D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Character Class Basics

It occurs to me, as I go to write this, that I’m sort of doing a piecemeal analysis of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons concurrent with my previewing of DS4e. I was sort of aware that I was doing it, but hadn’t really made any sort of conscious decision. I figure, before continuing, perhaps I should explain.

The original idea to do this blog came after I had a brief, but nerdfully-intense, conversation with legacy best-friend Glen. This geek-on-geek state of détente had, at its center, but a single topic – Dark Sun. Glen had not heard that Dark Sun, much like Jesus, was coming back from the dead. Indeed, Glen had not even perused the pages of 4th Edition. This severely curtailed my ability to explain, in the 20-30 minutes he was online, what DS4e was going to be like – I imagine it was similar to teaching carpentry to someone who has never seen a tree, nor heard of wood.

I then had an idea. I’d start a blog and write about that stuff. I immediately dismissed it – start a blog, just so I could share with my oldest friend the intricacies of a new Dark Sun? True, it would give me the platform in which to spout on and on about classes and game balance, explaining the inner workings and underpinnings. But, really? Wasn’t that a bit extreme? Maybe a little crazy?

Crazy like an Athasian fox-equivalent.

So that’s why you’re getting sort of a broad-strokes overview of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons intermingled with your Dark Sun coverage – because my intended audience is one dude, living in the People’s Republic of China, who probably hasn’t bought a roleplaying product since The Book of Vile Darkness. I really didn’t expect many other people to show up – though they have, and I’m grateful. Knowing other people are reading what I’ve written makes me feel like blogging is the sort of thing I could keep doing for a long time. Hell, the awareness that I have an audience beyond said one dude in the PRC is why I’ve been expanding the subjects of my postings, and I was pleasantly pleased to discover I’ve got more to say than I thought.

Alright, so, character classes.

If you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for awhile, character classes in 4th Edition seem – at first glance, at least – to be all sorts of fucked up. This is understandable, because the entire character class system has been completely overhauled for the first time since, really, 1st Edition. I’ll say this, the designers of 4e? Have 6d6 balls – which is to say a lot of balls. It takes serious stones to decide “fuck the sacred cows, let’s fix this shit.”

First of all, there’s the concept of roles – in a sense, these take the place of the old 2nd Edition “overclasses” (Warrior, Wizard, Rogue and Priest). The key difference? Roles are functional, not thematic – a character class’ role immediately tells you what it’s good at. There are four roles: controller, defender, leader and striker. Controllers dish out area of effect damage and otherwise impair the combat capabilities of their foes. Defenders are shields, wearing heavy armor and having plenty of hit points, built to interpose themselves between the enemy and the rest of the party. Leaders augment the tactical abilities of the party, dishing up heals and buffs. Strikes tend to dish up agony and pain, dealing damage to singular foes.

Then there’s power sources. These are mostly thematic, and give you an idea where a class’ abilities come from. Over the course of three player’s handbooks five power sources have been introduced: arcane, divine, martial, primal, and psionic. The class breakdown is like this:

  • Arcane: Bard (Leader), Sorcerer (Striker), Warlock (Striker), Wizard (Controller)
  • Divine: Avenger (Striker), Cleric (Leader), Invoker (Controller), Paladin (Defender), Runepriest (Leader)
  • Martial: Fighter (Defender), Ranger (Striker), Rogue (Striker), Warlord (Leader)
  • Primal: Barbarian (Striker), Druid (Controller), Seeker (Controller), Shaman (Leader), Warden (Defender)
  • Psionic: Ardent (Leader), Battlemind (Defender), Monk (Striker), Psion (Controller)

I’m going to ignore some of the minor things, like how skills work a little differently and how the randomness has been taken out of hit point calculations. Beyond those basic components however, character classes break down into two different elements: powers and class features.

Character Powers

“Powers” are the cool things that characters can do, and they get a special name based on power source. Arcane characters get spells, divine characters get prayers, martial characters get exploits, primal characters get evocations, and psionic characters get disciplines. Don’t let the different names fool you, however – they’re all powers and they all work exactly the same. This means that all the character classes resemble one another a lot more than they used to.

Powers are either attack powers, meaning they dish out damage or are otherwise used offensively, or utility powers that have both in- and out-of-combat applications. How often a power can be used is determined by its type: at-will powers can be used every turn, encounter powers can be used once per encounter, and daily powers can be used once per day. Powers are broken down by class – a fighter’s exploits are not the same as a ranger’s exploits, and they’re much different from a wizard’s spells. Every character starts with four combat powers from their list – two at-wills, one encounter, and one daily. They get their first utility power at level two. They get more as they increase in level – a level 10 character still has his two at-will powers, three encounter powers, three daily powers, and three utility powers (which, depending on how powerful they are, are either encounter or daily).

This changes the dichotomy of every class, in ways too numerous to count, so I’m just going to address two of the most iconic classes in D&D: the fighter and the wizard (sometimes called the mage in previous editions).

