Everything You Need to Know About Multiclassing
by Steven Franklin
Do you know what every Player Character at every table in every edition of D&D has invariably had?
But some characters have more “class” than others; some break the mold! They differentiate and distinguish themselves from the others who’ve walked similar paths before. They allow themselves to be shaped by their aspirations and experiences more than by tradition. They don’t adhere to the “class-ic” stereotype. They are as unique as the player that made them. They’ve got more than mere class…
They’ve got “multiclass!”
For those of you who aren’t wholly familiar with the term, multiclassing is the process by which a single character takes levels in multiple classes rather than staying with their initial choice for the entire campaign. The concept of a DND multiclass character was first introduced in Third Edition, and has been an incredibly popular customization option ever since! But it’s just that: an option. In fact, One thing to keep in mind is that, although it is currently presented in the Fifth Edition (5e) Player’s Handbook, it is specifically listed as an optional rule. This means that no game of DND 5e automatically includes it, and that it is allowed at the table exclusively by the DM’s permission. Thus you should always check with your Dungeon Master before you contemplate multiclassing in DND 5e. After all, they may not be prepared to nor interested in dealing with the ramifications of whatever combinations you pursue, be they narrative or mechanical. While a multiclassed character can sometimes fall behind their peers at first, adding the option to multiclass is unquestionably a buff for characters overall! The ability to intermingle powerful abilities from multiple classes freely allows for far more powerful characters than a single class alone, and can make creating “balanced” or challenging encounters for a 5e multiclass a bit more complicated for the DM.
5th edition multiclassing is one of my favorite aspects of the design of Dungeons and Dragons, but it is not for the faint-hearted! It should be noted that the designers of 5th edition made each class consistently unique, self-synergistic, and powerful in their own way. This is so consistently true, in fact, that it is practically impossible for even a complete novice player of 5e to create a borderline non-functional single-classed character. The only way that you can run the risk of inadvertently achieving this result is by multiclassing, and multiclassing poorly. While the process of multiclassing opens the door to a whole other world of character design, allowing some of the most fun and most effective characters possible, it can also lead to some combinations that fail to synergize, or even overtly contradict one another! Hence, it should not be undertaken without a little forethought and planning.
And so we come to the purpose of this article: to help you (yes, you, you adventurous inquisitive and/or inquisitive adventurer!) understand the “hows”, the “whys”, the “whens”, the “wheres”, and the “how fars” of playing with these mix-and-match building blocks that the creators have given us, and, in doing so, embrace a deeper level of the game we already know and love! So pull out your pencils and be ready to take notes, because “classes in session!” (Say it fast)
While the process by which you multiclass in DND 5e may not be particularly simple, and requires the consulting of a few charts, it is mercifully quick and fairly intuitive. While it can feel somewhat arcane at first, it is important to note that everything you need to know to multiclass any character from a rules-perspective is contained on only 3 pages (163-165 of the Player’s Handbook). It’s a quick read that won’t require you to flip back and forth constantly cross-referencing different sections, nor will it take you long to become familiar with the process! As far as the hurdles one can expect when multiclassing, the main intimidating factor is simply that it requires quite a bit of bookkeeping to keep track of everything on pen and paper. But, fortunately, there are lots of services online to automate this process for you (I recommend DNDBeyond). To help explain the process, we’ll examine Jerry as he levels up his recently-level-7 character, Silas.
Silas is a Paladin who’s been doggedly hunting down the blackguards who kidnapped his daughter for months now. Recently, he’s been consorting with powers from the Shadowfell, and has made a pact with them to serve their ends in exchange for the otherworldly knowledge and power that he needs to pursue his prey. Thus, when he acquires the experience necessary for to reach character level 7, Jerry decides that he would like Silas to start walking the path of a Warlock, taking a level in that class rather than simply increasing his Paladin level once again (it is important to note that the experience required future level ups will follow your character level, the sum of all classes combined).
To get started, first Jerry will have to determine whether or not Silas is eligible to multiclass into Warlock. While no class has requirements when you take them at first level, they do each have prerequisites to be taken as a secondary class. Consulting the multiclass table 5e gives us on pg 163 of the PHB (see below), he finds that a character must have a Charisma score of 13 or higher in order to begin taking Warlock levels (fortunately, Silas has just enough, so Jerry can proceed)! First, he’ll check to see if Silas will get any bonus proficiencies from making the change. Even though no class will gain new saving throw proficiencies, some will gain the ability to use new weapons and armors from their secondary class. Checking the 5e multiclass table on page 164, he finds that new Warlocks do, in fact, gain training in light armor and simple weapons! But that’s nothing new for his Paladin, so no further adjustments are required.
