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I am going to be a DM of D&D 5e for my two friends, and they asked me which classes work well paired together. I have only played games with parties of four player characters before, though, so I don't know how to answer them.

I want to find out: what classes can work well together? By that I mean classes that have synergy together. An example would be a Cleric and Fighter as a Fighter can go through a dungeon and be constantly healed by his Cleric.

An example of non-synergy — the kind of thing I'm trying to avoid — is something like a Fighter and a stealthy Rogue with low health or defences. When the Fighter goes into combat, the Rogue can't participate; and when the Rogue wants to do something stealthily, the Fighter can't do much to help. The two have limited situations they can cooperate in, and where they specialise the other is useless! This won't be much fun for either of them, and I'd like to avoid us running into this situation.

So, how can I make sure my players have classes that can cooperate and regularly be useful to each other?

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Any of the classes can work well together.

Classes in D&D 5e aren't all that black and white. A Fighter with a Criminal background, for example, can participate just fine along with a rogue - in fact, that's the general setup for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, one of the best known fantasy duos ever.

Fretting about class niche over "what the people actually want to play" is misguided, and it's only tangentially related to the problem and its solution. The real trick is in two parts.

  1. The players should work together to have a shared interest. Regardless of class and crunch, if one player wants to be a socialite in the King's court and the other wants to be a dungeon slashing killer, that's going to be hard to accommodate. But it's not about the classes per se. A "cleric" and a "rogue" can tweak domains and backgrounds and skill choices to align well on anything from "we are holy inquisitors" to "we are underworld figures." You need to worry more about one wanting a religious aspect to the game and the other not. Make them work that out, it's not your job as DM. Of course if your campaign is going to have certain elements you should tell them... "This will be a scholarly campaign about tracking down forbidden books, like that Johnny Depp movie!" will signal to them that a pair of illiterate woodsmen will not be a good choice.

  2. You the DM then need to adapt the campaign in play to accommodate whatever they picked. If it's a cleric and a thief, then they're not going to have as much raw kill in their backpacks as a barbarian and a wizard. Just as there are many solo adventures designed for a rogue or a cleric or a monk, you tune your game to fit whatever their overlap of interests is. Heck, they can be the same class for all you should care. If they really, really need something they can't provide (spellcasting, healing, a bodyguard) well that's where hirelings come in. This is basic encounter scaling and planning, like you'd do for any real party with its strengths and weaknesses.

In the end, every combination is going to play differently and have some pros and cons. So go do it! Go discover this through play. There's really no choices that will "break the game", so meta theory land is the wrong place to be addressing this. Play the game. Have them pick two and see how it goes. If someone dies, then decide if that combo wasn't working for you and roll up something else. There is no wrong answer.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser reference. First thing that comes to mind when I hear Fighter+Rogue \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Oct 24 '14 at 12:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ this isn't 100% true. Combat in 5e is very lethal at lower levels, and if you have 2 characters with d6 hit dice, you're probably going to go down to a random crit. \$\endgroup\$ – smcg Oct 24 '14 at 13:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "A random crit" can take down low level folks with d12 hit dice too, not sure how that's relevant. If both characters have lower HD then... See my entire point #2. You'd softball the combat on a pair of non-combat folks, just like in all the things that exist in the history of D&D like solo thief adventures. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 24 '14 at 13:49
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It's worth remembering that every class in D&D 5e is designed for combat. I don't know if your statement that 'When the Fighter goes into combat, the Rogue can't participate' was meant purely as an example, but Rogues can indeed participate in combat and do it well.

Outside of combat, most non-combat activities can be handled at least reasonably well by any class with the right proficiencies. And any character can get those proficiencies with the right background. In the hypothetical scenario where they couldn't, a player working with their DM to write their own background is encouraged.

The point I'm making here is that if you and your players are on the same page about what you want out of the campaign, you should be able to make it work regardless of the class they choose. If they want a stealthy, sneaky campaign, a Fighter with high Dex and proficiency in Stealth and Thieves' Tools will work fine. If they want a combat-centric dungeon crawl, any class should work fine, because fighting in dungeons is the core activity which all of the classes are made for.

