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Confession - I just TPK'd my group....again.

One of the reasons that has been identified is that while the party is composed of 5 pretty well optimized characters, as a party they just aren't in sync.

Examples:

  • The warlord grants basic attacks, 2 others don't have good basic attacks
  • 3 characters have INT as a main stat, thus limiting skill coverage
  • No ready source of radiant damage
  • few sources of fire damage

I'm sure there are many other things to consider as well. Up till now, we've just ensured that there was at least 1 defender, 1 striker and 1 leader in the party. Generally there is a controller as well. I think we need to do better and consider far more things when making new characters.

Has anyone generated a checklist, or some other process to assist in generating a well balanced party in 4th edition D&D? Have you used it, and how did it work out for you?

As a followup, should the DM be involved in the process at all?

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I think using the word "balance" is throwing people off your intended track. This sounds more like a question of how to make a well-tuned party that works together optimally, which is independent of whether they're of equal power. I'd suggest a bit of a rewrite. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 17 '10 at 3:28
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6 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Balanced Party" is actually a really complex question.

I'd like to reword the question: How can we, in D&D 4th edition, create a party that can overcome challenging obstacles successfully?

In many ways, this is an exploration of the norming step of small group formation.

Group Goals

The first thing to note is that every player considers different things obstacles. I would like to direct the reader here in that there needs to be an explicit social contract outlining player motivations and what they want out of the world. (Doesn't have to be written down, but it should be fairly clear to everyone what people in the group desire.) Some people want butt-kicking, others want psychodrama. Without communication, an unsuccessful party can arise through lack of social cohesion.

Designing the Party

To create a coherent party, party creation must begin before character creation begins. What is the organizing force of the party? How does the in-world force cater to the players' desires for gameplay?

As part of this, and as part of the social contract, explore the alignment question: idealistic good is functionally incompatible with mercenary and chaotic unaligned. Someone won't be having fun. (Unless, of course, the player /wants/ player-versus-player conflict —usually with words — but this must be agreed upon in advance. Communication is key.)

Mechanics

Once you have the "group" created, the mechanical beast rears its head. Not all powers are created equal. Worse off, some powers "sound" awesome... and aren't. Players who don't memorize the DDI and CharOp boards will be worse off, mechanically, than those who do. The trick here is to have rough equality in power. The best way to battle choice paralysis is to present most players with "scaffolding." Go to the charOp boards and make a list of the blue and light blue powers that they can pick for their level. (Never ever start a party at high level. Learning a character is complex enough at 1-3.) Obviously, make recommendations, not requirements.

Another way to do this is to ignore the books entirely. Have people describe their optimal "heroes" down to their signature moves. (Everyone should have a good reason for adventuring with the group. I've been bitten by that problem myself a few times.) Allow the people who like mechanical bits to then flesh out the powers so defined, but for the rest, reflavour and retag good powers so they match the idiom described. The huge abstraction gap between mechanics and flavour is your friend, if embraced.

Everyone should, at 1st level, have +4 or +5 in their primary stat. D&D is, ultimately, a game about combat. Sucking at combat while everyone else doesn't is not much fun. As a GM, make sure the numbers work. Let the players make flavour, then instantiate the mechanics based on their requirements. Looking through the books should be encouraged for them to find awesome stuff that looks like fun, ignoring the mechanics.

Group Play

This was the easy part. The hard part is getting the party to cooperate. Uncooperative parties in 4e are deadly to themselves and to fun. Pavlovian encouragement may be necessary at first. Hand out bonuses to people who both plan (and RP) their characters. Awesome should always be rewarded. Cooperation is awesome, involvement is awesome, using the environment is awesome (and should always either be a minor or be more effective than an at-will if a standard. Try to have at least one awesome environment thing for a fight, but this is a digression)

Getting past norming into a cooperating group is hard. And here is where I'd like to direct the reader. If everyone has a good to-hit and powers that aren't red or purple, then the deciding thing is tactics. As a GM, use effort-based XP to basically "auto-level" the enemies so that players eventually have a mix of easy and hard fights, regardless of what level they are.

