Playing In An Unbalanced Party

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 24, 2009

The PHB suggests that all adventuring parties should have at least one PC representing each of the four roles: controller, defender, leader and striker. Most parties, in my experience generally follow this guideline. But what happens when this balance is disrupted. What if your party make-up is missing some of the roles? How will that affect your game?

When you’re playing at home with your friends you have a lot more control over who’s playing what class. Often you’ll decide on complimentary classes while creating new PCs. But during public play you don’t have this luxury. When people meet to play a LFR game for example, you’re stuck with the PCs brought to the table. Sometimes you get balanced parties and sometimes you don’t.

I’ve played in three recent adventures where the party roles were extremely lop-sided. The outcome was a little bit surprising, but each of the three games provided valuable lessons that I’d like to share. The first two situations happened at GenCon, and the third happened during a home game.

Strikers

In my very first game at GenCon (a level 7-10) we had five strikers and one leader. Two of the strikers were ranged, three were melee. A party of strikers turned out to be a lot of fun. We had mediocre defenses and no way to mark foes, but we still dominated in battle. By attacking hard and fast the monsters dropped so quickly that the lack of a defender wasn’t even noticeable. If anything, it was disappointing to have so many strikers because we killed all the monsters so quickly. The leader did a great job of healing the few wounds we sustained. I don’t know if I’d want to play in an all striker game long-term, but as a one-off adventure I’d be happy to give it another try down the road. I’d strongly recommend that players try a striker-heavy party make-up at least once. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to making D&D feel like a video game.

Defenders

In the second game (a level 11-14) we had four defenders, one striker and one leader. This was a very different experience then the five striker game. We had no problem controlling the battlefield since four characters could mark opponents. The real problem was damage output. Because we weren’t hitting for a lot of damage the fights really dragged on. Many of the monsters had recharging abilities and by not killing any of them quickly we allowed them more opportunities to roll for a recharge. Eventually they all started recharging over and over again. Fortunately we had high defenses so even when they recharged we often avoided damage or only took partial damage.

The combat was really boring since none one was willing to move. Each defender went toe-to-toe with one (or sometimes two) monsters and it was a battle of attrition. It wasn’t until a couple of the defenders dropped the tougher monsters that things started to play out like a traditional D&D combat encounter.

The defenders had a lot of hit points, high defenses and a lot of healing surges so after the combat things weren’t that bad. In the end our greatest opponent was the clock. Our 4-5 hours time slot should have given us ample time to complete the entire adventure which included four combat encounters. Because the fights took so long we only completed two. We got about half way through the third fight, but the DM called it due to time.

I’m not interested in participating in any game that has more than two defenders in the party. The combat was long and boring. Defender powers aren’t as flashy or varied as those of other classes. Very few defender powers seem to move opponents around the board or target multiple monsters. That’s just the way defenders work. In the adventure I played there were no skill challenges, but I suspect that we would have failed horribly if any had been thrown at us. I’m glad I tried a game with four defenders, but I’m not eager to try it again any time soon.

Leaders

This is not a party make-up that I was expecting to see any time soon, but leave it to my regular group to throw me a curve ball. They’ve created a party with four leaders and two strikers (Artificer, Bard, Bard, Cleric, Ranger and Rogue). This is a party that was originally created for 3.5e but was converted to 4e. We’ve only just begun playing, and we may still change one or two of the PCs but for now four leaders is very interesting. The game is heavy on role-playing and light on combat. The roles and classes they’ve chosen are extremely versatile when it comes to skills and skill challenges. They usually try to avoid combat if possible, but when they are forced to fight good tactics, stealth and ranged attacks are their keys to success. The absence of a defender does make the strikers more vulnerable to retribution, but the seemingly unlimited supply of healing available during combat more than makes up for it.

This is nothing like the hack and slash adventure typical of past editions of D&D. If you’re an experienced gamer and you’re looking for a new take on D&D, I’d strongly recommend trying a leader-heavy party.

