An Overview of the D&D 5e Classes
There are plenty of choices to make when creating a new character for your next D&D campaign. It’s exciting whether it’s your first time ever making a character or it’s your 100th time. Though, out of all the decisions you have to make in the process the biggest one is choosing between all 12 of the D&D 5e classes in the Player’s Handbook (PHB).
We’re sticking with just the PHB classes in this post to keep things simple and to provide a basic overview. If you’re looking for a guide on homebrew characters check out my post about finding high quality homebrew content.
Imagine the role that you’d like to play. Are you the spell-slinger? Are you more of a shifty thief? Do you want to be the sturdy melee character in the frontlines?
Once you’ve figured out what role your character will serve in the party move on to choosing your class.
Think of your class in D&D as the foundation of your character. Each class has a play style that it’s suited for and roles that it can fill. Once you’ve decided on a class you’ll then choose things like your race, background, and spells that will fit with whatever playstyle you have in mind.
In the end, all of these additional choices are supplementary to your class. They’re important, but they won’t have nearly as big of an impact in helping you play the role you want to play.
Let’s take a look at each of the classes. What they do, what’s unique about them, and what roles they serve in the game. If you find one that fits into the role you’ve envisioned, do some more digging in the PHB!
The D&D 5e Classes
Primary Ability Scores: Strength and Constitution
The barbarian is a front-line behemoth. You can take a mean punch despite not wearing any armor. You also can deal a large amount of damage with heavy melee weapons like the greatsword or greataxe.
The barbarian’s main mechanic is Rage. This is a state of primal fury that gives you bonus damage, advantage on Strength checks & saving throws, and gives you resistance to basic melee damage.
Basically, rage takes what the barbarian is naturally good at (taking damage and dealing melee damage) and makes you even better at it for a short period of time.
Barbarians are emotional characters. They trust their gut instincts to survive in dangerous areas and in combat. Danger Sense and Feral Instinct give barbarians some personal utility in and out of combat.
The class archetypes of the barbarian tend to grant either more combat prowess, or focus on those primal instincts and give you more utility for either yourself or your entire group.
Keep in mind that as a barbarian you’re going to lean towards a melee build. Ranged attacks don’t benefit from the vast majority of your abilities.
Primary Ability Scores: Charisma and Dexterity
The bard is both a utility-focused spellcaster and a natural choice for the face of the party. Typically a bard is some flavor of entertainer, most commonly a musician, and uses this talent to cast spells and bolster their allies.
A bard is generally considered a utility machine. They have so many spells that are focused on buffing your party or weakening your enemies. Bards also have baseline abilities such as Bardic Inspiration and Countercharm that can provide buffs to allies.
Bardic Inspiration is also your unique Bard resource. This ability is a dice pool that you can use to grant yourself or your allies an extra die in any ability check, saving throw, or attack they choose. It counts as a bonus action so it’s extremely useful!
Bards are well-rounded characters. They can take spells from the spell lists of other classes. Bards also have no limits as to what skills they can choose and can choose 3 instead of the average of 2 skills. They also gain half proficiency in any skill they don’t have proficiency in.
They’re a natural face of the party as their spellcasting ability is Charisma. They’ll have at least half proficiency in any speech-based skill, plus they have access to many different charm spells. Bards are natural manipulators and influencers.
Bard archetypes are interesting because they each help the bard fill in a niche. There are archetypes that improve your melee combat ability, ones that focus on your offensive spellcasting abilities, and of course, archetypes that give the bard even more utility.
Primary Ability Scores: Wisdom and Constitution/Strength
The cleric is a spellcaster that can hold their own on the frontlines. They can wear some heavy armor and wield a shield without any trouble while still providing a ton of utility to their party or slinging offensive spells at their enemies.
Clerics are holy warriors. They are the natural enemies of undead and can use their divine abilities to inflict fear upon their undead foes or destroy them outright. This is your Channel Divinity, the class resource for clerics and paladins.
The cleric spell list is very well-rounded. There are tons of utility spells, but also plenty of damage dealing options as well.
A major benefit that clerics have over other spellcasting classes is that they can prepare their spells. They have access to their entire spell list, but may only choose their spells after they complete a long rest. This allows a cleric to help fill in the gaps the party has on a day-by-day basis.
Clerics are one of the few classes that get to choose their archetype at level 1. Because of this, their archetype is a lot more important for carving out a role than their base class.
