After making my last post, I got caught up reading the Legends & Lore columns Monte Cook posts at Wizards.com for Dungeons & Dragons. (I’ve noticed that some of them feel oddly insubstantial, like Cook’s dancing around a larger issue without the time or space to really delve into the issue, but they’re all pretty interesting.)
Anyways, one of them struck me: his article about the group nature of RPGs, where characters work together to solve problems. I found it especially prescient after my last post, looking at bards: the entire point of that class is to make life easier for other people, with its array of buffs, its second-line healing, and ability to dominate and confuse enemies. Clerics are even more tied to the group: they’ve earned their reputation as a healbot for a reason, even though clerics are more. It’s just that their “more” is, again, improving, buffing, and repairing other players.
Needless to say, there are many, many people who consider bard a worthless class. What bugs me are the similar many, many who avoid clerics like the plague, even though they were widely considered the power class of 3.5 (tied with druids for CoDzilla). My current Pathfinder group has a whopping six players, yet so far has had to rely on NPCs and the druid’s wand of cure light wounds because they’ve been down a cleric. So far, two players have shown up asking what the party needs—someone that can heal, buff, and remove negative conditions. Both have opted to play Life Oracles rather than cleric, with the assumption that they have freedom and the reasoning of “because it’s new and I’ve never played one.”
Roleplaying is a social organism, and RPGs require a lot of inter-group support, a level of working together and team tactics that doesn’t exist in other games, not even board games or multiplayer CCGs. The point of the class roles posts is examine how the well-oiled, functioning, D&D adventuring team works, how the classes complement each other and how they stack up to others doing the same thing.
So, my larger question. If RPGs have heavy social dynamics and require a lot of teamwork, why the aversion to the classes that provide the most team support? Is it the cost of a player’s own agency? Is this related to the classes themselves, since there’s been a lot of Aid Another checks and plenty of casting support spells in my group, or is it a representative of a larger paradigm? Or is this only an issue within the tiny cross-section of players (in the 20-50 range) I’ve gamed with? I think part of it is idiot-proof: people don’t want to give up their agency (in terms of impacting the game, macro-scale) simply to support others, but they will act to improve/aid the team as a whole and team-members as individuals.
I really don’t have an answer for that. I do think the nature of D&D does push towards self-supporting groups—otherwise, the roles in 4e would just be variants on Striker and Controller—though I’m noticing my current group does a lot more support duty than my old one. Again, part of it could relate back to the class/level nature of D&D, and the emphasis on those fixed roles; in other game systems—White Wolf, CthulhuTech, Deadlands, FATE—I think the worst class role issue I’ve come across is when two players build characters who end up mechanically identical.
I haven’t done one of these in a while, so it’s time to get back to my basics. With the Core Four and the Druid accomplished, let’s take a look at everyone’s least-favorite class: the Bard.
Bards had a brief appearance in The Strategic Review magazine, but didn’t enter the game full-time until first edition AD&D. There, they had to meet an inane amount of criteria—five levels of fighting-man, then dual-classing to thief, then dual-classing again to druid before ninth level, and then they could take levels in Bard—making Bards something like the first prestige class. All this dual-classing made them inherently powerful, keeping their thief and fighter abilities, along with druidic spells (and the ability to cast those without needing to be neutral).
Second Edition AD&D brought them down to a sub-class of thief, but again, one of the most powerful classes in the game: they could use most (if not all) weapons, had some thieving skills, had spellcasting as if they were a mage three levels below their Bard level, and could wear decent armor (as long as they didn’t want to cast spells). They also acquired Bardic Lore, which was a simplified identify spell, and had Bardic Music, which was mostly low stat buffs. Second Ed bards were capable second-line fighters, had potent spellcasting, and Bardic abilities that were pretty slick. It was a powerful class, though not as brutal as in first edition.
Third Edition started the grand tradition of watering down the Bard into a true jack of all trades (compare the 3.0 Bard with the AD&D classes the game designers advised DMs not to allow). Bards were average in everything, had a slow-progression spell list that was very short but combined aspects of clerics and wizards. 3.5 expanded the Bard’s impressive skill list, and gave it the ability to cast spells in light armor, something nobody else can do. Their Bardic music, which gave sliding-scale stat-buffs and condition removal, now improved as the Bard’s level went up.
Pathfinder keeps the Bard mostly intact from 3.5. Their bardic performances saw sliding-scale increases per level (again), and they became much more versatile in their skills-use… though those mostly applied to Perform skills.
Fourth Edition, on the other hand, put them as an arcane caster in the Leader and Controller roles. Leader is a shoe-in—Bards have always been about making others better via their performance—and Controller takes the class back to its AD&D roots, having a potent and versatile spell list. To keep their jack-of-all-trades nature intact, they can take multiclass feats from anybody; additionally they can cast spells related to their performance abilities.
Originally, Bards needed Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, related to their thieving, casting, and singing respectively. Nowadays, Bardic spellcasting, performance, and most skill abilities are based on their Charisma, though Dex and Int are still for boosting skills.
