Q: So, which is the best Tier?
A: In the end, the best Tier is the Tier that matches the rest of your party and appeals to you. If your party is Fighter, Rogue, Healer, Barbarian, then Tier 4 or 5 is going to be the best. If your party is Sorcerer, Beguiler, Crusader, Swordsage, then Tier 2-3 will be best. Really, if you're having fun and no one in the party feels either useless or overpowered, then you're doing it right. Personally, I prefer Tier 3, but I still match to whatever party I'm in if I join after other characters are created.
That said, here's something that might help some DMs decide which tier is best for their campaigns:
So, I was thinking about the whole "what is the best Tier" thing. And of course it varies by campaign, but I'll talk about it a bit.
Tier 1 is the best tier if you want the PCs to be super powered... similar to an Exalted campaign (the RPG, not BoED). I've heard of one great campaign where the DM made the only character creation rule be that your character had to be evil and be after immortality. They had a Wizard who turned into a Lich, a Druid who used Reincarnation cheese, and so on. When they hit level 20 after having totally thrashed the campaign world, the DM ended the campaign and started a new one. It was 1000 years in the future, and the evil characters were all epic now, and ruling the whole land. The players had to start over as first level good characters and try to defeat their old PCs. Neat. Also, Clerics and Druids can be very nice for newbies because any poor build choices they make early on really won't matter that much later... sure, Weapon Focus Scimitar on the Druid may have been dumb, but you can turn into a Dire Bear so who cares? And if you picked the wrong spells today, that's okay... pick better ones tomorow. That said, I only recommend this tier for veteran DMs who can keep the PCs in line in agreeable ways, as campaigns can be broken very quickly by the unpredictable and powerful tools available to the players.
Tier 2... I'm not sure how many people would specifically want this one because it's pretty small, but it does have the advantage of giving you big power spells while still being at least a bit more predictable with your tricks. Newbies who might be overwhelmed with the number of spells constantly available to Clerics and Druids and Wizards might be more comfortable if they don't have to repick every day, so it might be best for them.
Tier 3 is the best tier for me. Everyone in the party has great tricks and can still throw some big surprises at me when I'm DMing, but everyone else still needs a party to work with them, which makes it easier to make sure specific party members have chances to shine. I like the versitility of players at this level, and power wise they're still managable without flat out saying "no, you can't do that."
Tier 4 is best for a lot of people too. At this Tier you can start predicting what the players will do in a situation, so DMs can better gauge how encounters will go. That Barbarian is going to deal a lot of damage through charging... if you want a hard encounter, use difficult terrain or whatever, and if you want an easier encounter, make sure he's got a target he can charge. The more flexible Tier 4s will be less predictable but they won't blow you away with a sudden trick you didn't see coming... that Rogue may have awesome tricks with his UMD, but only with items that you give him. Plus, teamwork is definitely important at this level. That Barbarian may be awesome in combat, but when it's time for stealth, he's not going to shine, and someone else will.
Tier 5 is probably best for new DMs, especially when dealing with veteran players. PCs at this point are getting very predictable. That Fighter with Improved Trip and a Spiked Chain will trip enemies, the Healer will be a healbot, the Monk can run fast and make a lot of attacks, but generally speaking you know what's going to happen in advance, especially in combat. This predictability makes it easy for a DM to guide the plot where he wants without it looking like railroading, as the limitations of the classes provide the railroad tracks for you. If the PCs are supposed to kill a dragon by going in through his cave, that's what they'll do... they're not going to Love's Pain nuke said dragon from miles away and then float ethereally through his lair or something.
Tier 6 is best when what you want is a fun little low powered game. The PCs are very limited, so challenges should be primarily player-centric in nature, since the classes themselves won't create many good solutions to situations. Puzzles that the players must solve, fights that are more about organization than damage dealing, and so on. I don't recommend this Tier to anyone but veterans though, as it's very limited in a lot of ways. Really, if you want to play at this low power level, you may be more satisfied playing a game like A|State than D&D.
Q: Why is my favorite class too low? It should TOTALLY be much higher!
