Roles

I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m really looking forward to the games that draw on D&D4e for inspiration but improve on its ideas in various ways. (And I really need to get around to playing Last Stand some time soon.) One thing that I find especially fascinating is the use of roles (and the myriad things that flow from them). 4e’s roles show distinct inspiration from video games, but they’re also carefully tailored to the tabletop experience. They reinforce the notion of D&D as a team effort incredibly well, though they have certain drawbacks, like making non-standard party configurations potentially more difficult. (Early on we tried playing 4e without a Leader character. It was rough.)

In the typical MMO the three main roles are tank, DPS, and healer. Tanks are durable and can draw aggro (i.e., get the enemy AI to concentrate on them), DPS (damage per second) characters dish out lots of damage to take enemies down, and healers, you know, heal, and in particular keep the tank standing so the rest of the group can do their thing. “Crowd control” exists as a fourth role, though usually rolled into DPS or healing. Most of what I know about the finer points of MMORPG play I know from osmosis by having several friends who like to blather about it, but one thing people are really clear about is that relatively few players enjoy playing tanks, and good tank players are kind of hard to come by.

D&D4e’s four roles of Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller roughly correspond to tank, DPS, healer, and crowd control, but there are some very important key changes to make them function in a tabletop RPG. RPGs don’t generally have aggro mechanics, so rather than directly inducing enemies to attack them, defenders punish enemies for attacking anyone else. A monster that the fighter has marked can either attack the fighter, or take a -2 penalty to its attack on someone else and risk taking an opportunity attack. Defenders are still reactive (enough so that I didn’t enjoy playing them personally), but they’re definitely not as unpopular to play as tanks are in MMOs. Leaders meanwhile have a much stronger emphasis on buffing allies (or debuffing enemies in certain cases, notably the bard) with healing as an important but secondary function, thus avoiding the problem of “cleric as healbot.” Strikers meanwhile are pretty straightforward, whereas controllers were the one role that took some time for WotC to really figure out how to implement (much to the chagrin of many a wizard player), but could be a very useful support role once they hit stride with the design.

To a degree 4e’s roles are an extension of things that already existed in D&D. The meatshield fighter is an old cliche, and the cleric was pretty much the quintessential leader class well before 4e came along. There’s a degree of rigidity to the roles though, which makes them easier to use but harder to customize. For some people it went against expectations for particular, though it is a little silly to complain that to make a swashbuckler means writing “rogue” instead of “fighter” on your character sheet. On the other hand Sacred BBQ took the step of actually decoupling roles from classes, so that what in 4e would be Fighter/Warlord/Slayer as separate classes could become Defender-Fighter/Leader-Fighter/Striker-Fighter. (Plus it adds a “Blaster” role.)

This has been on my mind in part because I’ve been working more on Magical Burst, the new version of which adds three “Specializations” of Witch, Knight, and Priestess that emphasize Attack, Defense, and Support (and would roughly correspond to Striker, Defender, and Leader). These are deliberately “softer” roles, and the game lets you build a character that gets into the stuff other roles do (and more advanced characters have the option to outright take on a second role). Also, while a group with all three specializations could potentially synergize better, a group without the complete set ought to still be effective. On the other hand they’re still derivatives of the 4e formula, and what I’m most curious about is an implementation of roles that is substantially different from that.

MOBA games (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena; games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends) are the other major video game genre that has a concept of roles, though they’re also a genre I find totally inaccessible.[1] Consequently I’m not going to try to dissect and explain MOBA roles, since I’m pretty sure I’ll inevitably get stuff wrong, plus they’re fuzzy and vary between games anyway. I will note that the roles in MOBA games seem to be very strongly shaped by the way the game functions, in particular being so heavily team-based that solo play isn’t a thing that even makes sense, and having characters level up over the course of a match as a major gameplay element. Thus one of the major roles in MOBA games is the “Carry,” which starts weak but eventually gains a lot of power, so that it needs other players to “carry” it to that point. The arenas, which have a neutral area with “creeps” (NPC monsters) not allied to either team, allow for a “Jungler” role that earns XP by killing those creatures, and represents a potential threat to enemies that have to venture through the jungle.

