Understanding Party Composition in D&D 5e
The ideal game or campaign is one where each player plays a PC they enjoy. That’s why when sitting down for planning the campaign or participating in a session 0 players should decide on characters that each of them enjoys, but also help to round out the party and create a balanced party. Understanding D&D party composition is key for players that want to create characters they both enjoy, and help contribute to the party in a unique and valuable way.
In my opinion, the ideal party is one that strives for balance. A party should have at least one character that is proficient in each game mechanic in D&D. Parties that are able to do this can participate in the entirety of the game and won’t miss out on the opportunities that succeeding in these opportunities provides.
Having the ideal, balanced party composition is especially important for long-term campaigns. Games, where the players and DM will become invested in the characters, world, and story, will flow a lot better with having a well-rounded party as they’ll be able to fully explore the game. The party will be able to influence any NPC, succeed in any combat, and overcome any obstacle.
Benefits of Having a Balanced Party
There are many benefits to having a balanced party. The most obvious benefit to the party as a whole is they can participate in all aspects of D&D. This way the party has a bit of variety to play through and the game can be explored to its fullest extent. This will be touched on in more detail later in the post, but this is by far the largest benefit of having good party composition.
Having a balanced party composition also rounds out the party so that it does not have any glaring weaknesses. Your enemies will not have as many weaknesses to exploit if the party has resources for every situation. There will still be weaknesses in even the most balanced parties, but you’ll at least have some tools to potentially overcome them.
Another benefit of this is that individual PCs will have more moments to shine and show off their strengths. In an unbalanced party where characters’ individual strengths and responsibilities overlap, it’s harder for characters to show off how powerful they are. Your character will always be compared to your other party members that can complete the same action.
A player that is great at dealing damage has a different job than one that is great at interacting with NPCs, both should have their time in the spotlight. A well-rounded party composition helps both the individual show off their strengths, and give them a base where their peers shoulder their character’s weaknesses. This is beneficial to both the players and their characters as they all have a well-balanced team to work with, and a place where their strengths can be shown off in the game.
Each player should make a character that thrives at a specific role to ensure that you have a balanced party composition,. Each character has a different job to do and they do this job well. That’s the basic idea of having good party composition.
I’ve broken the mechanics of D&D into 4 main roles. Each one of these roles has multiple mechanics that fall under its jurisdiction. Not every character that is filling a specific role has to be able to assume every single job to be considered viable or good at the role.
The role(s) that each PC will take on are primarily determined by the class that they pick. Some classes specialize in a single role, while others can complete the jobs of several roles. However, not every PC has to be able to complete every responsibility in their respective roles. PCs can pick up new tools to help them complete jobs outside of their main role(s) through skill proficiencies, backgrounds, race, multi-classing, feats, and magical items.
Ideally, a balanced party will be able to complete each of these jobs in one way or another. This is not always true, but when forming your party your players should strive to at least be able to complete most of the jobs and responsibilities below.
Frontline characters are characters that have high HP and/or AC and are able to directly engage the enemy in melee range. They protect their allies by demanding the enemy focus on attacking them.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to make and play a frontline character check out this article!
Example Character Build: Great Weapon Battle Master Fighter
While I say soak damage, your frontline does not always have to take the hits. They simply need to distract the enemy so that they’ll focus their hits on your frontline rather than the squishier characters in your party.
Characters that excel at being in the frontline have high AC, HP, or both. A frontline character needs to be able to stay conscious and active on the battlefield for as long as they possibly can. They won’t always be taking large amounts of damage, but they should be able to if the situation calls for it.
Protect the Backline
In addition to soaking damage, the frontline are responsible for keeping the enemy from getting into position to harm their allies. This can be done by physically restraining the enemy or using their magic and abilities to prevent the enemy from maneuvering around their reach. However they do it, their responsibility is to keep the enemy in front of them and make it as difficult as possible for them to hurt anyone else in their party.
Utility characters help out their party in the form of providing support, healing, and disabling traps. All of the base classes have the ability to provide some form of utility depending on what archetypes, proficiencies, and feats you choose. Your party doesn’t necessarily need a dedicated support character to fulfill this role.
Example Character Build: Wild Magic Support Sorcerer
Being able to heal your party in and out of combat is extremely advantageous in D&D. Healing is powerful as it keeps your party alive and active during a fight. While you can spend hit dice to heal during a short rest, this takes both time and resources. Having a healer ensures the party does not have to stop and rest too frequently or run out of hit dice to spend during their rests.
It’s also a useful tool for instantly reviving a downed party member. Stabilizing downed party members is one of the biggest parts of the healer’s job as in D&D 5e it’s more efficient to heal a low HP or unconscious party member rather than top them off consistently. Having consistent healing opens up much more freedom of taking risks in-game.
Should you not be able to revive a downed ally, fear not! Many healers have the ability to resurrect the dead. This is a huge benefit for parties that lose a member during a dungeon crawl. You may be able to have an NPC revive an ally, but that takes both time and money and is nowhere near as convenient.
The most common and reliable healing comes in the form of spells. Another form of healing comes from healing potions and other items. Acquiring these items is an expensive, but possible way to overcome the lack of having a dedicated healer in the party.
The support helps boost their party’s abilities in and out of combat. They cast powerful spells that buff ability checks, saving throws, attacks, and damage. These buffs give the party an edge against their enemies in combat situations and give them more leeway to make difficult skill checks. Helping your party deal more damage helps end fights quicker. The quicker the fight, the less chance of players being killed!
Supports can also debuff the enemy. Causing an enemy to have disadvantage on a saving throw, deal less damage, or lower their ability scores can help turn the tide of a difficult encounter. Debuffs are especially powerful as they can potentially help your party avoid damage. In D&D avoiding damage is always better than healing damage.
