Thursday, February 9, 2012

Party Optimization Part One of Two: Theme and Story

Much has been written on the subject character optimization. I know Charop is a touchy subject, with bad feelings on both sides of the issue. For every person who simply wants to play a fun and effective character there is a pun pun waiting in the wings, and for every person who simply wants to play a concept and doesn’t really care much about the mechanics there is a person who plays a character who is CN and has a 3 cha just to be a douche. Sadly many times people in the opposing camps can’t see there is a middle ground. It is perfectly ok to want a character that is confident and effective in combat and out of it. It is also perfectly fine to play a character that has a personality and a backstory and doesn’t care what magic item or feat they are picking up next. I have done both, sometimes even on the same character.

Much can be accomplished by working together
I’ve actually gone pretty far afield here. I was saying that a lot has been written about optimizing an individual character. However, D and D is a social game, a cooperative game. You would think that some thought would be given to creating a whole party that works well together. Instead almost all of what you see is geared towards making a single character do well completely apart from any of the rest of the party. I have found this to be true in most of the research I have done, as well as at most of my game sessions. I have seen a very few synergestic parties, such as the radiant mafia, but they are rare. In addition most of the times I have tried to get my fellow players interested in even bare bones party creation I have been met with apathy if not outright derision. While 4e has done much to make party synergy possible, it has also done much to make it unnecessary.

With the self healing available to all characters and the general heartiness of most 4e characters, a case can be made that no attempts need to be made to organize your party, let alone optimize it. It is certainly possible to play 4e and be successful with a thrown together party of all rogues. However, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or would even work well. I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing, “You don’t need to have a leader in 4e” whenever I ask my friends to sit and make a party with me. I tend to be more focused on the mechanics and I will address the mechanics in part two. For now it is just as important to have a party that will work together for story purposes.

The Thief is behind me isn't he?
If you have played D and D for any amount of time you have seen an example of a party that does not work well together. The most egregious examples can be attributed to individual characters. Some of these include the thief who insists on stealing from the party, the cleric who refuses to heal the necromancer, (A cleric who refuses to heal anyone is the subject of another post), or the Paladin who has to be sent for a sandwich anytime the party needs to actually do something. While some of this is just general douchery, much of it could have been avoided by simply discussing a party concept before the game started.

Even if you haven’t played with an asshat paladin or a steal everything that isn’t nailed down thief you have probably experienced a party that didn’t gel together for whatever reason. Having a party concept or theme would be most useful in story driven or roleplay heavy games because part of what moves the game forward is interactions between the players. Some of my favorite moments as a DM have been listening to the players talk to each other in character. It’s great because it gives me a chance to sit back and just enjoy the game for a while instead of constantly working to keep the game going. However, even in dungeon of the week style games having at least a little idea of how the party will work together can be very enriching. I have a couple of suggestions for building a party that has a theme, or at least some connections, which I think will greatly aid your games. You may still run into an asshat Paladin on occasion, but at least you will know about it before hand. Heck maybe you could make a whole party of them.
And I will execute great vengeance upon them
with furious rebukes; and they shall know
 that I am the LORD, when
I shall lay my vengeance upon them.

I have two suggestions that really are most important. I cannot stress how much each of them is the most important thing you need to do when making a party. In fact I am struggling to decide which is more important, because they are both that important. First, talk to your DM. It is very likely that your DM has some ideas about the campaign theme, and what types of characters will be appropriate. Additionally half of DMing is hooking characters and if you give the DM hooks that will not only work for your character, but for the entire party he will thank you.

Second, talk to the other players. Really all of my tips and suggestions boil down to having some effective communication before the game starts. If you are the type of player who likes to create a character and go and forget about the rest of the party, be open to some communication about the party. On the other hand if you are the kind of player who enjoys planning out party concepts, be sure you are willing to listen to what the other players want to play. If your concept of a party doesn’t include arcane magic and one of the other players always plays a wizard, at least be open to changing the concept. If you are the DM encourage your players to talk about a concept, or give them some options for a concept. Maybe you could even have a session dedicated to party creation. The rest of the ideas require having a discussion about what the party is going to be, and how to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Party of Wizards for the win
One way to tie the group together is by playing characters that all use the same power source. One of the greatest advances 4e made was making it possible to have a balanced party based around a single power source. Before 4e you had few options for healing that did not include the cleric, and if you wanted big flashy spells you picked the wizard. 3e had a few options, such as the bard, but the bard excelled at being the fifth man, and was a lot less good at being whatever fourth man he was trying to be. If you wanted to play a party full of mages, which is an interesting idea, you had to hope your DM crafted adventures just for you or you had to be very careful while playing until you were high enough level to break the game with your spells. Even then you still had no really good way to heal. Now in 4e it is possible to play a group of people from a single church or mage school or tribe without straining credulity.

Another idea is to have the characters all be the same race. One of the best campaigns I have played in used the Revenant race to keep us all tied together thematically while also giving us a great deal of freedom to be individuals. The story was that thousands of years ago we had each been great hero’s who were returning to save the world from some great danger. Unfortunately, the gods of evil tainted our return, bringing us back as undead and with only a fraction of our former power. Other races would work as well for creating a themed party, but I really like Revenants for versatility.

Another great idea for a themed party is to have all of the characters work for the same organization. If most of the players share a power source or a race, but a few want to branch out into something else, this would actually be the best option. It is easy to imagine a single human working for the Elven army. Of course some outliers wouldn’t make as much sense. Again doing some of the legwork in creating the game should make your DM happy, but always double check to make sure there isn’t a specific organization the DM would think especially appropriate.

It is entirely possible that you won’t be able to come up with theme or concept that works for all the players. There are even times when it isn’t appropriate to have a party theme. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when creating characters for a party that doesn’t have a theme. I contend that even if you don’t want to have a theme you do need to have some connections between the party members. I suggest that you form a connection of some kind with two other party members when making your backgrounds. If all the players do this it will create a web of connections which will make it easier to motivate the party as a whole, and will also give the party a reason to overcome the petty squabbles that often come with the adventuring life.

Just as bad as the
Asshat Paladin
Only smellier
Additionally when you are making a character you should find out what the other player’s dealbreakers are. I know of several people who hate undead and will not play with them under any circumstances. If that is the case you probably already have enough asshats at the table, don’t play an asshat Necromancer. If you have any dealbreakers you should also let the other players know.

Hopefully you can get the players at your table interested in having a pregame conversation about party theme and interconnections. I urge you to give it a try at your games and see if it doesn’t improve the relationships, not only between the characters but between the players as well. I will delve deeper into the mechanics of an optimized party sometime next week. Until next time remember, don’t let your DM tell you no. It’s always, “Yes, and…?”

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