Like any good team, most parties in a game of D&D have their different positions. Everything from AD&D to Golden Axe to The Lord of the Rings has an ideal blend of several specialized classes, what some gamers would call a “balanced party.” In this current age of 4E, it sounds something like Controller/Defender/Leader/Striker. It’s a fairly common viewpoint that an adventuring band needs each of these roles represented to stand any great chance of survival. It’s not uncommon to hear comments like “oh wait, I can’t play a Striker because we already have one” or “somebody better make a healer or we’re not gonna last through our first encounter.” While balance can certainly be a strong and successful basis for party-building, you’ll discover in the rest of this post some intriguing, purposeful, non-mechanical means for getting your players to form a team that is a collection of unique heroes instead of just cogs in an RPG machine.
For this example, try thinking of a baseball team not as a collection of positions (pitchers, fielders, catchers, and the like) but rather an assembly of different jobs: General Manager, Hitting Coach, Base Coach, Relief Pitcher. A trade-based party is assigned a specific profession that supports or compliments the rest of the party members, and each player then decides what kind of Class, Race, and so on would best suit their vision of that trade. The DM defines the trades, or at least a theme in which they would operate, and essentially approves the “application” of a player’s character into that job.
Here’s a fun example that worked for our group. A crew is being assembled for a sailing vessel that will explore a new and exotic continent. Of course, the journey there is the first great adventure. To make this exciting voyage the DM posted “vacancies” for the crew roster: Captain, Navigator, Marine, Guide, and Diplomat. Each vacancy had specific duties both on the ship and after arrival in the “new world.” Players then chose their role as they came up with a character concept, and the DM “hired” the crew from the resulting PCs. What came about was a flavorful mix of soldiers and scoundrels that made for an extremely interesting, entirely fun party to undertake the voyage. I doubt anyone would deem the resulting mission a success, but the campaign itself was a colossal hit.
The idea that “blood is thicker than water” could easily lead to a unified and workable party concept in a D&D campaign. Little explanation is needed for this party: all the PCs are bound by either birth or marriage, or both. Each family member then creates the mechanics for their character as they envision their role in the clan. It could be a party of the five sons of the local noble family, out to avenge their murdered kin. Perhaps it’s a true nuclear family of father, mother, daughter, and son trying to survive the frigid winter. Let’s not forget that families in a D&D setting can be just as dysfunctional as in real life, so feel free to create a long-standing feud or rivalry between siblings, factions, or anything else that adds flavor.
One of our current campaigns features two brothers from one prominent tribal family, and a brother/sister duo from another influential clan who happen to be in-laws to the oldest brother of family #1. It was curious to watch the role-playing interaction evolve most deeply between the youngest of each sibling pair, while in the heat of battle the division was almost always along family lines. The interaction became even more intertwined when a romance developed between Older Brother (Family #1) and Younger Sister (Family #2). Need a flow chart yet? Don’t worry, that’s what minis are for… Great fun all around though.
CASTES AND SOCIAL CLASSES
Back in 2E, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting brought to the fore the idea of social classes or “castes” as part of a character’s make-up. In the recently renewed 4E version of the setting, the social order as campaign dynamic is once again a celebrated feature. This idea of a world in which a champion is defined as much by the “class” he is born into as he is the “Class” the player chooses for him is a powerful, often compelling catalyst for character creation. It is obviously not exclusive to Dark Sun; the notion of social class in the European feudal system plays an integral part in both the history of that continent and much of our notions about medieval fantasy. Whether the labels are serfs, lords, and bishops or slaves, templars, and merchant houses the development of a character as a product of their social status is fertile ground (even in the deserts of Athas) for a rich and characterful party.
The campaign I’m running right now started this way: On a torn piece of parchment paper, I wrote the name of each caste in our campaign world. Then I folded them up, put them in a hat (literally), and had each player draw out the social class for their character. That’s all that determined the destiny of the hero they would play in our campaign, and it worked better than I could’ve imagined. The first encounter for this group was a royal summons, and a command from the ruling monarch to elect from their party an official speaker- one whose word would ultimately embody the will of the party and the voice of the throne in dealings on their mission. With every caste represented (more or less) the class struggles you’d expect happened over and again: the noble disdaining the common citizen, the merchant seeking the wisdom of the holy man. But in the end, when the party rode forth from the palace to begin their quest, it was the conscripted slave who carried the royal decree and the mantle of the one true leader. I never saw it coming, but it is still one of my favorite moments so far.
The mechanic of Character Themes was recently introduced in the new edition of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. (Check out our review of the new campaign setting!) While not purely without mechanical benefits, Themes are certainly not the traditional method for party-building. A Character Theme is described as “a career, calling, or archetype that might include characters of several different classes and roles.” If you use the Themes straight out of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, your character is immediately granted a Theme Power, as well as access to additional Theme Powers and Feats as the character advances in levels. These are meant to replace powers or feats the hero may gain at those levels from their character class or race. They could just as easily, however, be used as descriptive origins for your party members, without the accompanying mechanical benefits.
Rather than each character choosing their own individual theme, consider defining one theme for your entire group. The themes from Dark Sun sound like “Athasian minstrel” or “Gladiator” or “Veiled Alliance member”, the last theme being a secret society of magic users that rebels against an oppressive ruling class. This secret society may admit Clerics, Warlocks, and Wizards as members. A mysterious band of minstrels wandering the countryside may count Bards, Rogues, or Fighters in their ranks. The brave guards at the gates of a city may draw in a Paladin, Warlord, or Ranger. And these are just a start to the endless affiliations that might bind a group together. A favorite from my personal experience: Way back when, on a dark and stormy weekend, some friends and I played a traveling troupe of circus performers in Ravenloft. My half-orc bard never charmed one soul, but his possessed hand puppet landed a critical hit on an ettin. That’s a victory in my book.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE…
Sometimes the tried-and-true method of creating an effective party is the way to go: a heroic representation of each character role, something like Controller/Defender/Leader/Striker. So don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel here. The benefits of that balanced and diverse group can ensure the survivability of both the characters and the fun as your campaign continues from session to session. But if, like our group, you’re always up for a new challenge, these non-mechanical methods of making a party may be just what you’re looking for!