Role Role Role Your Boat
The idea of "roles" is part of the RPG melieu. Beginning in early D&D's days of fighters standing in the front line, through 4e's very codified role mechanics, roles of one sort or another happen just through the nature of the game: the essential strategy of "try to make enemies hit the big guy with high defenses, and avoid the small guy with the low defenses who can blast things to bits" is basic tactics, and happens even without the codified role mechanics.
What codified role mechanics did in 4e was that they provided a way for every class to contribute to one of the roles in a reliable way. It did away with problems like the 3e bard or the 3e monk, which ran the risk of not being very good at doing much of anything, by giving them an explicit combat function in a party.
This is a Good Thing!
More Than Just Killing Goblins
The highly codified combat roles in 4e, however, don't match up with how a lot of people play D&D for one big reason: They play D&D for more than just combat.
As wee have seen, D&D characters are engaged in all sorts of activities that aren't combat.
This means that the four combat roles that 4e identified, while they certainly exist in some respect, aren't the main way that people think of their characters.
Take the thief of early editions. The thief wasn't designed to be good at combat — most of the time, they suck at it. Occasionally, they can backstab, which is nice, but it's not a reliable ability. Most of the time, they're sniping at range and waiting for combat to be over, because a thief shines when they're climbing walls, opening locks, disarming traps, sneaking through passages, and basically being one of the greatest EXPLORERS the game has to offer. They have one combat trick, and a HOST of exploration tricks.
Or, take the bard in 3e. Again, not good at combat. However, with a high Charisma, a good skill list, and a few handy charm spells, bards make the best possible FACES in the game. Limited combat tricks, but a whole host of tricks to convince people to like them and do things for them.
This means that combat roles aren't the important division in the game. The important division, historically, is into the four adventuring roles: Warrior, Explorer, Face, and Sage.
Who Has To Play The Leader?
One thing that codified roles helped with was distributing the responsibility for healing. Players had an explicit way to replace the cleric in their parties with another class that would be equally capable at healing and protecting the party (be it bard or "ardent" or "warlord" or whatever).
However, the problem of "who has to play the leader?" persisted. And expanded: "Who has to play the Defender?" or "Who has to play the Controller?" — people were forced into party members they might not generally enjoy simply because the party "needed" one role or another to function optimally. They didn't need a certain class, but they DID need each of the four roles.
This isn't a new problem, and some might argue it's not even a problem — D&D has always been a game that rewards working together, so no characters should be capable in all areas, right?
Well…no. Just because a character is capable of mostly healing themselves, given some time and skill, doesn't mean that a cleric's healing is useless or undesired. Just that it isn't necessary. Which lets you be flexible: just as the "leader" role helped people branch out from clerics, if you remove the need for a leader, you can help people branch out into other classes and types — a party of all fighters and rogues becomes viable.
Getting Rid of Combat Roles
In order to remove the need for a certain combat role, you simply need to embed the role's mechanics into every character. In 4e, that might look something like this:
- Second Wind becomes an At-Will power.
- Every character deals double damage when attacking with combat advantage.
- Every character can take a minor action to mark an adjacent enemy.
- Every character can choose to take a -2 penalty to their attack rolls until the start of their next turn in order to make two basic attacks as a standard action.
You could elaborate on that — for instance, giving characters ways to impose and remove conditions with skill checks (Intimidate to immobilize an enemy! Heal to remove conditions!) — but the basic idea is to make sure every character can control, heal, deal spike damage, and control enemy targeting.
This doesn't affect any class's powers. Clerics still heal better than anyone, and rogues still strike better than anyone, and fighters still defend better than anyone. This just gives every class a baseline competency in the four things.
The Four Noncombat Roles and "Niche Protection."
Once you've allowed every class to have a baseline competency in combat, you can look at the actual difference we see in D&D characters throughout the editions: the difference in terms of noncombat roles.
You can apply the same logic above to give every character a baseline competency in noncombat roles as well:
- Every character can make attacks and take hits (Warrior)
- Every character can interact with NPC's and convince them mechanically (Face)
- Every character can overcome obstacles and navigate a path (Explorer)
- Every character can unearth knowledge and solve puzzles (Sage)
A good way to do this is to provide every character with four skills: one from each camp. You can package these skills in something like a background or a secondary skill.
Then, class abilities can enhance the basic skill checks.