Friday, October 11, 2013

There is No "I" in "Party"

While it might be a stereotype that gamers don't play sports, like it or not a roleplaying game is a team-oriented activity. Every player has his or her character, and that character possesses certain strengths and weaknesses. In order to become more than the sum of its parts a party has to be willing to work together, to strategize, and to know what will and won't work.

It's pretty simple, when you get down to it. However there are certain things that can make this process harder, less fun, or both. If you want to make sure that your group survives and does so in the spirit of the game then you need to keep an eye out for some of the folks below.

The Backseat General

If you all just do what I tell you, then this will work out perfectly.
Anyone who's gamed more than once or twice has met this person. Chances are good you probably started coming up with entirely justified ways to kill off this player's character. The backseat general is the player who wants to hash everything out to the smallest detail, usually out of character, and typically right after initiative has been rolled. While this player may have a good grasp of the rules it often feels as if he or she would much rather be playing Warhammer or Axis and Allies than a roleplaying game. The solution to this situation is fairly simple, and it can both save time and help build the party up. Make a table rule that all discussions of strategy must happen in character, and in combat order if initiative has already been rolled.

This accomplishes multiple goals at the same time. On the one hand it lets everyone know that all interactions must be done strictly in character. On the other hand the role play can lead to back and forth between characters, and get everyone involved in the game. Ideally what it will do is allow the party to develop a battle rapport, with allies calling out to one another in the thick of it and adapting on the fly to the changing scenario. If everyone knows that's the goal it's much easier to get to.

The Showboater

Art thou upset, brother?
The bane of parties everywhere, the showboater is always ready, willing, and more than able to show off his or her combat prowess with little to no provocation. These players will typically ignore any sort of group strategy, simply going in face first with spells or steel bared and slugging it out as if it is truly they who is the main character of this story. Often they'll set off multiple encounters at the same time, or refuse to let allies into the fight in order to help. Variations of this include stealing everything that isn't nailed down simply because the character can, or using powerful abilities for purely cosmetic reasons. Whether the characters are heavily armored knights, loner rogues with a chip on their shoulders, or just really powerful evokers with a scorched-earth policy, they're sometimes more of a hindrance than a help.

The easiest way to teach this kind of player a lesson is to give that person exactly what he or she asked for; let them take on the bad guys alone. A truly well-built character can often stand up to a lot of abuse from enemies, but sooner or later it's going to become very, very clear that these players are in over their heads. If an entire party is made up of showboaters then chances are it will take a near total party kill to make the players understand that they have to work together to survive.

The One-Trick Pony

Well I haven't done any damage the past four times... I hit it again!
Generally speaking it's a good plan to gear your character toward accomplishing a certain goal. Whether it's dealing the most damage, being completely silent and sneaky, or acting as the party's alarm bell because no one can sneak up on you, a defining trick is often the mark of a character with a purpose. The problem is that sometimes that trick just isn't going to get the job done. Ideally if a party is well-balanced and made up of competent players and well-built characters, everyone should be able to participate in a meaningful way. The problem arises when a one-trick pony is so invested in his or her trick that the player just keeps on doing it even when it's been shown to be ineffective in a certain situation. If a player has chosen to use fire-based magic for instance, and the enemy is highly resistant to fire, the player will just keep casting spells and hoping they hurt enough to overcome the threshold. If the enemy requires a certain type of weapon or special material to hurt, the player will keep battering at the bad guy with the wrong kind of weapon, hoping for that natural 20.

If a character's signature trick has been rendered useless then the player needs to adjust his or her thinking for the fight rather than bitching and moaning that they can't do what they want to do. That doesn't help end the combat, and it can in fact poison the table's atmosphere. What will end the combat, though, is keeping a certain number of aces in one's hole.

To fix a one-trick pony the player needs to ask if my ability to do this is rendered moot, then what? A sorcerer fighting a golem, or a creature with extremely high spell resistance will find magic nearly useless. A fighter or a barbarian trying to take on an incorporeal enemy, or an invisible rogue, will have the same problem. To that end players simply need to plan ahead and have a backup plan for when that happens. For instance, a well placed alchemical item like a tanglefoot bag (to entangle enemies and lower their attack and defense), a smog pellet (which renders invisible enemies visible for several rounds), or holy water (which affects evil, undead, and even incorporeal enemies) should be kept in reserve. Magical ammunition can help archers and crossbowmen overcome situational problems, and spell casters focused on one element should always prepare a few spells, or carry a few scrolls, outside of their typical armaments. Lastly, don't forget the aid-another action (examined in depth in Aid Another is More Powerful Than You Think) and combat maneuvers (which can take away your enemy's advantages if done just right).

