The idea of modularity in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons has had me thinking a lot about secondary skills, kits, paragon paths, themes, and backgrounds. I throw kits in because that is kind of where crunch started in my memory. I remember going to the game store in high school to purchase the 2nd Edition Complete Fighters Handbook in all its faux leather bound excellence. This was real power build not like the secondary skills from 1st Edition which were nothing more than an occupation on a percentile chart with no description or listed game effect. I had long been doing my best to find a way to distinguish my fighter from other fighters by more than weapon and armor used. The kit provided that and some background elements to use with my character. Kits were pretty much the first appearance of crunch.
Kits were new but in the end, much like feats not all kits were created equal. That is okay because 3rd edition arrived and delivered the prestige class. This wasn’t quite the same as it wasn’t selected at the beginning of a character’s career but something that the character could strive to attain. Each prestige class had different prerequisites and occasionally level requirements. which was fine because the harder to attain the class the more powerful it was, typically. Prestige classes worked well until crunch allowed for them to be achieved at a lower level than they were designed to be achieved. The prestige classes with the level limitations took care of that problem but it didn't seem that most prestige classes had level minimums.
Right out of the gate 4th Edition D&D offered the paragon path and the epic destiny to allow characters to differentiate themselves in another way from others of their class. This was followed up quickly by backgrounds and then last came the theme. The theme and the background are selected at 1st level so they really do help players with creating a back story for their character if they follow the flavor text. The paragon path and the epic destiny are achieved at 11th and 21st level respectively. This cleared up many of the problems with the paragon path and achieving it earlier than intended but left a bit of a stale feeling especially for a Dungeon Master. Backgrounds were simple but also very stale since one was essentially the same exact thing as another at least in terms of what perk was provided.
All of the characters achieving paragon paths and epic destines at the exact same time made it difficult to organically work them into a campaign in a meaningful way. Often each had to just be given quick brush strokes by the DM which seemed to cheapen them a bit. Perhaps because the characters just picked one when they reached 10th level and again at 21st level with almost no other requirements except maybe class or race further cheapened them. As a DM if a character is going to achieve something of such significance that it will add a page to their character sheet then I want that to be an event. It is hard to have it be an event when five characters achieve this at the exact same moment.
So with 5th Edition approaching open playtest I wondered which of these character building elements I most wanted to see appear in the next edition. Let's start with the theme. Chosen at 1st level in 4e, the theme was an addition to your class and race and usually granted a small ability to allow a character to differentiate themselves from others with the same class at the beginning of their career. This added power can be a useful but limited power, a role-playing environment opportunity (Neverwinter Noble), or anything else that fits along as it makes sense for all classes to potentially take that theme. If a theme grants proficiency with heavy armors and shields at 1st level but fighters are proficient with heavy armors and shields as a class ability than the theme would have no appeal to fighters. Themes should appeal to all classes.
Prestige classes like I stated previously were only really missing a hard minimum level requirement in addition to any other prerequisites to work perfectly in the game. You don’t have to have them all achieved at the same time because they all don’t have to be balanced in power if they are achieved at different levels with other build requirements. You probably should not achieve guild thief at the same level another player achieves archmage. The guild thief would be available earlier but not nearly as powerful as the archmage. Not everything has to be equal and happen simultaneously.
Not having all the players achieve the prestige class at the exact same time will allow both the DM and player if they choose to role-play seeking out the prestige class to learn it however that looks in your game. If one of your players wants to join the Harpers then undergoing a mission to earn their pin is exactly the sort of story element that you can take the time to work into your campaign and an adventure when you stagger what levels prestige classes are gained. It may give a bit more meaning to the player if th e power gained by their character is handled in the story as well as in the mechanics.
I am sure a lot of you will have your own opinions about how this should be handled and which of these elements should make the cut in the next edition. You may share my opinions but arrived there for entirely different reasons. I would love to hear what you think should be included and why in 5th Edition. I wish I could talk specifics but I think the designers are on the right track and I can't wait to see what the fans think when they get a chance to playtest the game soon. Until next time, Roll Hard!
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