November 26, 2010

4E and Party Unity

Does 4E promote party unity more so than other systems? Is party harmony baked into the rule set? 4E makes a strong case for party unity. This starts right at the beginning of the rule book where it notes that the characters are heroes. It describes the actions of the characters as being heroic, helping those in need. However, other rule sets have done this as well. What does 4E do differently that could warrant a claim that the game system promotes unity more than other games?

A couple of minor points are in their more blatant attempts to highlight the heroic. Look at the newest character building books offered for the Essentials line. Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, soon to be followed by Heroes of Sword and Spell and Heroes of Shadow. These are character building books with the term Hero unashamedly on the cover. They are not being called Lone Wolf of Sword and Spell.

Under Alignment, they clearly state that Good and Lawful Good are the choices for a character and that the other alignments are discouraged. This is further reinforced when we get to the Gods section. All the good and neutral gods are given extensive write-ups, but the evil gods are given only the barest line on a list. Better descriptions of the evil gods are given in the GM’s books, but that is the purview of the GM and outside what the players should be choosing. It's almost like saying evil characters are the domain of the GM.

The above are some of the obvious means of trying to get players to create classes that will work together, but what are some of the more subtle means? The roles and party creation highly recommends forming a party as a group. There are specific functions within a group that need to be covered if a group is going to do well. You need a leader and defender and strikers. You can do without one of those but the game encounters become all that much harder to accomplish. By spreading out the roles required it means a party needs to work together more.

One of the chief contributors to party disharmony is the lone wolf mentality. This is when a player builds a character that can do everything themselves, or at least is built so strongly that they can overpower any obstacle. Such characters don’t need the other PCs and thus it is easy to break away from the party. It either marginalizes the other characters, bringing out bad feelings, or to properly “test” the character’s effectiveness the lone wolf will find opportunities to bring conflict into the party dynamics.

4E and its powers are built to complement the other party members. Abilities either make other party members more effective or allow your character to become stronger. Either by giving or taking advantage of these extra perks provided by the other party members, a party becomes co-dependent on each other. There is incentive to work together.

4E has managed to design a system where a character can do damage (a key cornerstone of feeling effective) and still provide perks for the rest of the party at the same time. It is no longer about making a choice between helping yourself or helping the party, you can now do both. The way powers are set up and used, it diminishes the mentality of the lone wolf and promotes party unity.

When players use their characters to help each other, even if it’s only to better themselves, it brings a group together. A form of bonding takes place. Knowing your daily only hit because you gained a +1 to hit from the other player almost makes you feel in their debt. But with 4E this feeling of aid and debt is spread completely around the party. Even if you don’t want to work with the other members of the party you have to.

One final push for party unity comes in the power descriptions themselves. If a character were to step outside the party and feels the need to attack a member of the party (usually because of the ubiquitous ‘respect’ issue) the powers almost force the character and player over a line they do not want to cross. Most powers are explicit in what they can target; they specifically mention whether it will affect an ally or enemy. If a character were to use a power against a party member he would have to declare that member as an enemy in order for the attack to work. While it is true a good DM will allow such attacks to be used without such a formal announcement, there is an unconscious line of enemy/ally that would be crossed if such a power were to be used on a party member, a line most players do not want to cross. Most inter-party attacks are usually one hits meant to show power or how dangerous they are, but with the addition of the enemy descriptor it alters the approach of such an attack and its fallout.

What do you think? Is the 4E system designed to promote party unity beyond normal systems?


anarkeith said...

Powers though aren't given alignments. Nothing explicitly prevents a party hell-bent on mayhem from being evil and cooperative. Cooperation is efficient after all.

onlinedm said...

I think D&D 4th Edition is pretty explicit about its design around party unity, yes. I don't read as much into the word "hero" as you do - I think it means "not evil" but not necessarily "plays well with others." You can have a lone wolf hero.

I think the big push for party unity comes, as you discuss, in the design of mechanics of combat so that everything goes much more smoothly if everyone cooperates. Combat is designed under the assumption that you have a well-rounded party - a striker to focus on the enemy that needs to drop NOW, a defender to keep the monsters from swarming over his vulnerable allies, a controller to wipe out minions and impede the abilities of the enemy and a leader to heal the party's wounds and improve their fighting abilities. One character fighting alone against a normal battle is going to struggle, which therefore encourages unity.

Of course, I haven't played earlier editions or other gaming systems so I can't say with authority how unique this is.