Party 'Building' (= Immersion Breaking?)


With particular reference to D&D, but probably applies to other systems as well.

Something I come across with depressing regularity when trawling various gaming forums is the concept of a 'party build' being discussed.

As something of an old-school RP'er, this is really an alien idea to me. In the bad old days (we're talking late 70's here), the way we always put together a party for an adventure was simple. Every player would roll up a character and 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 unusual to have no cleric, for instance.

This principle lives on in the campaign I am running now. Every player has multiple characters, all of whom have differing abilities, motivations and personality traits. The PCs form a loose network of associations. Not every PC has even met or heard of every other PC.

Parties for adventures are never constructed based on metagaming arguments. 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. Character levels are not a major consideration and the party can end up as a crazy heterogenous mix. Sometimes the adventure turns out to be more than they can handle (I don't build encounters based on some dumb formula that matches the challenge to the party, I build them based on in-game rationales), and they wind up running with their tails between their legs, and yes, sometimes even carrying the corpses of their fallen comrades.

I gather that this is an unusual way of doing things in this 'enlightened' (ahem) age. But let me tell you it's a heck of a lot more fun than working to some tiresome party build checklist.

So how do other gamegreners out there decide who gets to go on the adventure?

Good points.

In the game I run there are three clerics (Ranger/Cleric, Cleric/Monk, Cleric) and a Ranger/MU. That's the PC component and the NPC's come and go according to the story. I am an ardent supporter of the in-game rationale versus meta-game thinking. Yes, it leads to occasional imbalances and problems. But I think those problems are what we are gaming for -- not to reduce them into a strategically balanced environment with predictable risks and rewards.

I agree and disagree. I think if there's only a purely metagame reason for doing things (let's go to the forest so we can level up!) then it's bad. But, many of your complaints can easily have both an in-game reason and a metagame reason. For instance, the cleric is one of D&D's mainstay party "needs." While I don't think that every party should have a Cleric or even a healer for that matter, you can find many in-game reasons why many adventuring parties (a concept I find rather difficult to believe in, as is) would specifically seek out a cleric. For instance, if you're living in a world as filled with various hungry and evil monsters as D&D, especially if you're out seeking those monsters, you're going to want to have a cleric with you because you know he can "heal" you after the fight. I mean, if I was an adventurer, I'd want a cleric over any other class because of that main reason. Also, maybe the more religious members of the party want the cleric to deliver blessings (doesn't have to be a spell use) before they enter the dungeon. It's like how all the vampire hunter movies always have a priest - you want to know God agrees with you and might just help you avoid that lightning bolt trap. Just like how, if you're tromping into the wilderness, you most likely want a ranger with you to help guide you through.

However, I think you're right on in saying that "party building" in the sense that "we need a cleric, rogue, wizard and fighter" is wrongheaded. When I think of party building, I think of collaborating in character design to tie your character's together. This can lead to great roleplaying and character development. For instance, in one campaign I played in, my character was once the student of another character, who left due to different approaches to combat and then came back in an effort to prove he was right. He never did get the chance (and that player always rolled better than me so it was pretty obvious who was right), but it set up some great roleplay as well as a place to start, instead of, "Hey, you're an elf, I'm an elf, let's travel together!" This is true party building, and the kind that should be emphasized. However, I'm also not against players playing specific "roles" in the party, as long as they are willing. This can lead to growth as a roleplayer, as the player that was always in front killing orcs now sits in the back healing his fellows, or crafting spells. I like players to at least try a "role" once, and go from there.

Your style is obviously very different from mine. I play with the same party, not different people every week or so. Do you send out an e-mail of something to one player and then let him/her invite who they want? Interesting.

As for encounter building, I've got to disagree with you there. Making a dungeon just to kick your PCs asses strikes me as wrongheaded, unless they've had a run of kobold-only encounters and need to be deflated a bit. If characters go someplace that is purposefully beyond their power level, then they'll take the full brunt of that place. I agree with you there. But just arbitrarily coming up with a dungeon, making a theme, and then following in-game logic from there can lead to a lot of problems. "Today is dragon day" is not something you should be saying until your PCs can take on the dragons (unless, again, your PCs specifically went after a dragon(s) that is way beyond their skills). I'm not entirely sure, however, that arbitrary "let's kill a PC today" is what you're aiming for or talking about. You should be careful not to create all kinds of impossible dungeons cause you like the themes, cause then you'll have a Shakesperean tragedy on your hands. And he at least waits till the end to kill everybody off!

