The Perfect D&D Party

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

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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 ranger 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

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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. What links your character 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?

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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:

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.

Creating Awesome Characters

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How do you go about creating a character in D&D?

Most of us follow the step-by-step approach in Chapter 1 of the Player’s Handbook. We roll stats, we choose a class, a race, and a background, and we pick out equipment and spells. We might shake up the order a bit, but I imagine this is where most of us start.

What if someone told you that none of this really mattered that much?

In praise of human fighters

In fantasy fiction, there is no character more common than a human fighter.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime Lannister is a human fighter. So is the Hound. So is Oberyn Martell. Boromir is a human fighter in The Lord of the Rings. So is Aragorn. So is Éowyn. They are all fantastic characters, but in D&D terms, they are the same class and race. Not only that, but they are probably the most ‘vanilla’ race and class in the game. Being a human fighter doesn’t have to be boring.

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In the same vein, unusual race-class combinations don’t make your character interesting. Or rather, they don’t necessarily make your character interesting. Plenty of great fantasy characters would have had an unusual race or class if they had existed in D&D. Smaug, Treebeard, and Gollum are definitely not human fighters, and they’re great: but it’s not being a dragon, ent treant, or a skinny, grey fish-chomper that makes them memorable or special. If the only interesting thing about your barbarian is the fact that he or she is a gnome . . . well, that’s probably not going to be interesting forever.

(It’s the same reason why I’m sceptical about the ever expanding list of playable races in 5e D&D. As of writing, we now have elephant-people, lion-people, cat-people, hyena-people, snake-people, fish-people, two kinds of birdpeople, and seven kinds of elf: yeesh. Your world isn’t more interesting just because it looks like a Mos Eisley cantina. In fact, I would go even further: the less human your character is, the less real they seem, the less we empathize with them, and, ultimately, the less we care about what happens them.)

From a mechanical standpoint, race, class, equipment, spells etc can all make a character interesting to play. But from a roleplaying perspective, you need something more.

It’s the difference between character and characterization.

Choices under pressure

What’s the most important part of your character sheet? Your ability scores? Skill proficiencies? Inventory? Spell list? Hit points?

I would argue that it’s this bit, here:

It’s a section many of us don’t think about too much, tucked away in a corner of the character sheet somewhere. It’s often an afterthought: we pick a few ideas from the background tables in the Player’s Handbook or roll it randomly, but it’s not very important to us. Some players don’t even fill it in at all, and never plan to.

In D&D, I think of race, class, equipment and so on as characterization: attributes. And that’s just for starters. You could also add stuff like backstory, appearance, height and weight, age, family, friends. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff matters enormously. When you introduce someone for the first time, this is the stuff you tend to lead with in your description of them. But it’s still not character.

Robert McKee is an author and lecturer. His students include Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), and Peter Jackson (yes, that one). He calls character this: the choices we make under pressure. Fiction is driven by conflict, and it’s when we push our characters into difficult situations that we really start to know who they are. What motivates them? What are their values? What are their dreams? What are they most afraid of? What will they kill for? Who will they die for? Without these internal conflicts, our characters are a detailed description, but flat, hollow. It is not until we reveal their deepest internal conflicts that we start to breathe life into our characters.

This is something that Fate Core really appreciates. In Fate, when you make a character, you define their ‘high concept’ first and their ‘trouble’ second, and your trouble should be something that complicates your character’s existence in a significant, meaningful way: a dark impulse, a problematic relationship, a temptation, a personal struggle. To some extent, the ‘trouble’ in D&D is externalized (‘whatever the DM throws at us’) or randomized (‘my low Dexterity makes me clumsy and slow’), but is that enough on its own? If you want your character to be engaging, convincing, developed, and unique, start with the internal conflict.

This article is already getting a bit long, so I will keep the next bit short.

Tips and tricks

  • Work with your DM. Tie your character’s story to the game world.
  • Move away from the random tables in the Player’s Handbook, brilliant though they are. See what you can come up with yourself.
  • Your flaw should be an actual problem. This isnt like the platitudes we spout in job interviews (‘I work too hard! I’m just too kind!’). Every character has a darkness in their soul, so what’s yours?
  • Turn off the gamist part of your brain for a moment and think about your character as a living, breathing human being (yes, even if they are kenku sorcerer or what have you). Whether they’re aliens, robots, dragons, or talking animals, we interpret all characters through a human lens.
  • If you’re stuck, start with alignment and ask this: ‘if this is my character 90 percent of the time, what would tempt them away from it?’ Is your Lawful Good paladin tempted by ambition (Macbeth)? Will your Neutral Evil queen do anything to protect her children (Cersei Lannister)?
  • There is no shame in stealing ideas from film, TV, books, and video games. I particularly like Game of Thrones for this, as it has a huge cast of rich, complex characters.
  • None of this means anything if you see it as a finished product. A good character will grow and change: a bad character will stay the same.
  • Despite everything above: maybe you don’t care that much about the story of the game. That’s OK. But if so, think about your role in the team. If you see D&D as a game first and a story second, maybe you should play a character who is tactically interesting but won’t hog the spotlight as the leader or party face.

What really matters

At the start of this article, I suggested that race, class, background and so forth don’t really matter that much. It was meant provocatively, of course. D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game, and from a gamist perspective, these decisions matter a great deal. However: if you’re interested not just in playing a great game but in telling great stories, then characters matter, and great characters are more than a cool race-class combination.