Let’s talk for a minute (ok, maybe more than a minute unless you can read really quickly) about the D&D Class system and how it would look in my mythical ideal Next Edition of the game.
We begin with the four core Classes: Fighter, Rogue, Cleric and Wizard. They have been at the cornerstone of the game since almost ever and there’s no reason for them to change. There is a zen-like beauty to the way they work together; they represent the Four Elements (Fighter = Earth, Rogue = Air, Cleric = Water and Wizard = Fire) and it’s only right that they should be the building blocks for all things Class related[1. This is also the make-up of the Fantastic Four (Thing = Earth, Invisible Girl = Air, Reed Richards = Water, Human Torch = Fire), which just goes to show that good party composition crosses all genres.].
Just like a Class-themed version of Alchemy, if we combine those core Elements, interesting things happen. In D&D terms we have something akin to old-school Dual-Classes where PC gain partial advancement in two Classes each time they level up. What if we give each of those Dual-Class(-ish) combos special names along with a couple of abilities to make them unique.
If your PC is a Swordmage, for example, he is a Dual-Class Fighter/Wizard with the additional schtick that he can cast spells through his weapon of choice. He gains fewer spells per level and lower combat bonuses than either the Wizard or the Fighter, but that’s balanced by the fact he’s a frickin’ Swordmage.
Want a Paladin? That’s just the posh name for a Dual-Classed Cleric/Fighter who has traded some of the Divine spell-casting capability for a bit more stabby-stabby. Simple.
The Ranger is an interesting Class because historically it’s a bit all over the place. Is the Class a nature-loving bow wielder, a twin-blade wielding dervish of vengeance or an urban hunter? The Ranger Class is all of this, but each individual Ranger is usually one thing or another. If your Ranger is more of a Stealthy hunter who does damage against certain foes (in 3e Terms, she has a Favoured Enemy) then she is a Dual-Class Fighter/Thief. If she gains a bonus depending on terrain (3e: Favoured Environment) then she’s a Fighter/Druid. More on those in a moment.
Now it’s time to complicate things a little with Specialities. Every PC can take an optional Speciality at certain levels (say 3rd, 7th, 12th, etc). They each offer a boon in return for a penalty, and help further define the character’s place in the world.
Specialities cover a lot of ground. Fighters may specialize in certain weapons or fighting styles (Archer, Swashbuckler, Knight, Dervish, etc) while Rogues focus on certain aspects of their Roguely nature (Assassin, Burglar, Trapsmith, Conman).
Specialist Clerics generally become Clerics of a particular deity (Cleric of Pelor, for example) and would gain proficiency in their deity’s weapon of choice (WP:Suntan Lotion) and a bonus to certain types of spells, in return for adherence to religious strictures. Other specialities include the Priest (more spell power in return for loss of combat ability) and Druid (gain Shape-change and a deep love of nature, lose right to eat bacon and all self-respect).
A Pyromancer (specialist Wizard) could gain +2 bonus with Fire-based spells, but be unable to cast Water spells. An Axeman (specialist Fighter) does extra damage with Axes but has to wear a lumberjack shirt at all times. A Thief-Taker (specialist Rogue) is immune to Sneak Attacks but can never join a Guild, etc.
If further Specialities are taken at later levels, all restrictions must be followed. Your Pyronecromancer might not be able to cast Water or Life spells, but they can Summon Flaming Zombies, so that’s ok.
The Dual-Class variants can take Specialities of either of their parent Base Classes along with any which are unique to themselves. The Paladin could become a Paladin of Pelor, a Knight Paladin, or Holy Champion Paladin, or even take all three when high enough level and be a Holy Champion Knight Paladin of Pelor. Hope you left enough room on the Character Sheet in the box marked Class..
Unlike Dual-Classing (which create a new, unique Class by combining elements of two others), Multi-Classing refers to advancing levels in several Classes, but only one at a time. A Rogue could elect to take levels as a Wizard, for example, rather than improving in Roguely things. Any Class can choose to Multi-Class – taking a couple of levels in Fighter is a good way for a Paladin (Fighter/Cleric) to show that he favours Martial might over his Divine training.
What is tricky about Multi-Classing is that pesky 1st Level.
Y’know what – I’ll talk about that another time. My minute is up.