Roles, Optimization, and Building Characters in 4E

So, here’s the thing.

Back when 4E first came out, one of my friends and I had a conversation about the builds they present for each character class. He was talking about optimal builds for individual classes, and I was talking about options for creating the kind of character you want to play.

We had a bit of a disconnect over the issue, because we were coming from two different sets of assumptions, and weren’t really talking about the same things at all when we talked about building characters. He was coming from a World of Warcraft mindset, where there is* a right way and a wrong way to build a character that works in the system. I was coming at it from a tabletop game mindset, where there isn’t a right way and a wrong way to build a character as long as it fits with your concept.

One of the words my buddy would throw around was “optimized” and it’s various forms.

“I’m trying to optimize my fighter,” he would say.

“Optimize for what?” I’d ask.

He’d blink at me, and say, “Optimize him for being a fighter.”

I’d blink at him, and say, “He’s already a fighter.”

And round we’d go.

What he eventually bludgeoned into my skull was that, when he said “optimize,” he meant “choose the correct build elements to be the best at what the role entails.”

Which led me to ask, “Well, what do you want him to do?”

“I want him to be a good defender.”

And we were off again.

These sorts of discussions have led me to do a lot of thinking about the way you build characters in 4E, and what things the game seems to encourage.


I was very leery about the idea of roles in 4E. When people started talking about them online, I got nervous that they were going to be very restrictive, very rigid, and very limiting. The idea that each class would be slotted into one of only four party roles sounded way too much like a video game, where the limitations of the medium lead to a narrowly-defined play experience.

I like my pen-and-paper RPGs to be open, and rollicking, and full of choice. I like the rules to open up possibilities, not shut them down. I want the character concept of the player, and not the design limitations of the rules, to shape the build of the character. I didn’t want a bunch of cookie-cutter classes, where this class does exactly what that class does, but wears a different coloured hat.

So I was looking long and hard at the implementation of the roles in the PHB when it came out. And it turns out I didn’t find them limiting at all.

The thing that I discovered about the roles in play is that they are a useful starting point for your character. Each character tends to spread out from the primary role into at least one secondary role as they develop, which really increases the variety in characters of the same class. The PHB2 acknowledges this head on in the class write-ups, talking about which secondary roles the individual classes will fulfill the easiest.

For example, in my Storm Point game, I’ve got a fighter, a rogue, a cleric, a warlord, a ranger, and a swordmage. That’s two defenders, two leaders, and two strikers. But the fighter has concentrated on powers that let him move his opponents around the battlefield, giving him a strong secondary role as controller. The other defender, the swordmage, concentrates on movement and damage, giving him aspects of the striker. The cleric is doing his best to double as a striker, and the warlord, ranger, and rogue make good secondary defenders.

Now, the fighter is still best at his defender role – he gets up close and personal with the biggest, baddest enemy and whups it back and forth all over the battlefield, keeping it tied up and focused on him. He doesn’t do a lot of damage, and he doesn’t handle large numbers of enemies as well as a wizard would, but he’s got that monkey wrench ability that controllers have. The rogue easily dishes out more damage, but he tends to fall down a lot more if he gets caught in melee.

That’s just within one group of six players. The flexibility of the roles, and the way characters can be built to fulfill a secondary role** makes for a great deal of player choice and variety. And that’s not even getting into multiclassing.

So, like I said, the roles are a starting point, a place to begin with character creation, and it’s useful to understand what each one does. One of my worries, way back before the game was released, was that, with roles, I wouldn’t be able to play the swashbuckling fighter who relied on his agility and his rapier. And really, you can’t, using the fighter class. But if I look at the roles, I see that this concept fits the idea of the striker better than the defender, so I build the same character using the rogue class.

It’s a new way of thinking about it for me, but I’ve come to really like the idea of the roles. And the juxtaposition of role with power source gives a great way to differentiate between different classes that fulfill the same roll. The fighter and the swordmage are both defenders, but they play very differently. They feel very different. Even two arcane strikers, the warlock and the sorcerer, have a very different flavour.

And that’s all to the good.


Each character class offers a couple of builds for that class, listing feats, powers, class features, etc. that reinforce the idea of the build. I think that, as examples, they are very good for giving people ideas of what can be done with the different classes, and getting people to think about some of the synergies and combinations among the feats, powers, and features.

I don’t think they were presented very well, though.

In the class write-ups, the builds are presented in such a way as to make them seem like the only possibilities for that character class. You have to look in a section headed Creating a Character on page 52 of the PHB to actually see them explain that the builds are only suggestions, that they’re not meant to be a constraint, and that you don’t have to choose one.

With the experienced players in my Storm Point game, this wasn’t an issue. They tend to ignore anything that says they can’t create the kind of character they want, so the builds were viewed as suggestions or starting points only. Which is what they are.

In my other game, which started off as Scales of War, I had a number of newer players. If I hadn’t been careful to explain that they didn’t have to follow the build recommendations, they would have, and may have felt limited by it.