Role within the party
The Bard is an odd duck to pin down. Their wide range of skills makes them an obvious choice for skill monkey, though one slightly less flexible than a Rogue. Their Bardic Music works as a capable buff across all levels, thanks to its gradual improvements; Pathfinder makes this feature even more useful. In general, the Bard is the character who can do things others can’t, and works in a support role until their services are needed.
Firstly? They can cast spells in light armor! Other arcane classes need to take feats before they can do that. They have a huge selection of skills, plus average hit die and two good saves. Bardic Music can buff, counterspell, and even confuse/fascinate groups of enemies. Their spell list combines solid spells from both the cleric and wizard spell lists. Did I mention casting spells in armor?
Jacks of all trades are masters of none. Their spell progression is slow, they don’t get the flashy high-level spells, and as a spontaneous caster their spell picks are locked in place to a greater or lesser extent: meaning their low-level spells will be pretty useless after a while. The average Bard is not a good combat class because of their low health, AC, and damage output. Also: since the Bard’s whole shtick is related to noise and music, they’re affected even more by silence since it negates any of their singing/countersong abilities.
The Bard is very versatile, but not very competitive: it can do anything another class can do, but cannot surpass any one class without severe optimization, and even then, they’ll be further behind the other classes whose job Bards can do. They have buffs, but not as good or useful as the ones Clerics get, and don’t have the high-damage spells Wizards pick from. They’re terrible damage-dealers compared to Rogues and Fighters, leaving them around on par with Clerics, only the Cleric can trudge around in splint with a tower shield and still cast spells.
There’s still a use for the Bard, especially with its stacking buffs and Performance tricks, but in 3.5 and Pathfinder, it’s widely considered a dead class because of its diminished impact: a Bard can’t hope to leave their mark on a game unless it’s heavy on roleplaying and singing competitions.
Getting back on topic with D&D classes, only ones outside the original four. Druid is still a very old class, dating back to 1st Edition AD&D, but they spent most of their life as a subtype of clerics. I’m particularly fond of them, so I’m jumping ahead of bards and cavaliers and everything else.
So far, I’ve tried to balance the perspective between Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, being the systems I know the most, but this one will be focusing more on the changes made to druid in the Pathfinder rules set since I’m currently running it.
Gygax had druids—inspired from the pagan, British Isles/Stonehenge druids—back in oD&D, but they didn’t become a playable class until the late ’70s. The idea was that True Neutral clerics made up a sub-set called druids, who worshiped nature as a perfect balance. They were restricted from using metal armor and weaponry, except those with specific symbolic meaning (e.g. the crescent-moon shape of the sickle and scimitar), but could cast more spells and cast faster than Clerics, and had a slightly more aggressive spell-list.
Besides the alignment restrictions, they had other moral/societal rules, but spoke their own cool language and got little animal buddies and in Unearthed Arcana could summon elementals. 2nd AD&D continued with the whole “TN sub-class of nature clerics” thing, but made their casting abilities more or less equal to a cleric’s.
3rd edition gave major tweaks to druids; first off, they were their own class, not a type of cleric. They still had alignment and weapon/armor restrictions, but they got a sizable set of benefits. Druids received an animal companion, and the ability to spontaneously cast summon nature’s ally spells; their shapeshifting abilities were expanded in 3.5, allowing them to change into elementals and a variety of animals and sizes.
Pathfinder tweaked much of how druids operate. Their base details are the same, though slightly nerfed. Wildshape is acquired earlier, but instead of gaining the stats for an animal, it merely gives a set number of bonuses and a limited number of the animal’s special qualities (such as darkvision or grab). Meanwhile, in 4th, they became Controllers, the divine to match the arcane wizard Controllers. They gain more at-will attack powers, and retain many of their traditional abilities (such as Wildshape).
Like most of the more “advanced” classes which exist outside the core four, Druids have a number of important attributes. Wisdom determines their spellcasting. Dexterity and Constitution are vital for keeping the Druid alive, and Strength is highly useful for any melee-centric Druid. Intelligence isn’t that useful, but since it impacts skill points, it’s not a dump-stat; it may seem counter-productive to dump Charisma, since it impacts calming animals, but Wild Empathy is usually powerful enough to take a minor Charisma hit.
Role within the party
Jumping into the Controller category for 4th is an odd choice, but druids have had Controller aspects for ages. Their spell selection is much more control-dominated than a cleric, with spells like entangle, spike growth, and spike stones. (Marginal though they are, they are still very handy spells.) Druids in Pathfinder and 3.5 are incredibly diverse. They can become powerful warriors with their wildshape, or use it to fill the scout or skirmisher roles, which are also augmented by woodland stride and trackless step. They have a larger number of versatile offensive spells than clerics (heat/chill metal, call lightning, flame strike, wood warp, produce flame) while retaining many capable buff spells (barkskin, air walk); they can spot-cast summoning, and have numerous spells that buff their animal companion and summoned creatures. Oh, and they’re also passable healers, better than a bard but far inferior to a cleric.
