Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Response to Esper the Bard's 5E Class Rankings

I mentioned a few posts ago that this YouTube video rating the 5E classes was worthy of a response. While I've moved away from 5E as a DM, I still enjoy it as a player, so I think it's worth my time to consider what Esper thinks, why he thinks it, and point out where I agree or disagree with him.

First of all, here's the link to his video. Feel free to watch it now and come back here, or read this first and then watch his video (or alternate between the two!) as you like.

My first impression of his video was one of mild annoyance. First off, he has his tiers of ranking based on Guns n Roses songs which is fair enough. But his decision of where each class goes on that tier system is vague. He has a rating system with five criteria for evaluation. But he NEVER explains what these are. The first sign of a weak taxonomy system or ranking system is a failure to explain HOW you're classifying or rating whatever it is.

Now, granted, anything like this sort of video will, 99% of the time, boil down to post hoc justifications for the presenter's subjective opinions. But a carefully defined rubric of evaluation gives justifications for the subjective judgments and helps the audience with their own evaluations of the material.

I had to go looking at some of Esper's other videos to find his criteria spelled out in his ranking undead video. I didn't watch the whole video, just long enough to get his criteria.

So before I dive into the meat of the Character Class ranking video, I want to discuss this rubric a bit.

Mechanics apparently means a variety of combat options. Note that the description gives the highly subjective descriptors "interesting" and "fun." The undead video gives a picture of a camel vs a beholder as examples of low and high mechanics. Ignoring the fact that camels, as real world animals, are a low level threat at best while beholders are among the most powerful creatures in the game, I get what he's saying here. He thinks a simple attack roll/damage roll is boring, while having a dozen options to choose from each round is interesting.

Style is completely subjective. There's no way around this. Appearance and tone? His example pictures are a giff (I think that's the name - a Napoleonic monocle wearing hippo man from Starjammer) as low style and a roaring balor demon as high style. So goofy and unusual is lame, "metal" is cool. Got it.

Roleplaying is one that makes sense for rating monsters -- how high is the potential that you could have social interaction with the monster? His pictures are an ochre jelly and a lammasu. Obviously, you're going to fail to convince the ochre jelly that 'you're actually the telephone man come to fix the line so please let us into the treasure vault' with a Persuasion check or any amount of role play at the table. As a rating for character classes, though, I'm still mystified about what this is actually supposed to measure.

Lore seems to be a rating of not just how much total description of the monster there is, but its precedents in real world myth and legend. His example pictures are a carrion crawler (low lore) and a medusa (high lore). Since 2E went all out on monster lore for just about everything, it's hard for me to figure out if he's comparing in-game lore or real-world lore for monsters, or if again it's just a smokescreen for "I like how this monster is described, but not that one." And again, for character classes, I'm not sure how it translates exactly or how it's different from Style or Roleplaying.

Flexibility would seem to be a mechanical evaluation of the monster/class and how different you can make them within the rules. He gives pictures of a poisonous snake as low flexibility, and two elves (one a mage, one a warrior) as high flexibility. But I'm still a bit baffled when it comes to character classes. How is this different from Mechanics? Personally, I think flexibility has a lot to do with player creativity and ingenuity. I've seen plenty of "flexible" spellcasters who just spam fireballs and magic missiles all day long. And we've all had to deal with the player who thinks a cleric should be a walking cure wounds dispenser. Anyway, Esper seems to equate "lots of options to choose from on the character sheet" with flexibility...which is pretty much the same as his Mechanics category above.

So, we really have two categories for rating the classes, according to Esper:
  • Do the game rules give this class lots of options to choose from? (Mechanics/Flexibility) 
  • Do I think it's cool to play this class? (Style, Roleplaying, Lore)
So, on to his ranking.

The only bottom tier (E) option according to Esper, is the Fighter/Champion. And basically it's there because he sees this class option as a "long, long road filled with basic attacks" and nothing else. Well, if as a player of a Fighter/Champion you don't get creative, sure, that's possible. But a creative player will be looking at the rules (there are more things to do in combat in 5E, I mentioned the whole long list of allowed actions in my post the other day), not to mention equipment that could be used to make encounters more interesting. Sure, any other class could do those things, too, but since they have all these built in options to choose from, how often will they take advantage of them? When it comes to style, Esper sees this class as a blank slate...which is bad somehow. I guess being able to style the class any way you want is too much work for a 5E player these days? I shouldn't be snide. But really, he says there's no lore attached. I'm looking at just about all of human mythology/legendry/history and seeing all sorts of inspirations. I guess if it didn't come from Gygax as filtered through 3E and then 5E, it doesn't count.

