The Archetypal Subclass

To start off the meat of the how-to’s, I’m going to cover making archetypes, also called subclasses. They’re some of the most popular things to make, even if they aren’t necessarily the easiest. While I still suggest looking at making feats, items, or low-level spells first, here’s how I make my subclasses.


Read on below to dive into the world of subclasses!


Conceptualizing Your Target

The first step in any homebrew is, of course, to figure out what you want to make. That’s obvious, but subclass content requires just a little bit extra. Once you have your concept, you’re up to one of the most critical choices you’ll make during the creation process – what class to associate your subclass with.

In many ways you likely already have an idea of this. Most people come up with a concept that already includes the base class of the finished product. However, if yours doesn’t – or you want to check your work – read on. If not, feel free to skip to the next section.

A subclass’s base class is most important for defining the abilities that the character taking the subclass will already have. If your shadowblade assassin needs to be able to sneakily attack targets, then chances are you’ll want the rogue’s Sneak Attack feature. Likewise, a magical siren will likely want proficiency in Performance, and base class features based on Charisma… just like the bard.

Keep in mind, however, that some classes force certain things on you. These classes have a precedent concerning their subclasses that could potentially limit your design space, which is always important to remember.

  • All bard subclasses get a feature that interacts with Bardic Inspiration at 3rd level.
  • All cleric subclasses have a Channel Divinity feature at 2nd level, and either Potent Spellcasting (bonus Wisdom modifier to cantrip damage) or Divine Strike (bonus elemental damage on weapon attacks) at 8th level.
  • All paladin subclasses get two Channel Divinity options at 2nd level.
  • All melee rangers get Extra Attack at 5th level (if you’re using the latest Unearthed Arcana revision).
  • All wizard subclasses get a Savant feature at 2nd level, which reduces time and gold costs with copying down certain spells. (This one can be avoided when your subclass doesn’t match any particular sort of magic, but you might need a replacement feature of a similar nature.)

Furthermore, all cleric, paladin, and warlock subclasses get a bonus spell list of some kind (Expanded Spells, Domain Spells, Oath Spells, etc.). Sorcerer subclasses are also moving in this direction, but it isn’t quite universal yet.


Skeleton Crew

The next step in my creation process is to draw up a skeletal outline of the subclass. I look at the base class to find out which levels give subclass features, and then make a basic outline with that information. That helps me visualize what I need in order to fill out the subclass structure.

After the skeletal framework is done, you can take any of your existing ideas and slot them in where they fit. Depending on the relative power of your original concept feature, it might go either lower or higher. If you didn’t have a particular feature in mind when you first made the class, I suggest trying to distill down the original idea into as low a level feature as possible.

One other thing I recommend looking at is the other subclasses of the same base class, to see if there are any patterns in what features they get. As an example, the warlock class is actually very formulaic in its subclass design. Every subclass gets a defining feature at 1st level, a utility feature at 6th level, a defensive feature at 10th level, and a feature that locks down a single target at 14th level.

Not every class is so cut and dry, however. And not every subclass of a given class has to follow the formula either. Other than the required features (explained above), everything else is up to you!


Order of Operations

From this point on, the order you do things in is mostly according to your own preference. Balance comes last, but other than that… you really can work to your own tempo. What I’m going to discuss below is my own personal order, which is the one I use to make my own creations.

The first thing I do after making a skeletal outline is work on any simple features. If a subclass gets an expanded spell list or bonus proficiency feature, I usually do those first. I follow that up with any other required features – having stuff like Channel Divinity and Potent Spellcasting/Divine Strike done as soon as possible helps give me a better idea of exactly how much room I have for my own features.

Personally, I like going in level order when designing things. Apart from the required features, or whatever mechanic I had to start out with, I try to look at the subclass in the order that the character will see it. Low level features frequently define the entirety of the rest of the subclass, so it’s important to get it right.


