Adventuring With A Sub-Optimal Party (Part 2)

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 16, 2010

Delving through dungeons with a non-standard party is an invitation to failure in most instances. What happens when the most stereotypical member of the adventuring party is missing? Defenders represent the key trait that all adventurer’s need, toughness. Defenders are the embodiment of nobility, honour, duty and physical perfection. Legend and fiction are full of characters that embody the spirit of the defender: Lancelot, Conan, Elric and Beowulf all fit the description. Warrior’s any adventurer would want by their side.

What happens to an adventuring party when this key element is missing? What happens when the tank, the individual who absorbs all the damage, is missing? What adjustments does a party need to make to ensure it can successfully navigate the challenges that face it?

This is the second installment where we examine adventuring in a sub-optimal party. We’ve already already looked at a party without a leader in Adventuring With A Sub-Optimal Party (Part 1). The focus this time around is the absence of the defender.

Defenders have two primary roles in any adventuring party; absorbing damage and ensuring the rest of the party doesn’t have to. Defenders in 4e D&D are known for being sticky. Defenders get in front of their opponents and ensure that they stick to them. Each defender class has their own way to be sticky, commonly manifested through their mark. When opponents are marked, not attacking the defender normally carries consequences. This reinforces the sticky factor of the defender, opponents want or need to be adjacent to them. Some defenders can even invoke the power of their mark from a distance.

Of course placing a mark on your opponent and encouraging them to attack you means that high defenses and plenty of hit points are mandatory. These are areas that all defenders have in common. The other classes normally are a peg lower in these two categories. When the defender is missing, not only is the ability to mark opponents absent, but so too are the high defenses and hit points. With the defender missing the party needs to make two adjustments. First an alternate tank is required and second the party needs to ensure that their damage output is maximized.

An Alternate Tank

With the defender missing another PC is going to need to step forward and assume the role of damage sponge. Though this character won’t be able to mark the way a defender can, they should be able to withstand the physical punishment that defenders typically take.

A good choice is for the leader to fulfill the role of default tank. Leaders receive decent armour training and hit points from the start. With armour training the leader can significantly increase their defenses. Taking feats such as Toughness and Durable allow them to absorb a lot of extra damage. Additionally, the leader is the only role that receives Healing Word (or equivalent) as a class feature allowing them to heal themselves as necessary during combat.

Another class that could fill the role of the defender is the Barbarian. Barbarian’s receive a few more hit points than other strikers, making them slightly more durable. The Barbarian is already in melee combat dealing a lot of damage and therefore already a target.

The final alternative to filling the defender role is to simple do without and rely on tactical and forced movement to keep the PCs from taking any damage they don’t need to.

Maximum Damage Output

Dealing the maximum amount of damage every round is something that any adventuring party wants to do. A non-standard party lacking a defender needs to ensure that this area is covered in spades. The easiest way to do this is to have the slot that the defender would normally take be filled by a striker. By directly increasing the amount of classes that are dealing high amounts of damage the party can eliminate opponents and not need to worry about taking additional damage.

Most classes also have a secondary role and having PCs focus that role towards striker duties will also increase the damage output available to the party. While burst and blast attacks are attractive as they can hit multiple opponents at once, few PCs have a great amount of them. The party is better off focusing fire with single target, high damage attacks over area of effect tactics. The exception to this is if the party is heavy on controllers. In which case, make sure that powers and effects play off each other.

The final consideration is weapon selection. Given the choice, higher damage dice weapons should be selected over those that do lower amounts. The logic here is simple, the larger the damage die, the more damage output available. Now some will argue that the role-playing reasons for weapon selection trump any other reason. However, we aren’t here to discuss the role-playing merits of weapon selection. We’ve already done that in Don’t Bring A Dagger To A Sword Fight. Rather, we’re discussing the ability to destroy one’s enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible. To accomplish that goal, big weapons are needed.

Our article Deal The Most Damage takes a look at some builds that… well, deal a lot of damage. Don’t focus too much on the classes, as some are defenders, instead focus on the weapons that are being used. Of course if you just want the weapons, read Big Bad Weapons and then select your weapon of choice.

For more on our series of non-standard adventuring parties, read:

Does your current adventuring party lack a defender? How have you made the adjustment?

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1 DMJard July 16, 2010 at 1:02 pm

The party of 3 i DM has no defender, so they focus on staying phalanxed an using healing powers. I’m also a little more liberal with giving out parcels that include Potions of Healing. A sub-optimal party can be just as fun as a min/maxed party if the DM understands the party’s difficulties.

2 Wimwick July 16, 2010 at 5:25 pm

@ DMJard
Being versatile and developing a tactic that works is the key when you are playing with a small group or with a non-standard party. Of course as DM you’ll want to force the PCs out of their comfort zone everyonce in a while.

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