Saturday, January 24, 2009

Party of Five

4th Edition is balanced for five players, plus a DM.

The concept of being balanced at all is relatively new to D&D, but five being the magic number comes as something of a surprise. Previously, D&D has been centred around the rule of four.

The idea of four players is exemplified in the core AD&D classes - fighter, cleric, mage and thief. While earlier editions could be run with any number of players, the rulebooks assumed four players at every table.

4th Edition complicates the party size issue. A core tenet of 4th Ed design is encouraging teamwork and co-operation. One way that it does is through abilities which affect your allies. A typical power might be "Damage your enemy, and then give a small buff to an adjacent ally."

This creates a balance issue. The usefulness of an ally-buffing power is directly proportionate to how many allies you have. The more friends are at the table, the more likely it is that one will be able to benefit from your power. A bigger issue is powers that buff all allies, as these scale up with each player affected.

To properly balance these powers, the designers need to decide how many players they expect will be "standard" - and they've moved right past four and settled on five. You can play with more players than five, or less, but you need to be aware that if you do, the classes and powers aren't balanced. Warlords are heavily gimped in small parties; fighters and paladins get less useful in large expeditions.

Why five? Anyone who's tried to organise a gaming group knows that the more people you need for each session, the less sessions you're going to be able to organise per month. Five seems too many.

In a counter-intuitive fashion, that may be part of the reason. A wise designer knows to compensate for variance. You can tolerably play 4th Edition with between four and six players without badly breaking the balance. That may be a more useful spread than three to five for many gaming groups.

More importantly, the balance shift from five players to four is a noticeably smaller one than from four to three. Five players allows for redundancy; you can afford to have a player miss a game. Setting the balance to five encourages players to form more resilient and long-lasting gaming groups.

This is interesting because it's actually something new in gaming. I've bemoaned the fact that 4th Edition mechanics do nothing to support roleplaying, but what they do support is socialising. If you look at something like White Wolf's World of Darkness you'll find that the game is built from the ground up to promote inter-party bickering; that kind of politics is part of its core gameplay. In 4th Edition, we have an example of a game that uses its mechanics to help people co-operate, work as a team, and get along with each other. The rules of the game promote real-world social gains.

It's also true that the larger group brings some benefits. Larger groups possess more resources - with five players plus a DM, there will be a larger array of rulebooks and accessories available for use in any given session. Larger groups also support role differentiation, which is a key element both of effective teamwork and of the 4th Edition design philosophy.

On the other hand, membership in larger groups is proportionately less satsifying, with each player getting less "turns" and less time in the sun. There's also more potential for personality clashes and real-world interpersonal conflict. You only need to look at any LARP organisation or MMO guild to see the perils of a large player base.

The long term benefits of setting a defined balance number I think will outweigh any losses. Knowing how many players "should" be at the table, modules such as Keep on the Shadowfell can be more tightly balanced (although that doesn't mean they actually are), and the adoption of a default party size allows for feedback from 4th Edition players to be standardised and more usefully inform the design of future games.


[1] A lot of research has been done into group dynamics and ideal group sizes. Did Wizards of the Coast draw on any of it in setting five as their number? Alternatively, was market research performed to determine the size of the average gaming group?

[2] Larger party sizes make gaming groups less insular and create more openings for isolated and beginning players. This "open table" philosophy is also reflected in the D&D Insider online tools, which discourage house rules while promoting the concept of an "official character", thereby allowing for easy character portability between campaigns. The rulebooks also provide "standard" numbers of magic items and gold totals for characters of any given level. Was this an explicit design goal, and, if so, how do Wizards of the Coast plan to leverage it on a community level?


Anonymous said...

I used to run a 3.5 campaign bi-weekly for about six months.
90% of the time only two players could make it to any one session.

Greg Tannahill said...

I love running games for two players - they're some of the best stuff I run. Not D&D, though. With only two players there's a lot less need for complex conflict resolution so you can do away with stats and rules and have pared down mechanics that deal exclusively with the anticipated conflicts of the story.

Anonymous said...

What system would you recommend for running with two players?

Greg Tannahill said...

For two players I usually run a streamlined game with no explicit rules; conflicts are resolved by narrative imperative - that is, in the event of any question as to whether someone can or can not do something, the answer is determined by what makes for the most interesting and entertaining story.

As far as actual systems go, I highly recommend 7th Sea, which with two players lends itself to "buddy movie" games in the swashbuckling genre. It's a system that strongly emphasises every character as a "star" so to some extent smaller group sizes actually work to its benefit.

All Flesh Must Be Eaten also does a decent zobie-themed game with two players, although the rules aren't quite as tight and that genre more naturally supports larger parties.

All that's assuming you're roleplaying for the story. If you're looking for a game about levelling up and collecting loot, no one has ever done that better than D&D and you're better off modding the 4th ed rules to two players (or using an older edition) than going with anything else on the market.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note on the market research/focus group question. If you trust it, WotC had stated numerous times in preview books, interviews, and at presentations that they settled on five rather than four based on the results of extensive surveys and market research. I believe it is mentioned in one of their Podcasts from before 4th Edition was released. I know I heard Bill Slasvicek (sp?) say something about it during a presentation at a local game convention here.

Greg Tannahill said...

Fantastic, thanks, Anonymous!

I'd love to see that research; it seems like something that could have fairly wide implications, although I suspect WoTC keeps it fairly proprietary.

Jipster said...

Can I assume that you don't play WoW, Greg?

5-man parties just naturally follow in a game that unabashedly stole so much from World of Warcraft.

Jeremiah said...

I hadn't considered that the increase in "suggested players" actually parallels that of the WoW group paradigm.
Nice call.
That may very well be a possibility.

But I'd caution beginning that tired argument about who "unabashedly stole" from whom in the fantasy genre...


J.R.R. Tolkein

Greg Tannahill said...

I do actually play WoW (or did). And of course five-man is the paradigm there.

I'm not sure it's comparable, though. WoW doesn't incentivise you to make binding five member affiliations; you're required only to come together for up to a couple of hours to complete certain content before disbanding.

Grouping outside of instances also acts as a kind of natural difficulty selector - you find buddies when you want things to be easier for a while, and the trade-off is trivialised content and logistical troubles. Five-man acts as an upper limit on that difficulty slider.

I think WoTC would have been making a bad design call if they'd gone for five player based on nothing more compelling than WoWW having done it.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a year late and a dollar short, but I'm sick and tired of everyone saying that this game or that game "stole" everything from WoW.

Everything that WoW is, has, or does, Everquest and Everquest II did first. So shut it or pay homage to the true source.

J.R.R. Tolkein :)