4e PHB Readthrough – Chapter 4: Classes

Welcome to the second installment in my read-through of the new Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. This time, we’ll go through Chapter 4: Character Classes.

“Just one chapter!?!” you cry? Well, this one chapter is 125 pages long; the first three chapters combined were only 49 pages. It’s more than a third of the total book, and by far the meatiest. So buckle up, buttercup!

The classes in 4e are: cleric, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, warlock, warlord, and wizard. The venerable barbarian, druid, monk, and bard have been jettisoned and the warlock and warlord (was: marshal) have been imported from the 3e splatbooks. The sorcerer is gone too – or really, as we’ll see later, the new wizard is a sorcerer and the old wizard is dead.

They explain the paragon paths and epic destinies more. Paragon paths replace the 3e concept of prestige classes, with the twist of being mandatory. Once you get to level 11 as a rogue, for instance, you choose one of cat burglar, daggermaster, master infiltrator, and shadow assassin and that’s your class – really an overlay on your existing class that adds a couple powers – from 11-20. Then, at level 21, you pick an epic destiny – there are only four – archmage, deadly trickster, demigod, or eternal seeker. These add only a power or two each.

Each class has at-will, encounter, and daily powers. In fact, everyone has the same number of them, per the character progression chart – if you’re level 14 you get two at-will, four encounter, three daily, and four “utility” powers. Confusingly, utility powers are also at-will, encounter, or daily – it’s just that they’re not combat powers so they are segregated. Powers have a “power source” – arcane, divine, or martial (with more to come in the future).

Every power is carefully defined the way spells were in earlier editions. Effect type, action type, attack type, range, and so on. The one interesting tidbit is that many powers do something even when you miss – like many attack powers do helledamage and something else if they hit, but if they miss they’ll still do some damage. I guess this is so people don’t “feel like they wasted” a daily or encounter power, but it makes things a little too deterministic for me – and for the PCs. You know an attack can kill a PC who’s at 1 hit point whether it hits or misses… This is OK I guess, it’s just that the fateful hand of luck has been implicitly enshrined in earlier versions of D&D – the almighty die roll can slay or save in equal measure – so this “feels weird.”

In fact, powers *are* spells. That’s the biggest change in 4e. There are no more spells. There’s no spell progression chart. The level 14 character with 2 at-will/4 encounter/3 daily/4 utility powers? Those are “combat moves” for a fighter, but those are the spells for a caster!!! So Bless and Cure Light Wounds aren’t spells, they are “Level 2 Utility Powers,” different in no way from a fighter power like Cleave. This took me a couple minutes to wrap my head around. It definitely makes all the classes more “the same” in terms of core implementation, for good and ill.

So now, the classes. Each class is defined according to its role (the leader/striker/defender/whatever thing), power source, key abilities (just a recommendation, looks like), armor/weapon proficiencies, “implement”, hit points, healing surges, and trained skills. There’s “build options” listed – you’re doing e.g. a “battle cleric” or a “devoted cleric,” and they then have suggested feats, skills, and powers for that build. This is a carryover from World of Warcraft, where there are well-known specs (character builds) like resto druid, shadow priest, or fury warrior. You wouldn’t want to take a non-optimal build!!!

Hit points are fixed at some number + CON score, with a fixed number added per level. You get “healing surges” equal to a fixed number + CON modifier. I don’t have a problem with different hit point/wound models – the sheer number of healing surges seems a little fiddly though; you may have low hit points but 10 daily healing surges. So you’re going to be doing that a lot. The range is heavily normalized too. Wizards get 10+CON hp and then 4 per level; fighters get 15+CON and then 6 per level. So even at high levels the difference is marginal.

