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The Play's the Thing

Group Dynamics Part 2: People who need people...

by David Goodner
Oct 22,2002


Group Dynamics Part 2: People who need people...

Welcome back. Thanks for stopping by. Last time we discussed how your group got together. This time we'll discuss who should be in the group. A group of PCs is generally a task force of some kind. They're adventurers who will be presented with a variety of challenges and obstacles. They need skills relevant to the tasks at hand, and some means of coordinating their actions.

I've had to revise my thoughts on this topic quite a bit since I realized that not everybody has me or one of my friends as a GM. The optimum spread of character abilities that work in my games may not be very useful for yours.

So lets start with the basics.

Play Style:

The type of game you're playing will heavily influence the makeup of your group. If you're playing in a good, old fashioned dungeon crawl then you can focus on combat abilities, worrying only a little about non-combat skills. If you're more interested in playing average people in extraordinary circumstances, your characters will have a wide range of skills, many of which won't be particularly relevant to the tasks at hand. If you're playing a "Feeble Mortals Against the Mighty Old Ones" game like Call of Cthulhu then you'll need a range of social and investigative skills. Combat prowess will be of limited use.

Personal preference is important, too. The group I'm in now likes tight, well-rendered stories -- similar to what you might see in an hour-long TV drama. There are subplots and side trips, but mostly everything relates to the main plot. That may change as the game grows, of course. I've played in a couple of groups where we spent as much time on the characters' personal lives as we did pursuing "adventure goals." I've also seen groups where combat is the main focus. Social interaction was limited, and frequently abbreviated so we could get on to the next fight scene. In a game like that, a bookish, social character is probably not going to have much to do.

Most of my experience has been in games with a mix of challenges where a wide range of skills was required. Even if combat was the primary focus, other activities took up a good share of time, and characters that were only useful in combat could sometimes be left out. Since I only have my experience to draw upon, and since I figure that kind of group is the best example for the purposes of this article, I'm going to talk about building groups with a range of skills, rather than just fighters or just occult dabbling antiques dealers. This is probably the most common situation, and it's easy to adapt to styles of play with different expectations.

So, let's move on.

Group Construction:

I have never encountered a group of players who sat down with the GM, having no personal expectations, and asked, "So, what kind of game is it?" then negotiated with each other to make sure they had all the needed roles filled. I'd like to try it some time, but I doubt I ever will. When a potential GM pitches a game for me, the first thing that usually pops into my head is a character concept.

Most group construction takes place after some or all of the players have chosen concepts. Usually the more flexible players, or the ones who just showed up late, modify their concepts to fill needed roles. That generally works out just fine, since there really aren't that many roles to fill. Unless your GM is just an obstructionist, he's probably not going to make your ex-Marine, former cop, school Librarian, and town dog catcher go on a geological survey mission to Madagascar. (Well, he might, but he's probably going to take into account the fact that none of the characters know anything about geology -- work with me here.)

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd ed. divided up the roles very neatly: Warrior, Rogue, Magic User, and Cleric. Warriors were primarily combatants. Rogues primarily snuck around. Magic Users primarily threw spells. Clerics also primarily threw spells, but they were different spells. Honest.

Seriously, that wasn't a bad spread. Warriors were useful for defeating adversaries. Rouges were able to circumvent physical barriers. Magic Users wielded a lot of different abilities, potentially able to substitute for just about any other party member. Clerics were good for support roles, mostly healing injured companions. Some of the secondary classes provided redundancy, which I'll talk about presently.

You don't have to have a class system to have specialists. Most game systems reward specialization to one degree or another, since a character who's specialized in one area has better skills than one who spreads his points evenly. Even games where all the characters are similar, for instance Ars Magica, Amber, or just about any superhero game offer opportunities for specialization.

