Hello, and welcome to Part 2 of our review of the newest edition of the world’s most iconic table-top RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. This time around, we’ll be looking at yet another important area that has undergone significant change: the balance and abilities of the various player classes.
For Part 1 of our first impressions, check here.
The first question that might pop into your mind is “What new classes have been added?”. A fair question, and the answer is: None, at least not in the core rulebook. No, for the time being, 5th Edition allows players to utilize 12 familiar classes: Fighters, Wizards, Rogues, Clerics, Monks, Bards, Paladins, Rangers, Barbarians, Sorcerers, Druids, and Warlocks. Each of these classes in turn has at least a few archetypes (chosen at character creation) that go a long way in determining your play-style, but which also have mostly been seen before in one form or another in different versions of the game.
At this point, it might seem that not much is changing, then. And it is certainly true that this is not a drastic overhaul of the class system or the roles each class should play in the party. In spite of this, though, there are some important differences in this new edition, most notably in the area of class balance.
Ever since D&D first rolled onto tables, there has always been a certain complaint that has persisted into the present day: the dilemma of balancing magic and melee classes. Anyone who’s played a campaign or two will know what I’m talking about: the tendency for Wizards or other casters to be borderline-useless liabilities at lower levels only to become unstoppable bastions of ruination at higher levels. Fighters, on the other hand, are often stuck babysitting their squishy teammates at the beginning of campaigns only to be reduced to a glorified valet once the Wizard gets Third Level spells. Perhaps I’m exaggerating things to some degree, but most players tend to agree that there is a pretty noticeable disparity between the growth rates of brawlers and spell-slingers.
Quite the conundrum to be sure, but 5th Edition has taken steps to solve it, working from both directions. That is to say that they have boosted the functionality of spellcasters at lower levels while curtailing their abilities at the upper tiers. The simplest way to observe this, perhaps, is to take a quick look at the Wizard.
Whereas before a 1st Level Wizard could use one or maybe two useful spells in a single day, 5th Edition has given a significant upgrade to the Wizard’s cantrips, meaning that the spellcaster now has a reliable way of dealing damage in any encounter. Ray of Frost, for example, is a cantrip that deals 1d8 Cold Damage (which scales as you level) and reduces the victim’s movement for the next round. With this power, the Wizard is able to be a reliable asset in battle; they still won’t be able to take a lot of abuse, but they can dish it out a lot better.
So now the Wizard is no longer a professional hostage at low levels. But does this mean that high level Wizards are still free to dominate every encounter? Not really. And this has been accomplished in a relatively simple way: drastically reducing the number of times a caster class can use their best spells. Under normal circumstances, even the mightiest Wizards can only use one 8th and one 9th level spell before resting, and while these spells are still an enormous asset, they will have to be used far more sparingly. Even class features that allow you to reload spells cannot be used on these high level castings, meaning that you will have to rely mostly on your weaker (or at least less god-like) powers.
It seems, then, that magic users have been somewhat nerfed. And this is certainly true to some degree, but it has been offset with more utility overall; at least now, a spell caster will never be defenseless when all her/his upper-level spells are burnt out. Both the changes that weakened and boosted spell-casting were implemented in the name of balance, which is something I can understand and support. Even beyond this, though, the changes are part of a larger theme of keeping each class within a specific role. The Wizard still works best avoiding direct combat, saving their spells until just the right time to beguile their opponents, support their allies, and turn the tide of battle. Fighters still stand at the forefront, dealing massive damage in a flurry of steel and absorbing abuse better than ever. The Rogue still moves through the shadows, striking down foes who never even realized they were there. The adjustments to the classes in 5th Edition have not reinvented the wheel, but rather have been focused to complement the roles certain classes are meant to play. Not a staggering concept by any means, but the adjustments are well-implemented, and when the whole party is on their game, the results are pretty fun.
As with every new rendition of a popular game, there is a daunting challenge facing the developers when it comes to the classes: they must try to tweak the existing traits and adjust the balance while simultaneously maintaining the core of the experience. Inevitably, there will be those to dislike a number of the changes, especially when some classes have had the bar lowered to a certain degree. But the final product here does keep the heart of each class intact, and the re-balanced roles should allow for a more consistently engaging experience, and certainly one that you should try out for yourself.