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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.
Class: Defender
Primary Ability: Strength
Weapons: Any two-handed
Armor: Cloth, Hide
Shield: No

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.
Class: Controller
Primary Ability: Charisma
Weapons: Simple, Implements
Armor: Cloth, Leather
Shield: No

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!


AlioTheFool has been "around" D&D for 25 years, going back to the old "Red Box." However, having no one to play with, he simply spent ridiculous amounts of time creating worlds, adventures, and stories. After a D&D "vacation" from high school until around 10 years ago, Neverwinter Nights brought AlioTheFool back to the game. A few years later he found his way to the tabletop via the D&D Miniatures game. As that game wound down from official support, he bought a 4e starter set and gave the game another shot. After being invited by a fellow Minis game player to join his home 4e game, he progressed from player to now DM.

19 Responses to “Roles, Classes, and Themes! Oh My! A #DnDNext conversation”

  • I dig it! There is a bit of nostalgia factor in having the core class names up front, but your system seems cool.

  • I want to keep roles, but I don’t want to define roles by their primary stats.

    As an example, the way you’ve set things up, the Barbarian has to be a defender because that’s where the Strength primary is. But the Barbarian isn’t a defender — his primary focus is to dish out tons of damage in a rage.

    The Druid should be a controller, but shouldn’t be using Int and Cha.
    The Paladin could be either a defender or a leader, but needs both Str and Cha, not either/or.
    Rangers need Wis, and either Str or Dex depending on whether they’re melee or ranged focus.

    You’ll find tons of problems like this if you define role with attributes. There are just too many different spreads to tie attributes to role.

    That said, I do very much like your suggestion that all classes could be striker or their thematic role, depending on how the player wants to do it. If you built the class system to be highly modular with feats/perks/abilities (or whatever you want to call them), this could be very easy. I’ve written about that kind of system here, if you’re interested: http://dd4sign.blogspot.ca/2012/03/thought-experiment-very-modular-5e_27.html

  • I always appreciate efforts of blogging that propose something new instead of telling “I don’t like this and that, change it”.
    But in this case, allow me to explain why I disagree, with most of the model.

    The good points is that it all makes sense. Even if not changing the name of the classes (after all, Fighter, Cleric, Thief/Rogue and Magic-User fairly translate respectively to Defender, Leader, Expert and Controller), seasoned players are going to find this model as something that makes sense.
    But I see three big problems with this.

    First of all, the simplest. Themes. Themes, as presented in 4e and confirmed by the designers in Next, are all but something that relates to class, and are well-liked exactly for that reason: they provide an additional layer to the character, telling more about who the character is, compared to what he/she does, or anyway something different, most often not related to combat although it could affect it. In a way, it’s a tool to have your Fighter different from another Fighter, not because he uses a different fighting style, but because he’s a noble, or a sheriff, or a soldier, or even a scholar. Themes can add unusual areas of expertise to a class. More on that in the next point.

    Roles. I came to the conclusion that tactical roles, as the ones you describe, are one of the unnecessary limitations of 4e, that D&D Next is probably (and for me, hopefully) doing away with, at least at some level. The point is this: if a Fighter is defined by defending, and basically each class is defined by a role, players both old and new may be unhappy for a number of reasons. Players might want a Wizard that defends allies with abjurations and specilize in that. Or Rogues that control by throwing unhealthy amount of daggers and inflicting the worst effects on the enemies. Why would we want to prevent this? Your system kind of deals with this by allowing you to select a sub-class (I’ll call them sub-classes, acknowledging that themes are something else that needs to stay) that doesn’t correspond to your main class, but you call that multiclassing, and as you say, it comes with limitations. I’m not saying multiclassing should come without limitations, but that a single class should be able to cover most tactical roles.

