Do You Have The Right Tools (or PCs) For The Job?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 18, 2012

I’ve played in a lot of games where things could have been a lot easier if we’d only had a Cleric in the party. Or an archer. Or someone trained in Thievery. Or a controller. The point is that some obstacles are going to be easier if you have the right tools for the job. This is also true when it comes to PCs. The right mix of classes and races in any given party will provide you with a competitive edge that will make many tasks easier.

Many DMs design adventures knowing what tools, skills and abilities the PCs have and create challenges that their unique skill sets will be adequately suited to overcome. However, there are often just as many times where the DM simply needs to throw certain monsters or other obstacles at the PCs and if they don’t have the right tools for the job then things are going to be a lot more difficult. This is especially true of you are playing form a printed adventure like those found in Dungeon magazine. The key to overcoming this issue is to try to ensure that the party is made up of the PCs most suited for the job in front of them; a task that’s easier said than done.

Most gamers I know have multiple characters. In fact, each member of my gaming group has a character tree. This is a concept that we first learned of playing in the original Dark Sun campaign setting. The idea is that Dark Sun is such a cruel and unforgiving world that PCs will die… often. Getting each player to create multiple PCs – the character tree – ensures that there is a suitable back-up character waiting in the wings in the event that the primary character is killed. We didn’t adopt the character tree idea because our characters are killed with any regularity; rather as new books were released we wanted to try out the new classes and races without leaving the established story and in-game history. In order to keep things balanced all characters in the character tree are exactly the same level. This way a player who always uses the same PC doesn’t end up with a character many levels above the party’s average level while his back-up characters are all still only level 1.

Assuming there is opportunity to swap PCs, and assuming your DM deems it appropriate given the situation, it is possible to have the right tools (or in this case the right PC) for every adventure. However, a lot of players don’t think that far ahead. They have it in their mind that they’re going to play a certain PC and that’s the end of the discussion. But what if you didn’t have final say on which of your characters you were going to use for the next adventure? What if someone else in your gaming group was given the opportunity to tell everyone else what character to play? How might this improve the chances of success?

The members of my gaming group are big believes in “play what you want” when it comes to character creation. The result is a lot of strikers and leaders, but few defenders and controllers. At the beginning of each new adventure all the players choose one PCs from their character tree. Following our “play what you want” philosophy everybody plays whichever PC they fell like running for that game. We rarely take into consideration what everyone else is playing. We’re experienced enough that we can handle missing roles or lop-sided party make-up. In fact, missing a role in the party make-up has often led to some of the most memorable adventures (but not always in a good way).

The problem that we face more often than not is that we just don’t have the right tool for the job. One player chooses his Wizard instead of his Warlord, another chose his Bard instead of his Ranger.

Over the past few years in my home game the PCs have been part of an adventuring company or part of a military unit. In these scenarios the party always has a patron or boss who assigns them missions. It provides the DM with a really easy way to get the PCs involved in whatever he’s dreamt up for the next adventure. It also serves as a good way to explain why all of the PCs, none of whom are the same race or class, have come together and stayed together.

Moving forward I’m going to suggest that out group try something a little bit different to try to ensure that we end up with the best tools for the job. Normally at the beginning of each new adventure the party’s patron brings the group together, sets the stage and sends them off to fight evil and save the world. The players choose which PC they want to use and it’s off you go. But what if the players don’t make that choice for themselves? What if the patron instead picks one PC and designates him as mission commander. The mission commander is responsibly for selecting the best party from the PCs in the character tress to accomplish the mission.

Over the next few adventures, each player takes a turn as the mission commander and they get to put together the best party. The players will still only play their own character, but they won’t be the ones choosing which one they run over the next few sessions. Some players may have some initial resistance to this kind of approach. They might have wanted to play their Sorcerer this time, but the mission commander selected their Paladin so that’s the PCs they’ll be playing. Players have to be willing to take one for the team and play the PC the mission commander thinks will work best.

In order for this kind of approach to work, the adventures need to be fairly short. Most players have multiple characters and among them there is usually a favourite. If the various mission commanders don’t let the player run his favourite PC for weeks at a time there’s likely going to be some out-of-game resentment. However, if everyone gets a turn as mission commander then you know that you’ll get to play your favourite PC at least once.

By designating one PC as mission commander it allows that character to take on some leadership responsibilities. The DM should provide some advanced details to the mission commander secretly so that he can make an informed choice of who’s going to be coming along for this mission. If the mission commander wants to gather all the PCs from “the unit” together and explains the mission the players can have the ones they feel will be most suitable speak up and request to be part of the mission. Alternatively the mission commander can simply tell each player which PC he wants them to play.