Since each class gets the same number of powers at the same levels, the powers are listed like this:

  • Level 1 At-Will
  • Level 1 Encounter
  • Level 1 Daily
  • Level 2 Utility
  • Level 3 Encounter
  • Level 5 Daily

This is a little confusing at first, till you realize that’s not really a power level per se, it’s the character level you get the new power at. So there is no such thing as a “Level 2 Encounter” power because no one gains a new encounter power at level 2 – but they do get one at level 3. Note at some levels you can replace lower powers with higher level ones, which is a little odd – “I don’t remember how to cast Bless any more. How about Astral Refuge instead?” I don’t like that as it harms verisimilitude – how do you explain that “in game” from a roleplaying sense?

It’s also a little hard on the book’s organization. Since they list all the powers in each class description, each class description takes about 15 pages (it’s like as if in 3e they put all the spells inline in each classes’ description). That makes it hard to find a given class quickly. Time to buy some of those little colored bookmark tabs.

Cleric. Each cleric has certain class features, like “Divine Fortune” (encounter, free action, +1 attack or save bonus), “Turn Undead,” which is now a radiant burst of damage and pushback, and “Healing Word” which is an encounter power that augments someone’s healing surge.

The first thing that becomes clear is that this new power approach really limits the number of options you have. In 3e, a cleric had 25 first level spells to choose from, and could memorize them multiple times, etc. Here, you have four choices per power – there’s four level 1 at-will powers, four level 1 encounter powers, and four level 1 daily powers. (and you can’t take one twice). You start off with 2/1/1/0 powers, so there are many fewer different cleric loadouts at a given level than in 3e (feats and level 0 spells notwithstanding). This also seems familiar from World of Warcraft, where each spec had pretty much the same powers, with only a couple differences from high level talent choices.

You can argue, however, that though it sharply reduces the number of options for casters, it opens up many more options for the martial classes, whose “power selection” in 3e was nothing outside of feats. And it always did seem a little sucky in earlier D&D editions that the back 2/3 of the book was a long list of spells that you didn’t care about unless you were a caster class. This spreads the suck across everyone for balance. So it’s more balanced, but is it more balanced simply due to greater homogeneity?

Looking at the cleric’s powers specifically, I think the “everything else vs. utility” distinction is funny – even utility powers will be used in combat (bless, cure light wounds, etc) – it’s just that all the other listed types are pure combat abilities; attack roll required.

I’m not going to go through the powers one by one, but I will note some tendencies.

One, the powers seem to not have a whole lot of variation, both from each other and from other class’ powers. It’s all ‘do some damage and…’

  • give an ally a bonus or move
  • heal someone (OK, that one’s more unique to the cleric)
  • stun or push or otherwise dick with the enemy

The side effects of the powers all seem a little gratuitous. “Do some damage and some random ally gets +1 to AC!” “Do some damage and some random ally gets healed!” “Do some damage and some random ally gets an attack bonus!” “Do some damage and some random ally gets to move!”  They try to come up with color descriptions of the powers to semi-justify it in game but it’s a hard row to hoe. You can handwave it as “magic does anything” but for the martial powers that’s more difficult. “Fred just hit that guy over there on the other side of the combat; I’m going to get a free action to move ten feet around my opponent without provoking opportunity attacks! Why? Uh, his power description says so!” It also seems mighty fiddly; with each round every power you use generally requires you to apply some bonus to someone else, which will lead to a) interminable metagame strategizing and b) too many little modifiers to track. It’s hard enough to remember in 3e that you have a Bless, a Haste, and a potion in you for a whole combat – here, the modifiers change every round based on every ally’s and foe’s action. It’s going to be nearly impossible to keep up with without computerization, which may be their end goal anyway.

Doubtless because of how many powers someone can use, each individual power isn’t that overwhelming. No more 20d6 damage- the highest level powers do some multiple of weapon damage, around 4-7. Even Meteor Swarm only does 8d6.

I realize a lot of this doesn’t seem too cleric specific. But that’s because the powers don’t seem too specific themselves. Want to do some damage and blind the opponent for a turn? Most of the classes have that, just with different names. Want to do some damage and move an opponent a couple squares? Most of the classes have that. It’s like different special effects put on all the same powers.

The cleric entry ends with its paragon paths – Angelic Avenger, Divine Oracle, Radiant Servant, and Warpriest.

