Let me tell you about my character
“We’ve got a Tank, a DPS, a Bard and a Cleric so you’ve got to play an Arcane spellcaster of some kind, right?”
If this is the sort of conversation you’re having regarding a new game then you have my sympathies. It can be all to easy these days, with the influence of skirmish and video games to feel that a new party has a certain number of slots to fill to be a “balanced party”. Thou shalt have a character who can dish it out, a character who can take it, maybe even aggro enemies into ignoring the jucier fruit around them, someone who can buff the team during the fight and another who can patch you together afterwards. A place for everything and everything in its place, this can lead to the formation of a team that works like a well oiled machine, but if you’re not careful with about as much soul.
Let’s look at things a little sideways; when did it become a given that you’d want to fill all those slots? At what stage did the characters fall into the neat little holes,rarely to deviate except in desperate times or possibly as comic relief? “A Hill Dwarf Barbarian Tank attempting to Bluff? This’ll be a laugh”.
If you’re talking D&D in its many forms, character classes have been a thing from the get go, you have your Fighter (don’t make me go back as far as Fighting Man, that’s just cruel, besides, I don’t have a copy 🙂 ), your spell chucker, your healer and the sneaky little git nobody should turn their back on. And yet even early on there was bleed through between the roles; a cleric was probably pretty good in a fight, the Rogue might be literate and into researching the local history of the next haunted hole you were due to climb into.
By the time you hit AD&D 2ndEd and non-weapon proficiencies become a thing that specialisation could be diluted further; the Complete books both deepened a character’s ability to be really good at their Class’ primary function, if that’s the way you wanted to take it, but they also let you spread the load a little. Your Wizard might choose to use their high intelligence to branch out into weapon proficiencies, for instance, for those times when they’d blown through the meager starting spells and felt like doing a bit more than standing at the back chucking the occasional dart. Maybe the Fighter felt like it’d be more fun to invest in Tumbling and a rapier for those Dumas moments should a chandelier present itself, something you’d look for more in a Bard or Rogue (depending on how bright their clothes were).
The trend was towards opening up the classes all through 3rd; everyone had things they were more likely to be good at but the skills and feats meant that you could tailor your character in the direction you wanted to go (very reminiscent of Rolemaster, which shares a lot of its DNA with 3rdEd. Come at me). Sometime around late 3.5 a change kicked in and by the time 4thEd rolled around, constraints were kicking back in. Each class had some fairly specific abilities not gifted to the others; MMOs were a definite influence, with their inherently limited possibilities becoming a feature rather than a bug. It’s so much easier to put together a raid team based on simplistic roles but in a tabletop RPG that thinking can lead to characters who appear to have filled out a job application with rigid essential skills and then reskinned to differentiate them rather than them feeling like actual people. All in the name of “Party Balance”.
So, let me tell you about my character; she’s a multiclassed Half Elven Fighter/Thief hired for the party hook because she mostly Tomb Raiders her way into people’s homes from underground. Her name’s Shrinne, she’s great fun to play and maybe a quarter of what she’s done has had anything to do with what is written at the top of her character sheet. She’s hanging out with a Half Elven Ranger called Carps, who’s primary occupation is sailor and who is wondering why the floor isn’t moving, a Halfling Fighter called Twittle who has a disturbing love of violence and a Human Cavalier (Fighter kit) called Lucien whose main interest is in JUSTICE! They are currently adventuring in Undermountain at level 1, and their goal is to get through, get out and ideally get paid by someone (except Lucien, who wishes to inflict Justice on as many people as possible).
What we DON’T have is a Cleric. Or a Wizard. By the received wisdom of the Balanced Party we shouldn’t have made it out of the starting gate, too many slots to fill, and yet somehow we’re both still alive and having a total ball.
Is the absence of magical backup (spritual or arcane) going to present problems? Probably. Are they going to be insurmountable? Possibly, though we have a good GM who knows there’s more than one way to skin a displacer beast and players willing to think their way around obstacles. This party will stand or fall on its own merits, nobody felt pressured into taking on a specific job and certainly nobody, player or GM, was there with a mental clipboard ticking off the slots for an “acceptable” group.
I guess the conclusion is this; go forth and build your party, sure, but build your characters first, THEN work out how they all fit together. Give the game life, not well oiled gears 🙂