So, why bother to specialize? Some games make you specialize (Dungeons and Dragons, Cyberpunk 2020). Some games just reward specialization (in Fading Suns a starting character can pretty much be good at one thing). Other games leave the field open, but it's a good idea to specialize anyway. A group of specialists is more capable than a group of generalists at a similar level of experience. Look at The Princess Bride. Wesley is superhuman. If he was a PC, then his player was probably the GM's Significant Other or drug supplier. The other main characters, though, were not unusual in and of themselves. Visini was small and stunted, so he developed his intellect. Fezik was incredibly strong, but not really smart enough to manage on his own. Inigo was totally dedicated to swordplay, and pretty helpless in any other arena. If he'd been a better investigator, he might have found Count Rougan. All three of them together are roughly as "powerful" as Wesley, who would have had a vastly higher experience level or character point total.

Group Composition:

So we've established that specialists are useful. Now, what kind of specialists do we need? Ultimately, that depends on your game. CoC Investigators need significantly different abilities than D&D treasure hunters. These are some general roles, along with some explanation of what each role is good for.

Warriors: Role-playing games are mostly about combat. Even games where combat isn't the focus frequently include episodes of violence. Warriors are focused on various means of harming others. For my purposes, a swordsman, a Shao Lin monk, and a pyrokenetic teenager are all Warriors. The Warrior's job is to eliminate threats and protect his companions. In a combat heavy game, you probably want most of your characters to be primarily Warriors, but several might have secondary specialties. In a game focusing on social interaction or investigation, you might turn it around so that most of your characters have other primary specialties, but some or all also have some skills in combat.

Scouts: Scouts are adept at moving around without attracting notice. Where the Warriors blow thorough obstacles, the Scouts generally work around them. Used carefully, a Scout is more effective than a Warrior in some situations. Stealth and guile can get you past difficulties that brute force can't defeat. Scouts almost always have a secondary specialty, since it doesn't do much good to get past all the obstacles if you can't do anything useful when you get there. A Scout who is also a Warrior can be particularly nasty. Most people call them Ninjas...

Investigator: Knowing where to go is as important as being able to get there, and knowing who to hit is sometimes more important than knowing how to hit them. Investigators can be magicians with scrying spells, astrally projecting psychics, or good old-fashioned gumshoes. Investigators almost always have secondary specialties, frequently social skills. Lots of gamers overlook the value of investigation. Careful gathering of information can help you avoid a lot of trouble later on, though.

Talkers: I couldn't really think of a better name for Talkers. The AD&D Bard is the classic Talker. A Cyberpunk Fixer is a good example, too. Talkers are good at dealing with people. Their role overlaps with the role of Investigator quiet a bit since one of the most common uses for their skills is to convince people to tell them things. Talkers usually split their skills between social and investigative skills since they overlap so much to begin with. Talkers who are better at giving orders are frequently also Warriors. The ones who specialize in convincing people of things that might not strictly be true find the skills of a Scout to be handy for those times that they can't fool all the people.

Healer: Healers are adept at patching up their comrades, most often the Warriors. In games with Healing Magic, Healing is likely to be a primary specialty. Let's face it; the Fighters could really kill all the zombies. They keep the Clerics around for "Cure Light Wounds." In other games, Healing is more likely to be a backup specialty.

Expert: This is kind of a catchall category. An Expert has a particular skill that's useful in the right circumstances. A Healer is a certain type of expert. Others are Pilots, Weaponsmiths, and Scientists. Esoteric Experts are probably the most dispensable specialty most of the time, but when you need one you really, really need one. In my games, Expert tends to be a backup specialty, or something NPCs do. Ghost (way back from the Character Creation examples) was a Warrior first, and a Weaponsmith a very distant second. Curiously, the way the game turned out his skills in the smithy turned out to be more crucial to the overall plot.

Jack-of-All-Trades: After all this talk about specialists, I'm going to extol the virtues of a generalist. If you have the room in your group to work one in, a Jack-of-All-Trades can really come in handy. He won't be as effective at anything as his companions, but he'll be useful just about everywhere. Since most characters can't be in two places at once, it can be really useful to have two people with similar skills. That said, it's probably best if a Jack of All Trades is at least a little better than average at one. A Warrior with a wide range of low-level skills is a good choice. In a D&D game, the Magic User is sort of a Jack-of-All-Trades. The right choice of spells can do just about anything any other character can do. If you're coming up on a big fight, load up on Fireballs. If you're trying to sneak across the country, Invisibility and some illusions will come in handy. If you need to make some friends, Charm Person is a good choice.


