"What are you wearing?"
Grown men have asked me this question, and it still unsettles me. You hear it only in two circumstances: Either you're having a conversation your mother shouldn't find out about, or you're a new character jumping into a round of Dungeons & Dragons.
Fashion preference has always been an important part of D&D; the classic fighter wears the heaviest armor he or she can find and if the wizard puts it on, the guy or gal will be at +3 to fall over. It has been hardwired into the game since the dawn of Gygax. 4th Edition has offered a lot to mix this up, but the core assumptions are still there: A monster can tell that the plate-mail-with-shield-adorned individual is most likely the party's defender, and that person covered in holy symbols might as well have a "medic" icon floating over his or her head. Monsters often decide who to eat based on your party role. At the very least, your enemy is going to try to slow down the rampaging, ax-wielding, blood-encrusted roaring melee type and nuke the dangerous, thin person quietly chanting in the back row.
The moment you kick open the door, it's like high school all over again. Dozens of eyes (often only on one creature, but I digress) look you up and down, sizing you up. Are your shoes trendy? Is that an orb glowing in your hand? Is that chainmail "so last year?" As soon as the minis hit the map, it's the DM's job to figure out which clique the monsters want to shove you into . . . and act accordingly. Weaken the striker; slow the defender; rain hot bloody murder down from the sky on the controller . . . that kind of thing. This, combined with the fact that monsters often have much higher initiative scores than you, means you're fighting an uphill battle against monster lookism.
Might I suggest a change of clothes? Something less, shall we say, conspicuous? What we're really going to talk about today is how the game now offers lots of possibilities to break the mold or, at the very least, confuse the heck out of that orc warband sneaking up behind you.
First things first! You have to wonder how monsters know to identify character classes to begin with. I mean, think about it. Isn't it implied that any given kobold (sans Meepo, Destroyer of Worlds) has never met an adventurer in its life, simply by the fact that it's still, well, a breathing kobold? Again, it really depends on your campaign, but low-level critters with the survival instincts of a pizza delivered to my doorstep probably don't get around much. Are there courses they can take online? Does "Grandma Dulltooth" sit around the campfire and weave tales of horror involving wizards, warriors, and women in bikini-mail, her eyes glazing over briefly as the echoes of her murdered kinfolk float to the surface of her mind? One can only hope. Or not, depending on how much you want to empathize with the monstrous races.
The point is that monsters, in most cases, really have to judge a book by its cover. With some creative multiclassing and hybrid character design, you can throw some errata in that book they might not know about if their D&D Insider account isn't current. (Kobolds and the like are infamously bad with subscription fees, after all.) Let's give a few examples just so you know what I'm talking about. (And apologies in advance to Dungeon Masters who will lead more complicated lives after their players read this.)
Meet Bazoon. Bazoon likes long walks on the beach, fears commitment, and is a self-professed wizard. Don't be fooled by the word "fighter" on his character sheet. That's the thing about character classes . . . they exist as titles for us players, but how much our little fictional personas decide to embrace it is up to them. I doubt too many clerics would travel with someone who put "thief" on his or her resume.
Here we have a Tempest technique fighter, who multiclassed into wizard (Arcane Initiate, Novice, Acolyte Power), with staff fighting (staffs are now defensive and off-hand weapons) and Quick Draw (main stats: Strength/Intelligence).Why Quick Draw? Because when you multiclass into wizard you gain proficiency with wands, and wands can have wizard at-will and encounter powers built into them.
The obvious trick here is that as a fighter, mechanically speaking, Bazoon leaves his fighter's mark on anything he attacks, hit or miss, no matter what the power is. Marking with a fireball is a little surreal, but I'm willing to go with it. With his multiclassing and gunslinger-style access to wands, he can fill the wizard's shoes for several rounds without even using a martial power.
This is actually important to note: Fluff matters. If you look like a rogue but do nothing but heal your allies and force zombies to shuffle elsewhere, you're not going to fool any monster for very long. Does your swordmage aura glow brightly all the time or only when you're attacked? If your attack has the arcane or primal keywords, that aboleth over there is going to sort out right quick what class you're moonlighting as right then. Bazoon's a fun build, but it was made to confuse monsters and maybe my Dungeon Master. If Bizarro Gandalf walks in shooting lightning and cracking skulls with his staff, what aspect do they focus on then? If the lurker sneaks up on him, he's going to be confronted by a fighter's Combat Superiority. Likewise, the gnoll archer trying to pick off the wizard is going to have to chew through a lot more hit points than it was expecting.
