This article was written by a younger Archmage Derek back when the Mage College was still on Blogspot. Take it away past Derek! (Art: Alhammerret’s Archive by Richard Write, Wizards of the Coast)
Blast from the Past
You’ve decided to play a Battle Master Fighter. Kevin, your table’s optimizer says, “Oh, well at least isn’t Champion, because that would be really boring.” At this point you say, “Well, the story is with my character is that he’s a Shadow Blade.” Kevin raises an eyebrow and says, “he’s a Battle Master.” You reply, “Yeah, but his Lunging strike isn’t a long fencing lunge, his shadow powers make the sword temporarily longer. His menacing strike manifests as a swarm of shadows that torment the mind of his target. That’s also why as feats I took Stealthy and Skulker. There’s not an archetype that does ‘Shadow Blade’ stuff, but this works!”
Kevin mutters something like “that works,” and proceeds to create his Half-Elf Lore Bard because Kevin is that guy. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Re-Imagining the Classes
In this “exercise” of character building, we try not to take classes for their face value. In the example above, we offer an alternative to the normal Battle Master fighter to make use of a simple flavor change. By considering a flavor change, the possibility of playable characters increases dramatically. Some classes are very well defined by their archetypes in 5e, but even then, remember that a class, or archetype is only a compilation of instructions and numbers. In addition to that, Feats, skills, and backgrounds can easily change the way a class might look on a character. Multiclassing also contributes to this over all idea. In each case the main idea is to break away from tropes that we associate with these classes. They can also open new benefits that your GM may consider as your character is not the usual sort.
Below are examples for the first three classes that may help inspire various iterations of different uses for a class:
Rage doesn’t need to be “Rage.” Rage could be instead some hidden power that the “barbarian summons.” Ask yourself if you think Goku from Dragonball Z is just a monk. Super Saiyan isn’t just a “rage”; it’s a total power up. Rage as a concept could also be the release of a darker personality, or darker set of powers. Another example would be Devil May Cry’s Dante. When Dante uses his Devil Trigger ability, he unleashes the demon powers within him. For a short while, Dante’s speed and strength increases. A type of ability like this would be a great application of Frenzied Barbarian. Not every barbarian needs to be some guy in a loincloth who talks like the caveman version of Patrick Star and swings a greatsword around. Another pop culture reference would be Winston the gorilla from Blizzard’s Overwatch. Winston is the smartest character in the game, but in his ultimate ability, he enters a primal rage and his fury fuels his power. Outside of that, Winston is a well spoken character, an inventor, and seemingly more civilized than the human character Roadhog. Roadhog is more like your classic barbarian.
Also remember, that each archetype offers a new use or flavor for your Rage ability. Rage doesn’t have to be entering a screaming bloodlust-driven fury. It can be though. When considering backgrounds, an Outlander Barbarian may be your loincloth clad murderhobo, however, you may have a criminal background barbarian who is more a “thug”. Strength exists in all walks of life across the Multiverse, no reason it doesn’t take different forms.
Everyone has the same image of bards. Critical Role’s Scanlan Shorthalt, is perhaps the epitome this trope. Mind you, I think Sam Riegel is the coolest guy, and I love Scanlan, but playing a witty, lecherous, goofy, bard does not have to be what you sign up for when you write “bard” on your character sheet. Not to say that Scanlan is one-dimensional either. In one of our more recent games, Andy (DM Starhelm) played a Dragonborn College of War bard but was nothing like the normal interpretation of bard. He was instead a skald. For those of you unfamiliar with what a skald is, a skald is a “composer and reciter of poems honoring heroes and their deeds.” (Thanks Google.) However, skalds are often interpreted in roleplaying games as being rougher, viking/barbarian-esque heralds of battle. In our game of White Plume Mountain,he played a lore bard who was more a treasure hunter than a traditional bard. His character, Julius was more the Indiana Jones/Nathan Drake kind of adventurer. As he came across varying puzzles, and the like, I didn’t make him roll “knowledge” checks. He was a level 9 bard who was a treasure hunter/dungeon delver. If he saw something he usually would have some comparable familiarity as far as most standard traps were concerned. What’s more, Andy played him like a character who knew what he was doing. As a DM, I was happy to offer more because of that specific profession the character had.
There may not be a lot to each bard college, but remember that bard’s are combinations of skills and magic. The skills you choose and the spells you pick can make each bard seem different. Besides, how does a bard that has the entertainer background differ from a bard with the spy background, or the far traveler background (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide)? A spy bard is probably a trickster of some kind. The College of Whispers is perfect for this bard, who may be more of a back-stabbing scoundrel. An entertainer bard might not be some smooth-talking minstrel, but could be an enchantingly beautiful flautist with a mysterious but magnetic presence. For those of you that like more East Asian style fantasy, geisha would almost definitely be bards. However you seek to entertain, there are options and character themes to go with them.
Clerics tend to differ by their domain pretty frequently, but abstracting the concepts further may prove useful. A knowledge domain cleric could be more like one of the Greek oracles. A tempest cleric could be a sort of Thor-esque character (as obvious as that is). Flavor-wise, a nature domain cleric could be more like a shaman and rather than serving a specific god, takes a more animism approach. Maybe their spells manifest more in the form of aspects of animals. This of course could be argued about druids, but by nature (pun intended) they are very similar. The entire class rather than being priestly in nature could be interpreted as a being closer to the divine than than just being a cleric. Perhaps having cleric as a class is more liken unto being a demigod? I see plenty of homebrews that try to create angels, gods, etc. Each one of them usually is, as you’d expect grossly overpowered. Why can’t a cleric be reskinned to fit this kind of character if someone wants to play one so badly. If you think back to the days of AD&D Elf and Dwarf had their own classes. In 5e’s design a race be a class is absurd. There isn’t any reason why you couldn’t say that is what the cleric class can be used as, it represents a connection to the divine and by the end of the class progression, they can perform miracles, and in the eyes of less powerful individuals, what appear to be acts of a god.
Considering backgrounds while making a cleric could also be an interesting influence in the character as a whole. A cleric who is more of an exorcist could be the Haunted One, or Investigator background, and produce more of a John Constantine type character. A charlatan cleric could easily be some kind of false prophet, or a trickery cleric who uses his divine ability to go about his business in a more dishonest manner. A sailor cleric could be a divine blessed ship captain with the tempest domain, or a pirate who commands the storm to aid in his plundering. Keep in mind, gods don’t have to power your spells. In fact, the divinity could come from within your character!
More to Come
As this is a long topic, I will cover the other classes in continuations of this article. Let me know if you have any good ideas in the comments down below. Until next time, happy reinventing!
Back to the Future
If you want to see this series continued (despite having never done so) let me know on Twitter or in the comments below! If you want to support us, find us on Patreon. Til next time, keep creating and stay awesome!