I’ve been working on my rewrite of the Hexblade that I’ve alluded to here before. I thought it would, perhaps, be worthwhile to comment on my general priorities in terms of class creation – both to solidify them for myself and because there is some small chance that someone might read this and find it interesting. Here is the first one (not that they are in any particular order:
Class Creation Rule 1: The 1/5/10/20 Rule
1: Don’t front-load too much into the first level or so. Monk and Fighter are guilty of this. It is very tempting to take a couple of levels in a front-loaded class and then abandon it. If you can say of a class, “It is always a good idea to take X levels in this class,” then your class could be better designed. If you can say, “I don’t know why anyone would take more than X levels in this class,” then you have a more serious problem (see Swashbuckler, where X=3). In either case, the lower the value of X, the bigger your problem is. It is certainly the case that you often need to introduce basic class features at first level. One way of doing this without too much front-loading is to introduce the features in a fairly weak state and add on to these features at higher levels – Bardic Music is an example of how this can be done.
5: A number of classes get a significant power boost from gaining new class features at 4th-6th level: Druid, Paladin, and Ranger are, perhaps the most obvious. Try to make the power climb more gradual than this. At the same time, you don’t want to delay the gaining of integral class features past this point. Also, at about this level you should begin qualifying for prestige classes. Build the class such that it will not be too difficult to qualify for the most appropriate prestige classes for it. I find it infuriating when Wizards introduces a new class that fits thematically with an established prestige class, but from which it is near-impossible to qualify for that prestige class (Beguiler/Arcane Trickster?).
10: I tend to consider 10th level to be “name level” – by the time a character has 10 levels in a class, they should fully epitomize that class. That isn’t to say that levels 11-20 should be empty. Far from it. What I mean here is that a characters with 10 class levels ought to be able to accomplish the feats that one expects of a competent member of their class. This is going to mean different things for different classes. For instance, it would be a serious problem in my mind if Clerics didn’t have access to Atonement and Hallow at 10th level. Also, by this point you should be able to qualify for the appropriate 10-level prestige classes.
20: There is a desire to put ‘capstone’ abilities at the last few levels of a 20-level progression. These are powerful class abilities that reward a character for ‘sticking it out’ with a single class. This has become a bit more prevalent after the initial classes in the PHB, but even there the Monk and (to a lesser extent) the Druid have such abilities. I don’t have a vendetta against capstone abilities per se. I think it is important to make it worthwhile to take 20 levels in every class. On the other hand, I think that it is important that such abilities be built up gradually. The Druid’s Elemental Wild Shape abilities seem somewhat tacked-on to me, as does the Monk’s ability to become Ethereal, and the Dragon Shaman’s wings. What I am advocating here is balance. The high levels of a class should include some damn cool class features – just make sure they fit in with the rest of the class.