Roles, Classes, and Themes! Oh My! A #DnDNext conversation
I’m going to present a potentially radical idea that I’m sure many will scoff at, but it’s an idea that has been rolling around in my head for a while now. I’m no fan of Roles as they were presented in 4E, and I’ve made that fairly clear in a number of places over the past few years. However, Roles just might have their place in D&DNext.
D&D is a Class-based game. It always has been, and I think this is a sacred cow that should never visit the slaughterhouse. What if we challenged what the word “Class” refers to though? What if, rather than “Paladin” or “Sorcerer” or “Druid” we instead went back to D&D’s roots, and had only 4 “Classes”, namely: “Defender”, “Leader”, “Controller” and “Expert.” (I believe every Class should be a “Striker” and perhaps have options to forsake damage output to improve their basic Class premise.) These Classes would be defined by the following:
Defender: This Class represents the vanguard of an adventuring party. A Defender stands toe-to-toe with the enemy, weapon in hand, and utilizes her training to protect her companions who lack her martial skill. A Defender relies on Strength and Constitution. A Defender gains +1 to one of these at Levels 1, 5, 10, 15 and 20.
Leader: This Class represents the field general of the group. While this hero may stand near the Defender at the head of the group, she may just as well stand back and influence her friends to endure when the odds are against them. A Leader relies on Wisdom and Charisma. A Leader gains +1 to one of these at Levels 1, 5, 10, 15 and 20.
Controller: This Class represents a character who spreads his power around the battlefield. While a Controller can generally be found behind a wall of friends, where it is safer, enemies find this opponent rather capable of causing them harm all the same. A Controller relies on Intelligence and Charisma. A Controller gains +1 to one of these at Levels 1, 5, 10, 15 and 20.
Expert: This Class represents the crafty member of the group. Not as tough as a Defender, or as charasmatic as a Leader, or as spectacular as a Controller, this role has elements of each, coupled with the ability to improvise in any situation. An Expert relies on Dexterity and Intelligence. An Expert gains +1 to one of these at Levels 1, 5, 10, 15 and 20.
From here, we can build on the 4E paradigm of “Themes” to create what we’ve come to know as our Barbarian, or Bard, or Sorcerer. Each Theme can be associated with a specific “Class” though the specified Class should not be required to pursue the Theme. For example:
You were a champion among your tribe. Your skill both hunting and during sport against your tribesmen was unparalleled. For reasons of your own you have struck out into the greater world around you.
Primary Ability: Strength
Weapons: Any two-handed
Armor: Cloth, Hide
At Barbarian level 1 a Barbarian gains the ability to enter a rage once per day. While subject to rage, the character receives a -3 penalty to Constitution, and gains +3 to damage rolls. The ability to enter a rage increases one additional time per day for every 3 levels of Barbarian.
At Barbarian level 4 a Barbarian may make two attacks per round if attacking with a two-handed weapon. A Barbarian may increase the number of attacks per round by one every 4 Barbarian levels thereafter.
Some other theme-flavored ability here.
Yet another theme-flavored ability here.
As a child you gazed upon the stars with wonder. As a young adult, those stars spoke to you, offering gifts of arcane power. You have heeded their call.
Primary Ability: Charisma
Weapons: Simple, Implements
Armor: Cloth, Leather
At Warlock level 1 a Warlock may cast Soulburn once per round as her attack. Make an attack roll. On a hit, do 1d4 force damage, plus 1d4 ongoing fire damage (save ends). At Warlock level 3 the force damage increases to 2d4 and increases by an additonal die every three Warlock levels thereafter. At Warlock level 5, the fire damage increases to 2d4 and increases by an additional die every 5 Warlock levels thereafter.
At Warlock level 4 a Warlock can channel dark energy from realms beyond the known world. The Warlock can cast Dark Void once per round. Make an attack roll. On a hit, do 1d6 force damage; in addition, make a second attack roll, either against the same target or a target adjacent to the original. If you attack the same target and hit, the target becomes enervated (save ends). If you attack an adjacent target and hit, do 1d6 force damage to that target. At Warlock level 6, when you use this power and do damage, you regain the number of points of damage as hit points up to your normal total. On a critical hit, you may repeat the attack against the same or a different target.
Some other theme-flavored ability here.
Yet another theme-flavored ability here.
Obviously the above two Themes are not at all balanced, nor are they meant to be (though I think the Warlock abilities are kind of cool). I simply wrote them spur-of-the-moment to illustrate some concepts.
You’ll notice some things about these Themes. The first, and most obvious to any 4E player, is the lack of a power per level progression. I think that Essentials showed us that the Powers paradigm wasn’t necessarily the right way to go with D&D. In D&DNext, I think we should look at more Essentials-style character paths than PHB1-style. At the same time, you’ll notice that the abilities of the Warlock above correspond pretty closely with At-Will Powers. I think the At-Will paradigm is critical to D&DNext. It is the ultimate answer to “I’m sitting here doing nothing while everyone else is playing and the Wizard is hitting his ‘I Win’ button.”
Next, this Theme-based paradigm illustrates my idea for the answer to multiclass characters in D&DNext. You first choose your “Class” which, as already illustrated, corresponds to 4E’s definition of “Roles” and early-D&D’s Cleric/Fighter/Magic-User/Thief classes. This choice corresponds directly to the Theme you choose since each Theme is then tied to a specific Class and ability associated with that Class. You are free to play a multiclass Expert Barbarian/Warlock, but your abilities won’t necessarily mesh well. As an Expert, you are choosing between Dexterity and Intelligence as your Primary Ability score. As a Barbarian, Strength is your Primary Ability. As a Warlock, your Primary Ability is Charisma. While this isn’t necessarily a show-stopper for mixing and matching Themes against Classes, it isn’t “optimal” and should counter the cherry-picking so often complained about in multiclass conversations.
In addition, by making ability progression tied to your current Theme level, it is a further motivation to continue on the same archetype’s path further into your career. While dabbling in multiple Themes is appealing to some (like myself) it does lead to weaker individual abilities. Such is life when you choose to walk multiple paths. Someone who dedicates their career to being a Defender Paladin should Smite Evil with the force of true conviction. An Expert who tells a few sarcastic jokes (Jester-a Bard variant), can pick a standard lock (Thief), and cast Magic Missile (Wizard) can obviously come up with an answer to practically any situation, but won’t necessarily want to be standing next to the Paladin when a fight breaks out, or be able to disengage that masterwork poison needle trap on the sofa-size treasure chest you’re all staring at.
Lastly, you’ll notice that things such as armor and weapon choices are tied to the Themes, rather than the class. I think that makes sense. You likely wouldn’t see a Barbarian leaving her tribe in full plate. It also makes your choice of Theme more critical to your overall character.
I haven’t covered out-of-combat actions here. Skills, rituals, and the like aren’t really what I wanted to concentrate on today. I think those things have their place in the next iteration of D&D, but I’m not sure how at the moment. I have some thoughts but I’ll save them for another day.
So what do you think of this system? Would it make you happy as a player, whether as a pre-4E fan or as a 4E fan, to play a character system like this? Does it serve enough for both sides of the fence to build the PC they desire? Talk back to me in the comments!