In original D&D, thieves ranked as the least effective character on the battlefield. However, when the party explored, thieves took the biggest role. Early D&D players spent most of their time exploring, so who cared if thieves only rarely saw a chance to backstab?
In fourth edition, such a trade off would never suffice. The edition was optimized to allow characters to show off stunts and powers in dynamic fights. Designer Rob Heinsoo wrote of the perspective he gained playing a 3E bard and “singing from offstage, reminding everyone not to forget the +1 or +2 bonuses.” Heinsoo resolved to keep all 4E characters onstage. In the Design & Development article PC Roles, he wrote, “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.”
This goal led to the creation of character class roles.
In Wizards Presents Races and Classes, Rich Baker wrote, “One of the first things we decided to tackle in redesigning D&D’s character classes was identifying appropriate class roles. in other words, every class should have all the tools it needs to fill a specific job in the adventuring party.”
To make sure that all characters could succeed at their roles, the designers created formulas for each role that determined things like damage output, expected armor class, and healing capacity. Then they built the classes to meet these specifications.
Through the life of the edition, these parameters proved a bit off, revealing some roles as more useful than others. Fourth edition showed that only the striker role really mattered, because nothing prevents damage as well as killing monsters quickly, and no condition hampers enemies as well as dead.
Roles succeeded at one thing: They told players what each class did best in combat. By choosing a role, players decided what they would do in a fight—healing, damaging enemies, or protecting allies. Without roles, a 4E novice might wrongly suppose that a warrior would do a lot of damage, and fail to select a nature-loving ranger or a sneaky thief for maximum damage output.
Ironically, while roles sharply defined the tactical job of each class, 4E’s design made the classes interchangeable off the battlefield. The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide encouraged DMs to skip to the good parts of the game by building adventures from a series of combat encounters and skill challenges. Characters’ roles shape their place in combat, but have no effect on skill challenges, or any other part of the game.
Outside of combat, all 4E characters contribute by making skill checks. Your character’s favored skill checks may differ from the next guy’s, but the rules advise dungeon masters to allow a wide variety of skills so every character can help. To guarantee that everyone contributed, the original skill challenge had players rolling initiative and taking turns. That rule soon fell by the wayside, but it shows the designers’ commitment to making all classes play alike off the battlefield. To further level play, most 4E spellcasters lack magic that helps outside of combat, a big change from previous editions.
D&D’s fifth edition dispenses with formulaic roles and with classes designed to measure up to a role’s target numbers. This affects the new game less than it would 4E. In the new edition, combat encounters no longer dominate time spent playing. D&D’s fifth edition bolsters the game’s interaction and exploration pillars to balance with combat. With more time to shine at diplomacy, the bard may not mind a reduced role in combat. With time to lead in exploration, the rogue might not mind retiring as the damage-per-round champion.
The real benefit of roles came from helping players understand what their character would do best in combat. This benefit can come without formal roles. The class descriptions simply need to make each classes’ tactical strengths and weaknesses clear.