Ways to counter magical spells and effects are another important part of supporting your party. Having someone who knows Counterspell and Dispel Magic can shut down enemy spellcasters that would otherwise be an enormous threat to your party.
Every class has access to some form of crowd control so this is an easy box to check. Crowd control allows your party to temporarily shut down an enemy and potentially gain advantages against them. Tons of spells and abilities allow you to force an enemy to lose control of their character.
Even if the enemy breaks out of the crowd control in a round, you’ve still forced them to forgo at least one round of combat. That’s an entire round where you and your allies were able to damage them without repercussions.
Crowd control also helps your party gain control of the battlefield. Forcing an enemy out of position through the use of shoving or grappling is an easy way to help give your party a leg-up on the enemy.
Depending on the DM, traps can be a major issue for your adventuring party. Random attacks that nickel and dime your party for damage can put a huge strain on your party’s resources. While 2d4 may not be a lot of damage for your frontline, 6 of these traps will quickly add up. If you have to use your healing spells or items before a proper fight you may not have them when you need them later! That’s why it’s so important to consider traps when creating your party composition.
Thankfully in 5e there are many ways to gain proficiency in thieves’ tools, so you do not necessarily need a rogue. Some backgrounds give thieves’ tools proficiency and other backgrounds and classes have the option of learning a tool of your choice. You’ll be able to disable practically any trap as long as at least one character has proficiency in thieves’ tools.
The Damage Dealer
Every class has the ability to deal damage. Still, it is necessary to ensure that you always have at least one character that really focuses on dishing out large amounts of damage. In combat encounters, nothing is more important than defeating the enemy. You’ll need to dish out plenty of consistent damage in order to do so.
There are two types of damage-dealer, single target, and area of effect (AoE). An ideal party composition will have both of these types of damage-dealer. Both martial and spellcasting classes can fit in these roles, though spellcasters typically have more options for gaining AoE damage dealing abilities.
Example Character Build: Arcane Archer Fighter
The first type of damage dealer is the single target damage dealer. Single target damage is when a high amount of damage is focused solely on a single enemy. This is important when there is an enemy that is more threatening than the rest of the enemies in the encounter, or when your party is up against a large boss creature. You’ll want to dispose of these large threats quickly to end the fight in a timely manner.
Area of Effect
AoE damage is great for dealing damage to a group of enemies rather than just a single target. Spells and abilities that cause AoE damage are great for taking down groups of enemies or a large mass of weak enemies. Being able to thwart a large threat quickly can help save your party from taking a ton of damage quickly.
Being outnumbered in 5e is extremely dangerous due to how the action economy works. The side with the most actions has more opportunities to make attacks and out-maneuver their foe. AoE damage prevents your enemy from using their larger numbers against your party.
The face is any character with a high charisma score that also has proficiency in one of the social skills like deception or persuasion. It’s a unique role in tabletop RPGs as it’s one of the few genres of games where you can interact with NPCs in any conceivable way. Having a character that is a “people person” and thrives in social scenarios can help your party gain countless advantages.
Example Character Build: Swashbuckler Rogue
Create Role-Playing Opportunities
One of the best parts of playing D&D is character interactions. While you don’t need a high charisma score to do so, it does help you bring your party into unique situations. You may be able to make friends or enemies easily. Either way, you’ll create situations where you or your party may butt heads or have to work together to solve. These situations help to create conflicts and discover plot hooks that you may have missed by simply taking a quest no questions asked or running straight to the next dungeon.
Buddying up with a member of high society or a high authority figure can open countless doors. Making friends with the members of the underbelly of society can ensure your safety. While these types of people are complete opposites of each other, they all have deep pockets or can pay you in lucrative favors. Use these relationships to get your party interesting and high-paying work.
The face can also weasel their way into situations where the party may learn privileged information. You can learn a lot from rumors and folktales, but you can learn a lot more by interacting with the people who live in the area. Having a character that can speak to these NPCs and squeeze important information out of them can be invaluable.
Party-Wide Skill Synergy
Another important part of having good party composition is ensuring that your party has proficiency in most of the skills in D&D 5e. In most campaigns, there will be a situation for every skill in the game. Having at least one character that is proficient in this skill is a huge advantage depending on the urgency of the skill check.
Having a character being able to add 2-5 extra points to a skill check can be the difference between gaining an important opportunity and giving the enemy an edge in a scenario. The modifiers in D&D 5e are pretty low and there aren’t a ton of items or ways to gain bonuses to your skill checks. Proficiency or expertise in a skill is a big deal.
The DM’s Responsibility
One of the unique things about D&D is that any combination of classes and roles can form a successful party. However, some parties will have an easier time than others due to their party composition. It’s not always possible for your party to have every single mechanic in a role covered despite your best efforts. A good DM should take it upon themselves to do a bit of planning to take this into account. If your party is missing something, but they are all playing characters they enjoy and have fun with, throw them a bone.
For example, the party in my campaign does not have much healing in their party composition. They’ve had to rely on healing potions, items, rests, and leveraging NPCs as their sources of healing. As you can imagine, this has made many situations difficult for them. I’ve tried to help this by giving them access to more potions and items that give them healing.
That being said, don’t be afraid to use their weaknesses against them every so often. If they have little healing, make attacks at the characters with low HP to force their hand. If your party has no frontline rush at their unprotected spellcasters. Their weakness is still a tool for your encounters to work with, but don’t make it a regular punishment for the players playing PCs they enjoy.
Party composition is an important thing to consider when creating your characters in a new campaign. Having all the possible roles and proficiencies in most of the skills can give your party an enormous leg-up against your future foes.
You never know what your DM may throw at you so being prepared for every possible scenario is imperative. If you tick all the boxes in the checklist, you’ll have no real weaknesses. That’s what good party composition is about!