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PC Roles
Design & Development
by Rob Heinsoo

The Design & Development article series premiered on the D&D website back in September 2005, and has been a staple ever since. With the approach of 4th Edition, and our designers and developers focused on the new edition, this column will be the primary vehicle for 4th Edition coverage. We’ll not only give you peeks at what’s forthcoming, but also the “how” and “why.”

Keep in mind that the game is still in a state of flux, as refinements are made by our design and development staff. You’re getting a look behind the curtain at game design in progress, so enjoy, and feel free to send your comments to

Let me tell you about my character, Nils, and how he contributed a few grace notes to 4th Edition’s concepts of character class roles.

Nils isn’t a 4th Edition character; he’s my old 3.5 character from Mark Jessup’s “Nine Chords” campaign. There are nine deities in Mark’s homebrew world, one deity each for the nine alignment slots. Each of the gods is a great bard whose personal pleasure and cosmic power flows from ritual bragging in front of the other gods about the kickass accomplishments of their worshippers. (Perhaps this arrangement will seem even more fitting when I mention that Mark is the director of marketing here at Wizards of the Coast…)

In a world like this, someone in the party has got to play a bard. But when the character class draft went down, everyone stepped back toward fighter or cleric or wizard or rogue, and nobody was willing to jump on the lute grenade. Mark was disappointed with us. I hate to see a disappointed DM, so I vowed to detour into bard-land just as soon as I was comfortable with Nils as a fighter.

Four greatsword-swinging levels of fighter later, Nils entered the path of lute-n-flute. My roleplaying opportunities increased because I was now the spokesman and PR agent for the PC group. But in encounters that focused on combat instead of roleplaying, Nils was forced into a mold pro basketball analysts call a “tweener,” too wimpy to play power forward alongside the ranger and the barbarians, and not capable of long-range shots like the wizard.

The PC group appreciated the singing bonuses Nils provided, and they appreciated his eventual haste spell, but supplying those bonuses meant that I spent at least two rounds at the start of combat making everyone else better without doing much of anything myself, except maybe moving around. Once I entered the combat, I survived by making judicious use of the Combat Expertise feat.

By the time the campaign slowed down to once or twice a year sessions, I’d played Nils for seven bard-only levels and obtained a much clearer perspective on the problems faced by D&D characters who don’t feel a clear niche. Fighters, rogues, clerics, and wizards all occupy pivotal places in a D&D PC group’s ecology, while the bard is singing from offstage reminding everyone not to forget the +1 or +2 bonuses they’re providing to attacks and saves against fear.

When Andy (Collins), James (Wyatt), and I put together the basic structure of 4th Edition, we started with the conviction that we would make sure every character class filled a crucial role in the player character group. When the bard enters the 4th Edition stage, she’ll have class features and powers that help her fill what we call the Leader role. As a character whose songs help allies fight better and recover hit points, the bard is most likely to fit into a player character group that doesn’t have a cleric, the quintessential divine leader.

Unlike their 3e counterparts, every Leader class in the new edition is designed to provide their ally-benefits and healing powers without having to use so many of their own actions in the group-caretaker mode. A cleric who wants to spend all their actions selflessly will eventually be able to accomplish that, but a cleric who wants to mix it up in melee or fight from the back rank with holy words and holy symbol attacks won’t constantly be forced to put aside their damage-dealing intentions. A certain amount of healing flows from the Leader classes even when they opt to focus on slaying their enemies directly.

Does every group need a Leader class? Not necessarily. Is it worth having more than one Leader in a party? Maybe.

We settled on crucial roles rather than on necessary roles. 4th Edition has mechanics that allow groups that want to function without a Leader, or without a member of the other three roles, to persevere. Adventuring is usually easier if the group includes a Leader, a Defender, a Striker, and a Controller, but none of the four roles is absolutely essential. Groups that double or triple up on one role while leaving other roles empty are going to face different challenges. They’ll also have different strengths. That’s the type of experiment you’ll be running in eight months. Before then, we’ll have more to say about the other roles.

One last thing before I go, since I started this note off by talking about Nils. This time, let me say a few things to Nils directly: “Nils, it’s been fun playing you. But I’ll see you again in a future incarnation, and this time around when Al-Faregh the wizard and Jum the barbarian are chopping up beholders, you’re going to be fighting on the same playing field instead of handing out Gatorade cups and singing the national anthem.”

About the Author

Rob Heinsoo was born in the Year of the Dragon. He started playing D&D in 1974 with the original brown box. More recently, he designed Three-Dragon Ante, Inn-Fighting, and a couple incarnations of the D&D Miniatures skirmish system. He’s the lead designer of 4th Edition and captains the D&D mechanical design team.