This article was first broadcast in Episode Twelve on 21st February 2018.
Lennon: That was close!
Ryu: Next time we go to Ixalan, we should probably balance our party better.
Ostron: Now we’re safe backstage, let’s take a Short Rest… But I do think it’s worth talking about party balance!
Conventional wisdom says that the most effective parties have the holy trinity: damage dealer (frequently called the DPS by video-game aficionados), Tank, and Healer/support. The fourth person is ideally a character who can soak up some damage while dealing a modest amount themselves, usually called the Off-tank. If you’ve got 5 people, that fifth person should be acting as some sort of controller to either buff their allies, apply penalties to the enemies, or both. It’s only when you acquire a sixth party member that the purists are comfortable saying there are no restrictions or requirements on what role the character will occupy in combat.
The formula isn’t etched in stone for the die-hard adherents, but there are only a few acceptable modifications. For example, some think it’s fine if there is no dedicated healer, but then at least two characters have to be “light healers” (for example, having a Paladin and a Druid with some healing spells instead of a Cleric). Similarly, the dedicated damage character can be sacrificed in favor of two characters with control spells, as long as their control abilities mostly either increase allies’ damage or do damage to the enemies in addition to whatever penalties they impose. There are other variations but most of them harken back to that magic formula and are built to ensure that all the roles are still covered.
So what do you do if you can’t pull that together? What if you show up to a game and there are five people with characters figured out down to the archetype and specific spell choices, and you’re missing one or more of the key roles?
One of the more common occurrences is begging, pleading, and bribing players to change their characters so at least the holy trinity is represented. If players are willing to adjust their roles, this is fine, but sometimes it can cause friction. The friction can get even worse if this is a character for a long-term campaign stretching over several months or even years. The answer here is simple: don’t worry about it.
Here’s the reality; the so-called ideal party makeup only matters a great deal in combat. It is entirely possible that combat will be an uncommon occurrence in a campaign. If combat is infrequent, the ability to have the whole party still functional after five encounters is less of a concern, because you’ll be getting short or even long rests after only one or two fights.
A good DM will also help with this. They may provide more opportunities to avoid combat, or lower thresholds for actions like encouraging an enemy’s surrender. The help could also be more overt, like an NPC that fills one of the roles the party is lacking, or the treasure from an encounter including a literal gallon of healing potion.
But let’s talk about the worst case scenario; you’re in a campaign raiding one dragon lair per session, all of them are guarded, and the DM’s attitude is that if you didn’t bring the right tools for the job then it’s not their problem.
Apart from deciding that the dragons really aren’t that bad and an occasional virgin sacrifice is good population control, the answer is to change the tactics used in the battles. We’re going to quickly run down some methods to modify tactics where key roles are missing.
No Damage Dealers
If you have no dedicated damage dealers, it isn’t actually a large handicap; it’s never true that a party can’t do any damage, it just means it can’t do damage as quickly as they could with a character like a rogue or a sorcerer in the mix. This means fights are going to last a long time, but doesn’t require a lot of tactical adjustment. The only key point would be to identify any enemies capable of reducing players’ chances to hit and neutralizing them quickly. Since damage will be trickling out of your party, you want to avoid interruptions as much as possible.
If there are no tanky characters, first, figure out which characters have the highest AC and hit points. They become tanks by default, but they still shouldn’t actively try to block or draw enemies’ attention like full tanks. Find things to hide behind so characters aren’t visible to the entire enemy party. Split up so area attacks do not damage the whole party. Characters with healing abilities should save them to avert disaster rather than keeping everyone topped off. Anyone that can impose disadvantage on enemies attacks should be doing so as often as possible. It is vitally important to maximize damage done to the enemies in this scenario. Focus attacks on a single target until it turns into a pile of goo (or stops being a pile of goo in some cases). Try to keep track of how much damage opponents have taken and when they die so you don’t waste a high-damage attack on an enemy with only single digit hit points left. The overall key is to eliminate enemies doing damage as quickly as possible
Running without healers is similar to the advice when there are no tanks. Buy, borrow, and steal every healing potion you can during the campaign. Apart from that, use every opportunity to take rests, short or long, and use as many hit dice as possible. If characters have spells or abilities that limit enemies’ actions or impose disadvantage those should again be used early and often. Tanky characters should not be whining about taking damage in this scenario.
Those are broad guidelines obviously. The best plans are going to depend on the actual makeup of a party: the tactics used by a party with no tanks, three healers, and two control characters is going to be wildly different from the one used by the party with no tanks and four damage dealers. Just remember to adapt your party’s fighting style to compensate for your weaknesses and you’ll be fine.
Lennon: Of course, the other issue is making sure the DM hasn’t stacked the odds against you.
Ryu: Ohhh I see. So the problem wasn’t our party makeup, the problem is that we don’t know how to fight intelligently. Have I got that right?
Ostron: Well if you look at the performance of each person-
Ryu: Oh yes, let’s. I have a few critiques, let me tell you!