, Advantage/Disadvantage, and Proficiency Bonus were all designed to avoid this artifact of 4e. In 4e, you could get +1s and +2s from so many different sources that you’d often forget they were even there! ACs and DCs scaled with your level so that the same tasks always had the same difficulty at 15th level as it did at 1st level, which you would use a million +1s and +2s to circumvent.
In 5e, such things come in very limited forms. Fighting Styles are probably the closest examples of small, conditional, static, stacking modifiers. They are designed to encompass multiple weapons within a broad category rather than ultra-specific weapons. They don’t change situationally and the conditions of when they apply are easy to remember.
The Barbarian also provides a conditional, class-scaling, stacking modifier in the form of Rage bonus damage. However, the conditions for triggering it are hard to miss and the bonus does not change round-to-round.
Lastly, the Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter feats provide temporary, conditional, static, stacking modifiers. But unlike in 4e, these modifiers are so large that you can't forget them! The War Cleric’s Channel Divinity: Guided Strike provides a massive +10 temporary bonus. If you’re going to provide a temporary flat bonus, make it unforgettable.
A different kind of risk to consider is the nature of "multistacking modifiers". In 5e, some mechanics stack whereas others do not. Temporary Hit Points do not stack. Proficiency in a single thing from multiple sources do not stack. New calculations for AC do not stack.
Static modifiers to AC do stack. Static and dice-based modifiers to damage do stack. It is not uncommon for players to find the most efficient means by which to stack modifiers from multiple sources. Try googling "Highest Achievable AC in 5e". Another reason then to avoid inventing these kinds of modifiers is to reduce the gaming of multistacking.
So if you’re planning on providing stacking modifiers, consider using Advantage/Disadvantage or additional dice instead. Reduce the total number of static modifiers from different sources as much as possible.
Small Temporary Conditional Static Stacking Modifiers gone wrong
“If you’re wielding a hammer and the target creature is a demon who has taken a dodge action since the end of your last turn, you gain a +1 bonus to grapple checks against that creature, plus an additional bonus equal to the hammer’s magic item bonus if it has any and the number of beard hairs you sacrificed at the last dawn up to a maximum of 3 (5 if you’re a dwarf).”
Tiers of Play: Respect Them!
The tiers of play are 1st through 4th level, 5th through 10th, 11th through 16th, and 17th through 20th. In each instance any given class needs a significant bump to its potency. Martials get Extra Attack or similar, spellcasters get cantrip boosts and 3rd/6th/9th level spells.
Respecting the tiers of play means ensuring you fulfill minimum average damage expectations, among other things.
Classes that buck this trend have their own means of fulfilling these expectations. The Rogue’s Sneak Attack scales through the entire class rather than at each tier level. Barbarian has class scaling Rage damage. Martial Arts bonus action unarmed strike, unarmed strike damage class-level-scaling, Flurry of Blows, and class-level-scaling Ki points ensure that the Monk keeps up, even as it does not wow you with its damage output. The half-weapons-focused Cleric does a strange thing with weapon damage scaling at 8th/14th level - it’s complicated and I can give an explanation for it, but that’s a conversation for a later time.
Ultimately, respecting the tiers of play is a semi-hard rule, in that you can absolutely play with when class-wide average damage boosts appear. I did precisely that with my homebrew Tinkerer class. But what I learned is that balancing such a thing can be ridiculously difficult. I had to compare and contrast so many different kinds of damage output mechanics to help me get the Tinkerer to where it is today. If you can, avoid that.
Strong Thematic Narrative
A strong thematic narrative is an understanding of the conditions and circumstances by which your class has emerged into their world. It has nothing to do with mechanics, but instead everything to do with the causes and pressures in the world that give rise to and necessitate the emergence of your class.
Fighters exist because raw fighting ability is valuable in a violent world like DnD and a rare few will rise above the rest. Wizards exist because magic suffuses the world and careful study can reveal and grant access to its powers.
Rangers exist because there is a line between nature and civilization and there is a need for people to straddle it. Clerics exist because gods exist, and a select few who worship them are granted their power. So on and so forth. Filling in flavor text is not the only point to a strong thematic narrative. Homebrewing an entire class warrants creating new unique features.
If you have a strong thematic narrative, then coming up with ideas for new features, especially at higher levels, becomes much easier. One of the things that will halt a class’ development and prevent it from ever being finished is a weak thematic narrative. It will also be one of the first things criticized in reviews.
Awareness and Assumption of Feats
To quote the UA: Feats article
“To begin with, since using feats is an optional rule, it’s important to never assume that a particular feat will be a part of the game. For instance, a class can’t refer to a feat, and feats should never be granted as class features.”
This means three things:
- a) Never include a feat as a class feature,
- b) Never refer to a feat in your class, and
- c) Never assume that any given feat will be made available to any given player. Your class should not rely on feats to function.
However, you should absolutely be aware of how feats interact with your class’ features and what abuses may arise. For example, if there was a feature that gave you unlimited reactions, there’s obvious abuse when combined with the Polearm Master feat.
And there is at least some room for taking a bullet point from a feat. For feats with multiple bullet points, determine which bullets are the most significant aspect of the feat.
For example, the -5/+10 from Sharpshooter is clearly its primary benefit. Once you determine which bullet point(s) is the most important, don't use them. If you must take something from a feat, take the less significant bullet points, such as Sharpshooter’s ignoring of cover. Provide enough room where feats you pull bullet points from can still be valuable investments for players.
Resistance vs. Damage Reduction: Favor Resistance!
5e utilizes the mechanics of Resistance and Immunity, which instead of reducing damage by a certain value simply lets you halve or reduce to zero damage. Damage Reduction (DR) appears in 1 form (or 2? UA Stone Sorcerer I think?) in the Heavy Armor Master feat.
In a general sense, the fewer calculations you have to make the better. Halving is more elegant than subtracting. In a specific sense, the potency of Heavy Armor Master is I argue understated. The fact that it does not scale with class level is often seen as a detriment, as well as its limitation to non-magical weapon damage. However, enemy magical attacks tend to be far and few inbetween, and the overall long term benefits of 3 DR are considerable. Whether you’re taking 5 damage at lower levels or 21 at higher levels, reducing incoming damage by 3 over the course of a day can save you as much as half your hit dice expenditure on self-healing.
