I believe some early criticism about 4e identified targeted a perceived disconnect between concept and character. With the limited palette in Player’s Handbook, certain concepts seemed harder to realize than were others. This perception, I suspect owes its origins to class functionality in the previous edition compared to the present one. In 3rd edition, a class was really a menu of benefits awarded at specific levels. Since classes were generally open, you might dip into one, two, or more at whatever levels you like to acquire the class features that served your character concept. It was possible to be a pure representative of a class by playing a fighter from level 1 to 20, but odds are the character underwent some fundamental shift through multiclassing into another class or picking up levels in a prestige class. And the more classes you accumulate, the less your character is truly a member of the original class.
Fourth edition shored up class boundaries by returning to a model closer to 1st and 2nd edition. Features, powers, and other benefits are reserved for actual members of a particular class. By declaring your membership to a particular class, you embrace all the story implications that go with that class. Playing a fighter means you favor defense over offense, you wear heavy armor and wield military weapons. Playing a cleric means you improve other around you, keep allies fighting, while still deliver powerful attacks. Although there are clear concepts associated with each class, there are ways with each class to customize a character to best fit your vision. As a wizard, you might favor illusion, summoning, control, or area attacks. These are largely tactical options and choosing one over the other doesn’t always reinforce a particular character concept. Still, there are enough stylistic difference to accommodate several different expressions of that class.
More than providing a concept template, I really believe class choice frames how you engage the imaginary world. Playing a fighter feels different from playing a wizard. There are commonalities between them both, but as a player you concern yourself with different areas in the game. Fighter players probably focus on individual tactics and containment, while wizards likely look at broad strategy and thwart it. Class, in my opinion, shapes how we experience game play.
An interesting consequence arises from all this. I believe the menu approach from the last edition served the game well, at least when you had a cogent character concept in mind. You could use all the game’s tools to tailor make a character. The problem as I see it stems from reducing a class’s importance by reducing it to a set of benefits from which you can pick and choose. Sometimes this leant itself to highly effective characters. Other times, it meant being trapped by a sub-optimal combination that could diminish a player’s ability to contribute to the group effort in a meaningful way. For me, making classes function as the character concept, a broad template designed to frame your choices along one of several available paths within the class identity, combined with mechanical parity results in a dynamic group armed with complementary techniques to overcome the challenges faced in the adventure environment.
Understand, building character concept into class design is not, in my mind, a flaw, but a benefit. Also, it’s not at odds with how the game used to play in the old days. When you create a character, you have two options. One, you can decide on the concept first and then find the class to match the concept or just pick a class and adopt the concept. It’s crucial to also add that while mechanics tend to be somewhat fixed, the story elements framing those mechanics are completely flexible. Just because the battlerage fighter is a hero who can shrug off damage and channel wrath into punishing attacks doesn’t mean you can’t explain the way this occurs for your particular character. You can easily alter this story so the mechanical effects result from some other story element. For instance, perhaps the character is possessed by a spirit and taps into that spirit’s power whenever he or she hits with an invigorating power. A control wizard’s spellbook might be crystals pregnant with power left over from creation and thus when he or she draws power from those crystals, he or she rewrites creation in a small way.
4e has evolved since the Player’s Handbook’s release and with it so has the class concept. I think the game has embraced the class as archetype now more than ever. Essentials achieves this by divorcing mechanics from a class and instead assigns them to a class’s specific expressions, or subclasses to be more specific. What we have now is a hierarchy of character definition that begins with a broad concept and then moves into specific expressions of that concept. There is the platonic idea of the fighter and then there are fighters in the world, fighters who are alternatively defined as knights, slayers, and weaponmasters. As each subclass is a discrete representation of a nebulous idea, there’s far more freedom in how we create and modify subclasses, allowing use to manipulate traditionally fixed elements such as power source, role, and mechanisms used to reinforce the role. Furthermore, we can still include options within a subclass depending on the subclass’s needs. With a knight and slayer, choice is more limited, while a weaponmaster has a wide range of options for maximum customization.
There may be some uncertainty with the new direction mainly because of confusion in what class meant and means now. Before, I think we put too much emphasis on power source and character role. Power source flavors the class, while role lays out the mechanical objectives for what the class should do in the game. As others have noted, this model leads to madness. It creates a weird grid wherein folks feel each power source demands a class to fill a specific role. In the world of arcane, we have a controller (wizard), defender (swordmage), leader (artificer, bard), and striker (sorcerer, warlock). Thus should we not have a martial controller? Likewise, should we not have a shadow leader? No. Emphatically no. Power source and class role are merely tools to guide design and should have nothing to do with world’s story. Does this mean there could be a martial controller? Maybe, but only if the concept works within an existing class or is broad enough to accommodate several different subclasses.
Looking at the classes populating the game currently, it feels to me that several have concept problems. Mechanically, they are fine, but their concepts are too narrow to exist as independent classes. Compare the fighter to the ardent. There can be all kinds of fighters in the game, knights, duelists, berserkers, and so on. But ardent? Now I’ll fight to defend the ardent’s existence, but I do feel that ardent would have been better served as a subclass of the warlord. It’s sounds like heresy to introduce new power sources to existing classes, but remember, a class is a broad concept that contains any number of expressions, even those that dip into other power sources.
