There are some D&D characters that are absolute classics. Elven rangers. Dwarven fighters. Halfling rogues. They’re classic for a reason. Iconic, even. And hey, as I’ve said on this blog before, there’s nothing wrong with a human fighter. But when you’ve been playing D&D for a few years, these character choices can start to feel a bit . . . familiar.
In this post, I go through the twelve core classes of 5th edition and offer a novel character build for each one. The aim is to give you an idea for a new character which is fresh yet still fun to play.
The classic: half-orc berserker
Try instead: githyanki, ancestral guardian
You’ll need two sourcebooks for this: Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes for the githyanki, and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for the Path of the Ancestral Guardian.
Thematically, these work surprisingly well together. Githyanki are ruthless raiders: aggressive, merciless warriors with psionic abilities. There are invisible undead spirits in githyanki society called tl’a’ikiths, and an ancestral guardian could be a warrior who has learned to call on these spirits for aid.
Mechanically, githyanki give you +2 Strength, a skill (or tool) proficiency), and some nice psionic abilities like misty step and mage hand. Consider a few levels in fighter at some point to pick up improved critical (champion archetype), but wait until 5th level at the very earliest.
I imagine we will see a spike in githyanki characters over the next few years thanks to Baldur’s Gate III, and a githyanki ancestral guardian would be a fun character to play.
The classic: half-elf lore bard
Try instead: yuan-ti pureblood, eloquence bard
I have played this one, and it was a lot of fun. Yuan-ti (Volo’s Guide to Monsters) get a lot of nice abilities: magic resistance, innate spellcasting (suggestion! animal friendship!), darkvision, and +2 Charisma. And the College of Eloquence (Mythic Odysseys of Theros and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything) is both simple and powerful. From 3rd level onward, you are more or less incapable of failing a Deception check, and with Unsettling Words, your save-or-suck spells suddenly become more reliable.
This is probably going to be a pretty evil character. I can see a yuan-ti bard acting as an agent or spy. Talk with your DM about how this character might fit into the campaign. Consider a level in rogue or warlock at some point, either for more skill specialization or for the abilities you gain from being a hexblade (Xanathar’s).
The classic: human or dwarven life cleric
Try instead: aasimar, order domain
Aasimar (Volo’s) are hidden wanderers, guided by angels, born to serve the gods. I would use the protector aasimar for this build. A cleric of the Order Domain (Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica as well as Tasha’s) could be an agent of Tyr, the Faerûnian god of justice. This is a tank of a cleric who soars into melee with wings of radiance, their voice booming with authority. Badass.
Order clerics get some really nice abilities. Voice of Authority allows your allies to make extra attacks every time you cast a spell. Embodiment of Law makes enchantment spells quicker to cast. Divine Strike and heavy armour proficiency make you a viable front-liner. This is a fun combo!
The classic: wood elf Moon or Land druid
Try instead: aarakocra, stars druid
Within the High Forest, there is a settlement of birdfolk living on the southern slopes of the Star Mounts. The aarakocra (Elemental Evil Player’s Companion) are wardens of the sky and enjoy peace and solitude. It makes perfect sense that one of them might be a stargazer.
Mechanically, this is strong build with some really fun abilities. Free guiding bolts, starry form, cosmic omens, flight . . . this is probably not like any character you have played before.
The classic: mountain dwarf battle master or champion
Try instead: hobgoblin samurai
In a way, you’re spoilt for choice with fighters. There are somany viable combinations of race and subclass that there’s no such thing as a ‘classic’ fighter. I went with the samurai archetype in Xanathar’s because they have the simplicity of the champion but with more flavour, and of all the D&D races, hobgoblins felt to me like one of the most thematically appropriate options somehow.
Samurai pack a punch. With their Fighting Spirit feature, they can gain advantage on attack rolls and temporary hit points, and at higher levels, they can trade the advantage for additional attacks. Hobgoblins are tough for the front line of combat and have an interesting ability called Saving Face whereby allies can give you a bonus on a missed attack roll (among other things).