Fighter. Two build choices, “Great Weapon” or “Guardian.” Seems like fewer choices even than WoW, there you have fury, arms, and prot warriors. I guess that’s what splatbooks are for.

Fighters have a couple innate powers. Combat Challenge, which lets you “mark” opponents and give it a penalty for any attack that’s not on you. The big problem here is that this doesn’t really require the target to speak your language or be thinking or anything – it’s another one of these gamist powers that is very hard to justify in-game, if you’re into role-playing and a realistic game world and all that (apparently not concerns for the 4e developers).

Fighter powers differ mainly in that many of them are weapon dependent. They work but suck unless you’re using the right weapon, then they are a legit power. So mostly, the choice of which power to take at a given level is made for you. if you use a hammer, then at level 3 you only want “Crushing Blow” as your new encounter power; the others cue off different weapons.

They’ve taken the rule-based approach of 3e and turned it into “specific examples only.” So instead of a Power Attack where you scale accuracy for damage, you have a specific-level power where you get a specific hit penalty for a specific damage bonus. This is similar to the monsters, where instead of “make a zombie of anything” you have highly specific creatures at given levels.

The paragon paths for the fighter are Iron Vanguard, Kensei, Pit Fighter, and Swordmaster.

Paladin. Avenging or protecting, your choice! It has powers! The powers, predictably, are a mix of cleric and fighter powers with small variations. Divine Challenge is Combat Challenge plus radiant damage. Attacks! Marking! I’m not sure if it’s just that it’s getting late, but I’m scanning over these powers and having a hard time caring or distinguishing them from all the other powers.

Paragon paths: Astral weapon, champion of order, hospitaler, justiciar.

Ranger. Leather or hide armor only! The two builds are the traditional two-weapon or bow ranger split. Rangers can designate one nearest opponent as their “quarry,” and get bonus damage vs them till they kill ’em or things are over one way or the other. Seems cool.

His powers – lots of “shifting” (the new term for moving.) Shift and attack, hit someone and shift them, shift whenever someone does something to you. And then powers that work off the two-weapons or archery. So though mobility is something they stressed in all the classes, the ranger definitely has more, giving it some of the flavor of the Scout from 3e.

The ranger’s paragon paths are Battlefield Archer, Beast Stalker, Pathfinder, and Stormwarden (two weapon guy).

Within the 4e structure, which I’m starting to understand now, I have to say ranger is a good class and paladin is a bad class. Ah well, I’ve always liked the concept of paladins but in general they’ve always been implemented in an unexceptional way in previous editions too.

Rogue. Brawny or trickster? Rogues are now fully the “high-DPS” rogues of World of Warcraft. As “strikers,” their role is to dish out damage – the fighters are more about “tanking” (a MMORPG term meaning you stand there and soak up damage) more than dealing damage themselves. They’re all about the sneak attack. They get to sneak attack whenever they have “combat advantage” – flanked or any number of other situations (there’s a list of 15 conditions that give combat advantage, from “Balancing” to “Unconscious”). In fact, the rogue’s other powers make sure that they have combat advantage at the beginning of the combat before someone moves, you can Bluff them to get it, etc. Actually though, only one attack a round can be a sneak attack, which is a nice brake on the ability. Rogues like the shuriken, in a shift towards “weapons you and your friends thought were cool in 7th grade.”

An aside. They keep using all kinds of different terms for moving in these powers. Sliding, shifting, moving, pulling, etc. Going forward to the combat chapter for clarification, move is move, shift is move w/o provoking – which isn’t always a five foot step any more, but however far it is it’s like one. Pushing, pulling, and sliding are all what you do to an opponent; the difference is just that pushing has to be away form you, pulling has to be towards, and shifting can be wherever.

