25MAY11: So today there was a thread asking about party optimization and I thought, "What's my one and only guide, chopped liver?" Only in checking it for the first time in ages I discovered the s-blocks were all f-locked up. And in fixing that I saw things were a little dated, so ... a not quite revision today.
27OCT10: Given that langeweile was gracious enough to link to this guide in his own treatise on alpha striking, I finally feel compelled to update. The game has changed dramatically since my last update, and we’ve still yet to see the full impact of the Essentials line. (25MAY11: Still true!) Posts 4 through 133 will make very little sense given that they discuss many dead topics.
Opinions will differ strongly on what's the proper sequence of adding roles to the party. The advice here is solid and battle-tested, but certainly not writ in stone.
Every party design should hinge upon this point: What kind of campaign is this? The answer has a huge impact on two fundamental questions: First, what is the tipping point for alpha-striking in this campaign? And second, how important are skills and/or rituals for my party?
Though the CO board is filled with advocates of kill-them-before-they-can-blink tactics, the game designers are demonstrating with the Essentials line that they are among those who beg to differ. And alpha-striking does have two major drawbacks. First, it can make the game boring for the DM, and without the DM there is no game. Second, the more alpha-strike capacity in a party, the narrower the margin between yet another by-the-numbers 2-round slaughter of Team Monster and a TPK. Before designing a party that deals thousands of hits in the first two rounds, consider the nature of the campaign. Should it last for years with a heavy emphasis on roleplaying? Then pull way back on the alpha-striking. Is it a convention one-off? Then knock yourself out. Just keep in mind that the foremost example of real-life alpha-striking is the raid on Pearl Harbor, which was tactically brilliant but strategically foolish. The DM is at all times the sleeping giant.
Skills and rituals generally have an inverse relationship to alpha-striking. In a long-term roleplaying campaign, an optimized party will have an expert in every skill and at least one PC who can efficiently cast the more important rituals. (Assuming that the DM hasn’t abandoned rituals entirely in his campaign.) No convention one-off is going to hinge upon whether one of the PCs can overcome a nasty skill challenge featuring History and Dungeoneering …
This guide is heavily biased toward optimizing for a long-term campaign with heavy emphasis on roleplaying. Its goal is to help establish a well-rounded party that does not have fundamental weaknesses that the DM must be shrewd enough to recognize and charitable enough to avoid if a TPK isn’t his intent.
If every member of the party deals damage around a common keyword theme, this can have large synergistic effects. If you decide to go this route, then all of your following decisions need to be filtered through the needs of the keyword theme. As of now, only three keywords offer this sort of potential: cold, psychic, and radiant.
A cold-themed party intends to take advantage of “Frost Cheese” or “PermaFrost” via the Wintertouched and Lasting Frost feats. These builds tend to be very reliant on having the right gear, so this probably won’t work if the campaign embraces some form of the new item rarity rules. There aren’t enough top-shelf powers with the cold keyword, so building a gear-independent frost team probably will have more opportunity cost than it’s worth.
The psychic-themed party is a relatively new concept. It would be centered around an Ardent spamming 1-point Ire Strikes. Possibly only the striker would need specific gear (eg, Githyanki Silver weapons), making it less equipment-dependent and more damaging than the cold theme. Note that this party should be built around a basic attack rather than multiattack striker (see Rule 3) for two reasons. First, Ire Strike serves a big MBA best. Second, though the Ardent isn’t a premium leader, the Talaric Strategist PP allows him to fake it. As a level 16+ Strategist, he can grant three extra attacks to any teammates who take Agile Opportunist. Again, a big MBA benefits most from this.
The radiant-themed party, or “Radiant Mafia,” is the gold standard of exploding DPR via keyword synergy. Any character can take a divine MC (if necessary) and Pervasive Light and deal faux radiant damage, so gear dependence is very limited, though the two feats do represent a significant opportunity cost. The center of the party probably would be an Avenger or Chaladin with the Power of the Sun feat and/or the Morninglord PP (assuming it’s long overdue date with the nerfbat still has not arrived). The best combination probably is the Chaladin and a melee Ranger, which in turn tends to steer the leader to become a Warlord, because he needs to be able to perform both Rule 5 buffing functions on demand. (If the Chaladin hasn’t recently hit, granting him an extra MBA takes priority. If he has, buffing the Ranger becomes Job 1.)
