Mailbag 1 – Character Contortion

(C) Wizards of the Coast and the ArtistHere’s the first question from the mailbag. Jon Hixson asks:

How do you deal with players new to 4e who want to run characters that the system doesn’t support? I’ve got one player coming from 3e who wants to run a “Buffing/Utility wizard who does very little damage.” There’s really not a lot of buffing powers outside of the leader classes (and the “buffs” are fairly short term and small), and not a lot of utility outside of rituals. Considering every power does some form of damage, and pawning this player off on a cleric is unlikely, I’m not sure what to say.

Here’s the first essential step to overcoming this problem–stop equating class name with what the character is in the game world. I’ve heard players say, “Boy, I miss druids being able to use healing spells.” Well, I play a 5th-level druid, and she can heal as just about well as any 3e druid of her level. See, she’s a multiclassed bard. In the game world I play in (Jeremy Crawford’s Oberon campaign) her social title is “druid.” But that would be her title even if her class were wizard. If I had wanted to emphasize healing and retain the “primal” feel, the shaman class would have suited that purpose just fine.

I also allow my players to customize the narrative appearance of their character and powers to support character concepts. For instance, the shaman class talks about primal spirits, emphasizing animals. Those spirits can just as easily be ancestor spirits and stay well within the intent and description of the primal power source. But, in your own home game, you don’t even have to be beholden to the power source description. I’ve seen a player create a deva “shaman” whose spirit powers were manifestations of her own past lives. In the game world, she was not identified as primal or a shaman. In my Dark Sun campaign, the shaman is a dwarf “animist” who calls primarily on ancient dwarf ancestor spirits. Mechanically, he’s a bear shaman–but bears don’t exist in my Dark Sun campaign. The classifications exist only to define the character for the player with reference to the rules, rather than to define the character in the world.

Some players want the character’s performance to be a complete match to concept at 1st level. That’s rarely possible in any roleplaying game. The concept solidifies only after the character advances to a certain point. That’s cool, in my mind, because the character (in the game world) might have the ambitions the concept embodies (in the player’s mind in the metagame). Like anyone with an ambitious agenda, the character is unable to express the full extent of that ambition yet. That’s a roleplaying opportunity.

As an aside, and not meaning to be snarky, one also has to go with game. What I mean by this is some concepts don’t match the tenor of a game. The 4e D&D game is high heroic fantasy that emphasizes beating monsters and overcoming obstacles. Other editions of the D&D game had the same core concept.

All that buildup is so I can say that a character who doesn’t pull his or her weight in a fight doesn’t belong in a typical D&D game in any edition. A character needs to be able to do some damage. Further, in 4e, the nature of most effects is “short-term and small.” The fact that the buffing powers work that way shouldn’t trouble anyone. They have their intended effect within the game’s framework.

Enough with the philosophy, though.

It’s clear to me your player actually wants to be in the leader role, probably without being beholden to the other meanings of “leader.” Arcane magic power is also part of his or her goal. I’d recommend he or she start with the bard class. Emphasize the Cunning Bard build, along with Charisma (obviously) and Intelligence (for the AC and Reflex, as well as multiclassing into the wizard class). Wear leather armor–it can look like fancy, heavy robes. Choose implement powers, focusing on those that help allies or hinder foes in place of higher damage. The character already has the Ritual Caster feat, so I’d recommend multiclassing into wizard immediately. For this player, I suspect a desire for wizard cantrips, so I’d allow access to the cantrips in place of the at-will power Arcane Initiate grants. I’d even grant training in a wizard class skill instead of Arcana, since bards already have access to Arcana, but I’m generous. Along the lines of my “narrative appearance” philosophy, I’d allow the player to ignore the “music magic” aspect of the bard, allowing the player to describe power effects “in-game” as he or she desires. I’d probably ask for a general description of power usage as part of the creation process.

There are other ways to solve the problem, such as a hybrid bard/wizard. My feeling is that full-fledged leader-role character is what this player is really looking for. The freedom to customize should result in something close to his or her desires, if not an exact fit. This sort of nonmechanical customization should be encouraged anyhow, and it often solves the problem you speak of.


  1. A great question and I really like how you’ve addressed the answer Chris. I’m right there with you on not sticking to the strict names of classes and how people expect them to function. Last year at GenCon Keith Baker talked to us about re-working classes like the Shaman to fit into the Eberron campaign setting in very interesting ways.

    That said, I’m surprised you didn’t go with the other Arcane Leader – Artificer. You could pretty easily strip the class of it’s “mechanical” emphasis and instead make it feel very much like a leader-wizard.