The big takeaway here is that there are lots of possible ways to apportion roles. The trick is to come up with a set of specialties that fit together into an overall approach to the activities that the game involves. MOBAs have roles that are pretty different from MMOs I think because they have so many key gameplay elements that are so different. Having a character with an uneven power progression would pretty much be a screwup in an MMO, but since the basic unit of MOBA play is one match, it’s an avenue for differentiating the heroes. Roles for tabletop RPGs are a largely unexplored technique, and there are a lot of areas where it could go in new and interesting places. To me the big thing there is the possibility of roles that effectively address non-combat stuff. D&D4e has a lot more support for non-combat stuff than an MMO, but skills are one of the most haphazard parts of the game, and other non-combat abilities are all over the place. Fighters are arbitrarily screwed over for skills,[2] while bards could be utter monsters in terms of using skills. To some extent there’s already a notion of having characters that specialize in being the Face, the Nature Guy, the Techie, etc. (The Risus Companion has pretty good writeups of that kind of thing.) The difference there is that that kind of specialization lends itself more to particular characters being the one guy in the group who can handle a particular obstacle, whereas the advantage of combat roles is that everyone can more or less always contribute to the group’s success without being relegated to the sidelines. How to go about crafting roles is still above my head, but it’s something I’m really interested in exploring in the future.

[1]I’m not good at tactics, and I’m not good at keeping track of lots of things at once, least of all in small amounts of time. MOBAs are derived from RTS games, which are already pretty much the perfect storm of a Game Not For Ewen in basically every way, and add a need for extremely tight teamwork.
[2]Even Rob Heinsoo, the guy who is responsible for keeping wizards in D&D4e from being just plain better “because magic,” initially had fighters and paladins have crap for skill (background) ranks in 13th Age.

2 thoughts on “Roles

  1. Yay roles! They’re a very interesting (and sometimes emergent!) part of games that spring from a “division of labor” concept: each player takes a piece of the “how do I kill my enemies?” puzzle. My own super-analysis follows, all based on conjecture and theorytalk.

    In an MMO, the pieces are defined as “anvil, hammer, and band-aid/buff”. You use someone to hold the enemy down, someone to smash them, and someone to make sure nobody dies–and to make everyone better at what they do. None of the other roles are considered important.

    4E added in the controller (because the anvil/hammer/band-aid trichotomy isn’t enough when you’re based on a battlegrid), which took the role of “crowd control”. Important, because 4E became highly reliant on mob fights and controlling space. (MMOs don’t really seem to be big on mob fights.)

    MOBAs, yeah. You have carries, assassins, tanks, junglers, lane-pushers (I’m positive this is the wrong word…), and supports. Because the game is much more fluid, the roles are less clearly-defined (and more specialized). They’re also less dependent on other players in the short-term, because of all that movement. You can’t rely on a tank to pin down your enemy so you can kill them.

    –Carries, like you noted, start weak and build power until they’re killing machines. You have to feed them kills until they get strong enough to dish out big hurt on a reliable, regular basis. They’re also usually fragile.
    –Assassins are designed to deal burst damage (i.e. a bunch of damage all at once), which lets them quickly kill a damaged enemy. They get in, kill, and get out. Their damage output is far less steady than that of carries. They also generally have stuns or movement debuffs to hold their victims in place.
    –Tanks stay in the game, have lots of health, regenerate health, and keep fighting. Good for pinning down enemies and for making them back off; they radiate threat. As I recall, they also have good Crowd Control (“CC” in jargon), because tanks get swarmed with minions.
    –Junglers, like you noted, kill creeps, power up, eventually invade the other side’s jungle, and then go to town with all that power. Often, a jungler will make use of the power-ups provided by killing super-minions in the jungle. Junglers are also prone to ambushing people, and have to be very map-aware.
    –Lane-pushers are able to remain in-lane and drive back enemies, so that minions can keep streaming forward. They’re often good at destroying towers, which helps their team advance.
    –Supports buff and heal other heroes. A support can win the day by giving out the right buffs, like giving your carry an invulnerability shield.

    So yeah. To me, the key to roles is to figure out “what elements of the game are there which lead to victory?” and then to parse that out into roles. It’s about figuring out what the emergent behaviors of the game are, and then playing to that. When you move away from combat roles, it probably starts to get very interesting indeed…

  2. In MOBAs, Supports aren’t really defined by having buffs/healing but actually defined as being the opposite of carries, at least for LoL which I think only has one character who plays closer to the traditional “healbot” but I’m certain it’s the same in just about all of them.

    As in, Supports are supports because they tend to use less gold/EXP in order to work “at full power” and scale less well than other characters. They are force multipliers by allowing you to distribute resources such as gold to where they would do the most good (usually the carry).

    Also as far as the “doesn’t scale well” part goes, other than having the numbers grow slower per point of stat, most MOBA game systems always make certain features like Stuns never increase in power no matter how much stats you have. And of course buffs/debuffs aren’t stat dependent either so there’s that.

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