So, while the druid can very easily become a controller, they are spread all over the party roles. They can be controllers, healers, scouts, and make solid second-line skirmishers or warriors, and even alternate between these roles based on their build.
All of them. Druid was the 3.5 power class for a reason, and they’re still very capable in Pathfinder. They get an animal companion, roughly another frontline fighter, can summon more animals, and can turn into one at 4th level. They have limitless capabilities related to plants, animals, and nature through their abilities and spells. They have a solid spell-list, shorter and weaker than either a cleric or wizard’s, but overlapping both where it needs to. They have two good saves, Fort and Wis, a great selection of skills, and average attack and progression.
Oh, and as divine casters, they can wear armor (shitty non-metal armor it may be) and cast spells. Spells which the druid didn’t have to buy and learn, either.
Alignment restrictions are annoying; weapon and armor restrictions are downright painful. Wearing metal armor means the druid loses her abilities and spellcasting for the day, which is a serious hindrance. This leaves them with a low-grade AC; when in wildshape, the AC is that of the animal, which would be “piss-poor.” Plus, druids are stuck holding either crappy weapons (clubs, staves) or expensive ones (scimitars, sickles). Oh, and their ranged weapon is a sling; yay. Druids also have bad Reflex saves, and their wildshape is severely limited at first, and doesn’t have half the punch it used to due to becoming the new beast shape spells.
Their spell list is very capable, but is focused largely towards buffing animals, not people, and doing an amazing amount of inane shit with plants (talking to them, driving them away, etc.). It lacks the consistent versatility of other casters: neither as much healing as a cleric’s or as much damage as a wizard’s.
Druids were the most powerful class in 3.5, being able to do everything at once; instead of having to buff oneself to perform this like a cleric or wizard did, the druid just had to wildshape. Pathfinder has nerfed their wildshape power-ability. And yet, they’re still one of the more powerful classes. Wildshape and casting can put the druid above the fighter in utilitarian value, and gives them more of an offensive edge than a rogue, though they have nothing to compare to a good sneak attack. Most of all, for any wilderness-based game, their list of abilities allows them to overcome a number of hindrances—poison, difficult terrain—that can bog down other characters.
A druid isn’t able to heal or buff as well as a cleric, or damage and de-buff as well as a wizard. However, their spell list does encompass the best aspects of priests and mages, capable of healing (even though it isn’t that good at it), capable of buffing (the same bull’s strength, cat’s grace, etc. as everyone else), has versatile offensive spells, and can control the battlefield. Just because druids don’t excel at any of these the way other casters can doesn’t negate the fact that they can do any of them all at once.
So, druids got a necessary nerf that still leaves them with the capabilities to outshine the rogue and fighter in combat, while their spellcasting remains a few steps behind the other casters. Either one would make it a great class; having all of these benefits and advantages makes it downright powerful.
Last of the four core classes: the thief, recently retitled the rogue in order to give the class a little more variety in its roles. We’ll get to the other classes, but for the most part, the rounded party of Fighter, Priest, Magic-User, Thief has been the staple of D&D adventuring parties since the 1970s.
The last of the four core classes was introduced in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement. It’s pretty obvious Gygax based the character off of Bilbo from The Hobbit, though there’s some Grey Mouser and Cugel the Clever there: someone capable of stealing, but also capable of fighting and fast-talking their way in and out of situations. Interesting enough, in AD&D, thieves were the only class non-humans could reach unlimited levels in. There were also a number of weird restrictions on alignments between the early editions, so you could have a NG or LN noble rogue, but no LG or CG Robin Hood type. Thieves were most noted for their Backstab ability; if they attacked an enemy from the side or rear, they could do bonus damage, applying a damage multiplier to their final damage roll.
Thieves originally got thief skills, which were the closest thing AD&D had to a skills system. This was a percentile-roll sub-system, where the thief would have a certain percent (say, 35%) in Pick Pockets, Find & Remove Traps, Open Locks, Hide in Shadows, and Move Silently, and would have to roll their success. The skills started at a flat rate of 10-20%, and got a number of points to boost these per level.
Thieves were renamed to rogues for 3rd edition; it’s a good move. Thief has such a limited role (and negative connotation!) associated with it, while all sorts of good rogues populate fiction, from Han Solo to the Grey Mouser. Part of this new role was a broadening of what they could do; thief skills were rolled into the new skill system, and rogues got access to them… along with almost everything else. Backstab was replaced with sneak attack, an ability that dealt bonus d6es in damage when the rogue struck a target denied its Dex bonus, flat-footed, or flanked. Lastly, the class got rogue talents, special abilities or feats that allowed the rogue a number of benefits, such as “dirty” fighting tactics or the ability to move faster while stealthed.
Pathfinder didn’t do much with rogues; it upped them from their traditional d6 hit die to the d8, so the class fell in line with every other class that had an average attack progression. It also expanded the number of rogue talents. 4th put them as Strikers, emphasizing their traditional mobility and single-target precision damage. Sneak attack was altered so that it only applied once per round, compared to 3.5 and Pathfinder.
