Asymmetry in Roleplay Part 2 - The Asymmetric Party
For me, playing a roleplaying game should be something akin to reading a great novel or watching a really good film, except that you’re in there amidst the action and able to influence the way the story unfolds. Now, tell me, in how many great books or films does the story start with someone assembling a team of four people, all of a similar level of experience, each of whom has to fulfill a specific role of leader, defender, striker or controller?
I’m sorry, this post honestly isn’t intended to be a 4e rant as such. This clinical approach to putting parties together has long been practised by players of earlier editions of D&D and other game systems - well, maybe a little less so in non class-based systems. It’s just that 4e seems to have formalised this approach more strongly.
In the bad old days of the late 1970’s, the way we put together a party for an adventure was simple. Every player would roll up a character and, often without reference to what anyone else was doing, they would try to work out an interesting character concept, for themselves to play. You could easily end up with a party full of fighters without any other classes involved. In fact, this rarely happened because every player had different ideas for what sort of character they wanted to play anyway. But it wouldn’t be too unusual to have no cleric, for instance.
I’m not suggesting that this is the best way to create a party - it’s maybe a little too random, and too much randomness is as unrealistic as too much symmetry. Thinking ‘in-game’, someone putting together a group of people to rescue a kidnapped noble or loot a tomb would probably try to seek out individuals with appropriate skills for the job. But they might not get exactly who they want, the ideal people for the job may not be available, or someone tagging along may not have been entirely honest about their level of ability or their motivations for going on the job.
Here’s how we do it in our campaign. Each player has multiple characters, all of whom have differing abilities, motivations and personality traits. These PCs form a loose network of associations. Not every PC has even met or heard of every other PC.
Parties for adventures tend to emerge ‘organically’.
Parties for adventures tend to emerge ‘organically’. They tend to include characters based on who receives the adventure lead, and who else they decide to invite - which is as likely to be based on whether they personally like them as anything else, and whether they happen to be in their locale at the time. Certainly, sometimes they will say ‘we need so-and-so for this job’ but the point is that the decision is largely based in-game.
Not everyone out there will be playing (or even want to play) a long-term multi-threaded campaign, and so this kind of ‘organic party dynamic’ I’ve described won’t arise naturally in the typical playing group. But you can engineer asymmetry in the party. All you have to do is ignore all the advice the self-referential world of contemporary roleplaying has to offer about the ’smart’ way to build a party and think about how you can put a party together that is quirky, imbalanced and ill at ease with itself instead! And think about how you can use this as an opportunity to encourage some interesting roleplay situations.
Here’s an example from our actual campaign, which mainly illustrates situations involving level asymmetry. I was a player in this one rather than DM, though I effectively generated the adventure lead and structured the party.
A high(ish) level character of mine, a sorceress with ambitions of greatness, decided that she wanted to set up a stronghold in a tangled forest. That’s what sorceresses do, apparently, and she wasn’t going to buck the trend. Urban folks seem to get all upset when you start conducting ghastly eldritch experiments into the small hours of the morning and keeping a menagerie of monsters in your high street townhouse. So, the forest it was. She wanted to explore this forest, find out who lived there, generally scout it out and identify threats that she would have to deal with or any powerful neighbours she should avoid upsetting.
She needed a crew of people to help her with this - but not people who were her peers, as they would want a full whack of the treasure and might start raising moral objections to her activities or start forming their own agendas. Instead, she gathered together a group of lower-level people and hired them under a contract that gave them specified shares of any treasure found, but a greater share to herself. She also had rights to any unusual artifacts that might be discovered.
There was one exception to this - a firebrand cleric who tended to be a bit intolerant of people whose moral viewpoints disagreed with his own. He wouldn’t sign the contract, but agreed to come along as a goodwill gesture to my sorceress character who was an old adventuring companion of his. He wasn’t her peer in terms of level, though - he’d quit adventuring for a while to use his loot to set up a hospital, and he’d been busy with that for a few years.
So, the party that set out consisted of my character - who I think would have been around 13th level at the time - and a bunch of 4th-5th level hirelings. All of whom were player characters.
