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.

I'd say that teams are often put together more by attributes. The A-Team for example: Face (Cha), B.A.B. (Str), and Hannibal (Int). OK, I don't know which one crazy goes with... probably Wis. ;)

D&D2 kind of went that route (with a six-person party no less) and it was one of the (few?) things I liked about that film.

And it MAY be one of the things 4e did away with. If I can apply Dex or Str to a power, it kind of loses it's specialness (though it's certainly better balanced if all the attributes are largely the same).

Which was probably one of the cool things about d20 Modern (rarely got to play it and explore that): the Strong, Tough, Fast, etc. Hero classes.

That sounds like an absolute blast. Role playing to confront not just monsters, but expectations and assumptions..

Indeed. The specific illustration of party dynamic works well, and argues favorably for your idea of asymmetry. The caveat is that it would take a particular type of group to make that work...but most good groups (loosely defined) would be able to pull it off.

It's not unlike the fairly common motif in games I've played where one of the PCs is some sort of double agent (Sith in SW, Scorpion Actor or Kolat sleeper in L5R, etc.). Things tend to work better, I find, when all the other players are kept unaware of the situation; the revelation, when handled well, is incredible.

I love the idea but I've got a counter to what you're trying to say, gherkin. I think there's more to asymmetry than you're putting here. The asymmetry of your party wasn't really the levels, though that played into the clever ruse. It was the ruse itself. The *characters* made the party asymmetrical. To me the ideal roleplaying group would be one like the crew in Firefly/Serenity. They're perfect precisely because of their asymmetry - it adds drama and makes everything interesting, just because you wonder how this particular character will react. However, as far as "levels" go, their not very asymmetrical, or at least not nearly so as described above. I think you can play a "balanced" party, but still be very asymmetrical. When I played D&D, this was the kind of group I liked, especially when DMing. The math of dealing with such various levels is impossible to my mind. But that's part of the reason I've left D&D behind - those experience points, even streamlined in 4th, are just ridiculous.

If you're not comfortable thinking in terms of 'levels', Tzuriel, think in terms of GURPS point builds at discrete intervals. I've seen high-pointed characters in action in GURPS and they behave very similarly, in the context of that system, to high-level characters in the context of D&D.

The main point is that a party can be composed of individuals with disparate power 'ratings' (I'll avoid the use of the word 'levels'), and also disparate goals and motivations, and be an exciting and interesting roleplay experience - more so, in some ways, than the party who are hand-picked to fill out the team, all of the same 'rating', and all on the same page in terms of goals and motives.

I think the important thing to maintain in situations where intra-party tensions occur is separation between your persona as a player and your persona as a character. Also realise that disagreements within the party shouldn't be escalated in an unrealistic fashion - your characters, being heroes (by and large) should be made of stronger stuff, emotionally speaking, than to whip out their swords or wands and start hacking and blasting at each other over every slight or disagreement.

In the early days of D&D, internal party conflict was generally considered part and parcel of the game. Over the years, opinion has swung sharply away from this as something to be decried, and rightly so - if by internal conflict we mean actual fisticuffs on lightweight pretexts. But I think these days people shy away from party schism too much - I've read of referees who simply won't allow any sort of disagreements within the party, who regard it as 'wasting time' that should be spent on completing their precious adventure. I say don't pass up these opportunities to add colour to your game - as long as your players can deal with them in a mature fashion.

The last caveat, "as long as your players can deal with them in a mature fashion," is at the root of a lot of things, I think. But I do have to agree that a certain degree of asymmetry can be developed among characters of roughly equal overall power and ability; it will depend largely on the focus of each character.

Then again, it does seem like there will be more articles in this series, and you may well be planning to address the issue. I am content to wait, and eager to read on.

This just illustrates a point I'm always making; a good group isn't made up of's made up of players. Everything else falls in line when you have good players that are more interested in being part of a good story than a good "game".

I'm totally cool with talking in levels, gherkin. Actually, I've only played GURPS once, and that as one of their "try this and see if you like it!" creations, whereas I've played D&D many times. I don't care what you call it, I understand the point.

I don't think I was clear, though. I'm definitely in favor of internal conflict - that's what good stories are made of. I was just saying that it wasn't necessary for the characters to have different levels for the party to be asymmetrical - the important thing is different goals and motivations among the party members. That's what makes good drama. I really don't have a problem with differing levels of skill, especially with a system that doesn't make that a real pain. I was just saying that the important element here was not the disparate power levels, but the characters themselves.

Yes, the players are the key. A toast to good players!

And I do eagerly await further articles. My compliments to the author.

Your compliments are appreciated.