    And second point about roles, I think all the roles should be covered by any character, just not in any single round. Tactics should vary as they’re meant to be: changing actions reacting to the situation. What a class needs to be truly different (although a “default” tactical role is ok for beginners), is not tactical role (defender, leader, controller, “striker” arguably). but different *strategical* role. Which has more to do with HOW you perform those tactics. A specialized “defender wizard” would still want to do its thing from a distance and relying on shield spells for defense. A specialized controlling rogue would be different from a controlling wizard because he would need to move a lot and be stealthy to get the most out of his/her attacks.
    So classes (IMO) should have their “role” described in more open terms, and strategically speaking, allowing for different tactics each round. For example, a Fighter’s strategical role could be “Staying in the thick of the battle”, while the Wizard would be the opposite. The Ranger would be the “Always on the move, hit-and-run, reaching for far away targets”, while the Rogue would be the “tricky/dirty-fighting, sneaking in and out and doing deadly teamwork and flanking”. As you can see, I already differentiated a lot the three classes that are notoriously hard to differentiate, and that’s the power of “strategical role” instead of tactical role. Example, all those three could be Leading in any given roun d if they wanted. It would mean supporting other characters in doing better what they are specialized into. A Rogue would be “teaching how to do tricky things”, a Ranger how to reach far places or get out of fights, a Fighter how to resist in the middle of it. Of course, these would be options, default and Basic characters probably wouldn’t have these, but we’re talking Advanced rules here. That still wouldn’t work in a system as the one you propose, IMO.

    Last point, I see a problem with the Expert role. I argue that just as every class should be able to Strike when needed, every class should be Expert, just in different areas of expertise. Nobody better than the Fighter when it comes to strategical warfare knowledge for example, and nobody better than the Rogue when it comes to legends of treasures and such. And here I came full circle, demonstrating the utility of Themes as conceived by 4e: they are a tool to make the otherwise “fixed” area of expertise of any given class, far richer, adding sometimes “contrasting” skills, like a Fighter that is particularly knowledgeable in arcane matters (without truly casting spells if not maybe some “apprentice” ones), or Wizards who are more of the self-taught type and are particularly roguish.

    So, to end this looong comment, I think we need traditional classes, able to cov er the 3-4 4e-style roles (tactical) just not consistently and with a default fall-back role for Basic playing, and Themes representing more role-playing oriented choices, dealing with what kind of Expert you want your character to be. Also because if only some characters are good with skills, non-combat situations will rapidly become boring for those that are of a different “role”, that’s why Expert should not be a role, but every character should be (potentially) expert in one or two broad fields. Also, classes defined by general strategies, that leave more breadth to player’s creativity. What’s more, having just one “class layer” instead of your double one, allows for a sub-layer representing particular types of specialized classes, such as Swashbuckler, Thief, Warmage, Archer and so on. Difficult to have these if you have the classes already split in two systems…

    Hope you had the patience to read all of this and consider it! If you want to read my blogs, you find them in my Wizards profile, here: http://community.wizards.com/lordarchaon

  • @Alphastream Thanks! Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time (actually since before the announcement of D&DNext). I finally got off my tail and wrote about it though.

  • @Dominic Matte You’re looking at cherry-picking and optimization, which I’m specifically trying to avoid with this system. Cherry-picking has long been the argument against multi-classing in D&D. To the point where MC was crippled in 4E for those who simply wanted to play non-optimized “fun” characters. Your “Class” (Role) in my system, is simply a base to help build your character from. You are by no means obligated to take Themes associated with your Class. If you want to play a Controller Barbarian, go right ahead. Just know that while your Barbarian might be the smartest or most charasmatic of his tribe, he’s not the strongest, and his Barbarian-related abilities won’t be optimal.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • @LordArchaon I know the Role names sort of correspond to the old class names, but it’s key to remember that they aren’t directly related. The Role names are a broader description than you’d get from the old Class names. Being a Defender isn’t the same as being a Fighter. You could be a Controller Fighter, or a Defending Rogue. These are concepts you can’t really get from previous editions cleanly.

    Themes as I presented them do layer on class. A Sorcerer would be significantly different from a Wizard, but they might both be arcane students. Further, an Illusionist might drastically differ from an Enchanter! The flexibility of the system I wrote about is that you can be as finely tuned or as generalist as you choose, building off of your base Class (Role) or not, as you desire.

    One Class should certainly not cover multiple roles. We absolutely disagree there. You can certainly build a character that can perform multiple (or even all) roles in combat by taking multiple Themes, but you should certainly not be able to build the ultimate superhero that overshadows the rest of the table.

    As for the Expert, it was simply the name I came up with on the fly to describe someone who doesn’t fit into the first three roles. Honestly, you could eliminate that 4th “Class” but it was more a nod to the old-schoolers who might argue that this reflects too much of the video game DPS/Tank/Healer paradigm.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • The way I see it is that a role should be just the way you are playing and should not be proscriptive.

