Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Right Character for the Job - P. 3

[continued from here]

All right, next question:

Do you feel your personality and play choices (i.e. choice of in-game actions) facilitate the role your character is called on to play for the adventuring party?

Now when I say "role," I don't mean anything akin to role-playing (the end result of playing an RPG...hopefully). Nor am I talking about the role of the player within a group of people...there are plenty of hats we wear at the gaming table (the Caller, the Mapper, the Guy Who Buys Pizza, the Joker, the Know-It-All, the Devils' Advocate, etc.). Hell, I'm not even talking about the kind of positions we find in other round table groups (group leader, group facilitator, note taker, etc.).

I'm talking about the imaginary role your character plays within a group of imaginary adventurers. If your adventuring party was a platoon of soldiers, this would be akin to each person's specialty and field use.

Before I list the six "adventuring roles" that I've identified, it's important to make a few notes.

Note #1: NO single role is specific to ONE single class. In fact, many of the party members will do double or triple duty (that is they will perform more than one role in the party). When I discuss the classes later, I will discuss both best potential roles and why certain temperaments are suited to them.

Note #2: Roles played in an adventuring party are determined by whim of the player. I may decide I would prefer a particular role in the group or would "like to try out something different tonight." None of these are set in stone and role is not based on "temperament" (though some people will be drawn to the same role over and over again...for a variety of reasons) and is based on individual desire. Furthermore, individual desire will TRUMP even the whim of the group. If the group tells me they want my character to perform a certain role, there is NOTHING that prevents me from telling them to "take a hike" or dithering about until they forget what role I was assigned. See Brian the Halfling for an example of the former.

Note #3: Roles identified are mostly pertinent to B/X play. Which means they also apply to BECMI and OD&D and somewhat to AD&D. However, for the rest of this post I'll mainly be addressing B/X style of play.

All right, so...the six roles available to characters in an adventuring party (in alphabetical order):

Front-Line Fighter: when a combat situation arises, those in this role are responsible for taking the fight to the enemy and getting "stuck in." To perform this role they need both good armor class and high hit points in order to provide staying power. However, the purpose of the staying power is NOT to "give other characters a chance to finish the opponent." Front-line fighters ARE the starters AND finishers. In B/X, morale will break monster mobs faster than most parties can kill them to a man...and a broken mob is likely to surrender, saving valuable resources of the party. As PCs never "break" the job of the front-line fighter is to kill the enemy to the point of capitulation...and do so while keeping the enemy away from the party. A prestige position? Certainly, but one with a high mortality rate and often given to hireling "meat shields" (who are generally terrible at it due to their poor equipment and ability).

Mechanic: the mechanic is the "problem solver" when it comes to obstacles. This includes locks, traps, magical wards, interpreting unknown languages, finding secret doors out of dead ends, scaling cliffs and letting down ropes to other party members, etc. In general, the mechanic provides their service in non-combat situations.

Scout: the scout is the party member that scouts ahead (duh) and brings back useful intelligence to the party (for accelerated survival rates). Ideally, characters should be quick (both for penetration and retreat), hard to spot, and able to comprehend what they find...or at least deliver the intel accurately so other members of the party can correctly identify it.

Second-Line Fighter: the second line fighter also fights, but generally as a "last line of defense." In practice, all PCs end up playing the role of 2nd-line fighter should the front-line fighters go down, but some characters are more suited to it than others. The 2nd-line fighter tends to have a weakness that prevents them from being a front-liner: usually poor-moderate hit points OR poor armor class, either one of which prevents them from having "staying power" once they get stuck in. However, 2nd-liners are still better at fighting than those with low hit points AND poor armor class and should be the ones to "hold the line" against combatants that penetrate the front-line. Their job is to stay with party, and thus they make ideal characters for "rear guard;" it's also useful for them to have missile fire weapons, so that they can wear down opponents before and as they close with the party.