  2. Good answer. My own inclination would have been to go with a hybrid Wizard/Bard as you suggest, but reskinning the Bard wholesale is probably a better solution in the end.

    My own experience with this is from a player who wanted a lightly armoured spear-fighter. In the end we settled with the Rogue class, spending a Feat to grant use of the Spear with Powers which required a light blade. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory (he’d have preferred to lose the Sneak Attack in return for enhanced mobility) but at it was for a one-shot session, it was good enough to run with.

    I’d still kill for a decent spear-fighter class though…….. 😀
    .-= greywulf´s last blog ..The Long Good Friday Render Dump =-.

  3. Chris. All that stuff I know well. I’m well aware of the whole idea of not requiring the class name to define the class – I am big on considering the Shaman a Necromancer or Fearmancer.

    All that buildup is so I can say that a character who doesn’t pull his or her weight in a fight doesn’t belong in a typical D&D game in any edition. A character needs to be able to do some damage. Further, in 4e, the nature of most effects is “short-term and small.” The fact that the buffing powers work that way shouldn’t trouble anyone. They have their intended effect within the game’s framework.

    Considering this player is one of those “I would rather play a character built for Non-Combat and not contribute at all to a fight” heavy Roleplayer, telling him the above I don’t think would make me friends. I’m trying to introduce these guys to 4e, not tell them “This is how it is, don’t like it, get out”.

    Also, I have been singing the praises of the Bard. But the Bard suffers from the fact that it’s called the Bard, and no matter what you reskin it as or how GOOD the class is, people associate Bard = Singing and Playing the Lute in a fight. I’ve played 3 bards thus far, and regardless I hit the wall of my GROUP MEMBERS assuming/joking I’m a singy guy when I can’t stand the singing, music-playing archetype. I just love the class.

  4. Rechan: In my opinion the best solution is – make a bard, but write “Wizard” on the character sheet. If any of the powers, abilities, or spells talk about singing or music just re-write it to be more like what a wizard would do instead. Problem: solved. 🙂

    With regards to the non-damaging thing, as a DM I’d be completely open to swapping out / giving up damage dice from a power to instead have it give a better boost, or to increase the player’s next healing ability by the amount of damage that would be dealt. These types of solution may vary in how they work for you or your gaming group, but I love things like this.

  5. highbulp says:

    @greywulf: I too love spear-fighters (particularly double-handed longspears, I’m not so much into the 300-esque sword-n-spear). I’ve found that I can get pretty good results for what I want with the Fighter class when using things like Footwork Lure (along with feats that give extra shifts on at-wills)–I move around some and constantly rearrange the battlefield.

    For your “lightly-armored, mobile” spear-fighter, have you considered the Barbarian? Lightly armored, moves a lot (charging), and they’re actually quite good with spears. Monks now can also use spears, and they’re all about mobility.

  6. I think the ranger (Possibly the new Maurader ranger) would work well for a light armored spear fighter. But the barbarian is a good go.

    @Bartoneus, I have actually suggested the artificer. I’m presenting the player with 3 pregens for a training/rules learning session, an invoker, an artificer and a warlock.

  7. Another solution if you’re looking for an arcane leader that isn’t a bard is the artificer from the Eberron Player’s Guide (which you can also get through DDI and the character builder). The artificer is all about buffs, in that he enchants peoples’ weapons and armor a lot, and feels a bit more like a wizard than the bard does.
    .-= Brian Engard´s last blog ..Encounter Roles =-.

  8. Michelle says:

    Do you think WotC will ever add that class to 4e? It’s easy to say that every character MUST do damage, but a lot harder to justify. If you can do it with a few powers (Astral Seal, etc.) you can do it for an entire class. Note: if I were designing the class, I’d make sure there were a few damaging powers for use in dire emergency situations or when the character has no companions, even if it were just a damaging basic attack with a decent stat.

  9. All that buildup is so I can say that a character who doesn’t pull his or her weight in a fight doesn’t belong in a typical D&D game in any edition. A character needs to be able to do some damage.

    I don’t know that this is true. 3rd edition traded off skill-points with combat abilities. The more useful in a fight, the fewer skill points you had. Wizards could be built either way, as cannons or utility knives. You could have a very good skill-focused campaign and characters that had key skills but not high combat.

    This all disappeared in 4e. Every class has roughly the same level of skill competence, if in different areas. Every class has roughly the same level of combat utility, too. It’s very good for running in a style that keeps everyone involved, all the time. There’s a style I’ve long played in where chunks of a run would focus on one or two players, who had the requisite skills to do some task. Everyone would get their turn, I’m not complaining, but 4e isn’t meant to support that kind of skill depth.

