Design Insights: Power Budget

Intro

We’re continuing to unpack various design concepts to make ourselves better at homebrewing and creating 3rd-party content for D&D 5e. In the last piece I mentioned Power Budgets, so this piece is going to focus on that concept.

Before I dive in, this is going to be almost exclusively relevant for designing classes and subclasses. There’s still useful lessons here for designing other kinds of content, but they’ll be tangential at best.

Power Budgets

In simplest terms, if we envision a given class in 5e as having 100% power with all its abilities combined, each of those abilities contributes in some capacity to that 100%. The challenging thing with understanding Power Budgets is that there isn’t actually some mathematical formula that determines the maximum amount of stuff a class can have. It’s instead something we have to ‘feel out’ as we design, and that makes it trickier to teach and understand.

We’re mostly going to use case studies to unpack how Power Budgets get spent, and from there we can examine what alternate spends might look like within existing classes. This will at least give us a good understanding of existing Power Budgets in the game which then gives us a frame of reference for our own content.

The Balance of Power

Let’s use the case study of the Cleric to begin with. The Power Budget of the Cleric is spread between a few key pieces. In the broadest terms these pieces are:

 – Spellcasting
 – Subclass features
 – Class features

Now for Clerics (as well as all spellcasters) the majority of the class’ Power Budget is spent on Spellcasting. Not all spellcasting is made equal though. Clerics are Prepared Casters, meaning they have even more power in their spellcasting than a Spontaneous Caster. If Clerics were a Spontaneous Caster, we would have a little extra Power Budget left to spend elsewhere.

Clerics, like any class, also have a balance of how much Power Budget is contained within the class itself and how much is given over to subclasses. The Cleric leans more toward having its power contained within its subclasses. Each one alters the flavour of the Cleric quite dramatically, and it’s also where the difference in the ‘Feel’ of the gameplay of each subclass comes from.

Most spellcasters follow this same split, with most of the Power Budget being wrapped up in the Spellcasting feature, some spent in some baseline class features, and the bulk of the rest being spent in subclass features. In the case of Clerics their class gives them access to the Channel Divinity feature, but it is their special subclass Channel Divinity that is more of their active strength.

Bards, as a good counter-example, get a powerful class feature in Bardic Inspiration. Many of the subclasses then gain an alternate use for this feature, but the baseline one stays powerful and relevant. Bards are also a great case study in the power budget of a Spontaneous Caster. Because they have the extra limitation of not being a Prepared Caster they have room in the power budget for abilities like Bardic Inspiration, Jack of All Trades and Ritual Casting.

What About Non-Spellcasters?

Let’s use the Rogue as a great example. The majority of the Rogue’s power is baked into the chassis. Sneak Attack for damage, Expertise for strong skill use, Cunning Action for combat flexibility, Uncanny Dodge and Evasion for survivability. There’s a lot going on there.

As a result, their subclasses have much less power in them. Most of the power spent in each subclass is also spent right out the gate with their 3rd-level feature. They then don’t get another subclass feature until 9th level (the biggest gap of any class between their first and second subclass features).

To compare this to the Fighter, which has a slightly more even split. Most of the power is still in the class chassis, but a lot is reserved for the subclasses. Again they get their most impactful subclass features at 3rd level, but they’ll get a lot more along the way (at 7th, 10th, 15th and 18th level) and a number of these will be decently impactful.

It’s also important to understand when we’re designing individual features how much of our budget we’re spending within the scope of what we’re doing. If we’re designing a fighter subclass and create quite a powerful 10th level feature we will want to make sure our 7th and 15th level features are a bit more subdued.

Tiers of Play

In truth, a big part of understanding Power Budgets requires an understanding of the tiers of play in 5e. There are 4 overall tiers of play, and they each run from 1st to 4th level, 5th to 10th level, 11th to 16th level and 17th to 20th level. The lines when considering Power Budgets do get slightly blurred, with a lot of 10th-level features being the ‘Start of Tier 3’ features for many classes.

