D&D Tips: Balancing Party Composition

“What class should I make?” is the most common question to come up when starting a new campaign, and not without reason. While Fifth Edition has done well to make each class versatile and able to meaningfully contribute to all pillars of gameplay, it is undeniable that some classes have innate advantages when it comes to certain roles. When a role in a party goes unfulfilled, it can lead to complications in encounters.

In this article, we’ll explore what the different party roles are and go over some considerations to keep in mind when aiming to fulfill a certain function.

A Note About Character Selection

Right off the bat, let’s be explicitly clear: the “right class” for you is always going to be one that you will enjoy playing. There’s no reason to make a character that you won’t enjoy running. This is a game; it’s meant to be fun.

That said, the game does generally run more smoothly when the party has a solid, versatile composition, which generally requires that the party members collectively fulfill a number of roles.

Party Roles

There are five principal roles that a balanced party will have in Fifth Edition: a Tank, a Support, a Carry, a Striker, and a Face. Some of these roles can be covered simultaneously by one character, others can have their absence made up for with strategic gameplay. There is no hard science to these roles, as each character and each party is going to be different. Some parties may be self-sufficient enough to not need a strong Support, others could have enough crowd control at their disposal to not need a Carry, and still others might have several people who love roleplaying and naturally fill the role of a Face.

When a party can meet all these roles, it makes the DM’s life much easier, especially in areas of encounter design. This allows for more versatile (and therefore interesting) challenges to be put before the party. This keeps gameplay fresh and exciting, making for a more entertaining session. Yes, a clever DM can overcome the challenges of occupying the interest of a more focused party, but they’re already working hard to come up with a compelling story for you, so cutting down the time they have to take to balance encounters to the party’s strengths and weaknesses will undoubtedly be greatly appreciated.

The Tank

By far the most commonly known party role is the tank. This is the person who runs straight into the enemies and tries to keep them away from everyone else, bearing the brunt of enemy attacks so that their allies can rain down punishment on their foes from relative safety. Common tanks include paladins, fighters, and barbarians.

Being a tank is far more than just having a large hit point pool and a high AC (though both of those things are important). To really excel in their role, a tank needs to have the ability to keep the attention of the enemies away from their friends. A Battlemaster (fighter) has several options in the form of manoeuvres that allow them to move themselves, their allies, or their enemies around the field more effectively. Likewise, paladins of the Vow of Enmity can be just as effective when the DM likes to include at least one ‘heavy hitter’ in an encounter who needs to be held up.

The question any person wanting to make a tank needs to ask is: “How can I keep my friends safe?” Once you figure out what class features are critical to this objective, you can figure out how best to ensure you can capitalize on them.

Sample Tank: Grog, the Goliath Barbarian

Fans of the livestreamed D&D show Critical Role may recognize Travis Willingham’s character from the series’ first campaign. Grog Strongjaw is a Berserker (barbarian), a towering force of destruction who throws himself into the midst of the enemies and focuses on doing too much damage to the meanest-looking foe to be ignored. He’s not interested in the weaker targets that are too squishy to possibly sate his bloodlust—those are better left to one of his friends who might be able to take out several of them at once.

The Support

Unlike in previous editions of D&D, where classes were less self-sufficient, Supports in Fifth Edition can be far more versatile than simple ambulatory hit point dispensers. In fact, preventing damage is far more effective than healing it, as the nature of healing mechanics in Fifth Edition is such that you will never out-heal the damage your enemies can dish out (hence why this role is not called ‘Healer’). Common supports include bards, clerics, and paladins.

Supports are, unfortunately, sometimes less exciting to play, as they focus more on helping their allies over hurting their enemies. Even when players take a class well-suited to the Support role, they often find themselves drawn to any opportunity to do some damage just for a change of pace. They are the most common kind of NPC tagalong a DM might make available to the party if they are struggling to survive even toned-down encounters, and the character type your DM secretly appreciates the most, as they can take off the kid gloves when selecting or designing enemies for your group to face.

Sample Support: Evelyn Marthain, Human Paladin

Played by Anna Prosser Robinson in the livestreamed D&D show Dice, Camera, Action, this paladin mixes the roles of support and tank, keeping close to her allies to ensure they benefit from her Aura of Protection while also sharing the party’s healing responsibilities with her companion, Strix, a Divine Soul sorcerer.

The Carry

Named because they are generally not as independent and have to be ‘carried’ (or, alternatively, because they ‘carry’ the party at mid- to high-level play), the Carry is usually the squishiest character who comes to gain the most powerful magical abilities. Able to blast scores of enemies, reshape the battlefield, and pose a serious threat to any enemy the party might face, a Carry is often the proverbial glass cannon. Common carries include wizards, sorcerers, and some druids.

