The 3.5 D&D Paladin has problems. It may be one of the better melee classes in the book out of the box but that doesn’t mean a hell of a lot and there are a number of levels where the Paladin just increases a few numbers and nothing else changes for them. These are known as ‘dead levels,’ and honestly, in 3rd edition D&D, for the melee characters, you could do worse than that. A couple of classes got worse when they levelled up.
I therefore tried to solve this problem in the fashion that to me looked the most sensible, straightforward, and functional way. That is, I decided to make a single class that addressed the Paladin’s balance problems, integrated Domains as a design element, and let players play a whle bunch of different characters that were only united by being primarily combatants and empowered by something beyond the self.
I made the Adherent.
The Adherent was designed around a template that started with ‘The Paladin’ and refined it a little. In the simplest terms, a Paladin is a class with a full base attack bonus, d10 hit dice, a small skill list, 2 skills a level, and ‘least’ spellcasting that started at level 4 and relied on a decently high ability score.
Across 20 levels, it was very possible for a character to level up and get literally no major change. In the normal rules of 3rd edition D&D, you got a feat every 3rd level, and a state point every 4 levels. If your base attack bonus was the highest it could be (and therefore, getting new attacks was something you expected), you’d get a new attack at levels 6, 11, and 16, and with the ‘least’ spell progression, you’d unlock new spell levels at levels 4, 8, 11, and 14, and no, there’s no good formula at work there.
The Adherent was meant to be a class that got almost no levels where nothing much changed, but even with that plan, looking back at it, there are still some ‘dead’ levels, like 7. Either way, the point was it was a Paladin-type that rather than relying on a small pool of powers that got repeatedly better and had generic flavour, the Adherent got powers from the two domains you selected at level 1, and as you levelled up, you picked which ones you got.
There are 21 Domains in the base rules to start with, and this obviously presented a big mechanical challenge. This means there are 210 possible different Adherent combinations, and that’s… just a preposterous number of character options to actually playtest.
What I did to make it manageable was chunking. Rather than trying to make every different domain identical, there was a vision to make sure that some types of domains which were widely distributed would be useful for picking up ‘standard’ packages of powers for the archetype.
Some domains were deliberately like one another. For example, the elemental sets, Fire, Earth, Air and Water, were all roughly identical; a stat-based armour bonus, turning, a useful bonus for movement, imposing a special boon on your weapon, an improvement on the armour bonus, then wildshaping into an armour. If you made a character who picks one of those domains, your character would do that stuff, fire stuff or earth stuff.
Similarly, the alignment domains were nearly identical. Law and Chaos, which were mutually exclusive, much like Good and Evil, were almost identical to one another in what they did, but also, almost every god had access to one or the other or both.
From there the next step was finding interesting mechanics that could both fit the concept of the domain and also gave you interesting choices for ways to use these options the player gets. You gave up mounted combat, which was the domain of the Paladin, but on the other hand, you could with the right domain selection wind up with things like flying on fire wings and healing people with a touch, but it wasn’t a standard package that made you exactly like other Paladins. You were an Adherent, and the two specific choices you made changed what you were, mechanically.
Then the result took four years to playtest, and even now I can look at and go: Oh well, that obviously needs a lot of fixing. What I was proud of was that it was hard to make a crap Adherent, but also, you could almost always get something that ‘felt right’ if you picked two domains that you liked the name of that fit your character. Glory and Sun, or War and Law or Healing and Community – if you had the words, your character would reflect what you were aiming for pretty well.
It’s something I like a lot, but it’s also just comically overcomplicated as technical fixes.