Thursday, October 14, 2010

Neither Straightjacket nor Sandbox – Role and Class

This stems from yet another big conversation that originated on Twitter. Feeling that my thoughts on the subject were far too expansive for 140 characters at a time, I put off discussing it for the most part until I could write a blog post about it. The focus of the conversation was about classes, class roles, how to play your character, and how you should be able to play your character. The thinking seemed to boil down to two sides. The first felt that your class role should completely define your character. If you’re playing a Defender, you are expected to defend. You’ll mark, you’ll take hits from enemies, you’ll keep the rest of the party safe. If you do anything else, it’s a bonus, but you’d better make sure you can fulfill that main role as best you can. The other school of thought was that you should be able to take any role with any class. If you wanted to play your Rogue as a Defender, there should be options for that. If your Wizard wants to be a Striker, she should be able to.

My thinking is that both of these lines of thinking are right. Which, of course, makes them both just as wrong. I think that classes and roles are guidelines, a path to lead you to your character. But they’re guidelines that have some reasonable flexibility in how you get there or even what your exact destination character will be. Your character can be the same role and class as what someone else has without being very similar in mechanics or in flavor.

The problem with the narrow interpretation is that it ignores that almost every class dabbles in some other role other than their primary. Many individual builds or powers dabble in secondary roles. It’s possible to build a Defender that has a lot of Striker feel to it and still be a reasonably effective Defender. Your Leader may have a lot of ways to venture into Controller territory and still be perfectly good at being a Leader. Some people will point out that a Defender who takes Striker-esque powers or a Leader who takes Controller powers won’t be as effective as a pure Defender or Leader, but I will disagree. It’s all about how you look at it. A Defender who can pump out a fair bit of damage gives monsters more reason to target them over other PCs. A Leader who can move people around the battlefield or buff/debuff can help PCs avoid taking damage in the first place (either through helping kill enemies faster or avoid attacks). It’s performing the same role in a different way.

So how do you deal with the situation where people expect you to go with a “pure” build? Talk with your group. Let them know that you’re going outside the narrowest view of the class or role. Explain what your goal with the character is and what you want out of it. Let them know what you ~can~ do so you can give them the chance to adjust their characters so that the party melds together well. For example, in one of my online Skype-based games, I’m playing a Dragonborn Swordmage with the Aegis of Assault. This is a character which is oriented more towards Striker than Defender. But within the group, another person is playing a Warden, so the group is okay with me being only a secondary Defender. It’s just as important to let your DM know as well so encounters and adventures can be tweaked to take into it account. For example, as a DM I might consider giving the party just a few extra Healing Potions if someone playing a Leader was also taking a few pages out of the Defender or Controller playbook. As with a lot in D&D or RPGs in general, the key is communication.

Other people will point out that you’re still limited and restricted. This is the second point of view, that you should be able to do anything you want with any class. Rules as written, you will have a really difficult time making a Fighter who is even a secondary Leader. A Fighter might not have enough power options to make a very consistent secondary Controller either. This is true. But it begs the question, if you really want to play a character who has Leader or Controller as a secondary role, why are you playing a Fighter? The restrictions help define what a class is. The limitations tell you as the player and the group you’re playing with a general idea of what they can expect when you sit down at the table and tell them “I’m playing a Fighter”. Which is important. D&D, as well as other RPGs, are about having fun as a group and if you play just any random thing or your character doesn’t perform like the group expects, you may be having fun but your group may not. So I think that classes and roles are a good starting baseline to let everybody know a general idea what to expect, if not a specific one.

So the question becomes, what do you do when you want to play one thing and the rules tell you that you can’t? What if you want to make that Fighter who can be a Leader as well? What if that Wizard who can dish out serious damage is your thing? There are options. The first is that if the class you’ve chosen doesn’t fill the role you want, look at the other classes. The second is that if the role you want doesn’t fit the class you’ve taken, look at the other classes. The third is that if the fluff you like doesn’t fit the role or class you’ve chosen, look at the other classes. You’re sensing a theme here at this point, I hope. There are a lot of classes out there and it’s entirely possible you can find something more suitable to what you want if you just look for it. That Fighter who wants to be a Leader? Hi, my name is the Warlord and I would like to have a chat. Oh Wizard who wants to deal out damage? My friend the Sorcerer would like you to have a look at her.

Okay, so what if you’re attached to the fluff or some other feature of a class that makes you reluctant to change classes? There are still options available to increase the range of things your character can do. In all the talk on Twitter on this subject, I was astounded to see that nobody ever brought up multi-classing. Though debatably not as flexible as previous editions of D&D, multiclassing can still add new dimensions to a PC. Even just the baseline multi-class feat can be quite useful or add flavor by way of a skill training or extra (albeit limited) ability, let alone getting into the feats that let you swap one classes powers for the others. If that’s not sufficient, there’s always the option of using a hybrid, which was also not brought up to my knowledge in the Twitter conversations. Hybrids are more complicated to build in some ways than a standard or even multi-classed character and the character might initially suffer from the jack-of-all-trades problem at low levels, but the flip side is that you can also make a character that’s closer to what you’d like if none of the other options are what you’re interested in.

I think no matter what side of the fence you fall on, what your thoughts on class or role, the important thing is to talk to your group. See what everybody wants and expects. If your group is happy with unusual builds and playing-against-type, that’s great. If your group likes people to play what their class or role indicates they should be, that’s great too. If some of your group is one camp and some is in the other, that’s okay too. So long as everybody agrees to do it that way and everybody knows what’s coming.

The whole point to D&D is to have a good time with your friends and what exactly that means can only be determined by you and your group. If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. Whether you’re playing a Rogue/Fighter Hybrid with a cutlass, an eyepatch, and a parrot or you’re playing the most optimal healing build Cleric that can be pulled out of the Character Builder.