Monday, May 13, 2013

DM Theory: Does Someone Really Have To Be a Cleric? Thoughts on party composition.

Does someone really always have to be a cleric?  Sometimes it’s a drag to always have a priest around.  What if everyone wants to be a wizard? Will they all just hide behind one another whenever danger appears? Or, God forbid, what if the entire party is a bunch of Fighters?  How will they ever win? D&D is not just a role playing game, but also a game of well defined roles among the party.  Each character meshes with those around him to form a perfect combination that is well suited to wreak havoc on their environment. Sort of like Voltron. But what if the players just make the characters that they want to make and some essential aspect of party cohesion gets over looked? Well, it’s certainly not the end of the world. And as a DM I actually really like when traditional class roles break down and the party is forced to be creative to circumvent a problem that is tailored for a class that they may not have.  Watching a group of Fighters try to deal with a locked door is generally a lot of fun.  Or some negotiating when no one has a Charisma above eight.

Since it’s inception, D&D has sort of had the iconic four character party as the ideal.  The brutish warrior, the sneaky and clever thief, the cleric that patches everything up and the aloof wizard that saves the day when everyone else is overmatched.  And that’s all well and good, but it gets old and can be boring.  And divvying up the treasure is always far too peaceful.  Whenever we are starting up a new game and it’s character creation day I do my best to encourage players to make the character that they want to play, not the one that they think that the party needs.  Realistically, these characters were born and raised totally independent of one another so it seems highly unlikely that a group of strangers will have perfectly complementary abilities and skills. It’s fine if two characters both have Knowledge (Nature), it’s a good skill.

I’m currently DMing for a group of five players that has a party composition that leaves plenty to be desired.  They consist of a ranger, fighter, barbarian, monk, and dragon shaman. You’ve probably noticed that they have no arcane magic, no divine magic, and really no thieving skills (the monk and ranger can sneak around, but they ain’t getting in places without the key). So what have I done to make sure that this party isn’t chewed up by a world that expects certain attributes from it’s adventurers? Nothing. I have done absolutely nothing differently to cater to them. Why would I? Just because none of them wanted to be a rogue, it doesn’t mean that everyone in town forgets to lock their doors.  Or that treasure hoards don’t have wands.  For me, it’s very enjoyable watching them try to figure out how to deal with a problem that could easily be solved if they had a different type of character with them.  A recent example of this is a locked metal box that the Ranger found in the cabin of a ship that they had stolen.  He had no way to open it and was afraid to bring it to a locksmith for fear that it would be recognized and he would be caught with stolen goods.  Instead, he held onto it for about seven adventures and waited until the Dragon Shaman could breathe acid and melt the lock.  Of course, he then had to split the treasure with the Dragon Shaman, but that’s the way it goes. Teamwork!

It’s also interesting to watch the party begin to evolve and understand what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then try to set up situations to take advantage of what they are good it and to also hide their deficiencies.  When they do it well (which, admittedly, doesn’t happen too often) it’s awesome to watch and rewarding for everyone involved. In a way it’s a very advanced form of gaming because they need to think slightly long term and not just about what is in front of them. In a traditional party the group can sort of walk into any scenario and feel confident that they have what is needed to handles things because they can do almost everything.  Not so with this group. 

The other upside here is that it seems to be more fun for the players since they get to be the character that they actually want to be.  I have noticed that there is a pretty noticeable lack of clerics in games that I run. That's sort of too bad.