I’m Seriously Going to Talk About 4e. Class Roles, In This Case.

I love 4e. This is known. This has been demonstrated. Recent house…I don’t call it cleaning, so perhaps “Item Shuffling” is more accurate…has added beloved books to the pile I’ve been picking up when I find them on sale. This stokes the central engine, cast in iron and chased with bronze, that powers my whole deal. I’ve gone back through my old posts—always a harrowing experience—and see that I’ve never done the dream: I’ve never gone through the 4e classes based on role and power source. I’m going to start that now! It’s something that, honestly, I think about so very, very often. It’s what I do instead of counting sheep.

I seriously lay abed, thinking in my mind about the various power sources for 4e classes, and how the classes slot also into roles, and how each class serves as representatives of both categories. I want to begin unloading that pillow-clad work into a digital format.

So where do we start? I think an argument could be made for starting at either major, top-level criteria and chew inward. However, between power source and role, I like starting with role. This allows me to draw on a lot of received wisdom in potential readers, because one of 4e’s most maligned qualities—its MMO-ification—is also the thing that makes it most accessible to folks who’ve never played a tabletop rpg but have, say, done some work in WoW. Or Mass Effect. Or League of Legends.

Speaking broadly, then, there are four “jobs” that a character in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons might fulfill. These represent basic starting points for imagining a character, and open into a tremendous field for further customization. The customization options only increase when one considers multiclassing and hybridization, but those are topics for roughly one-million years from now. The concepts of Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies also increase the customization (and I recognize some folks would replace that world with “complexity.”) available. They can be briefly addressed, though:

  • After a character completes 10 levels, the player selects a “Paragon Path.”
    • This provides some special benefits to the character immediately at level 11. Usually, one of these abilities is passive and ongoing, and the other is activated when the character expends action points. In lieu of or addition to one of these benefits, some Paragon Paths also grant an active ability.
    • Additional benefits “slot in” at 12th, 16th, and 20th level. These typically include a utility power at 12, some additional passive boost at 16, and a daily power at level 20.
    • Paragon Paths are generally divided by class, so there are Paladin Paragon Paths, and Cleric Paragon Paths, and Fighter Paragon Paths. Some races have their own paths, and other specific concepts along those lines exist.
    • As an example: The Battle Chaplain Paragon Path (PP) grants a marking ability at level 11, along with proficiency in shields, and free attacks for allies when an action point is spent. Level 12 provides a damage-boosting utility, and 16 grants a damage boost when the character badly injures (kills, bloodies, or crits) a target. At level 20, the character gains a powerful attack that does quadruple damage, is boosted to hit based on the number of visible dying allies, and heals dying allies regardless of hit or miss.
  • Epic Destinies (ED) are similar to Paragon Paths, but add a built-in endpoint for character development. A character selects one at level 21, and in addition to certain benefits the ED offers up a quest or purpose whose completion generally signals the end of playing the character. You might kill a mighty monster, build some incredible structure, or research an impossible spell.
    • Upon selection, the ED provides a couple of boosts. One is usually a stat increase (discretionary or prescribed), and the other is a marked increase in character efficacy.
    • Additional benefits slot in at 24th, 26th, and 30th level. These include a Utility power at 26, and generally some sort of auto-revive or cheat death at 24. These abilities are tremendously powerful, and I’m not exaggerating when I say auto-revive; many are something along the lines of “You don’t die, and every enemy is punished for trying to kill you.” The level 30 ability tends to be another major character alteration, which removes, alters, or outright violates a key rule.
    • Epic Destinies usually have some requirements, but aren’t so granular as to be class-based. Many are based on power source, but others might require a particular feat or ability, a particular race, or even some in-game activity. This does mean that, overall, there are fewer ED’s than PP’s, but so few games reach the epic levels that it doesn’t matter as much as it would had they slotted in earlier in character progression.
    • As an example: At 21st level, the World Tree Guardian ED allows a character to use a reaction to gain significant damage resistance–any time, against everything, and lasting until the start of the character’s next turn. At 24th level, the character can die in place of an ally, but then pop back with 25% health at the end of the character’s next turn; in addition, regeneration is granted until the end of the fight after this ability is employed. The ED also provides a conjuration utility that produces a massive defensive tree, and at level 30 offers tremendous regeneration that scales with the character’s healing surges.

Both Epic Destinies and Paragon Paths are supplements added to the base character class. This means that your initial class selection has the greatest impact on how your character is capable of progressing.

