D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Character Classes

It’s kind of funny; I expected the review of character classes to be a big one, several posts in length. In fact, I was so certain this article would be so much work, I intentionally avoided thinking about it while I worked on my various school assignments. But, when I sat down and actually gave it some thought, I realized something:

I know fuck all about changes to the character classes in DS4e.

I had planned on doing one article on the Divine, Martial and (maybe) Primal power source classes. A second article about Arcane classes, and a third about Psionic classes. But I realize now, there’s not really any official word on changes. So, with that in mind, I realize that the few droplets of information I have can be tossed out in a single post. So here we go.

First of all, there won’t be any new character classes introduced in DS4e. None at all. The gladiator and templar will be in the game, just not as full character classes – I’ll be discussing them next time, when we hit up character themes. Suffice to say that it’s a pretty cool, pretty slick addition to the game (in my opinion), but if you’re going to hate everything that changes because it’s different? You’ll hate character themes, right alongside the 4e half-giant and thri-kreen.

The basic classes (i.e. those from the Player’s Handbook series) I’ll address below:

Arcane characters (bard, sorcerer, warlock, wizard)

From what I can gather, all of these classes will be subject to the defiling & preserving rules – whatever they may be. So far, the only official commentary on the subject I’ve heard is a sort of half-sentence Rich Baker made during the panel podcast (I think that’s where I heard it) indicating defilers can dish out some damage to those surrounding them. As long-time fans will know, defiling humanoid lifeforms used to be the strict purview of sorcerer-kings (and other defilers above 20th level), so I’m curious how this will be implemented.

Also, I realize this will make the bard into a defiling/preserving class, which takes a bit to get your head around. Nevertheless, I think it makes sense – the old edition’s fix for the bard’s spellcasting ability was to remove that feature entirely, which was fine because spells were a minor component of the bard’s overall abilities. In 4th Edition, the way powers are structured make the bards abilities almost exclusively spells.

Divine characters (avenger, cleric, invoker, paladin, runepriest)

This is an easy one – they’re gone. There are no gods in the world of Dark Sun, thus there is no divine power source. As best I can tell, elemental clerics are now addressed by the primal power source and an appropriate character theme. Likewise, templars are also addressed by character themes. How exactly that works will be examined next time.

Martial characters (fighter, ranger, rogue, warlord)

I don’t really anticipate any changes to these classes and haven’t heard anything. It’s worth noting that the massive material penalties from 2nd edition (bone swords, chitin shields, etc.) no longer apply – effectively metal weapons are considered masterwork, and bone/obsidian equipment will be considered “the norm.” This should prevent martial characters from being rendered ineffectual by the absence of decent gear.

Primal characters (barbarian, druid, seeker, shaman, warden)

Though only the druid existed in the original Dark Sun, these classes fit the setting perfectly. The shaman (and possibly the druid) seems poised to take on the role of the elemental clerics, worshiping the raw elemental forces of the world (fire, earth, air, water). If you check out the sample character sheets of DS4e characters, on page 5 there’s a thri-kreen shaman named Pak’cha with the character theme elemental priest. I’ll be discussing character themes next time, but from what I can tell the primal power sources seems (thematically) a better fit than the divine source for elemental clerics, so you won’t hear me complaining about the shift.

Psionic characters (ardent, battlemind, monk, psion)

Lastly psionic characters. I am not anticipating much in the way of changes here either, though I am curious how they integrate with wild talents – which I haven’t talked about much up until this point, mainly because I don’t know anything about them. I know that wild talents will exist, and from what I understand they’ll basically be cantrip-level effects – gone are the days where a good dice roll grants you a half dozen enemy slaughtering powers. Rich Baker basically went on record saying that if a character needs more psionic might, there are character themes that augment the wild talent concept. Beyond that? Multiclass into a psionic class, or just be a psionic character if you love psionics so much. I’m fine with that, though I’m curious whether psionic characters will get an extra cantrip-effect of their own to maintain power balancing. Maybe it won’t matter, I’ll have to wait until I see the rules to really say.

Alright, another day, and another subject down. I expected to need a week or two to blitz through the character classes, and I’m thrilled to see that I didn’t. Next time I’ll be tackling character themes, a completely new rule mechanic being rolled out with DS4e. I’m actually pretty excited about the idea, and think it really adds a lot of diversity to an individual character. See you next time.

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.