I wasn't saying you have to have disparate ability levels in the party. Having disparate motives can be good too. In the example above, both these things occur, which maybe confused people as to the point I was making. Which I supposed can be summed up by the phrase 'Enjoy the fun in dysfunctional'. Or, er, something.

The power level asymmetry was kind of key to what happened in that scenario, though - both real, and perceived.

My sorceress has never lived this down, of course, but that's the point. She's not actually evil per se.....but she has a reputation for being not entirely trustworthy. Something I've cultivated ;-)

Asymmetry is a great way for testing your players (as a DM I say this). The other night we had a small get together of some like minded players who created the same class. We had three lvl 3 rangers, an elf, eladrin, and a 1/2 elf. We were part of a military group, and one of them was made a corporal. Instructions were given and the group moved out into the wild world to retrive some banner or other. It worked beautifully. The guys (sorry no ladies in our group) played it perfectly. We had two long range archers, and one duel wielding maniac. No healing. No magic. The toughest encounter was with a succubus would could control minds. That was a lot of fun. But the players had to think on their feet and come up with totally different solutions - with no controller or tank it made life really different. What a blast.

Then last night we had a player join who plays in the regular session on the weekend. Although sadly the Slyvern Scouts had lost two of the rangers to pits, traps, poison, monsters, and general death, it was still military with one character ordering the others around. Boy what a disaster. The additional character wasn't the problem. The player was. Something was unbalanced and by the end of the evening we all quietly said good bye and left feeling not a little dissatisfied. The reason: The player was frustrated with taking 'stupid' orders.

Where some players relish the challenge of 'surviving' dumb commanders, or of making the best of a bad situation others seem to loose the plot and focus on rules/laws/or narrative imperative. And it is at times like this that I'm reminded of the great Gygax's words in his book - Master of the Game:

The characters should have a 80% of survival, but it should always feel like it's only 20%. As a DM my goal is not to kill the characters. That's easy. It's to keep the entertainment alive, and asymmetrical systems offer that. I guess the long and short of this addition:

Thanks for the inspiration - the next session is going to be unbalanced, but only once I've got the right players...

Well, then, gherkin, I heartily agree. Well done lol. Maybe I was just too dense to realize it, but I felt that caveat was needed.

And, Yanek, good job on keeping gherkins advice alive. If my game (another sigh) ever gets started, I'll have to do the same...

I think the designers of 4e attempted to up the strategy level of D&D. In theory this is good. I'd love it if my D&D game played like a complicated game of chess. A meeting of minds: the cunning DM vs the PC hivemind. Such a game would require meticulous movement rules and lots of optimal and suboptimal decision-making.

The problem is that elegant strategy in tabletop RPGs is virtually impossible to create. For one thing, the game is almost always stacked in the players' favour. DMs are discouraged from seeking "victory", and usually blow the battle on purpose if the party is taking too much of a beating. There are infinite variables in RPGs, making strategy almost impossible. The DM that wants to win has nothing preventing him from throwing impossible odds at his players. And, at least in my experience, players tend to be totally chaotic. Even when they have a good strategy, inevitably, one of the players decides to do something stupid just to cause drama.

I've been puzzling over this for a while, and the conclusion I've come to is that the basis for role-playing games... the point... is to learn how to collaborate as a team. The challenge of the game is not about PCs v. DM, it's PCs v. Themselves. The DM's role, really, is just to facilitate player interaction. To that end, I think 4e is on the right track.

"The DM's role, really, is just to facilitate player interaction. To that end, I think 4e is on the right track."

I am unsure of how your arrive at the conclusion, unless (and I may well not understand you correctly) the obligation of characters to fulfill specific roles in a series of logic and tactical puzzles facilitates player interaction in a way truly encouraging of collaborative action. But I do not find it so, and I certainly do not think that strategy even begins to approach the impossible in the RPG.

The ongoing debate about the relative (un)worth of D$D 4 in my own gaming group, though, seems to center on the normalization of things in the new rules. I am not a fan, others are.

I like the idea that the point for roleplaying games is to learn how to collaborate as a team, but I have to disagree. First, whether it sounds snobbish or not, I consider roleplaying, as a subset of storytelling, to be an art form. And as such it is to each involved what it is to them. I may watch LOTR and see a brilliant depiction of good trumps evil, whereas others may see it as a dissertation on war and conflict. It is an individual and brilliantly collective experience. In short, it is our best paired with our best (by showing our worst) as all art is. So, to make claims as to the "point" of roleplaying is non sequiter - my point is different and always will be from your point.

So maybe 4e fulfills your point and leaves mine destroyed.

