Wizards of the Coast
D&D has always worked on the assumption that adventurers work together as a group. Which group, then, works best? With at least twelve character classes to choose from, and a gamut of subclasses, it’s not a straightforward question. This article aims to approach the question from two angles: one narrativist, one gamist.
Before that, though, a full disclaimer: there is, of course, no such thing as a perfect D&D party. It’s perfectly possible to play in a party that isn’t particularly ‘optimized’ and still enjoy it. Similarly, a perfectly balanced party is a rather Pyrrhic victory if everyone is miserable with the character they’ve ended up with.
Fortunately, 5th edition is fairly forgiving when it comes to party composition: if your group is lacking in one area, it will probably make up for it somewhere else, especially if the number of players is reasonably large. There are stories online about parties composed entirely of bards, and that sounds hilarious. So, rock out. If in doubt, play what you want to play.
The gamist approach
Wizards of the Coast
From a gameplay perspective, party composition is about ensuring versatility and power. In other words, a balanced party can respond effectively to a range of different situations. They have all bases covered: they can take hits, dish ’em out, avoid threats through stealth and subterfuge, gather intel, charm NPCs . . . the list goes on. An optimized party can take on ever greater challenges, which in turn can feel more fulfilling (‘woah, did we just kill a red dragon at 4th level?’). Conversely, a suboptimal party can find themselves coming up against the same difficulties over and over again, and this can start to get frustrating in the long run (‘why do we all keep failing our Dex saves?’).
If you’re striving for versatility and power, two things really matter: one is working together as a group, and the other is knowing your role. This might seem obvious, but every group is different, and some players are naturally better at this than others.
For a group to be at its most effective, players need to talk to each other. Are you proficient in a range of skills, tools, and languages? Do you have access to spells like detect magic and cure wounds? If you do have gaps, do you have a way around them? A group can survive without thieves’ tools if it has access to spells like knock and shield or levitate, say. But it can be a risky strategy.
As for roles, this is where things can get a bit more contentious. In 4th edition, every class was designed to fit one of four functions: striker, controller, leader, and defender (roughly analogous to rogue, wizard, cleric, and fighter, respectively). D&D faced criticism at the time for trying too much to be like a video game. (These roles map over quite neatly onto familiar online gaming terms like ‘tank’, ‘DPS’, ‘buffer’, and so on.) 5th edition is less straitjacketed. Thus, a bard can be a supporter (like a traditional cleric) or a spellslinger (like a wizard). A ranger can be melee skirmisher or a ranged marksman. A Circle of the Moon druid can fight on the front line like a paladin. But some classes are less flexible than others.
At this point, I must recommend Keith Ammann’s book, Live to Tell the Tale (not to mention his fantastic blog, themonstersknow.com). Ammann breaks down each class based on its ‘ability score contour’ and unpicks why certain classes lend themselves to particular combat roles as a result. Buy his book. I’m not going to plagiarize it. What I will say, though, is this: you will probably want at least one ranged attacker and at least two front-line fighters (and that doesn’t necessarily mean the fighter class). Beyond that, there’s room for flexibility, but I will let Mr Ammann go into more detail on this.
So far, this has looked at party composition exclusively from a gameplay perspective approach. What about the story?
The narrativist approach
New Line Cinema
It’s all well and good having a balanced group of carefully optimized characters, but what is their reason for adventuring together, and how do they fit in with the story?
Here again, knowing your role helps. How is your character linked to the rest of the group, and what sets them apart? Think about your favourite ensembles from film and TV, whether it’s The A-Team, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, or the original heroes of Star Wars. These groups work because the characters are distinct yet still complement each other.
Party composition isn’t just about power and versatility: it’s about making your own individual character more enjoyable to play. From a gamist perspective, you will feel more powerful and more useful if you have a key role in the team: no one to compete with, no one to overshadow you at what you do. From a narrativist perspective, the same is true. By thinking about how your character is distinct yet part of a team, you help to carve out a place for yourself in the story. A character who is not distinctive can end up blending into the background, getting forgotten. Conversely, a character with nothing to link them to the rest of the group can end up seeming incongrous or eccentric, and they may potentially be less plausible or even less likeable as a consequence.
TV Tropes has an excellent page that compiles some of the common ways that writers in various media have chosen to manage character ensembles. For example, with a group of four players, you could agree to loosely base your characters on the four elements, the four humours, or just four different philosophies (cynic, optimist, realist, conflicted/apathetic). For a party of three, you could have a Freudian trio of id, ego, and super-ego, or a knight, knave, and squire combination. For five, you could adapt the five-man band. Adapt is the key word here. Tropes are tools, and if you don’t like them, they can be subverted or simply averted.
To further enrich your story, it can be fun to think of a group concept. Why are you travelling together? What is your history? What are your goals? You can, of course, allow this to emerge over play, but it can also be fun to give this some thought as part of your session zero. The 5th-edition Eberron sourcebook, Rising from the Last War, introduces the concept of group patrons, many of which would work perfectly well in other worlds. In my friend’s Dragon Heist campaign, for example, we created our group in the image of a criminal gang, with a burglar, a talker, a safecracker, and so on, and it has meant that we have all had a part to play from the outset. On the other hand, many players prefer to stick to the cliché of ‘we all met in a tavern’, and you know what? This has its place. You do you.
A perfect party?
Wizards of the Coast
There is, again, no such thing as a perfect party. But, as a thought exercise, what would well from both a gamist and a narrativist perspective?
For what it’s worth, this is my suggestion:
- half-elf paladin of devotion/draconic sorcerer
- human thief
- goliath totem warrior
- gnome illusionist
- human cleric (life domain)
This is a fairly typical five-man band (not that any of the characters have to be male, of course). The paladin-sorcerer is the hero or leader, and the thief acts as the hero’s foil (or ‘lancer’). The cleric, being a healer, is the ‘heart’ of the group, and the totem warrior and illusionist fill out the final spots as ‘big guy’ and ‘smart guy’ respectively.
Naturally, there’s plenty of room for variation here. A bard could replace the illusionist or the cleric. The big guy could be a heavily armoured fighter, and the lancer could be a rugged ranger. For a sixth character, you could maybe add a drow or tiefling warlock. For a four-person group, you could maybe drop the illusionist and turn the half-elf into a single-class sorcerer.
It bears repeating, though: 5th edition is flexible, and many combinations are fun. Talk as a group, know your role, and have fun.
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