Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Essay: Class Roles in D&D 4E

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

One complaint against 4E is the concept of class roles--that is, various classes will have labels to designate its role: defender, striker, controller, leader. One can even feel the jealousy and hatred of some tabletop gamers against online RPGs by claiming such a mechanic is too World of Warcraft. Here's my take on class roles: they already existed in D&D.

Here's the thing with most D&D games: most adventures presupposes that the party will have a Fighter-like character (if not the Fighter class outright), a Cleric-like character, a Rogue-like character, and a Wizard-like character. Heck, most adventures presupposes that you have a diverse party to begin with. Sure, I've played games when there was no healer in the group, no Rogue in the group, or no spellcaster in the group (strangely, I have yet to play a game where there was no Fighter-type character in the group). And while such games were not impossible to overcome, we did have to compensate that deviates from the recommended norm. For example, when the group didn't have a Cleric, the GM didn't really throw in 4 encounters a day and a significant portion of the party's funds went to healing potions and other consumable items. Without a spellcaster, our gaming group had problems defeating mobs of weak monsters (Cleave can only take you so far). As far as the Rogue goes, honestly, no one missed him because our GM wasn't fond of using traps (or at least nothing the Barbarian couldn't tank). And observe your own gaming group: whenever you're playing a D&D campaign, doesn't your group talk about party roles, like who's going to play the Cleric, etc.?

So what does this have to do with class roles? Well, I have problems with the terminology, so let me rephrase them for you: Defender = Fighter or bag of hit points, Striker = Rogue or guy who deals lots of damage (actually a "new" role for the upcoming edition), Controller = Wizard or crowd control, Leader = Cleric or healer. Honestly, it's nothing new for veteran gamers. But don't get me wrong, explicitly stating class roles is an revolutionary idea--for new gamers. Here's the thing, if it's your first game of D&D, I don't think the first thing that comes to mind when creating characters is to complete a party with at least one of each character role. Instead, we're probably thinking we wanna play a cool character. I don't think one of the first discussions of newbie gamers is who's going to play the Cleric. Assigning Cleric duties are usually a sign that you're an experienced gaming group. Explicitly stating class roles is a hint to new players that hey, if you want the optimal gaming set-up, it's recommended that you start filling these niches. By no means does a gaming group need to fill each role slot but you must admit, having a healer in party is usually better than none.

Oh, and as for the World of Warcraft references? I'd like to think that the game draws its inspirations from Dungeons & Dragons and then explained it in simpler terms. And if D&D 4E is stealing anything from World of Wacraft, it's this: the ability to convey to new gamers the unwritten rules of the game instead of paying for their ignorance with character death. (Of course with online RPGs educating non-tabletop gamers the dynamics of a party, maybe stating class roles is not as revolutionary as it would have been had it been included in say, the 3.0 Player's Handbook.)

But the good news for gamers who think class roles are a straight-jacket is that according to the reports so far, class roles are less specialized. For example, in previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, healing was mostly the expertise of divine spellcasters (plus the Bard). In 4E, every class has an ability to heal its wounds, but the Leader role of course does it better. So running around with that all-defender party is probably going to be more viable in 4E than it was in previous editions.


Taylor said...

Honestly I think the roles are more for the game designers than the players. When designing a new class make sure it can fulfill the duties of one of the four roles. The problem with the implied roles in 3e was that while bards and druids could kinda heal, there were never a true replacement for a cleric in your party. Now with classes placed explicitly into slots the designers can ensure that they will be good at what they are supposed to do, and FUTURE designers know what a new class needs to be balanced against.

This isn't a straitjacket for the player, but for the class designer.

Charles said...

While what you said has merit, I think such standards don't need to be announced externally. I mean I'm sure when WotC released Book of Nine Swords, they had specific design goals for it but the public wasn't aware of it. The designers certainly were and that's why we have 4E right now.

Now I'm not saying that class roles hasn't aided designers. It has. But that guideline didn't need to be proclaimed or included in the PHB for example. As I said in my post, many gamers have been operating under the assumption of class roles--we just haven't really been vocalizing it. And that I think is one of the things that sets 4E apart--the fact that we're stating these assumptions.

Tinka said...

I want to play D&D! Do you know any friendly playgroups around the UP/QC area? :)

Many thanks.