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Some players like to plan their characters all the way up to level 20, even if the campaign starts at level 1. I would prefer my players to react organically to the story I’m presenting, taking into account the things that affect their characters during play. For example, if the LvL 10 Fighter discovers during the story arc, that the teachings of the church that hired him make more and more sense, why not take a level cleric, even if that’s not "optimal".

Of course, I cannot (and won’t) force my players to make the decisions I think are the most logical. That would suck. On the other hand, how do I handle weird player choices that make no sense at this point in the game? The main problem here is spontaneous multiclassing. What do I mean by that?

Some classes are “easier” to multiclass into than others are. It doesn’t take too much imagination to justify taking a level of fighter. You saw the bad guys and your friends swing swords often enough. How hard can that be? Boom, you take a level fighter. Same with rogue (although you would have to explain where you learned Thieves’ Cant all of a sudden).

But most classes are harder to just spontaneously multiclass into. If nobody is offering you a deal and you’ve never met any entity that would be interested in your services, how can you take a warlock level? You can’t just flip open a random spellbook and take a wizard level. Well, maybe you were in the woods once or twice, but that doesn’t really justify a druid or ranger level. Playing the guitar? Nope, you’re not instantly a bard with magic. These are just some examples.

Although it might be optimal from a mechanical point of view, some choices are just illogical when considered from an in-universe perspective. And don’t get me wrong. If my player starts with a bard at level 1 and tells me at the beginning of the campaign, that they really want to become a raven queen warlock during the adventure, then I’m absolutely willing to tweak my plot here and there to accommodate this plan. But if I tell my players they earned a level-up at the end of the session, and one of them shows up at the next session with a random raven queen warlock level we never talked about, then I’m really baffled.

In my opinion, I have three choices:

  • I could tell the player, that they cannot multiclass without a proper in-universe explanation. Problem is, this could discourage the player.

  • I could allow the random multiclass and come up with an in-universe explanation for it. Problem is, this means a lot more work for me.

  • I could allow the random multiclass and let it go without explanation. Problem is, this makes the world I'm creating more and more illogical.

Without enough immersion, how can we tell a compelling story together at the table? I know that things like that could have been addressed in a Session 0. But it never occurred to me that the play style of some players might differ from my own so widely. That's why I came here to ask:

How to handle spontaneous multiclassing?

This question is inspired by the goings-on in a D&D 5e campaign.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Theik, Miniman, Oblivious Sage, GMJoe, Sdjz Jul 27 '18 at 13:05

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've updated this to tag it D&D 5e specifically. The rule of thumb is to describe your situation to us and we'll tag accordingly; it isn't to tag by what the question could potentially relate to. In particular different editions of D&D handle multiclassing in different ways with regards to this issue, so the specifics of D&D 5e might be quite relevant. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 27 '18 at 12:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik That's a really good point - I'd be tempted to write it up as a frame challenge. Where do single-class characters learn their level-up abilites narratively in your game? They can't all be easily justified as just a natural progression - base Fighter to Eldritch Knight is a big leap - as is base Wizard to Bladesinger (for example). \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Jul 27 '18 at 12:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very related: How can I roleplay multiclassing to explain new class features? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 27 '18 at 13:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds like you want a lot of control over the players' characters and I'm curious why that is. As the DM, you've control over literally everything else in the world. You mention that 'random' multiclassing makes the world more and more illogical, but I'm not sure why that is. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 27 '18 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I don't have the books in front of me and would need to check, but I don't think it does beyond the minimum ability scores for multiclassing. However, I find that the multiclassing rules do a very good job at inherently maintaining combat balance that players gain, which as an occasional DM I appreciate. I don't want to have to know the minutia of your character sheet, I've got 36 other things to focus on for the next game. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 27 '18 at 22:03
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In many cases, these concerns are unnecessary—characters are not their class(es), and multiclass characters may not even recognize, in-character, that the new level is “different” from what it “would have been” if they had not multiclassed. After all, they don’t have the books in front of them. Player’s Handbook doesn’t exist in their world. If they have 3 levels in something, and then take a level in fighter, they don’t know that they are “supposed” to be getting an ASI at 4th, rather than a fighting style.

So keep that in mind. Nonetheless, for other characters, a new class is a distinct break with the previous. The rest of this answer assumes you are talking about them.