It sounds as if what you do isn't so very different to what we do, Tzuriel. The character-as-mentor-to-another-character thing goes on all the time in our campaign. And yes, it's not unreasonable for a party to say "We're going into the woods, maybe a ranger would be handy - let's fetch Boris Trailfinder (or whatever)". The kind of party building that really turns me off is where characters are purpose-built to work together as a team - i.e. min-maxing on a party scale. And especially when people start thinking in terms of standardised tactical combat roles - there's almost *nothing* more immersion-breaking in my book. But I think it's fine for a party to grow together during the course of a campaign as they gain experience and to train in areas that enable them to cooperate and complement each other - all supported by in-game rationale. In practise this rarely happens in a way that maximises efficiency, though. And that's the way it should be. Dysfunctional parties can be great fun too.

Next, I want to lay to rest any notions that I might be a 'killer DM'. I wouldn't have any players left if I were. I have known killer DMs and they tend to have short careers.

I never build dungeons with the pure intention of kicking the PC's asses (or arses, as we say on this side of the pond). But if the PCs never suffer a defeat, then they tend to become complacent about the ongoing certainty of their success. Good stories usually involve at least some element of tragedy. And when the party is defeated, it's fun for them to bear that grudge and dream of the day when the can go back and take revenge on whatever baddie kicked their arses. They also need to *know* that they are not at the top of the food chain, and if that means occasionally running into someone who's above them as a reminder of this fact then so be it - though I always try to give reasonable hints and warnings that they might be getting out of their depth. I don't go 'Tomb of Horrors' on them all the time (unless it is the Tomb of Horrors of course - people who build deathtraps usually do so with the intention of causing death, not just a bit of roughing-up).

I wouldn't say 'today is dragon day' - but I would put a dragon in a location that the PCs might possibly stray into. With a tribe of kobolds living nearby who worship the dragon and pay it tribute in food and treasure, who (if the PCs take the trouble to talk to them instead of just killing them) would provide a useful source of intel.

A case in point is the adventure I'm currently running. In brief: There's an evil cult who have gained influence over members of the ruling council of a country which borders on the PC's homeland. They are using this influence to sway the decision-making process surrounding how much military aid this country will give to the PC's homeland in a looming war with a third state (a theocracy to whom the evil cult are allied). The PCs consist of a couple of higher-level characters who have been sent here as diplomats, plus a bunch of lower-level people who they brought along as 'aides' - well, OK, spies.

The way I envisaged this adventure working was as follows - low-level spies do lots of legwork investigating what's going on while the high-levels are engaged in high-level diplomacy with the council - though they are available to give the low levels the occasional bit of support as long as it doesn't take up too much of their day. The cult's 'claws' are only one of the factors influencing the council's decisions and there is also some genuine diplomacy to be done here. The high levels were given a list of key figures and their motivations and they had to discuss who they were going to focus their efforts on, organise functions and events and take part in debates with enemy ambassadors. Anyway, I supposed that what would happen is that when the low-levels had managed to get a clear picture of the location of the cult's HQ, and having been given short shrift by the local watch (who have of course been infiltrated by the cult), they would call in the high level people for the final strike on the cultists' base.

I did try to give plenty of reasonable hints that the cultists might be too powerful for the low levels to confront directly. Unfortunately - yes, you've guessed it - they didn't quite get the hint, sent an underpowered party which didn't even include all the party members (some of them bunked off to visit local tourist attractions) to check out their lead on the base, walked into an ambush from which they barely escaped by the skin of their teeth (and a bit of leniency on my part - see I'm not such an evil DM you know). But one of them bought the farm in the process.

I find that this sort of experience influences the players' psychology in a way that benefits tension-building and excitement. They *know* that I'm not above putting in an encounter they can't handle. Subsequently, they went back and hit the bad guys hard, in a pitched battle at the entrance to their hidden underground temple. The upper echelons of the cult fled the scene via a secret door when it became clear how much danger they were facing (having one of your heavy hitters plus all of your lesser minions suddenly wiped out by chain lightning is a bit demoralising). But then some lower-level cult members attacked the party in the rear - which caused the party to rout forwards into the temple in a panic - they imagined that their new attackers were much more dangerous than they actually were. So now the party are in the temple (they've barricaded the doors) and debating their next move, not realising that the people who are containing them are lowly interns.