The at-will fighter exploit "cleave" - previously a 3rd Edition feat.
The at-will fighter exploit "cleave" - previously a 3rd Edition feat.

Fighters were all about the basic attack – there wasn’t a lot for them to do on turn 3 that was different from turn 2, other than maybe changing targets. Maybe the occaisonal charge. The real problem? The fighter was boring more often than not. The introduction of feats in 3rd Edition went a long way to addressing this, because there were some cool combat options available if you invested a lot of feats in getting access to them – and the fighter got a metric fucktonne of extra feats. 4th Edition has decided to throw out the byzantine process of climbing the feat ladder – most of those cool options are now fighter exploits. You pick them when you level up, done deal.

Wizards, meanwhile, had the opposite problem. They were awesome but unsustainable. Their spells, especially beyond the first couple levels, dished out more damage than a fighter’s sword – but whereas a fighter could swing that sword with equal power and skill every turn, the “fire-and-forget” spell system ensured that a wizard tended to run dry. That doesn’t happen anymore – magic missile, perhaps the most iconic D&D spell, is an at-will. Burning hands is a level one encounter power. Acid Arrow (Melf’s patent seems to have run out) is a level one daily.

Wizards don’t ever run out of fuel and start hacking with their daggers. Fighter’s don’t chop chop chop, bored by the mindless tedium. This is, to me, a good thing.

Class Features

Class features are things that don’t fit inside the basic powers framework – typically they’re special characteristics, special “exceptions” to the rules for members of that class, or a special power that is important or iconic – no paladin can choose to not have lay on hands for example, because it’s a class feature and not a power the player chooses. A great example that gets a wide range of class features is the cleric whose features include Channel Divinity, Healer’s Lore, healing word, and Ritual Casting.

  • Channel Divinity is a special sort of encounter power. Basically a cleric can channel divinity once per encounter, like any encounter power, but she has a choice of two powers: turn undead and divine fortune. She knows both, but once she uses one, she can’t use the other. There’s also a “channel divinity” feat for every deity, opening up a third choice for clerics of that god (Armor of Bahamut, Corellon’s Grace, etc.).
  • Healer’s Lore adds the cleric’s Wisdom modifier to all healing prayers. The reason this is a feature, instead of a direct component of all cleric healing prayers, is that it is possible (through multiclassing and a few other means) to pick up a power from another class. Thus, if a fighter learns one of the cleric’s healing abilities, he still isn’t as good a healer as she is because of this feature.
  • Healing Word is another special encounter power all clerics get. Basically it’s a minor heal, that’s usable twice per encounter. Three times at 16th level.
  • Ritual Casting is a feat that clerics get for free. Rituals are a whole other bag of worms, which I may discuss some other day.

So, there’s the nuts-n-bolts of the character class system. It takes some getting used to, there’s no denying that. Fighters seem more like wizards and wizards seem more like fighters than ever before. But, at the same time, it puts everyone on a baseline. Fireball and cleave, for the first time ever, are both operating with the same underlying mechanic. Game balance may not be sexy, but it makes the whole game better.

Next time on DS4e, I’ll start digging my teeth into the character classes themselves. I’ll be starting with the easy ones – divine and martial, and maybe primal. See you then.


2 thoughts on “DS4e – Character Class Basics

  1. Great article! This one was really useful to me, since I’m in pretty much the same boat as you are. I grew up playing 2nd ed AD&D in high school in the ’90s and loved Dark Sun, played a lil 3rd ed in college, and now I’m thinking about getting into the revamped Dark Sun but didn’t really understand 4th ed rules. I picked up the 4th edition PHB & DMG in the bookstore and thought WTF?! Even with my prior experience in 2nd & 3rd edition and dealing with number-crunching on a daily basis as a cost estimator, I immediately thought, “Wow, this is WAY too complicated!” However, at least now I understand the goal of promoting game balance so all classes & races are fun to play. Back in the day, I remember how much wizards sucked at lower levels since they had so few spells, and thieves were almost pointless since spellcasters had access to spells like invisibility, knock, find traps, etc. Fighters were handy but also got a bit boring after a bit in 2nd ed since there wasn’t much in the way of fighting styles or tactics. The feats in 3rd edition gave them more options but made the game too complex IMO. Anyways, nice write up!

    1. Brian, first of all – great name. Secondly, thanks for the praise – I’m always a little surprised when I find out someone who doesn’t know me from somewhere else is reading.

      If you’re coming from a 2nd Ed. perspective, especially as you seem to have mostly skipped 3rd Ed., I can understand the WTF reaction to D&D4e. I’d argue that it’s less numerically intense than 3rd edition, but that’s a point of view thing that’s certainly up for debate.

      A blogger named Eric Burns, I think, summed up D&D4e best when he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that this isn’t a new edition of an old game, but a brand new game that just happens to also be called Dungeons & Dragons. I, personally, feel that it’s a better game in a lot of respects than older editions but, again, that’s a personal opinion.

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