A: Remember, you're probably more experienced with your favorite class than with other classes. Plus, your personality probably fits well with the way that class works, and you probably are better inspired to work with that class. As such, whatever your favorite class is is going to seem stronger for you than everyone else. This is because you're simply going to play your favorite class in a more skillfull way... plus you'll be blinded to the shortcomings of that class, since you probably don't care about those anyway (they match with things that you as a player probably don't want to do anyway). As such, if I did this right most people should think their favorite class is a little too low, whether that class is Fighter or Monk or Rogue or whatever else.
Q: I totally saw a [Class X] perform far better than a [Class Y] even though you list it as lower. What gives?
A: This system assumes that everything other than mechanics is totally equal. It's a ranking of the mechanical classes themselves, not of the players who use that class. As long as the players are of equal skill and optimize their characters roughly the same amount, it's fine. If one player optimizes a whole lot more than the other, that will shift their position on the chart.
Q: So what a minute, how can I use it then? My players all play differently.
A: First, determine what you'd say is the average optimization and skill level in the group, then make adjustments for people who are noticably different from that. I can't give examples of skill level, but here's an example for optimization. Imagine for a moment that your party has a Cleric with DMM: Persistant Spell, a Fighter with Shock Trooper and Leap Attack, a Beguiler with a Mindbender dip and Mindsight, and a traditional Sword and Board Fighter. Now, the first three are pretty optimized, but the fourth is pretty weak. So in that case, what you've actually got is a Tier 1, a Tier 3, a Tier 5, and a Tier 6, with that second Fighter being Tier 6 because he's far less optimized than the rest of the group. However, if your group is instead a healbot Cleric, a Beguiler who hasn't figured out how to use illusions effectively, a Sword and Board Fighter, and a Shock Trooper/Leap Attack Fighter, then the charge based Fighter is the odd one out. Bump him up a Tier... maybe even 2. So now you've got a Tier 1, a Tier 3, a Tier 5, and maybe a Tier 4. Remember, this whole thing is about intra party balance... there's no objective balancing, because each campaign is different.
Q: Why didn't you rank this from best to worst, like Wizard first, Archivist second, and so on? Why tiers?
A: There are too many variables in the game to actually rank the classes from best to worst. If the DM allows the Archivist to just research any spell he wants and is including the Divine Magician and Divine Bard varients in his game, plus the other ways for Archivists to get all Wizard/Sorcerer spells, then the Archivist is clearly stronger than the Wizard. If not, the Wizard may be stronger than the Archivist. Factors like that, plus questions of which books are allowed, what the wealth by level is, and what access to magic shops is allowed to the players... these things make it impossible to make a specific ranking of best to worst without assuming a heck of a lot, and I wanted this system to work for the vast majority of games. As such, I ranked them in tiers of power... regardless of the general campaign, an Archivist and a Wizard will be reasonably close to each other in power, and both will be far stronger than a Monk, for example. I do still have to make a few basic assumptions, such as that player skill and optimziation are reasonably close and that for the most part RAW is being played, but that's about it.
Also, the purpose of this system isn't to say "X class is the best!" It's to allow players and DMs to maintain intraparty balance... for that purpose, tiers are specific enough.
Q: So what exactly is this system measuring? Raw Power? Then why is the Barbarian lower than the Duskblade, when the Barbarian clearly does more damage?
A: The Tier System is not specifically ranking Power or Versitility (though those are what ends up being the big factors). It's ranking the ability of a class to achieve what you want in any given situation. Highly versitile classes will be more likely to efficiently apply what power they have to the situation, while very powerful classes will be able to REALLY help in specific situations. Classes that are both versitile and powerful will very easily get what they want by being very likely to have a very powerful solution to the current problem. This is what matters most for balance.
For example, here's how the various Tiers might deal with a specific set of situations, cut to spoilers due to size:
Situation 1: A Black Dragon has been plaguing an area, and he lives in a trap filled cave. Deal with him.
Situation 2: You have been tasked by a nearby country with making contact with the leader of the underground slave resistance of an evil tyranical city state, and get him to trust you.
Situation 3: A huge army of Orcs is approaching the city, and should be here in a week or so. Help the city prepare for war.
Okay, so, here we go.
