The common belief is that the DM is in charge, but the more I’ve been looking at things objectively the more I’m inclined to disagree. It seems to me that the players have a lot more power and influence over the campaign than anyone may realize.
At the very beginning of any game the DM is indeed in charge. He’s in control of the overall setting, the campaign objective, the party’s motivation and the monsters. The very first time the players sit down at the gaming table the DM is firmly in control. But as we all know, no plan survives contact with the enemy (the enemy being the players).
The DM in Control
Whenever the party is balanced and contains at least 5 PCs the DM is firmly in control. He can design any kind of encounter he sees fit assuming he follows the guidelines set out in the DMG. A little bit of tweaking here and there is perfectly acceptable. He still challenges the party, but unless the players do something incredibly stupid they should have a solid shot and completing the encounter and having a pretty good time doing it along the way.
When I talk about a balanced party, I’m not just talking about representation of all four roles, although that is part of it. A balanced party will have both strong melee and ranged attackers. And no matter what skill is required for a given situation, at least one PC is trained. As the party gets more powerful, they will have the ability to deal most energy types of damage and will likely have similar resistances.
The more balanced the party, the more they cover off every eventuality as a group, and the more firmly the DM remains in control. The DM becomes even more confident in his decisions as he creates new encounters because he knows that the party has the right tools for the job.
It’s a lot easier to be the DM when you’re in control. You can work in a vacuum and create the adventure you envision. You don’t need to second guess yourself or worry about pulling punches. Follow the guidelines in the DMG and you’ll be fine. In the end everyone should be challenged but not overwhelmed. This is the making of a great adventure.
The Players in Control
I love creating new characters. It’s always been one of the most enjoyable experiences of playing any RPG. What bugs me is when I have a character concept and I’m asked (or forced) to change my build to meet a gaping hole in the party make-up. Whether it’s the lack of a healer, the need for a heavily armored tank-like character, or just a PC who is trained in Diplomacy, I want to make the character I’ve envisioned without pressure to balance the party.
I’m not saying that I won’t consider filling a hole, but I hate it when there’s an expectation by the group that someone will fill the gap. As described above there are plenty of good reasons to ensure that here is balance in the party, but I find that stifling creativity to meet this need is not the answer.
Some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever seen were created in total isolation. The player showed up and said this is my guy. The first time we discover whose playing what is when we come together, ready to play. There’s no attempt to ensure all roles are filled each player just plays what he feels like playing. There is absolutely no consideration for balance and filling the holes.
And the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I see value in not filling those holes. The more lop-sided the party, and the more unbalanced it becomes, the more control the players have over the game – for better or worse.
When the party is missing a role, the DM has to carefully consider how he sets up every encounter. When the party lacks a striker, the DM will likely use fewer brutes and solos. After all if a monster has hundreds of hit points and the party’s best attacks only deal 1W plus a marginal bonus the combat will take forever and get really boring really fast. When the party lacks a controller the DM should limit the number of minions in each encounter and likely remove them all together for at least half of the encounters.
The players aren’t intentionally forcing the DM to modify his encounters, but they are in control. When the players realize they’ve got gaps in the party balance and choose not to do anything about addressing them they force the DM to adjust his encounters. The DM will likely exploit the party’s weaknesses and holes a little bit, but I believe that most DMs faced with this kind of situation eventually bend to the party’s control and adjust tactics to keep things fun and exciting.
I recently ran a campaign in which three of the five characters were ranged attackers (two of them being strikers). I had to adjust my encounters to ensure that terrain features provided areas for those attackers to gain cover and good vantage points. Likewise I created places for the enemies to hide from the PCs. Some terrain features, like pits were inconsequential since these obstacles didn’t affect the majority of the party.
The more lop-sided the party, the more control they have (even if they don’t realize it) in how the DM creates encounters. The only time this isn’t true is when you get a DM who feels that D&D is nothing more than the DM vs. the players. This kind of DM refuses to bend to the situations I’ve described above. He’s going to take advantage of the party’s weaknesses all the time and likely kill PCs to emphasize that he’s in control. If your DM is like this then I think you have bigger problems than an unbalanced party.
Does Control Matter?
Being in control shouldn’t be anyone’s primary objective. Having fun should be the ultimate goal. I’m merely pointing out that players have a lot of influence on the way their DM creates the adventure based on choices the players make. D&D is a collaborative game and I think a lot of players forget, or just don’t realize, how collaborative. Players understand that they run their PC and the DM runs everything else, but the next time you’re playing in an unbalanced party, pay attention to the way the DM has set up the encounter.
Note how many things seem curtailed to meet the party make-up. The DM has adjusted thing to better suit the adventuring party at the table, bending to the control exerted by the players in the choices they’ve made. The encounters are still exciting and completing them is still satisfying. In fact, a DM who understands that the players are in control under these circumstances has everything to gain by letting them force his hand. Once you know the party’s limits you can easily work within that framework and still tell the story you want to tell, it might just need a few additional twists and turns to get there in the end.
Who’s in charge of your campaign? If you’re the DM, how strongly are your decisions influenced by the party’s make up? How many players have a DM that runs things with an iron fist? Is it more important to have balance then play the character you want to play? Are you willing to accept the repercussions of not playing in a balanced party?