Tips and Tricks

I've been involved in a lot of games, both as a player and as a storyteller. From my experience there are certain things I highly recommend that players do in order to create cohesion as a party, and to get their strategy in order.

#1: Read the rules. This sounds simple and straightforward, but I don't mean to just read the rules about how your class abilities work. I mean read all the rules. Understand how combat maneuver checks work, even if you don't use them. Read about terrain modifiers and mounted combat, even if they haven't come into play yet. Knowing the rules will make it easier for you to adapt mentally to a situation, and you will be less frustrated because you didn't understand the ramifications of what's happening to you.

#2: Come together as a party. All too often players build characters who are so disparate, and so different, that they remain a group of individuals rather than a cohesive unit. While you don't have to make all of your party members bosom companions since childhood, attempt to bring them together through roleplaying. If someone was saved from bleeding out by the cleric, play up that reaction afterward. If a fighter got between the sorcerer and a monster, maybe that would play down the animosity of the academic toward the brawler. Have the monk discuss brewing strategies with the alchemist. Whatever it is, take the opportunity to let your characters mingle, and give them appropriate reactions to one another.

#3: Roleplay your combat. It's all too easy to just let combat devolve into a big pile of numbers; don't let that happen. If your ranger knows about a troll's weakness for instance, then he might shout "acid or fire, it can heal aught else!" on his turn. If the paladin's mount is pawing the ground and it's obvious she's going to charge have her call out, "clear a path, this demon is mine!" Keep in mind that a round happens more or less simultaneously, and it's happening fast. Make your words fit the danger or tone of the scene, and convey what you want in character. Lastly, know what you're doing and do it fast so that you don't slow combat down and lose the thread of the scene because you had to look something up for ten minutes.

#4: Remember your options. I mentioned alchemical items earlier (a great list is right here, by the by), along with the aid another action. Remember too that you can ready an action (essentially declaring a trigger for a single, standard action that reads if X happens, then I do Y) as well as delay. Delaying allows you to re-insert yourself elsewhere in the combat order, which can be a highly advantageous option if you want your actions to happen at a certain time. You know, something like I delay until after the wizard casts this huge, area-of-effect spell.

#5: Know your role, but don't be controlled by it. If you are a sneaky rogue who specializes in back-stabbing your enemies, it's very easy to get stuck in that role. If you're a cleric who casts only healing magic, then that too is very easy to fall into. Always look at what actions will be most in-character, and what will have the biggest effect. The fighter could stab the ogre, sure; it's probably what the fighter's built for, and it would do some damage. But giving a +2 to the nearby rogue with the aid another action could ensure a much bigger damage output and possibly end the fight earlier due to sneak attack, poison, etc. Is that the sort of thing the fighter would bank on, or would the martial professional insist on doing things mano a mano with the monster? If he helps the rogue then that could also be turned into a roleplay point. A fighting style where these two fall into a battlefield form regardless of how they feel about one another outside of the initiative order.

#6: Remember what languages you speak. Shouting out your plans right where your enemies can hear isn't always a great idea, but if you all speak a language that your enemy doesn't then you can converse openly without giving away what you're doing. Failing a common language your enemy doesn't know however, it's a good idea to come up with some party-only slang for who's taking what actions.

That's all for this week's installment of Improved Initiative. It was brought to you via the request of Kat Cichocki, and I wanted to thank her for being a loyal reader. As always I hope you find this useful in your games, and if you have a subject you'd like to see covered feel free to send it in. Also feel free to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr if you want to stay properly updated. For those more interested in my writing endeavors and who would like to see more fiction, check out my other blog The Literary Mercenary, and see what I have available on Goodreads. Lastly please remember this service is powered by Google AdSense. If you want to see more updates, then please support us and help keep the blog going!

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