DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Optional Class Features
Last Updated: November 18th, 2020
Tasha's Cauldron of Everything introduced the concept of "Optional Class Features". These features expand the existing class features for every published class except the Artificer, updating their class design based on the years of learning Wizards of the Coast has gained in the 6+ years since 5th edition's initial release.
However, not all of the optional class features are created equal, and they're deliberately considered "optional" rules. As the DM, you're free to decide which, if any, of the optional class features are available to your players and how your players might gain access to them.
When to Use Optional Class Features
This is mostly by preference. If you're perfectly happy with class balance in your game, you set the optional class features aside and forget about them. But there's a lot to be gained here, so I ask that you read on and at least give the new options some consideration.
Consider the new optional class features in four groups based on how they add to a class: expanded choices, completely new features, replacements for existing features, and retraining mechanics. Each of these should be considered in a different way, as I'll describe below
For guidance on individual optional features, see my class optimization articles. I detail each optional feature and provide suggestions on when to introduce those features.
Expanded choices are one of the easier types of optional class features. Essentially, they add new options to an existing decision point on a class, such as the Fighting Style feature or a class's spell list.
These options are often safe to allow universally. The class doesn't gain the ability to do more things within a single build; it simply gains more customization options. The class isn't actually stronger, it just has room for move diverse builds, which is nearly always a good thing.
To draw a dumb comparison, imagine that you got to pick two tools from a list of a hammer, a saw, and a screwdriver. Now imagine that as an optional class feature you added a measuring tape to that list. You still only get two choices, and so long as the measuring tape is roughly equivalent to the other options and doesn't have any problematic combination effects (maybe if you use a measuring tape and screwdriver at the same time it accidently summons a demon), the class isn't actually stronger.
New features are additions to the existing features of a specific class. These are, in every case, a "buff" to the class because they're additive by design. These are the most risky of the optional class features because they're adding functionality to a class which you might already consider balanced.
Because they're additive, these are the optional class features which you should consider with the most scrutiny, but they're also the most powerful tool in this particular box of tools for the DM. If you have a character in your party who is weaker than the rest of the party, you can hand them one or more of these features and bring them more in line with everyone else. These features are also a great way to help players explore less-powerful subclass options because you can complement a weak subclass by adding a few optional class features.
Replacement features replace existing class features. If you've played previous editions, you might know them as "alternate class features". These are great options for balancing classes because they replace features which are often limiting, weak, situational, or otherwise problematic, and allow players to use classes which look like fun but often have very limited viable build options.
Tasha's presents exactly 5 of these optional class features, and if you've been player 5e for a while you won't be surprised to learn that 4 of them go to the Ranger, which has been widely considered the weakest class since the Player's Handbook released and no amount of subclasses has managed to address problems at the core of the class.
The reason to use replacement features instead of simply adding new features is to manage the complexity of a class. Piling more features onto a class can make it hard to play because there's simply too much to keep track of. So by removing some features and replacing them with better ones you can get a better-designed class.
Most of the decision points which a player makes when building their character are permanent. While that's often fine for experience players (and people ho read my character optimization articles) who have a deep understanding of these choices, players sometimes find themselves with a build which isn't suited to the game that they're playing. Otherwise they might just find that a certain option isn't working out how they wanted it to, or they might want to take their character in a new direction as their character's personality changes throughout the story of their game.
Retraining mechanics are nearly always safe to allow across the board. Most of the class-specific retraining mechanics only allow players to retrain at certain levels, such as when their class grants an Ability Score Increase. This prevents players from retraining overnight to suit their build to whatever enemies they're facing, which eliminates the most-likely abuse case for retraining mechanics.
With the big abuse case eliminated, players are just exchanging equivalent options. While retraining might make a character more effective by removing an option that they're not using in favor of an option that they will use, retraining won't make a character more powerful than they could be if they had made different choices while building the character. A character who retrains to get access to a saw is no more powerful than a character who chose to gain access to a saw a few levels earlier when the choice was first presented.