Next, comes the level-up process he’s already become accustomed to, only with a new class. Since he’s gaining a Warlock level instead of a Paladin level, he gains a Warlock’s d8 Hit Dice rather than the d10 he’d have gotten as a Paladin (he’ll have to track those separately from now on). Then Silas gains all the class features associated with being a member of his new, secondary class! This means that he gains new Warlock class features, subclass features, spell slots, spells known, etc. There is a simple calculation detailed on page 165 in the PHB that helps determine the number of spell slots gained when multiclassing, but thankfully the Warlock’s pact magic slots are simply tracked separately from traditional spellcasting slots, so Jerry gets to skip that part as well! Jerry reads on to find that he both learns and prepares spells for both of Silas’ classes separately, so all he has to do is grab a few Warlock spells to add to the existing Paladin ones. Once that’s done, Jerry has finished; Silas now walks a new divergent path, forever distinct from the rest of those bound by his oath.
So that’s what the process looks like. If you don’t have access to the PHB, you can find that section detailing current rules and tables for a DND multiclass online here. If you’re still confused as to the specifics after reviewing it, there are plenty of resources available online to explain the process in more detail. What I think is a better topic to discuss is why someone should or should not multiclass, when to do it, and how far to take it.
The advantages to multiclassing seem obvious: additional customization options, greater build diversity, and the opportunity to experiment with potentially powerful synergies. What you may not realize, though, is that multiclassing can have some significant disadvantages as well. When it is discussed, the drawback most often mentioned is that you’ll be obliged to miss out on your main class’ highest-tier abilities. Even a single level in another class means forever revoking the potential to access their Level-20 capstone abilities! While this sounds terrible in theory, it is almost a non-factor for most players. Hardly any campaigns persist until the party reaches level 20, and even if they did, many classes’ so-called “capstone abilities”, supposed to be the pinnacle of what a character can achieve, are actually deeply underwhelming.
A far less-discussed and far more-prevalent regret is that multiclassing often involves settling for a smaller initial power increase for your character than sticking with a straight class would have granted. Changing courses midway through your progression often means falling behind on spell slots, waiting longer to access those all-important Ability Score Increases, and generally being less effective than you might have been had you remained a single-classed character. This is not to be feared, however; you should simply consider the minor setback as an investment which will yield greater power in the future! At some point you will finally access that special trait or feature that makes your character concept come alive! Thus, mitigating those disadvantages and spending as little time as possible “behind” on your progression is the best way to ensure that your character continues to feel relevant alongside the rest of your party. When considering whether or not to multiclass, you should always consider how many levels you’ll have to invest in a secondary class in order to achieve the results you want. After calculating this cost, you’ll know roughly how long your character will feel how far behind before achieving their indisputable greatness. After that, it is simply a matter of further mitigating your potential discomfort associated with it by choosing to divert at the correct time, at the least potentially-painful point of your characters’ progression.
And when is that, you ask...?
Sadly, there is no right answer to that question. There’s no universally-preferred level at which diverging into another class is consistently optimal. Each class and subclass is unique, as is the character concept you’re looking to bring to life. So determining at what point to begin the process greatly depends on the result you’re looking to gain access to and how quickly. But there are a few things that are always worth taking into consideration, and contemplating them may help you find the answer that is right for you!
If you are playing an existing character and have begun to contemplate a potential multiclass in 5e, look for a coming level in your main class that doesn’t see a significant power increase. Making the switch at that point will feel like much less of a blow. And the opposite is true as well: diverging into a new class with an enticing feature just around the corner will be excruciating! Personally, I categorically avoid taking a multiclass right before my character would acquire a big power boost such as subclass selection, access to 3rd-level spells, extra attacks, Ability Score increases, etc. Putting that sweet, sweet increase on hold just out of reach is like putting a pie in front of a child and telling them not to eat it (or me, for that matter): at best it ends in frustration, and at worst ends in a sticky, shameful mess.
If, however, you are preparing to create a higher-level character already multiclassed, you can determine the split from the start, determining which class is the primary and which is the secondary, and dividing the available levels among each. When presented with this option, my personal approach is to identify the most enticing feature offered amongst all options available to me from both classes within the level parameters, and prioritize acquiring it during character creation. This ensures that however long I spend investing levels in the secondary class, I’ll be more willing to wait for whatever comes next from my primary class, since I already have its most-enticing feature already locked in.