A fourth, similar concept is the proning party, in which some members specialize in knocking down Team Monster and some specialize in doing extra damage to prone targets.
Keyword themes are a specialized approach to alpha-striking, trading some considerable straitjacketing of character designs for improved DPR. This decision goes hand in hand with that in Rule 1. If the DM isn’t fond of keyword-themed parties, it’s probably best to avoid the concept altogether.
An optimized party really does not need more than one striker per five members. Why? Because once the first striker enters play, then every leader added to the party becomes a de facto striker with extra, really useful functionality. The leaders do need that one striker, essentially to act as the weapon that they wield, but multiple leaders can share a single weapon.
This can be a difficult rule to enforce, because a lot of players really want to play a striker. Strikers get more spotlight time than any other role. But the only thing that a multiple-striker party can do better than a single-striker-backed-by-multiple-leaders party is alpha-strike. The multiple-leader party already can bring more than enough of this capacity to the table, so a striker-heavy party will tend to be much too much of a good thing. Meanwhile, it will sorely lack the extra endurance that a multiple leader party will possess.
Once you’ve sorted everyone out and determined who will have the privilege of playing the lone striker, you have to determine which sort of striker that will be. Truly optimal strikers come in two flavors: multiattackers (Rangers and various overwrought Half Elf builds) and monstrous basic attacks (Avenger, Rogue, Slayer, Thief). The Barbarian isn’t quite optimal at either approach, but is unique in being quite good at both.
Usually, the striker also must serve as the team scout. A truly optimized party has an optimized scout, built on Dexterity and Wisdom and possessing the Perception, Stealth, and Thievery skills. (The scout also needs Athletics, Acrobatics, or reliable means to emulate the functionality of those skills.) The bow Ranger, Scout, pursuit Avenger, and off-statted Thief all can fill this niche easily. The melee Ranger, Brutal Scoundrel, etc can come close enough in a pinch. While optimizing for DPR is top priority for the striker’s build, a modest investment in scouting functions is not just forgivable but advisable.
An optimized party will have one defender per five members. Every defender has its staunch advocates (and with the possible exception of the Fighter, its devoted critics). Probably, the best defender is the defender that fits the striker best.
For most melee strikers, the Fighter probably is best. He’s comfortable in flank and makes it very painful to swing at the striker. Rogues and parties with controllers and leaders who specialize in forced movement may prefer the Knight, here. Another notable exception is the pursuit Avenger, who has less need for CA and pairs best with a shielding Swordmage who runs away and forces the OoE victim to either chase him and trigger the Avenger’s damage buffs or swing futilely at the Avenger through the Swordmage’s aegis. The most tricky is the melee Ranger, who from paragon on prefers to be all by his lonesome next to the target with Prime Punisher/Called Shot triggered. A purpose-built Paladin with plenty of ranged encounter powers can fit in here, while a polearm-wielding Fighter will do the job best.
Ranged strikers often fit best with a different style of defender. Battleminds work well here, because they don’t necessarily need to mark a target first to break up its attack. A good Warden build can work even better, by indefinitely tying up multiple targets for as long as the bowman needs to do his job.
If the striker just isn’t a good fit as scout, then it’s worth considering a defender build that can fill the role. A Strength-Wisdom Fighter with enough Dexterity to qualify for Armor Specialization (Scale) also can fill in as a decent scout, lacking top-notch sneakiness but making up for it with excellent mobility via Athletics. (Keep in mind that, for this purpose, a character with superb Perception and modest Stealth generally is just as sneaky as a character with superb Stealth and modest Perception. If you can locate the enemy in difficult circumstances then they must locate you under the same penalties.) The main problem is that defenders don’t tend to have the proper class skills. The DM will need to allow a good skill-swapping background, or a multiclass feat will need to be invested, probably both.
Just like the defender, the leader should be matched to the striker. Optimal leaders generally do one of three things: buff a striker’s existing attack, grant him an extra basic attack, or heal fantastically. Rangers are mostly interested in buffs---they bring their own extra attacks to the party just fine---while all other strikers usually will get more benefit from extra attacks. (Except the Barbarian, who will gladly exploit anything that a leader gives him.) The Artificer has quality buffs, with the caveat that they are missing at some levels so a hybrid Artificer often outperforms a pure build. The Shaman, Ardent, and to a much lesser extent the Bard, can grant extra attacks. The Warlord does both well.