Retraining mechanics are also helpful for long-running campaigns because new source materials can introduce new options which weren't available when a player made a specific build choice. Retraining allows you to introduce those new options without totally rewriting characters.
How to Introduce Them
Now that we've discussed when you should use optional class features, let's discuss how to introduce them to your game. You might handle each individual feature in a different way. Whatever you decide to do, I encourage you to discuss it with your gaming group and record the decision somewhere. A shared online document such as a google doc or a campaign wiki is a great choice because players can easily reference it whenever necessary.
While I won't discuss it further, there's an implicit "never" option here. If you choose to never use optional class features, that's totally fine. The game survived 6 years without them, and your game doesn't somehow suffer by their ommission. They're called optional class features for a reason.
If you choose to introduce an optional class feature permanently, you are deciding that X class shall have Y feature all the time every time.
This is often a good choice for "Expanded Choices" features because it permanently expands those classes without necessarily making individual characters stronger. It also saves the DM trouble of weighing the decision to expand a class's options every time someone builds a character. If Joe gets to use the wizard's expanded spell list but Jane doesn't, it can feel like an arbtirary and unfair decision even if Jane doesn't actually decide to use any of the new choices available.
This is also a good choice for Retraining Mechanics. Like Expanded Choices, characters don't get more stuff, so they're not necessarily more powerful than they would be otherwise.
It may make sense to make Replacement Features a permanent option, too. Taking the Ranger as an example, allowing players to choose the replacement features can address long-standing issues with the core class. However, if you're concerned that an individual class might suddenly become too powerful, consider limiting how many of these features one character can take. Limiting a character to one replacement feature allows a player to address a specific pain point in the class without totally rewriting the class. If the one replacement proves insufficient, you can always change your mind later and allow players to replace more.
You may choose to introduce optional class features on a case-by-case basis, allowing them when you need to address a specific problem for a single character or to address some issue in the party.
For example, Tasha's Cauldron of Everything gives the Barbarian the "Primal Knowledge" optional class feature which gives the Barbarian two additional skills as they gain levels. If you're running a small party, skills are a huge problem. A character will generally have at least 4 skills (two from their class and two from their background), so in a party of 3 that's a total of 12 skill proficiencies if there's no overlap, and there are 18 skills. A party of 4 may have as few as 16, but missing 2 skill proficiencies is much less dire than missing 6. So if your party is short on skills, Primal Knowledge can help fill the gap.
Continuing the previous example, even in a larger party Primal Knowledge can still be a great way to solve problems for an individual player. Barbarians will often hit that floor of 4 skill proficiencies, and barbarians are frequently combat monsters with few ways to make themselves useful outside of combat. Primal Knowledge can offer a player new options to make themselves useful in non-combat situations where they might otherwise twiddle their thumbs while other players are busy exploring or handling social interactions with the barbarian standing silently in the background.
As a Reward
Like magic items, you could introduce optional class features as a reward. Maybe the players perform some task for an NPC, and as a reward they teach a player one of the optional class features. You might offer a class feature instead of a magic item, allowing access to an optional class feature without affecting the balance of the game because your other players are all getting equivalent rewards at roughly the same time.
As a Trade
5e has gradually introduced more complexity as new source books are published. Between feats, multiclassing, and now optional class features, there are numerous ways to customize characters to a player's liking. However, more complexity doesn't necessarily make your game better, and you might justifiably fear introducing yet another complication to your game.
If you choose to allow optional class features, you might ask players to give up a different optional rule for building their character. For example, you might allow optional class features, but in exchange that character can't multiclass. This will limit player's build choices, but it also limits potential abuse cases which you may not be comfortable allowing into your game.
I was initially nervous when I read the Optional Class Features rules in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, because if they're granted without restriction they're a buff for most of the classes in the game. But if you treat them carefully as an optional rule as they're intended to be, optioncal class features can a powerful way to improve your game.