Controllers

Of all the roles in 4e D&D it seems that the controller is the one that gets the least amount of love. Their value to the party is often overlooked and even dismissed. I’ll admit that my initial feeling towards the controller was squarely in this camp. But as my characters level and the monsters get tougher I’m starting to see the value of a controller. The ability to attack multiple opponents simultaneously or the ability to move a dangerous foe away from a wounded ally becomes particularly important at higher levels. At GenCon I played with seven different parties varying in level from 1-14. Only one of the parties I joined had a controller (a Wizard). Nobody seems to be playing controllers. We’re currently running a poll asking you what role you think a party can do without and 55% of the responses chose controller.

Is the controller unnecessary? Or do people just not understand the value that a strong controller brings to a party? I wonder how different the results of our poll will look if we run it again in 6 months. It seems that most groups are just now hitting paragon tier. Will the stigma of the controller be overlooked and reevaluated after more players see the value of a controller at high level play?

What do you think? Have you played in a party with four or more of the same role? How has it worked out? And what are your thoughts about the controller? Do they deserve to be overlooked as much as they are?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Craig Willcutt August 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm

First off, excellent post.

Primarily, I play in LFR games with my highest character being a 16th level cleric for a playtest group running through the DDXP special. As with many things my viewpoint varies from being a player to being a DM.

A Player
As a player I love controllers (although I am not fond of playing one) in my party. I actually find the defender class generally worthless (although I have 2 defenders and love the role) in all but low level gameplay. In the 16th level module noted above the our Fighter didn’t really do too much. That free attack (when used) was basically inconsequential for higher level combatants.

A controller on the other hand inhibited the enemy in so many more ways than the defender could hope for. Controllers, in my experience, bring out the best in tactical thinking on behalf of the DM.

Noting all of this however still leads me to think controllers, in an overall point of view, not a needed role for a party. Strikers seem to easily fit the role as they merely drop things instead of placing a condition on them. Clerics and Warlords can create zones that greatly aide the party. I will concede that as supplements come out the controller role has gotten a nice bump in versatility and strength.

As a DM
I am pretty much just the opposite. I hate (read:HATE) controllers in an opposing party as their conditions make my job difficult. I love the defender because, as Ameron noted, they typically don’t dole out that much damage. This allows me to get all of my powers used.

As noted already I still think the striker is the best “substitute” role. I just become a sad panda while I watch the Ranger Twin Strike for 20+ damage, action point and then do it again. Of course, they do this in comfort while being 10 squares away.

I voted controller as being the least needed. Again, love them as an ally, hate them as a DM but, at the end of the day, they become a squishy nuisance that can be replaced by harder hitters without loss of staying power.

2 Swordgleam August 24, 2009 at 3:49 pm

My current group’s party is an interesting mix: a cleric, a warlock, a ranger, a fighter, and a paladin that changes into a wizard (long story) at semi-random. So we either have 2 strikers, 1 leader, and 2 defenders, or one of each plus an extra striker.

What I’ve noticed so far is that when the wizard is present in combat, most of the party responds with groans. This even with the fact that the wizard character is neutral, while the paladin is actively evil and wants to kill the fighter (again). So my players’ vote would be for defenders over controllers.

Myself, I played briefly in a party that was rogue, wizard/cleric, and warlord. We did a lot of avoiding combat, but when it came to a fight, we killed things just fine. The absence of a defender and the fact that neither of our healers were optimal did hurt, though.

3 Kameron August 24, 2009 at 4:24 pm

The party in the game I DM consists of all four roles plus an extra controller. People are still getting used to their powers and roles, so I’m not sure I could make an informed comment on any of the roles being necessary or not, though I do agree that combat for parties without a striker will drag on. Great post.
.-= Kameron´s last blog ..Throwing stones and rolling boulders =-.

4 AnthonyW August 25, 2009 at 3:57 am

I’ve played in a group with four strikers and, although combat does take a bit shorter time because we drop things really quickly, it’s not quite as much fun because if we encounter that has any health points to it, we’re going to have a massively difficult time staying alive. We also didn’t have a leader at all, so that doesn’t help much.