The classic: human, Way of the Open Hand
Try instead: Way of Mercy
I struggled with this one. Other than humans, many races don’t make great monks, and those that do mechanically (kenku, kobolds, wood elves) felt a bit . . . jarring somehow. I skipped the race for this one and focused on the subclass instead.
The Way of Mercy was introduced in Tasha’s, and these masked monks vaguely resemble plague doctors. You get several healing-based abilities, including the ability to raise the dead at higher levels. I can see this subclass becoming super popular over the next few years.
The classic: human, Oath of Devotion
Try instead: eladrin redeemer
Eladrin (the Mordenkainen’s version, not the one in the DMG) are elves native to the Feywild, and they are associated with one of the four seasons. Redeemers (Xanathar’s) are holy warriors who use violence only as a last resort. The result is a wise, patient paladin who has access to spells and abilities that paladins don’t normally have, such as misty step, sleep, counterspell, and hypnotic pattern.
Honourable mention: a minotaur conquest paladin could be a lot of fun, especially if you take a level in hexblade.
The classic: wood elf hunter
Try instead: goblin gloom stalker
Rangers have come under a lot of flak ever since 5th edition was released in 2014, but the optional class features in Tasha’s make them a joy to play. Perhaps the most powerful ranger subclass yet is the gloom stalker, first published in Xanathar’s. They get bonus damage in the first round of combat, enhanced darkvision, greater invisibility, and some nice high-level features. For me, goblins (Volo’s) are both mechanically powerful as rangers but also a fitting choice thematically for a gloom stalker: true slayers of the Underdark.
The classic: halfling thief, drow assassin
Try instead: tabaxi swashbuckler
Like fighters, rogues are blessed with a number of popular archetypes, and there are plenty of race-subclass combinations that work well. However: if you’ve never before played a tabaxi (Volo’s) or a swashbuckler (Xanathar’s), you’re missing out, and I see no reason why combining the two wouldn’t be anything other than a lot of fun. Step in and out of combat with Fancy Footwork, taunt your enemies with Panache, never miss with Master Duelist, and double your speed with Feline Agility. Miaow.
The classic: human or half-elf draconic bloodline
Try instead: tiefling shadow mage
Sorcerers often overlap a bit too much with warlocks for my liking, and many players multiclass the two. Perhaps this build is not uniquely sorcerous enough – but it should be powerful and fun to play.
I would choose one of the variant tieflings in Mordenkainen’s for this build, specifically Glasya’s. Spells like minor illusion, disguise self, and invisibility are perhaps more useful to you than your classic mix of thaumaturgy, hellish rebuke, and darkness. I see this sorcerer being deathly and super sneaky. The ability to teleport in and out of shadows is particularly fun.
The classic: tiefling warlock of the fiend
Try instead: half-drow warlock of the undead
Whisper it: I’m not a big fan of warlocks. Don’t get me wrong, I love the flavour. But so often, they boil down to ‘I cast eldritch blast’ ad infinitum. The alternative is some kind of hexblade, but these are now so ubiquitous that they are almost as popular as the iconic tiefling ‘fiendlock’.
My proposal, then: a half-drow (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) with an undead patron (Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft). OK, a bit of an edge lord, but fun and full of flavour. Your patron could be a vampire, a lich, a mummy lord, or an undead dragon. It’s maybe not the most powerful warlock subclass, but it’s refreshingly distinct from the three patrons offered in the Player’s Handbook. Give it a try.
The classic: high elf evoker or gnome illusionist
Try instead: hobgoblin war mage
In the Player’s Handbook, most classes only get two or three subclasses. Clerics get seven, and wizards get eight, so there’s already plenty of variation woven into the system – and we’ve had another five since then. What’s more, most of the wizard subclasses are pretty solid. Transmutation is a bit lacklustre, perhaps, but I would have no problem playing the others.
So: what feels sufficiently different to our classic elven spell-slinger? My suggestion: a hobgoblin war mage (Xanathar’s). That’s right: my second hobgoblin on this list! As a combination, it’s effective, it’s different, and, if it matters to you, it’s canonical: Volo’s has stats for an NPC hobgoblin devastator and fills in the lore.
Are you excited to play any of these character builds? If so, let me know in the comments.
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