"So now the party are in the temple (they've barricaded the doors) and debating their next move, not realising that the people who are containing them are lowly interns."

Wonderful. The players have accepted the notion that the attackers could be anyone.

Many hundreds of years ago in ancient Japan there was a famous swordsman. He had a school and schools would often attract challenges from swordsman eager to gain a reputation. If a challenger came to the school and the master was out, they were given food, drink, and lodging for the night; subsequently, they were sent on their way in the morning if they did not wish to wait for the master to return.
A starving man, with little skill with the sword, knew of this custom and had heard that the master swordsman would be away from the school for another week. The man gathered up some clothes and dressed himself as a warrior. He knocked on the gates of the school and issued his callenge.
As you have already guessed, the master had returned early. The master -- unable to lose face in front of his students -- accepted the challenge and faced the unkown opponent. He sized up his opponent and immediately saw an opening as the angle of the stranger's blade was wrong. The master would not be fooled, for no one brazen enough to challenge him would have so weak a defence. He saw a weakness in the stance so that he could circle in behind, but it too was so obvious and open that it must be a trap also. He also saw the strangest look in the eyes of the opponent -- a look he had never seen in any of the great swordsman who had challenged him. Surely, this man would be his undoing. Finally, he resolved that he must attack. His students were watching and this standoff had lasted many minutes. Just as he was about to attack, the stranger threw down his sword and begged for mercy. The stranger explained his reasons for the challenge. In response, the master called for food and wine and kept the stranger at the school for nearly a week before sending him on with a bag of money.

The master thought about the lesson he had learned from the hungry stranger for the rest of his life and renamed his sword-school to "Mu-Shin-Ryu": the school of the empty mind.

Perception and expectation cloud reality. Any good fantasy game should explore perceptions and ocassionally confound them. I agree with Gherkin -- players should never feel safe because the unknown is too visceral and the world of possibility too big. The challenges and mosters dont come only from books, but from the inifinite possibilities of an immersive world. If they can imagine it -- it can be out there against them.

You can see my confusion, Gherkin, and why I reacted the way I did. I thought that surely Gherkin, of all people, wasn't a killer GM! Good thing I was right.

I agree, we are on the same terms here. Min-maxing on a party level is a bad idea, and one that limits the PCs actions. I've always thought so. It makes me so mad when I make a character and the other party members (or the GM!) gets mad at me because I'm not fulfilling a particular "role." That's just bull. You make a character to have fun, to explore a concept and to tell a story, not to fulfill a "role." So, we are totally agreed.

I also agree that sometimes the PCs need to suffer defeat, and that if you've made a difficult encounter and warned them about it, but they still keep going, they should suffer the full brunt of their decisions. This reinforces the world and makes it real. And PCs should never be at the top of the food chain, I agree. Even if a PC achieves godhood, there should always be a god stronger than them. And, occasionally when the PCs need it, you should build a dungeon with the intent of showing the PCs that. I thought you were just arbitrarily deciding to drop some PCs during the next session. As you can understand, I was a little shocked. You should only make deathtraps as a campaign ender, a way to make the ending truly memorable and heroic, and bittersweet, as it ends with the quest fulfilled but a companion (if not two or three) in the ground. That's good storytelling.

Loved your example, Gherkin. That's a game I would love to play in. Political intrigue + evil cult = yummy. That's my kinda game. So, with an example, I see where you're coming from and what you're saying. And I totally agree.

That's a good story, Gil. I'd heard the basics of that before in much truncated form, and this was much better. Always love stories.

"Perception and expectation cloud reality. Any good fantasy game should explore perceptions and ocassionally confound them. I agree with Gherkin -- players should never feel safe because the unknown is too visceral and the world of possibility too big. The challenges and mosters dont come only from books, but from the inifinite possibilities of an immersive world. If they can imagine it -- it can be out there against them."

Well said. I agree totally. Hopefully I can learn to sharpen my talents in this area. It would be extremely useful in my upcoming campaign. And you guys were thinking I didn't learn anything from gamegrene, weren't you? ;)

Having thought about this some more, the extent to which you engineer your party versus letting it come together 'organically' is of course a style choice. For me, party 'building' seems to be a sterile way to do things from an immersive roleplaying perspective - yet I can appreciate that it could be an enjoyable activity in its own right. And not everyone has the luxury of a long-running campaign background with a formidable cast of pre-existing player characters to draw on, so perhaps I judge people who do this too harshly.