As for the controller issue, I’m not really sure. My current group has a Druid in it, but I don’t think she really knows what she’s doing in terms of actually using the controller to its best usage. She tends to enjoy the idea of shapeshifting and wolf-biting things more often than not.

I’m looking forward to getting the chance to play a controller and really see how the AoE idea works out for sure. But until then, I don’t know that much about controllers sadly.
.-= AnthonyW´s last blog ..RIP Arjon! =-.

5 Geek Ken August 25, 2009 at 8:30 pm

I’m working with a small party right now. Currently we have a cleric, fighter, rogue. Previously I was running with a paladin, wizard, rogue. Both parties worked well (the latter had just enough healing from the paladin to get by).

I don’t think leaders are necessary, but you need someone in the party that can dabble in leader healing abilities. It really goes a long way in keeping the players on their feet and going.

Controllers could be a class the party could go without. Without a defender, I think their utility grows immensely as they can segment the battlefield. I want to note however, this is all strictly combat situations. RP-wise having a wizard with access to rituals really opens up a lot of solutions to the group for getting out of, and around, tricky situations.

I’d also throw something the DMs way too. How are you structuring your combats? Maybe if you have a ton of minions with a few artillery-types, that controller might seem very useful (wiping clean the fodder so the others can hit the artillery hard). Slugging it out with a few brute-types, I think the controller would be less useful.

How the DM builds encounters can work a bit into party efficiency too.
.-= Geek Ken´s last blog ..Get out and game. =-.

6 Dave August 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm

I DM for a group comprised of a fighter, a paladin, a rogue, a homebrew barbarian (defender/striker), and a homebrew fighter-mage (defender/controller). Our role coverage is thus: 3 defenders, 1.5 strikers, 0.5 controllers, and 0 leaders.

Overall, I would have to agree that a party of mostly defenders leads to slow combat with not a lot of tactics. The fighter-mage’s controller powers have proved essential at dealing with minions (I would have slaughtered them were it not for Fire Shroud and Scorching Burst). With a paladin in the party, they don’t seem to miss the leader role too much, but they would definitely notice the loss of their semi-controller.

Unless the DM rarely uses mobs of minions, I would say that a controller role is more essential than a leader, but in either case, swapping a defender for another roles would (at the very least) make combat more interesting.

7 Ameron August 27, 2009 at 8:11 pm

@Craig Willcutt
I think that your view of controllers as good and defenders as bad at higher levels will prove to be accurate as more and more players hit paragon path. I’m playing a Paladin in my main game (10th level now) and he’s a poor defender.

I agree that strikers seem to be the most useful regardless of level. The striker classes certainly seemed most popular and prevalent at GenCon and at my LFR games held weekly at my FLGS.

@Swordgleam
I think good tactics can often make up for the lack of a controller. The Wizard in our game often blasts huge areas regardless of where her allies are standing. In this case the controller is viewed with mixed feelings.

@Kameron
Thanks for your comment. Having two controllers in one party seems to be a rarity. I think you’ll find that your combat takes on a whole new flavour with more controllers than strikers. You may find that as the party gets more powerful two controllers forces you to forego using minions and just throw more solos at the party. Good luck.

@AnthonyW
A group of striker is a lot of fun, but you’re absolutely correct. Without at least one leader you’ll have a hard time reviving fallen comrades. I’d suggest your players all take durability or multi-class into a leader role. That should address your short-comings.

The controller seems to be the class that requires the most homework. But from what I’ve heard it can also be the most fun. If you have the opportunity to play one I’d say take it (especially if your PC is starting at a higher level than 1st).

@Geek Ken
I think rituals are one of the areas of 4e that is most often overlooked. A creative and resourceful player can take a hand-full of rituals and change the way an encounter or a mini-campaign turns out.

I agree that a controller’s value seems much higher if the Dm is throwing a lot of minions into the fray. However, I don’t think eliminating minions all together just because the party has an efficient controller is the right way to handle this problem. Just use them sparingly and have them fight with good tactics. Just because their minions doesn’t mean that they’ll always be bunched together.

