Party Composition Campaigns

by Wholesome Rage | 11 July 2019

Most Dungeon Mastering is planned from the story down, but most writers know that most of the good storytelling comes from the characters - which you’re not able to touch from your end at all.

The one broadly accepted exception to this rule is character creation. Most players don’t bat an eye if they’re told upfront - “Alright, no elves in this campaign, but there’s Reasons for it”, because they can hear that big capital ‘R’.

This means we have a little bit of leverage that we’re trusted with to influence the characters here for story reasons. And, both as storytellers and as game players ourselves, the natural question to ask is: How far can we push this? To what effect? The logical conclusion of it is single-class only campaigns, where every player is playing the same class - or themed in the same way. Paladins and clerics only, maybe, or s-monks-and-barbarians.

There’s one very good reason you’ll want to do this: It keeps players around the same power level, and stops one player overshadowing the others. A druid will have a lot more to do than a fighter, as the best example teaches.

The other good reason, though, is that the different class types give the group a variety of tools to solve problems. By restricting classes, you can guarantee a skill gap.

There’s a great opportunity to make campaigns tailored to what the characters can’t do. Because when all the players have is a hammer, everything starts looking like nails.

All Fighter:

Scotland Yard ran out of detectives, and it’s up to PC Plod, PC Punch and PC Pillock to solve the mystery.

Athens top super scientist Archimedes is secure deep in the acropolis, and Sparta has sent a few of its best men on an espionage mission to extract him. Sparta’s best men are not trained in espionage.

In another time, in another world, it’s known as the All Guardsmen Party.

Everyone is a hammer, and everything has started looking like a nail recently.

Fighters are the most ‘honest’ of the D&D classes. They’re good at combat, and not much else. Their skill point total is tiny, their class skills are laughable, the gap in their toolset is larger than what their toolset does cover; put the hurty thing in the fleshy bit.

This becomes a bit of a problem in missions with complex social maneuvering, politicking and heist missions. They can’t do espionage like the rogue, they can’t play the face like the bard or the sorcerer, and they can’t provide utility like the cleric or wizard.

The fighter is only really good for moving and smashing things in these cases and, unfortunately, with spells like “make metal go away”, and the ability to become a grizzly bear, even here they are outshone by the party druid, who can also provide a lot of extra utility on top of that.

As a result, fighters (and barbarians) will often feel left out in these moments as the spotlight goes to everyone but them, unless the DM goes to great lengths to provide moments for them to shine in. The television series Leverage provides a lot of great inspiration for instances where being able to knock a guy unconscious is the elegant solution to a problem.

But the issue is caused by being the only person who doesn’t have the right tools for the problem. This issue is narrative gold. This is where the real fun stories come from.

Suddenly simple problems for a well-rounded party composition become complex riddles where brute force methods are always tempting players, in the same way you never have to lose a game of monopoly if you can flip the table. Sometimes being spectacularly bad at something, in just the right way, is way more fun than being good at it.

All fighter games can be played as seriously or as silly as the group wants, depending on how much they resist the brute force impulse.

If you like this, then you might also like-

All out of Bubblegum is a one page RPG by Michael Sullivan and Jeffrey Grant, best played one-off and drunk. The rules are as follows: Start with eight sticks of bubblegum. Every time you try to do anything - anything - that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘kicking ass’, roll a D10. If you roll equal to or under your sticks of bubblegum, you succeed. Over, you fail, and you chew some bubblegum.

When you’re all outta gum, you are incapable of anything that isn’t kicking ass.

A classic.

All Paladins and All Rangers

In game design, there are different ways to balance things. Shooters like Doom have a very familiar progression where you get better guns, but they have less maximum ammunition. This encourages weapons ‘juggling’ in the later game - some enemies are best taken out with your starting pistol, others with your big beefy guns, and then the really fun kit is saved for bosses or as last resort.

Game designers have to balance the shotgun against the rifle differently than they do against the rocket launcher. The shotgun and the rifle will be used all the time, so they need to fill different roles so one isn’t obviously better than the other.

The most common feeling of a balancing issue is if a player doesn’t switch from their shotgun to their rifle in a wide open space, or from their rifle to their shotgun in close quarters. It means that one weapon is so good it crowds the other out of its role.

The rocket launcher has another kind of balancing issue though, where ammunition is so restricted for it, it’s only used on boss fights. This is a big problem, because it’s crucial that the weapon feels ‘free’ enough to use as a problem solver weapon early on against normal enemies that you get a real sense of its power, and so a sense of the boss’s strength when the rocket launcher just feels like another gun against it.

Fighters, barbarians, monks, rogues, they’re balanced like shotguns and rifles. Paladins and rangers are ostensibly balanced more like rocket launchers - their abilities are much stronger, but much more situational.

Paladins and rangers are widely recognized to be among the worst classes in D&D 3.5, and I think it’s because of this.

