Roles in 4e

In an earlier post I discussed how I encourage thinking about roles at my table. I want to expand on that now, and talk about how the ways in which we think about roles can show how we’re thinking about the game as a whole. For me, the perfect example of this is 4th edition D&D, which was the first time to my knowledge where roles (rather than class combinations) were made explicit in the design of the game. First I’m going to briefly go over each of the roles, and then discuss the implications of them.

The first thing I should note is that I’m by no means an authority on 4th Ed. I’ve read the core books pretty closely, and some of the expanded core, but never switched over because it doesn’t give us the game that we’re looking for. I’ve played a few sessions of D&D Encounters (), but never sat down to an actual 4e campaign. If this post seems a bit slower, it’s because I want to be sure that my points are well-justified, rather than off-the-cuff remarks made in ignorance. If you find things that aren’t true, or were true in the early days of 4th but are no longer, let me know in the comments. I don’t want to be in the business of giving our bad information.

With that out of the way, 4th edition introduced the idea of overtly talking about roles, and the roles which would help a party best overcome challenges. The classes in 4e are designed to occupy one of these roles, and through later developments like hybrid classes, sometimes two function secondarily in another one (though I’ve more often seen it used to super-specialize). The roles are:

  • Defenders are a tank by any other name, and are supposed to attract attacks while maintaining a strong defense.
  • Essentially glass cannons, it’s the Striker‘s job to deliver lethal amounts of damage while focusing on avoiding attacks rather than taking them.
  • Leaders specialize in improving their party’s abilities while beating up enemies, providing healing or bonuses to offense/defense.
  • Facing a large group of enemies is a job for the Controller, whose area attacks can devastate groups and change the shape of the battlefield.

Some of these map onto the roles which I laid out for 3.5 edition in the last post, and some of them have new facets. I’m not prepared to argue that all of the classes which claim to occupy these roles do so, or whether this role set up makes it a better game, but I do think it tells us some interesting things about how the designers think about the game. For one thing, we can look at the roles which seem to have gone by the wayside. Specialties dealing with people or hunting for traps aren’t considered viable options anymore, and the idea of tactical support seems to have been spread around to each of the roles, but also narrowed considerably. It seems as though the designers don’t consider it viable to have a character who focuses on negotiating or survival skills at the cost of not performing as well in combat. There are certainly ways to do this in 4e, but it’s interesting to me that with the attention paid to having roles, non-combat roles didn’t make it into the final cut. There are still mechanics for some of it, but they’re reduced to secondary specialties. A character is a leader, defender, striker or controller first.

I’m not going to say whether that makes the game better or worse, but it certainly makes it different. It changes the focus to tactical miniature combat rather than trying to pay equal attention to the finer distinctions and fiddly bits of the noncombat portions of the game to the same degree that one might see in Burning Wheel, Spirit of the Century, or even earlier editions of D&D. Less attention certainly isn’t none, and the skill challenge mechanics try to include everyone in affairs outside of combat, regardless of their role. It seems like there’s some pretty good reasons for this, too. D&D is an action/adventure game primarily, and most of the action happens when swords are drawn. It’s one possible answer to what I call the Bob the Fighter problem.

Bob the Fighter is a fighter. He performs very well in his role as party warrior, cracking skulls and kicking shins with the greatest of ease. Bob the Fighter also has a great deal of depth and engages in interesting conflicts and relationships in the setting. However, Bob the Fighter is terrible at negotiating, and has a tendency to disarm traps with his face. If we imagine that an average gaming session is 1/3 combat, 1/3 roleplaying, and 1/3 using skills for things like negotiating and dungeoneering, then despite the fact that Bob the Fighter is exemplary in two areas, he still has to sit out for 1/3 of the session, because he cannot contribute meaningfully. I try to make sure that every character is capable of contributing meaningfully in every aspect, but another method of resolving this issue would be to rebalance the session, changing it such that skill challenges take up less than 1/3, and managing the mechanics such that anyone can participate without any regard to specialization.

Changing the balance of the game in this way enables the designers to focus the roles on combat, rather than trying to encompass other facets of the game. This also simplifies class design and likely makes game balance easier. It’s certainly apparent in previous editions that some classes are spread too thin, and others are disproportionately versatile. Either solution comes at a cost, though. The combat focus seems to be directing D&D back toward its wargaming roots, and creating characters with a broader range of skills can make character creation an arduous process. What other solutions can you envision for the Bob the Fighter problem?

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