Tier 1

In the first tier, in terms of Power Budget we’re basically getting our core features online. In the first 3 levels we will get every single defining class feature, and will also access our subclass somewhere within that range.

Let’s use our Cleric case study again. At 1st level you get your spellcasting and your subclass (which, as we discussed, is the majority of your power budget spend), then at 2nd level we get Channel Divinity and our special subclass Channel Divinity (which accounts for a lot of our subclass’ Power Budget). What do we get at 3rd level? Nothing. Well, not quite nothing. We get 2nd level spells, which contains some of the Cleric’s bread-and-butter spells (like Spiritual Weapon). Because we’ve spent a lot of our Power Budget over the first 2 levels we don’t spend much at all on level 3.

This tier ends with getting your first ASI, which is the first boost to your primary stat you get after character creation.

Tier 1 therefore contains the majority of our actual power budget. It would seem off the cuff that if we have 100% to spend then we would spend 25% of it in each tier, but the reality is it’s more like 50% in tier 1, 20% in tier 2 and the rest spread across tiers 3 and 4. This spend is also not even within each tier. At the start of each tier we will have an appreciable power spike, and we should design accordingly.

Tier 2

The power spike for Tier 2 is baked into the system, so we don’t really need to do much ourselves. Martials get Extra Attack, Spellcasters get 3rd level spells. The exception here is the Rogue, who instead gets Uncanny Dodge.

So if we’re designing a conventional Martial or Spellcaster (or even Half-Caster) then this is our power spike. If we’re breaking the mould a little, we need a strong 5th level feature in place wherein we will spend a large portion of our tier 2 Power Budget. The rest of the budget for tier 2 gets spent in the subclass. Notice how most classes have their 2nd subclass feature at 6th or 7th level? This is why. The Rogue is again the exception, but at 7th level they’re getting their Evasion class feature (as are Monks).

If we’re designing a spellcaster then tier 2 is also where we’re going to start seeing more ‘Dead Levels’. Dead Levels are where we don’t get any features aside from a new level of Spell Slot (and possibly the scaling up of a previous feature). This is because again most of a spellcaster’s Power Budget is wrapped up in the spellcasting feature, so when you get a new level of spell it’s an appreciable enough spike in power that to add anything on top of it would make that level up too powerful on the whole. We will see these ‘Dead Levels’ remain necessary all throughout tiers 2 and 3.

For a quick case study in Dead Levels, let’s look at the Wizard and the Bard. The Wizard always has a Dead Level when they get a new level of spell slot. This is because the Wizard has by far and wide the most potent version of the Spellcasting feature. Bards, on the other hand, have a much less potent version of the Spellcasting feature. As a result, at 9th level, which is a Dead Level for the Wizard, their ‘Song of Rest’ ability scales up to a d8. The same thing happens at 13th level, and again at 17th level, with Bardic Inspiration scaling up in between those at 15th level.

Tier 3

Throughout tier 3 we continue to see Dead Levels for most spellcasters, with a little bit of leeway for those less-potent Spellcasters (which is really to say ‘Spontaneous Casters’). They will also usually get their final subclass feature (14th level for most). Sorcerers are a slight exception, getting another subclass feature in tier 4.

Clerics are a more interesting exception though. Clerics don’t get any subclass features between 8th and 17th level. Instead they hit tier 3 with ‘Divine Intervention’ at level 10, which is a powerful enough ability that there’s little budget left for anything else across tier 3 aside from spell scaling. The other thing they get is a boost to Destroy Undead, which is a situational ability as it stands.

Martials will need to see a more appreciable power spike coming into tier 3. Fighters are the quintessential example of this, getting the first of their ‘Extra Attack’ boosts at 11th level. They go up to an outright 3 attacks to kick off tier 3, much as they got 2 attacks at the start of tier 2. Rogues get an ability that leans into the ‘Skill Monkey’ facet of the class with Reliable Talent. Barbarians get a subclass feature at 10th and Relentless Rage at 11th.

