A good adventuring party is greater than the sum of its parts. By thoughtfully composing a party of any size, it can better handle the challenges commonly presented to an adventuring party. Even if each individual character is heavily optimized, you may find that your party struggles unless your party composition meets the needs of the game.
Composing your party should happen during Session 0. Everyone at the table should agree upon roughly what they’re playing, but just establishing their primary class and their role within the party is sufficient. Save specific character builds for when you have some time to plan and to stare at RPGBOT.net (hint hint) for ideas.
Table of Contents
- Defining Party Roles
- The Generic Party
- Classes and Roles
- Roles in Small Parties
- Example Party Compositions
Defining Party Roles
4th edition DnD added the concept of specifically codified class roles. Each class was specifically denoted as a Controller, Defender, Leader, or Striker. These roles helped to encourage rounded parties which met the needs of the party in combat, and while those explicit roles were removed in the move to 5e, it still provides an excellent framework to consider how to build a party
However, due to 4e’s fairly combat-heavy play style, these roles don’t stretch to fit the more diverse and complex needs of an adventuring party. They also fail to address the versatility of many classes which can fill a variety of roles. As such, I have expanded the list of roles considerably. Some roles include sub-roles to distinguish specific strategies common to that role. These sub-roles don’t generally affect party composition, but I refer to them frequently in other articles.
- Blaster: AoE damage effects like Fireball.
- Controller: Control movement on the battlefield.
- Standard Control: Wall of Fire and other effects which control movement on the battlefield, as well as effects which force movement, such as the Warlock’s Repelling Blast. To some extent, short-range teleportation may also qualify.
- Crowd Control: Status effects and hindrances which affect large groups, such as by creating difficult terrain. Some overlap with Debuff Support.
- Defender: Stands between the biggest monsters and the squishy people.
- Area Control: Defend their allies by preventing or deterring enemies from moving past them. Sentinel is an easy way to add this role to your character.
- Taunt/Threat: Either by dealing a ton of damage or using a mechanic to force enemies to attack them like Compelled Duel, Threat Defenders force enemies to engage them instead of the defender’s allies.
- Face: Deception, Persuasion, Intimidation, and sometimes Insight.
- Healer: Healing and restorative magic.
- Scholar: All of the knowledge skills: Arcana, Nature, Religion.
- Scout: Stealth, scouting, and trap-finding.
- Infiltrator: Sneak in, look at stuff, maybe take some stuff.
- Trapfinder: Find and disarm traps.
- Striker: Single-target damage or disable.
- Damage: Throw a pile of damage on things.
- Disable: Save or suck. Many spellcasters are excellent disable strikers.
- Support: Party buffs and debuffs like Haste and Bless.
- Buff: Don’t forget the +1.
- Debuff: Blind things, give them penalties, or otherwise make them easy to defeat.
- Utility Caster: Divination, teleportation, and other non-combat problem solving, typically via magical means.
It would be ridiculous to expect every party to have a character dedicated to each of these roles. Instead, each character must fill multiple roles to form a complete party.
The Generic Party
The generic adventuring party consists of a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard. While this may not be an exciting composition, it is the base line against which any decent party should be balanced. With fairly little planning, these four classes can easily cover every role, and can even provide secondary characters to step up when the primary character needs some extra help.
- Blaster: The Cleric gets several excellent Blaster effects. Right from first level, spells like Word of Radiance offer area damage options, and at high levels you’ll get options like Flame Strike and Spirit Guardians.
- Defender: The Cleric gets shields, medium (sometimes heavy) armor, and d8 hit points, which can make them an excellent Defender. Combined with defensive spells like Heroism and Shield of Faith, you can stand alongside any fighter.
- Healer: The Cleric is the iconic, gold standard of healing. They have all of the big name restorative spells, including many which are only added to classes like the Druid as an Optional Class Feature.
- Support: The Cleric gets many of the best support spells in the game right from level 1. Bless and other staple buffs are powerful options in any party, and many of the best are nearly exclusive to the Cleric.
- Utility Caster: The Cleric gets a lot of excellent utility spells, especially divinations.
- Defender: With full plate armor, shields, and d10 hit points, the Fighter is your classic defender. Easy access to feats thanks to their abundant ability score increases coupled with subclass features allow the Fighter to easily hold down enemies in combat and prevent them from engaging your weaker allies.
- Striker: Fighters lack the big dice ball that Rogues get from Sneak Attack, but they can still be a serious damage dealer with their high number of attacks, big weapons, and damage bonuses from their choice of Fighting Stile.
- Face: Though Charisma may not be a priority for every rogue, the Rogue has enough skill proficiencies to get several Face skills, and Expertise can easily make up for poor Charisma.
- Scout: The Rogue is the gold standard of Scouts. Stealth, Thieves’ Tools, Perception, and Expertise in your favorite skills make you excellent at scouting and neutralizing problems.
- Striker: Sneak attack. Enough said.
- Blaster: The Wizard has most of the big-name blaster spells, and a normal party can expect a good wizard to bring a few fireballs to the table.
- Controller: Wall of Fire, Wall of Stone, and numerous other area control spells are available to the wizard.
- Scholar: The Wizard is the gold standard of Scholars. They have the Intelligence to back up Arcana, Nature, and Religion, and with so few Intelligence-based skills nearly every wizard will take many or all of them.
- Striker: The Wizard gets a lot of powerful single target damage spells, as well as save-or-suck spells.
- Support: The Wizard gets many of the best support spells in the game, including powerful buffs like Fly and Haste.
- Utility Caster: The Wizard has a lot of the best utility spells in the game. Rope Trick, Fly, Teleportation, Wish, etc.
Classes and Roles
Note that these roles reflect the core capabilities of each class. Subclasses and specific character builds can alter the roles which a class can fill, such as the Sorcerer adding Healer to their roles with the Divine Soul subclass.
Roles in Small Parties
A typical D&D or Pathfinder game assumes a party of 4 or 5 players. 6 player parties certainly should never have problems with role fulfillment (though I have seen it happen in my own game). 2- or 3-player parties may suffer from the lack members, especially since characters in 5e may have as few as 4 skill proficiencies. With less characters to fill out the party’s needs, each character must sacrifice focus in favor of versatility, or the party might simply accept the gaps in their capabilities and enjoy that as a story device.
Small parties seeking to cover every role should rely on classes which can fill more roles, and potentially use races and classes which offer more skill proficiencies than usual. Bards, Clerics, Druids, and Rogues are all excellent choices since they can fill a variety of rolls and solve a wide range of problems, and races like half-elves and other races which provide additional skill proficiencies will allow your party to cover more skills.
If you prefer to leave intentional gaps in your party’s capabilities, you may find some published adventures challenging. You may need to look for ways to make up for your lack of capabilities (magic and careful planning) to overcome certain challenges. In a homebrew game, your DM might choose to deemphasize or omit challenges that your party can’t handle, or they might use them to occasionally strain the party, such as forcing the party to herd sheep in a game where no one has Animal Handling and no one can cast Animal Friendship.
Example Party Compositions
My article on Party Themes includes several examples of party themes with suggested classes to make up viable parties of 3 to 6 players.