This is the fourth of my ten-part series of articles, in which I look at the Design & Development articles released in the early part of Fourth Edition. This article examines the articles penned by Rob Heinsoo, the driving force behind, and the person most identified with, the development of Fourth Edition. Please feel free to add coments below, or in the related discussion thread.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford
3. James Wyatt
4. Rob Heinsoo
5. Peter Schaefer and Matthew Sernett
6. Bruce R. Cordell
7. Chris Sims
8. Rich Baker and Logan Bonner
9. Stephen Radney-McFarland
10. Andy Collins
In addition to the article titled Death Matters (which he co-authored with James Wyatt as described in the previous article), and an article called Monsters! Monsters! that he co-authored with Peter Schaefer, which I will describe in my next article, Rob Heinsoo is credited with three articles: PC Roles, Warlock, and Warlord. Let's examine each of these three articles...
PC Roles, by Rob Heinsoo
Summary: This article is very up front about what the design goal is for PC Roles. Heinsoo writes as follows:
"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."
Heinsoo related the story of his third edition multiclass fighter/bard who he felt was underpowered because the bard class lacked focus. Like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, he vowed that no class would ever go hungry again.
Heinsoo then addressed the "party role", which we all today recognize as controller, defender, leader, and striker, roles that were buried in prior editions, but would now be brought to the fore, giving each class focus and purpose, and encouraging teamwork.
Heinsoo stressed that party roles were "crucial" but not "necessary", such that one could have a party lacking a leader or a controller, or even a party of all defenders.
Evaluation: The edition hewed very closely to this design parameter through most of its run. Every class had an expressly stated party role and its mechanics covered that role very closely. Strikers struck. Defenders defended. Leaders led. Controllers did whatever didn't fit into the first three.
Result: The party role forced a party to engage in in teamwork in a way that had never been accomplished in previous editions. The notion of "party optimization" -- building an entire party around exploiting one another's powers, was a new phenomenon in Fourth, giving us terms like the "radiant mafia". Personally, my players -- even those not so crazy about 4e -- really enjoyed the teamwork aspect of 4e. Like never before, teamwork really paid off and it created a feeling of camaraderie never captured so well in any prior edition.
But the party role also had a high cost. Tying role to class limited iconic character concepts. A heavy armored striker would have to be cobbled together with multiclassing, a rogue taking certain feats, reflavoring some other class, or totally CharOpping the heck out of a fighter. While people -- myself included -- pointed out that the party role had been with us since the first four classes (fighting man/defender, thief/striker, cleric/leader, and magic-user/controller) were introduced, that was not entirely true. The thief was more of a noncombat specialist (except for his fabled backstab) and the fighter was more of a striker than a defender whose only defensive maneuver was to find a choke-point and stand in it.
It caused some other issues as well. The power source-class role grid was born. The Quest for the mythical martial controller began. People stopped looking at a class as a narrative tool and saw it as a generic bundle of manifested abilities created at the juncture of a party role and a power source. The "story" of the game began to be subsumed by the mechanics of the game, which increasingly required heavier and heavier layers of reflavoring spackle to make it appear narrative.
Conclusion: The designers of Next do not seem as concerned with party roles. To the extent they do seem to be concerned, their concern is merely to allow players the tools to build a character with a specific role in mind. Spell and maneuver lists are designed so that a character can select elements that allow them to focus on one or more roles, and perhaps even switch rolls as needed.
In the end, perhaps Heinsoo's Third Edition fighter-bard did not suffer because of a lack of party role focus. Perhaps it suffered because the fighter and bard are each roundly considered two of the most underpowered classes in Third Edition, and combining them simply exacerbated the class design issues of that edition. Heinsoo's problem would be solved by a more rigorous application of party parity, not the inclusion of party roles. I hope the designers of Next have finally learned that lesson. However, I equally fear that the heyday of teamwork mechanics may be past; we are returning to adventurers as individuals in a team, rather than a team of individuals.
Warlock, by Rob Heinsoo
Summary: While nominally about the warlock class, this article is really introducing the customers to one of the truly innovative concepts introduced in Fourth Edition: at-will powers for all. Here is how Heinsoo introduced the concept (boldface emphasis is mine):
"Coming out of Complete Arcane, the [warlock] class's chief innovation had been its eldritch blast ability, which provided unlimited arcane firepower round after round after round. After some initial shock, everyone admitted that the warlock's eldritch blast didn't break the game. The class's ability to maintain relevant arcane attack power, instead of running out of finite resources like a wizard, had a great deal of influence on our early thoughts about 4th Edition. We understood that the warlock didn't have to be the exception. All of our classes might be improved by having abilities they could count on all day long."
In the end of the article, Heinsoo also described the standard he uses to determine if a class design is successful: "From the perspective of lead designer, it's easy to see when a class is working out. I just have to notice the ease with which the designers and developers create cool mechanics for it."
Evaluation: Every class did get at-will powers and that was one of the great equalizers of the edition. No longer was a wizard required to be a crossbowman for the first few levels of his career. He could feel like the wielder of the arcane from day one, while still looking forward to steady increases in arcane power as levels increased. Even when essentials began to play with the encounter and daily powers, the at-will remained a cornerstone of 4e class design.