In the article Playing Someone Else’s Character we said that letting a player run someone else’s character allows them to demonstrate certain ticks, stunts or tactics that the character’s creator hadn’t considered. Letting one of the other players in your group decide which character you’re going to play has the potential to yield similar results. However, instead of highlighting one character’s potential as an individual the mission commander has a chance to highlight how certain character working together create synergies that might not have otherwise been apparent, especially if those two PCs never seemed to be in the party at the same time.

In the end it all comes down to party building. By taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, in this case all PCs in the various character trees, each mission commander can create a tactical unit he feels is most suited for the upcoming adventure. In some cases there will be obvious choices, divine characters if there is going to be undead, sneaky characters if there’s likely to be some undercover work, or charismatic characters if it’s a social challenge. However in some cases the mission commander may not have a lot of details up front. He may only know that there is unrest in the neighbouring kingdom and has to choose the party with the most versatility. But even when details are sketchy it is still possible to assess the resources at your disposal and do whatever you can to ensure that you end up with the right tools (or PCs) for the job.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alton January 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

Your group does not really play Defenders or Controllers. WOW! No one in my group likes Leaders.

Great article!

2 Philo Pharynx January 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

We haven’t done this, but in one game we had a couple of parallel groups that were loosely affiliated. One was a generic adventuring group, but the other was a stealth team. Most groups have one or two sneaky people so there’s a limit to how much sneaking gets done. If the sneaky sorts get too far ahead, they can’t be supported. When the entire group is sneaky, you have a much different dynamic. This game was 3.5 and most characters had some rogue levels. We’d usually get surprise and first initiative in the regular round. So we’d all tumble into flanking positions and the enemies often died before getting an action. It was sort of like a deadly circque de soleil.

@Alton, we have one game that’s a cleric, warlord, psion and rogue. It’s an interesting mix, but the characters synergize really well. The cleric and warlord are very defenderish and the warlord’s dragon breath gives us the area attacks that the psion isn’t good at. The psion is really good at moving enemies where they need to be. The rogue is very good at moving where he needs to be and at avoiding being damaged while doing a multi-hit alpha strike.

3 Thorynn January 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm

We definitely meta-game a bit when it comes to party make-up. A lot of times, one of us will multi-class to fill a hole; such as a Ranger taking thievery as a multiclass feat. That usually does it for us.

4 Sunyaku January 18, 2012 at 7:39 pm

My group consists of 3 defenders, 1 leader, 3 strikers, and no controllers. Two of the three strikers are not able to make it to most sessions, so that makes for a very defendery party! To some degree, I’ve tailored encounters to the group– I know a large pool of minions will be rough on the party, so I’ve given them magic items with controller effects, and generally I don’t use a lot of minions.

Dealing with the defender focus has been a mathematical challenge. I generally increase the number of monsters, but I make them lower level, so that they take a lot of swings but have a low hit rate… and the lower level generally means that a defender can hack them down in two to three attacks (two hits), and the striker can take them down in one shot. This gives all three defenders plenty of opportunity to feel useful as they play “protect the VIP” with the cleric and rogue.

5 Alton January 18, 2012 at 9:55 pm

@Philo Pharynx
I guess all the classes do have their secondary role tendencies. It does make for interesting strategies during gameplay. Having 2 leaders help a lot also. You have more wiggle room during combat. Do you find that your encounters drag on with 2 leaders?

@Sunyaku
Combat must take forever in your party. Defenders, unless their secondary roles are strikers, hit with minimal damage. They can clog up the battlefield though. Mathematical calculations indeed.

6 Philo Pharynx January 18, 2012 at 11:01 pm

@Alton, I think only having four characters is more of an issue. Both of the leaders do good damage. And both the warlord and psion have ways of giving extra attacks to the rogue. Take a look at Forced Opportunity. Very useful against solos.

7 Alton January 18, 2012 at 11:49 pm

@ Philo Pharynx

That is a cool power. Thanks for the feedback.

8 Svafa January 19, 2012 at 10:36 am

We did something similar in our last 3.5 campaign (about two-three years ago). The group worked for an Adventurer’s guild. So at the start of an arc, I’d usually give the group of all characters a mission briefing and then let them organize as best they could on the information. I never gave the decision power to one particular player or PC, but I would generally help them decide on what might be needed based on what their characters knew.

Another solution I’m using in our new 4E group is to use NPCs to fill the gap. We’re four sessions in now, so the group has more-or-less fallen into place, but the first session only saw two players, while the second saw three. So I tossed two NPCs into the group to fill the gaps, giving them a leader and hybrid defender/striker to help fill the gaps. Now they’ve got five in the group, so I’m removing the defender/striker this week and will be cutting the leader in the future once they no longer need a Druid to help with tracking and handling a certain wild animal.

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