The first thing that strikes you about the 5th Edition classes is how many there are. As with races, 5th Edition has embraced the expanded core, with barbarians, sorcerers, and warlocks all in the base PHB. You expect editions to add and subtract from the core classes as experiments did or did not work, but 5th has leaned towards as many “add”s as possible. Previous posts in this series have mentioned my brothers’ reactions; they started back when there were four core classes, and they seemed ambivalent between whether these were a variety of exciting options or an excess of bloat.
Classes are the main area where D&D turned around and fled from 4th Edition. 4th Edition treated classes and abilities fundamentally differently from every other edition of D&D, and 5th looks a lot more like 2nd Edition. That will tie into combat and spellcasting mechanics. Everyone used the same system of daily and encounter abilities in 4th Edition, while 5th Edition returns to the familiar attack actions and daily spells.
Does this bring us back to linear fighters and quadratic wizards? It certainly moves in that direction, but the section of the book on spells will tell us just how far. A 4th Edition innovation was severely curtailing the scope of high level spells. From the classes section, we see that 5th Edition is curtailing the number of high level spells, with lots of access to low level spells but capping at 1 9th level spell per day.
As noted previously, all classes have a core and specialization framework. You choose what sort of Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard you want to be, which dictates your abilities at certain levels. All Wizards are specialists now, but that means less than in previous editions. One big thing for 5th Edition is “no dead levels.” Every class gets something every level, such as a new ability or a new level of spells.
Finally, 5th Edition has quietly thrown open the gates on multiclassing again. The rules are tucked away, but they are freer than 3rd Edition, complete with a unified multiclass spellcasting level computation. (If that last phrase made no sense to you, just read it as “there was an issue in 3rd Edition.”) The layout of information and the class design encourage single-class play, but the mechanics are there for optimizers to cut loose. That seems a “best of both worlds” situation.