Dexterity is the most important attribute for all thieves, since it handles all of their finesse-based stealth, perception, and trap/locksmithing skills. It also improves their initiative, Reflex saves, and ranged attacks, three things rogues use often. Intelligence gives the rogue more skill points, and Constitution is never a bad stat to have.
Role within the party
Rogues fill several roles; primarily, they are the skirmisher, the class cannon in combat who can dish out the most damage in one hit (through their sneak attacks). Rogue precision damage can make or break a combat, so they need to rely on their other assets to get into striking position: stealth, tactical movement (Tumble/Acrobatics), flanking. Secondly, and more important for AD&D games, rogues are the people who set and disarm traps, find and open locked doors, and make sure the treasure chest isn’t a potential explosive device. They also have the option to specialize in anything they want skills-wise.
Also worth noting: because of their stealth skills, rogues make excellent scouts, finding out what’s lurking ahead of the party before the party stumbles into it.
The rogue is awash in skill points and skills; rogues rely on a variety of skills, and get a wider array of them than anyone else. Rogues are the only class who can pick pockets and open locks; they can also specialize in a number of diplomatic skills, stealth skills, all the perception skills, and use magic device. UMD is not a skill to under-emphasize, since it allows the rogue to use wands and scrolls, which is a damn fine ability to have, particularly if the group is low on casters. Their Trap Sense, Uncanny Dodge, and Evasion abilities allow them to ignore hindrances that could cripple an unprepared fighter.
Rogues get average hit dice and attack progressions, and can use a number of basic/light weapons and armor, giving them better survivability than wizards in melee… though, to use their abilities to the fullest, lighter armor is best. Rogues aren’t as good as fighters or clerics due to their lower AC, but they have great mobility, and a good weapon selection.
The rogue’s best asset is their backstab/sneak attack: the extra damage is where it’s at. Rogues are generally geared to damage output, and hitting is of prime importance; a rogue’s other abilities—stealth, tumbling, flanking—all set them up to sneak attack. A good sneak hit can ruin just about anything in the game, provided it is subject to criticals.
Rogues are going to be in combat a lot—flanking and whatnot to set up sneak attacks—and will probably have the lowest AC of all the party melee combatants. This means their health won’t go as far, even in Pathfinder with a d8. Most important, rogues suffer from the flaws of both Wizards and Fighters—they have terrible Will and Fort saves, making them perfect bait for any number of spells and spell-likes. Unlike fighters, they don’t get a bonus against fear spells, and they’re just as easy to dominate. Comparatively, rogues aren’t that weak, but they have some major weak spots.
Rogues start the game as a fairly weak class—less health and AC than the fighter or cleric, as well as less damage potential—but end up in a very strong position, with the best damage output per class, as many varied skills as they want, and the ability to use scrolls and magic items. Rogues are a lot like wizards: both of them follow a strange D&D power pattern that makes them nearly worthless at first level, and can end up outperforming other classes. They also ignore anything requiring a Ref save. That said, rogues still have several major flaws. They never have the health or AC that they need, and are easy targets for Will-based (dominate, charm/hold) or Fort-based (disintegrate, slay living) spells. Rogues are powerful classes, but are even more of a glass cannon than wizards; wizards can simply cast fly or stoneskin, while rogues have to UMD scrolls at best, and more often than not take it in the teeth.
The last of the first three classes presented in the oD&D Little Brown Books is the magic-user. The D&D arcane caster has always been a hodge-podge of literary inspiration, primarily a heavy modification of the spellcasters presented in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series: casters who can “memorize” a number of magical formulas in their heads which are “lost” upon casting.
The class has went through three distinct names: magic-user, mage, and wizard. No other class has had its terminology changed up so much, although Fighting-Men became Fighters, and Thieves became Rogues. On the other hand, whatever their name, wizards have stayed very much the same. They are the weakest class, in both physical health and martial prowess. They can’t wear armor, can’t use most weapons, and are otherwise the weakest link in the party (in that they die the easiest).
At the same time, they’re the strongest link in the party, and are on a steady track to become the most powerful. They have always made up by being the artillery: mages are the guys who drop the flashy damage spells, who control the battlefield with de-buffs and movement restrictions, and who get the most powerful abilities at high level in the form of 8th and 9th level spells. Nobody else got spells that powerful.
Specialist wizards have existed since AD&D, with the quintessential gnome illusionist. Illusionists gained minor bonuses at the cost of having a different spell list and slightly fewer hit dice. 2nd Edition codified this; instead of having a separate spell list for each specialist school, each school had prohibited “opposing schools” that the specialist wizard couldn’t access.
Wizards had also gotten some secondary rules benefits to represent their higher intelligence, which is reflected in how many skills 3.x gives the class. The other major change was metamagic feats: the ability to “modify” a spell by casting it at a higher level spell slot. These can increase the spell’s effects, or allow the caster to cast the spell without requiring verbal commands or movement components. Specialists saw some loosening of their rules, in that a specialist chooses their restricted schools.