But let's assume that the point IS to learn how to collaborate as a team. Does 4e do a good job with that? I don't think so. Learning how to collaborate as a team means using what you've got and making a team out of it. It doesn't mean fitting yourselves into pre-determined "roles" and going from there (I have yet to hear of an army platoon divided into striker, controller, defender, etc.). Each member is unique, not cookie cutter prototypes. 4e does not encourage this. It encourages you to be a team by ITS rules, but not to be a real team, one that effectively sets up its own rules and makes the enemy play by them (and lose). I think there is very little justification for 4e's failures. Strategy? If you want strategy, make it a part of the world, as in obstacles, things people can use, etc. The rules should encourage you to use your environment, not predetermined "powers". That's real strategy.

And as for chess, it doesn't have to be players vs. DM. It's players vs. bad guy. That's where the chess game is.

LG, I'm looking forward for more from you on this.
I do think having this type of exprience is entirely dependent on the players. However, I don't think it's about good players, necessarily, but rather it's about the type of player.
Some players would indeed enjoy playing a weaker (or a subordinate) character in a campaign, others (such as myself, and the player Yanek described) would not enjoy it. It goes back to "what do you enjoy in the game?" - for me, following a stupid commander's orders isn't on that list.

Having never played GURPS, I don't know how hard creating a challenging-but-not-deadly encounter to a party of varying power-characters is. In D&D, it's definitely more difficult...but, if we could do it before 3rd edition, we can probably still do it now.

I'm a bit tied up with RL commitments at the moment, zip, but further parts will follow at some point in the not-too-distant.

Nice article, although I think it is incorrect to assume that strategic parties of homogenous level are unique to 4E; I found that the more disparate character levels were in all prior editions, the more difficult and unbalancing a given encounter could end up being at any given moment. I've been running 4E since it came out with mixed level parties and find that the net effect is no better or worse than in 3rd, 2nd or even 1st edition, except perhaps that overall character survival is slightly better in the current edition. Unfortunately, it seems that there are far too many implied assumptions about how 4E should be run based on its overall design strategy, and less acceptance that in the end it runs the same way as all the older editions, anyway.

Tzuriel--4E works much better as an organic system than you are giving it credit for; it's class system is no different than that of earlier editions, except that it is easier for average gamers (not min/maxers, power gamers and so forth) to produce competent character builds without much effort. Every group I've run for the last year has been an eclectic nonstandard mix, and the results have been unexpected and entertaining. The only class that tends to get short changed in my experience is the warlord, which is a class that by definition works best when he "plays with others," and most of my players dislike that sort of interference and so go for whatever feels comfortable, first, and tend to disregard tactical options. Yes, the rules talk about such options...but no, they don't somehow enforce it any more so than the previous editions. This is actual play experience I am speaking from, not theoreticals...put another way, it simply doesn't work "as described" in actual play, any more so than it ever has before. Now, I agree that 4E does offer more's powers are a boon to many players who felt stiffled by the limitations of 3rd edition, for example, which encouraged the notion that "if you don't have a feat you can't do it" mentality, unfortunately, but by offering up interesting powers and methods of their use, I have found it only leads to much more fascinating applications and actions on the part of the players, who now have a bigger and more unusual sandbox in which to play. Of course, YMMV, and 4E is probably a bad choice for a very rule-focused group that gets all nervous and sweaty when the game deviates from the RAW (by which I mean a literal interpretation; for example, a player who would argue that Eldritch Blast can not be used to target a rope or a chandelier, for example, because the text in the book does not explicitly state it can attack an inanimate object) but in more relaxed game groups where the story and adventure is the focus, which is the kind of group I run games for, I have found that 4E seems to enhance the experience rather than detract from it (which yes, unfortunately, I found 3E had a habit of doing in my games, by offering many more rule restrictions and few encouraging options).

Those are some interesting thoughts, camazotz, and I'm happy to say very intelligently said. We like intelligence here. :) (some of us also like emoticons)

I see your point and perhaps you are correct. Ultimately it matters little to me. Excepting in games run by others which I'm invited to, I've given up on D&D. I don't like the class system at all and have grown tired of it. The more I think about the more skill based feels like the way to go. So that's where I'm going. There, you don't even see the edges of your sandbox, they're so far away, and that's how I like it.

I will have you know, however, that my group and myself are very much not rule-focused groups. If they get in the way, damn the rules. I just prefer rules that don't get in the way. D&D often gets in the way, though it does have some good ideas (for instance, the recent disease mechanic I like quite a bit, and is definitely an improvement over 3rd). I don't like the setting, I just don't care for the whole thing. I love fantasy, but not the kind of fantasy D&D was made for. So I'm leaving it to go tell my stories somewhere else.