4e: Strong Defenders

There’s a hole in the tanks.

That is, the defender characters you can play in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. The classes in 4e have roles that come with standard packages so that the DM can reliably expect any given party to be able to handle threats in general. I’ve talked about how great roles are in the past, but also in that same article I was talking about the way roles and methods are intertwined, and how you defender shouldn’t be determined by that you defender.

Glossary Note: Conventionally, the term used in D&D for this mechanical package is race. This is the typical term, and in most conversations about this game system, the term you’re going to wind up using is race. For backwards compatibility and searchability, I am including this passage here. The term I use for this player option is heritage.

Setting aside Hybrid designs, there are eight Defender classes available to player characters. Of these eight, two are a variant of one another. First, there’s the Fighter, split into the knight and the class that the official rules insist on calling the Weaponmaster but which is just the fucking Fighter. Second, there’s Paladins, and their variant, the Cavalier. Finally, I guess, you can allow in the Barbarian’s Berserker variant, which is definitely a defender, but it’s weird that someone felt the need to bring it in at all. What that means is that of those eight classes, three of them are very, very similar to other classes, bringing the ‘real’ count of Defenders down a bit to six.

The way cultures work in 4e D&D, everyone has a stat that they’re better at than the others, guaranteed. Every dwarf has a constitution bonus, every dragonborn has a charisma bonus, that kinda thing. And the way that’s set up, it means that for most roles you have an option that that particular group is biased towards taking up. Dragonborns make great Paladins, great Sorcerers, great Bards, and great Binders, which means there’s a starting point for Dragonborns in each of the four class roles.

So you see, six is a great number of defenders to hit. There are six stats after all. In a vision of the world where people will gravitate towards the classes that meet their needs best, six different defenders could each focus on a different primary stat, and therefore, every culture, no matter where, would have a defender they’re most likely to see.

But they don’t.

Because there are six defenders, six primary stats, and those defenders have as their primary stats choices, intelligence, constitution, charisma, strength, strength, strength, strength, strength, or strength. Fully two thirds of all the options you have to build with are strength-based, with only one defender having two options (the Paladin) and one of their primary stat options is also strength. Cultures that get a strength bonus are therefore favoured for defender roles, which is a weird mismatch to all the other roles.

It’s not that you don’t have a lot of options for a defender — there are 18 different heritage options that can have a strength bonus, but then there are 37 other cultures that don’t. A defender is, statistically, going to value a high strength, even in a game system that for almost everything else allows you to express a role in a lot of different ways across a wide variety of cultures.

I am not a fan of this, and I’m especially not a fan of how the defenders tend to replicate the needs of one another. Where is the lightly armoured dexterity tank who manipulates foes into position through situational awareness? Somewhere in the development of 4e, there was a failure of imagination that left that kind of option on the cutting room floor.

There are a few options for fixing this, depending on scale of effort involved.

Option one is a heritage variants. I like this a lot because largely, these can be done in vague, gestural ways. The whole point of Martial characters is that they’re meant to represent a skillset available to almost everyone with interest in the training and discipline, so being able to go ‘hey, Elf Fighters have these special rules which is their specific incentive to pick up Fighter even if they might be pulled towards other classes.’

Back in 3.5 we used to do this with ‘substitution levels’ where you cut out features that didn’t work well for a heritage and instead jammed in something more fitting. I liked this, especially as it gave me a way to instil a bit more specific flavour for a particular type of heritage, and an interesting different way to express their mechanics. A strength based heritage that don’t have any way to get an intelligence bonus wants to be a wizard? well, to not handicap them while not making them better at it than any other intelligence culture, I gave them the ability to cast spells with strength but only on themselves, representing the ability to force magic through themselves.

This is an option in 4e too, but it can feel… off, somewhat. It can feel weird to present a variant class that’s heritage-specific, in a game system that almost completely avoids that kind of thing. Almost. And it can feel a bit constraining to design a variant of a class that doesn’t have an exciting pull to it. Like ‘oh, a fighter, but everything cares about int except strength,’ that can feel a bit dull.

Something Fox did with her Awakened heritage was the feat Lion of War, which lets you use your Charisma in place of Strength for all Awakened Warlord powers. This is really exciting because it lets you double-dip on your attack-and-rider, but it also is spending a feat to be about as good as a character who didn’t have to spend the feat in the first place and you don’t have the other advantages of that strength stat.

The biggest, most elaborate and hardest option is to just… make a few more defenders. And yeah, a few more – this isn’t a problem you solve with just one class. There’s no Wisdom Defender or Dexterity Defender, but also the Constitution Defender is the Battlemind (who needs help) and the Charisma defender is the Paladin’s Charisma build (which needs help).

The funny thing is, this isn’t to say that any of the defenders are that bad. Defenders in 4e are pretty reliably great! Even the one that struggles the most, the Battlemind, can do a lot of cool things and you’ll usually find yourself able to do the job the game wants of you! It’s just strange that for a game with options for muscle wizards and shouting healers, defenders are so heavily biased towards one stat.