Consider especially that at higher levels monsters tend to get more attacks as much as they increase their base damage. So be wary of the understated potency of DR and favor Resistance as a more elegant solution wherever you can. And don’t forget about Temporary Hit Points.
Not Quite Fundamentals
The following are things that do not quite fit into the "fundamentals" of 5e, due to being even more abstract or observational. This does not mean they are any less important. Rather, these are just "softer" "rules" of class homebrew.
Number of Features
Be wary not to plug too many features into a single level. You may want all your goodies as soon as possible, but you must restrain yourself. Just choose and keep the most essential. Most classes have 1, maybe 2, and at the worst 3 distinct features/abilities within a level. For example, Paladin has Spellcasting, Smites, and Fighting Styles at 2nd level, but Smites is like an offshoot of spellcasting since it uses the same resource, so it’s more like 2.5.
Do not try to pass off a feature with multiple bullet points as merely being a single feature. Whether that feature counts as having the equivalent power of 1 or multiple features is dependent on what the bullet points contain. For example, the PHB Ranger’s Natural Explorer features 6 bullet points + double proficiency skill check boost on specific uses, but they are all limited to mechanics regarding navigating terrain largely outside of combat. Despite their number, each individual bullet point's power is small, so their combined effective power is ultimately moderate.
But if you have a stealth feature that says something like the following:
Sneaky Stealth Feature for Stealth
- You can take the Hide action in dim light and lightly obscured areas as if it were heavily obscured
- You can take the Hide action as a bonus action
- Whenever you hit a creature you are hidden from with an attack, the attack deals an additional 10 damage.
Those are all clearly three significant, distinct abilities, especially the last one. They may have a common theme, but each is potent to different degrees in their own right. If I were to balance this, I’d probably cut off the 3rd bullet point, and even though the 1st bullet point is from the Skulker feat, I’d probably let it slide.
”Dead” Levels are not absolute
What is a “Dead” level? It’s a level where there aren’t any distinctly named features. They are found on fullcasters and halfcasters and at levels typically occupied by access to a new spell slot level, as well as potentially some other class scaling thing, e.g. number of Invocations known.
“Dead” levels appear wherever spellcasting is core to the class, which means the Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, and Rogue are excluded. But not all casters are equal. The Wizard has the greatest number of “Dead” levels at 8. The Bard has the fewest at 2. Why the difference? Well, we have to look at what the class offers.
The Wizard has the greatest number of spells knowable in the game, technically capable of learning all of the spells on its spell list, which I think numbers 200+? In terms of sheer volume of options, it is the best, and that is a wizard’s primary strength. By 20th level, a wizard will have at minimum 44 spells in its spellbook. Suffice to say, a wizard does not rely on unique class-specific features as much for its potency.
In contrast, a Bard will know at most 22 spells, half the Wizard’s minimum, and their spell list is significantly smaller, even bearing in mind Magical Secrets. Further, in the PHB, the Bard is limited to a single damaging cantrip: vicious mockery. In terms of the basic spellcasting toolkit, there is a lot left to be desired in the Bard’s arsenal as compared to the Wizard’s.
So the Bard gets more unique features. But note the nature of these features. Song of Rest and Bardic Inspiration. All of these “dead” levels filled with slight improvements to core class features. They are not individually distinct new features with potency in their own right. They are mild improvements to already established features. The Bard’s comparative limit on spells and spells known as compared to the Wizard gives the Bard enough room to fit these mild improvements at what are traditionally “Dead” levels.
Use “dead” levels wherever you gain a new spell slot level. Then look at how your class compares to the wizard, or the bard, or the sorcerer, and so on. Whichever comparison(s) is most appropriate. If you feel like your spell list/spells known/unique core features aren’t strong enough to compensate for these “dead” levels, then perhaps consider squeezing in a mild improvement to a core feature somewhere.
Understanding Unarmored Defense
A frequent addition to most any homebrew class is the maleable Unarmored Defense feature. Both the Monk and the Barbarian have it with significant differences, and there are further variants of it elsewhere, such as the Draconic Sorcerer’s Draconic Resilience. Unarmored Defense is appealing for both its mechanical flexibility and its cosmetic appearance, as it’s not uncommon for popular media to portray fantastically evasive and enduring fighters wearing no or practically useless armor.
Why bring this up? Employing either the Monk’s or the Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense is not as simple as it looks. They differ in significant respects, and it’s important to understand why they differ. The Monk’s Unarmored Defense uses 10 + Dexterity Modifier + Wisdom Modifier and does not allow the use of a shield. The Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense uses 10 + Dexterity Modifier + Constitution Modifier and does allow the use of a shield.
Why does the Barbarian get a shield while the Monk does not? Earlier we already broke down how the Barbarian’s many features compensate for each’s strengths and weaknesses. The Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense is a product of that. By requiring Constitution and Dexterity for AC, a Barbarian has to make a choice between improving their attack and damage stat, Strength, versus their AC stat Dexterity or their AC and Hit Point stat Constitution. Because of this, the Barbarian class is MAD - Multiple Ability score Dependent.
The end result is that players who emphasize attack and damage will have comparatively low AC and players who emphasize AC will have comparatively low attack and damage.
In comparison, the Monk’s Martial Arts class feature allows the Monk to use Dexterity for its attack and damage. With Unarmored Defense, this means that a Monk that improves Dexterity is improving all of their Attack, Damage, and AC. The Monk’s secondary score Wisdom improves both the Monk’s Ki based abilities and AC. Effectively, a Monk player does not have to choose between attack/damage and AC. The Monk is less MAD. While a Barbarian can achieve an extraordinarilty high attack, damage, and AC at 20th level through its 20th level capstone feature ****, the Monk can and will achieve its maximum levels far sooner. Recall that earlier levels are more important to balance than later levels.
