Creating a Monster: Class Design Basics

5E is ripe for custom, homebrew add-ons. New material is coming out so rarely, it stands to reason that players themselves would feel a need to add the things they want into the system. The DMs Guild gives those players a chance to spread their materials out into the world at large with a bigger platform than any single website or blog could manage. Wizards has practically asked players to make the system their own, and that’s great. It means there’s room for me to add a new class. If there wasn’t room, that probably wouldn’t stop me, but it’s a nice allowance.

I do want to make the best class I can, and that means it has to follow good class design principles. I don’t want something I’ve slapped together on my lunch break; I want something that’s viable, that’s fun to play, that fits within the system but challenges some of its assumptions and provides an experience I can’t get from existing classes. There are plenty of materials out there for guiding a person through class design, and I’ve spent a lot of time in them, and a lot of time working on custom classes, over many years. I’ve found that the most important pieces of a class tend to be the following, in order:

Concept. As with character design, if you cannot describe your class in an interesting, engaging way using only out-of-character terms and concepts, scrap it and start over. “Like a mix between a ranger and a paladin” is not a class concept. “Devil hunter” or “sanctioned defender” are better. We want something that might exist in the world of D&D (or whatever setting to which you’re applying the 5E rules) such that players will look at it, understand it, and start envisioning ways it might work for them.

A concept isn’t just the way you pitch the class to anybody who will listen, it’s also the center around which all the mechanics should flow. Everything the class does should stay in line with its concept. Our devil hunter might have a bonus to Intelligence (Investigation) checks when seeing if fiends have been in the area lately, or some limited power to free party members or innocent bystanders from curses and other monstrous effects. It likely would not have high-level spellcasting or the ability to wield oversized weapons, because those don’t have anything to do with hunting fiends. A solid concept gives us direction to select relevant class features and toss out anything that doesn’t mesh.

Freedom. Your class must allow players to make characters with it, not just apply characters to it. This is why we discussed points of divergence, places in class progression at which players are allowed to make a decision. A class that just doles out a set list of powers, one after the other, is almost impossible to apply to the wide variety of characters a player might want to build. We have to give players room to make the class work for them.

This is why I’m such a critic of classes like “devil hunter from Devil May Cry” or “dragon rider” or “gunslinger”. They’re too specific, dictating what characters should be instead of asking how they can help. Even “blue mage”, one of my favorite concepts, is insufficiently generic for a class (a subclass, maybe, but not a class). We need something that gives players options—at the very least, it should have enough space for two or three subclasses that take the class in different directions. As such, our devil hunter probably isn’t yet right. If we change it into a monster hunter, we can let players run it as a devil hunter or dragon hunter or witch hunter as they see fit.

Mechanics. Your class must be fun to play within the system. A class is, at the end of the day, just a set of rules, and those rules need to make sense and let the player do interesting things. Sometimes that manifests as “the character gains a new, unique ability” like the druid’s Wild Shape or the cleric’s Channel Divinity and sometimes it’s “the character does an existing thing, but really, really hard” like a fighter’s Extra Attacks or a rogue’s Sneak Attack, but it should fit the existing concept.

A class should also be balanced against other classes and the game at large. I know how hard this is, especially when you don’t know the system backward-to-forward enough to establish what’s too powerful and what’s just powerful enough at any given time. There are some key points you can look to for guidance; for example, only certain martial classes get Extra Attack at L5, other classes who are partially martial gain a bonus 1d8 damage at or about L8, and it’s very rare for a class with nine-level spell progression to get either. But this is why we have playtesting, to see how the rules work in actual play.

This is the basic mantra of class design: one concept that enables many characters through fun mechanics. If I want to create a class, first I have to come up with something I can’t already get from the existing system, something a player might actually want to run. Then I have to grow that into an entire class, either by working backward from a specific idea into something more generic (like our devil hunter changing into a monster hunter) or extrapolating an already-generic idea into game-friendly paths (like splitting the wizard into subclasses for each school). Then I have to come up with the actual rules, or apply some of the neat rule ideas I already have into the class in a way that makes sense.

Luckily, when I started on this journey I already had a generic concept in mind: playing a monster.

D&D, especially 5E, assumes that PCs are normal people with arms and legs and stuff, and monsters are the things they punch until money and validation fall out. Our gaming groups have never really cleaved to that way of thinking. The way we see it, why can’t a goblin decide to be a hero? Or a dragon? Or, in what we consider a logical extension, a giant spider accidentally granted sentience by a botched ritual? Sometimes we want to play a robot, or the adorable mascot, or a ghost, all perfectly valid concepts in other non-interactive fiction. 5E has no space for that, but it could. And, more importantly, we feel it should.

The main problem I had with this concept is that it’s actually too generic. The breadth of monsters is far too great for a single class. I couldn’t come up with anything that would allow a player to be a robot and a spider and a mascot and a dragon and an ooze ad infinitum. I had to pull it back to something mechanically viable. I’m also, personally, against classes that introduce a ton of supplemental rules. Pathfinder’s gunslinger is a good example; it doesn’t work unless you also understand the new rules for guns, storing gunpowder, misfire chances, and scatter targeting, among others. If my monster class requires pages and pages of new rules for level adjustments or equipment for non-humanoid creatures, then I’m not really making a class, I’m making whole new mechanics and adding a class to them. And, most importantly, I need a class that is, in fact, a class. This means it does not override a character’s race. An individual player is free to reskin an individual character as something other than their rules-prescribed race, but I cannot force a player to abandon all of their race’s culture and use only its mechanics. If a player can’t be a human (this class) or a dwarf (this class) or a triton (this class), it’s not a class, and I have to start over.

Eventually I realized “monster” is just not viable as a class concept. But a focused version of “monster”, one that limits the associated monster types, works within the existing rules, and doesn’t supersede character race, might be. I’m tentatively calling it the inflicted.

An inflicted started out as an ordinary, PC-friendly person, but sometime during their life they had a monstrous nature inflicted upon them. The most common catalyst is the bite of a lycanthrope, but it could also occur as the result of a hag’s curse, a wizard’s ritual, or a close encounter with a vampire. The victim nearly became a monster, but through the timely intervention of an ally or healer, a deity’s blessing, pure doggedness, or just plain luck, they maintained their sanity and their free will. Recognizing the opportunity they have to use their new powers, they’ve undertaken a life of adventure, slowly becoming more and more powerful as they straddle the line between person and monster.

This is much better. It’s a clear concept, but applicable to several character types, from the hapless farmer who involuntarily gained power when he drove an ordinary wolf from his lands, to the acolyte exiled from her order after they found out her mother was a vampire, to the maniacal alchemist who wanted to become a demon but only got his formula twenty percent correct. The subclasses might be different creature types, and they should include the freedom for players to determine the exact nature of their own afflictions. It even works as a secondary class, as a PC can multicast into inflicted to give a little more weight to a lycanthrope encounter than “I cast remove curse and everything is okay now.” It fills a hole in the existing game, it presents plenty of room for expansion and divergence, and it satisfies some of that “play a monster” need without sacrificing race, equipment, and background rules at its altar.

But a class is its mechanics, and the inflicted is worthless if it’s not fun. We need rules that make the class feel right, and that’s tricky.

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