With The Keep on the Shadowfell about to fall before our party’s combined effort, it’s safe to say that the gaming group is really digging 4th Edition D&D. Last week, we decided to continue playing 4E and we’d alternate weeks with the Burning Wheel game Adam is planning. This has the benefit of keeping everyone in the group (something we couldn’t do with just Burning Wheel) and giving Adam more time to prepare for his first sandbox game.
Since Adam didn’t want to run both games, I’ll be taking over D&D after we’re done with the Keep. I’m very excited! I haven’t run D&D for years because I grew tired of the massive preparation time that third edition carried with it. 4e fixes that problem so I was more than happy to put on my cape and step back into the role of DM.
Like any excited gaming group, everyone immediately began discussing exactly what they were going to play. Since D&D’s creation, the proper balance of classes in a party has always been an important part of the metagame. The concept of having your niche on the battlefield was one of the cornerstones of the game in those early days. As editions came and went, the importance of these niches began to fade as rules for multiclassing allowed for characters to account for their own weaknesses instead of relying on a party member to compensate for it. This seems like a small thing, but it really changed the way the game was played.
Third Edition was the biggest offender when it came to lack of niche protection. With both multiclassing and prestige classes designed to let your character specialize, generalize, hypnotize, and hypothesize, the idea that a class had well-defined weaknesses to go along with its strengths was out the window. This is actually one of my big beefs with Third Edition but it really just comes down to a matter of taste. There are lots of folks out there who love the wide array of options presented and don’t enjoy the more restricted versions of classes that other editions, including Fourth, offer.
In Fourth Edition, the concept of niches comes back as one of the foundations of the game. Instead of hiding the concept within the rules for the players to eventually figure out, they instead opened the curtains and made it very explicit that classes are grouped into certain battlefield roles. The four roles in the game are striker, defender, leader, and controller. Each class specialized in one role and can usually build in such a way to dabble with another. The roles all complement one another and when a party has each role filled it is fun to watch the gears turn together to become a well-oiled machine. This is one of the better concepts that the designers yoinked from MMOs (though MMOs yoinked the idea from older edition of D&D).
Playing through the module Adam is running now, we have every role filled with the fifth player being a defender (a party makeup we have found to be very effective). When we made characters, no one wanted to play the wizard, currently the only controller in the game, so I filled that role. It’s probably the most complained about class in the game, if you pay attention to message boards (and I wouldn’t), because it doesn’t seem as focused as the other classes. Even the designers admit that the wizard is like that because even they hadn’t really decided all the things a controller should do.
As someone who’s played one for a few sessions, I’m loving it. So don’t believe the hype, I guess.
It turns out, I’m the only one who was loving it, though. Nobody wanted to play the wizard in the upcoming game and since that’s the only controller in the game until Players Handbook 2 releases, the party is going to be short a role. I sounded like a broken record that night as I made sure to emphasize that lacking a controller is going to be a weakness for the crew. That didn’t change any minds, but at least they’re aware of it.
While I love the focus on roles, now we see the downside. With one role missing, the monster-bashing machine is going to be missing an important gear. This is by no means game-breaking, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the party holds up when they’re not following the strong suggestions of the rules.
Next time I’ll talk a bit about the specialty weapons in 4E. See you then.