Tuesday, October 25, 2011

4th Edition D&D Design Decisions

This is a few years out of date, but I felt like talking about D&D, and since I'm not currently running game, I thought I'd talk about some of the stuff that changed between 3rd Edition D&D and 4th Edition. While all editions of D&D seem to draw inspiration from a standard set of sources, different editions use different basic ideas when designing the basic parts of the system. 4th Edition was designed to be a more transparent edition, one where players would be able to see the workings of the system as they created their characters, and do the designers looked for inspiration from more modern, popular sources; in some cases, this meant video games.

One of the key ideas for creating characters in 4th Edition is the choice of role. There are four roles, roles that will likely seem familiar to players, current or former, of games like World of Warcraft: Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker. These roles, in a very loose sense, correspond to the roles of Crowd Control, Tank, Healer, and DPS. While they appear similar, and their general ideas are similar, they serve different roles.
  • The Controller role (which may be the role with the least, or at least most confusing, definition) is about battlefield control - characters with the Controller role can alter a battlefield, lighting things on fire or freezing them with ice, forcing enemies to face the player characters (PCs) on the Controller's terms. They can also inflict a wide variety of status effects on targets, making enemies more vulnerable to other attacks, stunning them temporarily, or preventing them from moving. the Wizard class falls into this role, using walls of fire and bolts of lighting to redefine the battlefield.
  • The Defender role is about defending the other characters in the party. While there are a number of Defender classes, they accomplish this by generally targeting one (or several) enemies, and making them choose between targeting the Defender (and thus avoiding the other characters) and targeting other characters at a penalty to attack - the Swordmage, for example, can mark an opponent, and if that opponent attacks a character who is not the Swordmage, the Swordmage, regardless of where he is, can either teleport himself to the enemy, or the enemy to him.
  • The Leader fills what is traditionally seen as the healer's role, but healing is only part of what a Leader can do. The Leader can give bonuses to allies, penalties to enemies, let allies take additional actions, heal, and generally do all he or she can to assist the party - while also contributing to defeating enemies. The Cleric has long been a Leader sort in a healing role, though the new Warlord class from 4th Edition tends more towards increasing the combat ability of fellow party members, thus ensuring the party's battles end sooner.
  • The Striker is, like the MMO role of DPS, a damage-dealer. Their job is to inflict as much damage to enemies as possible, whether up close or from a distance. While they can also inflict status effects on enemies, these tend to be things that make inflicting more damage easier, rather than things that stun or immobilize an enemy. The Barbarian is a good example of a Striker; the Barbarian charges into battle, relying on a high amount of hit points to protect her while she rages, causing her to hit enemies harder than normal.
All classes in 4th Edition fall into one of these four roles, though they also tend to have a secondary role, as well; something they are good at, but not as good as their primary role. This gives everyone something to fall back on if they are having difficulty performing their primary role, or just feel like switching things up during battle. Fighters, while primarily Defenders, can also perform adequately in the Striker role, while Warlocks, who are primarily Strikers, can also inflict a number of status effects on enemies, giving them some ability as Controllers.

Each class each has a power source - something that tells you where his or her ability comes from. The power source tends to give some indication of how a character's power will work, and what they might do. A class with the Martial power source, for example, is not a student of the arcane, or a devotee of the divine, but rather gains its ability from intense exercise, practice, and study; there is nothing truly supernatural about Martial characters, they are just near-superhumanly good at their jobs, whether Ranger, Rogue, Fighter, or Warlord.

The current power sources are Martial, Arcane (wizardly magic), Divine (power from the gods), Primal (power coming from spirits of the land), Psionic (power from mentally-derived abilities, like telekinesis), and Shadow (abilities derived from a connection to a shadow plane). The power sources help to differentiate between classes of the same role; the Martial Defender (the Fighter) performs the duties of his role in a different way than an Arcane Defender (Swordmage), Divine Defender (Paladin), Primal Defender (Warden), or Psionic Defender (Battlemind). Almost every power source tends to have at least one - and sometimes several - classes that fall into each of the four roles.

These two things together - the role and power source - help prospective players to determine which class will best fit the sort of character they want to play, and avoid a character choice that will make them unhappy with their character later. And, despite the standard class names, there is no reason why a character could not choose a class - say, the Fighter - and call himself a Ranger, Swashbuckler, Guardian, or something else instead. Essentially, these things help to show the player what the designers of the game intended when they created the class, so that it is easier to find a better fit.

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