Tier 4

Now it’s also worth saying that across tiers 3 and 4 the overall ‘Balance’ of things gets a little wobbly (as much of a dubious concept ‘balance’ is in 5e anyway). This does mean that some features can, frankly, afford to be more powerful than others. We shouldn’t just give classes ridiculously good features all across high-tier play, but the spending of the Power Budget doesn’t have to be as tight as it is across tiers 1 and 2.

Tier 4, as a result, will see our final pieces of scaling, our most powerful spells, our most powerful martial features, and our ‘Capstone’ at level 20.

The Capstone is a curious thing to consider, as in theory it should be extremely potent. For many classes, however, it essentially lets you ‘go infinite’ with your defining class features. This is where we get things like Barbarians having no limit on Rage uses, Bards getting the ‘Superior Inspiration’ feature, and Monks getting the ‘Perfect Self’ feature.

Paladins are unique here in that they get their capstone from their subclass, and this often represents a thematic apotheosis for them (such as the Oath of the Ancients ‘Elder Champion’ feature).

Case Study: The Oracle

Looking at this concept externally is difficult, because the spend of Power Budgets for the existing classes is a very ‘set in stone’ thing. It’s already happened, they’ve already been designed. We’re just looking at them after-the-fact and trying to understand where the spend of power lies across a class.

To help illustrate what I’ve been talking about I’ll walk through the Power Budget of the Oracle class I designed and elucidate how I very actively considered the Power Budget while working on it.

Spellcasting

So right out the gate I’m making a full caster. That’s most of my Power Budget spent right there. However, compared to similar spellcasters I haven’t spent as much of the Power Budget as usual. This is for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a Spontaneous Caster with Sorcerer-equivalent scaling in terms of spells known. That’s quite a limitation. At most it’s getting 15 spells known.

Secondly, the Spell List itself is quite limited. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of Bard-y support spells, Divine magic buffs, and spells from the Divination school. This was mostly thematic, but it does mean there isn’t as much power in its Spell List as, say, the Cleric List.

Lastly, the other class features actively encourage you to spend some of your precious Spells Known on Divination spells. There are class features that expressly buff spells like Augury, so you’re highly encouraged to take it instead of a traditionally more ‘powerful’ spell at equivalent level.

This last limitation is an interesting one too, because a great equilibrium is found. If you take the less powerful spell, it gets buffed by the class feature. If you skip it, you don’t get the power of the class feature but you do get the more traditionally powerful spell you’re picking over Augury.

There’s one last piece of the spellcasting budget to account for though, and that’s the Prophetic Arcana feature. Much as Wizards get Arcane Recovery and Sorcerers can create spell slots by spending Sorcery Points, I wanted the class to have a way to extend its spellcasting just a little further. This feature is designed to capture the ‘I foresaw the need for this spell’ power fantasy, and it’s quite limited in use, but we do spend a little of our Power Budget there.

Class Features

First up, I wanted this class to be able to fully invest in Intelligence and Wisdom as its primary and secondary stats. That meant I needed to offset the natural defensive weaknesses that would bring about (since you can’t also have good Dex and Con). Some of our Power Budget therefore needed to be spent on Predictive Defense, which lets you substitute your Wisdom for your Dexterity for all your AC calculations. This was a super flavourful ability too, since it leans heavily into the thematic territory of ‘You avoid attacks because you know where enemies are going to swing’.

Foresight is our other major class feature and is where we get our core Dice Manipulation abilities from. This feature does a few things for us. Firstly, it spends the last of our level 1 power budget, introduces the idea of using percentile dice – which is something other subclasses will explore – and gives us our ‘Portent-but-different’ ability to make this familiar to our expectations of what a Diviner does in 5e while also differentiating it from the Divination Wizard subclass.

In terms of overall actual power, though, this ability comes in slightly weaker than Bardic Inspiration (which I would say is the closest mathematical equivalent). This is mostly down to the limited uses and the fact that it refreshes on a long rest.

