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.