Within that context, then, it makes sense to discuss the roles first. While 4e’s been tagged with the MMO moniker, it’s helpful to remember that Dungeons and Dragons has been around for a long time, and many of the concepts that made their way into video games are represented in D&D at its earliest stages. There are four roles in the game, with individual classes representing each role to varying degrees of specialization. I’m including what I consider to be the “base” iteration of each role (and its power source) as I describe them.

Defenders are the “Hard Men” (and I promise that link is SFW) of the game. Their task is to get caught up in the thick of a fight, taking hits and doling them out. By doing this, they free the other members of the party to engage in maximal damage-dealing or healing, and absorb damage that might lay a more fragile character low. Defenders tend to have the widest selection of weapons and armor proficiencies, and where one is limited there’s generally a compensation—perhaps an arcane shield, or some unusual way of calculating Armor Class.  They enjoy the highest health of the roles, though this is usually compensated for in both lower skill selection and lower baseline damage.

The core power of the Defender is the Mark. I’ve already written extensively on the purpose and valuation of marks, so I won’t fully repeat myself here. Suffice to say, every mark penalizes its target for making an attack that doesn’t include the Defender. While the concept of being “marked” is actually a core game mechanism, afforded to other roles, Defenders always apply some additional consequence to their own marks. These might include repositioning the marked target, attacking them out of sequence, or even reflecting damage back to the target. This is always in addition to the penalty that a marked creature takes for attacking anyone other than the Defender, so there are two incentives for the DM to target the Defender with attacks.

The quintessential Defender is the Fighter. Fighters are a Martial class, and can wield all martial weapons while wearing the heaviest of armors. There are a multitude of Fighter class options, and some of these alter the way the Fighter interacts with their mark. At the core, though, Fighters apply the mark with any attack—hit or miss! Adjacent marked targets which fail to include the Fighter in an attack or attempt to shift (the free 5′ step in other editions) away from the Fighter’s reach provoke an immediate, interrupting basic attack. This means that Fighters are generally encouraged to apply high damage, since they’ll often be attacking twice in a given turn. However, the player must balance that against sufficient defensive stats to survive any attacks from marked targets. Fighter variants focus on different weapons, enhance their grappling ability, or even generate ablative wounds through their own attacks.

Strikers are, in my experience, the most popular role within 4th edition. There are lots of reasons for this, some based in pop culture and some in complexity, but it really boils down to three letters: DPS. The Strikers are the characters who apply the most damage-per-second, meaning they’re the most likely to kill the big bad guy and feel like the cool lady. To compensate for their higher damage, Strikers are generally limited in armor selection; some are further limited in terms of available weapons. While Defenders are always melee characters, Strikers can be built as melee or ranged, and some classes are specifically designed for one or the other. With a few outliers like the Barbarian, Strikers are generally intended to dart in and out of combat, picking targets they can defeat. Strikers also tend to enjoy higher skill training options than other classes, including access to trap-disarmament and stealth. This allows them to be more self-sufficient while also forcing the player to put these more fragile characters at risk through solo activity; high risk and high reward.

The core power of the Striker is some sort of Damage Increase. It’s much more difficult to define this trait than it was to discuss the Defenders and their marks, because every class addresses it in different ways. Many Strikers add additional dice to attacks under certain conditions, but others benefit from an additional ability score on certain attacks (ie- Strength and Constitution on a sword strike). Whatever the addition, this means that Strikers don’t necessarily have higher base damage on their attacks; the assumption is that a player is orchestrating the necessary conditions to benefit from his class features.

The quintessential Striker is the Rogue. Also a Martial class, the Rogue favors scenarios where an opponent is granting combat advantage (CA). This can be as simple as flanking the target, and Rogues are usually provided with some benefits in ensuring an opponent grants CA. A Rogue striking a vulnerable target adds several d6;s of additional damage (which can be enhanced further through feats), and the generally poor damage of Rogue weapons takes this bonus into account. Differing styles of Rogue favor high Strength or Charisma scores, or focus on certain skill training. The Rogue, like the Ranger, can also function as a melee or ranged character depending on player choice (though the former makes it much easier to ensure CA every turn). Rogues are relatively fragile, but enjoy a number of defensive tricks and repositions that let them avoid reprisal for each damaging attack they make.

If Strikers are the most popular 4e class, Leaders are the most crucial. The way Leaders were treated in 4e might be the single most endearing element of that edition; Leader players can engage in combat while still supporting their party. Calling Leaders a pure support class is generally inaccurate, though certain builds are focused solely on that. In general, a Leader has the capacity to significantly improve the efficacy of an entire party. Some of this is done through healing, while other elements focus on buffing character stats or applying widespread penalties to opponents. Leaders tend towards desirable defensive stats, but their weapon training is usually more limited than that of Defenders. Their health is on the high end, allowing most Leaders to step into the fray if necessary.