Tier 6: A Commoner. Situation 1: If he's REALLY optimized, he could be a threat to the dragon, but a single attack from the dragon could take him out too. He can't really offer help getting to said dragon. He could fill up the entire cave with chickens, but that's probably not a good idea. Really, he's dead weight unless his build was perfectly optimized for this situation (see my Commoner charger build for an example). Situation 2: Well, without any stealth abilities or diplomacy, he's not too handy here, again unless he's been exactly optimized for this precise thing (such as through Martial Study to get Diplomacy). Really, again his class isn't going to help much here. Situation 3: Again, no help from his class, though the chicken thing might be amusing if you're creative.
Tier 5: A Fighter. Situation 1: If he's optimized for this sort of thing (a tripper might have trouble, though a charger would be handy if he could get off a clear shot, and an archer would likely work) he can be a threat during the main fight, but he's probably just about useless for sneaking down through the cave and avoiding any traps the dragon has set out without alerting said dragon. Most likely the party Rogue would want to hide him in a bag of holding or something. Once in the fight if he's optimized he'll be solid, but if not (if he's a traditional SAB build or a dual weilding monkey grip type) he's going to be a liability in the combat (though not as bad as the Commoner). Situation 2: As the commoner before, his class really won't help here. His class just doesn't provide any useful tools for the job. It's possible (but very unlikely) that he's optimized in a way that helps in this situation, just as with the Commoner. Situation 3: Again, his class doesn't help much, but at least he could be pretty useful during the main battle as a front line trooper of some sort. Hack up the enemy and rack up a body count.
Tier 4: The Rogue. Situation 1: Well he can certainly help get the party to the dragon, even if he's not totally optimized for it. His stealth and detection abilities will come in handy here, and if he puts the less stealthy people in portable holes and the like he's good to go. During the combat he's likely not that helpful (it's hard to sneak attack a dragon) but if he had a lot of prep time he might have been able to snag a scroll or wand of Shivering Touch, in which case he could be extremely helpful... he just has to be really prepared and on the ball, and the resources have to be available in advance. He's quite squishy though, and that dragon is a serious threat. Situation 2: With his stealth and diplomacy, he's all over this. Maybe not 100% perfect, but still pretty darn solid. An individual build might not have all the necessary skills, but most should be able to make do. Situation 3: Perhaps he can use Gather Information and such to gain strategic advantages before the battle... that would be handy. There's a few he's pretty likely to be able to pull off. He might even be able to use Diplomacy to buff the army a bit and at least get them into a good morale situation pre battle. Or, if he's a different set up, he could perhaps go out and assassinate a few of the orc commanders before the fight, which could be handy. And then during the fight he could do the same. It's not incredible, but it's something.
Tier 3: The Beguiler. Situation 1: Again, getting through the cave is easy, perhaps easier with spell support. And again, if he's really prepared in advance, Shivering Touch via UMD is a possibility. But he's also got spells that could be quite useful here depending on the situation, and if he's optimized heavily, this is going to be pretty easy... Shadowcraft Mage, perhaps? Or Earth Dreamer? Either way, he's got a lot of available options, though like the Rogue he's somewhat squishy (and that Dragon won't fall for many illusions with his Blindsense) so he still needs that party support. Situation 2: Again, with his skills he's all over this one, plus the added ability to cast spells like charm makes this one much easier, allowing him to make contacts in the city quickly while he figures out where this guy is. Situation 3: Like the Rogue, he can get strategic advantages and be all over the Diplomacy. He's not quite as good at assassinating people if he takes that route (though sneaking up invisible and then using a coup de gras with a scythe is pretty darn effective), but using illusions during the fight will create some serious chaos in his favor. A single illusion of a wall of fire can really disrupt enemy formations, for example.
