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This is a continuing review section of the new 4e rules. There is a running score sheet at the end, and links to previous review sections, but the bulk is under the cut, to spare your flist view.

These are also kept unlocked.

...And a little more mechanics.

The previous review gave my thoughts on the classes in general, without giving too much worry to whether that class was Fighter or Wizard, and on the general, but unspoken assumption that we were talking about those characters at fairly low levels. This review talks a little more about the roles that particular classes are meant to play, and secondarily about how they're treated at higher levels.

One of my comments, that I did not expand on in the previous review, said that the rules are designed outright to give every character class a particular role in combat. I think that's both good and bad, but that the good outweighs the bad. It's bad in that the rules are very highly focused on combat mechanics, but to be honest, D&D has always been at least as much of a combat simulation as a role-playing aid. This is not, emphatically not Everway, or a Forge heritage game, or anything remotely like it. If you want that, you should really play one of those.

But it's good in that, once you endorse or make peace with the idea that you're going to be playing a game with significant combat details (even if the GM goes combat-lite) you can at least be assured that you're not going to be twiddling your thumbs or fearing for the life of your character and hiding ineffectively behind the fighters' skirts.

Now, when I say each class has a specific role in combat, I mean exactly that: Each class has a specific role from a list of four. And the rules tell you outright what those roles are and which class plays which role. The roles are these: Leader, Defender, Striker, and Controller, and they break down like this:

  • Leader: Cleric, Warlord
  • Defender: Fighter, Paladin
  • Striker: Ranger, Rogue, Warlock
  • Controller: Wizard

(Note: No bards. Never liked 'em, anyway. No monks. Boo. No druids. Boo. Etc. They'll all be back in PHB2, mark my words.)

Leader, in my opinion, is a bit of a misnomer, and they explicitly say that this doesn't mean group leader. The real name of the role, here, is Buffer, as the Clerics and Warlords have powers that are in various ways focussed on doing reasonable amounts to one or two enemies, and/or assisting other members of the group. Their utility powers are strong, and even attacks often have some buffing effect. A 2nd level cleric Daily utility is Shield of Faith, which gives you and all allies in a 5x5 square around you a +2 bonus to AC. This is non-shabby. Up at 27th level, we've got Sunburst, an Encounter attack which does damage to enemies and heals allies in a smaller area centered on you. Warlords are a little more martially-themed, of course, for instance granting an ally a critical hit, as an Encounter utility; at 27th, we have a reasonably complicated one, Devastating Charge, where if you charge and hit, you do whomping good damage, and until the end of your next turn, any ally who charges and hits gets bonus damage of their own.

Digression one: When I say martially themed, that has a meaning. A lot of these powers are specifying a power source (divine, martial, magic, which list will expand in future expansions, believe me) and some finer gradations, like radiant damage or fire damage or whatever... more for the divine and magic powers, of course.

Digression two: The Cleric is now explicitly not a healing engine, and that alone is a wonderful thing. Each character now has an inherent ability to heal himself called a healing surge, which is applicable after he's "bloodied" or less than half hit points. The surge is actually damned powerful, and gives you a full quarter of your hit points back. Clerics and Warlord have some explicit healing surge related powers that grant surges to others, but I believe they're not alone, they're just earlier on the advancement tree than others, and others also have special rules to grant themselves additional surges. You can also surge after the battles, and the number of surges per day (there's that dungeon crawl mentality coming back in) is class-dependent.

The healing surge gets a definite A for effort, because I think it tried for-- and achieves-- a certain cinematic feel where Riggs (the Striker) has gotten the shit beaten out of him and shoulder dislocated (again) and is on his knees bleeding into his eyes and choking on his blood, and then Murtaugh (the Warlord) distracts the enemy, Riggs collects himself, pops his shoulder back in and goes to town again. But looking at it, I think it's too damned powerful. A quarter of the hit points? And this will, I guaranfuckingtee you, happen multiple times per combat. The higher the level, the more healing surges, and the more "a quarter of the hit points" actually is. Unless monsters are doing extreme damage, I'm not sure even a dungeon crawl will be getting more than one combat per session.

Digression three: Another hidden assumption here is that your typical game sessions are even long enough to handle more than one combat, whether you want it to or not. I mean, I can see these combats flowing more smoothely, but I really don't see them taking less time overall per given combat situation.