The core power of the Leader is some sort of Healing. As I’ve mentioned, in 4e Leader healing has the advantage of existing alongside player activity. A Leader character can generally heal an ally and attack in the same turn; the attack will often provide some additional advantage to at least one ally, though at-will attacks stop short of actual healing. This means that the Leader is the centerpiece around which the party revolves. A Defender must eat the enemy’s hits, and can control positioning throughout an encounter; but once she’s down, she’s dying unless a Leader’s available to heal her. The Leader’s death is thus often the final knell for the entire party. As a rule, Leader classes have at least one power that—as a minor action—heals one or more targets. In 4e, the distinction between healing and temporary hitpoints is particularly important; many classes can boost their hp total with ablative wounds, but generally require a Leader to actually improve their total health. Because of the way encounters in 4e are balanced, Leaders are crucial for allowing a party to avoid the “Fight, then sleep,” mode of earlier (and I think latter) editions. In 4th, healing powers generally allow a target to expend a Healing Surge, which provides 1/4 of that character’s health. This means that Leaders have unparalleled power, particularly in an already-beefy party. Similarly, they’re capable of much more efficiently bringing low-health or dying characters back into a fight.

As a secondary purpose, Leaders focus on party improvement. Some Leaders afford bonuses to their allies, and others penalize opponent stats. Others, especially Warlords, can actively grant their party members additional movement and attacks. This latter point allows many players to build Leader characters which act as mobile command centers, distributing bonus actions to party members better suited to actually causing damage; in 5e, the Maneuver Master Fighter can replicate this behavior to some degree.

The quintessential Leader is the Cleric. A Divine class, the Cleric can heal with greater efficacy than most other Leaders, boosting the Healing Surges of those who receive his beneficence. Clerics have access to excellent armor, but poor weapons. However, 4e Clerics can choose to focus on melee combat (through Strength, or later Wisdom builds) or ranged, energy-based combat (with their Wisdom score). This allows a wide variety of builds, from frontline Battle Clerics to ones which prefer to stay in the middle ranks and restore their allies. Clerics also enjoy several anti-Undead abilities, and can specialize in that direction through their use of Radiant damage (a Divine power source staple).

Finally, there are the Controllers. Between their low health, limited armor and weapon options, and high level of tactical responsibility, Controllers are possibly the least user-friendly available role. However, that’s balanced by a Striker-like level of player satisfaction when a big play goes off without a hitch. Controllers favor two things: crowd-control effects (stuns, slows, dazes, etc.) and area-of-effect damage. While the former tends to lend itself towards precision play, the latter—particularly in 4e, where many enemies have a single hp but high defenses—allows for massive “blowout” turns, where a single Controller removes four or more bodies from the board. Controllers enjoy long-range attacks, and their base damage is both decent and generally applied to several foes simultaneously.

There isn’t really a core power for Controllers. Each class approaches the role in a distinct way, often offering several granular alternatives for completing the same general goal. Controllers are almost always focused on ranged attacks, but even in close quarters they can usually hit multiple foes. Supplementary attack effects include positioning, negative status effects, and simply a larger-than-average damage across multiple targets. An excellent Controller can tilt even high-level encounters in the party’s favor, while an incompetent Controller will still manage to lay out some damage.

The quintessential Controller is the Wizard. An Arcane class, the Wizard can build in many directions. These options are defined by the style of implement (a weapon equivalent for spellcasting classes) the character focuses on. Wand wizards are adept at landing that key attack, while orb wizards focus on sustaining negative effects on a target. Tome wizards might devote themselves to wide arcane knowledge, or focus on maintaining summoned creatures and effects. Staff wizards are better-equipped to stand in the frontlines, benefiting from a potentially powerful defensive enchantment in every fight. There are still more wizard specializations, but the point is well illustrated here: Controllers offer options, and demand that the player understand and master them. Wizards have long-range and wide-area attacks (often in the same power) and the capacity to crisp large swathes of enemies in a single action. However, they exemplify the fragility of the Controller class, and their melee weapon options are practically nonexistent.

Well check that out! That’s the roles laid down, meaning the next post on this topic will present the idea of the various power sources. I love how the two concepts fold into each other, producing a beautiful polygon of unparalleled complexity and opportunity.


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