Developing Roles

May 2nd, 2009

Last July, I originally published a piece about how classes in fourth edition D&D now serve to define a role, a set of abilities, rather than a specific archetype including flavor text.  In other words, how the Ranger, the class, is not necessarily the ranger, the guy who runs around in the woods making friends with animals and shooting orcs — and vice versa.

In my review of the Player’s Handbook 2, I mentioned some thoughts about where that book was taking the game.  Now I’m finally getting around to digging into that.

Like any edition, 4e has changed as new books are published to support it.  New classes, new races, new powers, new feats, new items — new everything has appeared.  In some ways, the game is much the same.  The system is robust in its exception-based design — and, even more so, because it divorces the mechanics from the special effects, the “fluff.”  It remains an extremely adaptable game, although the system itself almost seems to hide this fact.  The ease of refluffing is one of 4e’s greatest strengths, but, even with the permission granted in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, many players and GMs seem reluctant to do so.


A Ranger fighting a Barbarian? Possibly.

This is unfortunate, particularly since the PHB2 added so many new possibilities.  With the addition of the eight new classes there, there are very few character concepts that can’t be “cast.”  If you don’t like the idea of your swashbuckler being a Ranger, how about a Barbarian?  Reimagine the Rages as flashy explots showing off the swashbuckler’s blade skill; convert the power source from Primal to Martial.  Now you’ve got a lightly-armored, hard-hitting powerhouse.  And if you want something with more finesse, there’s always the Bard — the Valor build can do quite well in melee.  Too much inspiration and not enough poking with the pointy object?  How about an Avenger, then?  They aren’t lightweights when it comes to a scrap…

Some of the new classes are harder to refluff than others, of course.  The Druid’s premise is the shapeshifting controller — that’s a pretty specific sort of role.  The Shaman’s interaction with its spirit is likewise a little limited, although it might be recast, with an Arcane slant, as something akin to the Abjurer of previous editions.  But even here, it’s not that the class is tied to the fluff — it’s just that the base mechanic models a narrower range of character concepts than “guy who wields two weapons.”

Meanwhile, each class continues to expand to encompass more potential concepts, thanks to the Power series of books.  In my previous post, I noted that the Fighter was no longer the two-weapon guy.  Except, of course, Martial Power has since come out, and it included a Tempest build that is.  Personally I feel this was something of a mistake — I don’t see that the Tempest Fighter brings anything to the table that the Two-Weapon Ranger didn’t — but it’s there all the same.  If you had a character concept that encompassed both “two-weapon fighting” and “reactively protects his allies,” then the Tempest has you covered.

More options can only be a good thing.  We’re always free not to use the ones we don’t care for.

There are some other design qualities that make the PHB2 classes interesting, though.  Most obvious, all of them are based around a single primary attribute, with two secondary attributes.  While this was the case for many classes in the PHB, there were several exceptions.  In the ranger’s case, the division is between Strength-based two-weapon attacks and Dexterity-based ranged attacks, which makes enough sense.  In the other cases, however, it posed a small problem.  The warlock may be the most instructive of these.

By dividing the powers between two primary stats, these classes reduce the potential pool of powers for a build.  Using the standard character creation method, it’s not feasible to have three good stats, so a fey warlock (based on Charisma), for instance, is not likely to possess a high enough Constitution to justify selecting any of the infernal pact powers, and vice versa.  In effect, these powers are next to useless to a member of the “wrong” build.

Compare the Sorcerer, the other arcane striker:  some of their powers depend on Strength for their secondary effects, while others depend on Dexterity.  However, their attack and damage is determined entirely by a single primary attribute, Charisma.  (In the case of damage, all sorcerers also add their own chosen secondary stat to the damage inflicted.)  So while a dragon sorcerer (based on Strength) might not get as much effect from a chaos sorcery power (based on Dexterity), he does still have a good chance of hitting with it and inflicting its primary effect.  Choosing a power that lies outside his “specialization” carries much less of a penalty.

It’s also pretty apparent that the PHB2 classes are more complex than their PHB1 counterparts.  Even the Barbarian, on the surface a “run up and smash” class (at least in one of its builds), offers some complexity in its Rage mechanic and the ongoing effects of those powers.  While not all of the PHB’s powers were in the “do one simple thing” mode, quite a number of them were.  This is not the case with the powers in the PHB2 and Arcane Power; even the first-level at-will powers offer a variety of effects.  There’s a wider use of aftereffects, multiple attacks following hits, zone effects, and just plain oddball effects.  The powers in the PHB are, by and large, the “basics” of the system; the ones in the later books stretch the system and put it through its paces.

This is involved with roles because of the way the powers and the classes interact… which I’ll say more about next time.


Related posts:

  1. Defining Roles
  2. Deep Psi
  3. Barbarians at the Gates
  4. Class Design for 4th Edition
  5. The Rules Gap

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4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: “The more things change…”: An essay on the future of RPGs | Campaign Mastery on Tuesday, May 5, 2009
  2. Pingback: Redefining Character Roles — Dungeon's Master on Thursday, May 7, 2009
  3. Pingback: The Rules Gap | A Butterfly Dreaming on Thursday, May 7, 2009
  4. Pingback: The Seven-Sided Die » Fiction first on Thursday, May 28, 2009


  1. Wimwick, May. 2, 2009, 11:53 am:

    Some interesting thoughts and observations. I originally thought you were going in a different direction with this post. I like your idea of a swashbuckler using the barbarian class as it’s template. You’re correct in that if players think outside of the box with character creation there are some interesting builds and options available to them.

    With each read of the various books that WotC has published I find additional layers of complexity. Looking forward to your next entry on this topic.

    Wimwick´s last blog post: Month in Review: April 2009

  2. Anarkeith, May. 2, 2009, 11:29 pm:

    great thoughts, and a much-needed reminder that creativity is a vital part of DnD. It’s not the rules, but how we use them that is important.

  3. jonathan, May. 5, 2009, 12:59 am:

    Nail on the head Scott.

    Nail on the head.

    It’s frustrating to see/read so much about what 4E is or isnot among so many blogs these days (empahsis on isnot more often). The last comment @ Anarkeith above is also dead one — we need to remind ourselves that it is the game, not the rules, that shape our play. 4E mechanics are all about allowing players to do whatever they want in a unified framework. Thinking outside the box and adapting/shemping/recasting the crunch to suite your “fluff” is the way to go. Maybe they should have just labeled all the classes “Class A”, “Class B”, and all the powers “Power L1A, Power L2A, etc”.. to demonstrate this point even further. Its your imagination that matters here.

    Not to belabor a point — but I’ll say it again: 4E puts the roleplaying back into players hands and focuses on making consistent rules for characters.

    nice post. thanks for the bedtime story. [late as hell here, why am I up?]

    jonathan´s last blog post: Portraits of a Villain – Sir Mordred

  4. Scott, May. 6, 2009, 1:38 pm:

    @Jonathan: Funny that you should say that, at about the same time as the trackback above from Campaign Mastery. His take on it is that 4e stereotypes characters more than previous editions. That’s pretty much the opposite of my experience. But I think I can see where he’s coming from. Led me to rewrite my next post (which will hopefully go up tomorrow morning).

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