Talk to me about tiers in D&D

So, thanks to one of the many SDMB Doper D&D games, I’ve been getting back into gaming. I haven’t played since 2nd edition when psionicists were flashy and new. In my research into the 3.5 edition of the game (we aren’t playing 4.0) I discovered some discussion about how certain characters ranked at certain tiers.

Of course I googled it and found a few lists which placed wizards, clerics and druids (oh my!) as tier 1, and so on. However, their analysis always ran along the lines of saying that a wizard could do absolutely everything in the game, even better than lower tier classes spec’d for that specific ability. Really, I thought? Now, maybe I’ve missed something, but I’m not aware of a reliable ability that would let a wizard find and remove traps, for instance. Or heal party members. Or out-tank a meatshield in full plate armor. Or…

Perhaps there’s something I’m missing, especially since the tier system seems to have a lot of support online, to the point where a lot of folks have stated that campaigns with some tier 1 chars and a bunch of tier 4 are highly imbalanced. Can y’all give me the straight dope on tiers in D&D?

Well, there’s Druids, and then there’s…I’m sure there’s something else…


These are not the druids you’re looking for…

Sorry, couldn’t resist. I don’t have much experience with 3.5, except that I’ve heard it was certain Prestige Classes that were clearly over-powered.

From what I’ve seen though, the tier system doesn’t deal with prestige classes at all, just the base classes.

The concept of tiers is computer RPG thinking that has leaked into proper roleplaying games, and must be stamped out mercilessly.

Not wizard; cleric. Divine Power lets you briefly tank like a fighter, with temporary extra hit points and a bonus to hit along with a boost to strength. Divine Metamagic lets you burn “turn undead” attempts so Persistent Spell can make Divine Power last all day long; apples to apples, I’m a fighter and you’re a fighter who can enchant his weapon before the fight starts and heal himself afterward; apples to oranges, you’re also, I dunno, the cleric who just called down a flame strike on the guy he’d blinded, or something.

Then factor in nightsticks, cheap little magic items that increase a cleric’s “turn undead” attempts…

Having played 3E / 3.5 since its introduction, I’ve never heard the use of the term “tier” as a description of anything in that version of the game, either formally or informally. (In 4E, “tier” has a very distinct definition, but that’s another discussion.)

It sounds to me like you’ve found an online community who uses the term informally to create “rankings” of the relative power levels of the classes in 3.x. In all of the discussions I’ve had with gaming friends on the topics (and, yes, I’ve had a lot of them, both F2F and on message boards / online communities), I’ve never seen any sort of “tiering” applied to the classes.

I will say, from my experience, that spellcasters (particularly clerics, druids, and wizards) do often get to be comparatively overpowered in 3.x, especially once you get into the double-digits in levels. That’s not to say that a well-optimized fighter, barbarian, ranger, or rogue can’t do a metric crap-ton of damage in certain circumstances, but the spellcasters usually have more avenues for versatility, and more ways to completely break the game at high levels.

I’ve seen this sort of a list repeated all over the place, and some of the other folks I’ve spoken to seem to have understood the concept even if they didn’t agree with it.

Hrm… does sound then like the rules make clerics OP a bit. Is there a way to nerf them with rules-legal methods, then? And why do so many lists also have druids and wizards at tier one if it’s only clerics that’re broken?

I disagree. If nothing else, the tier system lets you point newbies towards the classes that can actually do the things they want the character to do without relying entirely on DM fiat. For that purpose Tier 3 is the sweet spot, with the ability to hold your own in your chosen area of expertise without specific optimisation unlike Tiers 4-6, but not drowning in choices like Tiers 1-2.

Apart from banning Nightsticks and any pseudo-cheating rules lawyering, my approach is simply to make sure that the players build characters with Tier 1-3 gameplay in mind. Any of those three tiers can contribute to the party in a variety of ways, even if some are better at it than others. Tier 4 is a one trick pony, and Tiers 5 & 6 aren’t even that. There are specific builds from those lower tiers that I’d definitely allow, but I’d want to make sure that the player knew what they were getting themselves into.

The bit with druids is that – well, it’s not as much an apples-to-apples thing as swinging a weapon at someone while clad in armor, but the Natural Spell feat lets 'em keep casting spells while wildshaped into something that can pretty much dish it out and take it like a fighter; I’m a fighter who can lay into people like a bear, and you’re a super-powered bear backed up by an animal companion. (Of course, being backed up by an animal companion isn’t as good as being backed up by a fighter – unless it’s an animal companion a druid is casting spells on. I think you see where I’m going with this.)