Additionally, it is worth noting that your “starting class” (the one you choose at level one) has some very strong implications associated with it regardless of whether or not you intend it to be your “primary class” (usually the one in which you take the most levels). Perhaps the most important of these are the starting proficiencies. While features like the ability to use martial weapons, armor and shield training, and learnable tool and skill proficiencies are gainable in many ways, they are most often and most easily gained at level one during character creation. Getting these later on may happen organically for certain classes and subclasses, but others might have to go well out of their way to do so. Even more rare are the incredibly narrow opportunities to gain an additional Saving Throw proficiency! Adding to the ones you begin the game with will almost invariably involve the spending of your rare and precious Ability Score Increase opportunities picking up the Resilient feat, and while this is a popular choice for high-level characters, it is simply not as fun or impactful as taking something like Sentinel, Warcaster, or Sharpshooter. That’s why whenever I know that I’m intending to multiclass, my first consideration is always which class will give me my preferred saving throws at level 1, followed by which will give me access to the strongest armor, followed by the rest.
The "HOW FAR?"
But how deep should you delve once you start your DND 5e multi class? DND emphasizes creativity and expression, so there are no rules on how to divide them up; you have to decide for yourself. Should you split your levels equally between two classes, or just take a level or two in a secondary class to supplement your main one? The truth is there’s no hard and fast rule on the matter. The “best” answer will vary from one character or campaign to the next, depending on what you’re trying to achieve and your motivations for doing so. You can, even must do what fits best for your character… The sky’s the limit when it comes to multiclassing in 5e!
Well, actually 19 is the limit, but I think you take my meaning.
That being said, there are a few recommendations that I can make that will apply regardless of your situation, and might help you determine what works best for your character.
Start by asking your DM how far this campaign will take you. Getting an estimate of what level you can expect your character to achieve will save you a great deal of frustration throughout the process. For example, most campaigns are not designed with the intent of lasting all the way to 20th level, so it will rarely make sense to plan out a multiclass combination that requires 15 levels in one class and 5 in another. In addition, if a campaign is intended to last until level 10, then making a “level 6 Bard, level 4 Sorcerer” combination ensure that you don’t design a combination that will never fulfill your vision, or that finally “comes online” right at the end of the campaign where you’ll have little opportunity to enjoy it.
Once you know the expected range of the campaign, you should taking a close look at your primary class and determine what features exist within that range you would be very disappointed to miss out on. Maybe it’s gaining the Fighter’s third attack at 11th level, or maybe it’s their 2nd use of Action Surge at 17th! Maybe it’s the Bard’s Font of Inspiration feature at 6th level, or their final Magical Secrets at 18th! The level where a class/subclass will gain their “best” features will vary from one to the next, but some common cutoff points to look out for are 3rd level (class-defining features and subclass choices) 5th level (extra attacks and 3rd-level spell slots) 11th and 15th levels (6th-level spells, powerful class and subclass features), 17th level (when spellcasters gains access to 9th-level spells), 18th level (where your final subclass abilities are gained), and any class levels where an Ability Score Increase of Feat could be gained. Whatever level you decide is non-negotiable for you, simply subtract that number from 20 (or more commonly, your DM’s target level at which to end the current campaign), and the difference is the number of “free” levels available to spend on multiclassing!
Now it is time to evaluate how many of those “free levels” away from your main class you should devote to the multiclass. After all, just because you have five “free levels” available doesn’t necessarily mean that you should spend them all here! While there are certainly some notable exceptions, most of the classes get their most iconic features at relatively early levels, usually between levels 1 and 3. If you have more levels than that “free”, you should critically evaluate each level-up after that to see which one would give you the most benefit. After reaching your target levels in each class, you might find that you get better mileage by getting back to your roots, or by continuing this new journey you’ve begun.
Or, potentially, even be best served by opting to take on a 2nd multiclass… (GASP!)
While certain classes go together (like chocolate and peanut butter), others can be diametrically opposed to one another like (like… pickled herring and peanut butter). When considering what classes might be a good fit for your character, you should always look for classes which share similar primary attributes to those of your initial class, or at minimum match well with your character’s existing attributes. For instance, Monks, Clerics, Druids, and Rangers all share several synergies because many of their abilities are reliant upon their Wisdom attribute, while Sorcerers, Bard, and Warlocks, and Paladins all blend together seamlessly due to a shared use of Charisma as their primary stat. Rangers, Rogues, and Monks all share a penchant for having Dexterity, while Paladins, Barbarians, and Fighters are often synonymous with high Strength and Constitution. Review your options and choose which secondary class best fits your character and then move on to the final next step!