Digressions end.

Defenders are the next role, for which equally good terms would be Brick, Tank, Shield Grog, and Meat Shield. Fighters and Paladins are the classes meeting these roles, and I don't see anything terribly objectionable about either of them. The difference between them is partly thematic (with fighters' powers being resolutely physical, up close and personal, while Paladins are a mixture of that, and divine ranged powers, and some lesser Leader-type powers.) These guys are clearly designed to wade into combat at the front line and protect everyone else by soaking up damage, doing damage, and impeding the progress of the other side. Both have a lot of powers (without getting into examples, as this section is long enough as it is) which in various ways draw the opponents to them, or penalize opponents for attacking someone other than them (and usually there is compensation for the Fighter or Paladin pulling these stunts.)

Strikers are the third role, Rangers, Rogues, and Warlocks, and here the role is not to stand toe to toe and beat on someone, but to dart in and out of combat and deal extreme damage. Striker is a good term for it. So is Commando. It's not quite obvious that this is what happens (even though the rules say it is) but the basic mechanic in each case is that the Striker gets to designate a particular foe as his target, and then each successful hit against them gets a pretty substantial bonus amount of damage-- this, in contrast to the Fighters and Paladins, who have extreme damage powers, but they're once per encounter or per day.

In general, the Ranger looks like the one most customized to doing long-range damage, as there are a lot of archery themed powers (although you can still support melee combat) and seems like the best built class. The Rogue... leaves me cold, because traditionally the Rogue is supposed to be about sneakiness off the battle-field, too. I strongly suspect that the top-heavy combat mechanics are going to hurt the Rogue in my mind. And the Warlock... is interesting, mechanically. Lots of ranged damage, and lots of ability to move both friends and enemies around the battlefield. The problem with it is that it assumes a great deal about the background of my campaign. Warlock powers are now explicitly coming from pacts with Fey, or Devils, or Astral Things... and what if I don't like that set-up? This could probably be butchered and rationales changed, but it's embedded pretty deeply into the mechanics, which is a shame.

Finally, there are the Controllers, of which there's only one: the Wizard. I don't like the term. Artillery seems better, but I think that's a monster keyword. They are the opposite of Fighters, which is appropriate-- Fighters almost exclusively do damage to one enemy at a time. There are maybe five powers between Fighter and Paladin that even so much as damage all adjacent enemies, and you have to be 7th level before you get one. In contrast, the Wizard has At Will powers at first level that can do that, or act at range. Granted, not hugely powerful, but not nothing. At there are Encounter and Daily powers at first level that are (appropriately) stronger. By fifteenth level, there are daily powers doing significant damage to 5x5 areas, and at the high range there are powers that do no damage but will turn large swaths of the field into a killing ground for the other party members. Many of these powers mimin, in name and function, older magic-user spells, as well-- fireball is a 5th level power, equivalent to an old school third level spell; ice storm is a ninth level power, equivalent to an old school fifth level spell. Some familiarity is preserved.

Now, there's a pretty good philosophical argument to be had, here, about the notion of these combat roles, and embedding them so firmly in the rules and the design of the game. I've seen a lot of people howling that, oh my God, WotC is dictating how to role play Fighters because they're all defensive fighters. And, yes, they kinda are doing that. But on the other hand, 3.5e, and all the Xe's before this, were doing the same thing, they were just doing it badly, accidentally and without telling you about it. That's what a class and level system is all about. If you don't want to play a character who hits people on the head with a stick, don't play a Fighter. That's as true in 4e as it was in 3.5e, it's just that now the rulebook itself is telling you that, up front. If you want to play someone who runs up, hits someone with a stick, and then runs back, play a Ranger. I say it again, this is what class and level systems are all about. They're about niche emphasis and preservation. It's not cast in stone, because the power selection lets you move your characters to various places within those niches, but those niches are where you are.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of that, myself. I vastly prefer pure skill-based points-build systems, because I can get a lot more variability and customization out of them. But I'm going to be amused by class and level enthusiasts who complain about this-- apparently, it's okay to niche someone into a fighter role, but not a defender role. Judged for what it is, the system is probably a success by moving to an extreme form of niche preservation. The real choice you're not getting, now, is the choice to be largely ineffective in combat.

