Getting Started in D&D 4e: Entry 3: Role playing vs Role Playing and the WoW effect

One of the first mental experiences I can recall after looking over the rules for the 4th edition was. “Now everyone is magical.” The realization that spells and abilities had been combined into a single structure. I could instantly see the balancing potential. Then I read the description of the fighter and there near the top of the class description was this word: “Defender.” In that moment I was caught in a misconception. I thought D&D was exchanging class power differential to obtain class balance by limiting the capability of the classes into prescribed models the way that World of Warcraft (WoW) did.

My instinctive reaction was that it had come full circle. The game that had inspired Fantasy MMORPGs and character based video games in general had now been evolved by those same games.

I thought about the impact on my favorite paper based game system. Was D&D to become another version of the endless grinding? Were clerics destined to stand in the background casting heal after heal. The thought was limiting. I had quite playing MMOs because of the lack of diversity in character abiliities. My mind focused on a quote I heard all the time while playing WoW, “DPS do damage, Healers heal, and Tanks tank.”

I nearly set the book down never to pick it up again, but a part of my mind rejected that this could really be true. Surely other people saw the detriment to this type of game design? Luckily my initial reaction was based on a very superficial review of the impact of the class design for D&D 4e.

Role Playing was still about my character concept and not about a preconceived notion of combat position. In addition D&D contains three elements that are substantially different from MMORPGs. They are:

  1. Character development is multi-dimensional including class, race, skills, and feats.
  2. The ability to heal is not a primary role for any class.
  3. The mechanics of combat may be mathematical but the behavior of the monsters is not based on simple AI engines.

So when I took a step back I realized that the definitions offered were of Defender, Leader, etc. were once again just descriptions of obvious mechanics. Mechanics designed to help inexperienced players build effective groups. In 1981 when I first played D&D we all understood the value of a Cleric after we died a few times because no one could heal us.

It just wasn’t explained as nicely in the rules so we had to read between the lines and learn that rogues did extra damage with back stabs while fighters dished out damage from heavier weapons and were more protected by heavier armor.

D&D 4e hadn’t turned into WoW. It had simply evolved. Evolved in ways that even now I still marvel at each time I design an encounter, create a character or layout a story line.

So for those new to the game use the roles identified with the class as a way to understand how the different classes work together but don’t feel locked into certain behaviors and repetitive actions because of them. Each class does have different capabilities and I think it’s a mistake to assume that the role has as much to do with your success as the ability of your character to react, take decisive action, and as my friend Adam says, “call down the lightning.”

This is my final article in this series. Thanks for reading.