Posted by : David Guyll January 14, 2012
Note: There is no official information about 5th Edition, here. This is merely some thoughts on the direction I would like to see WotC take.
With a new edition of D&D coming out, one of the things I am largely concerned about is what characters will ultimately end up looking like. While I am not worried that they will be reduced to the handful of cookie-cutter classes that were introduced in OD&D, I am legitimately worried that we will see character diversity and class flexibility shored up to be more inline with 3rd Edition's often rigid class structure.
I sometimes wonder if D&D should get rid of levels. On one hand, I like classes and levels because they make it very quick and easy for a player to figure out what the class is good at, as well as generally how tough they are. As a DM this makes things extremely easy to design and challenge my players. However, the level and class systems as executed lack the granularity of other games, namely Dresden Files and Exalted. As a player it makes it easier to figure out if my bonuses or whatever are average, good, or the best of the best.
To compare, in Dungeons & Dragons if you make a fighter, then you can wear heavy armor, use most weapons (and use them pretty fucking well), and are pretty damned tough. 4th Edition even went so far as to provide mechanics that made weapon categories matter more and give them a way to actually keep monsters from mauling her allies to death. In Exalted you do not have classes. You choose a caste, which basically just lets you know which things are easier to learn and improve. For example, the Dawn caste are your archetypal melee warriors, and can learn skills like Melee and War faster than castes.
The drawback as I see it is that it is more difficult to accurately peg challenges for your party, and probably even harder to make challenges in which everyone can meaningfully contribute. I ran into this problem in 3rd Edition when designing monsters; things that were hard for the warblade to hit were basically impossible for the cleric, bard, and rogue, and if I made stuff that they could hit about half the time, the warblade was basically guaranteed to fuck it up. Same with monster attacks and saves; the cleric and warblade's Will saves were so far apart that the warblade could not hope to make without rolling a nat 20.
The benefit is that if you want a fighter to have a knack for magic that you can have greater control over how much. In 4th Edition you could multiclass into wizard and pick up a spell--which makes more sense than spontanously blossoming into every cantrip and a bushel of 1st-level spells--or find some way to hybrid a fighter and wizard into a functional character (especially with an understanding DM). A system similar to Exalted would let you adjust the dial and probably very easily make a fighter/wizard that requires less houseruling and optimization just to "make work".
Even better, as your character advances you could advance the character in a direction that makes sense, picking up a bit more magic or improving her martial skills organically. Hell, you might even find yourself branching into something else entirely. Mind you, I do not want to return to 3rd Edition's wonky multiclassing that unfairly hinders spellcasting classes, but I think a more flexible system is in order. I don't want it to be FATE or Exalted, because then I might as well just play those games. Ideally I would like it to be some kind of modular class system where you could, I dunno, drag and drop a power source, role, and shuffle some other bits around to basically build your own class that best evokes a concept you have in mind.
Of course, I have no fucking clue how, or if, this system would work. I think that done properly we could avoid having classes like the swordmage, which by the way I am not knocking: I just think that it kind of sucks for people who want to play a fighter/wizard and have to end up waiting for WotC to invent a class that lets them do that from the start. That will be one of my barometers for 5E: can I play a fighter/wizard type at the start of the game, which having to fallback to houserules or stretch my character too thin.