With wizards, the comparison gets more abstract by dint of being more apples-to-oranges, but at high levels the oranges are so freaky they’re playing a different game.

It’s all going to depend on your group or GM - there are some classes where it’s easier to optimize, yes. But the playstyle of the group will determine how important that optimization is - if the group is all focused on power-gaming and the GM endorses that, you’ll want one of the higher tier classes. Otherwise, just play what appeals to you.

As a GM, I’ve never had a wizard, druid, or cleric smash my campaign, and the guy whose character current gives me the most headaches in encounter design is the barbarian, so… shrug

I also find the methodology described by the guy in your link to be a little… fuzzy woo-woo.

The straight dope is that this is one of the many absurd theological debates that nimrods like to have online. I sincerely believe that most of these nimrods cannot find people who are willing to play with them so they form their opinions from reading the online arguments alone. Bad ideas are perpetuated by people who simply don’t know better and parrot what sounds reasonable.

The tier partisans draw a false conclusion from some true premises. I do not play 4, so all of my comments are on 3.5.

  1. D&D 3.5 lies. The actual names of classes map very badly to their party roles and archtypes from genre literature. If you want to play a stealthy woodsman skilled with a sword and bow, don’t play a Ranger. If you want to play an Eastern-themed martial artist, for the love of god, don’t play a Monk. The “optimal” way to build many but not all kinds of characters is to assemble them from various packages of abilities from a variety of classes. D&D is chock full of traps. This is one of its most regrettable features.

  2. Some classes are easier to build straight out of the box. Classes are not in and of themselves balanced to each other. This is actually one of D&D’s greatest strengths, because it means that characters are substantively different from each other. You don’t just play, for example, a DPS class that is either ranged, melee, or elemental damage.

This imbalance is especially true for the best casting classes. There has been so much support for magic over the years that the number of possible spells you can take is staggering. A novice can fuck up a build completely but make a playable and awesome Wizard just by picking good spells. It is harder to build a straight Fighter who can keep up. There are a lot of traps, a bunch of feat chains, and it takes more than one or two books. A complete novice is less likely to stumble on an awesome straight Fighter build than an awesome straight Wizard. But when you do build one, they’re great.

All of this might suggest that the tier partisans have some merit to their claims. But they go astray. They typically compare a reasonably optimized Wizard (or Druid, Archivist, Cleric, Artificer, or occasionally Spell-to-Power Erudite) with an out-of-the-box lower tier class and conclude that the lower tier class sucks. This comparison breaks down once you start actually optimizing the lower tier class. With even a little tinkering it is not hard to make fantastic low-tier characters. It will take slightly more work for me to make a Fighter 15 as good as a Druid 15 straight out of the box, but it is far from impossible. The tier people tend to approach character-building with an unsurprising lack of imagination.

They also think that just because a God Wizard is the most optimal, there is no incentive to play any other class. This is transparently false. One can look at the optimization community and see that clearly, people are playing lots of other classes and are doing quite well with them. If people really just gravitated to Tier 1 classes only, then the optimizers would only study Tier 1 classes. You can verify for yourself that this is not the case. The tier partisans will have to pry my Beguiler and my Crusader out of my cold, dead hands.

The D&D theologians also borrow trouble. If no one in the party optimizes, then none of the above really matters. Everyone is playing a character out of the box, and as long as players of lower tier characters don’t pick their stuff completely randomly, then it mostly evens out in the wash. A Wizard is probably not going to overwhelm the rest of the party unless the player builds him that way. If some people optimize and others don’t, then it really does not matter what tier the characters are because a highly optimized build will always be better. The difference in player type is much more significant than the difference in class. My Monk 15 will make short work of a novice Wizard/Conjurer 15 and will be fulfilling his party role, too.

The solutions to the tier non-problem are simple. Players need to balance to each other. If you are in a mixed group, then either the optimizers need to back off or they need to help the non-optimizers ratchet up their builds. This can be socially difficult because apparently many gamers are socially retarded, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask in what is essentially a social activity. Players also need to not step on each others’ toes. Yes, it is possible to build a Wizard that can, quite literally, fulfill any party role with magic. This is a great asset to have because it means that Wizards can do things that no one else wants to. We don’t need a trapfinder because the Wizard can do it with minimal commitment. Most of us actually hate trapfinding in my group. But if one person actually felt like playing a character that gave a shit about it, the Wizard wouldn’t have to make the effort and could focus on something else.

The basic rule is, as always, don’t be a jerk. People who play swiss army knife Wizards in a game with non-optimizers are jerks. The tier theory rests on people acting like mechanical, over-incentivized jerks in a cooperative social activity whose goal is everyone’s mutual satisfaction. They really need to find a new hobby.