The other major thing that goes into this section of the review is a section on tiers of play. Very simply, at levels 1-10, you are playing in a Heroic Tier, where your characters are clearly (even at first level) a step above ordinary humans. You may be dealing with local concerns, but you're dealing with local concerns that even masses of locals can't really handle alone, like Orc or Gnoll tribes, or mad cultists, or whatever. At levels 11-20, you are in the Paragon path, and are on the path to becoming legends, dealing with regional or even national concerns. At Epic level, you are legends seeking your immortality, and dealing with world-shaking events.

Those are guidelines and can be ignored, but as guidelines, I happen to like them. How they were described, mechanically, before publication, was this: At 11th level, you pick a Paragon path from three or four, unique to each class, and you get access to new choices. I was envisioning a complete set of powers at each of the levels from 11 to 20 exclusive to each Paragon path. At 21st level, the process repeats again with the Epic templates, or so I thought.

Here's how it actually works: Each base class does get three or four unique Paragon paths. Your Warlord, at level 11, gets to pick between Battle Captain, Combat Veteran, Knight Commander, and Sword Marshall. The problem-- one of the problems-- is that that's the only paragon path choice you get to make. Ever. Paragon powers are "selected" at levels 11, 12, and 20, and I put the word in quotes because there's only ever one power to choose from at each level. Other levels, level 15, say, give you choices from standard Warlord list powers regardless your Paragon path, and it's a choice from three or four. You get no choices at your Paragon affected levels other than whether you want that power or not. (Technically, you could choose a lower level power.)

This is, in a very real sense, an anti-choice. A further supplement might fix this, but as written, this is pitiful and incomplete. The other problem is that, really, the different Paragon paths aren't really all that distinct-seeming to me. This is one of the things I was most intrigued by and most anticipating, but it's one of the most badly, offensively broken and incomplete things in the system. It's actively bad.

And as bad as it is, Epic is even worse. It's not three or four Epic destinies per base class. It's four epic destinies, of which one is for Wizards only. And if anything, it's more pitifully broken than the Paragon, in the same general direction. There are, if you take my meaning, even fewer distinctions that you don't get to really choose after you've made your one Epic choice, and the powers are even goofier. If Paragon mechanics are actively bad, Epic is just insulting.

And let me be clear, here: I don't mind leaving room for expansion. I don't mind the lack of Druids or Monks, because the niche system at lower levels is fleshed out enough to be a complete system. But the Paragon and Epic mechanics not only don't accomplish anything, they actively go against the philosophy of allowing choices, because they're just one choice that dictates character development, iron-clad, across multiple levels... and because it doesn't leave room for expansion so much as it is just shoddy, incomplete, and pathetic.

I cannot say enough bad things about this. They should have spent another six months on this and included another fifty pages.

So at this point, I grade things as follows:

  • Class Roles:
    • Leaders: A- (seriously, just for moving Clerics out of the medic role, and because I think the Warlord class really adds something)
    • Defenders: B (There's only so interesting you can make a Fighter, but they tried)
    • Strikers: C+ (Rogues are lacking, and Warlocks are too setting-specific)
    • Controllers: B- (They really should have had another type here. I suspect Druids will be future Controllers)
  • Classes Overall: B
  • Paragon: F (Seriously, this is fucked up)
  • Epic: F (Can I give less than an F? How about a Q? Can I give a Q-?)

  • Character Stats: B- (Needs a hack to allow dramatic flaws, but it's an easy hack)
  • Character Races: C (Too much genre dependence over almost half the choices, some of which can't be fixed except by banning.)
  • Class Fairness: A- (I feel like I'm giving this against my will)
  • Class Simplicity: B (Too simple, in some respects. I'll flesh that out more in the next reviews, as it includes feats and skills)
  • Class Aesthetics: C- (This balances out that A- grade, because the spellcasters, while fair, just seem flat)
  • Class Powers: C- (This would be higher, but the Encounter/Daily thing is broken for my style, and because I can't tell without playing whether these class powers are really meaningful on the battleground. Probably would have been a B- without that former.)

Other reviews:
PHB: Characters, Preliminaries and Basics
PHB: Characters, General Differentiation and Advancement
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