Previous related post: Identity of the character roles in 4th edition D&D
Last blog I discussed the relative purity of the roles in 4th edition D&D, and in doing so briefly mentioned the informal roles from Champions. So I thought I’d compare the meaning and use of the role concept in the two systems.
The 4th edition D&D role concept is a less concentrated form of the role concept in MMO’s, where every class has a specific purpose during combat. The ideal fight would seem to involve the defenders standing in front and absorbing damage, the strikers killing monsters, the leaders healing the defenders and boosting the attacks of the strikers, and the controllers hiding in back and helping everyone out by softening up the monsters with area effect attacks and inhibiting them with status effects.
The old role concept from Champions had a different purpose. It was meant to describe the kind of characters that would be found in a typical superhero group. Since Champions is a point-based game where you can design your character anyway you like, the roles might be seen as similar to D&D classes in describing what kind of character you appear to be. But they are also like fourth edition roles in describing what general capabilities the character is supposed to have.
The Champions roles have been formalized in different ways. The list of roles my playing group used to use was Brick, Martial Artist, Energy Projector, Mentalist, and Other. Other included some recognizable but less archetypes such as Gadgeteer and Speedster, as well as weird characters who defied description. Actually, I was never completely happy with the idea that Mentalist was on the list, since in the comic books this was not nearly as common a role as the other major roles (except among mutant superhero teams). But since Champions devoted a fair amount of attention to defining mental powers, and Mentalists are stupendously useful, it was sort of a tradition that the classic Champions group would have a Mentalist. Anyway, that is beside the main point of this article.
One difference is that Champions roles were totally informal. In effect, they were essentially stereotypes that characters tended to fall into; there was no particular need for characters to fit their role. Characters who fit the roles exactly, and characters who completely defied the expectations of the standard roles, were both equally valid types of characters and were equally encouraged. On the one hand, you had articles extolling the virtues of the “well balanced” super team. And on the other hand, you had people extolling the virtues of thinking outside the box when making your character. But regardless which you preferred, there was a general sense of what the completely classic version of each character role would look like.
Here is my description of the classic Champions character types. The Brick was super strong and super tough, but somewhat slow and not too smart. The Martial Artist was extremely skillful both in and out of combat, but couldn't take much punishment. The Energy Projector had a versatile array of ranged powers. The Mentalist wasn't too tough, but had a versatile array of mental powers. And who knows what the Other did, so we will ignore them.
The obvious approach would be to directly equate these Champions roles to similar looking D&D roles. So the brick is a defender, the martial artist is a melee striker, the energy projector is a ranged striker, and the mental list as a controller (Champions had nothing similar to a leader). But this doesn’t quite seem to fit. The brick was not only considered to be the toughest member of the team, but also the hardest hitting. This would seem to make him both a defender and a striker, which doesn't make much sense in D&D terms - what are the other classes for?
For one thing, the brick may have been the toughest member of the group, but that didn't account for the fact that the brick was easy to hit. After all, champions doesn't have the D&D peculiarity of merging armor and agility into the same value. The incredible agility of the martial artist meant that, potentially, he could be just as good or better defensively than the brick. But the 2 kinds of defenses had very different feels to them. The brick had the advantage of much more reliable staying power. If the martial artist was attacked in a way that he wasn't prepared to defend against, he could quickly get slaughtered, while the brick was just going to take a lot of punishment to put down whatever you did. And the brick could afford to intercept attacks against others, or run into dangerous zones of damage, or otherwise use his defenses in a more flexible fashion. But on the other hand, if the enemy had some sort of "control" power, it was quite possible that the easy-to-hit brick would be neutralized, while the martial artist would dodge the attack with ease.
And while the brick had the biggest single attack, his slow speed meant that he didn't necessarily have the best total damage output. And if he was being blinded or knocked around, he might miss a lot of attacks and even have a somewhat low damage output. But he could hurt guys who were too tough for the others to hurt. And when it came time to perform a group combination attack, it often ended up with a gigantic haymaker from the brick.
So in theory, the brick and the martial artist would have comparable total offense and defense but in very different ways. The energy projector would have somewhat less defense but the advantage of range. Also, the energy projector had a more versatile selection of powers, the ability to do things other than just blast the enemy. But the mentalist was the real master doing things differently, with the ability to ignore normal defenses completely and attack in ways that the villains may not be capable of dealing with.
In practice, though, it should be said that the brick very often was just flat out more powerful than the martial artist and energy projector. Bricks were often more powerful than energy projector is because, in Champions, they are more point efficient. And in games modeling the comic books, martial artists were often less powerful than bricks because they the party experts at noncombat skills, rather than masters of raw combat power. Similar to the thief in first edition D&D. Of course, fourth edition D&D made a conscious decision to delete the concept of a character whose special role is being good in noncombat.
Overall, it seems that the Champions role describes the combat style of the character rather than an MMO-style role. Although each role has certain expectations, they are more subtle than being a “DPS” or a “tank”. The Champions roles are perhaps more primitive, less useful for building a game where every character has a very clear role within the party. But on the other hand, I think they are more intuitive. The idea that a D&D paladin is an expert at forcing enemies to attack him is sort of a funny “game think” idea. The more natural idea to someone not familiar with the MMO role concept is that a paladin is a brave, heavily armored guy with a little bit of healing power. This would be more equivalent to the Champions role concept.