Redefining Character Roles

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 7, 2009

The advent of class roles to 4e D&D changed our perception of character classes. All classes now fit into one of four predefined roles within the party: controller, defender, leader and striker. Even though we’ve only had these four roles since the release of 4e last summer, they have become engrained in the discussion of gaming groups.

These four classifications are quickly becoming more than just roles. You could argue that they have become the new default character classes and that the current classes as we know them are just archetypes of the controller, defender, leader and striker. What I’m seeing more often are players deciding to play the striker and select whether they’d like to try the arcane, divine, martial or primal archetype of that class.

My footing may be weak, but I feel there is merit to having this discussion. Each group knows that the optimum party has representation from each of these roles. A balanced party has increased chances of survival over one that isn’t. As Wizards of the Coast releases additional Player’s Handbooks the argument that the controller, defender, leader and striker are the real character classes gains more and more traction.

Recently Scott at A Butterfly Dreaming wrote an interesting post on Developing Roles and this got me thinking more about this subject and the argument that roles are indeed the new classes. In his article, Scott gives the example of a player who wants to create a Swashbuckler selecting the Barbarian as his base class. I want to develop Scott’s idea a little bit further.

Example: Building a Swashbuckler

You have a player who wants to create a Swashbuckler; a daring melee combatant for which there is no existing character class. However, based on the existing classes any of the following choices have the potential to fit the player’s description.

  • Avenger (striker)
  • Barbarian (striker)
  • Bard (leader)
  • Fighter (defender)
  • Ranger (striker)
  • Rogue (striker)

These class choices encompass three roles: defender, leader and striker. The player does not envision the character as a defender or a leader which eliminates the Bard and Fighter. This leaves the four strikers as possible candidates. Any of them will fill the need.

Now the player needs to choose a preference of power source.

  • Avenger [Divine]
  • Barbarian [Primal]
  • Ranger [Martial]
  • Rogue [Martial/Primal]

You could easily argue that Rangers should be a primal power source, but I digress. I feel power sources are fairly arbitrary which really only adds to the role-playing aspects of the character. Finally, the player needs to decide which powers best describe his vision of the character.

The point of this example is that the player’s first and most important decision is selecting to play a striker, the class becomes a secondary and somewhat meaningless choice. And this brings us back to my initial declaration that roles are the new character classes.

Do we eliminate the traditional character classes and instead determine our role within the party. From there a power source is selected and this determines what type of character we would create.

I recognize that this argument is based largely on semantics, but we can’t discount how the addition of roles, and to a lesser degree power sources, effect character creation and group dynamics.

What do you think? Am I way off base here or have I picked up on something that we’re all going to be talking about in the coming years? When you create characters in 4e how does the role factor into your decision making process? Do you decide on role first and class second?

1 greywulf May 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past week, and come to the conclusion that I’d have liked a character’s role to be a separate choice to his class.

For example, you could choose to play a Fighter (a Martial class), then elect to make him a Striker, giving him a boost to hit and damage. Or a Controller and he gets an additional Power (a ranged Cover Me! style Power, maybe). Or a Defender, boosting his Hit Points. Or whatever.

This increases the variability between the characters exponentially – you could conceivable play a game with a party just of Rogues – a Striker Rogue, a Controller Rogue, a Defender Rogue, etc.

I’ll be exploring this more further, that’s for sure.

2 Mike E. May 7, 2009 at 8:19 am

This is an interesting article Wimwick. I have just started playing 4e (figured I had better try it to get a fair view point on it to see whether I actually like it or not). I do like that you are making a new character class out of existing, and the formula works. I won’t get into what I do and don’t like about 4e right now (lol. That’s for a different rant/post) but I do feel that the classes are kind of railroading (and this is just my opinion)… With the formula and imagination you could make a completely different class.

@greywulf- I like what you say about choosing your class first and then choosing the role.. I think that would really add a dynamic to the different characters. In my current 3.5 game I have two rogues in the group and one is more of a stealthy striker style rogue and the other is more of a denfender up front rogue, and both compliment one another in skill checks like searching for traps and etc. That is one thing that can be said for 3.5 that 4e lacks, is total customizability of the character classes.. You could have a defensive wizard (to a point) or a striker/defender fighter. In 4e you are completely limited by the powers that define your class with only minor to no deviation.
The only problem I can foresee with choosing a role after a class is more powers which could lead to confusion for some players and a convoluded feeling.. Not to mention all of the additional source books WoTC would be bound to print and charge top dollar for~.<

Alright.. Done ranting.. Sorry.

3 Wyatt May 7, 2009 at 11:32 am

Usually when I write powers and such, I try to give the characters an inkling of different roles or an emphasis on their secondary role, to give a little spice to life. Wizards aren’t leaders, not even a teeny bit, but I’ve been writing some powers that let them give a little bit here and a little bit there (without healing though, which’d be primary benefit of a leader and should stay with the Leader-first classes).

Wyatt’s last blog post..Rituals of Eden II

4 Wimwick May 7, 2009 at 2:38 pm

@ Greywulf
This is a subject that Ameron and I have been discussing for the past few weeks. You can be sure that this won’t be the last that we post on it. I think we’re about to see more on it from the blogging community.