    A GM can support the feel of individuation of a character though, by letting them have “5-minute” solos, perhaps in the context of a skill challenge.

    It may be that what your player wants is to focus on strategy and leverage rather than on BLAM BLAM BLAM! I’ve been there. Bards with lots of forced-movement powers are like this. Warlords are like this. “Leader” isn’t really a great name for the archetype.
    .-= Toldain´s last blog ..First Time Ever at This Energy! =-.

  10. I like the direction that 4E is going, and Chris pointed out here just how malleable the game system truly is. Between multiclassing and the PHB3 hybrids, Players should be able to achieve some really unique Character configurations, and shouldn’t let themselves be tied down to the title across the top of the sheet.

    D&D 4E has the tools Players need to bring their “concept character” to life now, all we have to do as DMs is be a little flexible and welcoming to the idea.

    And I liked your reference to the Dark Sun Animist Shaman. I played a similar one recently at PAX East, and decided my character’s spirit companion resembled a large multi-legged lizard, not unlike a basilisk, which fit the desert world of Athas better than a bear or a cat would.
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Review of Underdark by Wizards of the Coast =-.

  11. Great advice! It is a pity that this player won’t play a cleric, because the Pacifist Cleric from divine power fits perfectly with his mechanical requirements. I’d try reskinning that build to use the arcane power source and see if the player accepted – it would feel ‘wizardy’ enough for a 3E player, with the ‘laser’ ranged powers and ritual training. All that healing might ruin it for the player, but every leader class, arcane or not, has the same ‘problem’.

    A more acceptable solution might be a hybrid of wizard and cleric. There is still that undesired divine element lying around, but the player could just focus on the arcane side, from a flavor point of view. Making the character worship a god of magic like Corellon could make the clerical side more palatable, too. The cool thing about this build is that the cleric part can cover the need for ‘buffs’, while the wizard half can actually have only non-damaging powers. Just have Astral Seal and Storm Pillar (which is indirect enough to not count as a ‘real’ attack) as at-wills, and take anything without a damage roll for the remaining slots.
    .-= psikus´s last blog ..Broken Bits: Black Dragons =-.

  12. Has anyone considered allowing the player and DM to come up with a few original buffing powers?

    The player in me says, “Hell yeah!”
    The old DM in me says, “No, play within the rules like everyone else, and reflavor whatever you want.”
    The new DM in me says, “Hmmm. I’m trying to say yes, but it might be more work than it’s worth.”

    Anyone else have thoughts on that?

    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Clawspawn, a Demon – Steal this Monster =-.

  13. Chris Sims says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I appreciate the discussion. Please remember: I might not agree with you, but I do respect your positions. I’m not trying to suggest there’s a “right way” to play the D&D game, either. The game does cleave to it’s core conceit for its design path, and going against that conceit can make playing more difficult.

    No Artificer: By way of explanation, I try to limit my word count to a reasonable level for fear of readers not being willing to read. I need a cap. I didn’t mention the artificer for that reason. I also didn’t mention the artificer, because I didn’t want to assume Jon (Rechan?) had campaign supplements or access to D&D Insider. I wholeheartedly agree that the artificer is another viable choice.

    I suggested bard because it’s super flexible and allows crazy multiclass combos that can make the character very, very utilitarian.

    greywulf: The ranger can be an awesome spear fighter, especially if you can talk your DM into treating the spear like a double weapon that is spear at one end and quarterstaff at the other. Should you have to take a feat to use that weapon as a double weapon? Yes. The feat could define the “double weapon” as a spear/staff, d8/d8, primary end defensive and stout, secondary end off-hand. About as good as a dire flail, although I haven’t checked for possible synergy problems with other feats. Add a magic javelin, and you’re good to go even with ranger ranged powers.

    The barbarian, as highbulp says, is also a good choice, although I’d probably choose a reach spear.

    Rechan: See Toldain’s response below for more on the core conceit of the game. I didn’t suggest you tell him to get out if he doesn’t like it. It is important to acknowledge that if a game’s core conceit doesn’t match your play style, you have to alter your play style, do a lot of work to bring the game closer to your play style, or choose another game that matches your style.