Result: The at-will power was a general success. It made the crossbow-wielding wizard (or dart-wielding magic-user in AD&D) all but extinct. And while at-wills were never powerful enough to stop the "nova" scenario or the five-minute working day, it did allow a player to always feel that his character was present and contributing in a thematically appropriate way. At no point did a wizard have to feel like an incompetent warrior. Every combat action felt wizardly.
I did notice one downside to the at-will power. The at-will power tended to inhibit imrovisation in combat. 4e probably offered mechanics that made improvising in combat as easy as it had ever been in D&D, with an easy reference chart to allow DMs to set Skill check DCs and even improvised damage amounts. But the at-will powers were so thematically appropriate and sufficiently powerful, that you always felt like you sacrificed something if you tried to improvise. Moreover, the power list as a whole created a mindset of disregarding anything not on your list. Why have powers if you can improvise the same thing? If the improvisation was less effective than a power (in order to not trivialize the at-will powers), then improvising was less effective than at-will powers, and thus you should always use an at-will. This is a difficult conundrum, for me particularly, as I enjoy at-will powers very much and do not want them to disappear, but, at the same time, am a firm advocate for encouraging players to improvise.
Conclusion: The at-will power is staying in the game. We have not yet seen rules for improvisation in combat. Right now, we are encouraged simply to use Ability checks like we did in 1e. But still I am seeing the same problem. People will go to their at-will powers and only very reluctantly ever attempt an improvised action. Power lists inhibit improvisation, but they also increase immersion. This is a difficult dilemma and one I'm not sure can be solved.
Warlord, by Rob Heinsoo
Summary: The warlord class was first introduced in the game by Heinsoo and this article reveals that it is his personal project. While nominally patterned after the Marshal class established in Third Edition's Miniatures Handbook, the warlord class is quite different in effectiveness and practice.
Heinsoo identified three traits that would define the warlord: (i) directing damage, (ii) assisting allies, and (iii) granting actions. Directing damage means that the warlord can choose an enemy and make it more worthwhile for his allies to focus fire on that enemy. Assisting allies means, generally, that the class is a leader and focused more on powers that buff or boost allies than on himself. Granting actions is self-explanatory and, to me, the one quality that differentiates the warlord from other leaders.
Important note: martial healing is not mentioned anywhere in the article. It obviously falls under the broad category of "assisting allies", but was not mentioned there. Heinsoo, apparently, did not feel that Inspiring Word would define the class.
Evaluation: The warlord obviously filled the niche it set out to fill. Warlords have many powers that direct damage, assist allies, and grant actions. I am a huge warlord fan. To me, warlord may be the single best contribution that Fourth Edition made to D&D.
Result: A lot of people had problems with the warlord and it receives quite a bit of grumbling from fans of prior editions. The warlord supplanted the place of other iconic and traditional classes, such as bard and druid. The inspiring word power, and other martial powers that grant healing, grated on a lot of people's sensibilities. Walord is beloved by many (myself included), but also viewed upon with suspicion by others.
Conclusion: We have yet to see how the warlord will eventually fare. Will it survive in 5e? Will it be subsumed into the fighter? Mearls and Wyatt have been rather tepid on the warlord and have been uncertain that it has earned a spot in the new edition. Yet many others have drawn a line in the sand. If the warlord is not in the edition as a full class, it will confirm for them that fans of Fourth Edition are not welcome. As much as I hate ultimatums, it would take a lot to convince me to join Next if Warlord were demoted to a specialty or paragon path, or just a series of fighter maneuvers.
Overview: The first thing I learned about Rob Heinsoo is that he really enjoys basketball analogies. Both the PC Roles and Warlord articles use them, and in ways that require you to be very familiar with basketball to understand.
But also, I learned that Heinsoo has a very mechanics-focused outlook. In each of his discussions of 4e, he discusses mechanics, and he gives us very little hint of the story that those mechanics are supposed to or might portray. The article on Death and Dying is not trying to mimic any fantasy trope -- it's just trying to find mechanics that make a fun game. The Warlock article gives a nod to the notion of someone who sold his soul by tying the class to the tiefling, but overall, the pact is not described as having any real cost -- rather the fun of the pact is that it shapes all those neat-o at-will powers. The Warlord article offers no literary or historical basis for the class -- even though examples are manifold -- and simply describes the class as an agglomeration of mechanics. PC Roles is entirely a description of mechanics, eschewing any notion that classes are story-based. And as we'll see next week, the Monsters! Monsters! article also focuses on the mechanics of monsters, not the story behind them. (Contrast this with the focus of Wyatt's ongoing Wandering Monsters series, which barely touches upon mechanics and is all about the story.)
Heinsoo was all about the mechanics, at least in designing 4e. This led to a mathematically tight game, but his concentration came at the expense of story elements. It resulted in alienating the fans who bought D&D as much for the story as for the gaming. Next is clearly trying to focus the game back on the story, and "story" seems to be one of the most commonly used words in all the articles describing the design and development of Next. My hope is that their focus on story does not swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, leading us back to wildly unbalanced mechanics, trap builds, and unplayable options.
Next week we will not entirely abandon Rob Heinsoo, for he co-authored one additional article with Peter Schaefer who, along with Matthew Sernett will be the focus of our next article.