Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Party size and composition

If you visit a dungeon in World of Warcraft, you need 5 players. In most cases you will want to bring a tank, a healer, and three damage dealers. In many other computer RPG, party size is also fixed, e.g. without mods the maximum party size in Baldur's Gate 3 is 4 characters, and there isn't really a good reason to take less once you have access to 4 characters. Tabletop RPG and board games are often a bit more flexible. So I'd like to discuss party size and composition in general in this post.

The classic Dungeons & Dragons party consists of 4 characters, a fighter, a cleric, a rogue, and a wizard. But D&D is rather flexible in that. While the latest D&D rulebook addition, Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, expands the rules on taking NPC "sidekicks" on your adventure in case you don't have enough players, normally D&D is played with one character per player around the table. And 4 - 5 players, plus the DM, usually work best. I usually invite 5 people to my campaigns, and play if at least 4 of them show up. A D&D character sheet is relatively complex, especially if you also need to know your spells, so playing more than 1 character per player tends to be difficult. But in D&D the challenge of the adventure is freely determined by the DM, so party size is more about social interaction than game balance. And while "melee characters with better armor" exist in D&D, in 5th edition there are very few taunt-like skills, so there aren't really any "tanks" in the WoW sense of the word.

The kind of board games I have been discussing on this blog lately usually can be played with something like 1 to 4 players. But quite often the solo rules require you to play at least 2 characters. As I mentioned in my last blog post, in Folklore the Affliction you'd actually be better off if you solo 3 or 4 characters, because the game balance disadvantages small groups. But then, playing a character in Folklore is mostly a problem of finding a system to be aware of your various modifiers, so playing several characters requires good bookkeeping above all. In a game like Gloomhaven, the game is more about mastery of your deck, and keeping several decks in mind while playing several characters is more difficult. Fortunately Gloomhaven scales down okay, so I play that solo using 2 characters, because 4 would be complicated.

If you consider a group of just 1 character, it becomes relatively clear that the first thing you would like to do in a role-playing game combat scenario is dealing damage. A character that is very tanky, or a good healer, but doesn't deal much damage, is less good in small or very small groups. Once you move towards 4-character groups, having a tank, healer, or other support class becomes more of an advantage. In Gloomhaven the Tinkerer starting character can be quite nice in a 4-character group, but isn't all that great in a 2-player group. Support characters generally get better the more other characters they can support, while damage dealers only need an enemy to fulfil their role.

Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is somewhat special in that characters don't really form a group when fighting enemies. Some cards give you some advantage if other characters are around, but the basic attack action is just your character launching an attack against the enemy, with the possibility of being counter-attacked. Also there is no square or hex grid, and several characters or enemies can stand in the same space, so there is somewhat less tactical movement. I would probably solo this one with 2 characters, because of the complex interactions of prepared cards making every round of combat somewhat different. And even getting damaged in this game is more complex than just reducing your hit points. While the character classes are a bit less evident, I think that the principle of avoiding more support roles (musician) for smaller groups still applies.


I think there were multiple attempts to address this in D&D based systems: from making a single character stronger (scarlet heroes), to merging multiple characters (PF gestalt) and last but not least the hirelings of old D&D. Not counting the AD&D x-challenger Adventures.
I see TTRPGs with DMs being also a lot more flexible to deal with power level and missing skill issues then non-mediated games.
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