Has D&D become too classy?

That noblest of games, Dungeons and Dragons, used to have four classes: The Fighter, the Magic-user, the Thief and the Cleric.

The roles were evident. If your character was a fighter, they dedicated themselves to the mastery of combat. Weapons and armour was your specialty. For the magic user, it was arcane spells. The thief (who technically wasn’t part of the original box), it was the ability to sneak up unseen, and get into places they weren’t allowed. The cleric called on the might of the gods to complete quests.

Each class differed in the way that they were trained to approach problems. Fight, cast a spell, evade, pray. I think you can tell that I’ve never been a fan of the Cleric. But that’s for another time.

As the game grew, so did the number of classes. The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gave us Paladins and Rangers, Assassins, Druids, Monks and Bards. And illusionists. Let us not forget the illusionists.

Paladins and Rangers were basically just Fighters in disguise. The Paladin was a holy knight, with extra powers and some special restrictions. The Ranger was … well, it was Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.

The Assassin was basically a Thief.

The Druid was a woodsy kind of Cleric.

The Bard and Monk were, at least, new and unique. The Bard was a welcome addition — the jack of all trades. The Monk was a strange eastern class, thrown in to a world that was otherwise filled with European mythology. Perhaps the game authors had been watching too much Kung Fu.

Supplements arrived, and with them the Cavalier, Barbarian, and many other classes.

None of it made sense. A Paladian, a Cavalier, a Barbarian, a Swashbuckler, a Ranger, a Gladiator. All these are fighters. The difference between them is not an entirely different kind of class — it is a difference in attitude. The way the Fighting Man class is played. All this class expansion was just as easily accomplished by simply roleplaying.

With each new edition, the number of classes has been reset. And then the expansions come, and the set of classes grows again — although second edition did a good job of making most of them into variant builds on a small set of classes.

As the game was played with a (more-or-less) static set of rules despite new editions and constant expansion, some common combat strategies emerged amongst gamers. People who played Fighters (or their ilk) would become meat shields. Their job was to draw the attacks of the enemy — they could handle more damage.

Magic users would avoid the centre of combat, and would often cast spells that would damage or disable large numbers of enemies all at once.

Thieves would lurk in the shadows, and then spring out to do massive damage to a single enemy, while the Clerics would wander around healing the wounded.

Bards would play uplifting songs, giving everybody bonuses.

Of course, these roles weren’t fixed. A mage could be a meat shield. Clerics could do massive damage to a great number of enemies at once. A fighter could do massive damage to any given enemy, at any given time.

But the roles that were easiest were often slipped into — particularly in those locations where the game designers could watch: roleplaying conventions.

So in fourth edition, the authors decided enough was enough. Classes would be determined by two things: combat role and power source.

The combat roles are:
Controller: The magic-user role.
Defender: The fighter role.
Leader: The cleric role.
Striker: The thief role.

But by separating these from the power source, it allows characters that defend using arcane powers, strike using divine powers, or “lead” using martial powers (thief/fighter).

Of course, if you were paying attention earlier, you would see that these distinctions — “fighter role” or “cleric role”, for example — were artificial. A wizard wasn’t a “controller” when they cast Stoneskin. They were going in as a defender. They weren’t a “controller” when casting Finger of Death. They were a striker. The player could determine their own path, or change it.

In appearing more flexible, I am convinced that D&D has become less flexible this way, tying characters to a role on creation, rather than allowing the roles to develop organically. Playing older versions, I loved “unbalanced” parties, because it forced the players to play something other than the typical fighter/thief/magic-user/cleric. They could, because the roles were not set.

Now, at character creation, it is important to balance the group as each character is less flexible than they once were. No longer can three magic users take drastically different paths as they develop. Now they must be drastically different, finished products at the start.

And beyond that, the “power source” has taken on a mind of its own. Martial, Arcane and Divine encompass the original classes. With four roles, that makes for twelve classes — a veritable class explosion.

Not enough, however, for the good folks at Wizards of the Coast. Now they have added Primal and Shadow power sources, to push the potential class total to thirty.

Hard to keep straight, except that there are only four classes, and lots of semantics.

So we here at the Big Bad Blog are kind of lost with all this. We cannot see the point of thirty classes. We cannot see the point of having each class’s role defined so thoroughly. Perhaps we cannot see the forest for the trees.

Moreover, I cannot tell if I think that the Fourth Edition has too many classes (thirty), or too few (four inflexible ones).

One thing is certain, however. The Assassin class is a thing of beauty.

5 thoughts on “Has D&D become too classy?

  1. A very interesting look at the history and development of classes (and role) in D&D, but I don’t think I’ve ever played D&D with a very successful Mage/Wizard acting as a meat shield (2e, 3.x, or 4e). Sure they could cast spells like stoneskin, but they still weren’t being a meatshield just a less squishy version of a wizard. 😀

    The other thing I would note is that just because 4E groups classes by their roles, this doesn’t mean that anyone who plays D&D has to play a balanced party any more or less so than in previous editions. The difference is that now players have the information at hand to more easily make a balanced party, rather then using guess work or experience.

    I will tell you, I played a level 27 Assassin over the weekend and it really is incredibly cool and fun class to play!

  2. @Bartoneus
    Stoneskin might have been pushing it, but there are plenty of “meat shield” spells in previous editions. Walls, Bigby’s hands, mirror images, and monster summonings could all serve to prevent enemies from attacking the more vulnerable members of the party.

    That is the role of the defender. For the most part, the magic user defender tools don’t fit “meat shield” very well. And you won’t find too many mages who intend to define their role that way.

  3. You already know, I think, my take on 4e. One of the things I loved about 2e and 3e was the ability to customize characters heavily – feats were a dream come true for me. That’s largely why I made a lot of fighters in 3e (that and my games rarely went high enough for the meat-shield to become less useful than the wizard).

  4. @curgoth
    I’ve always been partial to Thieves (and later, Rogues). I think I was originally attracted by their inherent uselessness in combat. It forces the thief to be somehow special.

    Through this, I ended up playing various thieves who were warriors, leaders, michief-makers, and so on.

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