Tier 2: The Sorcerer. Situation 1: It really depends on the Sorcerer's spell load out. If he's got Greater Floating Disk, Spectral Hand, and Shivering Touch, this one's going to be easy as pie, since he can just float down (and carry his party in the process) to avoid many traps, then nail the dragon in one shot from a distance. If he doesn't he'd need scrolls with the same issues that the UMD Rogue and Beguiler would need. If he's got Explosive Runes he could create a bomb that would take out the Dragon in one shot. If he's got Polymorph he could turn the party melee into a Hydra for extra damage. If he's got Alter Self he could turn himself into a Skulk to get down there sneakily. Certainly, it's possible that the Sorcerer could own this scenario... if he has the right spells known. That's always the hard part for a Sorcerer. Situation 2: Again, depends on the spell. Does he have divinations that will help him know who's part of the resistance and who's actually an evil spy for the Tyranical Govenerment? Does he have charm? Alter Self would help a ton here too for disguise purposes if he has it. Once again, the options exist that could totally make this easy, but he might not have those options. Runestaffs would help a bit, but not that much. Scrolls would help too, but that requires access to them and good long term preparation. Situation 3: Again, does he have Wall of Iron or Wall of Stone to make fortifications? Does he have Wall of Fire to disrupt the battlefield? How about Mind Rape and Love's Pain to kill off the enemy commanders without any ability to stop him? Does he have Blinding Glory on his spell list, or Shapechange, or Gate? Well, maybe. He's got the power, but if his spells known don't apply here he can't do much. So, maybe he dominates this one, maybe not.
Tier 1: The Wizard. Situation 1: Memorize Greater Floating Disk, Shivering Touch, and Spectral Hand. Maybe Alter Self too for stealth reasons. Kill dragon. Memorize Animate Dead too, because Dragons make great minions (seriously, there's special rules for using that spell on dragons). Sweet, you have a new horsie! Or, you know, maybe you Mind Rape/Love's Pain and kill the dragon before he even knows you exist, then float down and check it out. Or maybe you create a horde of the dead and send them in, triggering the traps with their bodies. Or do the haunt shift trick and waltz in with a hardness of around 80 and giggle. Perhaps you cast Genesis to create a flowing time plane and then sit and think about what to do for a year while only a day passes on the outside... and cast Explosive Runes every day during that year. I'm sure you can come up with something. It's really your call. Situation 2: Check your spell list. Alter Self and Disguise Self can make you look like whoever you need to look like. Locate Creature has obvious utility. Heck, Contact Other Plane could be a total cheating method of finding the guy you're trying to find. Clairvoyance is also handy. It's all there. Situation 3: Oh no, enemy army! Well, if you've optimized for it, there's always the locate city bomb (just be careful not to blow up the friendly guys too). But if not, Love's Pain could assassinate the leaders. Wall of Iron/Stone could create fortifications, or be combined with Fabricate to armour up some of the troops. Or you could just cast Blinding Glory and now the entire enemy army is blind with no save for caster level hours. Maybe you could Planar Bind an appropriate outsider to help train the troops before the battle. Push comes to shove, Gate in a Solar, who can cast Miracle (which actually does have a "I win the battle" option)... or just Shapechange into one, if you prefer.
So yeah, as you move up the Tiers you go from weak, unadaptable, and predictable (that Commoner's got very few useful options) to strong, adaptable, and unpredictable (who knows what that Wizard is going to do?). A Wizard can always apply a great deal of strength very efficiently, whether it's Shivering Touch on the Dragon or Blinding Glory on an enemy army. The Sorcerer has the power, but he may not have power that he can actually apply to the situation. The Beguiler has even less raw power and may have to use UMD to pull it off. The Rogue is even further along that line. And the Fighter has power in very specific areas which are less likely to be useful in a given situation.
So yeah, that's really what the Tiers are about. How much does this class enable you to achieve what you want in a given situation? The more versitile your power, the more likely that the answer to that question is "a lot." If you've got tons of power and limited versitility (that's you, Sorcerers and charging Barbarians) then sometimes the answer is a lot, but sometimes it's not much. If you've got tons of versitility but limited power (hi, Rogue!) then it's often "a decent amount." If you've got little of both (Commoner!) then yeah, it's often "it doesn't."
And of course reversing that and applying it to DMs, you get "how many effective options does this class give for solving whatever encounters I throw at them?" For Commoners, the answer may be none. For Fighters, it's sometimes none, sometimes 1, maybe 2, but you generally know in advance what it will be (if he's got Improved Trip and a Spiked Chain and all that, he's probably going to be tripping stuff, just a hint). For Wizards, it's tons, and they're all really potent, and you have no idea how he's going to do it. Does he blind the enemy army or assassinate all its leaders or turn into a Solar and just arbitrarily win the battle? There's no way to know until he memorizes his spells for the day (and even then you might not see it coming).