I’m a little concerned about how few powers there are to be used “outside of combat.” There’s only a couple – half of the “utility” powers are still combat powers. Only a couple make sense if there’s not a tactical map up. The rogue utility powers – some boost CHA stuff, which could be useful, like rerolling Bluff checks or giving CHA bonsues, but most that enhance other thief skills like tumbling/climbing/jumping/stealth only do so in a combat-oriented way (move full speed while climbing, etc.). “Ignore the -10 to pick a pocket in combat.” We haven’t gotten to skills yet, but there’s no doubt that character powers are more than 90% about pure combat.

Rogue paragon paths are cat burglar, daggermaster, master infiltrator, and shadow assassin (they are like they sound, I trust I don’t have to explain all these).

Warlock. One of the fan favorites from 3e splatbooks goes core. Warlocks, for those who don’t know, are flying, zapping, poofing guys who get their power from dark compacts. Like X-Men with devil worship. I’m a little confused about their inconsistent moralizing with 4e – they try to avoid mention of the evil gods, and toss out half-orcs because of “You know, the implications…” (paraphrase of an actual WotC employee on the subject) But tieflings, or “demon butt buddies,” and warlocks, or “volunteer demon butt buddies,” are high on the list.  Hmm?

Anyway, warlocks are deceptive or scourge (damage). They have an eldritch blast. You choose one of three “pacts,” with fey, devils, or “the stars”. This leads into what’s the biggest distinct thing about the warlord class, which is that your power choices are very limited. Every level’s 4 powers basically have one star, one fey, and one infernal choice, then one random other one. So any warlock is going to be 90% identical to another warlock of the same level.

All the powers do all the same things the other classes’ powers do. Move the target, do various kinds of damage, inflict various penalties. They have cooler names than the average, however, with the “Doom of Delban,” “Hurl through Hell,” and the “Curse of the Dark Delirium” as the level 29 powers.

The warlock paragon paths are doomsayer (debuffer), feytouched (teleporty) and life-stealer.

Warlord. Seems like making class names differ by only two characters will be a bit of a pain. The warlord, adapted from the 3e Marshal, is less a fighter and more of a combat commander. They wear armor up through chain only, for example. The builds are inspiring or tactical. Warlord class abilities give bonuses to allies who can see them.

This is one of those classes where the gamist nature of the powers becomes very evident. “Ease Suffering,” a Warlord utility 10 power. “Your nearby presence is enough to ease the suffering of your allies.” Allies ignore ongoing damage (you know, like being on fire). That sound you hear is realism swirling around the toilet bowl as it goes down for good.

Another aside – every power (for all these classes) has a different defense it works against. So whatever a foe is weak in, you can bang on it. Used to be fighters could only really go against AC and the other defense types were the purview of the casters; since there’s no such thing as caster and non-caster any more, every class has powers that go vs AC, vs Fort, vs Reflex, etc. (Even casters in 3e tended to have to specialize in spells that worked off of Reflex save vs Will save vs touch attack…) So a build where you have an Achilles heel in any one defense is really dangerous; anyone can take advantage of it, not just specific classes or whatever.

Warlord paragon paths are the battle captain, combat veteran, knight commander, and sword marshal.

Wizard. Ah, the wizard. In previous editions, wizards were distinctive for their use of “Vancian magic.” That’s the memorize spells, cast them and forget them model based on the old Dying Earth novels, back when people read books instead of playing MMORPGs. It’s just powers now. They maintain the fluff of having wizards carry a spellbook – it lets a wizard have two power choices for each daily or utility power and choose one (so if you get a new daily, you actually get two and each day you choose which you want to have available). So that’s why the sorcerer is gone; the differentiation is no longer meaningful.

Wizards come in two varieties, the control and war wizard. Man, the wizard had both balls chopped off in this rev. I understand it’s a tradeoff, with giving the other classes more options, but man the wizard has been reduced. All the powers are basically whether you are blasting one or multiple targets and what energy type you’re doing it with. “Acid Arrow, Flaming Sphere, Freezing Cloud, or Sleep?” Essentially, evocation and enchantment is it for wizards now.

