Wednesday, August 4, 2010

D&D Lessons: How to Play the Controller

In my goal to help teach people how to play 4E D&D I wanted to get more in depth with the roles as those are probably the biggest gameplay change from prior editions. Focusing on making sure a party can accomplish each job is tough, more so if you can’t understand what the class’ job is. However it’s not as hard as you think, and in my mind each role has a one sentence description of what their job is that should make playing them easier to do. I want to start this first lesson off with perhaps the most difficult role to understand: The Controller.

The Controller is by far the hardest role to completely understand, and easily the most difficult to play effectively. I’ll be honest when I say I know I don’t play a Controller perfectly. Fact is, it’s a tough role to play, and many groups can survive just fine without one, yet at the same time having a good Controller could completely change the way a battle is fought. As I said, each role has a clear goal that defines their job, and the Controller’s is thus: Make sure your opponents can’t win.

On the surface that feels vague and confusing, but think of it like Final Fantasy for a moment. Strikers are the Black Mages of the game; squishy and vulnerable but absolute offensive monsters. Leaders are your White Mage mixed with a little Red Mage. They heal, buff, and in general play a versatile role suited to keeping the party moving. Your Defender is the Warrior; good damage, and the guy in the front line absorbing most of the damage. Controllers are then the Green Mages, casting debuffs and inflicting horrible status effects that impair and restrict the enemy at every turn. If you think of the Controller in that respect it’s a bit easier to understand your role, but let’s make it even simpler.

If the DM decides to have monsters do something. It’s your job to say “No”.

Controllers are the DM headache, and that’s intentional. The job of a Controller is just that: to control. Things like forced movement or slowing, those are things almost all classes can do, but the way a Controller does it is different. Let’s look shifting. Plenty classes have a way to shift the opponent. Most have them as Encounter or Class Features, but there are a few that aren’t Controllers that can do it At-Will. That means on your turn you can slide the opponent. Helpful right? Unlike the Defender’s Mark or the Striker’s extra damage the forced movement isn’t something restrictive to Controllers. However they can do it in a way completely unique. For example, the Druid has an At-Will power called Savage Rend that slides the enemy once on a hit. This power works as a Melee Basic Attack, meaning that it can be used for Opportunity Attacks. This means that if your Druid is engaged with the enemy, and they try to run away, you can pull them right back with a hit. That’s an example of controlling. It’s basically saying “no” when the DM attempts something.

What separates Controllers from the other role isn’t in a class feature like the other roles, but rather their Encounter and Daily powers having game changing effects. Their Dailies, in particular, are known for being devastating. Yes, all Dailies are intended to change a battle, but not on the scale of a Controller’s. Returning to the Druid (which I will often since well, Juliet…) there’s a Level 1 Daily known as Faerie Fire. Shitty name yes, but powerful. If you’ve been following our D&D exploits since they first started, you saw this power in effect. I hit it on the Spider Queen, and for the duration of the encounter she suffered from granting combat advantage to everybody. That meant every attack gave an automatic +2 bonus to hit, and our Rouge got her Sneak Attack damage. Had that attack not hit, our party might not have survived.

Of course you can say that about a lot of factors in a battle. The idea isn’t: a Controller will save the battle. Rather, it’s that a Controller’s actions will change the battle. Let’s look at a Seeker Encounter power known as Feyjump Shot. The power reads that you fire two attacks on two enemies. If only one attack hits you teleport the enemy a few squares. Decent, but if you hit with both, you are given the option of switching the two targets. So imagine it, your Fighter and Barbarian are locked up against a Brute while an Artillery Monster tears you apart from afar. If this attack connects, BAMF, your brute is now out of combat and will likely have to spend a turn just to get back into it and that precious squishy artillery unit is now sandwiched between a greataxe and a bastard sword. That’s the effect a Controller has on a battle.