ProTip: Want to have some fun? Start using a criminally inappropriate miniature for your character and see how it subtly sneaks into your DM's thinking. I used a Disney Princess I got in a cereal box as my gnoll barbarian for ages, and I feel guilty for how many times the DM, while getting into the mindset of the monster, decided I didn't look too threatening and decided to attack someone else. Truth be told, I think that's why I wrote this article . . . to tap into how visual style affects combat. Of course, you could go the extreme route and just use the "Fallen Villager" miniature. I mean, what monster is going to attack a guy who's obviously already dead?
Doom of the Hybrids
With the launch of Player's Handbook 3, the doom of hybrid classes was unleashed on an unwitting public. Not everyone has explored their true value, but for the sake of our characters playing dress up? It's ideal. Just flip through that chapter of the book for the illustrations, and look at how visually confusing all the hybrids must be to a gaggle of monsters. No really. Flip through it. I'll wait.
*elevator muzak plays*
Hybrids make weird concepts easy. Ever since Player's Handbook came out, I've seen players on different continents try to create the "warlock in heavy armor" character. Sure, sometimes the guy has a name and a backstory, but ultimately it comes down to this: "I sold my soul and all I got was this crappy AC" drama. The idea might have also gotten some momentum when warlocks got a killer basic melee weapon attack, but let's not split hairs. Before hybrids, you had to raise one or two nonoptimal stats to cash in on some snazzy heavy armor and it took 2-4 feats, depending.
Now with a hybrid class, that warlock can go halvsies with a bard, battlemind, paladin, or runepriest to get heavy armor proficiencies and shields at level 1. I don't know if you're playing D&D Encounters, but at the store here in Berlin we saw three battlemind/warlocks show up over the past few weeks. It's a little telling, though I'm not surprised since the combo's kind of optimal. . . . But, wait, that trivia is for another article, most likely written by someone with actual analytical math skills and not a habit of drawing goofy-eyed monsters and who still giggles like a 10-year-old at the sound of the dreaded "fell taint's" name.
The narrative fluff for each hybrid option in Player's Handbook 3 isn't to be passed by either. (And yes, as a freelancer for Wizards of the Coast I can get away with calling the book awesome and classy because, well, while they sign my checks I'm not talking about my own product. P.S. Buy a Shirt.) Check it out for more in-character reasons to make a hybrid rather than just "I want a cleric who uses a guitar to strum prayers at her enemies because it's hilarious."
That actually brings up one of the big things hybrids offer for customizing your appearance: Your implement powers, from either class, work with any implement you're proficient with from either class. Sure, it's a balance thing so that hybrids don't have to juggle a comedic number of orbs, rods, daggers, voodoo dolls, tambourines, or whatever, any more than a normal character, but let's look a little deeper for the madness. Half of the swordmage's powers are implement attacks, which means that if your other class has any sort of implement, you can be a swordmage without a freaking sword. It's pretty hard to pigeonhole a character like that.
The warlock/paladin hybrid mentioned above could use a holy symbol for his or her warlock attacks, freeing up arms for heavy shields and one-handed sticks of smiting. A hybrid monk could cast sorcerer spells through a spear, and a hybrid artificer can do some goofy clerical work through a repeating crossbow if need be. It goes on like that. The point is that hybrid characters really let you craft exactly how your character looks and operates if you set your mind to it. If your goal is to screw with the monsters' brain when it judges you by your fashion sense, it won't be too difficult at all. Anything to skew the results of the infamous "What are you wearing" question and maybe pressure the DM to look at his or her orc's Insight score to see if the creature can figure out what the heck it's fighting.
To go the extra mile, let me suggest a new armor type your DM might be kosher with letting you snag -- if deception is the name of your game.
Property: During any short rest, choose another armor type. This armor takes on the appearance of the chosen armor type until the first time you take damage during an encounter.
In conclusion, all I want to say is that sometimes it's fun to throw a monkey wrench into the stereotypes of stabbing monsters and stealing their treasures. If this kind of thing is going to make your DM cry like a baby (save ends), then you're probably better off keeping your character's fashion sense traditional. That said, might I suggest one final magic item?
The heroic tier bed sheet with eyes cut out that I put over my head pretty much summarizes my intentions and feelings here. It's hard to quantify the advantage that confusing the enemy offers, but it is a lot of fun. Hell, in addition to confusing the monsters, the bed sheet will confuse, well, everyone. That's a win in my book.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go play a hybrid swordless swordmage/tome wizard who blasts his foes with the eldritch power of literacy.
P.S. To my editor, who immediately said after reading this, "A monster with tremorsense could see beneath the bed sheet." This statement is proof that I need to get out of the studio more often. Or get a new editor.