@Dave
I play a Paladin in my main game and he is an excellent stand-in for the leader when our Warlord is absent. But if I had it to do over again I’d go with a striker. The defenders seem really good at low levels, but as we approach paragon tier I don’t see them being nearly as versatile or sticky.

8 AnthonyW August 27, 2009 at 8:41 pm

I think it’s an interesting insight that people are going to be less and less able to play well as defenders as you approach paragon tier and higher. It makes me wonder how you could balance a game where the classes are still necessary and useful at all levels. Furthermore, it makes me also wonder whether or not the idea of needing a balanced party for D&D is as important as WoTC tried to make it seem.

Perhaps the best question should be here, what classes are needed for each tier? Heroic, Paragon and Epic?

;)
.-= AnthonyW´s last blog ..Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Ed. =-.

9 Craig Willcutt August 27, 2009 at 9:52 pm

In my opinion the best way to keep encounters “balanced” (that is, keep all classes relevant) would be to introduce various monster roles consistently in encounters as well as utilize terrain effectively in those encounters.

If most encounters take place in large, wide rooms then a controller will love dropping zones without hindering his/her allies. If, however, a big baddie strolls down a 10ft. wide hall then suddenly the fighters ability to “lockdown” said enemy is very important.

Another aspect to look at is skills. Creative skill encounters will ensure the need for various roles. There are ways around this of course but each role can shine if the DM can be creative.

10 Ameron August 31, 2009 at 3:43 pm

@AnthonyW
Excellent questions. I think that very few players have actually reached paragon and epic tier yet so I suspect that we’ll start hearing more and more about this in the coming months. Perhaps the defenders aren’t as useless as we thing at 27th level.

@Craig Willcutt
If I didn’t know better I’d assume you were a WotC plant. :)

Great advice, Craig.

11 Toldain September 8, 2009 at 1:30 pm

What strikes me is that this entirely mirrors what’s going on in MMO’s. People love their DPS classes, and don’t understand or play the control classes. But that’s what I love to play.

I don’t yet have a lot of experience with higher level controllers, but the wizard in the game I run has tons of fun, and can absolutely wipe the field clean of minions. Which I love to use, by the way. I like a board full of hordes that are getting in the way, and causing (the players) problems, even if they aren’t dangerous in and of themselves.

As to defenders, maybe what’s needed is a change in concept. My group has two defenders, a fighter and a warden. The warden can mark multiples, and has better AC and HP. So the fighter acts as a “peeler”, pulling stuff off of the others as needed, or at least making them harder to hit. And since she uses a greatsword and is quite strong, she deals respectable damage, too.
.-= Toldain´s last blog .."I Don’t Make Games, I Make Toys" =-.

12 Ameron September 9, 2009 at 9:25 am

@Toldain
I think too many DMs are avoiding minions because they are simply cannon-fodder for the controller. I think this is a huge disservice to these classes and significantly changes the way combat is designed to work. Just because one class has an advantage doesn’t mean that they should never be put in a situation where they can be really effective. That’s like not using undead because PCs do excessive amounts of radiant damage.

It sounds like your group has found a good way to put multiple defenders to use. Part of the problem in the game I describe above is that it was six strangers meeting at GenCon. If this was a home game I think the tactics would have been more sound (much like what you describe).

13 Spire September 11, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I’m the DM for a Group made of 1 controller (Scion) and 2 strikers (Rogue and Ranger)
There are a lot of tactic involved….mostly with fairly squishy characters. The Rogue has turned out to be the tank but the party has learned to throw themselves into danger just to get the rogue another chance to backstab…pretty funny really watching a lv 3 scion go toe to toe with a lv 5 dire wolf with his hands.I also let the ranger use his companion as a active player…(in turn adding more monsters).Additionally i add minions to distract the controller and throw and extra monster defender to bring focus off the minions for the rest of the group.The party wants to involve mounts now for basic fodder…funny and all in all pretty interesting.