Consequently, we can conclude that as an extra bit of compensation the Monk is deprived of the use of a shield due to it being less MAD (and due to unarmed strikes not requiring an empty hand but rather letting you use any part of your body, such as your head, hip, or legs) while the Barbarian is granted the use of a shield (especially considering that Barbarian features tend to emphasize two-handed weaponry, further asserting the compensations made between attack/damage and AC).
So when planning to grant your class an Unarmored Defense-type feature, be aware of the compensations that need to be made. How MAD is your class? The better your Unarmored Defense-type feature is for your class, the more significant the compensation between attack/damage and AC needs to be.
"Primary Features" are the features that define your class mechanically within its first 3 levels. They form the core of your class, upon which many of your subsequent features will augment or supplement.
In the PHB, some primary features are more subtle than others. The Fighter has Action Surge and the Wizard has Fullcasting + Arcane Recovery + Spellbook, i.e. most number of spells known. Bear in mind, there is some wiggle room for poaching significant features. For example, the Land Druid poaches the wizard's Arcane Recovery in the form of Natural Recovery. One can make the argument that this does not step on the Wizard's toes too deeply due to the fact that the Druid's spell list is significantly different from the Wizard's, and thus no matter how many spells you recovery you still feel and play differently from the wizard. Suffice to say, Arcane Recovery is not entirely what makes Wizard a Wizard.
What does this mean? It means you can poach features from existing classes. This is discussed in more detail under The Good, the Bad, and the Critique, specifically beneath the This is Stepping on the Toes of X Class section presented later. However, you have to be careful. Any homebrew class must stand distinct from existing classes. Any homebrew class must not be approximately creatable through multiclassing.
Because at the end of the day, if you are presenting your homebrew class for public consumption, you must be able to convince the general public that your class is worth existing, and that means being able to justify why it has any given feature. The more you poach from other classes, the more you must demonstrate that your class stands sufficiently apart. The more arguments you have to make. And who likes making arguments besides me?
PHB Classes and their Primary Features
|Barbarian||Rage, Reckless Attack, Unarmored Defense|
|Bard||Fullcasting, Bardic Inspiration, Song of Rest|
|Fighter||Action Surge, Second Wind|
|Monk||Martial Arts, Ki, Unarmored Defense|
|Paladin||Halfcasting, Divine Smite, Lay On Hands|
|Ranger||Halfcasting, Favored Enemy, Natural Explorer|
|Rogue||Sneak Attack, Cunning Action, Expertise|
|Sorcerer||Fullcasting, Font of Magic, Metamagic|
|Warlock||Pact Magic, Eldritch Invocation, Pact Boon|
|Wizard||Fullcasting, Spellbook, Arcane Recovery|
Bookkeeping refers to resources and numbers you have to keep track of. These include but are not limited to: A) Spell slots, B) Rest-based abilities, C) Hit Points and Hit Dice, D) Material Components with gold costs, E) Consumables, e.g. ammunition or potions, F) wealth, and G) weight.
People tend to ignore encumbrance because keeping track of weight tends to take away from being in the moment. Nothing wrong with it; just depends on the group. But in general, the fewer the amount of resources you have to keep track of, the better. Be aware of the amount and frequency of bookkeeping features you are employing throughout your class. Abilities that can be used once per short or long rest are the easiest to keep track of.
Barbarians have to keep track of rage, which has a handful of uses per long rest. Many of the Barbarian's other features activate when rage is activated, so the Barbarian has very little bookkeeping. The Druid has short-rest based wildshape and long-rest based Fullcasting, so it has significantly more bookkeeping than the Barbarian. Even then, it's still not too much to keep track of.
Be wary of features that require minute tracking of gold or weight of objects. Be aware of how many rest-based unique features you are piling into a single class and subclass.
Resource Recovery Mechanics
Resource Recovery Mechanics are features that allows a PC to regain limited resources outside of conventional means. The Wizard's Arcane Recovery allows spell slot recovery outside of long rests. The Fighter's Second Wind enables hit point recovery outside of short rests, healing spells, and healing potions. There is a high temptation to create new resource recoveyr mechanics because A) there is precedence, and B) it's an easy way to make something powerful. But you must be careful as it is easily abused. The following are common abuses I have seen.
Easy Abuse #1: "The Bag of Rats" Problem
"Whenever you drop a creature to 0 hit points, you regain X Hit Points/Spell Slots."
Precedence: Fiend Warlock's Dark One's Blessing.
If you have a mechanic that rewards dropping creatures to 0 hit points, then there is a high temptation to acquire access to low HP creatures, e.g. a bag of rats or a cage of chickens. Dark One's Blessing is fine the way it is because it grants Temporary Hit Points (THP), and THP by definition do not stack, so any abuse is limited.
But if you grant hit points, or spell slots, or any other resource that is normally difficult to come by, then you're setting up a lot of small creatures up for slaughter. Or, worse, civilians.
Notice how the Wizard's Arcane Recovery can only be used once per day at the end of a short rest. How the Fighter's Second Wind can only be used once between short rests. How Dark One's Blessing's THP cannot stack.
There are some ways to mitigate the "bag of rats" problem. You can set a CR requirement on the killed creature, thus disqualifying low CR creatures like rats. But I am of the opinion that a DM should not be required to tell you what a creature's CR is, as that is a bit of a metagame issue.
You can limit the frequency of uses, e.g. "once per short or long rest". That is in fact a pretty effective solution, but if you use that, you might as well drop the "drop a creature to 0 hit points" caveat completely, as then you'd just be mimicking Arcane Recovery or Second Wind.
Easy Abuse #2: Infinite Hit Points and Spellcasting
A common homebrew class/subclass is the "Bloodmage". Such a thing generally involves consuming hit points for spellcasting. If such a thing has the ability to gain access to healing spells, either through multiclassing, the magic initiate feat, or its own spell list, then the door to "infinite healing and spell slots" is opened.
Imagine that there is a feature that lets me consume 6 hit points to cast a 1st level spell. Sounds like a lot of hit points, especially at 1st level. But what happens if we gain access to spells like cure wounds or goodberry? Let's look at goodberry because it does not depend on your Wisdom modifier. If you spend 6 hit points to cast goodberry at 1st level, you gain 10 berries that grant 1 hit point each. You can eat all 10 goodberries over a period of 1 minute. By spending 6 hit points, you can recover 10. Meaning outside of combat, you can infinitely regain hit points at a rate of 4 hit points per minute.
