I occasionally hear or read comments in which unrestricted multiclassing in 3.X D&D is held to be a bad thing.  People will confidently assert the ridiculousness of having, say, more than 3 classes – 3 seems to be the limit beyond which the multiclass-phobic become really twitchy.  What leads them to have such confidence in these assertions?  What’s so bad or wrong or ridiculous about having any given number of classes listed on a character sheet?  If you are playing a point-build game like GURPS, you can have an arbitrary amount of flexibility in how you structure your character, yet people who don’t bat an eyelid at the flexibility of GURPS have been known to get upset when they see someone popping multiple classes onto their D&D character sheet.  Can this behaviour be rationalised in terms of conscious reasoning, or is it purely instinctive based on their ideas of how D&D ‘should’ be played?

As you may have guessed by now, I’m not at all multiclass-phobic.  Let’s consider various reasons that people might have for harbouring these feelings, and my response to these.  If you think I’ve missed out something important please feel free to point it out – I’m not trying to construct a strawman argument here.

Three classes was the limit back in the days of 1e AD&D – having more than this ‘feels wrong’

Clearly, this is nothing more than an appeal for a game that has a familiar, comfortable structure, based on what you are already used to.  What’s more, it’s a ‘gamist’ argument – in terms of flavour within the game world, the number of character classes a person has is surely nothing to do with it.  Game world flavour is about culture and setting, flora and fauna, and character classes are simply abstract tools used to codify a character’s abilities and the way they progressively improve.  So you’ll have a hard time persuading me that ‘feels wrong’ here has anything to do with the roleplay aspects of the game.  When you say ‘feels wrong’ here you surely mean it in the sense that making attack rolls with 3d6 instead of a d20 in D&D ‘feels wrong’.

This is not to say that these feelings are unimportant.  Humans don’t always do things for purely rational reasons.  But it is important I think to recognise and admit to our irrationalities in order that they do not master us.

The concept of everyone being described by a ‘character class’ is a bit artificial already; allowing people to have as many of them as they like makes this seem even worse

Hmmm.  Now this one contains an embedded self-contradiction.  Character classes are artificial because they artificially constrain someone to follow a particular progression of abilities.  So you think that allowing total multiclass flexibility somehow…makes this worse?

It makes it harder to pigeonhole a character and think of them in terms of an archetype if they require a multiplicity of classes to describe them.

Well, yes it does.  That is certainly true, and some people would consider that a virtue.  But others crave the simplicity of archetypes in their gaming.  This is very much a style choice.  Myself, I see that IRL a person may either stay in the same career their whole life (single-classing) or may spend stints doing this or that job and enjoy a chequered career (multi-classing) and so the capacity to multiclass assists my sense of immersion.  Yet I find that I still prefer some class-based structure rather than total freeform point-building of characters, because if you do quickly want to throw together a character that follows a certain archetype the progressions are ready-made for you.  So I do appreciate the simplicity argument and I recognise it has merit for some people.  But for me, restricting someone to an arbitrary maximum number of classes is too inflexible.  Yes, even if you give various options for customising classes.  I just don’t like the idea of constraining characters to a particular archetype or role throughout their career.

A ‘Ranger/Barbarian/Rogue/Savage Bard/Beastmaster’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, and this makes it seem silly

Not a rational argument really.  Classes are abstract ways of describing bundled progressions of abilities on a character record; but they are not how the characters would describe themselves or think of themselves within the game world.  So our Ranger/Barbarian/Rogue/Savage Bard/Beastmaster would never introduce themselves as such, any more than you would start immediately rattling off a list of positions you have held and educational facilities you have attended when introduced to someone (which would, in a similar fashion, seem silly).  The class description gives us a convenient handle in the real world on what sort of abilities the character is likely to have, but it doesn’t matter a damn whether it is brief or lengthy, aside from an irrational knee-jerk reaction that some people have against lengthy descriptors.  This argument harks back to the earlier ‘feels wrong’ point I made.

It makes the game too complicated; working out NPCs takes forever…

Well just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.  But its nice to be able to on those occasions when you do want to.

It’s a munchkin’s charter – have you seen those excessive ‘builds’ on Wizards’ character optimisation forums?

Yes I have, and most of them hinge on a rules exploit or wording ambiguity that any halfway decent DM will plug in a trice.

Of more concern is the practise of hunting for ‘dip’ classes, whereby taking just one or maybe two levels in a class gives you all the most desirable benefits of the class.  Depending on what these benefits are, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are some cases where it can be taken too far – where the benefit of taking just one level in a class are disproportionate.  For example, I have no objection to someone taking one level of Rogue so they can get 1d6 Sneak Attack.  Where I draw the line is someone taking one level of Assassin so they can get Death Attack.  For this reason I’ve houseruled some added restrictions on becoming an assassin, and reduced the effectiveness of the Death Attack so that there’s a level-dependant ceiling on the hit dice of target that’s susceptible.

These issues need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.  Again no real problem for any DM worth their salt.  (And a learning experience for the rest… ;) )

Too much choice in class structures shifts the players’ focus away from roleplay and on to mechanics

Quite possibly, this argument carries more weight than any of the others.  Confronted with many possible choices within the rules, players can become so obsessed with ‘building’ the perfect character that they lose sight of the things that really matter, the things that keep the spirit of the game alive.  Spend too long poring over rules mechanics and you may find yourself starting to take a mechanical approach towards the game.

I liken the 3rd edition multiclassing rules to a strong horse that can only be tamed by a forceful rider.  You can all too easily find the rules and mechanics taking control of the game if you let them.  And it takes a while to learn the knack of making the rules work for you rather than the other way around.

So, there the case for the defense rests.  I have to say that most of the objections I encounter against prolific multiclassing tend to be based on fairly irrational premises, like ‘It’s silly’, or ‘It doesn’t feel right’.  Or else there’s the ‘If you’re going to be that flexible, why bother with a class-based system at all, why not play GURPS?’  which I have addressed above in my response to the ‘archetypes’ argument.

This post may have come across as a defence of 3rd edition, but really I’m defending the general concept of unrestricted multiclassing here, which has detractors even among people who play 3.X.

So, gentle reader, next time a player waves a character sheet under your nose for approval with half a dozen classes and a template or two, don’t dismiss it out of hand simply because it’s a ‘multiclassing nightmare’.  Every good character sheet should have a summarised list of the character’s abilities, and it’s this you should be looking at – i.e. the output – rather than the character’s class structure.  Does it all hang together well, in a believable fashion?  Are the characters abilities in-keeping with the campaign flavour?  Are there any munchkin exploits that need fixing?  If the answer to the first two question is yes, and the answer to the third question is no, then you have nothing to fear.