You’re a Striker, He’s a Defender… Big Deal: Looking at Roles

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 15, 2009

Do you define your character by his class or his role? We continue to look at roles in 4e and their defining characteristics. We’ve already explored the idea of how to make the Fighter a striker and we pondered whether the roles could be redefined. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to looking at roles. Since this is a new element in 4e perhaps it can be done better. We think there is room to introduce some new house rules around roles, but before we start developing them we thought it prudent to take a deeper look at how the existing presentation of roles affect the game.

As is stands there are four roles available to characters: controller, defender, leader and striker. Wizards of the Coast has given no indication that further roles will become available with future supplements. Currently the only way to take advantage of a role is by selecting the character class its associated with. Each of the character classes is divided up into one of the four roles and is granted certain benefits as class features. It’s those class features that I want to look at now.

Defenders encompass the Fighter, Paladin, Swordmage and Warden. They are physically tough and are able to mark their opponents. Defenders are often referred to as “sticky” because enemies find it difficult to break away from them once marked. The ability to mark an opponent is a feature shared by all defender classes, even though they are all a little bit different.

Strikers are designed to hit single targets hard and fast. They do a large amount of damage to one opponent. All strikers, with the exception of the Avenger, deal some form of additional damage. Be it sneak dice, hunter’s quarry or Warlock’s curse. This extra damage is defined by their role but tied directly to their class.

Leaders are healers. This means you don’t have to play the Cleric to be the party healer. It also means that a party can have several members of different classes capable of healing. Every leader has a class ability that allows a PC to burn healing surges and gain additional hit points in the process.

Finally, there is the controller. Controllers are adept at manipulating the battlefield and devastating their opponents with crippling conditions. They are also known as minion killers. Unlike the other roles, the controller does not have a defining class feature that is shared amongst all controllers. The controller’s feature of affecting multiple targets is gained from the powers they select, not the class or the role. In this they are different than the other three roles.

So what does all this mean? For starters, none of this information is earth shattering. It’s clearly laid out in the PHB and PHB2. However, as we look at the issue of roles and how they can be better implemented we need to ask what defines the role. In three of the four roles we can see that there is a clear role-defining feature. So when we consider if the Fighter can be a striker we need to ask if he would still get his ability to mark opponents if he were a striker. Or does he gain some other benefit?

Does the Rogue who wants to be a brash street thug still get sneak dice if he wants to select a defender template? Sneak dice have been a defining feature of the Rogue class for years, so it could be argued that it shouldn’t be removed regardless of role. The same holds true with the Ranger’s ability to deal extra damage with hunters quarry. Hunter’s quarry is essentially the 4e version of favoured enemy, an ability that the ranger class has had for years.

As we continue to look at how roles can be reworked in 4e, and whether or not selecting role should become a choice made during character creation rather than a pre-designed template, we need to be careful not to remove the defining aspects of certain classes.

When we consider defenders, leaders and strikers it’s easy to identify distinguishing class features. But this does not seem to be true of controllers? As there is no shared power or class defining feature for controllers, what would a Bard gain by foregoing the leader role and selecting a controller template?

Over then next few weeks we will provide a breakdown of the roles as they currently exist. We’ll provide various house rules about how to incorporate roles and apply them to non-traditional classes. The aim of this initiative is to increase the flexibility and usability of the role system and to provide players with more choices.

1 Bartoneus May 15, 2009 at 10:29 am

The role feature of Controllers is access to more area/burst/blast powers, but that is a bit of a deviation from the other roles as you note.

It sounds like all of what you’re talking about can be easily accomplished within the 4E rules as written through multi-classing, or more than that with the preview of hybrid classes. If you want to play a burly rogue, then multi-class into fighter. If you want a really tough rogue, make a fighter then multi-class into rogue. By changing the roles system as you’re hinting at, you might as well eliminate the class system entirely and just use roles.

