We used to build characters a different way. Back in 3.x, the splat got so numerous that you were practically forced to “work backwards from 20.” In other words, you would build your ultimate character concept and work backwards to see what you needed to take at each level. For example, failure to properly plan your feat tree could penalize you by delaying access to features if you failed to pick up the right prerequisites. This is vastly oversimplifying things, but you get the point.
5th Edition tries to get away from this, and does a great job doing so. Generally, the design eschews prerequisites. There are some exceptions, such as Warlock invocations. Notably, there’s no more feat trees (you could argue armor has a feat tree, but that’s technically proficiency-based). As a result of limiting prerequisites, we get a system that makes it easier to make player choices as your character develops.
That’s what we want from a roleplaying game, right? If the character is planned out, the story is already told. The choices you make should be influenced by the experiences your character endures.
Let’s explore how this design trap can manifest in practice.
The Artificer Returns
In 2019, Wizards of the Coast released a new Unearthed Arcana Artificer, followed by an update with two additional subclasses, some new spells and new infusions.
When the Artificer subclass comes online at level 3, the character gets a class feature called Tools of the Trade. This class feature grants two tools with matching proficiencies. They are the flavor-driving force for the subclass.
There’s a big 3.x-style flaw with Tools of the Trade coming online at Level 3.
At level 1, you’re going to pick the tool proficiency that matches your class flavor. The tool is essential to your PC’s flavor because you cast all your spells with it.
At level 3, you get two new tool proficiencies and sets of tools. If you already have either proficiency or toolset, you get nothing.
So, if you already selected one of the tools that narratively fits your character, you’re getting less than someone who selected an off-brand tool proficiency. Picking the tool that fits your character at Level 1 is a trap.
The only way to avoid this trap is by looking ahead during character creation to map out your character and then working backwards. This exercise is the exact type of thing we tried to escape from 3.x. We want players to be able to organically grow their characters instead of “working backwards from 20.” However, what we’re forcing them to do (from an optimization standpoint) is to play different flavor of Artificer for the first two levels.
Optimization and roleplaying identity should never be at odds.
Avoiding Trap Features
Generally, avoiding trap features is accomplished by eliminating prerequisites. In our example above, we see that this won’t completely ameliorate the problem. We still need to be careful about giving out proficiencies beyond level 1. If we do that, we’re forcing players to look ahead at character creation.
If you’re building a class that will give out proficiencies, make sure the subclasses start at level 1 (as I did with the Silver Best-Seller Psion class).
If you’ve tried opening up your subclass at level 1, but it really doesn’t work because of class feature crowding at early levels, there are other options at your disposal. Instead of simple proficiency, consider granting the class:
- Expertise (2x proficiency). Expertise will still make the skill proficiency redundant, but it will sting less because you’re getting more than you could have at level 1.
- Advantage. Advantage is a great solution because it stacks with proficiency, while still providing an independent advantage.
- Swapping Proficiencies. Give the ability to swap out a known proficiency for a new proficiency. While this simple fix is used for backgrounds, it makes less sense because class progressions aren’t as modular in 5e. This fix goes directly to the heart of the problem, but can be hard to narratively resolve.