When is a fighter not a fighter?
Yesterday Twitter was aflutter with discussions of roles and classes. At least two broader discussions developed from the initial topic. One was how a character's role often leads to social pressure to play a character a certain way, especially in combat. Another was how players often get tripped up on the terminology of 4e, often because the game redefines some pretty broad terms in a narrow way. Both illustrate issues with discussing D&D in general.
The first topic is a really thorny one. With the wide variety of play styles and motivations, it's difficult to give general advice on the subject. However, we can at least discuss the role system and the underlying problems it causes. If you haven't played much 4th edition, the character builds are separated into 4 categories called roles, controller, defender, leader and striker. Each of these roles have something they are really good at, largely that the defender soaks up damage and locks down opponents, the controller generally deal with multiple targets at once, leaders give bonuses to their allies and help them endure a long fight, and strikers deal massive quantities of damage.
This simplified way of looking at characters has a few things going for it. First, if I have a newer player, I can ask him to describe to me what he would like to do in combat. From that description, I can pick the role that is most likely to appeal to him and use that to narrow down the class builds he's most likely to enjoy. If the player enjoys doing lots of damage to a single target, meaning he wants to give me a big damage tally, I know to steer him towards the striker. If he envisions taking out large swaths of minions in battle, well then I have a controller.
It's also easier to know if the party has enough diversity to tackle most challenges. If they have one of each role, the DM has a much wider toolbox available to him. Throwing monsters of the soldier role at a party without a defender gets a bit tricky as does throwing lots of minions without there being a controller in the group.
However, these positives come at a cost. One of the biggest I've seen is that some players will always think that the grass is greener on the other side. I can't tell you how many times I've seen the defender frustrated that he wasn't doing anywhere near the amount of damage as the strikers of the party. And sometimes people playing leaders with a name like warlord expect to be a little buffer in battle, at least in either defense or offense but preferably both.
When this happens, I get to hear the stories about how it was so much better in the old days, when you could take levels in the different classes and customize your character... They aren't entirely wrong but at the same time, that system isn't right for everyone either and is rife with its own problems.
Another cost is that it becomes even clearer what your role is supposed to be in battle and other players may expect or even demand that you hold up your end of the bargain. This issue comes up repeatedly at my table. Some players approach D&D as a game and while they will accept, often grudgingly, that you can't win at D&D, they usually have the opinion that there are ways to lose. One of the ways they lose is by not getting the most out of the character they put a lot of time and energy into creating. I'm not even talking about highly optimized characters with some crazy combination of feats and powers that allow them to hit pretty much anything on a 2 or higher.
This pressure is increased when players realize that 4E was designed to foster and reward cooperative play. The rogue needs combat advantage for sneak attack. Before Essentials came out, the easiest way to get that at low levels was by pairing up with a defender. However, when the defender is a swordmage who was developed to keep moving around the battlefield, things can get depressing for the rogue pretty quickly and sometimes tempers flair.
On a similar note, people tend to look down on members of their group who they perceive aren't pulling their weight. If this lowered effectiveness is a conscious choice, feelings can get hurt pretty quickly as accusations of not being a team player are bandied about. This doesn't mean that a player shouldn't play the type of character they want, but I think it's important to have a group discussion about it and to set up some ground rules about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. No one player should be able to always force something on to the group that isn't fun to the rest of them and the whole group shouldn't force a player to always do something that is not fun for them.
Add on top of this the confusion caused by redefining common terms, and the issues become even more dramatic. When discussing Dark Sun and the emergence of themes, the people from R&D love to tell the story of how the term gladiator made them rethink class design for 4E. At first, they tried to make the gladiator into a class but the problem is that so many different gladiator styles exist with no clear winner when it comes to pigeonholing them into a particular role. After thinking about it a bit, they came up with the solution of creating themes, an additional layer to class building which gives the character access to themed powers that are tied to their highest stat rather than one tied to a particular class.
However, this same argument can be made about a number of D&D classes, particularly the fighter. When I think of a fighter, defender is not the first thing that comes to mind, yet until Heroes of the Fallen Lands, that was the way we were intended to see them. The truth is 4E has a number of fighter classes but since one of them is labeled fighter, people will choose it without understanding that the role doesn't match their intended play style. Pain and suffering often results along with accusations that the game is at fault because the player's expectations of the class were not met.
So if I may suggest anything, it's that we keep in mind how important roles can be in finding the right class fit for a player and his character and that when we discuss 4th edition, it's important to remember that some of the game terms are narrowly defined compared to the general definitions. Also, while it's impossible to play D&D wrong, it is possible for a play style to be incompatible within a group, especially if the group is unwilling to discuss their issues and come up with some group rules.