Be especially wary of resource conversions like these. There are a few solutions. One is to reduce Hit Point Maximum (HPM) in addition to consuming Hit Points. This means spending Hit Points to cast spells has an absolute cost on your long-term longevity, as you can never have more Hit Points than your maximum. Typically you'd have HPM restored after a long rest, but you should be wary of spells that have durations that last into the next day. For example, imagine you have 51 HPM and you could reduce your HPM by 5 to cast a 1st level spell. If you have goodberry, then you can reduce your HPM by 50 to cast goodberry 10 times. Assuming your DM isn't going to poke you with a stick for 1 damage during your long rest, you'll have a reliable resource for extra spellcasting.
Another is to consume Hit Dice instead of Hit Points. This tends to be a bit more flexible than MHP, and thus more powerful. The conversion is also trickier. You have as many hit dice as you have class levels, but you do not have as many spell slots as you have class levels. Spell slots scale at a unique staggered rate compared to hit dice. In this way, it make be closer to how Sorcery Points from the Sorcerer class convert to spell slot levels. The primary limitation that a hit dice based conversion provides is that hit dice recovers at half your total per long rest, so expending hit dice to do something is sacrificing longevity in the greater long run in favor of potency in the immediate short term.
Whatever mechanic you decide to use, be wary of paring them with traditional spellcasting, as by doing so you may be doubling or even tripling a class' potential spellcasting output. Always be wary of potential extremes.
Class "Starter Kits"
A class' "Starter Kit" contains the class' hit points, hit dice, proficiencies, equipment, and 1st level features. They establish the "pace" at which the class runs at from the starting line.
The Barbarian, with its largest hit die, moderate AC, action-oriented skills, encouraged great axe, melee weapon dependency, and Rage cocktail, hits the ground running into the thick of things, provoking and being provoked.
The Wizard, with its smallest hit die, low AC, lore-oriented skills, lack of armor, weakest set of weaponry, Fullcasting, one-of-a-kind spellbook, and the broadest spell list in the game, hangs back in the rear, slinging the right spell for the right occasion. Well, best as it can for 1st level.
The Fighter, with its strong hit die, moderate to high AC, a bit more flexible skills, any armor and weapon type, Fighting Style, and short-rest-based self-healing, sets its own pace, reliably filling any martial role.
The Bard, with its OK hit die, low to moderate AC, unmatched skill flexibility, better-than-nothing armor, servicably ideal weaponry, Fullcasting, and support-oriented Bardic Inspiration, is free to occupy almost any position shy of the front line, enabling most any party composition.
Be aware of what pace you intend to set for your class. Your class' initial loadout will echo throughout your class' progression. They'll help dictate what subclass concepts are executable. They can give your class a leg up or hold it down. Your class' features do not exist in a vacuum - they stack upon a foundation of basics. Your "starter kit" can make your class too strong or too weak even before you get to the good stuff.
Dos and Don’ts
Summarizing the Fundamentals
If you’ve read through the Fundamentals of 5e Design Philosophy section, then feel free to skip this section or use it as a reminder. For those of you who skipped the above section, enjoy, but do take the time at some point to go back.
- Do have a healthy mix of Combat, Exploration, and Interaction features. Spellcasting can cover for Exploration/Interaction depending on the spell list.
- Don’t make your class only capable in combat. Even the Fighter gets at least one Exploration/Interaction feature from each subclass.
Bounded Accuracy and AC
- Do adhere to Bounded Accuracy and AC.
- Don’t create features that rely on extreme compensations
- Do be aware that magic items and their bonuses will exist in any campaign, and their bonuses are not important for ensuring PC combat competency.
- Don’t assume any specific magic item and its bonus will be made available to a PC.
- Do use the Advantage/Disadvantage system. For skill checks, do grant advantage for specific uses of a skill check rather than all broad uses of that skill check.
- Don’t flatly grant advantage to attack rolls without limited uses or drawbacks, to broad uses of a skill check, and to saving throws except at high levels.
- Do use the Proficiency system.
- Don’t double proficiency bonus on attack rolls and saving throws, or add proficiency bonus to damage or AC (unless it’s an animal companion).
- Do grant at 1st level saving throw proficiencies in one “Strong” (DEX, CON, WIS) and one “Weak” (STR, INT, CHA) saving throw.
- Don’t grant at 1st level saving throw proficiencies in two “Strong” or two “Weak” saving throws.
Bonuses and Modifiers
- Do use proficiency bonus, or advantage/disadvantage, or additional dice for temporary boosts to attacks/damage/skill checks/saving throws.
- Don’t use small, conditional, temporary, static, stacking modifiers.
Tiers of Play
- Do respect the Tiers of Play (1st-4th level, 5th-10th, 11th-16th, 17th-20th) and their average damage output needs. Martials get Extra Attack or equivalent, Spellcasters get cantrip boosts and 3rd/6th/9th level spells and spell slots or equivalent.
- Don’t ignore the Tiers of Play and each class’ average damage output needs. Whether your class is offense or support focused, or something else entirely, all classes need to meet bare minimum competency in battle.
- Do develop a strong thematic narrative that answers the “why” your class has emerged and is demanded in the world. What wordly or otherworldly pressure or inspiration necessitates the emergence of your class?
- Don’t leave your class with a weak thematic narrative that only merely describes how it intends to function mechanically.
- Do be aware of feats and how they may interact with your class’ features. Watch out for potential excessive synergies/abuses.
- Don't grant your class a feat as a class feature, the most important aspect of a feat as a class feature, or refer to any feats in your class description. Don't assume that any specific feat or even feats in general will be made available to any given player. Your class must function without feats and yet also not be made abusable with them.
- Do use Resistance, Temporary Hit Points, and dice rolls (e.g. Battlemaster’s Parry maneuver).
- Don’t use (or avoid using) Damage Reduction.