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Personally, I think that the two classes I'd put together for a duo campaign are Bard or Cleric and Moon Druid. Cleric can be a blaster type, a healer type, a melee type, or even a rogueish type of character, while still having spells for utility. The Moon Druid's got small animal forms for stealth, and can even be good battlefield control if you grab Grappler (especially at early levels, because of the Brown Bear's high strength score and size). Bard's just all-around awesome, and can poach spells from other lists as you level up.

However, while there are classes that mesh well together and classes that conflict a bit, I think that that is much less of a thing to worry about than monsters and encounter design. 5e's monsters, especially at lower levels, are incredibly dangerous, to the point where a decent amount of the time, the "Challenge N is meant to face a level N party and not cause too much trouble" passage from the DM rules is entirely incorrect. There are some nasty save-or-dies around, unexpectedly high damage, and NPC casters with much more powerful spells than their Challenge rating would imply.

I would focus on making sure that the game and encounters are tailored for the two PCs more than focusing on the classes themselves. If they decide to go with classes that work well together, great! Otherwise, if they decide they have concepts that can only work with some conflicting classes, I think that the best decision would be to just watch the power level of the game to keep it decently challenging, but safe.

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In 5e everyone can do everything (spell use and languages excepted) so there are no major skill gaps like other editions have. About the only thing you need to make sure of is that at least one character has a decent passive perception (i.e. a good wisdom and proficiency in that skill) as a lot of things that will make the characters' lives much easier ride on that skill.

But otherwise, assuming you are starting out at a low level, the players learning how to work together should be the point of the adventures! Let them figure it out and take skills, spells, and feats to enhance each other as they advance in level. The journey from 1st–4th level only takes a few sessions and there are a lot of decisions they can make within their classes (regardless of what they are) to complement each other. Until they get their footing you may have to nerf a few encounters (especially if you are using some of the published material), but otherwise leave it to them to tell you through their actions how they want to play.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The usefullness of passive perception is one of those things which depend a lot on the DM. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Oct 23 '15 at 11:57
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The more things a class can do, the better it will work in combination with others

Something to keep in mind when you're pairing characters together is that the more things that a character individually can do the more things that the group as a whole will be able to do together.

A bad example of this would be a niche class such as a Rogue, Fighter, or Monk. AKA, Those who specialize in combat and have minor dips into skills or skill tricks here or there.

A good example of this would be a Druid, Cleric, or Wizard. They have a wide variety of spells and abilities that they can use to bypass things, such as polymorph or shapeshifting, curative magic, damaging effects, or general battlefield control. These classes also have the ability to wade into the melee combat that the other classes can do, with almost as much if not as much proficiency.

A cleric and a wizard will work well in conjunction because the cleric can wear enough armor and has a good enough hit die along with magic to be able to sustain blows, and a wizard will be able to dish out the battlefield control or pain to get through encounters with little trouble.

On the other spectrum a cleric and a rogue ( or any of the other combatants ) would be limited in their effectiveness because they would always be locked into some kind of melee combat. And if their opponents were able to gain range or had the ability to float, fly, or move it would render half of the group incapable of performing useful actions.

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Note: In retrospect this is a better comment then a true answer. This is all mitigation to the problem and less than an answer. I would change it to a comment but I can't.

The other answers are absolutely correct. Well rolled characters should be able to work together anytime but if you still find that the classes your players pick don't mesh, they rolled poorly, or they just aren't fitting the situations you are providing consider the following work arounds:

