Fiction-First Munchkins Explored – pt. 3

Cover art © 2015 Dean Spencer, used with permission. All rights reserved.

By Christian L. Christiansen (@Lemuraben)

Greetings, munchkins! I hope you are all still whole after the class split we made last time. Now is the time to clean up the concept and lay out a plan for how to get to where we want to be as quickly and meaningfully as possible.

Harmonizing class features: make it all come from roughly the same place

There are some multiclassing concepts that mark a decisive shift in the character’s development. These likely occur organically through play, such as a character dipping into warlock after a deal with an eldritch power, a cleric or paladin branching into other classes following a crisis of faith, or a wizard taking martial training as a fighter to stay safe after a near-death experience.

This is not what this is about. Sure, you may plan long-term for your munchkin to develop into something other than their starting class, but that is exactly that: a long-term plan. It is something which grows out of the concept you have outlined in the beginning. You might end up going in another direction if the flow of the story inspires you to do so, but that can happen to anyone. In any case, we have not yet gotten to the point of charting the level progression. For now, we focus on suiting the fiction – and satisfying those DMs who want “roleplaying or story reasons” for a multiclassed character.

Is Davy Jones a mindflayer who took to piracy after he was exiled? Or just a Swashbuckler who made an unfortunate warlock pact with the Lurker in the Deep from the new Unearthed Arcana? In any case, he certainly did not plan to end up this way. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

Remember that concept you outlined in the beginning? It is time to bring it back and make sure that the various class features we get from our level split line up neatly. This likely involves reskinning some of them to make it plausible that they are all part of the same person’s character development. Sure, you can decide that the Battlemaster leaves the barracks for a monastery to become a Kensei, boarding a ship to learn the ways of the Swashbuckler, and joins the College of Swords to learn sword flourishes. You can also imagine all those class features as part of one martial tradition that has produced the finest swordfighters in history.

Remember: The map is not the territory. The class levels might say “Storm Sorcerer”, but to you they are just a natural part of your Tempest Cleric’s deepening connection to their god. Those five Circle of the Mountain Druid levels? That’s the result of a pilgrimage to one of their holy sites atop the tallest mountain in the land to harness the power of lightning. Three levels of Vengeance Paladin? Well, who smites their foes if not the god of thunder? This is a 4-class munchkin that relies on only 2-4 abilities (Constitution is a maybe, and Strength is less important with shillelagh) to be viable, and which fits neatly into the progression of a single character concept: someone going to the ends of the world in their service to the god of storms.

Et billede, der indeholder indendørs, sidder

Automatisk genereret beskrivelse
If my GM reads this: Don’t worry, I do not intend to make Brickfist into a 4-class munchkin. That Stormborn class feature at level 17 is just too darn sweet to pass up. Art by myself.

Speaking of GMs: When you do this, it is important that you talk to your GM about it ahead of time. Let them know your long-term goals so that they can anticipate them and give your character the opportunity to pursue them. Keyleth’s Aramenté in campaign one of Critical Role (no spoiler here, this is literally her quest from the first episode) sprang out of Marisha wanting her character to master all four elements. Matt built that into his world.

There is one mechanical consideration that needs to be obeyed: you still draw your class features from the original abilities, regardless of the way you spin it. You don’t get to use Wisdom for your sorcerer or paladin spells just because you’ve convincingly rolled them into your cleric’s character fiction. You don’t get to use Wisdom for your Bardic Inspiration dice just because you’ve decided they are words of Zen that your monk uses to steel their allies. You might have a GM who would let you, but I won’t assume anything except what is in the rules.

Charting a path for your character: plan to have fun

As mentioned last time, few people play all the way to 20th level, and waiting until you get there to have your fun is an exercise in frustration. That is why it is important to know when your character starts hitting their stride, i.e. when you get to the point where they can do the most important things you want them to do as defined by your character concept. They can still get better at doing that as they progress from here, but this is when you have the most important buttons to push to make it feel like you are playing the character you conceptualized a couple of articles ago.

