Saturday, February 7, 2009

D&D class overview (I): How should classes be?

As I stated in my opening post, the long-term mission of this site will be to fix and improve D&D 4e rules. Of course, an important part of this process should be to decide which areas of the game can be improved upon, and which ones should be preserved as key to the game's success. I will start by analyzing currently released classes, i.e. those in the Player's Handbook, plus the Swordmage.

The wizard is, hands down, the best controller published to date

Today I will discuss which characteristics make a great class, and in the following posts I'll talk about the classes published up to date: the problems I have observed and my opinions on the state of each one. As a disclaimer, my views are probably skewed towards Heroic Tier game issues, since my campaign hasn't reached paragon levels yet.

What should a well-rounded class have? Generally speaking, we want classes, and in fact any other game element, to be fun to play. More specifically, I think classes contribute to fun by providing characters with variety and personality. Balance, while harder to notice (its importance only being evident when it's absent), should also be taken in consideration.

Variety is necessary both while generating and levelling a character, and in actual play. Classes in 4e usually present the player the choice of two main builds, and up to four possible powers to pick when levelling up. The number of available feats varies a lot depending on the type of character, from up to a dozen good options in the best scenario, to virtually none, in the worst. Being forced to pick Skill Training is far from amusing.

In my experience, these base numbers are good starting points: two distinct builds, four choices for powers, and at least half a dozen feats. Less than that, and characters start to feel premade or, even worse, unmakeable, like the sad example of the level 9 Strength Paladin, who can only pick Charisma-based daily prayers.

When gameplay diversity is at its best, players can make significant strategic decisions every round of an encounter. In addition, there should be variance from one encounter to the next, so that there is not a single sequence of actions that a character does every battle. Achieving this depends mostly on the selection of powers that the class provides. No power should always be the right choice. Likewise, powers should be different enough from one another that choosing between them isn't irrelevant.

Another, often undervalued source of in-game variety is character movement. Class features that reward good positioning and allow movement of the characters, their allies and their enemies literally add new dimensions to the game.

While the number of available options is often a good measure of game variety, it can also be misleading. Option relevance must be taken into account, as well. When some of the choices are much weaker than the rest, they might as well not exist, since they will more often than not get ignored. In extreme cases, they could tend a trap for inexperienced players, leading to severely underpowered characters. Options that are much stronger than their counterparts, on the other hand, are even worse. Even if they don't 'break' the class, they can become mandatory for their slot, obsoleting the alternatives.

Related to variety is class personality, which I'll consider here in its most mechanic meaning. It's not enough that a fighter and a wizard have different features and powers - rather, each one's advantages and disadvantages should follow a certain theme, defining a distinct style. A player should be able to figure out, when looking at a brand new power, whether it belongs to a wizard or a fighter. The real challenge, of course, would be doing the same when the classes share power sources, like a wizard and a warlock, or roles, like a fighter and a paladin.

Personality can also be achieved through common elements. Class roles and power sources are an example of this, by grouping characters with similar functions or backgrounds. Even reused mechanics can feel unique, if small but crucial details change, as with Hunter's Quarry and a Warlock's Curse, which differ only in their application on targets beyond the first, and their interaction with other class features. Repetition in different contexts also works here, as is the case of a Paladin's Bolstering Strike and the Barbarian power with the same effect. The same effect,an attack that grants temporary hit points, is completely changed when used by a low-defense melee striker rather than a defender.

Game balance is not always appreciated, but it's nevertheless essential. It is not, intrinsically, a fun concept, but lack of balance can make a game monotonous, frustrating, or unfair. Balance in roles means that every role is required in a party, and none is clearly better than others. This is not completely true under the current rules - I don't think controllers, while useful, are essential right now. As I see it, the problem lies in the wizard's lack of defining class features: Defenders mark, Leaders heal, Strikers hurt, but the guys in the pointy hats don't have such a clear function.

The rest of roles are at a similar level, though. The first Leader or Defender is perhaps more important, but Strikers are the most tolerant to redundancy in a party. Once you have someone to tank and heal, you can't have too much raw damage.

In order to measure balance of individual classes, we should compare within each role, taking into account how well each one fulfills its function, the presence of secondary roles, and general utility. I find that most classes are pretty close, although rangers (and sometimes fighters) strike a bit too well. Warlock's damage, on the other hand, can be a bit disappointing, though their self-defense and controlling capabilities almost make up for it.

Next: What's wrong with current classes?


  1. Yay, I'm glad you're writing this, your condensated exp and wisdom, hehe. Looking forward to more!

  2. As a fan of movement-related powers and features (and an intelligent warlord player) I agree with you in the thinking that they are probably the most fun and rewarding skills.

    On the other hand, I don't think that defenders are integral to a good party. You can remove one and pretty much replace it with a more-than-average defended striker. In my opinion, the leader is the only truly needed role.

  3. Don't know... leaders are very useful, but replacing them with a bunch of 50gp healing potions, while not optimal, is far from terrible.

    I think neither role is so good that a party can't play without it and survive, but having all of them definitely helps. That said, the defending striker you propose would better have great basic attacks or other means to keep enemies close, or they'll just ignore him and go for softer targets.