Cover art © 2015 Dean Spencer, used with permission. All rights reserved.
By Christian L. Christiansen
If you already read Pt 1 check out Pt 2 on how to make a useful split here!
Hello there, fellow multiclass monster, and welcome to my guest piece.
In this series of articles, I want to talk about multiclassing, munchkins, and anchoring your character concept in the fiction of the world rather than in the class levels they possess. None of this moves beyond the rules for multiclassing in 5th edition, but it aims to present a new way of looking at multiclassed characters, which will hopefully soften up some of the DMs who are reluctant to allow such “munchkins” at the table. The fine gentlemen here at Monsters & Multiclass like to combine two classes and let that be the framework for their discussion. I want to propose a different approach.
The elevator pitch is this: think of your character as a person in a world with goals to accomplish and a plan for how to do so, and do your best to forget the fact that the tools they need to get there are locked away in two or three (or more) different classes. Think of the one thing that unites those skill sets and conceptualize your character as such. You are not a fighter/rogue/bard; you are a cunning, flamboyant master duelist. You are not a druid/barbarian/ranger; you are a warden of the wilderness. So make every level, spell, feat, and action you take reflect that.
Disclaimer: This method assumes that you plan out paths for your wonderful little munchkin all the way to the higher levels. I know that “the best experiences emerge organically during play”, but in this specific case it is important to have a goal that you pursue and an idea about what it might look like when you get there.
To get it out of the way, I am in no way the first person to have this thought. Hell, Monsters and Multiclass routinely turn to the flavor and fiction behind the different combinations they come up with, and plenty of other people have made character builds with these principles in mind. It often has an existing character from pop culture as the conceptual template, or a classic RPG role or trope they want to optimize. At this point I don’t want to go into any specific builds or concepts, but hopefully I will impart enough general tips that it becomes something more than just another brainchild of a nerd. To give credit where it is due, my primary inspirations for this piece aside from Monsters and Multiclass itself are presented in the following:
Dungeon World. The entire phrase “fiction first” is lifted from Adam Koebel’s game Dungeon World, which is my favorite game that I have never played. He probably stole it from somewhere else, as all great artists are wont to do, but I will credit him as my primary source. The idea behind “fiction first” is to suppress thoughts or talk of mechanics until they are needed to resolve something in the world. In this context, that means not thinking your character in terms of classes until you have decided what the fiction surrounding them needs to be.
The Burning Wheel. Luke Crane’s 2002 tabletop RPG, which I discovered through Koebel earlier this year, has Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits as the driving force behind character development. It is not strictly classless, but it does everything it can to make its players choose their skills and play their characters with the aim of pursuing those characters’ beliefs. As with “fiction first”, this game got me thinking about what our “landing page” is when describing our character. It is a kind of Plinkett Test for RPG characters. It forces us to think about who they are and what they want before we think about what they are.
Matt Colville. Colville likes his sayings, and the one that most fits how he has influenced this piece is this one: “The map is not the territory.” Your character sheet is an abstraction of who your character is, a way of putting into mechanical words or numbers the endless things they can do. In his ongoing campaign The Chain, one of the players straight up changed their class when they realized there was something that better fit how they saw their character. No multiclassing was done, no experience penalties were imposed. In Colville’s mind, that character had not changed one bit. The only thing that had changed was how they were realized mechanically.
Nerdarchy. Ted, Dave and their nerdarchists love their wonky character concepts, and they are particularly fond of starting from the fiction and trying to see what grows out of that. I refer to them at one point along the way.
With the credit roll out of the way and the Bond theme song slipping into its outro, let’s get into the meat of this piece: making a fiction-first munchkin. The process can be outlined as a series of steps, some of which you move back and forth between as you refine your character concept:
- Establish the core character concept.
- Determine which class features would enable that concept.
- Decide on a level split to pursue.
- Harmonize class features for a more unified character concept.
- Make a rough chart of your character’s path to that goal.
Each of these steps will be outlined and elaborated over the following weeks, beginning here with step one.
Establishing a concept: fiction first, within reason
Starting from a blank slate can be difficult, as is making up a person in a fantasy world with no points of reference. There is a reason why we tend to describe our characters mechanically before anything else: it is our point of contact with this alien universe that we pretend to inhabit semi-regularly. So don’t beat yourself up for slipping into mechanical thinking in your initial concept. This is not a guided meditation; let those stray thoughts loose!
Playing this game is also something you do to have fun, so taking your starting point in a class or a type of class you like to play is perfectly viable. Unless you know you are playing a one-shot or short series of games where you can be experimental and try out something new, you will likely spend a long time with this character. It is important that this time is not spent looking longingly at the character sheet of the player next to you.
What you should try to do, however, is jump from the mechanics to the fiction as soon as you feel like there is enough of a foothold there that you don’t need to constantly think about proficiencies, spell slots, ASIs, level splits, etc. Reaching a minimalist description along the lines of a Numenera character is a good starting point: “I am an [adjective] [noun] who [verbs].” In Numenera, what you fill into those blank spaces all have specific mechanical implications, but our concept should try to avoid mechanical talk just yet. Make sure you leave room for yourself to be surprised in step 2, even if you are almost certain what class you want to play at this point. A good example is when Dave and Ryan wanted to make Conan the Barbarian and considered not really making him a barbarian at all. Remember, this is a process, and if you end up with something you don’t think you’ll have fun playing, just retrace your steps to the last time it made sense and go in a different direction.
Thank you for your time. I hope you will enjoy this series of articles.
When not teaching high school or theory crafting munchkins, Christian Christiansen writes adventures and other supplements for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons on both Dungeon Masters Guild and DriveThruRPG. His works include For Academic Purposes, Rage from Beyond, and Morpheus’ Guide to Rest and Relaxation. He is also a contributor to vol. 2 of Through the Veil.