After reading this great post regarding the parrying system in Shitlord: The Triggering at Cirsova, I was thinking about the following question:
What does each character in the party bring to the table?
Dungeons and Dragons came from the tabletop wargame Chainmail. You can read a short summary of that history here. An army comprised of a single type of unit will probably fail miserably against a more diverse army. I suppose that in very specific situations, you may want an army composed entirely of one type of unit, but that would be pretty rare. Likewise, you could argue that a party of wizards would be most powerful in D&D (particularly at high levels), however you would need to absolutely, 100% certain that no hostile being could make it into melee range of the wizards. Otherwise, everyone is going to be rolling up new characters in a hurry.
The various character classes in a roleplaying game fill roles in the party much like the different troop types make up the different roles within an army.* For the purposes of this analysis, I will be sticking to the four “main” character classes: Fighters, Clerics, Wizards, & Thieves.
FIGHTERS: Heavy Infantry or Archers. With heavy armor and melee weapons, they can hold the line and protect the physically weaker parts of your party. Of course, in the process of holding the line, there is plenty of opportunity to inflict damage on the enemy! Or, if they have high Dexterity, fighters can be incredible archers, which pepper your foes with arrows.
CLERICS: Leaders. Rather than providing morale bonuses for nearby troops, the cleric can also heal wounds / support other characters with beneficial magic, keeping the party in the fight longer than normal. In a way this similar to how a leader unit may prevent other friendly units from fleeing the battle, thus keeping them in fight long after they would have normally fled. Also, since in most systems clerics tend to wear heavy armor (or close to heavy armor) like a fighter, they can be “backup” heavy infantry.
WIZARDS: Artillery. While a wizard is more than just launching fireballs at the enemy, their other magical abilities can turn the tide of battle just as easily. Also, like historical artillery, they need to be protected from direct assault.
THIEVES: Cavalry? Scouts? This was a bit difficult for me to think through, so please bear with me. While the thief does not have the speed that being mounted on a horse gives cavalry, they are able to scout effectively due to their sneakiness. The thief is able to see where the enemy is and report it to the rest of the party. Also, much like cavalry, they are great for a massive “shock” attack. Instead of charging the enemy with lances out, the thief instead backstabs the enemy. In either case, massive damage will follow (if the dice are nice!). However, much like cavalry, the thief is not necessarily built for sustained melee combat. Once they do their damage, the cavalry/thief needs to get out and prepare for another strike.
Am I suggesting that a tabletop roleplaying game is just a miniature tabletop wargame? Not necessarily. I think 4th Edition D&D went down that road and I want to avoid 4th Edition. However, I think keeping these roles in mind will help a party act appropriately in combat.
*I am not a wargamer, so please forgive any specific errors I make in this post. My details may be wrong, but I think the general point still stands.