I'm not saying these classes are bad (they're all wonderful, in fact) but that in premise they feel a bit contrived. It can stand to reason though, in B/X D&D, because the character customization options of that edition (and many of its clones) are so scant that building your tropes into the class itself is really your only option for embodying them. Maze Knights has classes like "Skeleton King" and "Ooze Knight" which are incredibly arbitrary in spite of their delightfulness. More "modern" RPGs have alternative options, though. If you want to capture every trope of a certain character archetype, it needn't come only from class features. It can be done through skills and proficiencies and equipment and background and all sorts of other character facets.
There are some RPGs that have only 3 or 4 classes, with the intention that those classes be as broad and flexible as possible. Take the classic Fighter, Mage, Thief trinity and see just how many games let everything fall into those 3 umbrellas. Some games don't have classes at all and instead offer some kind of skill-tree customization system. In Mutants & Masterminds you just build your character with a set budget of power points and an incredible wealth of options to spend them on. In Knave you define yourself through the equipment you have and the actions you take and really nothing more.
3.X Edition D&D had, by my count, 84 base classes with every official sourcebook included. There are, on top of that, 73 variants on these classes and then literally hundreds of prestige classes. I'm not kidding. According to Wikipedia's record, I counted at least 695 from published books alone.
This feels ungraceful to me. I really appreciate that 5th Edition streamlined things by introducing archetypes as part of something built directly into the core class (mechanical archetypes, that is. Not, like, Jungian archetypes, like I've been talking about up until now). No matter what, once you reach the point where you choose an archetype you have to customize your character a bit. It reinforces the power of the base classes as overarching themes. Almost all character ideas you can come up with could be adapted into the right archetype for an already-existing class. Consequently, new archetypes are one of the most popular and common types of homebrew content or Unearthed Arcana for 5E, which I think is rad.
So then it raises the question: what idea can't fit into being merely an archetype? An idea that truly needs to be its own class. And also, how did we arrive at these 12 classes being the list of themes within which all other ideas should be nested? What was the logic behind them to justify their own existences? Because I have seen many a nasty internet debate over whether "X" should be a class or not.
Take, for example, the warlock. What is the warlock, conceptually speaking? It's a spellcaster like the wizard, but its magic is instead granted by some outside powerful entity through a special relationship they have. But... isn't that just a cleric? Like, is not a cleric already the class for people who wanted to play as Dr. Faust and make a deal with some outsider? Before the creation of the warlock, most characters who would now fit that thematic concept had already been adequately covered by the cleric (or sometimes the wizard). We could also say the same thing about the druid. Isn't the druid really just a nature-themed cleric? Purely conceptually, anyone who you could call a druid could also instead be called a cleric, if you think about it. Attempts at narrowing each of their conceptual definitions in order to justify the distinction are just arbitrary pedantry. You could try to dress it up with details like "well a warlock wouldn't have a full god for a patron" or "a warlock is arcane and a cleric is divine" or whatever, but deep down we know that the core idea behind both classes is the same thing.
And this can be important when the existence of those other classes cheapens the value of the cleric. I mean that. I have never met nor heard of someone playing a nature-domain cleric before, and I'm positive that the reason is because anyone who may have had an interest in such a character had already chosen druid, anyway. I, myself, when first introduced to the game, recall considering, "if I wanted to be a cleric, how could I do that and make it something cool? I know! What if, instead of a medieval Catholic priest or something, I reflavored it as being like a Celtic animist shaman, like a druid or vate or something?" But instead they gave that character concept its own class.
And it's this same logic that justified quite a number of the other classes. If you look at the class system for 2nd Edition AD&D, you'll see that they actually kept it within the 4 core "classic" options but built within them the other classes as optional variations. So yes, there is a single Fighter class, but the paladin and the ranger could be called Fighter-variants. There's a Thief (rogue) class, but the bard is a Thief-variant. D&D has long-recognized that a barbarian is really just the same thing as a fighter, conceptually. At its most conceptually distinct, it might justify itself as a fighter archetype in 5E. But the 5E devs went with all of these as full-class options nonetheless.
I don't have the source to back this up, but I have heard that as part of the D&D Next development notes (i.e. the 5E Beta) they asked this question and decided on this rule of thumb: "the classes we include in 5E should be recognizable to fans from any point in the game's history". Essentially, they were chosen based on tradition. And... I legitimately don't mind this. I could bitch about perfectionism... or I could instead maybe appreciate that the vision they had for 5E was essentially, "let's make you feel like you're playing D&D." But there's a couple exceptions they had in this rule of thumb that are glaring at us. The warlock and the sorcerer.