Optional party generation trick: After figuring out the reason for adventuring (never ever just meet in a tavern) have everyone, including the DM, write down a race on a blank sheet of paper. Pass the sheets around the circle. Then, everyone chooses a fun class for the race. Pass. Based on the race and class given to you, choose 2 backgrounds, pass. Then next person chooses 2 more backgrounds. Pile all x+1 characters in the center and everyone grabs one they like. The players then detail the particular class features they want and the rough "theme" of the character. Encourage them to imagine a moment of awesome. Then let the person who loves paperwork generate a short list of powers to choose from at each level.


Comments strongly encouraged as well as feedback.

I've used the party generation trick when running games of Pax Draconis many many years ago. It was highly successful. The rest of the discussion is based on landmines that have exploded in parties I've played with or GMed for.

Also, be aware of suicidal characters; it almost always means they want to swap out. Let them do so, because it'll just threaten the party otherwise.


On reflavouring, and its difficulties: link

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Thanks for this answer, its pointing in the right direction I think. –  Pat Ludwig Nov 4 '10 at 5:59
    
We've tested out the "optional party generation trick" and it seems to work quite well in creating a party. The trick is to have at least one person who's invested in the rules to make sure that a) there are synergies between party members and b) the party knows what those synergies are. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 4 '10 at 9:55
    
Can you explain the "auto-level" comment? Thanks –  user1637 Jun 8 '11 at 14:27
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Certainly. Effort based XP means that the XP rewarded is not based on predicted enemy difficulty, rather it's based on experienced difficulty. The auto-leveling is an reference to Oblivion where enemy difficulty scaled with your level. In this instance, you can adjust the difficulty of future fights based on the difficulty of previous fights. In effect, compensating for the PCs performance. to provide a more even game difficulty. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 8 '11 at 14:32
    
Wow that is some great advice, i think I'll be trying your "round robin" character generation next time I start a game. –  Leland Vaughan Oct 3 '13 at 19:46
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As a DM, I don't bother with the party being class-balanced or not.

I let my players choose what classes they want to play, then I adjust the campaign around that. In the end we get parties that are may be not fight-optimized, but are as interesting and challenging.

If after a few games they are in dire need of a complementary class, I place NPCs in their path that could join them (if the players want to).

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I completely disagree. Players should fall roughly into a similar power range in 4e. It's just not fun sucking when 80% of the game is designed around mechanical conflict. Everyone should be within 1 of the average party to-hit, and if someone below, make sure they're aware of the fact. Everyone should be using skills that they find interesting. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 14 '10 at 13:27
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I agree that the party's characters should be in a similar power range. However, I still think that the question is basically "How the players can make a party that overcomes the DM's challenges" and it's not my take on doing DMing and D&D games in general. I'm more of a "How can the DM make interesting challenges for the party the players made". –  Danny T. Oct 14 '10 at 14:47
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I totally agree with you Danny. Let the players play the classes they want to play rather than shoe-horning one of them into a class that is "needed" but nobody wants to play. No healer? Make healing potions more available. The DM can always adjust the campaign to fit the party so everyone has fun. –  digitaljoel Oct 14 '10 at 15:34
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For the record, I respect what you are saying, but I am not that type of DM. The concerns I'm asking about originated with the players. They want a more balanced party, and I wish to help them achieve that. –  Pat Ludwig Oct 14 '10 at 17:31
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I agree with Danny. And the problem does not sound like they are not "balanced." A party that is not balanced have some guys that rock in combat and others that don't. The problem that you have described is "the whole party gets their asses kicked." This is an opportunity for the DM to tune the opposition power level to them better. If you just want them to get more powerful - it sounds like they already took characters from the charop boards - that sounds to me like they need a course in tactics. Tuning the characters isn't usually the fix for decent characters getting owned. –  mxyzplk Oct 15 '10 at 1:50
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Party balance is incredibly important in 4th edition so I agree this is a concern. The first key thing is to build characters as a group. Talk about power selections, how they interlink and then allow folks to adjust as they go. I did a simple concept map around this with the players and their touch points on each other (the Runepriest can give the fighter this bonus if adjacent). This is helpful because it also serves as a visual tool to help the players figure out what to do in combat. This is rather important as I game with my kids (6 and 10).

