Delver Evolution: Role Review, part 2

Last time we looked at the roles present in early D&D. Today we’ll be taking a look at where things went from there.


Many of the roles from OD&D seem to have carried into AD&D. Here’s a quick list of common tactical roles.

  • Assault: This role balances offense and defense to make a strong and resilient attacker.
  • Front Line: Front line characters effectively protected those behind them by being much easier to reach. The party would place it’s tougher members on the outside of the party so threats would have to fight through them to get at the more vulnerable members.
  • Artillery: This role is about bringing powerful ranged attacks to bear on the enemy. While they have strong offense, artillery characters tended to have weak defenses and could be decimated if enemies got close to them.
  • Trouble Shooter: This role is defined by having a wide range of tricks and tools available to help the party get past specific threats and obstacles.
  • Medic: These characters are good at getting the party back on their feet.
  • Foe Hunter: This character type specializes in taking down a specific type of enemy.
  • Scout: These characters are good at gathering information and getting into dangerous places. They also tend to be good at opening a path for the rest of the party.

The fighter combined the front-line and assault roles, while wizards handled artillery and trouble shooter roles. Clerics dabbled in front-line, assault, and trouble shooter roles while adding a touch of medic and foe hunter (vs undead). Thieves were primarily scouts (good stealth, trap finding, and lock picking) with some potential as trouble shooters.

Other classes tended to combine elements of these classes. For example, the ranger had Foe Hunter elements (vs giants) on a fighter base.

3rd Edition


Part of the changes in 3E was assuming that monster level and hit dice would scale up with party level. Unfortunately, damage didn’t always scale at the same rate. While the assault role remained workable, it tended to fall behind classes with “save or die” abilities.

The front line role would be similarly down played as adventure setting used more open terrain but fewer characters to help hold the front line.

Instead, fighters started to migrate toward specializing in a particular combat trick. Often these tricks were about disabling (trip) or weakening (sunder) a particular enemy, leading to a more single target lock down role.


As mentioned above, pure damage fell out of favor in this edition. As such, wizards tended less toward artillery and more toward a “curser” role specializing in save or die effects. This also included “save or suck” spells as well as strong enemy control effects.

At the same time summoning spells became more numerous, leading to a strong summoner role. This became a strong way to break the game’s action economy as each summons gave the party extra actions per turn.

The trouble-shooter role remained alive and well. In fact, it may have prospered even more with the prevalence of scroll and similar magic items.


The cleric retained many of it’s old roles. However, ally boosting buffs also became more prominent and long lasting in this addition. In fact, they became so effective that a cleric could reach fighter levels of combat ability with the right buffs.


As I’ve mention in the rogue/thief review, 3E saw the emphasis on the the thief’s role in combat. This resulted in it’s back-stab getting promoted to it’s defining feature. Since the class had a damage feature but no defensive features, it evolved into a very offensively oriented class.

4th Edition

4th edition would see the first attempt to formalize a character’s role within the party. However, the focus here was on combat roles, so things like the scout and trouble shooter fell by the wayside.


This role seems to be a revival of the older front line or “meat shield” role. To solve the problem of enemies being able to walk around the defender a marking system was added. In essense, the defender is an enemy control specialist which focuses on limiting enemy movement and focusing attacks on them. This helps create the feel of “holding the line” without the need for extra bodies or narrow hallways.


This role was an attempt at summing up the wizard. As such it merged element of the earlier artillery rolls with the elements of enemy control (3E status effects) and terrain manipulation (goes back as far as chainmail). This leaves the role with a certain lack of clarity as they seem to be lumping multiple roles under one umbrella.


This role merges the medic and buffer with elements of the older commander role. The result is a very effective ally support specialist.


This role is mainly about dealing damage. In general strikers also specialize in being able to apply that damage where it’s most needed, either through ranged attacks or mobility. This seems to be a combination of the older assault role with the offensive focus and vulnerability of the artillery role.

PC vs Monster Roles

Overall, it feels like PC roles were meant to model the four oldest classes of D&D (fighter, wizard, cleric, and thief). While this worked smoothly in some cases, in others it does feel like roles have been artificially combined.

In contrast, monster roles seem to just be designed around what they do. This focus seems to make for more intuitive an accurate roles. As such, I think it would have been better if the PC roles had followed a similar approach.

Wrapping Up

Next time I’ll list out some common adventuring roles both in and out of combat and how they relate.

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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