(Devil’s advocate here.)

Summon monsters and stampede them through the suspected area. Or use Knock on doors from a distance. Detect Magic might be useful to find magic traps.

Limited Wish. Or summon/planar bind a bralani/avoral/lillend/whatever.

Search through the various Monster Manuals for a creature with a huge natural armor bonus and alter self/polymorph into it, and stack that with mage armor and shield.

Amen. Preach it, brother.

The idea of “Tiers” works for something like Call of Duty, where the tier 1 gun is alright, the tier 2 gun is better, and the tier 3 gun is best. But no matter what the Hypothetical Optimizers on the Interwebs say, as long as you have a DM who doesn’t suck, you can run a Sword and Board Fighter and a Batman Wizard in the same party without one constantly overshadowing the other.

Yes. It’s called roleplaying.

Sure, maybe your Cleric has the ability to cast Divine Might and go to town in melee. And for the next few minutes, he can fight as well as a Fighter. But here are the problems with that: First, he’s a Cleric, not a Fighter or a Paladin, for a reason. As a DM, I expect you to know that reason and RP it. This means that most PC Clerics I’ve seen have had one reason or another not to go into melee unless the situation is dire.

I’ve also had a few Battle Clerics, who built characters both stat-wise and RP wise to let them wade into melee. And when that happened, do you know what happened? The Cleric would start out the day out-damaging the Fighter. After the first few fights, he’d be low on buffs, and have to sacrifice some buffs in order to heal between fights. By the end of the day, the Cleric would be doing half the damage the Fighter was and unable to cast crowd control or debuffs to boot.

The great thing about D&D is that anyone can do anything.From sword-swinging Wizards to plate-wearing Rogues, every concept is in fact possible, as long as you don’t care about squeezing out every last +1 and helpful effect.

Oh, come ON! A Fighter is a one trick pony? Really?

The biggest problem with the Tier System (And Theoretical Optimization as a whole) is this: It assumes a number of ridiculous things:

  1. That you’re playing in a campaign with only CR appropriate encounters, the DM never house rules or fiats action sequences. Further, every day consists of 4 CR appropriate encounters.
  2. The most important thing about play is getting that last +1 To Hit out
  3. The DM is a completely uncreative computer, and that his campaign is incapable of change.

Allow me to explain and demolish all three assumptions.

  1. The Tier system says things like, “A Wizard of proper level NEVER runs out of spells, because he gets so many every day” or “If, by chance, a Wizard SHOULD run out of spells, all he needs to do is cast Rope Trick and rest inside”. These things are true, assuming that the campaign is the “4 encounter per day, 12 encounters per level, exact wealth by level” campaign detailed by the DMG. This NEVER HAPPENS. Days with 4 encounters per level are the easiest days, second only to travel days we skip over. When the party REALLY needs everyone at the top of their games is when you have ten, thirteen, fifteen encounters in one day, all at or over CR, with a boss fight at the end and a ticking McGuffin that prevents the players from resting. And this happens at least once per adventure, and many many times throughout the campaign.
  2. The Tier system assumes that a Wizard is inherently better than a Fighter. If you’re after every last +1, this is true. If your goal is to enjoy the role playing aspect of the game and to have fun, this is false. How many times can you play a Wizard? Sheesh.
  3. Here we come to the biggest flaw with the Tier system. Check your definition. What is a Tier 1 Class? It is a Class capable of breaking the game in multiple ways. Thus you have the Cleric and their Divine Metamagic Nightsticks, or the Druid and their “turn into a bear who rides a dire bear who summons fiendish half-dragon bears, then casts Bite of the Werebear on them all and massacres everyone”, or the Wizard and their abuse of Divinations, Clerity, Wish, Time Stop, etc. etc.

What is a Tier 2 Class? A class capable of breaking the game in only one way. Thus, the Sorcerer falls here; he can only cast the spells he knows, which are far more limited than the Wizard’s, so it is safe to assume that he can only break the game in one way.

What is a Tier 3 Class? A class capable of doing very well in some areas and passing in others. I find this ridiculous. The Bard is listed as a Tier 3 class. I’ve seen Bards who can do everything well. Once, as an experiment, we kept track of how damage a certain Bard was doing. Every time his song or buff added 1 point of damage, we counted that; if the attack would have missed without the buff, we counted all of the damage. Turns out the Bard was doing more damage than everyone else, Cleric and Wizard included. Further, he could hold up to anyone but the Fighter in a straight fight, and even the Fighter if he was allowed to use trickery.