Features at Each Class Level
- Do grant around 1 or 2 features at most at any given level. Significant improvements to lower level class features at higher levels often warrant being counted as distinct features in the class table.
- Don’t grant 3 or more features at any given level, unless each feature is weak enough to warrant such. Don’t try to cheat this by putting multiple individually potent abilities under a single feature title.
- Do put “dead” levels wherever a half or fullcaster gains a new spell slot level. Do make sure that a class gets something at every level.
- Don’t ignore the need for “dead” levels where warranted. Don’t leave levels empty when it isn’t warranted.
- Do be aware that your class may allow for some unique features at “dead” levels. Fill such levels with slight improvements to low level core class features.
- Don’t randomly stick “dead” levels whenever, wherever. Every “dead” level exists intentionally and purposefully.
- Do have fun as you go along and seek critique and advice from others.
- Don’t not have fun and ignore critiques because they challenge you.
- Do give yourself adequate comfort and rest, especially when you're receiving demoralizing critiques.
- Don't let people on the internet rile you up and upset you.
- Do study the PHB classes and seek to understand their justifications and quirks.
- Don’t ignore the PHB classes and the homework to study them.
- Do try to review other people’s works as a way of studying class design and innovation.
- Don’t give drive-by critiques.
The Good, the Bad, and the Critique
Firstly, yes, there is such a thing as bad balancing critique. And I don’t just mean critique that recommends making a feature too strong. I mean critique that sounds good on its face, but is in fact inappropriate, has actually nothing to do with mechanical balance, and/or is unconvincing or unhelpful.
Let’s start with the Good.
Good critiques move along the following lines:
- The Request for Clarification
- The Direct Comparison
- The Compensation Comparison, and
- The Synergy, or lack thereof
The Request for Clarification
When judging any class feature or combination of features, especially when the class is in an early iteration, it is supremely valuable to ask for clarification on intent rather than slamming a potential abuse or misstep for imbalance. How to word 5e terminology takes some getting used to, so asking for the intended direction the homebrewer was going for can help you understand the class better and provide much more useful advice.
The Direct Comparison
The basics of homebrew review involve directly comparing homebrew features with comparable official features. This kind of comparison tends to consider the features in a vacuum, separate from the class combination as a whole, and so while easy to base a critique on can often miss greater balancing methods and concerns. The balance of any given feature does not exist in a vacuum, but in a continuum of all of the features combined.
Though do not let this deter you from making direct comparisons. Direct comparisons are the foundation of proper review, and overlooked mistakes, strengths or weaknesses can often be caught by direct comparisons.
The Compensation Comparison
Deeper than the Direct Comparison is the Compensation Comparison. Compensation comparisons ask for what strengths you are receiving in exchange for what weaknesses, and how this compare to the strength/weakness exchanges of official classes.
For example, let’s look at the Barbarian. The Barbarian has the largest PC hit die in the game at 1d12, and they get Rage to further boost their survivability. What is it losing in exchange?
First, Rage is limited to STR-based attacks, so that means no bow-Barbarians.
Second, maintaining Rage requires you to attack or be attacked, forcing you to always stay in harm's way.
Third, the Barbarian’s Unarmored Defense forces the Barbarian to be dependent on at least three ability scores, STR, CON, and DEX, so it is Multiple Ability Score Dependent (MAD). Unlike the Monk who can use their primary attack stat, DEX, as part of their AC, the Barbarian must split their scores in between their attack stat STR, and their AC stats CON and DEX.
This ultimately results in the Barbarian having lower starting AC than comparable martials, having a poor attack stat, or having abysmal mental stats if you choose to pointbuy 15/15/15/8/8/8. While an endgame Barbarian can break the typical Bounded AC cap, the beginning game Barbarian is more important to focus on, as that is where the majority of players will play. Further, an endgame maxed Barbarian requires spending all of one’s ability score improvement levels on STR, CON, and DEX, meaning no feats, or sacrificing its attack stat in favor of AC.
As a bit of a bonus, the Barbarian can wield a shield and still gain the benefit of their Unarmored AC, unlike the Monk, but that comes with its own small counterplay with the fact that Barbarian features typically encourage large-damage-die two-handed weapons, so choosing to wield a shield runs counter to the effective play of the Barbarian.
All of these compensations serve to restrict the potency of a 1d12 hit die and Rage, as well as to encourage a specific style of play. Reckless Attack further plays on this style of compensation by giving you greater offensive potency in exchange for more vulnerability. The combination of Barbarian features are thus very synergistic, which leads me to:
The Synergy or lack thereof
Just as how any class should have strong thematic narrative to fuel both one’s imaginations of the class and the development of its features, the class’ mechanics should also to some degree support one another. It’s easy to see how the Barbarian’s combination of features creates a multi-level-deep synergy among its various features, feeding into a particular narrative of how the Barbarian functions both on and off the battlefield. Bard subclasses are almost invariably granted an alternative or expanded use of their core class feature, Bardic Inspiration. Monk subclasses often augment what their base Martial Arts feature can do. Class features, when grouped into a whole, should build a foundation that drives a strong mechanical narrative of play as well as make up for their strengths and weaknesses.
I have reviewed classes that have had no synergy between their features, or even had features that were in direct conflict. One particularly egregious recent example of conflicting features was with regard to a protective feature and a damage boosting feature. The protective feature required your Action to use, and the damage boosting feature granted additional damage dice to any weapon attack you make using a reaction. Doesn’t sound like they conflict at all at first. But in 5e, unless your DM is well-versed in monster psychology or your party has a regular source of Fear effects, getting monsters to trigger opportunity attacks from you tends to occur infrequently. Infrequently enough that it won’t be a reliable source of damage for you. Unless you have the Polearm Master feat.
To make the damage boost feature consistently productive, the Polearm Master provides an easily abusable combination (bearing in mind that this homebrew class had these two features appear by as early as 5th level). But worse was that utilizing the Polearm Master rendered the protective ability mutually exclusive with the damage boosting feature! Polearm Master requires your Attack Action, so if you want to utilize your primary damage boost regularly, you had to not use your primary protective ability. Are you a protector, or are you a damage dealer? Designing synergy requires being aware of much of the interactions between mechanics of various sources as well as what real gameplay can and will often consist of.
