The Fine Art of Party Building

You want a striker, a leader, a defender, a controller, and—

No, no, no. That’s not what I mean. When I say party building, what I mean is the art of putting together a compatible group of gamers. For some people, it goes without saying that when you start a new roleplaying game, you’re going to invite Bob, Fred, Mary, Mike, and Susan (ugh, what are we, in the 50s? If those are the names of the people in your gaming group, you might have other issues). Your friends assume the same people will be playing, because we gamers are creatures of habit. Change is scary.

I take a different approach: interviews.

Q: What would you say your greatest gaming moment is?

A: Well, I once shut the door on my entire adventuring party, sealing them in a room with a swirling vortex that devoured them. (Inspired by actual events, just ask @christulach)

Q: I see… and betraying your party to their doom is your greatest moment? You did hear the question correctly?

This example is an exaggeration, but I do have a very informal interview process…so informal that most people don’t know I’m actually doing it. A few months before I plan on starting a new game, I start getting all anthropological. I watch study my friends’ personalities and habits, and I begin taking note of who is compatible with whom. I ask them pointed questions to try to evaluate their play style. I pay close attention to what type of gamer a person is, whether he or she is an actor, an explorer, an instigator, a power gamer, a slayer, a storyteller, a thinker, or a watcher (pages 8-10 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). For me, matching up people is much more important than making sure the party has a leader or defender. As Dungeon Master, I can work around the mechanical complexities of being short a character role. Working around your friends’ egos and personalities can be a much more perilous battlefield.

Now at this point, you might be thinking, “Greg, this is all well and good, but I only have  four friends who will play D&D. I don’t have the luxury of that choice.” I sympathize with this excuse…but only a little. I definitely have a plethora of choices. Working at a game company affords one that luxury. My sympathy only extends so far, because in my current home campaign, only one member of the group is a coworker. One the most important things you can do when constructing a gaming group is to bring in fresh blood. Finding one or two new players can revitalize your gaming group, and it can also be a tremendous boon to you as Dungeon Master. For example, in my current campaign, most players would be reluctant to use the hand of Vecna, because they preconceptions about the artifact. That’s not the case for a new player. As a result, a player in my game, who was new to D&D (not just 4E), chopped off his limb and replaced it with the hand of Vecna. Bringing in one or two new players can also be a delight for a DM, because a roleplaying game is bright, shiny, and new to them. They don’t know all the tricks. This is the same reason I love running intro games at conventions.

This system for selecting players doesn’t always work, because a D&D game can go on for a long time, and you’ll have people come and go. Trying to be cognizant of the player types in your game can help you to maintain balance throughout an ongoing campaign. If you have an empty slot in your game, and the campaign has gotten a bit stale, consider bringing in an actor or an instigator. If you already have enough activity in your game, a watcher or thinker might be better. I try to make sure that each of my groups has an explorer or an instigator, and one or two actors or storytellers. Watching other people in home games or in programs like D&D Encounters or Living Forgotten Realms can give you a pretty good idea about the types of gamer they are. Don’t be afraid to be a little more selective. You’re probably going to be gaming with these people for a long time, so it pays to choose carefully.

One of the last considerations I put into assembling a new gaming group is balancing the sexes. Over the years, I’ve found the maintaining a fairly even balance of men and women really helps a game. I’m not sure if this fact is because men and women tend to have different player roles, or if the mix just creates more roleplaying opportunities. If you’re having trouble looping in some women to play, you can always look for couples, though you should be cautious. If you’re going to invite a couple to join your gaming group, you should be confident that the pair can spend hours together without quarreling or controlling one another’s characters. Both of these issues can quickly lead to tension in a group.

Constructing a gaming group is really about creating tension without actually creating tension. You want tension between the characters, but you don’t want that tension to be reflected among the players. As always, one of my core rules is to communicate with players. If you are in a gaming group that suffers from personality conflicts, talk to the players and try to diffuse them. And if that doesn’t work, you’ll know better when it next comes time to form a new group.

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5 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Party Building

  1. My greatest moment was taking an unconscious warmage’s prepared disintegrate in my spellthief and turning the rampaging troll bearing down on me into a small pile of fine grey dust. The rest of the party was down as well so it was especially rewarding. Also, 20d6 (or whatever it worked out to be) is a lot of fun to roll.

    Had that failed I would have used my prepared gaseous form spell to flee the building and later collect their corpses–or bits of corpses.

  2. This was a good post Greg. Thanks.

    I was in a really awesome D&D group that lasted several years. But World of Warcraft basically destroyed the group. First one, then two, then three players got completely addicted to WoW and D&D was put on the backburner. Oh well, life goes on.

    Interesting observations about sex diversity in a game group. What are your thoughts on age diversity? Have you seen groups with a wide age range last a long time and work well?

  3. It took me a loooong time, but I recently finally realized that my experience as a gamer was simply not fun, because what I wanted was different from the most of the rest of the group. It took me some courage, but I finally stepped away from my long-time group to go game-less for awhile. Now I have a new group that is more in sync with my preferences, and I’m having more of a blast than ever.

    Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.

  4. I run two 4E campaigns, one converted from a long-running 3.5 group, and another one that is a bit “odd”.

    My buddy/graphic artist had a co-worker who heard I ran D&D – so I was introduced to her and her husband, and later to her younger sister, and to the hubby’s younger brother. So now I have a very unusual family-based group of my buddy, another co-worker, a husband, a wife, and a brother-in-law and sister-in-law – and the group dynamic is VERY strange sometimes. But it manages to work, and is a really fun group – although there are moments when family tensions are sometimes a palpable presence in the room!

  5. Really cool post.

    I am trying to form a new party for my recently finished Dark Sun campaign but I have been facing some issues regarding players motivations…

    Will definitely put these valuable advices to work!

    Thx a lot Greg

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