Also, there’s no reason for wizards or clerics to bother with weapons any more, they have at-will powers that are better. Magic Missile is now level 1 at-will, 2d4+INT mod damage, which is more than a wizard could do with any of their permitted weapons. Similarly, clerics had Lance of Faith, 1d8+WIS and an attack bonus to an ally (also level 1 at-will).

For some reason, despite their fervor to remove all other traces of fluff from previous editions, they name a lot of the wizard powers with “Bigby,” “Mordenkainen,” etc. That’s frankly just sad. It made sense in earlier editions – someone had to develop the spell in the first place, right, and then they get copied from spellbook to spellbook. But you can’t “invent” powers. “Ah, wizards could only do three different things a day until I came along!” Mordenkainen to 4e: shut your mouth and quit using my name in vain!

The paragon paths are battle mage (natch), blood mage, spellstorm mage, and wizard of the spiral tower (elfy spellsword type). Necromancer? No. Illusionist? No. Summoner? No. Oracley diviner sage type? No. Oh, those are hard to “balance” (read: make exactly the same). OK, I didn’t particularly like many of the changes, but this is really the low point.

Epic Destinies get their own section. There’s only four of them, and you pic one at level 21. At level 30, you retire from play. Archmages are wizard only and get some spell powers and also the ability to basically once per day not die, and turn into a spirit that can cast spells, and then return to life at the end of the combat. Spiffy. The deadly trickster is for rogues and maybe rangers, basically some luck powers. The demigod is for anyone, and has some recovery powers. The eternal seeker is likewise for everyone and lets you get some powers from other classes. They’re OK – not all that an a bag of chips, but OK.


They went into 4e saying they were going to simplify it. But they took one step towards that – a cleaner core mechanic, defenses, class standardization – and then took two steps back with zillions of little one-round +1 effects, heaing surges, many marks and overlapping auras in play, etc.

Though I miss the old classes they removed, I’m sure that’s just a gambit to put them in the first PHBII. So they won’t be gone long. Not too sad there.

The classes range from pretty cool (ranger) to mediocre (cleric) to what the hell were they thinking (wizard). With those changes and the lack of multiclassing, the vast and cool array of character concepts available in the previous edition of D&D is now dead.

There are those who say D&D 4e hasn’t been made into a MMORPG – they are wrong. As someone who has multiple level 60+ toons in WoW, this game has been revamped to ape a computer game in many respects, at many fundamental levels. You could now build a D&D computer game using the WoW engine pretty easily.


12 responses to “4e PHB Readthrough – Chapter 4: Classes

  1. Just a quick note — warlocks aren’t limited to powers associated with their pact, though at higher levels some of those powers gain additional “muscle” if taken by a warlock with the appropriate pact. The rules state that a warlock can take any power.

  2. Ah, good point. I see that now, so noted.

  3. The “vast array of cool character concepts?” Where? In the core rulebooks? Nahh…read Bard Games’ Arcanum rulebook to realize where D&D fell down. That had cool character classes for the time, and quite a few versions of spellcasters as well. And that was 1982! About the time the AD&D DMG came out…hmmm…

    The Arcanum had nearly 500 spells, rules for alchemy, 27 character classes, new non-human races for player characters. 27 classes. Some were D&D variants (hunter = ranger), others were not (mystic, astrologer).

    Don’t get me started on Prestige Classes. Hated ’em. The Paragon Paths actually seem better. I’d rather have “Any Paladin Class” as a prereq rather than “+10 BAB, +4 Fort Save, +18 Spot Skill, Any one out of 3,300 potential Feats, etc.”

    I’m not a giant fan of anything but 1st ed, really, but D&D has been struggling against it’s more modern cousins for its lifetime, now. And sadly, a lot of it’s cousins were simply better. I’m not talking about who bought or played it. By that measuring stick Budweiser is a quality beer. I’m talking about the meat of the game. D&D was nothing but fat and bone. It may have started it all, but it’s never felt like a finished product to me.