A Carry doesn’t always have to focus on damage potential. Wizards who develop their crowd- and battlefield-control options can be even more effective at preventing damage to the party than even a Support, presenting a less common but just as valid blending of the two roles. That said, the allure of spells like fireball and cone of cold is difficult to ignore, and most Carries are content to put out as much damage as a typical siege engine while relying on their friends to keep enemies away.

Sample Carry: Caleb Widogast, Human Wizard

Yes, another example from Critical Role. Almost all our readers have watched at least some of it, so it’s a convenient reference. Besides, there are so many characters in each party that it isn’t hard to find a good example to refer to. Anyway, Caleb is a wizard with a penchant for fire. He summons walls of fire, throws fireballs, shoots scorching rays, and has even invented his own spell that sends out a web of target-seeking tendrils that erupt into smaller fireballs. Many of their victories at this point have relied on his contributions.

He also has the smallest health pool of the entire party, a full 24 hp below the Mighty Nein’s average at 11th level. Without his friends, Caleb wouldn’t stand a chance.

The Striker

The only role that deals more damage to any single target than the Carry, the Striker focuses on neutralizing the priority targets on the other side. If the enemies have a leader, healer, boomstick, or some other key individual, the party’s Striker makes it their mission to make sure they’re too busy fighting for their own life to be of help to anyone else. Rogues, rangers, and warlocks make excellent Strikers.

The ideal Striker has very high manoeuvrability and usually works as well in melee as at range. They focus on positioning themselves to take advantage of opportunities to do critical damage to the enemy, and generally act as a second line warrior—the hammer to the Tank’s anvil.

Sample Striker: Viari, Human Rogue

An intern at the multiversally acclaimed Acquisitions Incorporated pseudo-corporation (and also head of the Stabbing Department), Viari is a Thief (rogue) and partner in crime misadventure to Omin Dran and Jim Darkmagic in the Acquisitions Incorporated stories. Found more often swinging from a chandelier than on his own two feet, Viari flits around the battlefield ready to exploit any flaw in the enemies’ defences.

The Face

The role most likely to be relegated to whomever has the highest Charisma (usually the bard), the Face is the party’s frontperson when engaging the Roleplaying pillar of the game. In games where roleplaying is given a relatively fair share of any adventure, having a dedicated Face could be the difference between success or failure in fairly important objectives throughout a campaign. However, even in more combat-heavy campaigns, a Face can still leverage their skills creatively, such as by creating a distraction, discerning duplicity in the party’s contacts, or possibly offering leadership to their comrades when an appropriate course of action isn’t clear.

It is important to note that a party with a Face doesn’t have to let that person do all the talking or defer to their lead. They aren’t necessarily the decision maker for the group, they’re just better able to eloquently present the party’s interests, motivations, and solutions.

Sample Face: Omin Dran, Half-Elf Cleric

Founder of the eponymous adventuring organization of the Acquisitions Incorporated stories, Omin Dran is quick to take charge of any opportunity to negotiate (and thereby market his brand). Using his extensive knowledge of corporate language and policymaking, Omin has proven himself the superior of even a fiend of the Nine Hells in the fine art of negotiation (nobody was going to miss that clone of his best only friend anyway).

When Omin is not having truck with extraplanar fiends, he can still draw on his power as a war domain cleric to smash heads and take blows to advance the wealth and prestige of his organization.

Putting It All Together

While Fifth Edition D&D doesn’t expressly mention or engage party roles, the game mechanics and rules of the D&D universe—including the existence of magic and monsters—necessitates that any adventuring party possess certain abilities if they want to survive without extraordinary luck (or the DM’s munificence). These roles are not slots into which characters are pidgeon-holed—a character can easily occupy more than one role, depending on what abilities they develop, and can even transition roles as they gain levels and new powers. Furthermore, each role is a broad category, as multidimensional and nuanced as the adventurers who fulfill them.

The more roles are represented in a party and the more effective party members are in fulfilling them, the easier it is for the DM to design encounters, and the more interesting the adventures likely to be. For the best experience, try to make sure that whatever character you make, you and your party try to cover these five bases. And the next time someone asks what class they should make, ask them instead to think about what role they want to fulfill.

Do you have thoughts on party roles? Let us know in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “D&D Tips: Balancing Party Composition”

  1. Hence why they included the Face.
    When they said it’s needed to negotiate, that’s what they meant.

    1. Monks can make excellent strikers. They have maneuverability, an increasing ability to wade into dangerous situations without direct support, and great single-target combat abilities.

      I’m just now finishing up a campaign with a 20th level monk/rogue that is almost pure striker. Rogue is great for tons of damage added on via backstab, and the monk levels seriously augment things. They’re not great against waves of smaller enemies, but when there’s a primary baddie that needs taking down quickly, the monk/rogue is extremely efficient at it.

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