Monday, September 13, 2010

Divorcing role from class

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials is bringing many changes to fourth edition.  One that I had not heard about until recently is that the concept of role is being divorced from class.  Builds like the the slayer fighter (striker), the hunter ranger (controller), and the sentinel druid (leader) will break from the traditional role associated with each class.

To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about this.  I am normally a big fan of more customization, but to a large extent I saw the classes in Dungeons & Dragons 4E as defined by the role they played.  Both the paladin and the cleric are holy warriors.  To me, what kept the paladin from being simply another cleric build was the fact that paladins are defenders.  Almost all of the primal classes seem to be the druid as seen through the lens of a specific role (the seeker being a notable exception).

It seems like the addition of these options may dilute the entire concept of role in Dungeons & Dragons 4E.  A sentinel druid will be able to pick up a lot of controller focused powers if he chooses.  A hunter ranger might still be more striker than controller based off power choice as well.  Similar to what occurred when hybrids were introduced, this will allow the creation of more generalized characters who don’t fit well into any role.

Now I know some people will argue that this is a good thing.  They found the concept of roles distasteful and antithetical to character choice.  Personally though, I came to enjoy the freedom that came with well established roles.  Prior to roles, there was a strong belief that each adventuring group needed to contain the iconic four classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief) in order to be successful.  Other classes were often seen as second class citizens in the party, only to be added in once the iconic classes were covered.

In Dungeons & Dragons 4E, a lot of design focus was placed on making sure characters with the same role from different power sources were still equally good at fulfilling the role.  It was never a problem that our Scales of War game lacked a cleric because we had a warlord.  Roles allowed for viable groups that might lack any of the iconic four classes.

Allowing the creation of characters that are only “weakly” attached to a role is not the end of the world, but it does mean players will will have to be even more conscious of how their power choices affect the group.  If a sentinel druid is the groups only leader, then filling up on controller focused druid powers is probably a bad idea.

Nevertheless, I expect class builds that cross role lines to become more prevalent in the future.  I would not be surprised if there are some classes introduced which don’t have a single role associated with them at all.  Instead role will depend on what build you choose.  At which point the class build will become a “mini-class” which determines role much like class used to. 

Which I suppose would bring us full circle.


Callin said...

There is a separation between those who want defined roles (mostly long time gamers) and those who do not (mostly newer players). That is a broad assumption but I feel its close to the mark with obvious exceptions in individuals. However, this "loss" of roles is not all-encompassing. Those who are comfortable with roles will still have them. If you believe that a fighter should be the "tank" then you can build a 4E character very easily that way. If you want to break the mold and play a fighter as a striker, you can as well. I would be more worried if they ignored the "older" roles; ie if a fighter could not grab the attention of the monsters and be able to soak damage like sponge, that would be wrong. So far that has not happened and I sincerely doubt it ever will. This situation is the rare case of being able to have your cake and being able to eat it also.
The only possible problem is when a person who prefers roles takes on or begins gaming with players who want to expand their options in character roles. They make assumptions that the player who chose a fighter as a class will be the damage sponge, when in fact he built a damage dealer. Clear communication as to what "role" is being played will alleviate those concerns however.

Red Jack said...

I'm going to partially agree with Callin. Options are optional. The players who wish to stringently build their characters according to a chosen role will continue to do so, and their characters will excel at fulfilling those roles. They'll perform, and perform above and beyond the characters that have a more broad smattering of choices.

I can see it alleviating more problems than it's likely to cause, especially in groups of smaller players than the game is normally designed for (2-4 players) with players having the option to branch out and grab small abilities to cover at least parts of party roles that may not be present.

For example, I have 3 players at my table... Two have found a striker class they really like, the third wants to play a controller and all have their heart set on trying them out. Does only one person get to have their way? None? Having them all be purely dedicated to their chosen roles is going to be a painful and challenging experience, well beyond the norm.

Allowing a bit more flexibility in the classes allows them to branch out and still have the "flavor" they want while still managing to contribute in a meaningful way to the party.

As always, communication with your players and among your players is a key factor, and it's one of the reasons I've encouraged my group to all build characters together.

benensky said...