But a Controller is really a thankless position due to its difficulty. The fact is, your best powers are one shot abilities most of the time, and if you miss with those, you’re hosed. A Controller’s gameplan is useless if they miss. Citing my own experience, if you were there for the session where we battled the Dretch I used Call Forth the Spirit Pack and Faerie Fire in one round. Four attacks and I hit with just one. Had I hit with them all, both enemies would have been knocked prone and would be slowed and grant combat advantage until they saved at which point they would take 3d6+4 damage in addition to the damage from CFtSP. That would have changed the battle. But I missed. Hard. And for the rest of the encounter I sat back hurling Storm Spikes and pretending to be useful. Yeah, it’s not easy to play this role. Sure it’s fun to be the bane of the DM and turn his encounter on its head by blasting through his minions on the first turn or ruining his tactics by screwing with his enemies, but the fact is that a Controller is tough to play.

If you’re new to D&D, don’t play a controller. If you’re playing with a group of new players and one of you wants to play a Controller so you fill out all the roles, have that player roll up another Striker, because I promise you, you’ll have more fun that way. A Controller can be a fun, exciting, deep, strategic class to play… when you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, it can be utter hell. They aren’t very durable, they don’t do much damage, they rarely get to be the spotlight of an encounter, and they can be so confusing that you’ll wonder why people would bother playing them in the first place. Fact is that you need to know a lot to play a Controller. You need to know a lot about game mechanics and what abilities are too situational. You need to know a lot about status effects and how to best utilize them. You need to know a bit about optimization as there aren’t features set in place to make a poorly built Controller effective like there are for the other roles. If you’re looking for a fun, rewarding challenge that places emphasis on strategy and not just “smack with stick then roll damage”, play a Controller. If not, play something else because your party will be better off for it.

For those curious the Controller classes are the Wizard, the Invoker, the Druid, the Psion, and the Seeker. In addition, there is a D&D Essentials supplement coming out in March of next year featuring the “Shadow” power source, and it is expected that the Necromancer class will also be a Controller. For those curious what the “Essentials” are, I’ll get into that at a different time, but you can read about it and the ensuing nerd rage all around the D&D 4E forums. Next lesson will be for the Strikers, so that all new players in D&D know exactly what to go for.

If you guys have any comments or questions, leave them below and I’d love to read and respond to them.


  1. Excellent explanation on a hard role to play in a party.

    I wish you would have wrote this five weeks ago when my wife insisted to take this role in the party after a MUCH less detailed and far less explained blog post on this topic from a friend.

    She ended up abandoning the Controller role for something more hack-and-slash because she just couldn't handle all of the information. Which literally made her go to bed with a migraine nightly till she stopped. Something tells me that she's burned out on playing anything smarter than a half-orc barbarian for a while.

  2. Oops. Yeah, it can be a real headache playing a Controller if you go into it thinking it'll be like the other classes. It's tough to realize just how different other roles are from one another. Want to do damage? Play a Striker. Want to take damage? Play a Defender.

    Glad she at least found something more enjoyable to play.

  3. Fascinating, my previous misconceptions about the controller have definitely disavowed, nice touch working in the Final Fantasy frame of reference ;)

  4. Great analysis of the role, Rollo T.
    Im sorry she fell away from the controller, Pope Micheal.

    To add more perspective I tend to think of the mentality of the Old D&D wizard when I think of controllers in general.
    What I mean is when you played a wizard in those days, they weren't a glass cannon of hellfire doom... not at low levels anyway.

    What they were, are something I like to call Glass ducttape. The hardest lesson with them was learning to adapt to every situation and use what few spells you had to every concievable utilitarian effect possible.

    A Controller's job is to make the opponent play the game by your rules, but also have the tools to answer everything they can throw and live.
    If I can give new players any advice it's to be observant.
    If you have arcana or nature, make those checks to see if you know anything about your enemies. If you can prepare stuff ahead with one shot magical items, even better.

    Perparation and knowledge is the secret of the controller
    a leader may be a jack of all trades but a controller is Mcguyver.

    ~ The Lost Sorcerer

    PS: Sorry if I pestered you about this project, Rollo T. :P
    I really appreciate the fantastic research you put into this.

  5. Huh. Controller was the first role I ever played in 4e (A Wizard specifically), and I didn't find it particularly difficult. The Fighter, on the other hand, I got a massive headache while playing.