@ Mike E
You’re right when you suggest that providing more options during character creation will complicate the game. However, it will also provide more versatility to players and expand the role system greatly. Look for more from Ameron and myself on this subject matter.

@ Wyatt
I have to disagree when you say Wizards aren’t leaders. Leaders are now the healing and buffing class and in 3.5 Wizards had their fair share of buffing spells. I agree that they aren’t healers, and again I think this is another problem with roles as they are currently presented. They pigeon hole the characters a little too much.

5 Wyatt May 7, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I meant Wizards in 4e, but even in 3.5, most “optimized” Wizards played the game by crippling enemies so people could beat them up, not giving out buffs (other than the game-shattering polymorph, whom you could give to nearly anyone and make a killing machine). They had a fair share of them, but it was stuff like Bull’s Strength and the like that the Cleric also had, but they also had very crippling spells the Cleric didn’t have, so they were usually better off debuffing, while the Cleric was typically the expected buffbot.

Wyatt’s last blog post..Feats of Eden II

6 Scott May 7, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Great article.

One thing I’d like to add, though: I think the power source is pretty ephemeral, too. If you think the Avenger class suits your swashbuckler, but you don’t want to be divine, it’s really not that hard to rewrite your fluff to make yourself martial. The one potential issue I see is the conversion of ranged implement powers to ranged weapon powers. When this happens, you can either try to equalize, so a power that’s 3d6 damage with an implement becomes 2[W] if your character uses a 1d10-damage bow… or you can just figure that the couple of extra points of damage on average from 3[W] damage is a fair tradeoff for making an attack vs. AC instead of vs. a (usually lower) non-AC defense. I play it by ear and consider the new fluff.

7 Wimwick May 7, 2009 at 6:32 pm

@ Wyatt
You of course correct, I suppose my arguement stems from the fact that spells belonged to certain schools in 3.5. This has been elimnated from 4e and thus the Wizard is no longer a buffer.

@ Scott
I feel that power sources are an unnecessay mechanic, little more than fluff really. Had WotC treated power source and role as a decision that was made during character creation they would carry more weight and make character creation much more involved.

8 The Last Rogue May 7, 2009 at 6:42 pm

You say “And this brings us back to my initial declaration that roles are the new character classes.”

I think that this is pushing your argument to its logical conclusion, but fear it is an advancement to far.

Roles perform similar options, in so much that strikers deal damage and defenders are meant to withstand and attract enemy fire . . .

However, the classes in 4e manage (more often than not) to achieve there role in unique enough ways that the the role is still secondary to it.

So, while all strikers deal extra damage and all have certain ‘expectations’ on them for combat, a few caveats still place the character class above and separate from role:

a) Combat is still not the end all be all for what defines a character. The roles almost exclusively deal with the ends towards which or the means by which a class operates solely in the field of battle. If the game was 100% combat, then yes roles may elevate above class choice.


b) admittedly, combat is a big part of the game. However, still each class is able to approach filling their roles through a myriad mechanics, powers, class-specific feats, etc.

So, yes, roles are important, but, tying into your statement above, I do not think they replace character classes because the classes still have enough defining characteristics to offer a measurement of uniqueness to a player.

So, while the swashbuckler example works, I do not believe it necessarily does so any more than applying any Character Concept to any chosen class.

9 Dungeon May 8, 2009 at 9:03 am

Wow, what a great blog! I love the idea of customization.

10 Brigand May 9, 2009 at 10:09 am

I’m working on creating a new RPG which basically takes 4th edition and removes classes and power sources. It condenses characters into roles with certain choices made to define the character thematically. I’m just starting, so I really don’t have anything to show for it, but there are people out there working on different version of this same idea, including me.

11 Toldain May 11, 2009 at 1:08 am

I think that it’s correct to say that role is more important than class. But I don’t think classes are meaningful. Paladins do not play the same as Fighters, even though they are both defenders. The differences aren’t just window dressing, they have a different solution to the problem of being a defender. Probably the most important thing the Fighter class brings to the defender role is not a power, but a class feature: Combat Superiority: If you so much as look at one my party members crosseyed, I get to smack you in situations where a paladin wouldn’t get an Attack of Opportunity.

Paladins, on the other hand, get some interesting abilities around being holy: laying hands, dealing radiant damage, etc.

I think the work that that Wizards has done makes it pretty easy to custom design new classes within a role (and power source), and that’s a better path to follow than the path of “classless roles”, in my opinion.

Toldain’s last blog post..Where’s the Pipeweed?

12 kij September 2, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Power sources can become very important, in role-playing and story. For example, in my campaign, religion is relatively scarce, and since the characters are initially in an urban environment, both the divine and primal power sources are by themselves plot points. A paladin or cleric (in my campaign) must be personally chosen by an exarch or god. This means that they did something to attract the exarch or god’s attention. The primal heroes must have lived outside the city at some point, so their viewpoint on events will naturally be different than, say, a rogue.

Also, roles aren’t an end-all. A team lacking a role may be slightly less able, but the DM can make up for this by either tailoring events towards that class, or, for a tougher challenge, attacking that weakness, i.e. attacking a group lacking a defender with Brutes, or attacking a group with no controller with a lot of Minions.

Just my take. I’ve not been doing this for as long as most of you have, so feel free to disregard it.

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