    E.g. as a sword-and-board player I should not be restricted to the role of Defender , why can’t I drop my guard and go all-in and improve my attack to the detriment of my defence?

    I could specialise in defending, but have one or two moves as a striker.

    The same with a controller, why can’t some spells slow opponents, but when aimed at one target cause restrained?

    Context is everything. Singularity is boring.

  • @Colin You aren’t at all restricted in the system I have outlined. If you want to be a “strikery” Fighter, choose the “Slayer” Theme. If you want to be a “defending” Fighter choose the “Knight” Theme. You want both? Choose both! As for your Role, it’s simply a base concept, and is in no way restrictive toward the character you choose to play. It simply aids any Theme you choose that is associated with it. It’s not too far removed from the 4E concept as it stands today, except that you are less constrained.

    If, on the other hand, you just want to be able to “do everything” with your character, and have no downside to your character, you’re definitely going to be unhappy with this system, and really, any edition of D&D.

  • Hi AlioTheFool,

    I’m not trying to “do everything”, I’m just trying to give my character options. I don’t want to be constrained to either Slayery or Knighty. Depending on the encounter I would like to have options in both roles.

    In the first half of a tough fight, as a sword-and-board merchant I’m going to need to be a defender and protect those around me whilst they wear down the baddies. Once the tide has turned I want to go all-in and splat the monster.

    In a fight against easy opposition I should be able to sweep all asunder, as my buddies don’t need protecting.

    Obviously, I might choose to specialise in defender or striker, but why is this an either/or choice? That is my choice of powers at each level.

    Likewise my wizard friend will, in normal circumstances, may decide to control the encounter with slow, blind, pull, push powers etc. but if there is only one enemy, why can’t they choose an all-in power to strike the enemy?

    It is all about personal choice – some control spells + some striker spells. Not extra powers, just choose your own balance.

    This is not multi-classing, it is not even multi-role, it is power choice.

  • @Colin I understand you want options, and this system allows for them. You aren’t constrained to Slayer or Knight. You can choose to take both if you want those options. Again, neither will be as good as if you concentrate on one, but that’s the sacrifice of multiple paths, and is no different than any other edition of D&D.

    You spoke about power choice, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Under the system I’m discussing, most powers as we saw in 4E would no longer exist. While each Theme would have at-will abilities, there would no longer be choices for Encounter powers, and Daily powers would likely head back into the realm of Vancian magic.

    I don’t understand why you feel this system would take away personal choice. The entire premise is to expand choices available to your characters.

  • I personally do not like your idea. I shudder at the thought of having all the classes lumped into four categories. To me it just limits you so much. What if you wanted to play a Barbarian who did not play in the defender style, but used a bow? Or a Bard who you envision up at the front lines with a longsword? I think the roleplaying should come first and the rules and classes should support whatever kind of character the player can come up with. Not restrict certain classes to certain styles of play.

  • Still, would you not include Themes as they are now in 4e? Or anyway as a similar “non-combat class layer”? I think they would still be needed even in a system like yours.

  • Also, about roles, you must have misunderstood my point. I said what you said just few moments later, so I think we share the same thoughts. I’m of the opinion that each character should be able to perform all “tactical” roles, just like skills and striking should be for everyone, I say (potentially, just like in your system you can do by mixing class and theme that do not match), everyone should be able to defend or lead or control. The problem, evidenced by the 4e hybrid system is that you should never do more than one of those things *at the same time*, as in “within the same turn”. That’s why all hybrid rules in 4e specify that you apply certain features only when using powers of the class tied to those features. Because it would be just too powerful to Sneak Attack with a Fireball.
    So what I say is just basically what you do with the combo between class & theme (or role & class, traditionally), but within the customization choices of the class, leaving open a second layer being the Theme as I described it, and perhaps a sub-class package that basically customizes your class for you.
    So in your case you’d actually build a character to be able to perform well in 1-3 roles depending on multiclass, in my system *everyone* does that with even a single class if customized accordingly (note that there’s not overshadowing anyone, as you said about my point: everyone has the options), while multiclassing would give you different *ways* to perform, different strategies.
    What you and all previous editions try to build in a fixed way (a character that can do A, b & C), I try to give to everyone, as different actions they can perform, allowing a character to be able to be different from battle to battle without retraining. Then multiclassing and further “build-related” options (thus “fixed” options, at least from level to level) would give you difference on another level, as I always repeat, more in your possible strategies than just simple tactics. I propose a broader system, that5 honestly could even be implemented in a system like yours if allowing for in-level retraining. That is, a Fighter that changes from polearm to sword and board from battle to battle or even in battle, actually changing some capabilities without levelling up, opr a Wizard that actually modifies some spells without levelling.