Now, granted, the Champion is fairly plain and simple. It's not "sexy" but that's kind of the point. The Fighter throughout D&D history has not been a "sexy" class. But it's still one of the most common because it's effective and fun.

The next tier up (D) again has one subclass, the Barbarian/Berserker. His evaluation is that mechanically it has a few more options than the Fighter/Champion, but will still just be looking to make lots of normal attacks each round. He gives it high points for style (because bulging muscles are cool, I guess?) but says there's no lore or built in RP hooks for the class. So again, apparently we have our difference of Style with Roleplay/Lore. Style means "I think the art looks cool" while RP/Lore means WotC gave me my character concept for me (and I like what they gave me, but this part is in parenthesis because it only becomes obvious later).

Moving up to the next tier (C) we get a few: Fighter/Battlemaster, Barbarian/Totem Warrior, Fighter/Eldritch Knight, and Ranger/Hunter

The Battlemaster is as lame as the Champion, but gets more mechanical tricks. It apparently is visually more appealing (one step higher than Champion on Style) I guess because the art is more dynamic than the motionless 3E Fighter pictures used with the Champion section? And having the ability to define your character with mechanics to back it up is apparently what Roleplay/Lore is about in this case, instead of just role playing to define your character.

The Totem Warrior is better than the Berserker because...the rules for the totems are better than the rules for berserking? And apparently having these semi-magical abilities gives you more to base your RP on than being a warrior who goes crazy in battle.

The Eldritch Knight, he says, could have been in B tier because 1/3 wizard, but being 2/3 fighter is lame. Because all it does is fight. (Um, if that's the case, why are 2 of 5 criteria based solely on your ability to fight?)

To be clear, he's talking about the "revised Ranger" variant which he praises, so by the book Rangers are probably down with the Berserker in D tier. He gives the Hunter good points for combat and exploration mechanics, but says the RP/Lore is limited. How? I'm still not sure.

Anyway, Esper says that all of the above classes/subclasses lack for mechanical flexibility and/or RP hooks hard coded into the class.

Moving up to B tier, we get the Monk (all subclasses), Ranger/Beastmaster, Paladin (all subclasses), Rogue (Assassin & Thief).

Monks have lots of unique mechanics that he likes. Loves, even. But unfortunately, they are low on RP potential. Because he's never seen anyone create a more interesting Monk background than the default given by the book. So here's one of my biggest criticisms of this video. Monks are apparently sucky roleplay options because of how the book suggests they are played. But moving forward, classes like the Paladin or Bard get high marks for being played the way the books says you should play them.

Beastmasters are sucky Rangers, but having an animal is cool and metal. So bonus points.

Paladins are cool because they have a hard-coded RP story in the class (which is why Monks suck).

Rogue, at least the Assassin and Thief subclasses, get high ranks for style (cool dark edgy art), and real world lore is cool (from Han Solo to Jack Sparrow)...although real world lore for lower ranked classes was ignored. Apparently not having spells is enough to limit these edgy scoundrels to B tier because...

Tier A, the top, the best of the best! Here we have the Rogue/Arcane Trickster, Warlock, Druid, Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric, and at the top the BARD!

This is getting long, and you can basically boil this down to A tier (aside from Rogue/Arcane Trickster who are at the bottom of the tier) are full spellcaster classes. That's it, folks. According to this video, spellcasters are where it's at! Even though he seems to again waffle on the "real world lore/game lore" thing. And is inconsistent about what constitutes good hard-coded RP hooks and what doesn't.

Probably no surprise that a guy who calls himself Esper the Bard puts the Bard class at the top of the chart.

So what can we learn from this? If you want to actually rate classes, come up with some sort of well-defined criteria for the ratings and explain your ranking system in detail. Offer up arguments to defend your rating with specific examples or some sort of data, rather than "I just like this."

OR, from the beginning, just tell us straight up, these are the classes ranked by my personal preference of what/how to play and what seems cool to me, and give up the pretense of some sort of objective ranking system.

Trying to mush the two together leads to disappointment in your audience.


  1. Lets not forget friends that this guy also slips in weird transphobic jokes for absolutely no reason at weird times :)

    1. I'm not doubting you, but I didn't notice anything in this class ranking video. Maybe I'm not as sensitive to transphobic jokes though. I wasn't planning to watch more of his videos anyway, but if this is true it's just one more very good reason not to.