Year of 4E: Player Roles

Greetings and welcome to something I have been thinking about doing for a long time: going back into the 4th Edition of D&D. It did a lot of things that I really needed the game to do at the time, included some of my favorite pieces of art, and laid the great ideas on thick. As I have mentioned time and again, I simply love 4E. And because of that I will be talking about 4E a lot this year, at least once a month.

In order to do this properly and really consider some of those things I liked, I have a whole list of topics to dive into. Today we will begin with player roles, something that was unique to the 4th Edition of D&D. Well, unique as a specifically stated category. You might think of this in the classic trinity of tank, damage, and healer or maybe consider concepts such as the groups “face”. 4E applied the idea specifically to classes, defining exactly what role you would play by taking the class.

Rather than just the trinity of video games, D&D focused more on the four major roles within your classic dungeoneering party. These generally stem from the rogue, the fighter, the cleric, and the wizard. These became the archetypes of D&D over the years and informed designers of the following roles: striker, defender, leader, and controller. The idea was to help categorize different classes (especially new ones) by their strengths and capabilities. Okay, that’s helpful to know but why was it so important?

Defining Expectations & Revealing Potential

Roles are important for a lot of reasons, most of which you can probably guess easily enough. I know I inform people as to what kind of things they’ll be doing based on the class they choose, but 4E roles did this in a much more succinct way. A striker is going to deal damage, a leader is going to heal, a defender is going to get hit, and a controller is going to adjust the course of events. These become flavored by your power source (which we’ll talk about in another article) and what your class does (cast spells, ranged attack, melee, etc.). More than that you can define certain types of classes by their secondary roll. Are you a defender that can control the battlefield or perhaps, like a paladin, one who can also heal their allies?

We can take this all a step further and apply it to a group. Rather than saying, “oh we need a cleric” you can look for a leader which will provide what you need without feeling pigeon-holed into cleric. This is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of 4E and what really made it so great. The mechanics were much more of a level playing field than other editions because, mechanically, everyone has the same amount of abilities that they could use the same number of times. Roles exemplified this balance by not just allowing you to play the healer without being a cleric, but letting you know you could succeed at it.

Warlord from 4E PHB

In fact, in the core Player’s Handbook you could be a warlord which was, essentially, a fighter that healed. It’s one of the most enjoyed classes from the edition and one of the most missed in 5th. As the edition developed the possibilities only grew. Each power source, like arcane or divine, would get a unique class for each of the four roles with lots of wonderfully flavored powers to go along with the concepts. Role is the groundwork from which much of 4E becomes a beast of its own. At least on the conceptual side of things. Despite its strengths, it was also the groundwork for a lot of displeasure towards this edition.

What’s Your Video Game Doing At My Table?

There is a lot to this conversation, not the least of which will revolve around powers themselves. We could have whole articles and discussions about how 4E powers are too “video gamey” for D&D or, if you ask me, how that is itself a silly concern to have. The fact of the matter is, roles define what you do at the table and, as such, have specific mechanics associated with them. When we consider the concern of table top versus video game, the mechanics get a lot of flak, but the roles are a big part of how this all comes together.

Let’s look at defenders. We know what they’re supposed to do and we need them in the party. Having a title that let new players understand the idea is probably still palatable for most people. But in order to make those titles important and meaningful to the game, something has to come with them. Defenders got marking as a mechanic. For those who are unaware, marking allowed the defender to call out one or more enemies and cause them to have a hard time hitting a target that isn’t the defender. They were considered “marked”.

I LOVE this mechanic and would have loved to see something like this in 5th Edition. Wizards have never needed to role play their way through spells and rogues have never had to act out what weak point got them sneak attack damage, but a fighter making sure they were attacked first? A little more difficult. Not in 4E though! In 4E you got powers that helped you protect your allies mechanically. This is super important and crazy helpful. It makes classes like fighter feel a lot more fun. You know what else? It sounds a lot like any given MMO tank’s taunt ability.

And that’s where the descent begins in my opinion. Sure the powers are more obviously video game like, but the movement from defined roles (just like those of major MMOs) to special mechanics that were never “needed” before (and happen to look a lot like video game mechanics) to equalized mechanical abilities (wizards are supposed to be special!) was a design chain that obviously took its cues from video games. What’s sad is how unrecognized their utility was in a game like D&D.

Roles In 5E & Where We Go From Here?

So what happened to roles? There was a lot of stuff that moved into 5E because of success within 4E. Warlock remained a full base class, tieflings and dragonborn are now core race options, and a focus on character level over class level are all examples of things that found their way to 5E. Roles are among some of the things that were left behind, but why? What makes roles unusable in this new ruleset?

Dragonborn from 4E PHB

Personally, I have a feeling it was a little too restricting for the direction 5E took. The game got whittled down between editions. Why have whole classes for a concept that could fit as a subclass somewhere else? I really like this philosophy and every time I have an idea to make something for 5E I try to remember it. That being said, roles are super important to consider as a player and a party. In the current edition, though, you can’t consider class as pertaining to a certain role. Instead you must consider the roles the class suggests and build your character for the one you want. For more ways to consider party roles and examine what you want to be good at head over to Die Dragon Die. They have a great article that goes through considerations like the party’s “face”, though I must note its more Pathfinder-centric in its examples.

We’re only scratching the surface of 4E and this has been little more than an overview of some of my opinions and the concept of roles. I wanted to start here because of the strong bond between the concepts that built 4E and the mechanics that system runs on. Coming up I will be looking at things like 4th Edition defenses, minions, power sources, and at-will powers. I want to look at the strengths of these and why they might not work in 5E and some of the newer mechanics they turned into. More than that, I hope to take some concepts (like minions) and make cases for using them regardless of edition.


If you haven’t played 4E each class was defined first by their role in a party. This was an incredibly helpful concept in a mechanically regimented edition, but was too defined for the flexibility of 5th Edition. Moreover, the role concept was likely a major player in driving the mechanics that many disliked for being to “video gamey”. Stay tuned as we consider more robust topics and how we might use them in 5th Edition through future entries!

Did you like roles? Were the titles necessary on the front end? Or should they have been implicit? What do you think?

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