Pathfinder did much to change how the wizard operated; their hit die increased, and specialists now got specialty powers and spells related to their school ala Cleric domains. 0-level “cantrip” spells could be cast at-will, and specialists got a large number of per-day abilities, allowing the wizard to cast minor tricks through several encounters. The spell list also saw some nerfs, making the class less powerful in the low-mid range of the game. 4th Ed put the Wizard in the Arcane Controller role: much as with all other wizards, the 4e version focuses on doing multi-die damage to multiple targets, de-buffing enemies, and altering the terrain to handle movement control.
Intelligence has always been the arcane caster’s attribute of choice. Constitution (for health) and Dexterity (for AC) have always been good secondary choices for Wizards, though they don’t really require any secondary attributes.
Role within the party
The mage is the glass cannon artillery of the party: the class nobody wants to see killed because of its potent spellcasting abilities. Its spellcasting falls into three main categories. First, damage; wizards get better damage-dealing spells than anyone else, particularly ones that can affect multiple targets (fireball, cloudkill, cone of cold). They also work great at de-buffing powerful enemies (ray of enfeeblement, glitterdust for invisible things) or just simply locking them out (sleep, hold person, charm monster). Lastly, they handle all sorts of battlefield control to tie up the enemy (web, grease, black tentacles).
The wizard’s spell-casting is more diverse than that; they’re also great at summoning, can buff allies, and have all sorts of other utility spells from feather fall to telepathic bond. They can divine the future, transform targets into dragons or newts, wish for anything they can imagine, and stop time itself. The wizard has always started the game as the person cowering behind the armored meat-shields, and ended with unlimited power potential at their fingertips.
Wizards have great skills and skill points, a nice selection of metamagic feats, and a great spell selection. They also have a familiar, which can be used as a lookout or spy, though having a familiar die is a serious issue. Perhaps their best advantage is their spells, particularly those which can keep them alive long enough to control the battle: mage armor, mirror image, stoneskin, and fly should be mandatory for all arcane spellcasters. The ability to modify them with metamagic makes them very potent, as does the freedom to prepare from a wide array of known spells.
Oh, and they can also make their own magic items. Let that sink in for a minute.
Their spells aside, wizards are a horribly weak class. They have the lowest health and bad Fort and Ref saves. Without sinking feats into armored arcana, the possibility of spell-casting failure means they can’t wear armor. Between the low health and low AC, wizards are incredibly fragile things; a few solid hits or a crit can end the wizard before they’ve even begun to cast. Their low attack bonus should be a deterrent to getting up close and personal in combat combat… at least, until the wizard can prepare transformation and their horde of personal defense spells.
Probably the biggest disadvantage is the wizards’ low number of spells per day. While their casting is more versatile and customizable, sorcerers get the same spells, and more of them, at a slightly slower progression. Picking and choosing spells and scrolls carefully is a must, otherwise the wizard is left with nothing to do be rely on wands or crossbows.
The wizard is the least useful class in pure martial combat, and it has the lowest survivability in low-level and even into mid-level adventures. But its spell-casting makes it the obvious superior class. Many of its spells simply avoid or finish combat: sleep or color spray for groups at low-level; dominate or hold/charm for solo enemies at mid-levels. At the end of the game, they get wish and time stop, and no other class has anything which comes even close to these abilities. The wizard gets better offensive spells than the cleric or druid, enabling them potentially better damage output than the fighter. And there’s always something for a wizard to do.
The wizard also one-ups to sorcerer from its ability to customize each day’s prepared spells to fit specific adventures—fire spells against trolls, water breathing for aquatic adventures, etc. A sorcerer has to make do with what they’ve got at all times, but if the wizard has eight hours of forewarning, they can prepare the right spells the night before heading into combat. While the sorcerer gets more spells per day, unless they choose their list very carefully, the wizard is the better option every time with its unending spell list.
Next up, clerics. This is a class which spent decades as the legendary “everybody needs it, nobody wants to play it” class, then spent a decade as one of the most potentially powerful classes in the D&D game. Another one of the original three D&D base classes, clerics are the standard divine caster, acting as the hands of their deity to channel their power on the material plane.
Older edition clerics couldn’t use edged weapons to represent the Catholic church’s decree to use weapons that “did not shed blood;” ironic, as a blunt weapon can crack skulls just as easily. At higher levels, clerics used to be able to use their turn undead features against demons and other evil outsiders, while evil clerics could turn paladins before being able to rebuke undead. 2nd Edition broke cleric spells into “spheres,” which combined with the cleric’s dogma, determined what they could cast. It’s interesting to note that high-level AD&D clerics got a cathedral full of followers that they had to take care of; rangers got a motley crew of animal followers, fighters got troops, and clerics got a church.
Worth noting: spells were limited depending on what the cleric worshiped, with a demi-god allowing up to 4th level, and a god up to 7th. And there was a chance of divine spell failure, based on the cleric’s Wisdom; how wise they were determined their degree of connection to the divine. Also worth noting: AD&D clerics could only be of an alignment that wasn’t True Neutral; TN “clerics” were a sub-class called druids, and were clerics who followed the balance of nature. This was changed up in later editions, though even today you should be within one step alignment-wise to follow a deity.