Savoring the Flavor

At this point, it may seem a bit weird that I haven’t addressed flavor even once. But that’s actually okay – flavor and narrative are things that you can add in at any point. You should try to write the flavor for features at the same time that you write them, but otherwise it can generally wait.

One trick that helps me when I’ve hit a snag is to actually go back and re-read, re-work, or straight up write the flavor. Reacquainting myself with the story behind a subclass can sometimes supply new ideas for features that I couldn’t figure out before.

Ultimately, however, by the end of your process you’re going to need at least one big chunk of flavor. This should go at the very start of the homebrew, and serve as a quick introduction to the narrative of your creation.

What drives a character to choose this path in life? How are people in this subclass different from those in other subclasses of their base class? What are people of this subclass called? All of these are things that should be answered in the opening description.

The length of this segment is up to you. I find it should typically be at least three sentences, but can go all the way to three paragraphs if you want. Having too long of an intro will put people off reading the rest of the ‘brew, so make sure to be succinct!


The Balancing Act

When you’ve completed your subclass (or have it reasonably close), its time to start thinking about balance. In a lot of ways, balance is the least enjoyable part of homebrewing, for me at the least. It can be tedious and annoying, but is also the most satisfying part.

To start balancing your subclass, one of the easiest things you can do is just build a character. Roll up a standard character with average stats, put them in your subclass, and compare them to one of your own characters. If you think the new character would be annoying to play with, then the subclass probably needs work.

Another method is to read similar concepts from the official source material. Try to find points of comparison – classes or subclasses with similar features that you can compare numbers with. Looking closely at other subclasses from the same base class can be especially helpful if you didn’t do so earlier.

If you’re mostly worried about the narrative feel of a class, or the feel of how it plays, then one good idea is to try to make the best character you can for the subclass’s core concept. This can also help you understand the numbers behind it as well – if your ideal subclass character is too strong, then you can safely assume that most players would end up making it too strong as well if given the chance. In that case, you probably need to limit things or scale them back.

Otherwise, the only real way to balance a homebrew is to get a second opinion. Everyone has different experiences with D&D, and someone else might have had more experience than you in playing or homebrewing a class. And in a lot of cases you won’t even be able to see what’s wrong with something yourself without help from others. (People are the same way with grammatical and spelling mistakes too, which is why editors are so essential.)


Final Tips

And that’s it! Once you’ve got a good concept and a smart outline, making the rest of the subclass is pretty easy – and balance, though far from easy, is definitely achievable. To close things out, I’d like to offer a few closing pieces of advice.

  • Try to avoid giving subclasses any class features from other classes besides their own. Part of what makes the rogue unique is Sneak Attack – giving that out to subclasses in other base classes should generally be avoided. (I’m going to address this in more detail later, as each class has some features it can share and some that it probably shouldn’t.)
  • Remember that you can’t change what levels a class gets subclass features at. No matter how much you may want to, if a class gets subclass features at 3rd, 9th, 13th, and 17th levels… it’ll always get subclass features at those levels.
  • Always check the base class carefully to make sure you don’t give out something in the subclass that the base class already has. It’s happened to me before, and besides being embarrassing it can also be quite annoying.
  • Keep other official books in mind when making expanded spell lists, since several of them (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion and That Old Black Magic PDFs, etc.) contain a lot of spells that provide things that the Player’s Handbook simply doesn’t have. At the same time, you should always cite the source and page number of any non-PHB materials, since some people may not realize the spells aren’t just homebrew they haven’t seen.
  • And, lastly, have fun! Homebrewing is an enjoyable thing to do, and creating something new can be very satisfying. If you reach a dead end or hit a snag, take a break, rethink things, or maybe even talk to other homebrewers or players to get their opinions. Anything helps!

That does it for subclasses! Tune in next week for more on the easiest sorts of homebrew: feats, items, and low-level spells!


Thanks for reading!

Click here for the rest of my homebrew how-to’s!

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