    4th edition powers could probably be house- ruled to make a more interesting game. I like the fact that spell level now equals character level…that dissonance always struck me as poor design. The powers themselves should perhaps be dumped in favor of a framework for choose your own kewl powerz.

    On the plus side, I like the way everything works consistently. I don’t care that there’s not much difference between swinging a sword and casting a spell. Give me one system, not fifty different ones for each component.

  4. Um, why did you mention that the fighter ability to mark has nothing to do with the target being able to understand them?

    This isn’t a taunting based abilty, which would require a thinking opponent.

    The fighter’s marking abilty represents their ability to interfer with combatants in their range. Turn your back on fighter to attack his friend, and he’ll take the opertunity you presented him to mess up your attack.

    In 3rd editon terms, it’s like the fighter is capable of automatically doing the Aid Other action for his friends.

  5. Some of the uses of marking could be explained in-game that way, but there’s also ranged marking etc etc. where it’s hard to really have it make sense beyond “I want a bonus by gum.”

  6. The saddest thing is, playing a Wizard in computer games always felt like you had your balls chopped off because of complete lack of variety in spell choice, largely due to technical limitations.

    So they chopped off spellcaster balls in 4e in order to ape computer games subject to completely different limitations.


  7. Uhh same as a computer game? You can replecate D&D easily using an MMO engine? I really dont get what game you are playing, but it probally isnt D&D.

    Can a computer game bend the world around it to the DM’s whim? Create interesting adventures and NPC’s which are molded by the players needs? Can a computer game interact with a players background story? I’ll awnser these for you: No they cannot.

    D&D is about imagination and still is. The day a video game comes out that bends to the specific players imagination is the day I quit my job, turn off all electricity not accociated with my TV/ PC, and never leave my house again.

    Now if you are specifically jsut refering to the characters abilities… yeah, maybe those can be replecated into a computer game. But then again, so could the other editions if they wanted to put the time in. Still, I find it kind of hard to imagine a game that let me sprout bat-wings/ teleport through shadows/ stop time/ summon tenticles/ breath poison/ etc.

  8. So much of the wizard and cleric comes from their ability to cast rituals. That’s where all the non-combat spells went. And while the initial selection is weak to begin with, I’m sure you’ll see many of the old favourites reappearing. Also since rituals cost gold, then the money that your successful adventures make looting dungeons doesn’t just get piled in the basement of some inn they purchased… it goes into their wizard’s laboratory or cleric’s sanctum so that they can be cured of disease or teleported somewhere. This also means there isn’t some dumbass table in the DMG telling you what the going rate for resurrection is, ending up with your party gaggling with a priest of a LG deity about whether 500 gp or 10,000 gp is the appropriate amount… or to avoid the city stricken with plague while the priests don’t cast cure disease, despite their good alignments.

    This is the main flaw in looking at the new edition in this piece-meal way (though it is a design flaw to be sure). You don’t notice that certain feats & additions fill in the gaps that you missed before. Hell, in the new edition, any class could learn rituals (though tougher than for wizards or clerics) and learn to enchant items. That’s pretty neat.

    Maybe I’m just optimistic, but so far my fledgling 4th ed game has worked out well.

  9. you are a quack. play a game. i guess you have an audience. quackish folk waiting for? the third edition? you have it. let we, the new “simpler folk”, enjoy. also do you remember 2nd edition? remember you are playing a board game. the role playing is you. talk to your DM. play 3.5. 4th might be for a laid back gamer, but its great for a laid back gamer with a job.

  10. Conor, you are a duck. Play your game. I guess you’ve got a comment form. Duckish people, what are you waiting for? 4th edition? You have it. Let us, the old “we like a game that expects and rewards effort” people, enjoy ours. Also, do you remember Everway? You’re playing a roleplaying game: the roleplaying is you and the game in cooperation. Talk to someone else. Play 4th ed. Anything else might be for… well, anyone. Alternatives are great for gamers who aren’t interested in just taking what they’re handed by Wizards.


  12. I plead guilty as an accessory to second-degree thread necromancy. It was a crime of passion.

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