Can A Leader-Less Party Work?

As is becoming typical, Monte Cooke’s latest Legends and Lore article sparked quite a discussion on Twitter.  Many folks didn’t like the “requirement” for having a cleric in the oldest editions of D&D, and some felt the same about the similar need for the leader role in 4th edition.  Is a leader class, specifically a class that has access to good healing skills and abilities, an absolute must in 4E?

When I began my campaign earlier this year, our role balance was about perfect: one of everything, and an extra striker.  The player of our shaman moved away over the summer, though, prompting a summer long break.  Once we started back up, we didn’t replace the shaman, leaving us with two strikers (thief and slayer), a controller (mage), and a defender (cavalier).  This unbalanced party has actually done fairly well, but tweaking had to be done, some of it behind the scenes, some more readily apparent.

Perhaps the most obvious tweak is a reliance on the healing powers available to the cavalier.  I’m lucky that my group’s defender has such abilities; it would be much more difficult if my son was playing, say, a knight.  The cavalier makes a fair healer in a pinch.  Strike of Hope doesn’t look too impressive from a healing standpoint at first, but when you consider that it can be used every round, all the heals for two here and five there really begin to add up.  Bond of Protection, Restore Vitality, and Righteous Shield are other invaluable skills.

Even for parties that don’t have any leader-like roles, there are many other options available for healing.  Second wind allows any character to use a healing surge once per encounter.  A downside to second wind is that players dislike using a standard action to “just heal”.  For dwarves, this is not an issue, as they can use second wind as a minor action.  Consider making a house rule that second wind can be used as a minor action for all races.  Such a solution should be used with caution, since if it doesn’t work out, it will be tough to sell going back to the old way to your players.

Thankfully, less extreme solutions are also available.  An ability similar to the dwarf perk is included, appropriately enough, on sets of dwarven armor, which allow the bearer to regain hit points as if they had spent a healing surge as a daily free action.  I made sure both my slayer and cavalier had access to dwarven armor early in the campaign, since it is an uncommon item of fairly low level.  There are sets of armor and other items with similar abilities that could also be used; this article at Dungeon’s Master lists a few for heroic tier.

Potions are another option.  Long a standard of D&D, these flasks and vials filled with all manner of restorative elixirs and medicines can help keep heroes upright and in the fight.  Quaffing a potion takes only a minor action, which will make your players happy.  The healing provided by potions isn’t as good as having a dedicated healer around, naturally, but, as with the paladin’s healing abilities, a little bit here and there really adds up.

I’m not too familiar with recent release Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, but the potions in that tome are said to be significantly better than their older counterparts.  These healing potions should be sprinkled liberally in your loot tables, crafted by the party’s magic-users, or even purchased outright at local shops, if your vision of the game world allows it.

Most of these suggestions involve alternative methods for direct healing.  However, there are some other ways to solve the leader-less party problem.  Generally speaking, if a party is taking less damage, while dealing out more damage, they will need less healing.  So what are some ways we can make this happen?

Let’s concentrate on taking less damage first.  This may seem obvious, but characters with higher defensive values, hit point totals, and healing surges can survive longer than characters with lesser abilities.  Suggest to your players that they take feats that directly improve their AC and other defenses, such as Improved Defenses or Unarmored Agility .  Toughness provides precious additional hit points to any class.  The additional healing surges provided by the Durable feat are not quite as useful, but still help.

There’s much that can be done on the DM side, too.  Perhaps the most important is to use the inherent bonus system from the DMG2.  Coming into 4E from the Essentials line, I was unaware of this system, which basically gives characters baseline bonuses to attack rolls and defenses that scale with level.  The system was intended to ensure that all characters stay “balanced” regardless of the magic items they have access to.  It can be a headache to make sure that you’ve given the appropriate loot, so be sure to check that “Use inherent bonuses” box in the Character Builder.  Your characters will have better defenses, which means less healing is required.

Some readers may balk at this suggestion, but “min/maxing” characters for damage dealing is another good way to lessen the need for a leader.  If characters hit more often, and do more damage on hits, they will kill monsters faster, and consequently take less damage.  Dead monsters don’t do much damage!  Master at Arms and Elven Precision come to mind as key feats for increasing hit percentage.  Taking a look at the character optimization forums at the main WotC site is probably a good idea, as is using the aforementioned inherent bonuses.

Role balance can help mitigate the lack of a leader.  In my campaign, we have two very effective strikers.  The thief and the slayer do massive amounts of damage, and often kill enemies before they can get in too many hits.  Not all campaigns will have this luxury, but any leader-less campaign will likely have doubles of some role.  A group with two controllers could be very effective, using debuffs, forced movement, or area damage to mitigate the damage the party takes.  A two-defender party might work too; having two characters with high AC, hit points, and all manner of defensive tricks would certainly keep overall damage low.

The balance of monsters you throw in front of the leader-less party can also have an impact.  Brutes are a nice choice, as they are very easy to hit, though that can backfire since they also hit back very hard.  Using more minions and less standard monsters can also help.  Avoid using soldier or elite monsters, with their high AC and hit points.  Every missed attack by the players means more damage the party takes.  Solo monsters are similarly difficult, but they are supposed to be dangerous anyway.  Make sure your characters have some potions or beneficial environmental effects available for big solo boss fights.

So, is it a requirement in a 4E campaign to have a leader role in the party?  Certainly not.  There are many ways to make up for a lack of healing abilities.  Seed your adventures with potions and items that allow characters to heal or use healing surges.  Encourage your players to maximize their damage dealing and mitigation capabilities.  Use lots of brutes and minions, and scale back on soldiers and elites.  An “unbalanced” party can work very well, making for an exciting campaign, with a just a few tweaks here and there.

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3 Responses to Can A Leader-Less Party Work?

  1. cavalier973 says:

    You could also talk up the leader role. I played D&D encounters for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I made four characters (just in case), and it was lucky I did, because some other people showed up without characters. I got the cleric, and had a lot of fun with it. Maybe it’s a personality thing, but I enjoyed playing the character that was the unsung hero of the group, running around handing out healing and saving throws. The first action my cleric took was to burn a daily power(Nimbus of Holy Shielding), which gave everyone a +2 bonus to all defenses until the end of the encounter. He even struck the killing blow to one of the jelly monsters (which then split into two more jelly monsters). I didn’t think that playing the cleric would be fun, but I was proven wrong.

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