Now, before we discuss the lower tiers, let us point out why Tier 1 and Tier 2 do not, in fact, exist. The answer is simple: Both involve Breaking the Game ™ in their definition. Obviously, no sane DM is going to let some of the party members break the game. So while overpowered in some form of hypothetical scenario involving an AI DM who doesn’t care if you break his game as long as it’s rules legal, both tiers fall down to match Tier 3 in any real game.

What is a Tier 4 Class? A class that can do one thing quite well and sucks at everything else. Let’s look at some examples. From FinnAgain’s link, we see that the Rogue, Barbarian, Warlock, Warmage, Scout, Ranger, Hexblade, Adept, Spellthief, Marshal, and Fighter are all Tier 4. But the fact is, with some clever playing, all of these classes can fill multiple roles. Rogues can, obviously, sneak and scout. But they can do much, much more: They can handle themselves in a fight, thanks to a decent-to-high AC, not too shabby hitpoints, and bonus sneak attack damage. They can cast Buffs or even Debuffs, thanks to Use Magic Device (And who would have more extra gold than a thief?). Let’s look at a Fighter or Barbarian. Yes, they dominate the field of battle, but they do so in more than one way. A Fighter or Barbarian can serve as a tank, as crowd control, as a heavy hitter, as a mobile attack force (with a mount), etc. Clearly, all of these classes can do much more than just one thing as long as their player is creative. Further, even if, hypothetically, you built a Rogue who was too fragile to be in battle at all and could only sneak around, make the occasional sneak attack, and disappear again, would that be a bad thing? After all, you’re still contributing, and having fun. And out of combat, you have many uses: Assassin, scout, trapsmith…

What is a Tier 5 Class? A class that can do one thing, and not necessarily well. Let’s have a look: Monk, CA Ninja, Healer, Swashbuckler, Rokugan Ninja, Soulknife, Expert, OA Samurai, Paladin, Knight. A Monk does indeed have its problems, mostly because it doesn’t work as intended. But that’s a problem with the Monk’s balance against itself, not his balance with other classes. A Paladin can do multiple things well. He can fight, in multiple ways, just like the Barbarian and Fighter, and he has a Mount, which is helpful too. A Swashbuckler is one of the funnest classes I’ve ever played. I honestly do not know why they would put it down here.

What is a Tier 6 Class? A class that cannot do anything well. Aristocrat, Warrior, Commoner. Great, 3 NPC classes. The CW Samurai is also listed here, but like the Monk that’s a problem with the class’s design as opposed to balance.

Are some classes more powerful than others? No. Some builds are more powerful than others, of course; and some of classes lend themselves to more powerful builds much more easily. But here’s the thing: In the end, it doesn’t matter who can outdamage who, because at the end of the day, the party is a team. The DM isn’t letting anyone break the game, be it an Ubercharger Barbarian who can do 12,000 damage with a single swing or a Wizard who spams Time Stop over and over again. The only use for the Tier system is for DMs who don’t like Wizards and Druids and who want to arbitrarily ban them. But you don’t need a tier system for that, you just need a setting that doesn’t have those classes.

Sorry for the long, rambling post; I told you not to get me started on Tiers, Finn!

ETA: And it seems I’ve been Ninja’d a few times while posting… Time to read!

The problem I have with this is that it assumes some sort of mechanical DM. Observe:

The fourth time you do this trick, the traps turn out to be self-reloading. Guess what? In a world of Summoning magic, you’re not the first one with this idea.

I once had a group of players who pushed every button with a 10 foot pole, thus avoiding the traps. This worked well in the Kobold Tunnels. Then they went into the Drow Underdark, and tried the same trick. I said, “A spike impales the ground ten feet from the button”. The player called BS, so I showed him my notes and said, “You didn’t invent the 10 foot pole, you know”.

Limited Wish or a Summoning spell is quite a high-level solution to the small problem of a person missing a few hit points. And while Summoning is alright, repeated Planar Binding might attract attention from unwanted sources.

Disspell Magic.

Every strategy has a counter. If you use a strategy, good for you; if you abuse it, your opponents will learn.

It’s much simpler just to play with people who aren’t dicks, but as always, YMMV.

Oh, I agree. If I ever hear a DM say “Let’s all play a Tier 3-5 class, guys!” I’m outa there.

I’m not disagreeing with you at all. I’m just pointing out that there are indeed spells in the Player’s Handbook that could be useful in avoiding traps, healing or “tanking” (whatever that may be). They might do a relatively poor job, but that’s a big difference than not doing that job at all (if we’re talking about versatility).

(Personally, I find “Well, if you do A, I’ll do B!” “But if you do B, then I’ll do C!” “But if you do C, etc.” hypothetical jousting to be pretty boring.)