“Planning to have fun” means weighing your expectations of playing the character against the expectations of the other players in the campaign: How long will it run? Which themes will it touch upon? All of this should already be on the table from the beginning if you have a session zero, especially if you are also using safety tools to make sure everyone has their best experience. You may even start at a high enough level that you are already well underway. Make sure that your concept fits the theme and focus of the adventure so your skills and abilities become useful. Make sure that you at least get to the level where it gets to shine, preferably getting to play for a while at that stage. And until you get there, see how meaningful you can make the early levels within the fiction. A few tips on that, some or all of which may be combined depending on what your split looks like:

Stay in your first class for ~5 levels. Getting to level 5 makes a huge difference for pretty much any class: uncanny dodge, extra attack and 3rd level spells are a game changer compared to earlier levels. Branching off before then is a risk if you want to keep pace with the rest of the party into tier 2. You might not care too much about that, but it is a decision you need to make. This does not mean you have to start in what will become your primary class, but if you delay your primary class you also delay its 5th level features.

Keep the milestones in mind. Those class features you were excited to make part of your concept are littered throughout your progress. Getting to one before switching to another class likely feels more rewarding than leveling piecemeal.

Dip early. Depending on your plan, dipping into your secondary class(es) for a single level after 5th can give you a taste of that class’ features while you go deeper into your core class. Sure, it is the Swashbuckler and College of Swords features at 3rd level that you wanted for your Inigo Montoya clone, but it is nice to have the skills, expertise, sneak attack die and inspiration from one level in rogue and bard while you make your way further through Battlemaster to get to that 7th level feature that allows you to say, “Hello. My name is Randy Potemkin. You killed my father, and I now know your armor class and how many hit points you have. Prepare to die!”

You may have noticed that many of my examples are from popular culture. Most of the people I have seen do multiclassing like this have tried to create existing characters. Don’t be afraid to be inspired by things you like.

Draft a story. Alternatively, you might decide that it is not until this point that your character starts diversifying their style, as they can now analyze their enemy and pick out the weaknesses in their defenses. Or you might decide that it happens whenever you have had your first unsuccessful encounter with the nine-fingered hobgoblin, inspiring your character to Rocky it out and come back for a rematch with new skills. In short: Imagine roughly how the features and class progression fit into your character’s development and think of how that translates into the story of that character. The examples of the vengeful swordfighter seeking to best their nemesis and the wandering priest of Talos seeking to uncover the mysterious will of their god are two such stories. If you have an idea about your character’s long-term goal, turn your class progression into a set of interesting story beats you want to hit to get there. Again, it is important here to work with your GM to facilitate that story. They might even say “don’t worry, I see what you are going for and I got this covered. Just play your character and enjoy the story as it unfolds.”

To give you an example from Brickfist, my now 2nd level Tempest Cleric. The concept is like the Talos priest I mentioned earlier, but with fewer bells and whistles: I just want to bristle with lightning and fly around the battlefield like in the final act of Thor: Ragnarök. I know that I will hit my stride around level 7 with 6 levels of cleric and 1 level of Storm Sorcerer because of three key features: Thunderbolt Strike lets me push people away with lightning damage, I have access to Call Lightning as a domain spell, and Tempestuous Magic allows me to fly 10 feet as a bonus action whenever I cast a spell using spell slots. I also get shape water, shocking grasp, absorb elements and feather fall as sorcerer spells, which fit the tempest theme well.

Playing your munchkin

Where I go from there, who knows? How far will the campaign continue? Ditto. But I know that I don’t have to wait too long for my character fantasy to come to fruition. You might even decide (like me) not to plan out your munchkin in detail beyond the point of getting your core concept abilities, preferring to leave some things to chance and keep yourself more open to being surprised. That is totally viable. At the end of the day, regardless of how you arrive at your multiclassed character, I recommend you take to heart the idea that multiclassing does not have to be a radical shift for your character. If you want to and can reskin it to fit an overall concept, just imagine it as if you had never changed classes at all.

This is where I will leave you and your group to do what you do best. As mentioned before, what makes roleplaying games really rewarding are the unexpected and unpredictable things that happen along the way, and you may end up realizing that what makes the most sense is something completely different from what you had in mind. Talk to your GM along the way. If they have read Dungeon World, too, they’ll probably “be a fan of the player characters” and want to see them live their best lives. They might even be big enough Matt Colville fans that they’d be open to changing your character class to make “the map” better fit “the territory”. Happy exploration!

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.