Have scenes leading to the new class

In a lot of cases of spontaneous character development, this is already happening—the player is, presumably, choosing to multiclass when they had not planned to because of things that happened in-character—so the character can and should be making similar decisions for similar reasons.

As an example, I have a halfling character similar to a warlock (this isn’t in 5e) who rides a large dog into battle. After a couple of battles put the dog in considerable danger, I looked for a class I could take that would toughen her up—and the character simultaneously started training with her more, for exactly the same reason. So when the character took a level of beastmaster, that fit perfectly because both the character and I wanted the same thing from that level.

But even when things don’t line up so neatly, you can still have players think about their new direction, and come up with short scenes of them practicing new combat styles, or studying a different form of magic, or researching for a way to accomplish what they want and being approached by a dragon or fiend or fey or what have you. This can be really quick, literally just saying it happens rather than playing it out, though of course you also can play it out more.

Continuing my halfling’s story, after the level of beastmaster, I wanted to start taking levels of druid.1 But my character came from a culture where divine magic was unknown—his clashes with the party’s paladins were a pretty big part of the game earlier on. There explanation I went with was that his companions’ explanations of divine magic allowed him to recognize that his culture must have practiced druidry in the ancient past, and he was reviving that tradition.

Originally, this was just the explanation I told the group; we weren’t going to play it out. It was agreed that the paladins probably helped him and that the necessary rituals were just in the notes on religion he’d already had sent over from his home country to resolve disputes he’d had with the paladins before. Then there was a point where a player couldn’t make the session, so we decided we’d just play out that scene, kind of like a flashback, rather than continue the plot without the missing player.

Finally, consider that no game accounts for every hour of every day for the adventurers. There is almost-always considerable downtime that you fast-forward through. That means it’s very easy to retcon things—if the player suddenly decides they want to take an unexpected level, the character had time to train for that level, you just assumed they were training for the level you thought they’d get. Instead they trained for this one. A surprising choice by the player doesn’t have to come as a surprise to the characters.

And you can always refluff

It’s a wide, wild world out there, with more magic than will ever be fully documented. If a player wants to take, say, warlock for the short-rest-based spells, but the whole package with a patron thing makes no sense for their story—well, why should warlocks have a monopoly on short-rest-based magic? They certainly didn’t in previous editions of D&D. The character themselves, intrigued by what a warlock can do but finding the patronage system distasteful, could have researched to see if there were other ways to accomplish it—and those other ways can still be represented with the warlock class’s rules.

  1. In the system used for this halfling, druid levels would have the same benefits as more beastmaster levels would for the purpose of my dog, but the benefits to my character would be considerably greater as a druid.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ "well, why should warlocks have a monopoly on short-rest-based magic?" Answer: because the warlock "patron thing" is a big ol' plot hook. The kewl magick powers are attached to it so that players will bite down. Letting them traipse through the class features with a shopping cart has the same problem as letting them do that with the magic items in the DMG, which is that the DM can no longer tempt them into fun situations by offering them power. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jul 27 '18 at 19:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells If the player actually agrees that this is fun, then it won’t be a problem because they’ll be happy to play it as a warlock. And if they don’t think it’s fun, forcing them isn’t going to make it fun. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 27 '18 at 19:27
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1) Ask the players what their intentions are for the next level. That way you could, as you say, get a chance to weave it into the plot. Of course, the player could always change their mind.

2) Work with the player to come up with an explanation.

Either or both of these options can be used in whatever combination.

If the player does suddenly decide he's going to be a warlock or cleric or whatever, you can always 'retroactively' explain it (the character has always been quietly faithful to a church) or even build that into your next story - how did this character suddenly have these powers? Why is he hearing mysterious whispers in his dreams?

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I think this is a session zero conversation

Whatever your expectations are, they are not aligning with those of (some of) your players. The solution is to get those aligned again.

I would take a break from the game and have a session zero, which is where you cover the expectations of how the world works. At this point you mention your concerns and how you would want it to work, and see how that sits with the players.

Many likely just haven't given it a thought, but if you don't want strange multi-classing without plot reasons then you need to tell your players that so they can plan in advance and give you the notice you need.

Generally once you are aware of the requirement it isn't that difficult, just tag an NPC along with the group who gets close to the party member if you are out of ideas.

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