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My gaming group tends to each go in their own direction for character creation. Sometimes this leads to great games where folks are strongly opposed on dramatic elements and character interaction is both very impassioned and very memorable.

Sometimes, the results are less than stellar, and we end up a party like my current Shadowrun group: 3 magicians, and 1 samurai (and until a few weeks ago, no decker or rigger). Or a recent D&D group that had a fighter, a ranger, a paladin, and a wizard.

The players in my group tend to play the same kind of character for a few adventures/games, then switch to a new theme. I've typically been the fighter, but am getting tired of it. I'm getting ready to run Serpent's Skull (at least the first module of it) for Pathfinder, and if the group doesn't have a healer or a rogue, I doubt they will survive long; so I need to nip any potential weakness/blindspot in the bud.

I know I can just tell a player, "nope, too many fighters already" when a character joins an existing party, but what if we are starting a new game? How should I handle a situation where the party either strongly overlaps or has a drastic shortfall in ability? How do I pick between (say) the fighter, paladin, and ranger to recreate their characters to fill the gap? Assuming I get a party of all fighters (for example) should I retool the adventure to require less spell-casting and rogue abilities?

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9 Answers

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One way of handling this situation is to create characters as a group. Rather than coming to the table with your sheets already made, take a session and built the team together. It's easier to encourage diversity at the concept stage than to tell someone with a built PC that they have to start from scratch. Moreover, you can be there to ask questions like, "You've all built mages with one street sam — is he the bodyguard?" or "Your only source of magical healing is the paladin; does anyone want to roll a cleric or warlord?"

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To expand on this, even if you don't create the whole character from the ground up together, deciding what basic roles people will fill at the same time, or shortly after, you decide what sort of game to run, is probably the simplest and least objectionable way to do what you want. –  sebsmith Mar 1 '11 at 20:38
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Let them work it out inside the game world. I find many issues like this resolve themselves when you stop metagaming and let the characters bump around in the fiction for a while.

If they think they can hack it as is, great. If they look for NPCs to hire and bring along, fine. The most likely issue they'll have is that they will progress more slowly, needing to be higher level before hitting a given challenge. Let them figure that out - all you will need to do is not enforce a story timeline that has them hitting those high CRs when they're not ready. A couple levels of extra kill-power make up for a lot of "perfect group mix." Maybe a group of fifth level PCs with a cleric can hit that jungle trek, but it takes a group of seventh level PCs without a cleric. No problem.

Frankly, for Serpent's Skull, fighter, ranger, paladin, wizard is just fine. The paladin will have to heal, but they can do that, you'll have woodcraft, and it's not like you're completely without magic where lack of fly/dispel/etc will bork you. I think you're worrying about it too much. My group took Curse of the Crimson Throne with a fighter, a ranger, and a cleric; we had a sorcerer that dropped out early in the campaign. And it was the most fun of all the APs we've played.

In the end, you only need to be monitoring that the group is having fun. And having fun is their responsibility too; if they see their character mix isn't working out they'll try to solve it in their own way. Let them. You only have to facilitate a bit.

The DM is in charge of the campaign, but just like any good manager, you don't solve problems for people. They're not doing it the way you would, but that's not the goal. The only goal is the group having fun, and it's quite likely they will despite whatever conceptual non-optimization they have.

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You've got two basic solutions to this problem:

  1. design around the players. This is made harder or easier depending on the system. Certain games (like D&D and SR which you just mentioned) assume a party spread that requires a certain amount of system mastery to design for. You need a good sense of what type of challenges the party can take on, or you risk killing them randomly with mundane encounters.

  2. use NPCs to fill out the party. This approach is probably the best. It lets players play what they are most excited with, and gives opportunities for roleplay/interaction for the GM. What I suggest is roleplay the NPC as GM but give players control over mechanical bits (there is already a lot for the GM to handle) in a fight or something. In games like SR, you can fill in roles like rigger or decker in this way, and resolve their actions offscreen with a simple dice roll.

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The first question you need to ask yourself is how much you want to tailor your encounters to the party. In most games, it's possible to run a very homogeneous group and the results can be pretty awesome... But it requires a fair amount of extra work on the part of the GM, and can lead to the players stepping on each other's toes.

Another option is to use NPCs to fill in the gaps. Shadowrun is often faster and more inclusive if the decking is handled by an NPC, for example. You pay the man, and get answers to your questions instead of having one of the PCs go off in a corner and roll dice for two hours. In D&D, I've seen the healer spot filled by a hireling or cohort when none of the players wanted to focus on that aspect of the game.

Assuming that you want the more diverse party and NPCs aren't an option, the nicest way to go about it is to make character generation a group activity. Sit everyone down at the table, and have them hash out the party as a group. Early on in the group creation (before characters are fully gelled) prod the group about weaknesses: Do you have enough healing? A way to deal with enemy magic? Etc. Let the players know what kind of situations they could encounter that their party might have problems with, and see how they respond to that.