I have a few thoughts on this. First, I agree with Jared Glenn of the Power Source Podcast, “Why didn’t they just make a new class.” It may be testing the waters for 5E. Second, in general I see it as a breakdown of 4E to try to sell to all the people who said, “This is not D&D any longer.” They want to take the game and make it more messy and complicated again. This includes the Pathfinder people. Who, different from any other version, a majority of players did not drift away from the game. What WOC does not get about the Pathfinder’s players is that they spent hundreds of dollars collecting books and looked forward to buying more for the version they loved. They had the rug pulled out from beneath them and they resent WOC for it. They will probably never buy another WOC book unless they issue new 3.5 books.

Finally, I would like to say I morn this change. One of the things I liked about 4E was the cooperative nature. I was hoping the D&D geeks of the world would learn more about working together to form relationships and synergies that were greater than the sum of the individuals. However, this new shift seems to cater to the power gamer and individualist.

Tim said...

This has potential to work, but can just as easily detonate in everyone's lap as I see it. To address the point of cooperative play, the simplest fix is to make sure the players build their characters together, as opposed to in a vacuum. That will more or less curtail the "Huh, so everybody made a Rogue eh?" type of party that had the possibility of happening in games when no one considered what the party needs as opposed to wanting to hammer a concept regardless of everyone else.

The biggest trick they'll have to worry about in my eye is devaluing the preferred roles for classes over the new options. If, for instance, the new options in Paladin make them a better Controller than a Wizard, or make a Warlock a better Leader than a Warlord, then I'm sure there will be all sorts of fallout from a majority of the 4e crowd. I just hope they keep this in mind, otherwise they'll lose a lot of ground in the P.R. front dealing with the nerdrage that would generate.

Hopefully, WOtC has a good idea of what makes a role tick, & is just loosening the collar on some character classes to let them play in a different light as opposed to outshining all others. this could simply lead to players having a bit of a surprise up their sleeve when they tell the group that "Hey, I'll bring a defender to the new game" & won't hurt the play experience too much. But that may be wishful thinking.

Neuroglyph said...

I never liked the "one class-one role" option. It bothered me from the moment I started reading the PHB that a Fighter could not be a Striker - and I am pleased to see a Slayer build, to be honest. I think that as long as WotC handles the build components and class features correctly, without too much slopping over, multiple builds for each Character class are not only possible, but desirable.

Several of my older 3.5 Players were disgruntled at the heavy-handedness of the role mechanic. I had two Players try classes out, only to end up coming to me and complaining that they were not what they wanted - these were a Fighter and a Wizard, who really wanted to play Strikers, but were shocked to find out they were stuck with a Defender and Controller. So I think adding an additional role-build to a class now and then will help make the game more enjoyable, and allow Players to better match their Character concept to the game mechanics. After all, we play the game to have fun, right?

A Hero said...

@Callin - I can see many of your points since as I said in the post I generally am not opposed to adding options. I suppose my biggest complaint is that I have seen that mixed role hybrids are very tricky to pull off effectively. Often, by trying to do two things they seem to become unable to do either. Still, I can see where a sprinkling of another role could be fun.

@Red Jack - I find the concept that this could help players in small groups very interesting. I generally play in a large group where mixed role PCs tend to lag behind those who throw themselves into a role. However, I can see where it might help if you don't have enough people to cover the roles already.

@benensky - I agree one goal of Essentials seems to be an attempt to bring back some players who don't like D&D 4E. This is obvious from the choice of classes and races presented which primarily consists of the classics.

I would guess this is why they went with the Slayer as a Fighter build rather than make another class. As Neuroglyph notes below, some people just want to play a "Fighter" even if they enjoy the striker role.

@Tim - I appreciate your cautious optimism. I too will hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

@Neuroglyph - I think we will have to agree to disagree on the one class one role thing. I feel class makes a natural dividing line for roles, mostly because powers are divided by class and what kind of powers you can get heavily influences your role. In my view, with similar concepts that have different roles simply morph into different classes under the same power source (i.e., paladin and cleric).

That said, I can understand how flavor text behind the classes could hurt certain concepts. In other words, it doesn't matter that there are warlocks and sorcerers to fill the arcane striker role if you dislike their flavor want to play wizard who is a striker.