The archetype you choose will give you access to unique spells, a unique Channel Divinity option, and some flavorful damage and utility features that fit the theme of your archetype.
Your choice of archetypes varies by either giving you more utility, better offensive spellcasting, or some better front-line capabilities. Like the bard, your archetype helps carve out a role since your class is so volatile.
Primary Ability Scores: Wisdom and Constitution
Druids are divine spellcasters like clerics, though they focus more on the natural world rather than serving a deity. They are one-with-nature quite literally as they can turn into beasts at-will.
Druids prefer to be all-natural in their armor choices. They cannot wield shields or wear armor that is made out of metal. They’re also much more limited in their weapon selection compared to their cleric counterparts.
That being said though, if they were to charge into the frontlines they’d first use their unique resource and Wild Shape into a bear or a wolf! They can keep this form up for quite some time and over time they get more shape-shifting options such as swimming or flying beasts.
Their spell list and function are very similar to the cleric’s. It revolves around utility, but still has access to some excellent damage-dealing options. Druids also prepare their spells after completing a long rest and can choose from any spells in the druid spell list.
A lot of the druid spells revolve around concentration which is beneficial to them. They can keep these spells up even when they are in their Wild Shape form despite not being able to cast spells as a beast.
Oh, they also have their own unique language that they can use to communicate with other druids.
Druid archetypes focus on either making the druid a better spellcaster or a better shape-shifter. This gives druids the option of being either a front-line damage dealer or a powerful spellcaster in the back-line. Either way though, you’ll be able to fulfill both of these roles to some degree.
Primary Ability Scores: Strength or Dexterity and Constitution or Intelligence (if Eldritch Knight)
Fighters are artisans of war. They are proficient with all types of armor, shields, and every simple and martial weapon in the game. A fighter can be anything from a heavily armored frontline tank to a quick and nimble archer.
In previous editions fighters were by far one of the least interesting classes in the game. However, in 5th edition the fighter is an absolute blast. They have unique resources and abilities such as Action Surge which grants the fighter a second action on their turn.
Your abilities revolve almost entirely around combat. As the name implies, the fighter is built to fight. You’ll have to rely on some of the fighter’s archetypes to grant it any in or out of combat utility.
Just like the barbarian, fighters are (mostly) a martial class. They wield weapons and armor or use physical tools to get the job done rather than spells.
Fighters are the first “short rest” class that we’ll talk about in this post. This means that the majority of their resources are replenished after a short rest, unlike other classes who get their resources back after a long rest.
The archetypes that fighters get to choose from are all very unique and create a completely different type of character. The Battle Master gives extra damage, survivability, or utility abilities while the Eldritch Knight turns the fighter into a partial spell caster.
Believe me when I say that there is an archetype to improve on any weapon or fighting style you could come up with for a fighter.
Take a look at my Arcane Archer Fighter build to learn how to create your own fighter! This build also features multiclassing and rogue things.
Primary Ability Scores: Dexterity and Wisdom
Monks are quick and unarmored martial artists that can use their Ki to manipulate their opponents and the world around them. They wield simplistic weapons, or will simply use their fists. A monk doesn’t need a fancy weapon because a monk is the weapon.
While they cannot hit nearly as hard as a barbarian or a paladin, the monk brings something else into the frontlines. Monks are the masters of combat utility. They can use their Ki to Dash, Dodge, Disengage, gain an extra unarmed attack, stun an enemy, re-roll failed saving throws, and deflect missiles.
Monks are another short rest class like the fighter as their Ki recharges on a short or long rest. This allows them to continuously shine on days where there are tons of combat encounters.
Add onto the fact that they gain bonus movement speed for not wearing armor and take reduced falling damage and you have yourself a nimble martial class with surprisingly high AC.
That’s not all. Monks can become immune to poison and disease and can even use an action to end a charmed or frightened condition imposed on them.
Ki is an amazing and versatile resource and has even more uses than the ones I’ve listed so far. Not to mention the fact that they gain even more uses for it in each of their archetypes.
Their archetypes aren’t particularly impressive, but that’s to be expected from a class that gets such a massive amount of features in its base class. Monk archetypes focus on giving them more utility or making them better martial artists.
My Kung Fu Panda Monk guide gives a more in-depth look at the monk as well as the druid.
