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When multi-classing in Pathfinder, is it strictly better to take a higher HP class at first level?

At first level, your character gets max HP for the HD of their class. At subsequent levels, you roll the HD (or take the preset average roll in alternate rules).

This was also true in earlier versions of 3rd Edition; however, these editions also granted ×4 skill points, as well as a bigger initial maximum skill rank to be filled with them. Thus, there used to be some trade-off between which class you would take first.

As an example, if you planned on leveling up as equal levels of Fighter and Rogue, you could either start with Fighter for the extra HP, or start with Rogue for the far superior skills. A Fighter 1 / Rogue 1 could end up very different from a Rogue 1 / Fighter 1 for this reason, and both had advantages.

From what I can tell, Pathfinder seems to have removed all of these aspects of skills that would give an advantage to taking a skill-based class first. Is this the case? Or, are there any other advantages to the ordering that I am overlooking?

This is naturally from the perspective of build optimization; it does not factor in the act of playing such a character in-between leveling up.

Can this be fixed with a simple house rule? It seems to me that, for instance, one could retroactively adjust a character's HP if they multi-class into a new class that has a higher HD than any other they've had before, taking max on that HD and re-rolling the one that used to be max instead. Are there any significant issues with this method?

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Yes, your first class has the advantage of a maximized HD, which none of the following classes share. At worst, this is a difference of 6 hp—if you were choosing between a d6 and a d12—which isn’t that much even at low levels, and eventually becomes nearly inconsequential.

Still, there is a meta-advantage to having your high-HD classes first, that makes them strictly superior. There is no countering advantages that other classes may have, as high-skill classes in D&D 3/3.5e enjoyed. (In theory, needing a lot of skill ranks for a feat or prestige class could force you to delay a high-HD, low-skill class until later, but I can’t think of any major examples that would put one in such a situation. This, too, was more likely in D&D 3/3.5e due to the doubled costs and lower maximum rank for cross-class skills in those.)

So your houserule would address that issue and eliminate it, removing the meta-incentive to order your classes in a particular way. That seems good to me, and I recommend it. However, I strongly recommend using average values rather than actually rolling HD. Nineteen rolls has a reasonably high probability of evening things out by 20th, but since most games are played solely at lower levels, pure luck could have extremely advantageous or disadvantageous effects on a character when rolling HD. Since these rolls are rare, permanent, and critical, they represent an extreme form of the goblin dice problem. Much better to avoid it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We're already using the average-rolls system (actually, average-rounded-up to avoid decimal points entirely), which I also prefer immensely. We're also playing E6 where 6th Level is the level cap, so I would argue that 6 HP can still be pretty significant. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 30 '17 at 2:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SouthpawHare Sure, but none of that is intrinsic in the question and the answer should be for all readers. At 6th level, yeah, 6 hp is still pretty meaningful. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 30 '17 at 2:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree. I don't think you should change your answer. Just letting you know. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Nov 30 '17 at 2:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the only issue that may arise is with favored class benefits if the picked favored class isn't the first class a creature takes. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Nov 30 '17 at 2:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer may be improved by discussing "Retraining" for HP. Though it's not something that all groups have access to, it does make it so that the order you take your levels in is irrelevant for the purposes of HP. Has major problems of its own, though, namely making downtime a powerspike compared to non-downtime games. \$\endgroup\$ – Forrestfire Nov 30 '17 at 5:58
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There are a few exceptions, although the ones I can think of are all very minor/situational:

1: Starting money

Since different classes roll different dice for starting wealth (CRB p. 140) combinations like ranger/barbarian could increase starting wealth by as much as 2d6x10, average 70 GP by starting in the lower-HP class. That's enough to buy 140 days of rations, or put down a 20% deposit on a masterwork greatsword!

It's a terrible trade-off, but it is something in exchange for the -1 HP (average) from taking this option.

Strict enforcement of the Wealth-By-Level guidelines would make this irrelevant from level 2 onwards, but strict enforcement is hard to achieve.

2: Bonus languages

Starting in cleric, druid, or wizard expands the list of bonus languages that you can take. Consider a dwarf cleric/fighter who rolled Int 16, and who wants to speak Abyssal, Celestial, and Fiendish in order to communicate with summoned creatures. Taking cleric first makes it possible to spend the bonus picks on these languages, saving three skill points at the cost of one HP (and whatever other languages you might have spent the bonus picks on).

If you're using the retraining rules, you could spend money to learn extra languages without spending skill points, but it'd be much cheaper just to retrain your hit points.

3: Finessing feat prereq chains

For example, say I want to build a non-human fighter 1/monk 1 with the feat Snatch Arrows.

If I go monk-first, I can reach this feat at level 1: Improved Unarmed Strike as standard monk bonus feat, Deflect Arrows from my chooseable monk bonus feat, and then Snatch Arrows with my standard level 1 feat. Then when I hit level 2 and take a level of fighter, I can spend the fighter bonus feat on something that has IUS as a prereq, e.g. Improved Grapple.

On the other hand, if I take fighter first, I cannot get Snatch Arrows even at level 2, because the monk bonus feats are only useful for satisfying prereqs if I can get them before the final feat that I spend on Snatch Arrows.

Again, you could retrain the feat, but this is more expensive than just retraining for the hit point you traded off.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It’s worth noting that starting money should have no effect on the game by 2nd level—the wealth-by-level guidelines would have all wealth even out by then. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 1 '17 at 2:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I think I did note that? \$\endgroup\$ – Geoffrey Brent Dec 1 '17 at 3:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, no, not quite—even if you don’t start at higher level, the guidelines suggest that you should all even out by the time you get to 2nd, even if you start at different places. Which is kind of weird (implies that the party is supposed to divide loot unequally to make that happen), but it is what the guidelines suggest. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 1 '17 at 3:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, right. Fair point, I'll edit that. \$\endgroup\$ – Geoffrey Brent Dec 1 '17 at 3:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I was actually referring more to the unlikelihood that players would naturally decide to split funds so as to exactly even things out, than to the actual magnitude of the difference. Players are far more likely to evenly split income than to figure out that someone started with less and so deserves (?) a bigger share of the pot. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 1 '17 at 13:40

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