When is a fighter not a fighter?


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 13 October 2010

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.

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We tweeted a bit about this yesterday, but I got called away from the computer for a couple hours so it sort of fizzled out.

I found that 4E's more conscious awareness of roles had a surprising impact on my character preference. Rogue was a common choice for me in earlier editions, and strikers (particularly rogues) are still interesting. But I very rarely played a magic user in earlier editions, whereas wizards and other controllers are now definitely my first choice.

I suspect it may be that controller has always been the most compelling choice for me personally, but in previous editions that role was even less well defined than the others. Put another way, while you could argue that fighters have always been defenderish, even before the role concept was in use (and rogues/thieves have always been strikerish), there hasn't before been a class that was clearly controllerish. . . .

Good insights all around, though three questions came to mind as I was reading:

1) To what extent is this is the fault of the system, and how much of it is the attitude of the players? The examples you give are largely alien to my 4E experience, since my players in large part have different attitudes than the players you describe, and the argument seems to spotlight the ways in which /individuals/ react poorly: "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." This seems, to me at least, a central issue, and if it's true that this is mostly an issue of player attitude and taste (as I happen to think most D&D 'arguments' are), I'm not sure there's anything more novel to be said besides YMMV. This is especially true since terms like the meaning for 'fighter' and everything else in language is so overdetermined, shaped by personal history, the fantasy media one consumes, previous gaming experience, and so on - the "general definitions" you allude to may not be so general, maybe. Again, it becomes so polysemic that remarking that any given definition might not grok with someone might be like remarking that we breathe air.

2) What legitimacy does RTFM ('read the fucking manual') have in this case? I know this is a simplification, but I think it's worth addressing: if someone plays a fighter, who is described as a defender, whose abilities are all about taking hits and stated to be such, and who's powers are largely protective in nature rather than ultra-damaging, to what extent can we have sympathy for people who are then surprised and dismayed they aren't dealing hateDcrush damage each turn? What did they expect? I can understand playing the class understanding it's purpose but ultimately not having as much fun with it - that's common and understandable. But I suppose I'm struggling to see a situation where someone could play a fighter (or a rogue or a wizard or whatever), only to be shocked to find that it's Exactly What it Says on the Tin. That is, unless they picked the class without reading it, just based on the name and the art (which happens).

3) One common critique of 4E is not that the classes are too rigidly or narrowly defined (as your post suggests), but that they're too homogeneous and lack the distinctiveness of earlier editions. How do you feel your argument fits into this broader discussion?

Regarding the RTFM point, while valid on its own, I'd say that if player's expectations aren't jibing with what the FM says, that's a design flaw in itself.

You say Twitter was aflutter. Where? What tags, what users - how do I get in on this conversation?

I recently picked up Twitter, and only JUST realized it could contribute to my fantasy gaming hobby. Let me in (please)!

Check out the #dnd hashtag, you'll see much of the D&D discussions and comments as well as find a lot of good people to follow.

What I was thinking when seeing the discussion is how much of the issue is more about people getting hung up on the names of classes. That is if someone says they want to play a wizard, but really want to do a lot of damage, then what they really want is to play a sorcerer (or Warlock or other striker). Wanting to play a Wizard in a particular way, say as a striker, but somehow being resistant to taking the arcane class for that role seems like there is something important in the name "Wizard" rather then the fact of whether you can or cannot customize it to fill a different role. Seems like reinventing the wheel all for a name. And a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

But hey, there is power in a name, and a name can invoke a certain mindset. Wizard has become an iconic name for a Magic-User. Now we have the Fighter (Slayer), as well as the new Ranger (Hunter), showing we can move a class name to another role, so what if originally there was not the Wizard, Warlock, Sorcerer, but instead all were called Wizard and had a sub class build name, like Wizard(Mage), Wizard(Warlock), Wizard(Sorcerer). Would this even be an issue then?

That kind of lead me to thinking about the power sources, and what if WotC when they put out the PHB rather then Arcane, Divine, and Martial had instead simply called them by the name of the main example classes. So it would be Wizard, Cleric, and Fighter, then the classes from the PHB might be Mage, Priest, and Warrior. So everyone that uses spells is a "Wizard" as that is the source name.

But I do remember this being an issue when my group first started with 4e. I tried to point out that they shouldn't just grab a fighter thinking it was a simple hit with sword class, and depending on what they wanted to do they might want to look more to ranger or rogue and the particular class name was not as important as what they wanted to do and how.

I was thinking something similar back in the 'System vs Game' post. A lot of the names for classes really are arbitrary, but players let them define so much.

An open-minded DM could well say "all magic in this world is Sorcerer magic. But people that use it go by many names including wizards, mages etc". This principle can be applied to many aspects of the game. Like my previous comment on D&D of any edition being a toolbox, the most flavourful campaigns come from carefully choosing which bits to include and then renaming and re-skinning them the support your themes. I really think they should have emphasised more how the class names are just convenient labels and each represent a different take on how magic and combat can be handled.

Now, supposedly the classes represent fantasy archetypes, but some really are very specific and have no corresponding characters anywhere else in fiction. This is fine for D&D being it's own thing, but is not so fine for people who already have a vision of the sort of character or world they want to create.

And some archetypes are or were just plain missing. Until the Fighter(Slayer), there was no way to play your typical non-magical armoured hero who is deadly with a sword. A certain build of warlord perhaps? Or rogue? Or maybe even fighter, yes; but all of these were contorting a class to fill a different (but incredibly common and fundamental) concept.

I think one of the problems people have with this view is that D&D (not just 4E) seems to be trying to go both ways with classes. On the one hand, some classes are very broad (like the fighter) and definitely have a "convenient label" feel to them. On the other, the writeups for some classes are much more steeped in flavor and definitely fit into the "specific archetype" mold. Take, for instance, the warlock. A warlock is not simply an arcane damage dealer, the warlock as written is someone who has ambitiously taken a shortcut to acquire power by entering into a relationship with a magical entity. The class features and powers fit the theme of meddling with dark, mysterious, or capricious entities. The idea of cursing enemies and making them vulnerable only adds to that.

DISCLAIMER: I am not saying you can't reflavor the warlock to be whatever you want it to be. I'm only talking about what's in the book and the way it appears, particularly to newer players reading it for the first time. Please don't "helpfully remind me" that a class can be anything you want it to be.

So, this sets up an odd little dichotomy where some classes come with specific flavors and archetypes and some don't. And this only serves to muddy the waters. Just what is class supposed to represent? Why do some seem to have flavor and stories and others are just, you know, guys who hit things or study magic.

Further complicating the issue specifically in 4E is the marriage of "role" to the idea of class. And this leads to the problem noted above where some previously available archetypes have vanished. Although I will disagree on the finer points of the nonexistence of the "deadly swordsman" archetype, I will mention that there is no way to play a striker version of the bookish, studious apprentice mage studying ancient tomes in an ivory tower somewhere. Not as written anyway. Because the sorcerer and the warlock come with baggage in the form of different ability scores, curses, and other thematic elements that don't fit right.

Another aspect of this problem comes from people overdoing their role (the Wizard that refuses to finish off a single weakened foe to instead spread damage over a larger group of opponents, often catching his friends in the blast to boot) or willfully ignoring a key aspect of it (the cleric that refuses to heal others). People trying to force the boundaries of the role a class can be okay but remember that 4E in particular is designed to be a cooperative team game, and your teammates will be relying on you to work your stated role.

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