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I have been playing AD&D (and some other systems) for a long time, but I am new to 3.5/Pathfinder. I have just started looking at the optimization material, and it seems that multiclassing with real base classes almost never makes sense.

Is this correct? Are there times that multiclassing with base classes makes sense from an optimization standpoint in D&D 3.5?

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up vote 27 down vote accepted

Caveat the First: I Am Making Broad Generalizations

There are cases where you might want to break these.

Caveat the Second: I Am Not Overly Familiar With Pathfinder

I have read the Core rule book, but none of the supplemental material, including the archetypes (alternate class features in 3.5 lingo), and Paizo did make it a goal to counter, at the very least, my point #2. Within the Core material that I have read, I would argue that they largely failed. I have heard that they have done somewhat better with the supplemental material, but I would not know. Mostly, the answer is really only being given for 3.5, with the understanding that Pathfinder Core changed very little in any significant way.

Caveat the Third: I View Classes as Purely Metagame Concepts

I have little to no problem with multiclassing, even a great deal of multiclassing, because in my games a character does not think of himself as a Paladin 6 or a Barbarian 2/Rogue 1/Cleric 1/Swordsage 2 – he thinks of himself as a knight, or a mercenary, or a mystic, or whatever.

Or, say, a Monk 2/Paladin 6 thinks of herself as a Samurai.

Each class is, as far as I am concerned, a bundle of mechanical features with some suggested ideas for what sort of person would have them. Players at my table know, for instance, that they don’t even have to ask if they want to treat, for instance, Rage as instead “Zen Focus,” so long as the mechanics do not change. Most abilities are reasonably generic and can be understood as a lot of possible things in character.

Multiclass characters can represent a change of heart – someone who used to train one way abandoning it for another – but particularly when you start at levels above 1 and you start with levels in a few classes, it often makes more sense to think of a multiclassed character as someone who pursued one path their whole life – that path is just mechanically represented by different classes.

1. Spellcasters should not multiclass

Spellcasters, as well as manifesters, will always benefit most from getting the highest-level spells (powers) available at a given level. Their spellcasting (manifesting) progressions benefit only from more (effective) levels in their class.

Note that technically in 3.5 jargon, prestige classes do not count as multiclassing, but a separate thing. Prestige classes can be very good for spellcasters, since they frequently have few or no class features aside from their spellcasting, and many prestige classes advance spellcasting on a 1:1 basis. In some cases, this can literally be “something for nothing,” as the prestige class provides class features while not costing a spellcaster anything from their base class.

2. Mundanes should multiclass

Mundane classes (and the weaker half-casters, usually the ones who stop at 4th-level spells) do not have a solid progression like spellcasters do. Furthermore, most of them are extremely front-loaded. For examples:

  • Barbarian gives Rage, and potentially Pounce (Lion Spirit Totem, Complete Champion) in one level. Level 2 can get you Improved Trip without prerequisites (Wolf Totem, Unearthed Arcana). Beyond that, the next significant benefit comes at 11th level (Greater Rage).
  • Fighter gives a lot of proficiencies and a feat at 1st level, and another feat at 2nd, but nothing at third, and thereafter the rate of ½ feats per level, which is not good.
  • Monk gives a couple of feats in addition to improved Improved Unarmed Strike, plus Evasion and Flurry of Blows, in the first two levels. It proceeds to give nothing much for the next 18.
  • Ninja (Complete Adventurer) gets Ghost Step at 2nd, and little else until it gains the ability to become Ethereal.
  • Ranger can get some combat feats without prerequisites and gets a feat per level until 3rd, but is overall not a great class.
  • Rogue, and most Sneak Attack-ing classes, grant 1d6 Sneak Attack damage each odd level. By taking an odd number of levels in multiple Sneak Attack-granting classes, you can gain higher Sneak Attack damage than a single-classed Rogue would get.

And so on. So a Barbarian 2/Fighter 2/Monk 2/Paladin 2 has way more class features than a Barbarian 8, Ranger 8, Fighter 8, or Paladin 8.

Note that Cleric 1 is quite probably the best single-level dip in the game, despite also being a fullcaster that you can focus all 20 levels on. In this sense, Clerics are both martial and magical. Even characters without enough Wisdom to cast Cleric spells can make good use of a Cleric dip.

Psychic Warriors are another exception: if you aren’t absolutely requiring full BAB, Psychic Warrior 2 can get you the same feats that Fighter 2 can, plus a few Powers which can be very useful to an otherwise-mundane warrior.

