Today, reader "Tore" asks:
In dungeons and dragons, what is the most advantageous character to start as (in your opinion) and why?
This is an excellent and thought-provoking question, and touches on one of the top issues of the day.
Let's briefly review the 5 basic D&D classes available to the beginner:
- The Warrior (normal fighter, Paladin, Berserker, and Ranger)
- The Mage (with its eight standard sub-schools)
- The Cleric (along with the Druid)
- The Rogue (the Thief and the Bard, as well as the Ninja)
- The Psionicist
Let's also mention the Attorney! This is a holdover from the 1st Edition; 2nd Edition onwards discontinues this class, although I think it was reintroduced for the 4th edition, which was just released 2 years ago, if I'm correct. Or maybe it's still on the 3rd edition, who knows. I'll be basing my assumptions on the 2nd edition, which we Gen X-ers grew up with.
First off, any character starting off starts off at experience level 1. The different classes have different levels of experience point accumulation; depending on the campaign and how the Dungeon Master distributes experience points, certain classes may rise to higher levels more quickly.
A level 1 fighter begins with one ten-sided die of hit points. That's up to 10 HP potentially; that's not too shabby. Of course, if combat is especially brutal, that could amount to two short sword blows, and you're toast; depends how you're equipped. But warriors get a decent amount of starting funds, and all kinds of weapon proficiencies. It's not too hard, if you're smart, to get up to the 2000 experience points (XP) needed to progress to level 2, and get another 1d10 of hit points.
However, the fighter is constrained by his lack of other skills. These can be overcome, but there will be no hiding in shadows or climbing walls for the fighter. Mostly just hackin' and slashin'. There are some non-weapon proficiencies you can (and should) use to overcome the fighter's "clunkiness". So the fighter is a pretty solid starting choice. Of course, as the game progresses, the fighter remains a fighter whereas the other characters go on to be truly spectacular.
The Paladin is a fighter/cleric, in essence, and I want to discuss the cleric before getting to the paladin, arguably the best starting character in the game. The ranger we can mention in passing - a fighter with some limited thief skills, and some assorted nature-based shit. Again, a decent choice, but the Hide in Shadows and Move Silently scores of the ranger are so limited initially that I find the ranger to be of little use. Again, perhaps this was fixed up for 3 ed.; I don't know.
The mage is a lot fun to play, but quite fucked at level 1. With only 1d4 (4-sided die) of initial hit points, the mage can be killed in one fell swoop, and must avoid combat at all costs. If you manage to keep yourself alive, as a mage, over the course of a truly massive campaign (I'm thinking 3 "story arcs" or about 18-20 sessions), you are going to end up with by far the most powerful character in the game, capable of reshaping reality itself to a certain extent. But try staying alive when your Dungeon Master is quite literal about the rules of combat - something I always try to avoid as a DM, as it sucks the fun out of the game. Plus, the initial funds of the mage are quite limited, and if you play with the "material component required for spellcasting" rule, forget about it.
Let's touch brief on the pscionicist, another character, like the mage, who can become insanely powerful, but is even MORE limited from the get go than the mage. The pscionicist is your worst possible 1st-level character. It "costs" so much, without getting into it, just to establish contact with another mind, you can barely do squat until level 3 or 4. A great high-level character, though.
Now, the Rogue. What a fun character class to play as. With 1d6 HP, a decent balance between weapon and non-weapon proficiencies, and the abilities to move silently, climb walls, pick locks, etc. etc., the rogue is very diverse, a ton of fun to play as, progresses decently and can stay alive through fight or flight. Especially if you sort of specialize when you allocate your skill points at the beginning. Who can overstate the importance of moving silently and hiding in shadows? Just pick out some kind of range weapon (crossbow is ideal, if allowed) and go into total sniper mode! How can you go wrong?
And let's mention the Bard, the funnest character of all in a lot of ways, a character who must survive with his wits, but has limited access to theif abilities AND to spell casting. Bards tends to be the most dynamic characters in a campaign, anyways. They are just a ton of fun, and while they should avoid fighting, they can survive in a scrap if they need to, and bust out some magic missiles from time to time. Plus, their charisma - by requirement - is through the roof. Very appealing for the liar and con man in us all.
But now let me close the argument by voting for the Cleric as the best initial starting character class. The cleric has an impressive 1d8 of hit points, decent funds, a great character motive to follow at all times (the religious impulse), and above all, all good clerics can CURE LIGHT WOUNDS from the get go, at least once a day. So if the cleric takes a near-mortal short sword or arrow blow, he or she can just cure his or herself. Only once a day, mind you, but as you rise, you increasingly gain more spells, and the cleric ends up being mighty indeed. Plus, the cleric is not a lousy fighter. This is by far the most "stable," well-balanced and less fatality-prone starting character. And that is so important, assuming the party is all starting out at level 1. Plus, the cleric can cure other party members.
Now let's return to the Paladin, a sort of "super-class" combining the best of both the fighter and the cleric. Though limited a bit in spell-casting, the Paladin has all kinds of other nutso abilities that really just push them through the roof. The problem, however, is rolling up the initial ability scores required to be a Paladin. If your DM oks you to just allocated points however you want, you may be in luck. But if you're playing by the book, it's very rare you'll have the ability to be a paladin. And let's be honest, a paladin can severely misbalance a party. While the mage is running around hiding and casting one spell a day, the paladin is off kicking ass.
Of course, it all depends on how much you bend the rules. I personally bend them a lot, because the point of D&D is to provide equal parts laughs, action, and drama, in my opinion. But for the by-the-books types, gotta roll with the paladin.