Although Adamus, Ian, and I are usually talking about tabletop games in DM Shower Thoughts, the RPG genre is much bigger than that. From Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft, RPGs have taken a lot of different forms and their genre-defining elements are used in a variety of spaces. Heck, even just the element of collecting quantifiable experience points is something that can be found when training for corporate jobs unrelated to gaming.
Because of how many RPGs handle these various elements, the perception of various tropes can creep into our understanding of specific systems. Sure, in many RPG videogames (like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), having a dedicated healer to cast Life and Cure spells is fundamental to the party’s composition. The same can’t be said for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because the proportion of Hit Points that can be regained per action is much lower. This is a really small example that makes a huge impact on gameplay.
Let’s dive into this for just a moment before getting to the meat and potatoes of this topic. In many JRPGs, many boss monsters can one-hit KO party members, leaving them in a state of incapacitation. It’s therefore the healer’s job to cast a spell to bring them back up, sometimes even fully restoring their health as they do so. There isn’t a similar ability in 5e. Even a 1st level Cure Wounds spell only heals 1d8 + spellcasting modifier hit points, meaning on average (with optimized standard array ability scores) the possibility for hit points regained ranges from 4 to 12. Most videogame RPGs don’t offer that range of possibility, and is one of the fundamental differences between tabletop games and videogames.
As such, although there are plenty of similarities between these two mediums and their expression of the genre, there are some differences to recognize. The most glaring difference is the need to pivot roles in 5e. Just because you built a healer doesn’t mean there aren’t times to shift into a control role, and if you built your character to deal damage but the enemy is immune to all of your attacks, then you may find yourself fulfilling support. It’s just how the dice roll sometimes.
However, after all is said and done, a choice you make as a D&D player in combat really can be broadly categorized as belonging to one of four roles (and there is overlap). Those roles are DPR (Damage per Round), Tank, Support, and Control. And, although you can optimize your character to best perform in one of these roles, there will be times where the best decision is to instead fulfill another role your character isn’t designed for (which we’ll touch on later).
Know Your Role
Now, the reason there’s value in categorizing these roles is to clarify the decisions you're making as well as identify gaps in the party’s performance. Oftentimes, I find that when a party underperforms in combat, it means that somehow the flow of these four roles has been disrupted, either because a party member has been incapacitated or the best person for the role is not fulfilling it (which usually stems from someone unwilling to pivot into a role their character is not built for). That being said, the best combats I’ve participated in have had a combination of understanding with these four roles, as well as having characters built to fulfill them. To understand how to identify characters built for them, here are some characteristics:
+ Damage Per Round Maximizes the amount of damage they inflict on a single target. Also values a higher attack roll bonus and rare / changing damage types.
+ Tank Draws attention and potential damage away from other party members. Values a high Armor Class, Hit Point maximum, damage resistance, and damage reduction.
+ Support Strengthens and heals allies. Usually a spellcaster, although there are some non-casting features that fulfill this role (like a Mastermind Rogue’s Master of Tactics feature).
+ Control Weakens enemies and influences their behavior. Area of effect spells, like fireball tend to fall in this category because not only can it wipe out many smaller enemies earlier in the fight, “smart” enemies will avoid certain positional patterns to avoid falling into an area that encourages its use.
And, like I said, there will be some overlap. For example, the druid’s entangle spell creates an area of difficult terrain which can hamper an enemy’s movement (which falls under Control). However, if an enemy gets restrained by the spell, the druid's allies have Advantage on attack rolls against them (Support).
Certain classes will also fulfill these roles more obviously than others. A Barbarian’s high hit points and resistance-granting Rage ability make it a great Tank, and a Rogue’s sneak attack make it great for DPR. I've also found that players get frustrated when a character class doesn’t perform well in a role the player expects it to (like when a Cleric isn't the best Healer option).
Now let’s dive a little deeper into the roles and find character classes that fit them.
Damage Per Round
This is a short-hand term Adamus and I use with each other to describe when a player is trying to deal the most amount of damage that they can. It comes from the MMO term DPS (Damage per Second), but because 5e is played in rounds instead of real-time, you get Damage Per Round.
Now, this can also be the hardest role to categorize because it’s by far the broadest. Most characters can deal some kind of damage to an enemy, and there will be times where it’s more efficient to just attack the darn thing instead of create a cockamamie scheme that probably won’t work. However, there are some statistics to consider when optimizing a character for DPR.