Rangers might simply never fight their chosen enemies. Paladins might save their smites and wish they’d just traded them for the fighter’s extra feats.

This is why the conceptual issue for All Paladins and All Rangers is different to the one for All Fighters. All Fighters is fun because you’re telling a story that exploits the characters being unequipped for what they’re dealing with.

The All Paladins and All Rangers ideas are ones where they were born for this.

All Paladins is simple. A few devoted men of God arrive in a desolate countryside, Fields worked by undead peasants for a protected merchant class, who serve as livestock for the vampiric necromancer nobility.

Mounted wights and banshees patrol for rebellious living. Skeleton and zombie mobs patrol the borders to dissuade neighbouring kingdoms from thinking of liberating the locals.

This is the context paladins thrive in. This makes roleplaying divine retribution make sense and feel good, where in other places it can feel bad and actively detrimental to the party you’re in.

All Rangers is a split down the middle. Personally, I believe this is best done with the Urban Rangers variant, and the Chosen Enemy types is replaced with a specific crime expertise: Smuggling, narcotics, racketeering.

Then go Fantasy Bureau of Investigation with it.

The ‘action cop’ genre has a lot of problems with it. Kicking ass and taking names might make for a great action movie, but it has really bad morals in terms of perception of law, civil rights, poor people and minorities. Think how many movies or TV shows refer to gangs exclusively by their ethnicity. There’s reasons they do this, but it can still get a little ‘yikes’.

Setting it in a fantasy setting keeps a lot of the fun elements of this, without a lot of the bad stuff.

Rangers are a very good investigative class with a range of utility and a flexible combat style. Most of the time, this doesn’t really mesh well with what D&D is, and they’ll get outshone by most others.

This might let you play that Guards! Guards! campaign in Ankh Morpork you had simmering at the back of your mind.

All Bards and All Rogues

These classes have a bit of a problem. You never just have a bard in your party, you have The Bard. You never just have a rogue in your party, you have The Rogue.

They steal the spotlight, not because they’re the most powerful, but because they’re the most fun. They inevitably draw big personalities.

This is the opposite of the Fighter game, and neither of these compositions will last as long. It’s like dessert for breakfast; It’s a brilliant indulgence, but only if you do it sometimes.

Sometimes, though, it’s just fun to have fun.

There are dedicated systems for all-rogue games. I’ve heard very strong recommendations for both the Leverage RPG and for Blades in the Dark. The latter is even an Evil Hat game, which means it’s got to be fantastic.

Plan a heist. Pull a con. Run this town.

If the group’s four or more, let one player be the bard. They’re the grifter, the face. The least combat savvy and the most at-risk.

For bards I have a different pitch: Theme the group like a band. You know KISS stands for Knights in Satan’s Army right? Why not play up the ‘knights’ bit of that and stage dive the dungeon.

Or be a boyband, buffing a group of adoring fans who do all the combat for you. A k-pop group acting in synch.

Play Twisted Sister: I wanna rock!

Be a classic theatre troupe slapsticking the enemy to death.

Bards are fun. The important thing with co-ordinating the group around a theme, though, is so everyone is sharing the spotlight rather than competing for it. They’re building the common charisma of the group, rather than seeing who can mug the camera hardest (though that probably will still happen).

If the group’s four or more, let one player be the rogue. They’re the band’s manager.

All Warlocks

This might be a chance to remind you all that Paranoia is my favourite tabletop.

This one is for the fifth edition warlocks. Apparently their patrons require them to Do Things for their powers.

There’s a classic cleric and paladin rule, though, that says if their party members are not either Lawful or Good, they can’t travel with them.

Here is the beauty of the All Warlock setup then: Tell each individual player that they alone are the secret Warlock in the party, and that the rest of the party is obligated to smite them if they’re discovered.

Then keep giving them all their required patron demands for their power at very inconvenient moments.

If you’re a player, you might want to do this solo with your DM and play as a rogue pretending to be the party wizard, using things like explosive shurikens to bluff a fireball. For example, Gandalf was just a fighter with 18 Int.

All Wizards:

Wizards are busted, require tons of planning to do right, and a group full of them would probably devolve into an absolute mess. At any higher level, this is only fun for a group entirely composed of engineers, and even then.

My suggestion? A SuperMax prison for high level wizards. A prison break for level 20 wizards, where the entire campaign takes place from inside an anti-magic field.

Note: Much of the campaign will involve the impotent wizards coming up with more and more creative ways to punish those who wronged them. This is a very wizardly thing to do, and is encouraged.

Most of a wizard’s advantages here will lie on their power and connections in the outside world. Possibly advantage can be gained by taunting an enemy on the outside to try to exact their creative and elaborate revenge on one of the wizards, and gambling on an escape in the resulting devastation. This has a distinctly supervillainous feel to it and is, again, encouraged.

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