Just looking at powers alone, if a class has 4 At-Will, 4 Encounter, and 4 Daily powers available at first level, that’s 96 possible combinations at first level. Ninety-six. Not two. And then you have to factor in class features, feats, race, skills, weapon choice…

Don’t get me wrong. I think including the builds was a good idea to help people get started with the new rules. But I think that they would have been better handled if they were done like the examples of adventurers from the various races – illustrations of the kinds of things you can do as a fighter, cleric, wizard, whatever.

Which brings us to…


How do you optimize a character?

Well, what do you want your character to do?

There are a number of optimization threads on the official Wizards of the Coast message boards. These talk in detail about how to build the “best” fighter, or cleric, or what have you. They focus primarily on powers and feats that reinforce each other in order to provide synergies and compiled benefits.

What I like about these threads is that they have a multitude of different ideas for a given class. They have acknowledged and embraced the idea that there is no one right way to build a fighter; it all depends on what you want the fighter to do.

What I don’t like about these threads is not a problem with the threads, but a problem with the basics of the game design and the assumptions behind it. I’m going off on a little tangent here, so bear with me.

The majority of rules pertaining to characters are combat-oriented. Most of the 4E rules revolve around combat. The default assumption of the game is combat. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the focus is, sometimes, a little too narrow.

At this point, the primary non-combat resources your character has are skills, which are chosen once and then just level up with you, and rituals, which get a little more involved but are restricted to those with the Ritual Caster feat. Powers and most feats are focused entirely on combat, and the majority of magic items are, as well.

This means that most of the optimization threads are based on optimizing your character to do something well in combat. There isn’t a lot you can do to focus and specialize your character in non-combat abilities.

And that, I think, is a limitation. Sure, the primary activity in the default D&D game is combat against monsters. And sure, you want your character to be able to hold his or her own in a fight, and pull out some cool tricks. And 4E does the cool tricks so very well.

But I miss the ability to build a character with a focus elsewhere.

This is my idea of optimization – being able to craft the abilities of the character to fit with the concept you have for the character.

Now, I know you don’t need a lot of rules for the roleplaying bits of the game, and the skill challenge rules add some structure (and a consummate reward) to non-combat situations, but there just aren’t a lot of choices for characters to make among the feats, powers, and class features that apply outside of combat. At least, not compared to the combat choices.

Anyway. That’s the problem I have with the optimization threads.

Having said that, I think that optimization really starts with having a clear concept of what you want your character to be. A strong concept that you keep in mind can inform each of your choices, whether for power or feat or whatever, and help make the character more of what you want. The ideal character for you may not be the one that does the most damage, or has the best AC, or the most fire spells. It may be the one with the broadest range of different kinds of abilities, or with the strange weapon choice, or the most spoken languages.

Optimization means making the character fit what you want it to be, sometimes in spite of lack of support from the rules.

So, What’s Your Point?

My point is that, despite the fact that I really like 4E, on the surface it can lean a bit too much towards a combat system/MMORPG feel than I generally prefer in a game system. I find it’s important for me to keep in mind that the game is not what’s in the rulebooks: the game is what happens at the table. Rulebooks can have a huge influence on that, but the responsibility for what the game is ultimately lies with those of us who play it.

I find that I can do all the things I like to do in 4E. If some of it isn’t as supported by the rules as I might like, well, there are plenty of other things that make me happy about it. And plenty of other games to play for a change of pace.

When it comes to making characters, the rules should help you bring the concept in your mind to life. Every ruleset has some sorts of restrictions that can prevent you from perfectly fulfilling your ideal, and 4E is no different in that respect. It offers a wide range of choices and customizability in the area of the game that gets the most development in the rules***, and doesn’t completely ignore the areas that were not the developers’ focus.

But your character is your responsibility. Your fun is your responsibility. Come up with a character you want to play, and then find the rules that let you do it. Take all the advice you can get, but ignore anyone who says you aren’t doing it right.

Have fun playing, or you’re doing it wrong.



*As I understand it, anyway. I don’t play WoW. I have nothing against it, but I have enough trouble trying to fit all my other hobbies into my life.

**Maybe even a tertiary one? I dunno. I’m going to be watching for it as the game goes on.

***I.E. Combat. This makes sense, as it is a central aspect of the game, and one of the more slippery elements that benefits from extensive, detailed rules. 4E does a good job of building rules that help cover a variety of situations and encourage cinematic, exciting fantasy combat.

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4 Responses to Roles, Optimization, and Building Characters in 4E

  1. Erik says:

    The observation that noncombat “cool things” is an as-yet underdeveloped sphere is a very valid one, I think. However, I see nascent development in that direction with powers like the Bard encounter one that gives you +5 to your talky skills. Why do I think it’s significant that it’s an encounter power? In 4e, an “encounter” can be thought of as a “problem” to be resolved. Whatever’s contained within the set of the “problem” — a bunch of goblins, obstinate halflings with shivs, what have you — is all a part of the same “encounter.” Now here’s the thing that I don’t know has been baldly expressed as an assumption in 4e: while each discrete combat set piece is an “encounter,” not all “encounters” are combat set pieces. The group has to wheedle the local mayor into closing a bawdy house? Ah! A natural for a skill challenge. Which is an “encounter,” in that it is a set that contains a challenge that is to be resolved within itself. Therefore, the Bard’s +5 power to being a silvertongued honey-talker is an encounter power.

