July 8, 2014

The Class That Isn't Needed Until It Is In Play

Tenkar's Tavern ask Is The Thief a Needed Member. He asked if the thief class is truly needed or if an adventuring party could get by without one. How important is a thief to a group? Essential or just nice to have? This got me thinking latterly...

Quite a few classes do not become needed until a player starts to play one. It is a backwards need. The thief is an excellent example of this. If no one in the party is playing a thief then a DM tends to not add traps, or run adventures that require pickpocketing or include lots of locked doors or anything that a thief excels at. Sure a DM might still add a locked door or trap but with the intent that there is nothing the party can do about them other than soaking the damage or bashing in a lock. Such DMs would not write an adventure where the adventure would stall because there is no thief in the party.

However, once a thief is being played, then suddenly there are all sorts of traps, locks and other things in adventures. Adventures will stall if that thief can't pick the lock. DMs make sure to add in things for a thief to do. It follows the mantra of "let every player shine at least once". Thus thieves and thiefly skills are not needed until a player starts playing a thief.

This expands out to other classes as well...
Once a bard joins a party, there are suddenly more "social" encounters.
Once a druid or ranger joins a party, there are suddenly more nature/animal encounters.
Once a paladin joins a party, there are suddenly more encounters with nobility.

It could even be said that the cleric/healing class follows this as well. On one hand, combat is a driving force of rpg games and thus a cleric is essential to the survival of a party. However, if for some reason there is no cleric in a party, damage scales would go down...or potions of healing would begin to be found as treasure a lot more often.

DMs react to what the players have chosen as their classes. No class is required...until a player starts playing them.


dither said...

I think you've reduced the problem too far -- from the designer perspective, there must be a "baseline" party around which to design adventures. Something that can be first assumed to exist -- so expectations can be made and subverted.

From that baseline party emerge specific roles for characters to fill -- someone to find traps, someone to fight monsters, someone to decipher ancient runes, and so forth.

What the question boils down to then is -- what is the "actual" baseline of the game versus the baseline declared by the designers.

Where this stops being an issue -- as you rightfully pointed out -- is when it comes down to individual GMs designing their own adventures. The "baseline" becomes meaningless.

And yet, something is lost when the GM caters adventures to fit the party.

A "classic" dungeon is full of deadly traps, ancient secrets, and fantastic monsters. Many such dungeons are also tombs, necessitating a holy man to disrupt fearsome undead.

If players come to the table with these expectations, they may be disappointed when their strengths (if they brought a holy man to fight undead) AND weaknesses (no thief to find traps) aren't properly recognized within the context of the adventure.


Callin said...

Should a player be "stuck" with playing a certain class because a game designer dictated that they are required? If the first three players all pick classes they want to play, does that mean the fourth has to play a required class?

For me personally, I want my players to play the characters they want to play. Otherwise, they quickly lose interest. Even worse is when the player playing a thief loses that character...and has to make another thief or the rest of the party is in trouble.

I completely understand the concept that fantasy games have tropes built into them (nasty traps, etc)...but those tropes were designed around the baselines made by the designers.

I also think that even if a class is not present in a party that the party can still encounter things designed for a specific class. Such as a trap that causes a lot of damage. Sure having a thief would make things "easier" but moving forward is not stymied by not having that thief. It's just more painful.

dither said...

RE: Callin
Consider what is implied by saying a player is "stuck" in a role? Why would they ever be stuck? The context of an adventure presents a series of obstacles -- not barriers.

The absence of one or more "expected" roles should only present a difficulty to the party, not an impossibility.

For example, a group that has a thief will hypothetically be able to bypass traps more quickly and efficiently than a group without -- but if one of the players wants to have a second fighter then they should by no means force him to switch to thief.

To compensate for the absence of the thief, the group will have more armor/better hps to survive traps. If they have a second priest they have more healing. If they have a second magic-user, they have more utility spells.

Just because an adventure is designed with the roles in mind does _not_ mean those roles are required.

A "balanced" party, working together to overcome challenges faced in an adventure, will hypothetically encounter the fewest difficulties -- that's it.

No one is "stuck" playing any one character type. Anyone can play whatever they want.