So, here we have an obviously asymmetric party. However, it wasn’t quite asymmetric in the way the other players thought. My sorceress, having assembled her party, decided that actually, a lot of the business of grubbing around in the woods would probably be a bit mundane, and she had better things to do with her time. So…she equipped her apprentice with magics to alter her appearance to look like herself; she cast a ‘Telepathic Link’ spell on this apprentice that allowed her to telepathically contact her mistress for a few minutes each day to report on progress or receive instructions. In extremis this spell would also allow my sorceress to take control of her apprentice via a Magic Jar spell, though there were risks involved in this greater than those normally inherent in that spell.
So, in fact, the party consisted of a bunch of 4th-5th level hirelings plus one 1st-level-in-training, equipped with a couple of magic items, who was tasked with impersonating her 13th level mentor. The asymmetry was the other way around to what the party believed. My personal roleplay challenge was to roleplay the apprentice pretending to be my character but not quite being able to fill her shoes, with all of the self-confidence issues that would entail. My sorceress was well known for being a bit reticent to use her magical powers unless absolutely necessary, preferring to hang on to her spells in case some badder baddies were waiting at the next encounter, so the apprentice could get away with this ruse to a certain extent. (It’s worth noting that 4e’s at-will and encounter powers would make this kind of interesting subterfuge much harder to pull off convincingly….).
This whole set-up made for some interesting roleplay dynamics
This whole set-up made for some interesting roleplay dynamics, and also led the party into situations where they’d bite off more than they could chew - they thought they had a powerful spellcaster backing them up. Yes, as you may imagine, the other players did eventually start to smell a rat. Things were made even more entertaining by two events.
First, the firebrand cleric had a falling-out with one of the other characters, a dwarf who was less than merciful to some helpless prisoners. So the cleric stormed off, removing the party’s main source of healing. The cleric’s player later brought in a new 1st level character - and no, their new character wasn't a cleric.
Second, my sorceress was called away on an urgent errand that required her to travel to another plane. This led to her apprentice losing contact midway through a challenging encounter...just when she really needed the back-up...
I think I’ve given enough details for people to see that there was some great roleplay going on here and some unpredictable things happening. My sorceress did eventually return from her errand and actually joined the party in the flesh for the final part of the adventure, replacing her long-suffering apprentice who was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown by this point due to the stress she’d endured. At this point the asymmetry in the party swung back the other way again.
Now, when you read about this situation, how do you feel about it? Was that a 'broken' party? Do you think the problems the party faced were a nuisance that you should do your utmost to avoid? Yes, the characters involved undoubtedly felt unhappy with the situation at times. But the players, by and large, found it amusing. There was plenty of good in-character roleplaying going on in that adventure. I'll freely admit that it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but I just wanted to show that there can be more to a game of D&D than putting a balanced party together and trawling through a dungeon populated with predictably balanced encounters and predictable levels of reward. Not that there's anything wrong with the latter if that's what you enjoy, of course.
Refereeing for an asymmetric party has its own particular challenges. Clearly, you shouldn’t gear every combat encounter towards the highest level character in the party. Try to arrange things so that there’s something for everyone to do, and make sure that the low levels can get a slice of the action. For instance - if your party consists of a high-level wizard and lower level warrior-types, throw some golems into the mix. Golems are notoriously hard to hurt with spells. But make sure the golems are small-ish ones that the lower-level fighters can actually deal with. Some fleshier opponents can fight alongside the golems to give the spellcaster some targets to attack with their ‘blam’ spells. Another example - the party has a couple of high-level warriors up front who are taking all the action with some lower-level people hanging at the rear twiddling their thumbs. Solution - have the party attacked in the rear, by some of the bad guys’ lesser minions.
One thing I will say - an asymmetric party, in terms of character levels, can be fun and interesting to play, but from experience I can tell you that if one or two players are getting all the high-level action all of the time the players of lower level characters will weary of it, when the roleplay dynamics of the situation get a bit tired. So the referee should avoid having these unbalanced situations persist for too long a time. Make sure that, over the long term, all players get a fair crack of the whip. Don’t allow players to fall into roles within the group such that certain players are always playing the heavy hitters whilst others are always playing their lackeys.