Clerics spent a lot of their life as the class every party needed but nobody wanted to play: the heal-bot. 3rd Edition came up with the idea to “spontaneously” cast heal-spells, freeing up the cleric to prepare their other spells, which made the class much more playable. Domains replaced the spheres process, giving the cleric a list of options to choose from, which boiled down into choosing one of two domain spells, and receiving two domain powers. With its solid BAB, good saves, d8 hit die, and heavy armor proficiency, clerics became very effective beatsticks. Particularly with their own buff spells and assortment of domain powers. Oh, they could also cast spells up to 9th level.
Pathfinder upped the ante on domain powers, and also added in the ability to channel energy, healing (or harming) all living or unliving targets for xd6 per level. This healing boost wasn’t offset by any major nerfs; clerics lost their heavy armor proficiency, and that’s about it. 4th Edition put clerics in the Leader role, which does exactly what clerics have always done: buffed and healed allies, focusing first on healing and protection backed up with some melee capabilities.
Wisdom is the cleric’s main attribute, which influences spellcasting. Charisma has traditionally been a secondary attribute, which things like turn undead are based upon. Strength and Constitution are always useful for a more combat-centric cleric.
Role within the party
Clerics don’t exactly fit with most peoples’ idea of the medieval priest, but it’s pretty clear that Gygax based these “defenders of the faith” on divine crusader-knight orders, such as the Knights Hospitalers or Knights Templar. Going with that mindset makes clerics make sense: divine warriors who protect their deity’s flock, guiding their wards through the deadly wilds to reach the holy land.
Clerics serve with both spiritual aid and martial combat, but not pure battlefield crusaders (we call those paladins, who are more a representation of goodly Arthurian knights). Clerics are wardens of the faithful, the defenders of their chosen faith, which reflects in their abilities: they have enough martial training to act in battle if necessary, an assortment of abilities to fight back the evil tides of darkness, and a wide array of protection- and healing-based spells.
First and foremost, they are spellcasters. While their spell list isn’t as flashy as their arcane counterparts, clerics have a wide range of versatile spells. Clerics have a wide range of stackable buff spells, starting with bless and protection from [alignment] at first level. They can summon creatures, invaluable for giving the party another fighter and setting up flanking. They can turn and destroy undead, one of the more common foes, with many spells and abilities. What few damage-dealing spells clerics get are utilitarian (inflict x wounds), albeit many are best used against evil foes (holy smite, undeath to death). And most importantly, they can heal.
Second, even as a spellcaster, clerics are great second-line fighters. For most editions they can wear heavy armor, though they are restricted in what weapons they can use. They have solid attack progressions and health, which combined with their armor and weapon choices, makes them a serious combat contender. Clerics are the best spellcasters for someone who wants to wade into combat, particularly in their wide array of buff spells: magic weapon, magic vestment, divine favor, shield of faith and the like can give the cleric beefy “magic” item bonuses before the party’s fighter has his first +1 longsword.
Clerics have few disadvantages, and many are the same as the fighter. While fighters could justify the lack of skill points, clerics have far too many skills to put ranks into—know (religion/planes), heal, diplomacy, and perform (oratory) if the GM is anal about skill checks when the cleric performs holy rites like I am. Clerics are only proficient in simple weapons and their deity’s favored weapon, limiting their combat options, and unlike fighters they don’t get any abilities to off-set heavier armor’s movement penalties. Lastly, they have terrible Reflex saving throws, which doesn’t always make up for the two good saves they have.
Clerics are somewhat divergent, a class that can easily become either the most or least powerful in the party. They have the option to out-fighter the fighter by focusing on their buff spells and tactical summoning, but can also stay as pure healbots who exist to drop healing spells on wounded party members. Their high-level spell list has some phenomenal choices that nobody else gets (blade barrier, planar ally, holy word, righteous might). Clerics also have higher survivability rates than wizards due to their ability to wear armor while casting. Without the right spells, equipment, or attributes, a cleric can’t compete with either the fighter or the wizard, but clerics start in a good spot to dominate.
Let’s start off with the easiest and most basic class: the fighter. The general stereotype about 3.x is that casters win the game and fighters are worthless; while it’s true they’re one of the weakest classes in the game, they have some strong advantages, and smart optimization/equipment choices/caster support makes fighters a viable combat machine.
The “Fighting Man” is one of the three oldest classes, dating back to the original Little Brown Books (oD&D). Fighters have generally had the best attack progression, high health, and the ability to use the best equipment. AD&D fighters were the only classes who could gain weapon specialization, offering bonuses to hit and to damage. 2e AD&D continued weapon spec. by adding in weapon group proficiencies, and added in the core four fighting styles: single weapon, dual weapons, sword-and-board, and two-handed-weapon. 2nd Edition also contained a lengthy list of example fighters:
Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried (Sigurd), Cúchulainn, Little John, Tristan, and Sindbad… El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Spartacus, Richard the Lionhearted, and Belisarius.
