Have you every seen yourself as the group’s healer and enjoying the cleric class, but wanting to be more of a druid-like character? Or perhaps you see yourself as the group’s tank but loathe the idea of being just another sword and board in plate. Well, perhaps you can play by the rules without playing by the rules. In fact I am here to tell you that is exactly what you can do. That is the whole point of D&D, after all. To exist in a world where anything is possible and there are no programming restrictions on the choices you make. All subject to DM approval and nerf-hammers, of course.
Today I want to talk about re-skinning the things that sit within a rule book to make them work for you. Such things find themselves to be problems only in mechanics heavy games like Dungeons & Dragons. Other games may have a rule for literally anything, being even more mechanically heavy like earlier forms of D&D. Or they may be universal systems where you get better at something and can skin how that works virtually any way you want.
For 5th Edition, Wizards cut back the fat on the rules in some ways. In 3rd Edition there were so many rules, feats, bonus, penalties, spells, builds, tacked on mechanics, and situational circumstances it was hard to build the character you envisioned without doing a thesis on the idea first. Then came 4th Edition and we got streamlined set of rules that worked similarly across the board (for most of the edition’s life anyway). Now all you had to do was decide to build your defender with the defense feats and defensive abilities. Don’t want a shield, just make sure not to pick those ones. Want to dual-wield? Grab a couple of those powers to beef that aspect up.
Now, to be fair 4th Edition became as laden with options as 3rd, though they we more easily indexed. And you were limited in the number of “cool moves” you could have at any one time, since leveling had you replace one with another eventually. This was especially true as they released regular supplements, some of which entirely focused on one set of characters (such as martial or divine). In some ways, all of these options are great and many powers are super cool. Hell fighters became a more easily enjoyable option (you can do a lot with 3E feats but, boy, is that some planning and bonus/penalty paperwork). But, when it comes down to it, 5th Edition has become a nice blend of streamlined and unique mechanics. Only certain classes/archetypes get extra attack for example.
And now, two years later, we are still working off of the core books. There have been adventures, one Sword Coast supplement, and Unearthed Arcana articles, but all in all we are working from the Player’s Handbook. That doesn’t have to limit us and I will use my two original examples as to why.
First off, who says playing a druid has to mean you actually have to take levels in druid? I mean mechanically at their core is shape-shifting and certain spells. But thematically, a druid is a protector of nature. Perhaps you would like the opportunity to expunge shape-shifting for more spell-related abilities. My suggestion to you is to play a cleric of nature (or even life or tempest). Already you are themed toward being druidic. Next, simply forgo claiming any god to worship or call to and refer to yourself as a druid. The final step is, perhaps the most important, and needs to be approved by your DM. In my opinion, however, it is pretty non-issue. Simply use the druid spell list instead of the cleric one. Simple as that. That means no saying, “but I am technically a cleric so can I prepare this just once.” And no swapping out cleric spells you don’t mind losing for the druid spells you hate to lose. Just do the full switch.
Of course, you may have other problems with this like how do the cleric abilities mesh with a “druid”. Let’s start with turning undead. That is fairly easy since undead are, often, anathema to druids. Fits right in. Choosing the right domain is another key factor, of course. But perhaps it is divine intervention which you have trouble getting around. Well, why does it have to be divine? Perhaps the druid uses that ability and pulls a Moses parting a sea for refugees to get across. Or, maybe a powerful spirit of nature or ancient fey answers the call of such a powerful druid. Even better the druid may have such command of the elements in that brief moment that nature itself listens to her need. Don’t let ability names limit you!
How about for my second example though? A shield-less defender. We actually did this in a recent game. I built my friend the crusader type character he wanted. A wall at the front line, forward defense if you will. He used a polearm. I allowed him the defender fighting style, simply replacing the requirement of shield with polearm. As long as he had that he could still utilize that class feature, but would be unable to do it should he choose or need to take up a shield instead.
Everything else about a paladin works out for the way he wanted to play his character. And none of it really affected that one swap. To make him even more polearm mastered, though, we gave him the feat. Being able to threaten at reach was imperative. Because this feat is a commitment of “build resources” I also allowed it to synergize with that defensive tactic ability. There’s no real reason not to. Is it going to break the game to give him that defensive ground? Probably not, since he takes a hit to his AC from not wielding a shield as a tank instead. And frankly, that was the crux of his character idea and having fun is the most important part of the game.
When it comes down to it, both of these examples are simple things that require nothing but a single mechanical swap and a lot of flavoring. There are many ways this could be done and very little reason not to. If it won’t break your game and will give someone the opportunity to play the character they want with building a whole new class or looking for one online, just do it!