Normally I post on Fridays, but since this was requested by a reader, I figured I’d use the first half of the week to tackle requests and try to maintain Fridays for my planned content, or here’s hoping at least.
One of the things that makes or breaks a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is the party of players on their way to adventure.
A party can consist of one or more players, but must hold more than one character of course. I will admit now, I’ve never played with more than 3 other people, and most of my experience comes from the DM side of the screen, but I have picked up a few things in doing so.
A party starts with the players, and so shall we.
First and foremost, your players need to be invested. If even one cares little for the game, it can really drag down the fun for everybody. How can we help this? Well discussing as a group what kind of game they’d like to play , whether one-shot or campaign, fantasy or Sci-fi, low magic or high, is important to starting off on the right foot. If you as the DM want to go for a steampunk world because you just finished a great game of Bioshock Infinite and you’ve suddenly got this neat idea, you spend a whole bunch of time creating a world, then you get to the table… well what do you do when your group looks at each other thinking “I thought we signed up for Lord of the Rings?” Making sure your game is the right fit for everybody is crucial. If everyone is on board, then that’s the first step cleared for a good party.
Now then, let’s get to the characters.
Most people agree that the fighter, the cleric, the rogue and the wizard tend to make a party with a good balance and so should be adhered to. My first experience with D&D was with the 4th Edition Red Box. Our play consisted of a Human Fighter called Bob Milligan, an Elven Cleric called Aedrin Lightbringer who was regularly misnamed Adrian and despised it, and a morally ambiguous pale Human Wizard known as… Well we’ll call him Horatio for this. We had 3 of the 4 archetypes at least, missing the rogue wouldn’t hurt too bad as this was 4e, where the lines between classes are as blurry as your vision after a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings marathon… Extended edition, or as blurry as when you complete three 15,000 word essays back to back whilst guzzling coffee to keep you awake .
So off the adventurers went searching for the lockbox belonging to a smelly dwarf named Traevus. The going was rough, greed trapping them in the arms of a stone hug monster, blood sucked by overly large mosquitos and literally stabbed in the back by a Mystique wannabe. All after being given the cold shoulder by a White she Dragon named Farallax. In the end, they found which room the lockbox was kept in, and who held it, an anonymous evil necromancer. The party set up an ambush, using one character as bait to run in, fire a shot and then flee to the next room where a rope was set up to trip whoever followed. Inside they found a humongous zombified hulk and three skeletons with the mage. The mage seemed unconcerned but the others sprang into action.
The hulk went down first, a natural twenty critical hit automatically reduced him to zero hit points because of an effect, where Bob Milligan leapt on him and brought him down. OHKO.
The skeletons alpha striked Aedrin however, and then it all went downhill. With no healer, the three skeletons, knocked down to two proceeded to mop up Horatio and that left only Bob Milligan. He clambered behind a giant burning brazier, tried tipping the contents over, rolled very poorly for three round and was brought down by their rusty scimitars. A gruesome scene. All whilst the Necromancer laughed from the other room. And there we have it. My first ever session, with me DMing, turned into a dreaded TPK (total party kill)
What did I learn from this about party composition?
Playing archetypes isn’t necessary because they can still all be killed by me!
But seriously, what really matters is that each character fulfills a unique role that the others do not, and you don’t need to be a wizard, cleric and fighter to fill those roles. Especially in 5th Edition.
I ran a West Marches style of play for some time. That’s were players can have multiple characters and live on the fringe of society doing the deeds no sane person would ever consider in order to make something of themselves. With a rotating cast, it was very much an open world exploration game about solving problems and going out there into the wilds for wanderlust or personal goals. In this style of play trackers and pathfinders were imperative, researchers were extremely flavorful with all the ancient ruins, crusader style frontiersmen gave to that sense of expansion. It was an interesting test that unknowingly brought out the roleplayer in even the most unlikely people. So what did that teach me? I think perhaps the most important lesson in party composition, really. That if the players and DM speak beforehand about what they want from the game, and the players make their characters together (or have multiple) then as a unit, before session 1, they can make a party where each member plays a key role, and is an individual that both fills a need and has a larger part to play in the world. What really matters is that the DM tailors the story around those characters. Or in the case of West Marches, make a gigantic laundry list that has something for everyone. Random Dungeon crawls in pre-made adventures are great but end in TPKs if no care is made to ensure it fits what the party is. A group of assassins would be terrible in desert survival, just as 5 nobles would be pretty darn bad in a war story if none of their manicured hands have ever touched a weapon before.
The last thing is compromise. One of my all-time favourite sessions was great for two players, but not the third. I won’t go too in depth for this story as I plan to get into it more later, but let’s just say it involved a mission to find a bounty in a… House of ill repute. Hilarity ensued, but one of the characters was lawful good and had shown this, so the character whose bounty they had followed didn’t involve him in the plan, and that character didn’t push for the knowledge because he didn’t want to get involved with such activities. Whilst the player enjoyed listening to the shenanigans, he felt left out as his character caught up with and had a few games of cards with old friends and nothing more. Lesson learned there, players and characters need to be able to compromise for the fun of the group over the fun of the individual.
This one was for you Arutha.