3. Those in between can go either way or, sometimes, halfway between

You can dip Bard for Bardic Knowledge, Inspire Courage, and fascinate, or you could focus on Bard to get its quality spellcasting. Binders (Tome of Magic) and meldshapers (Magic of Incarnum) can be dipped for a select Vestige or Chakra bind, or focused on to maximize those features.

Factota (Dungeonscape) go even further and are solid at 1 (all skills in class), 3 (Brains over Brawn), 8 (Cunning Surge), or 20 levels. Binders and meldshapers are also reasonably good at being worth however many levels of them you want to take.

4. Tome of Battle is exceptional and unique

Tome of Battle classes multiclass better than any other classes in the system, because they add half their level in other classes to their Initiator Level, and can select higher-level maneuvers based on this improved Initiator Level. That means unlike a Fighter 8/Wizard 1, who gets 1st-level spells, a Fighter 8/Warblade 1 has Initiator Level 5 and gets 3rd-level maneuvers.

Ardents (Complete Psionic) have a somewhat-similar mechanic for determining what level of power they can use, but no built-in bonuses to their Manifester Level from other classes. The Practiced Manifester feat (also Complete Psionic), however, means that an Ardent can take up to 4 levels in other classes while maintaining full Manifester Level and therefore the highest-level powers.

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I really like the metgame concept, the class name isnt relevant, if you can flavor it to work as an idea. – Mayshar Dec 28 '15 at 22:26

Generally speaking, a reason to multiclass arises when the low-level class features of one base class outshine the later class features of another.

For a small example, let's look at a 2nd level Fighter. Following a greedy strategy comparing the virtues of taking a 3rd level of Fighter and taking the 1st level of Barbarian will certainly lead us to taking a Barbarian level (due to the 1st level of Barbarian having decent class features, but Fighter level 3rd none). This shows that reasons to multiclass can exist in a controlled environment, due to cherry-picking low-level class features.

As you can imagine, this strategy can lead to very bad results if applied to higher level builds incorporating more options, as taking the lowest-hanging fruit at each level-up stops measuring up to higher level class features. This is especially true when multiclassing with characters whose class features involve level-dependent progressions, such as spellcasting characters. Due to how powerful such progressions can be, having a 50/50 level split between base classes is, as you have no doubt envisioned, rarely (if ever?) advisable. But the principle remains - if you can multiclass to obtain low-level class features more powerful than the high level class features you're expecting, there is a reason to multiclass.

In practical optimization, this leads to "dips" usually being the preferred form of base class multiclassing. 20-level builds such as Class A 1/Class B 1/Class C 18 aren't uncommon when dealing with classes that don't have level-dependent progressions or have poor progressions, such as the core melee classes (generally, the stronger the progression, the stronger the dipping incentive has to be). A special case would be the 3.5 Tome of Battle and Magic of Incarnum classes, which have progressions that receive a partial benefit even when taking levels in other classes, allowing greater leniency than most when it comes to multiclassing.

Bottom line: Base class multiclassing can be beneficial even on high-level builds, but usually in the form of one or two level deviations from a primary class, and rarely if the primary class has a strong progression like 9th-level spellcasting.

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Story devices

I know sometimes it is not what matters in DND, but still...

For me, multiclassing has sense if it has sense in the character concept, or in the story.

For instance, in character concept, if you want your character to be a warrior that can do a pair of magical tricks. Or a thief that can invoke divine favour to the god of his guild.

Or in story, if you are a fighter that enters a thief guild and learn some tricks. Or a ranger that sees the light of the true gods and wants to be able to make some miracles.

I remember a game in which a character who was a ranger infiltrated a sect of evil mages. She gained the trust of one mage, that could even had taught her some of the arcane secrets. Unfortunately, the system did not allow her to take a mage level that would have reflected this plot.

For me, that is the good reason of multiclassing.

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My group plays a mainly pathfinder game slowly moving towards pure pathfinder and we found there has been a reduction in multiclass characters as compared to 3.5. There are still some being played where the dip overwelms being straight class (Oracle of Law 1, Summoner (synthesist X) but most people seem to keep at a class.

Most classes continue to gain abilities that are useful, there are fewer prestige classes , they may be minor but the favoured class bonus is there and there is the Keystone ability at 20 to look forwards to (however short the time you have to enjoy it)

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