    Now, where this seems to show more room for development than has been explored so far is that there are, to my knowledge, considerably fewer powers that are useful outside of combat. I think there’s a warlock one that buffs intimidate (isn’t there? or am I just thinking of that magic item, the orb thing?); there’s the wizard at-will cantrips for doing things like conjuring a rose for a lady, making the sound of a glass breaking to increase tension in an inn, etc.; and there’s the various teleportation powers, which have use outside of combat. There’s probably another couple of “this skill gets this bonus” ones, now that I think of it, too.

    Anyway. Compared to the number of combat-only powers, the ones that are applicable outside combat form a very very small percentage of all powers. I mean, I play a fighter. What good is that I can hit something really, really hard with a hammer and get a healing surge when I need to convince the mayor? What have I got? I can go for intimidate, be athletic at him, or stand there and be really, really endurancey in his direction. So, intimidate it is, then. Or I keep my yap shut. Or the gm lets me blather on to try to be convincing in-character and sidesteps the mechanical portion of the interaction entirely. Should it count as a skill challenge then? I dunno. It’s up to the gm.

    There’s a wrinkle to this, of course: I’m a fighter, so of *course* I should want to fight. So what if I’ve only got intimidate to convince that mayor? Intimidate him! Scare whatever I want out of him, and if he calls the guards, so what? I’m a fighter! So, even if I’m unaligned or even good, and am a fighter, I have to be a bully, to work within the mechanical framework of skills, to influence people effectively outside of combat? This has never sat well with me, so I thought
    “maybe you can use intimidate to just, like, impress someone with your physical might and have them think ‘wow this dude is tough, I bet he *can* do [whatever]'”. Turns out, nope. Right from the PHB description of the skill, it’s “deadly persuasion”. So what happens? The GM and I handle it on the fly, no dice hit the table, and good roleplaying happens and sometimes the party even gets XP out of it. Good game.

    I think the core problem arises when trying to put rules around roleplaying and around the parts of the game that don’t fit inside the simple “did I hit you, how bad did I hurt you, are you dead yet” framework offered by combat. It’s not fatal, and it’s not a criticism of 4e; it’s just an observation. There’s a lot of baaaaw about 4e “feeling like an MMO”, and I think it’s pretty much a load of hooey. Why does it feel like that? I say because of power and selection from a finite, defined set of choices, and using those powers in what can feel like a very “press button to do this now” kind of way — but only because the framework in which the whole transaction occurs is so much cleaner and *evident* now. Instead of “I swing my scimitar at him,” you use the language of the game at your target: “uhhh, melee basic, I guess,” or “I Tide of Iron this guy over to here.” It’s the *same* thing, but the language *feels* different. If you play the game, you get used to it, and there’s a lot of good in there made possible by how clear and how smooth the rules can be. But that’s all beside the point for me. There’s a single reason why 4e can’t be accused of becoming an MMO: I can talk to people who aren’t players, and what they can and can’t do is wide-open. *That’s* where story happens, and *that’s* what MMOs cannot do (at least for the forseeable future). What the gm does and what the players do shapes and changes the entire world and the entire story the party participates in. *That’s* why I play D&D.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    I think you raise some valid points in the above. What I’m really bemoaning is the lack of in-game tools that support non-combat functionality.

    I mean, sure, we have a smattering of powers and magic items with out-of-combat potential. Then we have the skills and the skill challenge mechanic (which is a big step forward, IMHO, though I think it’s evolving into even more flexible and fun forms). And we have the rituals, which are slowly filling in some of the functionality.

    Okay, the argument can be made that the in-combat tool sets are as limited – we have powers, weapons, armour, and magic items. But the sets of powers and magic items with combat application are much, much larger than the ones with out-of-combat application.

    Rituals have the potential to take up a lot of the slack on the magical side of the equation, especially if we expand what we think of as rituals to allow martial rituals, as I discussed in another post. But I think that giving more tools – not necessarily more systems – to support non-combat options is a good idea.

    Now, you raise the point above, and it’s a good point, about the undesirability of wrapping role-playing elements in systems and dice rolling. I think that, sometimes, even just making things a skill challenge goes to far that way. It’s not really a new set of rules to augment the game that I’m looking for. But what about using Hallucinatory Terrain to hide an army? Or Mirage Arcana to make a hovel look like a palace inside in order to impress a date? Sure, you can say, “Well, the GM and I handle it on the fly,” but I’m the GM, and sometimes I’d like an expanded toolset so that every time the situation comes up it’s not a one-off choice for me.

    None of which has much to do with the main point of my post, which is about building characters. 😉

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