Now that we’ve covered the Good, let’s have a look at the Bad.
Bad critiques move along the following lines:
- Stepping on Toes
- The Drive-by Critique
- No Other Class Does X
- Argument From Tradition, and
- The Distant Multiclass
“This is stepping on the toes of X class”
Yes, this is in fact bad advice. But it does have its place. Before I get to that, let’s discuss why it is bad.
Beyond the fundamentals, there is nothing sacred in balanced DnD homebrew design. More accurately, there is not a single feature that can’t be poached in some form. However, doing so demands a difficult task:
You have to justify it.
You have to justify every single feature you take from another class. How does it interact with other features in your class? What strengths and weaknesses emerge? What compensations are made? How do these compensations compare to compensations made by official classes?
As an example, let’s take a look at /u/coolgamertagbro’s Pay-What-You-Want homebrew Pugilist class and how it compares to the Monk. (I much more prefer the original version of Pugilist, btw, rather than v2. Also, I’m playing my Luchador Pugilist right now. Just reached level 4. Working out good so far. Bonus damage from jumping/falling does not yet go to crazy lengths. Fall damage is a good deterrent. Seems I spend most of my time using Brace Up. Good combination play having my allies prone targets so I can drop onto them. The Durable feat is quite ridiculous on a Pugilist xD. Will report more as things progress).
At first glance, the Pugilist is just merely a variant Monk. Bonus Action unarmed strike, Moxie is Ki, The Ol One Two is Flurry of Blows, Stick and Move is a variant Step of the Wind, and Brace Up is a different interpretation of Patient Defense. It’d be easy to pin this class as just a Monk that happens to use STR, but both on paper and in gameplay it feels and plays incredibly differently. If the Monk is a disabling skirmisher, the Pugilist is an enduring bruiser, more like a glass cannon that barely manages to stay upright round to round utilizing its all-important Brace Up and Haymakers to stave off and bring the pain. The Pugilist will tend to have slightly lower starting AC, so there is a greater expectation to being hit, and, at least with regard to v1, being hit is good for you. It may copy and twist a bunch of features from the Monk, but it plays different. It feels different. And that, besides mechanical balance, is what counts.
Now that that’s settled, let’s tidy up by describing when this is good advice. It is good advice when the feel of the class in gameplay feels too similar to another class. When it makes someone go, “I feel like I’m playing a Fighter, except worse/better/the same.” So if someone comes along with a Juggernaut class with a d12 hit die and Damage Reduction up the wazoo and you start to think to yourself, “I feel like I’m just a Barbarian except better”, that’s when toes are being stepped on. But if you have a d12 hit die class that turns into a magical octopus and can do everything an octopus can, that’s different. It has the Barbarian’s d12 hit die, but it feels different. It plays different. Its suckers aren’t anywhere near the Barbarian’s toes.
The class needs to be taken in large parts. The more you focus in on a single feature, the less this critique is useful. So if you are homebrewing and you decide to poach the Fighter’s Action Surge, you as a homebrewer have to come up with an argument for how on earth your class warrants, nay, deserves the glory of Action Surge. And as a homebrew reviewer, you have to look at how the poached feature interacts with everything else in the class and ask yourself, “To what degree does this feel and play like a Fighter? What compensations are being made to make room for Action Surge? Why am I thinking and working so hard on some stranger’s imaginary play thing?”
This critique is the kind that doesn’t really have much to do with mechanical balance. It has much more to do with the feel of the class, the execution of the class as a whole. If you are homebrewing a full class, you have to make it distinct from all the other classes. Otherwise you’re probably better of just homebrewing a subclass, reflavoring, or multiclassing.
“This is OP broken nonsense. Stop trying and don’t quit your day job.” End quote.
This is otherwise known as the unsubstantiated asshole drive-by critique. Not only is it a quick no-effort critique that easily deters the less confident potential reviewers from even looking at your class, it is devoid of substance.
If you look way back in my comment history, you’ll see that I’ve made Gordon Ramsay-level critiques, and I apologize for that. I’ve long since toned down my rhetoric in favor of mechanical preciseness over caustic meanness. But something I have never done is not substantiate my critique. If I said something was shit, I explained why, how, what color, how smelly, and how it compares to the neighbor’s. Now for many of you potential reviewers, I understand that you don’t have the kind of time or confidence to do comprehensive reviews like I do. There’s absolutely no need to go that far. But if you are going to pick at something, please substantiate. Back up your argument, even if it’s just a short paragraph. Reference a feature, make a quick comparison, do some napkin math if time permits. Just don’t do the TMZ equivalent of a drive-by critique.
For example, a recent critique I received was the following:
“I don’t even know where to start. This is like taking [X] and [Y] and smashing them together, removing their weaknesses, and then making it even better. This is A+ broken.” End quote.
Not only was this critique unhelpful, it was completely wrong. Yet at least 8 people supported this critique before even a single person had actually given the homebrew a serious review. The quick soundbite sways and deters reviews. Diamonds are lost in the rough and shite is raised up on pedestals due largely to these kinds of quick, unsubstantiated critiques.
Everyone, from homebrewers to reviewers to lurkers, if you are looking for good homebrew, do not trust any of the quick critiques except from reviewers who are known to give substantial reviews. Tag users who give such reviews, so that when their comments appear, you can see to what depth they usually go. If someone like me makes a quick review saying, “Well done. This subclass is fully functional”, that is me saying I cannot find any mechanical flaws in it whatsoever, damn good job. The last time I said that was for a Chronomancer wizard subclass from awhile back, I think.
Also consider that good reviewers genuinely want a homebrew to succeed. Good reviewers will tell you where there are flaws. Great reviewers will give you recommendations on how to fix those flaws. And again, for those reviewers who are not yet confident in their balancing chops but also don’t want to give drive-by critiques, just substantiate whatever two-cents you want to provide. Don’t think your two-cents aren’t worth it. They inspire conversation! The more talking, the better! Every haystack needs to be searched for needles - you may find one.