It’s also worth noting that at higher levels, fighters got castles filled with troops and followers. AD&D fighters were awesome like that.
Fighters got a leg up in the 3.o rules. The addition of Feats meant that fighters could now be easily customized, and multiple fighters in a party could do very different things. The fighter retained all the basic abilities, such as the d10 hit die and fast BAB, but gained the worst skills per level of all classes. (Painfully so.) The idea to customize each fighter with dozens of feats and fighting styles/maneuvers meant that fighters had a lot more to do than roll to hit, roll damage. Fighters saw no major changes in the 3.5 revisions.
Pathfinder’s changes were notable: it increased feat acquisition, furthering customization, added “weapon group specialization” back into the game, gave a bonus to Will saves against fear, and a reduction in armor penalties. However, despite their attempts to make it viable from levels 1 to 20, its capstone ability is lacking. 4th Edition codified the fighter as a martial Defender, using its solid defensive abilities to protect other characters. Their focus is on damage output and mobility control, while retaining their traditional high health and attack rate.
Strength to hit and do bonus damage, Dexterity for ranged combat and a better AC, and Constitution for health. In 3.x and Pathfinder, it can be a good idea to bump Intelligence for extra skill points, and Wisdom to make up for that pitiful Will save.
Role within the party
The most obvious one: the frontline combatant, the warrior, the guy standing in front of the artillery (magic-user) and his healing support (cleric). Fighters have been defined as anything from bodyguards to bandits to soldiers, and everything in between. In actuality, they’re close to defensive lineman in football: they get into the midst of the scuffle, and using their strength and prowess, keep the enemy line from attacking the more vulnerable members farther back.
Fighters are an interesting role to play. Their main build in 3.x looks like a slugger from their damage output potential, but that’s only half of the role. Given their higher AC and health, fighters are generally good targets for the GM to swing at, since they’re less fragile than the other party members. Thus the fighter ties down the enemy and makes himself a target, allowing the other party members to set up for spellcasting or sneak attacks. The fighter has to survive a lot of attacks, but also has potent offensive capabilities, getting more attacks (and thus, more hits, and more damage) than anyone else.
Fighters have huge advantages, particularly at lower levels. They have the most hit points per class (save barbarians in newer editions) because of their d10 hit die. They can use all the armor, all the weapons, and can specialize quite easily in whatever equipment they choose. They have the best attack progression, get the most attacks per round, and with their huge arsenal of feats, are highly customizable combat powerhouses.
However, their disadvantages are numerous. They are legendary for having terrible Will saves, and are easily dominated or confused by enemies with spells or spell-likes. Until Pathfinder added in Bravery, fighters were also terrible cowards who’d fail saves against fear. They also have the amount of skill points imaginable; the fighter has roughly two skills he’ll shine at, probably Climb and Swim. And having all that heavy armor makes them sluggish on the battlefield: plate is great, but reduced speed and encumbrance aren’t. Pathfinder’s Armor Training is a major help in this area.
As they progress in levels, it becomes harder for a fighter to stay competitive; even their bundle of feats and abilities pales compared to a well-built spellcaster. In fact, fighters at all levels are reliant on the party casters: buffs and terrain-negating spells make combat much easier. The fighter is still a damage powerhouse due to its great BAB and number of attacks, but is outshone on the damage-dealing front by a rogue pulling off multiple sneak attacks. The sheer level of customization available from all those feats is impressive, but the player has to be strict in their choices to outshine the advantages of a paladin, ranger, or barbarian via the bonus feats.
Fighters have always been a second-stringer in high-level D&D, moreso in 3.x. Rogues do better damage, Clerics and Wizards dominate the battlefield through their spells. That said, the fighter can still be a decent class, pending proper building and support from the party’s casters. The fact that it’s so reliant on optimization and caster support point out that the class needs some modifications, but fighters are still very useful, particularly in the “sweet spot” of low-mid level combat.
D&D (and Pathfinder) put a lot of weight into the roles each character class falls into, a fact which became clearly apparent when running a lot of it. 4th got a lot of flak for its WoW-style character role archetypes (striker, defender, controller, etc.), but to be honest, these divisions have existed since the original Red Box and 1st Edition AD&D, if not before. They just weren’t always as noticeable, not being bolded out in the rules and all. So for the next week or so I’ll be going in-depth looking at all the D&D classes from a 3.5/Pathfinder perspective, at their roles and how balanced they are.
The Well-Balanced Group
Running Legacy of Fire, and listening to my friends’ tales of Kingmaker, Runelords, and Carrion Crown, got me thinking about class roles. In my Legacy game and Keving’s Runelords game, both parties lacked some of the core classes, and ended up having other classes performing their roles. Mine was heavily redundant on monks and divine/martial and martial/skirmisher hybrids. There’s also been an abundance of APG classes, partly because of the newness and partly because some (summoner, inquisitor) can become powerful without any real optimization work.