Q: But what about dips? I mean, I rarely see anyone playing single class characters. What would a Barbarian 1/Fighter 6 be, for example?
A: It's pretty simple. This system is paying attention to the fact that people are more likely to take the early levels of a class than the later levels, either because they simply don't get to a level where they'd see the late levels, or because of dipping. Generally speaking, a mix of classes should end up being as high up as the most powerful class in the mix if it's optimized, or somewhere in the middle of the classes used if not very optimized, and below them both if it's really strangely done. A Barbarian 1/Fighter 6 that's optimized would thus be Tier 4 generally, because it took the best qualities of a Barbarian (probably pounce, rage, and so on) and then made it stronger. Generally, you don't multiclass out unless you get something better by doing so, so you're usually going to end up at least as strong as the strongest class. This isn't always true, but it generally is. Meanwhile, if you do something silly like Wizard 4/Sorcerer 4, you might end up much lower. But assuming you're not doing anything rediculous, a combination of Tier 4 and Tier 5 classes will usually be Tier 4, though it might be Tier 5. Similar examples would be that a Scout/Ranger is probably going to be Tier 4 (though because there's a multiclassing feat for that, it could end up Tier 3), a Monk 1/Druid X will be Tier 1, a Fighter 2/Warblade X will be Tier 3, and so on.
Q: My players want to play classes of wildly different Tiers. What can I do about this?
A: Well, this will be a test of your DMing skill. The easiest solution is to convince them to play classes that are similar conceptually but different in power. For example, if they're currently going with Paladin, Druid, Monk, Illusionsist, then maybe you can get them to try out Crusader, Wild Shape Varient Ranger, Unarmed Varient Swordsage, Beguiler. That would make your life a lot easier. But if they're attached to their classes or feel that their class choice bests fits their character, then you've got a few options. One is to see the house rule section above and try something like that. Another is to simply provide extra support for the weaker classes... for example, perhaps more random magic items that drop are useful for unarmed strikers, while Wildling Clasps just don't seem to exist in your game. Maybe allowing more oddball "broken" tricks for the Monk (and perhaps Paladin) while being much more strict with the Illusionist and Druid. You can also allow more PrC options for the weaker guys... Monk 6/Shou Disciple 5/Unarmed Swordsage 4/Master of Nine 5 is fine for that Monk, but Illusionist 10/Earth Dreamer 5/Shadowcraft Mage 5 is not acceptable, and Druid/Planar Shepard is right out. You can also make sure that the challenges being put forward suit the strengths of the weaker classes. Something that makes good use of the Monk and Paladin's diplomacy would be advisable, for example. A challenge where being able to run really fast is handy might work too. And finally, you can bring the Druid and Illusionist aside and tell them the answer to the next question.
Q: My party mates all want to play classes of wildly different Tiers. What can I do about this?
A: First... see if you can get them to play something closer together, as above. If that won't work, okay. Now, if the class you're playing is noticably stronger than everyone else, try focusing your energy on buffing your party mates. Channel your power through them... it helps. If you're a DMM Cleric in a party with a Monk and Fighter, try persisting Recitation, Lesser Vigor, and Righteous Wrath of the Faithful instead of Righteous Might, Divine Power, and Divine Favor. You're still very powerful, and definitely getting results, but since you use your party mates to get those results, they feel useful too. Also, let them shine in their areas. If they're melees and you're a Cleric, don't turn into Godzilla and smash Tokyo. It's not polite. Focus on the other areas a bit more. If one of them is playing a Rogue, using Divine Insight to beat him on skills isn't nice. Let him have his fun, and save your spells for other areas if you can. If, however, you're playing a weaker class, then optimize optimize optimize! A CW Samurai is going to have a lot of trouble in a party full of Tier 3s and up, so maybe try being a Necropolitan CW Samurai 10/Zhentarium Fighter 10 with Imperious Command, Eviscerator, Improved Critical, and a pair of Lifedrinker Kukris. Carve out a niche where you're the king... they can have everything else. Also, make sure you've got something to do when you do have to sit out. Give your character a drinking habit or something.