I also recommend retroactive party balancing. Run some encounters and then during the next extended rest allow some tinkering with the builds. Do this in a few iterations until the players are more balanced. 4th edition allows a little power shifting at leveling up; just open this up a lot more at the earlier levels until things stabilize.

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Oooh, the idea of a concept map of tactical options is interesting. Could be a great way to make a "cheat sheet" of tactical options for each player. Also, yeah, allow power shifting on extended rest for about 3 levels after game starts. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 14 '10 at 13:24
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Follow the advice in the rulebooks:

  • 1 Striker (Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Avenger, Barbarian, Sorcerer, Monk)
  • 1 Defender (Fighter, Paladin, Warden, Battlemind)
  • 1 Leader (Cleric, Warlord, Bard, Shaman, Ardent, Runepriest)
  • 1 Controller (Wizard, Druid, Invoker, Psion, Seeker)

(DMG p. 10.0, PH p. 16, PHB2 p. 30, PHB 3, p. 20)

After that, duplicates are fine, but work best when using different power sources, so everyone feels like they have their own role.

Also, keep everyone within a spread of 3 levels; no one more than 1 above or 1 below party median or mode.

If you do that much, you have a party that has almost all the bases covered...

But realize: balance is illusory. If your controller player is an idiot, or your striker player overcautious, their balance is lost due to player variation.

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Checklist, using player roles:

  1. Make a group contract defining what people expect out of play. Go meta.
  2. If possible:
    1. Leader role to the Tactician
    2. Striker to the Butt-Kicker
    3. Defender to instigator
  3. Races should support primary or secondary class stats
  4. Strikers 18-20 in primary, defenders/leaders 16-18, controllers 16-20
  5. Let players choose powers.
  6. As GM, go over Index of class guides and make sure players have chosen blue or better at-wills, and black or better for the rest. Gently suggest or buff suboptimal power choices. Reflavour other powers if necessary.
  7. Brainstorm, with the group, character synergies and tactics.
  8. Make sure that each player is trained in at least two skills from the following 3 sets: Physical, Mental, Social.
  9. Encourage players to collaborate on backgrounds.
  10. Run a few easy encounters to configure proper encounter level as per effort based experience rewards.
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Creating an good enough party can be a bottom-up process, but a great party is allways top-dow.

Pick two players, one should know the system intimately, let us call him the Strategist, the other should know the fellow players, he is the Nurse.

The Strategist must know not only the rules, but also most of the class guides:

He must know that the Avenger is not good enough in Heroic, and that the Battlemind is not an acceptable defender, but can be a good Striker after level 13. He knows you defend from the middle with a Knight, but from afar with a Swordmage.

The Nurse knows the abilities and the limitations of the players. Erik is upset if someone does more damage than him, so he should be a Striker. John has the tactical abilities of a bag of potatoes, so Controller is out, just like Rogue, Figher or Barbarian.

1) the Strategist with the help of the Nurse creates a concept, what will give the party for each other, how will they be more than the sum of the parts. Some ideas, with level requirements:

  • Frost Cheese, L11: cold damage for everyone, some characters have the Lasting Frost feat, preferably the ones with best targeting abilities or best initiative
  • Radiant Maffia, L16: everyone does radiant damage, one Morninglord to give enemies radiant vulnerability
  • Radiant Maffia Lite, L3: Power of the Sun feat, one of the matching At-will powers, everyone deals radiant damage. Hard to come by radiant damage, level 3 is when you can get a Sunblade at character creation
  • Prone and kick, L1: One member has the ability to prone at-will (Flail Expertise for example), and others take Headsman's Chop. Compatible with most of the above, but ranged characters should take Grounding Shot
  • Agile Opportunist, L11: Melee types take the feat, and other party members slide them. Hard to follow if the target has Immediate actions left. Best if combined with one or more of the above. The defender should not have an Immediate punishment, so Fighter and Warden is out, but Knight and Paladin are great.

2) deal out the roles, considering player abilities and preferences. Keep in mind that most skills should be covered.

Basically you have to build the party for the players, but in a way that it is not only powerful, but fun to play, and within their limits.

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