Specialist: the specialist is a type of fighter whose skills are only useful against a particular type of foe. Unless facing that foe, the specialist generally does poorly as a front-line fighter...and may be poor as a second-liner also. Examples of "specialists" include clerics versus undead, thieves against unaware opponents, magic-users against certain foes (depending on spell selection), and halflings against giants. In some cases (like the halfling) the specialty can change a solid second-liner into a pretty decent front-liner! It's important that specialists are preserved for when they are best is the job of the front- and 2nd-line fighters to do the preserving.

Support: characters in a support role lend their abilities in support of other characters; generally through the use of magic. This can include healing and "buffing" spells as well as anti-opponent spells in some instances (though many of these latter fall more appropriately into the "specialist" category). There are no non-magical ways to "support" characters in the typical B/X game, with the exception of lending money to another player to help them purchase better gear. In this regard, characters with a lot of ready cash or useful hirelings may provide a support role to the rest of the party (as would any character owning a stronghold for rest and recuperation), though in general support is meant to be "while on an adventure" NOT "back in town."

If these roles seem similar to the "archetype roles" of a World of Warcraft raiding party, that should be no surprise as WoW borrows heavily from the tropes of D&D. However, there are two main differences: all WoW (and similar CRPG) roles are "combat-based" due to the limited nature of a computer game. The SECOND (and more important difference) is that in D&D no particular role is necessary for survival.

You can have a party with no front-line fighters or no healing support or no "specialists" because D&D is not limited to combat. At least B/X isn't. If you are missing a particular role in your group, you will need to find clever ways to circumvent some obstacles. In a party with no "fighter types" for example, you would need to resort to negotiation, stealth, and trickery to overcome "combat threats." It can be done (and is a rewarding way to play), once you get your mind around the fact that not every encounter need be met with brute force.

Also in D&D there is very little "niche protection" and equipment will often determine role as well as class ability. If my thief has bracers of defense armor class zero, a displacer cloak, and a vorpal sword, you better believe my character can play the role of "front-line fighter." If I have a bandolier of healing potions at the ready, I can play a support role regardless of class! Cloaks of elvenkind and ropes of climbing can turn other adventurers into scouts and mechanics respectively.

Now back to the original question: as I said, nothing forces you to play a particular adventuring role, but A) certain character classes are better at certain roles, and B) there IS understood "pressure" from most gaming groups to fulfill the expectations of one's class and equipment inventory. Most of us feel it's fair to at least "give it a shot," right?

If you don't feel comfortable in the usual or expected role of your chosen class or feel your performance in that role was unsatisfying (to you! We're talking about your feelings), then it is possible that this particular class is not the right one for you.

Let me reiterate: I'm not saying, "Don't play something you suck at!" By all means, do so! If you like the role and the class, you will have fun and that's the Most Important's what keeps you coming back to the table and raving about the game to your friends. And you SHOULD experiment with different classes and different never know when you might find one that's The Perfect Fit and really gets your juices flowing.

But it IS something to consider. If you hate playing clerics because you're not in the mood to "support" anyone and you're unwilling to play the "second-line fighter" role while waiting for undead to show up so you can unleash Holy Hell...then DON'T PLAY A CLERIC. Even if the rest of your group says, "we need a cleric." Even if you roll an 18 Wisdom! Sell it down to raise that STR or INT or DEX or something...or leave it as is and be a wise fighter or magic-user or thief.

All right...that's enough for this post. I'll address the 3rd question (and talk about specific qualifications for specific classes) in Part 4 of this series.


  1. Are you certain Front-Line fighter=High AC (low is what you mean right AC3 or better)?

    Because if you will recall, you posted about our mutual experience that Plate equals DEATH.

  2. @ Grat: Ha! THAT post said plate and shield was excellent against single-attack opponents and good for "breaking up mob." What leads to death is thinking that plate and shield will save you from single combat with a cave bear!
    : )

    {by the way...edited the post to read "good armor class" which is what I intended. High or low depends on certain editions/clones. Thanks!)

  3. Combat would imply I was doing anything other than just standing there wondering when this pet's owner was going to show up...

  4. @ Grat:

    "You've got to know when to hold 'em...know when to fold 'em..."
    ; )