  1. Give players NPC henchman. This can help fill the void a missing class might give. Additionally they needn't have all of them all the time (which allows for a sort of situational swapping of NPCs that can be fun to play around with). You can let them control them or you can control them. The choice is yours. As long as they don't overshadow the player characters it can be fun.
  2. Use items to fill the void. If you are missing a certain skill or mechanic, you can have the players find magical items to fill the void. If you need you players to be able to heal and they don't have means to do so maybe they find a bag that you can pull a potion or two from each day. It might not even need to be magical at all. You might have to house rule some of these but it can be worth it.
  3. Customize situations to avoid the gaps. You are the DM, you are in control! If no one in your party can jump across the chasm of deep dark death maybe just don't put that in your game. If it is a pre-made game add a bridge. If you have the sneaky rogue and the in your face fighter, provide the rogue ways to take out people in combat that help the fighter (maybe there are nice places the could put a tripwire, or maybe he can dislodge rocks from a nearby cliff). If it is time for the rogue to sneak find a way for the fighter to be a useful distraction. This all puts more burden on you but can make for some really interesting stories.
  4. Allow each player multiple characters. A party of two can be tricky because there are few enough skills between the characters there are lots of situations you just can't be prepared for. By allowing each player 2 (or more) characters you allow more chances for synergy and to play in situations where one character might be irrelevant. This comes with some downsides (it is awkward talking to yourself in character), but it can work.
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I've found that for small parties (2 or 3 characters) the best approach is to pick either Fighter, Bard, or Warlock for level 1 based on which primary role you want to fill (melee, skill monkey, or blaster respectively). If your players chose Fighter or Bard, have them go Warlock the rest of the way and have the Fighter pick a Fiend patron and Pact of the Blade while the Bard picks an Archfey patron and Pact of the Tome. If someone chooses Warlock, have them choose a Great Old One patron and take a 1-level dip in Sorcerer (Draconic) for Draconic Resilience. They should choose the Pact of the Chain, and when not using their familiar to scout enemy locations the familiar should be using the assist action to grant the Blaster advantage on Eldritch Blast attack rolls. The best race choices for this strategy are Dragonborn for Melees and Half-Elf for Blasters or Skill Monkeys. Keep in mind Bards get Cure Wounds so when the skill monkeys aren't using their skills they can heal (and use their Warlock slots for Cure Wounds which restore on short rests).

I've successfully led both a 2-character party and a 3-character party through both major published adventures using this configuration. The 3-character party made it through both adventures with no deaths and no changes, the 2-character party (consisting of either melee+blaster or melee+skillmonkey) would have died in two spots (the battle with Venomfang in Lost Mines of Phandelver, and the fight with Rezmir in the last episode of HotDQ) without some slightly reduced challenge and minor die-roll fudging. In each of these cases very little rolling was done during character creation: players used the standard ability score array and took constant average HP increases after 1st-level consistent with Adventurer's League rules.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you clarify: did you adjust any/all the encounters? Or did you play them as is, same numbers etc. as published? \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Hutton Dec 7 '14 at 5:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PaulHutton The 3-character party configuration I describe was able to make it through with all encounters exactly as published. The 2-character part configuration I describe could not do so exactly as published. In two circumstances, Venomfang and Rezmir specifically, I had to pull a few punches and fudge a couple die rolls. \$\endgroup\$ – Dyndrilliac Dec 7 '14 at 6:19
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I like padding out the party with a few well played NPCs.

I just got my wife and son into D&D and they are loving it. I DM'd all through my younger and teen years and learned to be flexible and versatile. My first rule is let the players pick classes they want to play. I went through all the races and classes in the PHB with my family and my wife ended up falling in love with the Rogue, and my son wanted a halfling fighter. Perfect, since that solves a lot of the problems in dungeons, but not all.

So I rolled up a cleric and wizard (nothing exotic) to join them on their adventures. I favor the players for wisdom checks, discovery and exploration, but to teach new players the game if they are getting stuck I'll roll perception or a skill check for the NPCs. In the first adventure, they dove into a dungeon and story that sought out a baby dragon and the wizard and cleric were necessary for the PCs to survive. In the third session, they return to town, and a suspicious town mayer drops in with his henchmen guards and informs them of a 30% tax rate on treasure. My son's fighter gets suspicious and asks my wife (the thief) to follow them, thus taking the bait for an RP style, 2-player situation where my wife is thrown in jail and my son's fighter attempts to rescue her while she tries to break out.

In this session, the Cleric and Wizard had slept in at the tavern and are watching what remains of their treasure, so they are part of the world but not important to that particular adventure.

The flexibility of being able to add or take away NPC support as needed allows the players to focus on what they really want to have fun playing. If they don't need the wizard, he can be off studying or inscribing spells, etc. This lets the main focus remain on the players.

And if someone dies, it ensures there's a couple of known character sheets to play so they keep having fun.

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