Primary Ability Scores: Strength and Charisma
The paladin is a holy warrior that has a sworn oath they seek to fulfill. They fight with martial weaponry and heavy armor with a mix of divine magic. Their mere presence is enough to invigorate and inspire their allies in even the most difficult battles.
Paladins can be described as a cleric that is more proficient with martial combat than spell casting. This isn’t a great comparison, but at a high-level overview in terms of flavor it’s not terrible.
Paladins are holy warriors and seek out creatures like celestials, fiends, and undead with their Divine Sense. Their divine powers can manifest in the form of Lay on Hands which gives the paladin a pool of hit points that can be used to heal creatures or cure disease and poison.
They can also cast some divine spells. Their spell list is much more limited than a cleric’s, but they still are able to prepare any spell on their spell list after a long rest.
That being said, they can opt to use their spell slots to improve their damage with the use of Divine Smite. This ability can be used after a hit is confirmed which makes it an extremely powerful ability. Paladins have excellent burst damage because of this.
Paladins also are able to emit auras which give allied creatures nearby buffs to things like saving throws or immunity to fear.
The paladin archetypes are all pretty unique and generate a different play style, but for the most part, a paladin is typically going some flavor of melee front-line fighter that has a fair bit of utility in its spells and class features.
The archetype that you choose determines your Channel Divinity options which works the same way as the cleric’s except you only get 1 use of it per short rest.
Primary Ability Scores: Dexterity or Strength and Wisdom
The ranger is a seasoned veteran of whatever wild landscape they come from. Rangers tend to have lived in a place such as a dangerous forest, swamp, or even the Underdark. Wherever they’re from they’ve learned to tough out the wilderness and commune with nature in order to survive. They’re tough and they’re resourceful.
Rangers are partial casters that can cast divine magic that’s similar to that of the druid. Think of them as the druidic counterpart of the paladin. They’re both partial casters.
However, rangers don’t get to prepare their spells after a long rest. Instead they have to choose a limited number of spells from their spell list. Their list revolves primarily around utility for either themselves or their party to benefit from.
The stereotype for rangers is that they wield a bow and have a beast companion. Neither of these is necessarily true. A ranger can be a strength-based fighter, and only one official archetype even has access to a beast companion.
The main benefit of playing a ranger is providing a ton of out-of-combat utility. With you around your party will never get lost. If you’re tracking a creature you’re familiar with you’ll know everything about it and how many there are.
You’re quick and stealthy and are in tune with nature enough to know what is going on in the natural world around you.
Ranger archetypes are fairly unique in that their archetype is where most of their combat features are found. When you choose your archetype as a ranger you build your character how you’d like to play while fighting.
There’s an archetype for everything and all of the new ones in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything are particularly fun in my opinion.
See how I make my Bounty Hunter Ranger in this post!
Primary Ability Scores: Dexterity and Intelligence or Charisma
They lurk in the underbelly of cities and will often try to make a quick buck by taking what isn’t theirs, be it a life or a coin purse. Rogues are cutthroat assassins, skilled thieves, and everything in-between.
You know how to use theives’ tools which means you can pick locks and disable traps. This makes rogues a valuable commodity in adventuring parties.
Rogues have a lot of fun utility that can be used outside of combat such as their own secret language like druids. They also can gain expertise with skills which allows them to gain a double proficiency bonus with up to 4 skills at level 6.
Even then, with Reliable Talent at level 11 you can never roll lower than a 10 when making an ability check with a skill you’re proficient in. Rogues are extremely skillful.
They’re also extremely deadly in combat when they can make use of their party members or the area around them. They can Dash, Disengage, and Hide as a bonus action and gain Sneak Attack which gives them extra damage on a successful attack.
While they can’t wear heavy armor or wield shields, rogues still have a fair amount of survivability. They have abilities that can reduce damage taken or even avoid taking damage altogether.
Rogues are what I refer to as an “all-day” class. Their class features and abilities are not hindered behind resting. They can continue to dish out their Sneak Attack burst damage without rest and pilfer possessions without needing to take a breath. The only thing that slows a rogue down is the rest of the party.
Rogue archetypes are used to specialize in a specific part of the overall rogue class. This could be stealthy assassinations, stealing things and utilizing items, or even learning how to use magic to enhance your natural abilities.
Primary Ability Scores: Charisma and Constitution
Natural-born talent is the best way to describe a sorcerer. For one reason or another, you have a natural affinity to the arcane and can manipulate spells and abilities to make them more potent.