    Anyway, the important thing is not giving new players the impression that a D&D class is just like a videogame class that has a defined set of capabilities and must work with that. Just as the world and adventure in D&D is better than videogmaes because it’s open-ended, characters too should feel open-ended and in a way more similar to “real heroes” in that they teach themselves new tricks if they need to, and just as they can defend, they can also lead and control ina battle, depending on the situation. If everyone has all tactical options, tactics and strategies take on all new levels, that is, depending on what the class *identity* truly is. At that point, “fighting with two weapons” or “dealing more damage” or “marking” won’t be selling points of a class, but of a style of playing, that possibly many classes will be able to display. And classes will feel different for how these styles and options will interact with their (mechanically endorsed) base strategies.
    Hope it does make sense now. I’ma bit of a convoluted speaker-writer, and not a native English speaker, so it might sound more strange than it really is! :)

  • Just my 2cents: but it sounds kinda like d20 modern..?

  • @Doog You could easily play exactly the way you’re saying actually. Whereas 4E tells you that the original Fighter is a Defender, this system gives you the option to play a Defender Barbarian. It also gives you the option to play a Controller Barbarian, or a Leader Barbarian. The idea behind thsi system is not to limit anyone, but to make it wide open for players to choose their character’s path.

    @LordArchaon I disagree that every character should be able to perform all roles equally. If you choose to spread yoru abilities out among different styles, it’s going to weaken each individual ability. Such is the nature of life. If anyone can perform all roles at an elite level in each, what does he or she need companions for? That runs counter to the D&D experience of sitting at a table with multiple friends and sharing a story.

    @marco Does it? Honestly, I have never seen more of D20 Modern than the cover in images online, so I can’t honestly say. That’s interesting though, and I guess it at least validates that someone else had the same line of thought as myself!

    Thanks for the comments all.

  • Per your description, a “controller Barbarian” wouldn’t really get any ability to control. They’d just get bonuses in stats that aren’t optimal. Since the actual powers come from the theme, they wouldn’t have anything that helps the controller. You’d have to come up with four sets of powers per theme.

    “I believe every Class should be a “Striker” and perhaps have options to forsake damage output to improve their basic Class premise.” This is hard to balance. I know a lot of people that would go for damage every time. It’s also hard to create this where picking and choosing different options is equal to always choosing damage or always choosing premise abilities. It’s sort of like 3.x multiclassing with spellcasters. It tends to be much less effective than going with all casting or no casting.

  • […] Musings posted some thoughts on what classes could look like in D&D Next. Some interesting thoughts on how “classes” might be more like […]

  • @philo pharynx When I wrote those two theme descriptions, I just did it quickly for illustrative purposes. A Barbarian Theme could quite easily be designed as a minion slaughterer. I could definitely see Barbarian as a Controller rather than Defender.

    You would not get four sets of powers per theme though. If Barbarian is the Controller version of the fighting-man, then you need to take the “Fighter” or “Knight” Theme that provides Defender abilities if you want those. Of course at least one of those choices will not match your choice of Class, but again, that’s the choice you make by not focusing. No you cannot optimize and cherry-pick via multiclassing. That is intentional.

    The key to everyone being a striker and having options to forsake damage isn’t to leave the door open for abuse. If everyone is a “striker” then everyone is on par with each other for damage dealing. You would give up damage situationally. For example, a Cleric might sacrifice some damage one round in order to grant some healing to a nearby ally. A Knight may take a penalty to her damage in exchange for a bonus to AC for the next round. That doesn’t seem hard to balance. Again, it’s about choice. You can sacrifice effectiveness in one thing to gain effectiveness in another.

  • […] Roles, Classes, and Themes! Oh My! at RPG Musings imagines a stripped-down four-class structure for D&D, allowing players to personalize their characters with an endless variation of themes. Classes reflect the current 4e Roles, and things like weapon and armor choice would be tied to Themes. […]