It Builds Character

Before making a bunch of characters – and there will be a BUNCH of character builds – I want to explore party makeups as a whole. A lot of this might be common knowledge to folks who’ve been playing rpgs for a long time, but for anyone who doesn’t fall into that group or for anyone who just wants context for my ramblings, these are my thoughts.

Party Makeup, Group Dynamics, and Character Creation

A typical ttrpg party has a core of four roles: tank, skills, healer, and mage. You might add or subtract to this, but for the most part groups will center around this dynamic. And for good reason; you cover nearly all your bases in terms of what the group might encounter.

Final Fantasy, first released by Square, 1987

Final Fantasy (FF1) has this dynamic well defined in these four classes. Warrior gets the best HP and armor. Thief does good damage and can later learn a few utility / buff spells (the closest thing to skills in this game). White Mage gets all the healing and protection spells. Black Mage learns the best damage and buff magic.

These roles vary from system to system and game to game. “Tanking” might mean taking lots of hits without falling over. It might mean being in the front lines while never getting hit. It might mean mitigating and reducing the amount of damage the enemies do to your party. In FF1, the top spot in the party gets hit more frequently, so tanking is basically putting your damage-sponge there.

To put this in general terms that can apply to most games: 

  • Tanks prevent the rest of the party from taking damage somehow.
  • Skills (or skill monkeys as I tend to refer to them) handle out-of-combat tasks (skills, traps, etc.) and provide good damage in combat.
  • Healers support the party with buffs, protections, and healing.
  • Mages provide big damage, control, buffs/debuffs, and utility through magic.

As mentioned before, the exact nature of the roles might change, but most of the time characters can fall into one (or more) of these categories. Characters usually have a variety of abilities, items, spells, skills, feats, etc. that they draw upon for any given task. Let’s call this their toolkit; whichever role you fit in above usually just means what problems the bulk of your toolkit tend to answer. Characters’ tools tend to share similar themes or trappings, like a thief having mostly sneaky tools at their disposal, even if some are for damage like backstabbing while others are purely skill based like infiltration. The wider range of tools you have, the more problems you can address.

Most characters should – not can – have a back-up option or two in their toolkit. Even the strongest, most face-smashy barbarian can break down a door or scare off some minions. Their kit has all manner of damage and combat tools, but this easily lends itself to skills that use the same source: breaking things, climbing things, tearing things down, etc. Nothing’s worse than having absolutely nothing to contribute to the group. So in the interest of having options on your character, it’s good to “splash” or “dip” into another role slightly to flush out your kit. The easiest way to do this is for a character that typically isn’t a damage dealer to have some limited way to contribute to damage, or for someone to pick some out-of-combat / downtime skill or activity you can excel at even if you aren’t a skill monkey.

Party Sizes Big and Small

The traditional party size is four, but what about more? Less? How does that change the party’s roles?

Order of the Stick, by Rich Burlew

If you expand past four party members, there are two routes people usually go. You can make a jack-of-all-trades who covers multiple distinct roles better than most even if they aren’t the best ever at it. This helps the group cover any potential gaps and plays as a backup for any role that falters. You could also make a dedicated specialist that does next to nothing but their chosen role; this is riskier and can lead to more instances of having nothing to do, but it does provide groups with reliable role fulfillment so the rest of the group can mix-and-match more. The Order of the Stick does this spectacularly. Roy is their tank, but he’s shown to be good with skills and tactics as well. Durkon heals, but he’s also in melee with armor, shield, and hammer. Even the sexy-shoeless-god-of-war Belkar covers a few skills for the group.

Going back to Final Fantasy, the two classes not shown in that picture – Red Mage and Monk – fit these descriptions. Red Mage gets both white magic and black magic, and while not the full compliment that White or Black Mages get, it is more than Fighter and Thief access later in the game. They get a much wider array of weapons and armor than the other mages, but not as much as the martial classes. Meanwhile, Monk is the only class in the game that gets absolutely zero magic by the end of the game. They do damage. That’s it. They hit hard and have crazy high hp, enough so that another character can afford to slack a bit in damage dealing.

Castlevania, by Netflix and Konami

On the other hand, if you have fewer than four, people usually double up on duties and cover each other’s weaknesses. The wonderful Castlevania series on Netflix has a trio of characters that compliment each other. Trevor (center) is a great fighter and highly skilled at investigation, tracking, acrobatics, and other things due to his family history and personal adventuring. However, he has absolutely no talent with magic and tends to be bad at talking. Sypha (right) is a tremendously powerful mage and quite knowledgeable as a Speaker, but she isn’t one to use brute force often. Alucard (left) has superhuman strength, flight, can transform, and lives in a castle full of relics… but his upbringing left him rather scarred and unaccustomed to society. Together, each of the trio makes up for the flaws of the others, creating a solid team.

If the group plans ahead, they can carve up a role and split the duties amongst the party. Think of “off-tanks” that have a lot of survivability but do a considerable amount of damage, or (my favorite) a bard that has a lot of magic and skills to offer. Frequently this is something like divvying up skills to each party member so one covers physical stuff, one does social activities, one does stealthy things, etc. Whatever happens for the group, balance is key.

Balance, Min-maxing, and Dynamic Characters

Characters with flaws
Are more interesting than
Characters with none

– Me, on a gaming-haiku reddit thread that one time

I say all this because, when I was teaching kids to play ttrpgs, I frequently had to sway them from making characters that did one thing and one thing only. The amount of 5e rogues with nothing but stealth or barbarians with nothing but big-axe was immense. Parties full of melee martial characters weren’t fun for anyone when no one felt unique. What I taught the kids was to build characters with three goals in mind: one thing you excel at, one thing you’re okay at, and one thing you are bad at. Typically, I’d simplify this to combat, magic, and skills for the kids so they could make sense of what things they’d experience in the game. I still wound up with a bunch of rogues and barbarians, but at least they had a little diversity within the group.

Side-note: this isn’t to say a party can’t function perfectly well without a well-rounded group of characters. Any party make-up can work if the GM tailors the adventure to them. The problem with that is that the vast majority of content is written for at least somewhat balanced groups. A group of five barbarians with no magic, healing, or skill prowess can have a terrific time smashing all the things, but the moment the GM puts a trap in their way, things get hairy. Furthermore, it’s rare that every player wants to play the same thing as everyone else all the time and the GM wants to run encounters for such a group. A balanced group simply has more opportunities for everyone involved.

Conclusion

So that’s my “short” explanation about how I build characters in regards to parties. Or how I build parties in regards to characters. The long and short of it is to spread all the characters’ roles and each individual character’s roles around. The party as a whole should spread be well rounded, and each player should have a couple different options to pick from. Hyper-focused-specialization and spreading yourself too thin are both ways to find yourself in trouble. Or worse, utterly bored.

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One thought on “It Builds Character

  1. As a player, I usually like to build hyper-focused characters. One of my earliest characters: Dale Pheonix-soul did literally only fire damage which was fine early on but was a hindrance at high levels when most things were immune to fire damage. The damage type most things are immune to. Eventually, I dipped that character into some healing spells and holy damage and they became much more enjoyable to play. Nowadays most of my characters are built with a singular intent but ill find ways to loop alternate roles into that single intent with a few side spells or abilities.

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