Firstly, the warlock was a 4E class. I mean, I'm sure one of those hundreds of 3.X classes must bear the name "warlock", but I'm talking about the idea of the warlock class as it exists in 5E. That doesn't go back more than one edition. Likewise, the sorcerer was added in 3E, and really only feels like a more legitimate D&D class because Pathfinder also had it, which is something most of us mentally treated as "true 4E." Not only are they not something recognizable to all D&D players, they are particularly egregious examples of conceptual redundancies. We already covered that with the warlock. With the sorcerer, I have never bought into the offered-up fluff explanation of how they are distinct from wizards. It's such a huge stretch. "A sorcerer gets their powers from some innate source rather than study and learning!" I know that was thought of as a retroactive justification. In most works of fantasy fiction, there would never be such a distinction. I'm fairly certain that a good number of them would actually conflate the two anyway, when it comes to their casters. For example, in the Harry Potter franchise, you have to both be blessed with some innate-spellcasting ability and study up on it like a nerd. Before the introduction of the sorcerer, I don't think any D&D players had really thought much about this question of "where does your spellcasting come from?" If anything, a DM might come up with an answer specific to their own campaign setting, but they certainly wouldn't have said, "alright let's break up the core assumptions into each their own category of spellcaster." I feel like, in most people's minds, the words, "sorcerer" and "wizard" were synonymous until someone created an artificial and contrived distinction.
What this all ultimately points to is the other driving logic that can justify a class's existence: mechanics. Can you come up with a significantly-unique system of mechanics for the class to operate on which couldn't be adequately served by the other classes? If so, then maybe you can justify a new class. The real reason the sorcerer was created in 3E was to serve as a simpler but less-versatile alternative to the wizard. It served a gameplay purpose first and the lore stuff came second. Likewise, the warlock was created in 4E to be an Arcane Striker class while the wizard was the Controller class. In fact, it still has this role in 5E, which it achieves with a strange, unique spellcasting progression that's meant to capture the same effects of the 4E magic system (e.g. at-will powers, encounter powers, daily powers, etc.). So sure, the barbarian could just be a fighter. But there's enough mechanical potential at the heart of the "raging berserker" concept that maybe they deserve to get a full class devoted to realizing that concept in gameplay terms. Basically, either you could have a half-baked "rage" mechanic in a fighter archetype or you could flesh it out into being the core feature of an entire class. The 5E devs liked the latter idea more and, thus, the barbarian was born. Or, you know. Carried forward into the new edition without being demoted.
This means that there is intrinsically some amount of subjective judgment involved. I have known quite a number of people who hate the bard class and think it's stupid. That it's an inherently dumb idea that doesn't deserve to be a class. The bard is my favorite class, though. How do we reconcile the disagreement? Well, a sentiment I often hear from these folks is that, "if you want your character to be a singer or performer, you can just take the Perform skill and/or buy an instrument." My problem with this line of thinking is that you can apply this exact same logic to so many other options that we all largely accept without question.
"You want to be good with animals? Fuck having a ranger class, just be a fighter with the Handle Animal skill and spend some coin on a pet."
"You want to be a thief or cat burglar or something? Then fuck the rogue, you can just steal stuff. You don't need class features for that."
"You want to be an angry barbarian? Just roleplay your rage then, dummy. No need for a special class."Fuck all that, I don't just like the idea of being a guy with a lute. My favorite class is the bard because I like art and storytelling and folklore and culture and historical literature and poetry and I appreciate that there's a class that aligns so well with those things when it would, in contrast, be a huge stretch for me to ever identify with something like a monk or barbarian or cleric. It is, to me, the most resonant interpretation of magic that the game presents. This quote by Alan Moore put into only a few words some ideas that have spent literally years swimming around my head with how profound and thought-provoking they are. It kind of changed my life, and the bard is the class that embodies those ideas.
So we might say that the warlock is both mechanically-distinct enough and subjectively interesting enough to be its own class, and I can respect that. But I do think the bar ought to be set high. I much prefer people to make new archetypes than to attempt making new classes. Nearly every single attempt at making a new class for 5E I've ever seen felt like a huge stretch.
- Matt Mercer's Bloodhunter is definitely not worthy of being its own class. What a ridiculous idea.
- A friend of mine has been working on a fire-themed Consitution-based class that seems to be a damage dealer and not much more, and I think the big weakness is the concept being undercooked. Fire-damage DPS guy who drains their own HP to fuel their attacks? Mechanically interesting and unique, for sure. But what is this class, at its heart?
- Look at the curated list of homebrew classes on the Unearthed Arcana subreddit. You really think a dragon-knight is as important or primal an archetype as the classic fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric? Can you explain to me how a Disciple isn't just a fighter or monk? Or what, mechanically-speaking, it offers so special in gameplay that it can justify its own existence despite being so conceptually similar to those classes?
- I once saw a Pugilist (unarmed strength-based fighter) class, which to me is literally a monk or an unarmed fighter-archetype. I once saw a Necromancer class, which already exists in the wizard.
- The Mystic (5E's Psion class) is... don't even get me fucking started.
I would say also, then, that a good litmus test for "is my idea good enough to be a full class or should it be an archetype?" would be this: "can I come up with at least 3 archetypes based on my class?" If you can't, then maybe it isn't a robust enough concept to be a class of its own. Maybe it is specific enough that it needs to be nested within another class.
Anyway, all of these are the sort of questions and considerations I keep in mind when I look at homebrew content, especially homebrew classes. I am a bit surprised to find that, five years after the publication of 5th Edition, I still have only ever come across one class outside the PHB's twelve that I actually buy into. It's pretty refreshing though, when put into perspective against the 3.X class list. I think it's a sign that "the 5E 12" is a pretty solid list.