First is the attack roll bonus. It doesn’t matter how much damage you can do if you can’t hit the target’s AC. Usually, this is as easy as investing in the ability score that governs your attack rolls. This same ability score will usually also help you lean into your secondary role, but we'll talk more about that later.
Second is selecting features that contribute to the amount of damage you can deal. For Fighting Styles, this is usually Dueling or Great Weapon Fighter. For Warlocks, it’s the Agonizing Blast invocation. For Rogues, it’s just investing in more rogue levels to progress your Sneak Attack.
The third factor is damage type. You either want a damage type that’s rarely resisted to or two damage types you can switch between. For example, eldritch blast is such an effective cantrip because almost nothing in 5e resists force damage (unless you homebrew something), and its damage die is also pretty high. Another example might be picking up Elemental Adept as a caster, meaning that if you love your fire spells, you can ignore resistance a creature may have to fire damage. In baseline 5e, as a weapons class, most creatures aren’t resistant to magical bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, so if you can find a magic weapon you’re usually good for the rest of the campaign (unless your DM homebrews something to make you ineffective).
And that’s pretty much it for DPR. Like I said earlier, most classes have some kind of DPR option, but that doesn’t mean every class is optimized for DPR. It’s great that a Bard can Vicious Mockery (Psychic is one of those damage types that’s rarely resisted to). However, the 1d4 damage is pitiful, even at low levels, and pales in comparison to a Divine Smite or Sneak Attack. That doesn’t mean the Bard shouldn’t try to deal damage; it just means that they aren’t the “DPR” character of the party.
Tanks are much easier to build to. Invest in Constitution to get higher hit points, find some armor or features that grant you damage resistance, and do what you need to in order to invest in Armor Class. I’m a sucker for Unarmored Defense. It’s easy to maintain, can often be stronger than Plate Mail, and it can’t be destroyed by rust monsters.
With all that being said, viable options for tanking are much fewer than DPR. Barbarians are excellent tanks because of their Rage ability, and their Unarmored Defense keeps their AC competitive. Most of their subclasses also have ways to get more bang for your buck when you Rage, sometimes dealing damage and sometimes increasing the amount of resistances you have. Paladins are also excellent tanks because of their heavy armor proficiency, and because at 6th level their Aura of Protection grants them bonuses to their Saving Throws. Either way, both classes get great durability for relatively little action-investment.
Now, some critics of the term “tanking” in 5e compare the function of tanks to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, where such characters have abilities that program bigger threats to target them, relieving pressure from a less durable ally. There are some abilities like this in 5e, but because enemies are controlled by a human (the DM) rather than programming, the DM can always choose to target a less survivable ally.
This doesn’t mean that building a tank doesn’t have value. In D&D, tanking refers to a character’s survivability, and I’ve seen some ridiculous stunts in my time with 5e. I’ve seen a Barbarian swim through lava, a Barbarian/Rogue multi-class shrug off 100+ points of damage because of stacking resistance with evasion, and a well built sorlock take a meteor swarm to the face and maintain concentration (that was my Sorlock). Accounting for RAW and math, these things can happen, and even if you can keep one ally up by the end of the fight, they can run around and use healing potions to keep incapacitated allies alive.
This is also why oftentimes the best support characters also invest in their survivability. A Druid’s Wild Shape is a great tanking feature, and many Clerics have a heavy armor proficiency that lets them avoid damage and heal their allies. Healing does no good if the healer is down, so many forward thinking players build their healers accordingly.
Speaking of Support, I’m of the belief that this is the most difficult role to play effectively in combat, and is why many players avoid it. It can be a thankless job, and your impact on the party isn’t always immediately felt. A well timed bless spell can be the difference between an attack hitting and missing, and that attack finishing a dangerous enemy or giving them another turn to use legendary actions and wipe the team. There are also many overlaps with Control, so we’ll work to clarify which is which.
Support is defined as “buffing” your allies and healing. A “buff” is any spell that makes them better at their job, or strengthens them in any way. For example, the bless spell allows those it targets to add a d4 to attack rolls and saving throws, making them slightly more accurate and more survivable. If we look back at the entangle example earlier, if a character can restrain an enemy, it allows attacks against that enemy to have advantage, meaning that rogues get Sneak Attack and everyone is more likely to get a critical hit.
Healing is a much more nuanced topic. Healing and damage are not created equal in 5e, and it’s always more efficient to prevent damage than to try and heal damage taken. Let’s go back to our example of cure wounds. For a 1st level spell slot, cure wounds heals between 4 and 12 hit points with an average 1st level character. With a 1st level spell slot using inflict wounds (the same resource expended), the spell deals 3d10 damage on a hit, with a yield of between 3 and 30 damage. The ceilings aren’t even comparable.