While certain obvious synergies exist, there are a few multiclass options that will benefit basically any character. For example, 2 levels of Fighter will give another class a fighting style, Second Wind, and the all-powerful Action Surge, all while granting access to medium armor, shield, and martial weapon proficiencies. A single level of Cleric will grant not only access to some of the best spells in the game (including Guidance and Bless), but many clerics stand to gain heavy armor proficiency as part of their level-one subclass features! While Sneak Attack is fairly weak at low levels, anyone seeking to improve their skills (literally, the skills on their sheet) can grab a single level of the Rogue class and get double their proficiency bonus in two skills with the Rogue’s Expertise feature… which is “sneaky good”. Finally, any caster can benefit from 2 levels in Warlock to gain additional low-level spell slots to fuel their favorite castings, with half-casters like Paladins have even more to gain since their spell slots are more limited (and who wouldn’t like to throw down a few more divine smites every day?).
Before we wrap up, I would be remissed If I failed to mention a few of my favorite and most-taken multiclass options! Each of these takes only a single level dip away from your starting class, so they cost you almost nothing in terms of time and experience invested, and both offer incredible incentives for doing so! They make for great early pickups that will dramatically increase the power of multiple classes in the game without feeling like they’re falling behind, and can still be extremely attractive even at high levels or as 2nd multiclass options.
Very few 1st-level characters can match the sheer power and versatility of a Twilight Domain Cleric. The class is strong at all levels, but is so front-loaded that I feel it should always be a multiclassing consideration for almost ANY character that meets the prerequisites. In addition to instantly becoming an prepared spellcaster and gaining access to some of the best low-level spells in the game (Bless, Guidance, and many situationally-useful ritual spells that would not expend your precious spell slots!), you also get proficiency in both martial weapons and heavy armor as an immediate subclass feature! That alone would be argument enough, but you also get passive darkvision out to a whopping 300ft (the longest in the game!), and can share this vision with nearby allies for an extended period of time. Finally, as if this cake needed any more icing atop it, you also gain the ability to permanently grant any one creature of your choice advantage on their next initiative roll. Anytime! Always! Forever! For free! Although the domain is themed around twilight, the difference it makes is night-and-day!
Next up any (ANY!) charisma-based combatant should strongly consider taking a 1-level dip into Hexblade Warlock. It’s a very popular choice because it offers some of the most bang-for-your-buck out of any level-up available in the entirety of 5th edition! Just a single level of Warlock is all it takes gain to access the game’s best combat cantrip, Eldritch Blast (which improves based off your total character level instead of Warlock levels alone!), medium armor and martial weapon proficiencies, shield training, an extra spell slot that returns on a short rest, a great Bonus-Action curse to apply to enemies, access to the amazing Shield spell and the Booming blade cantrips, and to top it all off, the ability to make weapon attacks and damage rolls based off your Charisma stat instead of Strength or Dexterity! Furthermore, taking a second level in the class will double your number of refundable spell slots and net you two eldritch invocations! It is intensely powerful and impressively efficient; I honestly can’t think of a level 20 capstone feature that wouldn’t be better for a character once they finally reach it than having access to all of these features for their entire progression!
The “WHAT NOW?”
Multiclassing is a dynamic process that emphasizes creative freedom within a structured system, where endless possibilities await around every turn, allowing each player to craft and customize something uniquely their own! It’s sort of a microcosm of the DND as a whole in that way, and if you enjoy the game for those reasons then it stands to reason that you will enjoy taking this new step as well! Regardless of whether you pick up this undertaking to enhance your character’s combat effectiveness, their reliability in performing certain tasks, or simply to have the words and numbers on your sheet more accurately reflect that narrative journey that your character is undergoing, all find their penultimate expression through this beloved optional rule.
So, now that you understand multiclassing, how it works, its advantages, and how to avoid the common mistakes that people make when learning it… what sort of character will you make, knowing what you now know?
Hopefully you’ll make one that, just like these secrets…
Steven Franklin has been playing D&D for almost a decade, spending the majority of his time creating and playing unique characters, though he's stepped behind the screen too! He is host of the Bardic Twinspiration podcast that aims to improve the way you run and play D&D with your friends. Outside the hobby, he is a loving husband and proud father of three!