    I don’t mean to be harsh, and this isn’t aimed at you or your friends, but rather a general response to some things you’ve said. Someone who can’t get past the name something has mechanically to create something else he or she wants nonmechanically doesn’t sound like a serious roleplayer to me. Also, I’ve never seen group members make fun of a player or character because of his or her class name, especially if the player plays the character in a way different from the class’s core assumptions. Making fun of someone that way is a show of immaturity and disrespect, two things I’d leave a game over if they didn’t stop quickly. It’s also pretty darn poor roleplaying. Bartoneus might be on the right track in that such players just need to be told “wizard” when they ask your class.

    You can swap damage for increased effect, but doing so in a balanced way can be very difficult to balance. Leaders are already lower-damage, increased-effect types.

    The warlock is poor choice for this player, and so is any controller like the high-damage-potential wizard. The artificer is fine.

    Michelle: No, WotC won’t. It goes against the core conceit of the game. It also doesn’t follow that a whole class can be nondamaging just because a few (questionable, as Astral Seal is) powers are. See Toldain’s response below for more on the core conceit of the game.

    Toldain: I stand by my assertion that the core conceit of the game is high heroic fantasy that emphasizes beating monsters and overcoming obstacles. This means your character has to have some combat effectiveness, or you or your DM will have some work to do to accommodate the character in the game. In the design process of 4e, it was a known issue that 3e contained numerous “false choices” that could lead to building an ineffective character, on purpose or by accident. (Part of the issue came from NPCs, monsters, PCs being built on the same chassis. You have elements designed to help build the statistics of a commoner mixed in with elements for heroes.) It was also a stated design goal for 4e to minimize such false choices and the system damage they can cause. (Execution of this ideal was not completely successful.) The division of utility powers from combat powers was one way this design goal was supported–so, for instance, a character couldn’t have all the wrong spells prepared.

    I don’t know if 3e is better for running a “skill-focused campaign,” mostly because I don’t really know what that means. I do know that even in 3e, combat ability was closely tied to how good you could be with a skill because of the leveling system. I also know that another core conceit 3e and 4e share is the idea that the players share the spotlight as much as possible.

    Evidence fails to support the idea that of skill effectiveness “balanced” with combat ability in 3e. Rogues, for instance, are very skillful in 3e, and quite effective in combat. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the point?

    I agree that “leader” isn’t necessarily a great name for the buff/heal role. (I’d like to hear alternatives.) Regardless of the name, though, it seems to me, by Jon’s description, that leader is what this player really wants to play.

    psikus: Reskinning the pacifist cleric might indeed work. A hybrid of wizard and any leader might also work.

    Tourq: New DM has a point, only because I’m betting that existing combinations can satisfy this player. The player and DM have real work cut out for them if they both really want a character that deals little to no damage in combat. That’s only because the game isn’t designed to accommodate such a character easily.

  14. I think one of the points that this issue bumps into is the idea that in a game like 4e where there are lots of options and new rulebooks are released to increase the number of supported concepts (like Tempest fighter in Martial Power), it becomes difficult to get out of that box. Clearly, there are a number of options that have the official seal of approval, while others are in that gray area (spear Rangers, whip Rogues, etc.) It may very well be that there’s no problem with those concepts, and it’s easy to change, but without having the same level of system mastery as the designers, we don’t really know, and it’s just easier to wait for the Dragon article about it. Plus, then there’s the whole character builder issue on things that actually change the rules. Calling a Bard a Wizard and reflavoring the powers avoids these issues, but there’s still some part of my brain that says “they’ll release a secondary leader role Wizard build someday in Arcane Power 2!”

  15. You could go with the Alchemist feat. Might be interesting for this build if you like de-buffs as much as buffs. Beastbane, poison, blinding bombs, sleeping potions, traps…

    Plus, add quick-draw and you’re a healer. If your DM is coughing up some cash, add whetstones and regents into the mix for a super-versatile trickster.

  16. Chris Sims says:

    The Game: These are good points, but I don’t think anyone should wait to try out a cool concept. Of course, the work necessary might be prohibitive, which has been one of my main points.

    Froggy: Alchemy does provide some interesting options, too. Thanks for mentioning it.


  1. […] Mailbag 1 – Character Contortion I love this post by Chris because it illustrates the dangers of a race+class+feats=character formula of thinking. It locks people into certain stereotypes that they have a hard time getting out of. This is why I’m a huge fan of skill-based, classless systems like Hero and GURPS. My own system that I’ve created is a classless system, though I do have a section on “templates” that helps give a creative compass to those people that really need a class to define their character around. In the end, if you’re stuck in a class-based system and you want to play a thief with druidic powers, then by all means write “druid” down in the class slot, and then steal everything in sight that you can. There’s nothing stopping you from doing this… except your own imagination. […]