What makes healing so difficult is the required sense of timing on the player’s part. An ill-timed healing word or cure wounds could have no effect at all, especially if the enemy is a real bruiser. Say you see an ally get hit for 15 points of damage. You cast healing word as a bonus action, healing 5 points of that damage. Then the next round they get hit for another 15 points, and get knocked unconscious. That healing word you casted was wasted.
That being said, let’s look at a counterexample. You see an ally get hit with 15 points of damage and fall unconscious. They make a death saving throw, and unfortunately roll a Natural 1, meaning they have two failures. By casting your healing word at range, the failures are negated, and the ally needs to get knocked to 0 before being in danger again. You probably just saved that character’s life.
Like tanking, there are few characters that can dedicate themselves to Support, although there are plenty of smaller features that allow an ally to support as a secondary role. Bards, Clerics, and Druids have a plethora of buffing and healing spells, with the Bard’s defining class feature (Bardic Inspiration) being one of the most efficient buffs especially at low levels. However, the aforementioned Master of Tactics feature from Mastermind Rogue and Aura of Protection from Paladin also are great support features.
Control characters look at combat differently than the other three. Rather than seeing exchanges as dealing and healing damage, control players view combat as a series of choices and possible outcomes, and work to remove choices from their opponent. While Support is about strengthening allies and allowing them to be better versions of themselves, Control is about hampering the effectiveness of their enemies.
Is there a major bruiser in the enemy team that’s being a pain? Hold Monster can remove them from the fight. Is the real threat the group of goblins shooting at us from that ledge? Fireball can take them all down at once. Control is about figuring out the enemy’s strengths and using that strength against them. Like Support, what makes Control difficult is that it’s a mindset more than a set of obvious mechanics.
Some classes are easier to use control strategies than others. The Wizard’s sheer amount of spell access allows it to be an excellent controller, because it can cast the right spell for the right situation. The Druid spell list is similar, in which many of its best support spells also hamper the enemy’s effectiveness (again, just look at entangle).
However, that doesn’t mean that to be a Control character, you need area of effect abilities or spellcasting to play this role. If you’re playing a Tank, and you manage to distract an enemy from hurting your less survivable allies, you’re influencing their behavior and removed a choice, leaving their effectiveness up to the luck of the dice. That’s a Control role even though it’s outside of the game’s mechanics.
Oftentimes, when I design my set-piece encounters, I try to have my enemies not only have a mechanical weakness (like a low stat or some kind of damage vulnerability), but also some kind of personality flaw the party can take advantage of through role-playing. Sometimes that flaw is aggravated through taunting, empathy, or targeting one of their possessions. However, it’s a way to allow any player to assume the control role if they’re clever enough to figure it out.
Primary and Secondary Roles
Now, after identifying the four roles, the hidden fifth role is that of pivoting. Fifth Edition has classically rewarded characters that are built to specialization rather than versatility. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for adapting to circumstance.
Let’s say you build a powerful melee weapons character, but you end up in a combat where there’s a ravine or pool of lava separating you and your target. You may have to play a different role in that combat than you’d like to.
To prevent circumstances where you’re only viable option is “I take the Dodge action” and don’t participate, I usually advise my players to think through a Primary and a Secondary role their character can play as. This can be as simple as “I have a melee character but I keep a crossbow on me” to “I play support but I can pivot to control as the need arises”. This also doesn’t mean to devalue the specialization this edition rewards.
Let’s look at a character I built, Kurama, as an example. Kurama, a higher level Druid, was built in order to cast healing spirit and thorn whip. However, in a well constructed party like Knight Owls, healing spirit isn’t always the most appropriate. Oftentimes, healing is covered by other characters. This means that if enough other people are willing to play Support, I’m freed to pivot to Control in order to maximize our party’s effectiveness. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hit a big bad with contagion, or pull an enemy with thorn whip so the paladin can smite it. Also, there have been times I’ve been known to deal damage. It’s laughable that I've finished multiple big bads with a 1st level ice knife just because everyone else did such a good job of covering us that I as the Druid was left to just damage deal. These things happen, and the memories made are cherished.
Hopefully you’ve found some value from this perspective of play, and if you choose a less optimized style of play, you’re doing so intentionally. That’s the whole point of this: clarify your decisions so when you make it, you do so with intention.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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