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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Party Balance is an Illusion

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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!  
  3. 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 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.  


  1. I can't say I agree with this article. I think it depends on the outlook of your players. When people ask "What is needed" they are asking "what will give the group the best chance of success?" If someone says "I guess I'm the cleric" then it is because they have played in games where if you don't have a cleric, you are going to be at a disadvantage. This is more of a failing of the Storyteller and not that of the players.

    I'm not scolding the efforts of the Storyteller, but I am saying that both types of play can exist, but the existence needs to be deliberate. If you are using products made for a wide audience, then they are going to be geared for a rational party structure. If you are able to plan, then you will plan to be successful if you are playing a game you want to "win." In contrast, you can have a totally custom game where all the players make their characters in isolation from any information. They are given enough reference material on what the setting is and what the norms of their class/race are to make a character. During the first session characters are thrown into a situation where they must come together, and things go on from there.

    One of these scenarios takes a lot more work and experience, so the former is your average roleplaying experience. I have participated in both types of sessions, and both have their own merits. The more abstract, the higher the chance of catastrophic failure. Most people are not ready for or don't prefer that kind of fun, so it's not the standard way people play.

    I'm sure there are games out there where people just sit down and go for it, and I personally would love it! Not all stories have a happy ending, and many very interesting stories end in failure. But hey, I'm an entrepreneur, so I know all about failure, and I don't shy away from it.

  2. There is also a measure of being part of the group versus having the character you are personally dreaming to play. A well organized group will succeed where a group of special snowflakes will fail. Why are the special snowflakes banding together long term anyway? If they all want to stay true to themselves, why are they conceding any of their energy to the group?

    1. Thanks for your input, and as always thanks for taking the time to read my post.

  3. I have found players tend to choose different classes because they want their own niche. They dont want 2 fighters for example bec then they feel their roles overlap too much/not unique enough/weird competition with other fighter

  4. This is why in 1e CHA isnt a dump stat.

    Party balance never was mentioned because there was the expectation that every player would also have henchmen.

    1. Exactly. That gold you looted at low levels went into your (demi-)human resources/personnel or else you would retire early, peacefully or not.

  5. 100% agree. I ran a 3.5E combat oriented module for my group and they decided to ALL play some form of wizard/sorcerer. I ran the module pretty much as written and got hammered! Any one for a wand of Summon Monster/Undead? The players holed up in a room taking turns to summon whatever and then unleashed them on my unsuspecting orcs who couldn't get close enough to threaten them. We all had a blast.

  6. I think it also depends on whether you're talking about a one-shot adventure, or a long-running campaign. For a longer-running campaign, you're almost certainly going to encounter challenges that would be best addressed by a particular character class -- such as the thief's ability to find traps, open locks, etc.

    And if you've got a party that really needs [Class X] but the character wants to play a [Class Y], there's always multi-classing, and that character spends more of their time in one "mode" than the other.

  7. There is also the problem of magical item overlap. Oh that +2 bastard sword dropped! Yay, now which of the three fighters, or the barbarian is going to get it? In a "balanced" group, the items tend to be more evenly spaced to fit the role of the players.

  8. I think it's an interesting idea to look at how newer (3rd edition, Pathfinder, 4th Edition, and somewhat 5th edition) have created more clearly defined niches for characters in terms of intended combat role and out of combat roles. The change in game design has shifted towards a more balanced approach in what characters are expected to do, so players select different classes based on those expectations. It benefits a part in newer versions to spread their expertise and areas of mastery over a wider area. This lets them handle challenges more readily and gives the a better chance of success.

    Old school ideation doesn't really look at the game the same way and seems to work under a theory that everything will work out. Another consideration for play balance in older game systems is that not everyone levels up at the same speed, and that can dramatically impact the availability of critical resources. This also creates an inherent imbalance to the system (by design, so I don't think it's actually an imbalance).

    Long story short, Balance doesn't equal identical competencies. Some things are inherently unbalanced, and that's acceptable because the game was designed to take into account that imbalance.

  9. You know it doesnt fall on the dm to provide it falls on the players to seek. If they need fighting men they should go out and find them. If they need potions they should buy them. The world will react in kind. hmm this small hamlet has a desperate need for potions of healing well I know I can make my sales if I go there so small herbalist shops and potion makers will flock to that area. People tend to not understand the magnitude player characters can have on the world and economic system. THe basic rule of humanity persists where there is a need and sufficent demand then it will be answered. And if a party of mages want to go into the dangerous dungeon alone without men at arms its their funeral they wouldnt have lived long enough to unlock the higher mysteries of magic anyhow without any common sense. make it available but not obvious make them work for it

  10. I appreciate your point in this post, but I feel it worth mentioning that, as the game has advanced from the older editions of which you reference, the game developers have applied mathematical models to the mechanics of both character classes and world features such that it is wise to have someone who can fulfil a given role, as that's how the game's general rules for building encounters will assume that a party is structured.

    Now, as you said, there are some ways to address that. Firstly, many classes have overlapping abilities such that you don't necessarily need to take a rogue or a wizard or a fighter where their role in the party could be served with, say, a cleric of knowledge (who can use their channel divinity to become proficient with thieves' tools to pick a lock while also being able to cast devastating spells like fire storm), or a bard (they get cure wounds and raise dead...), or a paladin. Secondly, as you pointed out, it's possible to equip the party with measures to deal with those situations, or simply don't emphasize those challenges in your campaign. You're the DM, it's up to you how you want to build things.