Indeed, I must confess I am guilty of hypocrisy, to a certain extent - since I 'build' parties myself; teams of NPCs that the characters might run into. I don't really set out to optimise them for maximum efficiency but I do consider how they can work together and complement each other.

(Though even here, sometimes these groups may incorporate pre-existing foils of the player characters who decide to team up against them....)

I guess what I was annoyed at is the (seeming) growing tendency within gaming culture to build parties as combat strike teams with a militaristic approach to tactical optimisation, and I was trying to point out that, for a more immersive experience, imperfection and dysfunction are often more realistic, and a lot more fun.

Agreed. However, I think they can be combined. Go ahead and build combat strike teams with maximum efficiency, but make their personalities dysfunctional, of maybe even build on that "military" aspect and go from there. I think you can "build" a party with all the "roles" but still have it be dysfunctional just because of the personalities involved. Of course, you could go the other way, having a party whose personalities mesh perfectly but are all clerics. I think the only time this really becomes a problem is when people (or parties) are forced into a particular role against their will, whether that be to make the party more dysfunctional or to make it more functional. No one should have to play the cleric if they don't want to (though he's a lot cooler now) and no one should be forced out of the class or whatever they want. It's fun to play in either group, and both styles should be tried.

I, too, am somewhat annoyed at the "technicality" encouraged by some games (D&D 4e, anyone?) in party composition. I, too, think that player choice and enjoyment should take precedence over "efficiency". However, I've found that that being successful and accomplished is also enjoyable on several occasions and that has an effect (for example, when selecting party members for away missions while playing Mass Effect, recently). I think this might have more gravity in cases that the encounters are not custom-built for the party to handle. For example, I'd HATE to be stuck in a combat situation fighting a flying, spell slinging wizard with a group of four melee-only guys.

On a separate note, LG, I was wondering how are you managing having high- and low-level characters in the party at the same time? It seems the answer (at least for the described session) is separation, but isn't one group of players bored and waiting while the other one is playing?

The people with the higher-level characters also have low-levels in the party, so they aren't deprived of 'screen time'. Most of the action so far has focussed on the lower-level characters.

Some of the diplomacy stuff being dealt with by the higher level characters is handled via email. I also have a bit of a 'diplomatic update' at the start of each session which usually doesn't take more than about 20 mins. The people who don't have high-level characters are usually happy to sit through this and listen in as they are all interested in how the political situation is developing even if they have no direct involvement on the political stage.

The rest of the session then focuses on the legwork of the lower-levels. This has involved party splits at times as different characters go off to investigate various leads, so sometimes people have a bit of a wait before they get some action, but historically our group has always been tolerant of this if it seems justified by in-game reasons - we don't go out of our way to keep the party together if it doesn't seem logical to do so. All of this is within reasonable limits, of course; and if the party is split, I try to make sure the action switches between the different sub-parties whenever there seems to be a comfortable break-point, and I try to make sure everyone gets their fair share of attention.

I don't always run stuff like this, btw. I'm not above throwing in a straight dungeon crawl now and again.....

Personally, I'm not a fan of sitting through 20 minutes of exposition every session; but as the new DMG acknowledges. different groups have different preferences.

Well I did say 20 mins was the upper limit....!

Besides, I tend to find that some of my players have had a brain wipe in-between sessions (thanks, Blizzard...!) and need a gentle reminder of their mission goals and their progress to date.

I usually give the player a requirement in character creation. Either a specific reason to be in the group (you are all students at this school, members of this organization, etc) or a specific group to be a part of. From there they can build or alter their backstory.

I'm also a fan of a more vague backstory at creation allowing the GM or the player to add to it as the story requires.

As an unexplored aspect, in a PbP thats starting 2 characters have the same first name. I've never seen this in a party.

I could quite easily see party building as an in character experience depending on the situation. Assuming someone settled on a character ideal (I want to be a fighter!) and is given some task, well he's going to need people to help him with it, it's in his best interest to recruit someone with a magical bent and perhaps someone sneaky, instead of just grabbing two other big guys with swords. Provided he's in even a reasonably large city he should be able to locate people he think will give him the best chance of success.