Dungeons & Dragons 3e/3.5e and other takes on the d20 System are infamous for their power creep. By level 12-14, Game Masters have to scramble to find things that actually challenge the players. But at the end of the day, there's no way to create a sense of risk for a Climb check with a modifier in the upper twenties, short of coating all the flagstone in a dungeon with magical grease.
Because of this, I'll never really understand why the Gestalt rules variant became so popular; if base characters in the d20 System were superpowered, then Gestalt characters were hyperpowered. The gist of Gestalt is this:
Take two classes at every level, choosing the best aspects of each. The process is similar to multiclassing, except that characters gain the full benefits of each class at each level. if the two classes you choose have aspects that overlap (such as Hit Dice, attack progression, saves, and class features common to more than one class), you choose the better aspect.
An obvious problem with Gestalt - besides the power level that takes d20's already shaky structure and crushes it between its thighs - is keeping track of all of this, especially for new players; if a vanilla d20 character is a tax form, then a Gestalt character is an IRS audit.
The absurdity and complexity of Gestalt, then, cause this rule variant to clash with the philosophies Dungeons & Dragons 5e was designed with: Bounded accuracy was implemented to squash the power creep in which Gestalt thrives, and all the fiddly-bits that Gestalt draws from have been replaced with broad unifying mechanics.
However, if implemented within the context of 5e's rules, it is possible to run a Gestalt game without sacrificing accessibility and mechanical integrity.
A Member of Every Class
First, I want to offer a different way to visualize 5e's multiclassing rules. I feel that this visualization is a neat way to explain how multiclassing works in 5e, especially to new players, and players used to the multiclassing rules of previous editions. It's worked like a charm so far!
Your character is a member of every available class. Your character is level 0 in each of these classes. When you complete character creation, you have 1 level to place in any class that your character is a member of. You can place levels that your character gains beyond 1st in any classes that your character is a member of, but you have to meet the ability score prerequisites of those classes in order to do so.
Now, let's expand this visualization by adding Gestalt Classes:
Every class combination is considered to be a unique custom class, called a Gestalt Class. In addition to the base classes, your character is also a member of every Gestalt Class. For example, Fighter/Barbarian, Fighter/Bard, Fighter/Druid, and Fighter/Warlock are each Gestalt Classes that your character is a member of. Gestalt Classes exist for every possible combination of classes.
Defining Gestalt Classes
So now that we've defined what a Gestalt Class is, what exactly does it look like? In order to construct a Gestalt Class, use this quick checklist:
- Select two classes.
- Hit Dice: Use the highest-sized hit die between the two classes.
- Proficiencies: You can choose from both classes' lists of saving throws and skill proficiencies. Pick two saving throws, and pick the highest number of skill proficiencies allowed by either class. You also get all tool proficiencies from both classes.
- Class Features: When you gain a level, you gain all of the features that each class gains at that level. If you would gain two class features that have the same name, choose one.
So Where's the Power?
How I've presented Gestalt in 5e thus far seems more like a take on 4e's Hybrid class. Just how are Gestalt Classes more powerful than the average player character?
- Increased Build Potential: Not only can you achieve multiclass builds that would otherwise require twice as much time to make and cut your maximum class level, but you can come up with builds that wouldn't be feasible without Gestalt Classes.
- Optimizing Action Economy: You are still subjected to the same action economy as everyone else, but what you can do with that economy has increased exponentially between two classes and two class paths. Because of bounded accuracy, choices are power in 5e, and if you don't have a numbers game, you better believe the options game is where it's at.
- Using Spellcasting Paths: Since you only get to choose one Spellcasting feature from a Gestalt Class built from two spellcasting classes, making such a Gestalt Class seems like a waste. This couldn't be farther from the truth, since each spellcasting class has core features and path features that are interchangeable, from Sorcery Points to Arcane Recovery to lists of spells that you always have prepared. One spell progression and one spell list, but with twice as many ways to bolster it. Really, if we threw two different spell progressions on top of it, Gestalt in 5e would give a whole new meaning to caster supremacy.
While toying around with these rules, the Warlocks proved to be quite overpowered. Really, I couldn't find a reason not to always include Warlock in a Gestalt Class. What makes the Warlock so potent in Gestalt Class configurations is that its spell slots come back with a short rest, and that its Pact Magic feature is a separate feature from Spellcasting.
- Since Spellcasting and Pact Magic are two separate features, having the Warlock and another spellcasting class in a Gestalt Class would allow for two sets of spell slots and two spell lists at once.
- The Warlock also ruined an idea I had where Gestalt Classes would have access to both classes' spell lists. A Warlock being able to drop high-level Wizard spells with slots that recover on a short rest? No thanks.
- Even some of the paths made Warlocks problematic. For example, a life domain Cleric always has cure wounds prepared, which means a Warlock immediately becomes a literal health dispenser.
My friend Alex - who approached me with the Gestalt in 5e discussion, which I have since been unable to stop thinking about - had a great solution, which amounts to this: if you're going to have such powerful features, there's got to be some sort of tax.
If you have both the Pact Magic and the Spellcasting features, each time you spend a spell slot you receive from Pact Magic, you also have to spend a spell slot you receive from Spellcasting that is of equal level (or lower, if you don't have any slots left that are a high enough level). You can continue to use Pact Magic spell slots after your Spellcasting spell slots have run out.
This rule serves two functions: to discourage pairings with Warlocks and other spellcasters in Gestalt classes, and to smash the idea that Warlock spell slots can be thrown around freely because they come back at a short rest. Powers bestowed upon you by an entity that literally owns your soul will always be more potent than the magic that flows through your blood, was gifted to you through prayer, or learned from books, and the charge from these spells saps the energy you reserve to perform other types of magic.
A quick addition: you can multiclass into other classes as normal, but you cannot multiclass into classes that are part of a Gestalt Class that you already have a level in.
I personally wouldn't allow multiclassing into other Gestalt Classes, but if I did, I would require the character to meet the ability score prerequisites for both classes that compose that Gestalt Class (as shown in the "Multiclassing" section), and I would increase the prerequisites from 13 to 15.