I can imagine a spellsword subclass of the fighter. This character engraves runes and sigils on his or her weapon to better channel arcane energy. Most attacks might be melee basic attacks, but as the character gains levels, he or she can release arcane bursts on hits using the weapon. The subclass might be an arcane and martial controller. Here’s a taste:
Blazing Strike Spellsword Attack
You channel arcane energy through your weapon so that when it hits, you unleash a torrent of multicolored flames.
Encounter * Arcane, Aura, Fire
Free Action Personal
Trigger: You hit with a melee basic attack using a weapon.
Effect: You activate an aura 1 that lasts until the end of your next turn. Whenever an enemy ends its turn in the aura it takes fire damage equal to 3 + your Intelligence modifier.
Other classes aren’t so flexible and the problem with these classes is that the concept and expression are one and the same. A swordmage is a swordmage. Although certain features might vary, they have identical stories. Should the swordmage exist as a class then? Or would the swordmage function better as an expression of a different class. My gut tells me the swordmage should be a subclass of the wizard. Likewise, the seeker should be a subclass of the ranger, the ardent under the warlord, the battlemind under the fighter, runepriest under the cleric, and so on. Although I can see arguments for moving many classes under major classes (warlord to fighter, paladin to cleric, sorcerer to wizard), the thing to we must ask ourselves is whether the class by itself can accommodate many different concepts. If the answer is yes, then it should remain a class. If no, then the class should, in my opinion, become a subclass.
The following is purely an academic exercise designed to demonstrate what I’ve been chewing on here. I’m under no delusions that this will amount to anything more than mental masturbation, but it will at least, I hope, be interesting to you.
Concept: A ruthless killer who develops combat techniques to eliminate enemies one at a time.
Assassin (Dragon Magazine, shadow striker)
Avenger (Player’s Handbook 2, Divine Power, divine striker)
Executioner (Dragon Magazine, martial and shadow striker)
Concept: A devoted servant of the gods, armed with raw divine energy to further their patron’s interests in the world.
“Cleric” (Player’s Handbook, Divine Power, divine leader)
Invoker (Player’s Handbook 2, Divine Power, divine controller)
Runepriest (Player’s Handbook 3, divine leader)
Warpriest (Heroes of the Fallen Lands, divine leader)
Concept: A staunch protector of the natural world who calls upon primal magic to destroy nature’s enemies.
“Druid” (Player’s Handbook 2, Primal Power, primal controller)
Sentinel (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, primal leader)
Shaman (Player’s Handbook 2, Primal Power, primal leader)
Warden (Player’s Handbook 2, Primal Power, primal defender)
Concept: A warrior whose talent at arms is unmatched on the battlefield.
Barbarian (Player’s Handbook 2, Primal Power, primal striker)
Battlemind (Player’s Handbook 3, Psionic Power, psionic defender)
Knight (Heroes of the Fallen Lands, martial defender)
Slayer (Heroes of the Fallen Lands, martial striker)
Weaponmaster (Player’s Handbook/Class Compendium, Martial Power, Martial Power 2, Dark Sun Campaign Setting, martial defender)
Concept: A mystic warrior who transcends normal limits by perfecting body, mind, and spirit.
“Monk” (Player’s Handbook 3, Psionic Power, psionic striker)
Concept: A divine crusader who combines skill at arms with divine magic to triumph over darkness.
Cavalier (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, divine defender)
“Paladin” (Player’s Handbook, Divine Power, divine defender)
Concept: An individual armed with astonishing mental powers.
“Psion” (Player’s Handbook 3, Psionic Power, psionic controller)
Concept: A warrior, typically a loner, who walks the roads between wilderness and civilization.
Hunter (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, martial and primal controller)
“Ranger” (Player’s Handbook, Martial Power, Martial Power 2, martial striker)
Scout (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, martial and primal striker)
Seeker (Player’s Handbook 3, primal controller)
Concept: The consummate adventurer, with a solution to almost any problem.
“Bard” (Player’s Handbook 2, Arcane Power, arcane leader)
“Rogue” (Player’s Handbook, Martial Power, Martial Power 2, martial striker)
Thief (Heroes of the Fallen Lands, martial striker)
Concept: A character embodying raw, magical power.
“Sorcerer” (Player’s Handbook 2, Arcane Power, arcane striker)
Concept: An individual armed with magical power won from a pact with an otherworldly agency.
Hexblade (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, arcane striker)
“Warlock” (Player’s Handbook, Arcane Power, Dark Sun Campaign Setting, arcane striker)
Concept: A battlefield commander, whose superior tactics and leadership ability can turn the battle’s tide.
Ardent (Player’s Handbook 3, Psionic Power, psionic leader)
“Warlord” (Player’s Handbook, Martial Power, Martial Power 2, martial leader)
Concept: An arcane scholar whose learning grants access to vast magical energy.
Artificer (Eberron Player’s Guide, arcane leader)
Mage (Heroes of the Fallen Lands, arcane controller)
Swordmage (Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, Arcane Power, arcane defender)
“Wizard” (Player’s Handbook, Arcane Power, arcane controller)