At my core, I am a living confluence of contradiction. I am a nonbinary, biracial technical writer. I literally am compromised of non-standard, disparate, and contradictory components. My resume is a hodgepodge of endeavors from engineering degrees and pop culture multimedia critique, and I am a firm proponent of a STEAM educational framework.
And yet, running further contrary to an already contrarian existence is a single truth that I hold dear: I do not understand 5e multi-classing. I caution my players to avoid multi-classing. I never multi-class my own characters as though delving into a separate class would somehow doom their existence. I get visibly confused when someone mentions that they have mutli-classed.
This has not gotten better with the recent release of Baldur’s Gate, where several guides explain the so-called benefits of multi-classing in various builds as a way to leverage new and exciting combinations of skills and class features, and my brain just ends up short circuiting after seeing the backslash.
And the thing is I didn’t always have this mentality. When I was first learning how to play Dungeons and Dragons with their 3.5e, the idea of multi-classing was significantly less detracting to me, although that was due to the fact that I wasn’t viewing multi-classing as a means to increase my range. Instead, I was viewing multi-classing as a means to unlock the true power that I wanted my PC to have. One of the prominent features of D&D 3.5e was the inclusion of Prestige Classes: unique classes that your character had to be molded into. Unlike the standard classes, you could never start out as level 1 of a prestige class nor could you ever get a full 20 levels of the class either. There were specific requirements that required investing in specific skills and choices, some of which required you to delve outside your typical background to get all those requirements checked off. However, unlike true multi-classing, I think the mentality was very different for me. Prestige class was kinda the equivalent of getting a specialized degree that would then supersede everything that came before it. Multi-classing in my head is the equivalent of a certificate.
And logically, I know that isn’t entirely fair to multi-class PCs. The fact remains that there are plenty of reasons why multi-classing is appealing. From a narrative perspective, it shows a character choosing to delve into a new specialty, influenced by the choices and circumstances they find themselves in. Hell, in Order of the Stick, Elan chooses to take a level in wizard to help improve the potency of his magical illusions. He also takes a level in daring swashbuckler, although that’s a prestige class equivalent, and that’s completely ignoring his evil twin brother’s Nale convoluted level schema to poor mimic the effect of a bard.
From a mechanical perspective, it does widen the toolbox dramatically. The first level provides a plethora of features and investments that very well could compliment certain attributes. Furthermore, I also know for a fact that some of the broken builds in D&D history require multi-classing, none more infamous than the Pun-Pun, thought experiments that push the game mechanics to create a functional god at ridiculously low levels. It’s a min-maxer’s dream that should also never be allowed at an actual table.
But for me personally, I just do not understand the appeal of multi-classing. From a gameplay perspective, the progression of the classes feels like the intended path (helped by the fact that multi-classing is an optional rule even within the core rulebook). This is doubly true for spellcasters as the potency of their spells is directly tied to their character level, and skipping levels prevents access to some of the most busted spells in the game. It creates extensive bookkeeping issues, as your HP dice and Skill Points quickly get out of sync, and that aforementioned versatility also leads to having significantly more options (that again are also fundamentally weaker) that can slow down the decision-making process. And the fact is that when I’m playing a tabletop RPG, I am playing within the framework of a group. I am one character within a party, and party dynamics are more enjoyable when each character has their own niche. Having a proverbial jack of all trades may be nice for large parties, but for the more intimate settings, it never feels great being “good” at several things when your teammates are “phenomenal” at a thing.
It also certainly doesn’t help that progression in tabletop spaces is not predictable. Since leveling is at the game master’s discretion, taking a level in a different class could very much put you at a power deficit for an indeterminate amount of time until you can pick up the other levels that would even out your builds. Of course, getting to build higher level characters from the start could mitigate this, but that’s a lot of planning and coordination and maybe you’re just built for it better than I am.
Versatility in real life, I value immensely. Being able to adapt to a plethora of circumstances is a true asset, and being well-rounded is an important consideration. In games though, I much rather be the best hammer than a Swiss-army knife. I much rather find creative uses of being the best hammer to solve problems than practical solutions with the Swiss-army knife. And for me, when I play a game, I want to invest fully into a singular fantasy. I want to do the things that I designed my character to do at their fullest, and for me, that means triple downing on the first decision and keeping everything at a honed edge. I want that clarity, the pure joy of a max level fireball, an attack of opportunity with way too many dice, and that weird niche level 20 feature that is beholden only to your class, as proof of your dedication and devotion to a singular idea. Which again, doesn’t exactly back translate to real life, but perhaps that’s a different article.