Or you could just take the harsh approach. Tell the players that there are going to be fewer changes to the adventures from here on out (if the adventure says the door has an instant-kill trap that can only be disarmed by a rogue, it'll be there whether you have a rogue or not), and let the chips fall where they may. The group might rise to the challenge, or quickly find themselves with an opportunity to create a more balanced group. I wouldn't recommend this, though... It usually results in shedding players!

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One option is to give the party the option of deciding whether or not they're comfortable missing a rogue or a cleric (I find in 3E it's almost always the rogue or cleric you're missing; 4E is usually a controller). I wouldn't decree that anyone must change; just that they all have to agree that this is how they choose to do it. Not a bad idea to have a hireling on standby in case they have a moment of clarity.

If they survive, then great - fun was had. If they struggled, then one may choose to swap out voluntarily (and I'd be generous in letting them retcon the new character in). If one died, they may choose to reroll into that class anyway.

The important thing is not to take choice away from the players. (Because then they can't blame you for going into the Deathtrap Dungeon without a trapfinder.)

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Deathtrap Dungeon. Does this exist in any published literature? Or am I going to have to sit down and make it up? –  Pulsehead Mar 4 '11 at 0:55
@Pulsehead Turns out there is an actual "Deathtrap Dungeon" - ogrecave.com/reviews/deathtrap_dungeon.shtml . Alternatively, Tomb of Horrors is a good classical one (although I'd recommend tweaking it, since it's well-known and your players may neglect to mention they know about it.) –  Allen Gould Mar 9 '11 at 15:15
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Encourage them to make well-rounded characters, to a point -- and then let death take its course. Always encourage creativity.

Group character creation, especially one where no-one takes ownership of any one character until late in the process as detailed here, can be quite effective at making a well rounded party.

Fundamentally, however, this is a choice that the group must make. You should describe the basic requirements in a non-class way "There are strong elements of fighting, some traps, and expect to take significant damage." Once you've done so and allowed the possibility of group character creation, there is no fault assigned to you if the group disdains your advice.

Dealing with traps becomes more a function of cleverness than skill: did the group remember to bring little rubber balls, a sack with some chickens, or some disposable help? Make sure that creative solutions exist for that.

Dealing with healing becomes a function of different resource expenditures. Have a potion seller make camp at the entrance, for they can recognize a market when they see it. For extra fun, make the potion seller involved in the plot in some way. For even more fun, in a heavy-potion emphasis game, allow for potion mixing with... potentially unexpected results.

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You could try having pre-gens, but this may seem to be a form of railroading.

You can try NPCs but this puts a stress and options into the game that might or might not be useful.

You can even choose to just require specific people run specific classes but again this a form of railroading.

A different option may be to inject interest or excitement about classes that do not usually get picked. This will require some extra effort on your part, but if done well can get player to break out of a rut in class selection. Since you are asking the question I can only assume that you are up for doing a little leg work to get results.

First try to have an exciting back story that leads into a campaign or adventure that draws attention to the classes you want to have in the party. This might be opportunities to engage in creative role-play, adventuring or combat. It might be way cool magic items, a title or land-holding, or a chance to travel to a new place or realm, but can only happen because of those classes.

If a player does pick one of these classes then have adventure rewards specifically for that class. I call these, 'You Win' awards. They are something that may not be a magic item, money or power. One example was a player of mine chose to run a cleric. We hadn't had one of those in ages. He ended up being the town hero and was elected to town council because of some opportunities none of the other classes had. This one simple thing lead to 2 other class choices later that were well outside the norm.

See if this helps.

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It depends on specifically where your problem is. Having a bunch of fighters in the party would definitely be a problem for 4e, because they're all defenders and as Diablo shows - you need strikers. Since Diablo can be played solo, every class has striker elements. 4th Ed really relies on the party, and expects 4-5 players, with only two doubling up on a role. Sadly, 4th Ed doesn't have any specific method for collaborative character generation.

So in that case, my suggestion would be to switch to a different system. Either one that supports collaborative generation (ie FATE) or one that doesn't require party diversity (Ars Magica, although I wouldn't recommend it).

The other solution I've seen from 4e players is to have multiple characters. The CB lets you throw one together really quickly, so everyone could come to the table with 3-4 characters, and have a first and second choice, from which you would select the whole party.

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The simplest and least problematic approach is to write your own adventures suited to the characters.

If you want to get them to pick more diverse, you simply let them fail, but that's as likely as not to tick off one or more players. Then, after the TPK, you say, "Ok, let's rerun this... we need 1 fighter, 1 rogue, 1 wizard, and 1 healer." If they go ahead and try it your way, make certain they succeed with the balanced.

It's generally ill advised to attempt to coerce change; it creates hard feelings and can ruin friendships.

Further, one-class parties are not a hopeless situation; never have been. But the GM needs to remember that he's NOT in charge, too. The players are voting on what kinds of challenges they want with their character types.

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+1 for the personalizing. When possible. –  Zachiel Sep 21 '12 at 8:35
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