A good adventuring party is greater than the sum of its parts. By carefully composing a party of any size, it can better handle the challenges commonly presented to a party in Pathfinder.
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.
However, due to 4e's fairly combat-heavy play style, these roles don't stretch to fit the more diverse and complex needs of Pathfinder. 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.
- Defender: Stands between the biggest monsters and the squishy people.
- Area Control: Polearm fighters, trippers, or generally just characters with big reach. They defend their allies by preventing or deterring enemies from moving past them.
- Taunt/Threat: Either by dealing a ton of damage or using a mechanic to force enemies to attack them, Threat Defenders force enemies to engage them instead of the defender's allies.
- Face: Diplomacy, bluff, intimidate, linguistics, sense motive.
- Healer: Healing and restorative magic.
- Librarian: All of the knowledge skills, plus Spellcraft.
- 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. Assassins and many spellcasters are excellent disable strikers.
- Grab / Grapple: Very few enemies can function normally while grappled, and unless they are also built to grapple you are at a major advantage.
- Support: Party buffs and debuffs like Haste or Inspire Courage.
- Area Control: Wall of fire, and other effects which control movement on the battlefield.
- Buff: Don't forget the +1.
- Debuff: Blind things, give them penalties, or otherwise make them easy to kill.
- 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. Channel Energy can be an excellent AoE damage effect, and higher level spells like Flame Strike can make the Cleric an excellent second string Blaster.
- Defender: The Cleric gets shields, medium armor, and d8 hit points, which can make him an excellent second string defender.
- Face: The Cleric gets Diplomacy as a class skill, and likely has some charisma to support his Channel Energy ability. He lacks other Face skills, but can skate by on Diplomacy and high Wisdom as a second string Face.
- Healer: The Cleric is the iconic, gold standard of healing. He has all of the big name resorative spells, and can cast cure spells spontaneously if he is good aligned. Channel energy is just a nice bonus.
- Support: The Cleric gets many of the best support spells in the game, right from level 1.
- Utility Caster: The Cleric gets a lot of excellent utility spells, especially divinations.
- Defender: With full plate armor, tower shields, and d10 hit points, the Fighter is your classic defender.
- 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 Power Attack.
- Face: Though charisma may not be a priority, the Rogue has all of the Face skills.
- Scout: The Rogue is the gold standard of Scouts. He gets Stealth, Disable Device, Perception, and Sleight of Hand. In addition, Trapfinding and Evasion make Rogues practically immune to traps.
- 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.
- Librarian: The Wizard is the gold standard of Librarians. He gets every knowledge skill, and will have lots of skill points from high intelligence. Since knowledge skills and spellcraft are all intelligence-based, the wizard gets to double-dip on his strongest ability.
- 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, but their options are not as broad as the Cleric's.
- Utility Caster: The Wizard has a lot of the best utility spells in the game. Mount, rope trick, fly, teleportation, Wish, etc.
Classes and Roles
Note that these roles reflect the vanilla version of each class. Archetypes and specific character builds can alter the roles which a class can fill.
Roles in Small Parties
A typically 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. With less characters to fill out the party's needs, each character must sacrifice focus in favor of versatility.
Small parties should rely on classes which can fill more roles. Bards, Clerics, Druids, and Rogues are all excellent choices since they can fill a variety of rolls, and solve a wide range of problems.
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.