Homebrewers who are having difficulty getting anybody to give your work a substantial review, try private messaging one of these kinds of reviewers. We don’t get paid for these reviews, which means we genuinely enjoy doing them. If time permits, I am probably more likely to review something a person explicitly asks me to than if I were to just come across it on my subreddit feed. But don’t take it the wrong way if someone says no. For much of everyone, this is ultimately a hobby. We do it when time permits. We do it when we feel like it. Just the same, we don’t do it when we don’t feel like it.
“No other class in the game grants X”
This is yet another critique I have used in the past and will continue to use. The issue lies with how it is being used and in what context. The poor use of this critique covers when it’s just stated that no official class offers X feature, and so somehow it must be unbalanced. But the very nature of homebrew demands innovation. Otherwise you risk stepping on the toes of an official class by not differentiating enough.
So when is this appropriately used? When it refers to a position. “No other class in the game grants X feature at/until Y level.” When we say “No other class...”, we need a point of reference.
For example, imagine a homebrew class that grants True Sight to 10 feet at 2nd level. No other class in the game grants at-will True Sight. But there are similar things at higher levels. For example, the high level spell true seeing. Also, the PHB Ranger’s 18th level Feral Senses is an approximate equivalence to True Sight. So the closest thing any class gets to at-will True Sight is the PHB Ranger at 18th level. That’s when you can put your foot down and say, “Hey, no other class gets something like at-will True Sight until 18th level. You can not justify it being at 2nd.”
“No other class uses this progression, so you can’t use it” or The Argument from Tradition
This is related to #3 above, but important enough to point out separately. This is again a critique I have used in the past and will continue to use. The problem is with which aspect of class design you are applying this critique to.
Generally, the progressions you do not touch are: Proficiency Bonus, Spellcasting, and Ability Score Improvements.
However, remember the true golden rule of homebrew balance: Justify, Justify, Justify! No matter what you do, you must justify it. If you can justify it, then you can do almost anything.
WOTC certainly pushes the envelope. Check out their Artificer, which while far from being mechanically satisfying challenges our presumptions of what is sacred. They made the class a quartercaster (or thirdcaster if you like being accurate but not rhythmically alliterative) which for them justifies moving the last Ability Score Improvement Level from 19th level to 18th! Now this does not mean this was a good move to make. The Artificer being shortchanged on casting like this feels pretty painful, and I’d probably prefer to see the Artificer be a halfcaster or fullcaster. But it shows that WOTC is willing to experiment beyond our unwritten assumptions about what is and what is not sacred.
Let’s give an example. Imagine you are making an arcane halfcaster martial class similar to the Ranger and Paladin. You plug in all the hits: halfcasting, “dead” levels at 9th, 13th, and 17th level, weapon focused mechanics. Then you look at the subclass levels for each of the Ranger and Paladin. Ranger has 3, 7, 11, and 15. Paladin has 3, 7, 15, and 20. The two classes share 3, 7, and 15 together.
Unfortunately, one of your core base class features has a significant upgrade at 11th, so you wouldn’t want to follow the Ranger class’ progression. And you feel like the distance between the Paladin’s 7th level feature and 15th level feature is too far - you want people to have another subclass feature sooner. But you also want to have an awesome 20th level feature for each of subclasses. So you come up with a new progression: 3, 7, 10, and 20.
Are you somehow violating a mechanical balance rule when diverging from the Ranger and Paladin’s progressions? Is there some kind of imbalance in switching the subclass level from 15th to 10th? Only if the numbers don’t work out.
No matter how traditional or experimental your class is, your math needs to work out at the end of the day. You need to respect basic average damage minimums. You need to sufficiently supply the tiers of play with their needs. You need to have a healthy mix of combat, exploration, and interaction features.
Ultimately, traditions do not matter so long as the numbers come out alright. That doesn’t mean do not follow traditional progressions. The only inherent consequence of abandoning traditional progressions is that it makes your job of balancing the class harder. It’s more math you have to calculate. UA Artificer is a good example - they switched things up, and unfortunately the math comes out iffy. Alchemist comes out a bit weak. Gunsmith is fine in terms of damage numbers, but it ends up boringly repetitive. And the spellcasting is too weak for my taste. Doesn’t mean they have to abandon their unique progression. They just need to do more work with it.
So when do you use this critique? When it’s wrecking the mechanical balance of the class, or making it too difficult to determine the balance of the class.
A little while back I reviewed a caster class that experimented with its spellcasting progression. Instead of halfcasting or fullcasting, its spell slot levels went up to 7th. It was a 7/9th caster? There were also many other experimental mechanics, namely 1d4 hit die and CON-based casting. Anyways, nothing was inherently wrong with attempting any of these experiments. The only problem was that doing the math for all of these experimental interactions was damn hard. Too hard. So ultimately I concluded by saying that while CON-based casting is achievable, and that he did a good job moving in that direction, the number of experimental mechanics at play made it a helluva job to balance. If you’re going to experiment to that degree, probably best to just do 1 or 2 at a time.
The Distant Multiclass
“This class is broken because at homebrew class level 14, I can multiclass with official class level 5 to create this crazy level 19 combo.”
When we talk about multiclassing abuse, we have to keep in mind how soon the abuse can occur as much as we consider just how much potency the multiclass grants. The higher the level you go, the more allowance there is for power, because the scale of conflicts you may deal with increase at an accelerated pace. 1 goblin at 1st level is 10 goblins at 5th level and 100 goblins at 11th level, kinda.
Multiclass abuse is a real thing and should be guarded against. But be wary of going gungho on it, as doing so is an easy trap to fall into.
Likewise, to homebrewers, study the PHB classes as much as possible. Always keep in mind potential multiclass abuses. A class that grants the finesse to two-handed weapons is ripe for any Rogue or Fighter. A class that grants a STR bonus that scales with proficiency bonus rather than class level is ripe for a Barbarian. A class that allows one to make weapon attacks with Wisdom will be snatched up by a Ranger or Cleric in no time. If there is a feature you absolutely want to retain, but the multiclass abuse remains evident, then you must either gate it by pushing it to a higher level and/or take available 5e mechanics and terminology to cut the abuse off at its core.