Sorcerers are an extremely fun class. With Metamagic you can utilize your unique resource, Sorcery Points, to change the way that spells work. You can make spells deal more damage, increase their range, and even duplicate a spell. These are only a few of the options.
That being said though, they do have some limitations that counter this. Sorcerers can only learn a limited number of spells on their spell list. In general, a sorcerer will carve out a niche for themselves because of this. Are you more of a damage dealer or more of a beacon of utility?
Sorcerers are all about choices. You have to choose your spells, but you can change how they work in the midst of a fight. A sorcerer can even use those Sorcery Points to regain some missing spell slots.
A sorcerer has a limited number of options, but they have a ton of choices and decisions to make with those options.
Sorcerer archetypes revolve entirely around your origin, how you got your innate arcane powers. These archetypes can be used to enhance your ability, survivability, damage, and utility.
The base sorcerer class gives very little because of these benefits. Like the ranger, your archetype choice weighs pretty heavily in your play style.
Check out my Wild Magic Support Sorcerer guide for a more in-depth look at building a sorcerer!
Primary Ability Scores: Charisma and Constitution
Warlocks have made some pact for power with a being or cause greater than themselves. This power is directly translated into domination on the battlefield and a healthy helping of utility.
Warlocks are arcane casters just like the sorcerer and the wizard except they are a short rest class. They only have between 1-4 spell slots depending on their level, but they are regained completely after a short rest.
These spell slots also don’t have spell levels. This means that whenever a warlock casts a spell it is cast at the highest level they can physically cast at. The unique spell slots make for very potent spells and provide a very different take on the arcane caster playstyle.
The pact that a warlock makes not only gives them this unique spellcasting ability, but also plenty of other perks. Warlocks gain Eldritch Invocations that can enhance their Eldritch Blast Cantrip or some unique utility abilities.
You also get pact abilities that can grant you extra Cantrips, a powerful familiar, or a magical weapon.
Warlock archetypes are overflowing with flavor. Your archetype is determined by how you gained your powers. They enhance your spellcasting ability or give you proficiency in martial combat with the added benefits of warlock spell casting.
Primary Ability Scores: Intelligence and Dexterity or Constitution or Charisma (if joining the School of Enchantment)
Unlike the sorcerer or warlock, the wizard typically gains their mastery of the arcane through rigorous study and dedicated practice. This discipline gives them the ability to know a wide range of spells and have absolute mastery of the school of magic they specialize in.
The main draw to playing a wizard over a sorcerer is their ability to learn a vast amount of spells. They can continuously learn new spells even outside of leveling up by copying spell scrolls into their books. This is a costly process but a rewarding one.
Wizards can prepare their spells from the spells in their spellbook after a long rest. This gives a wizard a lot of choices. If they know what they are up against the next day they can choose spells more effective for those potential scenarios; just like a cleric, druid, or paladin.
Because of their deep study in magic, wizards are able to choose a school of magic that they are particularly knowledgeable in. They choose an archetype at level 1 and gain unique benefits based on what school of magic they choose.
Each school is based on the type of magic. A School of Evocation Wizard has features that allow it to deal more damage or protect party members from friendly fire. While a School of Enchantment Wizard is able to charm or manipulate creatures and even alter their memories.
A wizard is always going to be reliant on casting spells. That’s their class identity, but the archetype carves out a niche for your character in their role.
Don’t worry if for some reason you don’t think a single class in the list really encompasses the role. You can easily multiclass and take 2 or more classes with the same character. This unique combination of classes can open even more doors and help you carve out the exact niche you originally were looking for.
I’ve gone over multiclassing before so be sure to check that out if this seems interesting!
Now that you’ve figured out what class you’d like to play and your role. check-in with the rest of your group. See if your choice meshes with the rest of the party, or what you could do to help fill in the gaps. I’ve talked about party composition before and it really is important.
That being said though, D&D 5e is very flexible. A barbarian could be the party’s face with the right skill proficiencies and ability score allocation. Perhaps they wouldn’t be as good as a bard, but as long as the gap is filled it doesn’t really matter.
Choosing your class or classes is a big decision and it’s one that makes an enormous impact on your game. The best way to choose one though is to determine what class fits the type of character you’d like to play. Focus on the high-level overview and gradually fill in the details.