At 3rd level we get our subclass and a very flavourful ribbon feature. This ribbon has a decent amount of roleplay power, but doesn’t spend too much of our budget all up.

After 3rd level we’re almost entirely into the upscaling of our existing features with one exception. At 7th level we get another flavourful pseudo-ribbon in ‘Advanced Precognition’. This is that ability I was talking about that buffs our Divination spells ever so slightly.

There’s technically no Dead Levels, since at each of what would be a Dead Level we get a buff to either Foresight, Prophetic Arcana or our 7th-level feature and its 15th-level upgrade.

Subclasses

Once again our subclasses come front-loaded, as is standard for 5e. We get 2 features at 3rd level, one of which is usually tied to a skill usage and often has more of a roleplay utility, and the other of which establishes our core identity for the subclass. We get one additional feature at 6th level, and our final one at 14th level. This is the same as the Bard subclasses since, like the Bard, we’re getting a lot of our power from the scaling abilities on the class chassis.

Tiers 2, 3 and 4

Tier 2 is met with our standard 3rd-level spell slots at level 5, followed by a subclass feature at 6th and our final ‘new’ class feature at 7th. From there we’re entirely into scaling up of spell levels and existing abilities.

Tier 3 sees us grabbing a more significant boost to our Prophetic Arcana ability at 10th level, followed by the standard boost to the feature at 11th level. This is most of our tier’s Power Budget.

Tier 4 is entirely about reaching the peak of all of our scaling abilities, including the Capstone which is an upscaling of our Prophetic Arcana feature that we got all the way back at 2nd level.

Subclasses In General

Assessing the Power Budget when designing a class is a trickier art, so learning it first makes designing subclasses for existing classes much easier. When we design a subclass we need to look at 3 key things from the class itself.

 – How much of the overall Power Budget is spent in the subclasses?

 – How much of each tier’s power spike is tied to subclass features?

 – How much does the subclass alter the core identity of the class?

The first is clear enough to establish. As we’ve already discussed, classes like Fighters and Barbarians spend more of their Power Budget in their subclasses than, say, Rogues and Clerics.

The second is easy to assess. If a subclass gets a feature around 10th or 11th level, and again around 16th-18th level then the spike is coming largely from the subclass. Do keep an eye on what the main class chassis gets, because some will have the spike be split between the class and subclass across the first 2 levels of that tier. The Ranger is a great example of this.

The last of these is the one we’ve discussed the least, but it’s hugely important from a design perspective. It’s only tangentially tied to Power Budgets, but essentially we’re asking ourselves how much we can stretch and alter the class’ identity through its subclass.

Fighters are an example of a class where the flavour and identity is almost entirely in the subclasses, and so we can comfortably put abilities that totally define a character’s playstyle within the subclass. Depending on the subclass you pick you’re not so much playing a Fighter as you are playing a Samurai, or a Battle Master, or a Psi-Knight.

The Wizard is the opposite, where most of the total flavour is in the class chassis (and more specifically in its Spellcasting). A Wizard subclass lets you have your specific type of magic you’re a little better at than other Wizards, but you’re still ultimately playing a Wizard. You may specifically be playing an Abjurer Wizard or a Diviner Wizard, but it will always feel more ‘Wizard’ than ‘Diviner’.

Conclusion

Whew, this was a long piece. Still, there was a lot to unpack in this topic (and it feels like there’s more still that could be discussed). At the end of the day though Power Budgets are just something you kind of have to ‘feel out’. Some people find this easier to do than others. Those that are used to relying on mathematical certainties when designing will find assessing Power Budgets a little harder, whereas those that design more off ‘Feel’ will find it easier but will have a harder time getting the fine tuning right.

If you want to see more about class design, check out my Homebrew page. I post pieces there that dive deeper into the specific mechanics of each of my classes, as well as the overall iterating on ideas that takes place throughout the brewing process. Thanks for reading!

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