The above descriptions hinted at this. You want to be sure your party isn't over-specialized. If you only have one Scout, you'll blunder into a lot of trouble he gets taken out. If you only have one Medic, everybody had better be very, very careful if anything happens to him. Besides, an over-specialized character is likely to be boring to play whenever the game doesn't revolve around his specialty.

Ideally, every character in your group can pitch in to help with one other character's job, and be at least a little competent at a third. Perhaps sadly, one of those three jobs should probably be Warrior. I've played characters that were totally helpless in combat. It can be fun once in a while, but it's not tactically the best choice. It can also irritate the GM, since he'll probably have to modify scenarios somewhat to take care of you. If you're going to play a character that can't fight at all, you should take care to make sure he's pretty good at something else.

Your exact choice of specialties will be dependant on the type of game you're playing, and the backgrounds of the characters. Here's the spread on my current Shadowrun game. I'm running Shadowrun to fill in for a while. Our Tribe 8 GM had to quit, and the next GM is too busy to start his game, so I decided to run a somewhat episodic game with a few subplots to keep things connected. I'm a big fan of Cowboy Bebop (an Anime about interstellar bounty hunters, for those who might not know) so I decided to capture a little of that flavor in my game. The Runners aren't bounty hunters, but they're more or less "good guys" operating on the edges of the underworld. Everybody's got at least a little combat skill, since I don't consider an episode complete without a massive fight that lowers property values in a six-block radius. (Well, maybe not every episode...)

The players didn't set out to coordinate their characters, but they checked in with each other to make sure they had the major bases covered. Here's what they came up with:

  • Alex Black (Bodyguard): Alex has enough cyberware that he's as tough as a Troll. He's also a crack shot with a pistol. His primary specialty is Warrior. He can also handle the role of a Talker in the right situations. He's charismatic and good looking, and used to work amongst the rich and famous.
  • Father Angus (Bull Shaman): Father Angus is moderately better at Conjuring than Sorcery, and has ready access to Spirits. In my terms he's an Expert in magic and kind of a Jack-of-All-Trades. He's most useful as a Healer, and pretty handy as support in a lot of applications. He's not a great Scout on his own, but his spirits can help the group's other Scout. He's OK in a fight, but mostly good at summoning a spirit to harass the enemy so his friends have an advantage, etc...
  • Cammy (Con Artist/Burglar): Chameleon, Cammy for short, is adept at stealth, breaking and entering, and confidence games. She's a good Scout, and a decent Investigator or Talker when the situation calls for it.
  • Ena (Elf Mage): Ena is the group's other Magical Expert. Like Angus, she's kind of a Jack-of-All-Trades. She's most useful as a Scout, with Clairvoyance and a Mask spell to let her see things the group's enemies don't really intend. She's got a pretty good Power Bolt for when things get hairy. She's not as adept a Conjurer as Angus is, and Elementals aren't as readily available, but they're more useful when she summons one.
  • Ziff (Ork Combat Decker): Ziff is big and strong, with some cyberware to help him survive a fight. He's also a pretty good computer hacker. I'm going to tag him as an Expert in running the Matrix. Within the Matrix, he's mostly useful as an Investigator. He's also not a bad Warrior.

This group is a nice spread. I don't think they would have done a lot better if they'd tried to coordinate from the beginning. So far, the only real weakness they have is a lack of Investigative talent, which they don't need a lot of. Most of their runs don't require more than basic fact-finding. If the game runs long enough for much development, they'll probably decide they need some more investigative skills in the meat world. Ziff will probably decide to leave his Combat abilities alone and get more adept at Matrix running. Another solution is for every character to develop a wider range of contacts the group can tap for information.

And that's about it for this time. Next up: Combat Roles. See you then.

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