Bartoneus’s last blog post..Fascinating, Captain

2 Icosahedrophilia May 15, 2009 at 11:08 am

It’s always helpful to remember that “role” isn’t an actual character mechanic, but an explicit marker of design decisions that otherwise might remain “behind the curtain.” There are no feats, for example, that have “role X” as a prerequisite. Instead, the role labels tell you, the player, what the designers had in mind when they put the class together, assigned its powers, and so on. This helps you make decisions about optimizing your choices. Want to do a lot of damage? Play a striker. Want to be the front-line meatwall combatant? Play a defender. Want to heal and buff the party? Play a leader. Want to affect multiple targets with a single attack? Play a controller. The role labels are nothing more, and nothing less, than a way of grouping classes together to tell players what those classes were designed to be good at.

3 Kameron May 15, 2009 at 11:46 am

Ha, I’ve got a similar article in the works that pulls out defining class features in preparation for creating role-based builds for each class. I’ve been meaning to email you and a few other RPG Bloggers who have recently posted on customizing classes to fit multiple roles about collaborating on a project where we each take a class and design it out to 3rd level for each of the four roles.

I do have to agree with Bartoneus that I think this design direction would be better served by just eliminating classes and pairing roles and power sources. I’m interested to explore this variation as well.

Kameron’s last blog post..Designing a RPG Player’s Handbook

4 Wimwick May 15, 2009 at 11:49 am

@ Bartoneus
You could argue that roles are the new character classes. The use of multi-classing is one way around the restrictions of the role system. For example in our main game Ameron plays a Paladin multi-classed with Cleric. We’ll certainly be looking at multi-classing and how it fits into this discussion in future articles.

@ Icosahedrophilia
Agreed. Roles as they stand provide a definition for what the character was designed to do. Perhaps it makes character creation friendlier to new players. My question is can roles be more than this? Can we make roles more than a label? What would that mean for the game and what type of houserules would be required to make it work? These are the questions that Ameron and I want to look at over the coming weeks as we think further about roles.

5 Wimwick May 15, 2009 at 1:30 pm

@ Kameron
Ameron and I are approaching this topic from opposite directions. So look for a number of options from us regarding this topic. I think that classes are now just flavour, the real decisions being made during character creation are role and power source. Though I find power sources to be a very artificial mechanic and not much more than flavour either.

6 Bartoneus May 15, 2009 at 6:37 pm

@Wimwick: Well, you’ve hit it on the head I think. Classes are a large part simply flavor, and your last statement was that power sources are flavor also. So what do people choose when they make a new character? Primarily, they should be choosing based on Role, and then Class. Power Source I don’t believe is a very big factor to many people, they don’t want to play a “psionic character” they rather want to play a ‘psion’ or a monk and it happens to be psionic.

So in an essence, what you’re proposing in these posts already happens, the primary choice being made is class role (whether the player knows it or not). What you could really have fun exploring is a reverse system, where you really do just pick role first, and then slap some class and power source flavor onto that. This may be what you have planned already, if so I’m eager to see how it turns out. This post is just a tease! 😛

Bartoneus’s last blog post..Fascinating, Captain

7 Wimwick May 16, 2009 at 1:02 pm

@ Bartoneus
We have a few things planned and over the course of the next few weeks we’ll provide various different versions on how we think it could be handled. Of course we love feedback and we’ll be looking to see what others in the community are thinking about this idea.

8 Ellery May 16, 2009 at 4:59 pm

This has been a fascinating series and i am looking forward to reading the rest of it! Part of the reason I am enjoying it is because it seems your reaction to roles is exactly opposite mine. But most of the players in my game seem to agree with you.

To me it seems like Wizard’s put forward roles as a very loose guideline so someone new to the game or class would get an idea about how a certain class would play. Within each role there are a few similar themes, but much variation. And that’s all. They don’t seem to be confining themselves to a straight jacket when designing new classes for a certain role.

A few of my players on the other hand really get upset when another class seems to impinge on their role (e.g the swordmage is very angry that avengers have easier access to AC), and so on.

Anyway, just my rambling thoughts. Keep writing and I will keep reading!

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