Anyways, the point being, the more I run d20, the more I realize that class role balance is crucial for a lengthy D&D campaign. Having the druid as a frontline fighter, and lacking a true wizard, really threw things into an interesting new angle… it was almost like running Iron Heroes. (Not that they had much issues, later on, but it’s vaguely frightening to realize the challenges they overcame would have been that much easier with access to 7th-level arcane spells.) The party managed to crash through everything thrown at them, breaking down the standard 3.x “fighters suck, caster supremacy” argument, but there were some situations where a power-built warrior and an arcane caster would have helped.
Part of the 4th-edition hate is because its class role terminology—defender, controller, striker, leader—sounds a lot like mumorpuger roles, particularly WoW; the authors say that it’s to push new players to fill each role in the party. Ironically, those roles have always existed in D&D, they just weren’t bolded out as “roles,” and are constructs of Gygax’s wargame background: what else are mages but artillery, leaving clerics as support,warriors as infantry, and thieves as skirmishers. Two editions of AD&D rammed that home.
Without AD&D and its basic class roles, I doubt WoW would have such roles for 4th to “rip off.” It’s not like they naturally occur in fiction. Point me at a case where you see someone filling a role other than warrior/defender/tank: Conan, or Fafhrd and the Mouser, even Cugel the Clever don’t have anyone to fill their support roles, and even alternate between them. Even the Lord of the Rings, the posterboy for Appendix N team-based fiction, doesn’t have distinguishable party roles: the hobbits cower, Gandalf gives advice, and the four other guys wade into the thick of combat. Traditional party roles were a construct in order to let everyone at the table participate and feel needed, even if they were only the healbot or trapfinder.
Since none of the D&D/Pathfinder games I’ve been apart of in recent memory have filled all of those roles simultaneously, I can understand the push to codify them as a base part of the game. What I love about 3.5 is that its classes aren’t tied to a single role build, and many exist outside of them; thus, it feels too restrictive to limit a class to a single role. But without having every role filled in the party, encounters feel off-balanced, and can range into the “too hard” or the “too easy” pretty quick.
The Balance of Power
Not only is balancing class roles an issue, there’s also the balance of the individual classes. D&D has always had some weird balance issues between classes: magic-users start the game as glass cannons, and end up with the ability to drop some pretty powerful stuff at 20th level. Comparatively, warriors are generally well-rounded and competitive through the low- and mid-level “sweet spot,” but at higher levels, the ability to hit more often and use more weapons can’t compare to the casters’ ability to fly, insta-kill enemies, and so forth.
This list is an overall decent ranking of the various 3.5 classes, though it’s lost a bit in the Pathfinder changes. It also assumes everything is perfectly chosen on the player’s side, hence why sorcerer is rated so high; I’ve never liked the class because of its lack of versatility. The ability to be lazy and not prepare spells just doesn’t compare to the wizard’s freedom to prepare fire spells when going up against trolls.
Note that the tier rankings don’t take optimization levels into account: Matt made a straightforward cleric, and ended up outshined by the TWF blender rogue, outside of roleplaying. (Few people can out roleplay Matt.) I can’t give him too much crap, he did miss half the campaign due to moving back and forth, but it strikes me as funny given the general consensus the CoDzilla is the power build for 3.5. (Well, just behind arcane casters at high levels and in Pathfinder.)
Is this even a problem with other games?
Well, no, it isn’t. Starting in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of games switched to the skills-based method, and went with sample archetypes you could build and modify yourself rather than hammered-into-stone classes. Shadowrun, Star Wars d6, Deadlands, even today with CthulhuTech and Eclipse Phase. Other games kept classes, but de-emphasized them. Cyberpunk 2020 had classes, but all that did was open up a single class skill, such as Combat Sense (the ability to go first in combat) for Solos (“fighters”).
White Wolf included “classes” in the form of its affiliations, which were more about what stereotype the character fit, though roles were still around here and there; Werewolf’s Auspices, and Exalted’s aspects/castes, for example. It’s worth noting that by the simple virtue of being skills-based instead of class-based, a character could still perform another character’s role depending on how they spent their points.
Therein lies the rub: by giving players the flexibility to make their own characters, things became even more reliant on having the players make builds that supported one another’s strengths. Party roles will always be there, even if they’re enforced by the game or not. What skills-based games do is free up the restrictions, allowing a player to fill the roles (or parts thereof) that they want to. I don’t recall forcing players in my skill-based games to stick to a single archetype, and yet they’ve always managed to come up with characters who fill enough different roles that everyone has something to do.
I guess I’m spoiled by skills-based games and the flexibility to make any character new and interesting, as the D&D class-based method is showing its age. (I still get a laugh from all the OSR grognards who gripe about d20′s “detailed” skills system being a terrible, inferior direction to take the game… compared to non-weapon proficiencies, I guess.) It’s one of the many reasons why the class/level system is an outmoded design; while it speeds up construction and play by following tropes and archetypes, it lacks the freeform nature that comes with most modern skills-based games. Of course, going full into the skills-based camp leaves us with things like Rolemaster.