Often when I begin to DM a new campaign with new players, they ask me 'what is everyone playing, what does the party need?' I understand the question of course, but I do wonder why it persists. For example, if every player wished to swing a sword as a fighter, why would that be a problem? If they all wished to be band of thieves, or a clerical/ecclesiastical missionary group, or a coven of magic-users, why is this an issue? Where do we get the notion that the party must consist of a well-balanced group of character archetypes? Who started it?
I play primarily older rulesets, or retroclones thereof. As a player and DM since 1981, I cut my teeth on Holmes, Moldvay, and AD&D1e...still where my heart is. If there are specific passages in these books outlining a well-balanced party, I have not located them. Perhaps they exist, but I think it is more something we inferred from the text. It seems only logical to have a fighter, a healer, a thief, and a magic-user in the group to insure that the challenges faced whether trap, or foe, or magic portal have someone in the party who is adept at identifying, managing, and overcoming.
I freely admit that it's something I did over and over and over again as I played, and would even demand as a DM. "Well, the party already has a fighter and a cleric, so you can play a thief or a magic-user, your choice," was something I'm sure I said, along with, "oh man, I guess I'm the cleric." Why? What would possess me to shoehorn someones good time into a costume they didn't wish to wear?
As I grew to understand the game, the modes of play, and most importantly my role as a DM, I came to the realization that it was the job of the player to play, to chose a character that would make his/her experience the most enjoyable. In that way, the group would have the most enjoyable time, and if the group is having fun, more often than not so is the DM. If I restricted character choice in this way, I was most likely ensuring someone was not having their best time.
So the question then becomes, if it is a party of fighters, how do they heal? If it is a coven of magic-users, how do they fight? The answer is simply being a bit more creative as the DM. below are a few things that can help any party, but especially those lacking in some way, to play any combination of character archetypes they choose.
- If the party lacks healers, potions will suffice. Certainly there is no end to list of magical items that might induce healing, but potions seem the simplest and most convenient way for each player to manage their characters healing
- Does the party lack fighting men? They can be hired! Henchmen and hirelings were a very important piece of the gaming puzzle back when I started, but somehow it fell out of use in later editions. Bring it back!
- What? No Wizard among your ranks? That's what magic items are for, silly. I mean sure, you can hire a magic-user to follow you about, but they are expensive and tend to whine. Instead, round out the party with a few well placed and possibly rechargeable magic items.
There isn't any aspect of play that can't be reproduced in order to allow players to choose their own adventure path.
A fully balanced party, in retrospect, isn't really balanced at all. In a party of four that requires muscle, one fighter will hardly resolve all necessary combat, one cleric will be unable to heal everyone who may require it. This notion that having each player assume a very specific role in order to insure maximum survival is a myth...an illusion.
Let the players choose. If as the DM you need to compensate, or make options available in order to give your players a fighting chance (which they should, IMHO, always have), then do so. Be creative. That is, after all, your job.