14 Ameron September 11, 2009 at 9:50 pm

@Spire
When I was at a Wizards of the Coast seminar at GenCon 2008 the creator’s of 4e D&D said that the mark of a really good party is when you can complete encounters with only three PCs. They were talking about the dungeon delves but I think it holds true for any balanced encounter. Your group sounds like they are having a lot of fun and a lot of success. If they can pull it off with just 3 PCs, good for them.

15 YoungRocketSamurai September 9, 2010 at 3:35 pm

In the game I’m currently playing in, the DM has pretty much stopped using minions at all because we kill them all off so fast that they are pretty much free experience for us. We have 1 Defender (Swordmage), 3 Strikers (Avenger, Barbarian and Warlock) and a Leader (Cleric). We do okay at heroic tier without a controller, although the Warlock (me) has some control ability, and the Swordmage has a little too.
I think that a number of classes can work as secondary controllers, like the warlock, monk and swordmage for example.

16 Raven November 30, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I’ve DMed a group with a swordmage, a paladin, and a warden. My god, it’s very very slow. WE were playing in epic level and it takes sooo, literally, long to finish a battle. I disbanded the character party and let them remake their heroes, still same level.
Raven´s last blog post ..Dee Em Characters: Havoc the Evoker

17 Namagem April 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

I have actually played in a game with 5 clerics. Two battle (one human, one dwarf), two devoted (one of them had a reaper theme, worshipping the Raven Queen and carrying a scythe), and the last was Shielding, pacifist.

Oh my god. They took down a level +4 solo dragon with a nearly endless supply of kobold minions and still had healing left over. (it was a oneshot where the dragon was trying to take this church for Tiamat.)

18 Ameron (Derek Myers) April 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm

@Namagem
We had a party with 5 Dwarven leaders take on the first Lair Assault. They had no trouble defeating monsters and staying conscious. The problem was lack of output. The absence of a solid striker meant that the combat encounters took FOREVER! (They lost the Lair Assault because they only had 20 rounds to complete it.) We had a similar problem with our home game. We had 4 leaders, and 1 controller. The abundance of healing was great but everything just took so long to complete. We eventually changed out 2 of the leaders for a striker and defender. Balance helped.

19 Wade April 16, 2014 at 5:43 am

I’m running a campaign for 2 separate parties at the moment – at the end of our first module we had too big a party initially (at 9) and more people wanting to join – so it seemed like the best idea. We made sure the party balances were addressed as one party has 2 defenders, 2 strikers, 1 leader and one controller in a Warden & Swordmage, Rogue & Barbarian, Cleric, and a Druid, and the other is 1 defender/striker, 3 strikers, 1 leader, 1 controller, in a Bezerker, an Avenger, Assassin and a Warlock, an Artificer and a Witch.

The first party has better party synergy as they’ve played together longer, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and do a good job with the two defenders often protecting through marks or flanking with the strikers, or setting up for the druid to bust some B******* that normally ruins my day.

The second however are closer to the Three Stooges than a real D&D party. The Bezerker has defenders aura, but no ability to mark, while the three strikers have good abilities to drop enemies quickly either poor understanding of mechanics or poor party support get singled out quickly and dropped or aren’t getting the choicest targets, and the leader is poorly optimised for healing, relying instead on a range of buffs and de-buffs. The controller is the tipping point. During one of the most recent encounters, he kept 2 out of the 5 enemies at bay and unable to dish out any damage through a good use of conditions. This allowed the rest to make quick work of the artillery and swung back around to mop up the rest. Without him it would’ve been very different.

I think the reason it’s suggested that there’s one of each is that it’s the simplest most optimised party – damage dealer, healer, damage soak, conditions.

The multiple defender party is something I’d never play – slow game play, war of attrition, no mobility, just sounds boring.

The multiple striker/leader combination though, I’d love to see.

Maybe 3 strikers, 2 leaders, and 1 controller even, would make things VERY interesting, as you’d have enough damage output, enough healing to keep you in the fight, and that hint of battlefield control.

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