For example, at 5th level, instead of Extra Attack I had a feature that let a class make a weapon attack as a Reaction when a certain common trigger was met. Unfortunately, that allows a multiclass with Rogue to guarantee Sneak Attack at least two times per round, once on their turn with their Attack Action and once more on another creature’s turn with their Reaction. A damage comparison revealed that at least at 10th level, such a multiclass would easily out-damage a pure Rogue. While the feature being gated at 5th level rather than 1st or 2nd reduces the overall appeal of the multiclass abuse, it is still near enough to make one uncomfortable.
The solution? Change the Reaction Weapon Attack into a Special Melee Spell Attack that uses your weapon’s statistics. There is precedence for “special” attacks in 5e that by their nature disallow things like gaining the benefits of the Extra Attack feature. By removing the “weapon” keyword from the ability, the ability to attach Sneak Attack to it is eliminated. And since this only applies to the Reaction attack, Sneak Attacking using your Attack Action on your turn is preserved. This all has the unfortunate consequence of also excluding things like Fighting Styles. Fortunately the base class doesn’t have Fighting Styles to begin with and is more defensive than offensive in nature, so it’s not a huge loss.
This is why both a working knowledge of the litany of mechanics and wording in the game and input from reviewers are invaluable. I would not have seen this abuse nor be able to deal with it in an elegant manner without them.
Thank you for reading this far. This document was both a labor of love and of frustration. It embodies approximately 85% to 90% of my knowledge on homebrew balancing. The missing remainder may end up being covered in the next essay, Discussion on Innovative Class Design.
I wrote this guide with the hope that in the long run it will make my life a bit easier. I deeply enjoy reviewing homebrew, but doing so is frequently, and seemingly increasingly, exhausting. So much so that I lately ignore homebrew classes that have interesting new mechanics yet make obvious mistakes like using two "strong" saving throws instead of one "strong" and one "weak". I hope that this might raise the base level of quality in all homebrew classes, and thus make review discussions about the construction of new unique mechanics rather than about the flaws in the class' foundation.
I may have also wrote this guide because I feel I have something to prove. In recent months, I have felt a creeping doubt that has made me question the quality of my homebrews and the efforts I put into them. If there is anything further you might learn about my personality, it may be that I am sincere to a fault.
I should not forget that I also wrote this because I genuinely want to help people make their homebrews work. I remember starting my reviews because I was not receiving any. It hurt to feel alone in my efforts, desirous of a living, functioning class to call my own and yet free to share. My early criteria for determing which homebrew to review was whether the homebrew was receiving any attention or not. If it wasn't, I would change that. Unbeknownst to me, for nearly a year the Discord of Many Things has long succeeded in this regard.
As a reviewer, a frequent thought stumbles its way into my head.
"Why am I working so hard on another person's imaginary play thing?"
Fortunately, the answer is always easy. And it's the same answer for why I play DnD: Because it's a shared experience. Because it's challenging. Because it's fun.
For better, for worse, full class homebrew design is a marathon. It is a test of stamina, openness and resilience to criticism, and creativity. Whatever you've got brewing up in your mind, I am eager to see. Happy Brewing.
Class Design 201
If you've read /u/messy6's Class Design 101, you should notice that this guide is absent a point system for determining balance. First hear me state what messy6's point system is not. It is not a means by which to determine the balance of any innovative mechanics in your homebrew class. What is it, then? It is a depiction of how the quantity of features of official classes relates to spellcasting, proficiencies, etc. It is a tool that sheds light on a particular frame of PHB class design. It is useful gaining insight into how the official classes are structured. It will not however teach you how to balance a homebrew class, nor will it help you determine whether a homebrew mechanic is balanced against official material. It is not intended to do these things.
I am of the belief that due to the complexity of class design, any point grading system intended to determine balance for classes will ultimately hurt you rather than help you. This is because that even as we strive to achieve parity between our homebrew and official content, we also endeavor to experiment, to create truly unique mechanics that can find a home only within a homebrew class. How do you put a number to a mechanic that no one has ever seen? If Fullcasting were arbitrarily granted a point value of 10, and the Battlemaster's Maneuver feature were granted a point value of 3, then how would we grade a feature that uses short rest-regenerated dice to cast spells of levels between 1st and 5th level? Or if the Paladin's Divine Smite is graded a 6, then how do we judge a feature that lets you expend hit dice and add their result to a single weapon damage roll? And what if that feature is paired with another feature that lets you regain one hit die at the end of a short rest? Or if you have to roll the hit die and take that much damage yourself to add the result to your weapon damage roll?
To judge balance, we require precedence. We compare homebrew mechanics to official mechanics. Arbitrary point values assigned to existing mechanics does not take into account the potency of combinations of features, and cannot account for truly innovative mechanics. Instead, the only thing we can rely on is our analyses and understanding of what any class can do at a given level, which changes on a moment to moment basis as a homebrew class develops.
Messy6's Class Design 101 is an excellent primer to official class design basics. If their work is 101, then consider this document Class Design 201.
Discussion on Innovative Class Design
Work in Progress Complete! 04/28/20 Please look forward to the next essay.
Will likely cover innovative class design as well as a step-by-step example of what reviewing a class for balance may look like.
- Author: /u/Leuku
- Art Formatting: /u/Rain-Junkie
- /r/UnearthedArcana, for all my years on the sub
- /r/DnDBehindtheScreen, For loving my essays and in so doing uplifting my spirits
- /u/layhnet, for your indefatiguable tenacity and camaraderie
- Discord of Many Things, for accomplishing together what I attempted alone, and your friendship
v1.1: Added Class "Starter Kits" to Not Quite Fundamentals, added links to my previous essays in the Intro, cosmetic changes
v1.2: Dec15. New Table of Contents, added Concluding Statements page
v1.3: Dec17. Moved Table of Contents to a second page. New Cover Page. Expanded Credits. Added Processing and Class Design 201 to Concluding Statements page.
v1.4: Aug 12, 2019. Streamlined some wordflow. Changed "Vanguard" to "Bastion". Updated google drive doc w/ this version. Moved introductory links to this page.