Healing is the Cleric’s forte. The Cleric doesn’t help a striker do his job all that much, but he does help the striker stay upright and do the job longer. If your party design already leans toward more nova potential than your DM may prefer, it may be prudent to slot in a Cleric rather than a more offensively minded leader. In particular, a Pacifist Cleric vastly increases party durability.
A special consideration here is whether the DM is a strong believer in getting in multiple encounters per “workday.” The game is designed around four encounters per day, but if an early encounter goes south and the party wants to lick its wounds, many DMs will find that prudent and just move along. Others will penalize the party, or find means to compel the PCs to carry on. In the latter case, the Artificer gains a great deal of value, because he has the unique ability to trade healing surges among party members, which in turn improves endurance. To remain optimized, this party should feature a Ranger or Barbarian, and in turn a defender suited to supporting that striker.
If the party still needs a scout, this probably isn’t the place to look. Leaders generally lack the attributes and the skills. A Shaman could use a background and a multiclass feat to gather the skills, then use Speak with Spirits to pump his rolls, but it wouldn’t be reliable.
Controllers are generally regarded as the most expendable role. Determining whether your party needs one can be an important decision.
Obviously, the number of opponents in an encounter slides from bucketsful (minions) to roughly 1:1 (standard monsters) to just one (an antisocial solo). There’s many intermediate encounters (minions with 1 or 2 standard monsters, a solo with a bit of support), but they still fit within this scale. Both monster lethality and vulnerability tend to be highest at each end of the scale. Minions can "machine-gun" a single character through sheer numbers but fall rapidly to area attacks. Solos are fairly lethal and have debuffs that lock down one or more PCs, while they themselves can be very vulnerable to lockdown tactics.
As party size increases, minions become more dangerous and solos less so; this is because each individual party member becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the party’s overall capacity to endure damage. For instance, let’s say a level-appropriate minion encounter can reasonably reduce party HP by 15% in a surprise round, and a level-appropriate solo can reasonably stun-lock one character. For a party of three, a character death doesn’t occur until the 33% threshold, so the minions have no chance but the solo can reduce party offense by 33% with a single roll. In a party of seven, character death occurs at roughly 14% of party HP lost, so the minions have killed a character but the solo is still facing 86% of the party.
It can be a little counterintuitive, but this means that larger parties need more and more area and multiple attacks; ruthlessly dealing with minions becomes a higher priority, not a lesser one. A party of four or fewer probably should not have a controller, though the other members will need area or multiple attacks to cover the minion-clearing function. A party of five probably should have one, and a second controller probably should be added if party size ever reaches eight.
In a keyword-themed party, it’s probably best to pick the class with the best array of powers sporting the proper keyword (generally, Wizards/Mages for cold, Invokers for radiant, and Psions for psychic). In a non-themed party, an orb Wizard or Mage probably will be best; if the DM plans on using rituals pick the former, otherwise the latter.
Still seeking a scout? The Hunter is a repurposed striker and excellent at that job. The Druid also is well worth considering. The latter will still need to jump through hoops to pick up Stealth and Thievery, but Wildshape is very handy for a scout. This is a particularly good choice for a party of four whose other members lack any area or multiple attack capacity, because the Druid isn’t a premium controller but can hang in melee better than most. (This also has a very nice real-life knock-on effect. One flaw in the game’s design is that strikers get the most attention in combat, while scouts get the most attention out of it. The same player doesn’t need all that love. Giving the controller’s player a little spotlight time between encounters is only a good thing.)
So far we’ve added a striker, defender, and leader to a party of three or fewer. For most parties, a controller would be the fifth member. That leaves one slot open for the fourth member of a four- or five-PC party.
Generally speaking, a second leader will add the most in this slot. Again, with a good striker in front of him a good leader does as much (or more) damage as a striker while adding healing and durability to the party.
At this point, however, it’s also prudent to begin thinking in terms of skill selection. Obviously, we’ve been trying to find a party scout for most of this process. Ideally, this character will cover the three Dexterity skills (Acrobatics, Stealth, Thievery) and at least one Wisdom skill (Perception), preferably more. Between the leaders and controllers, most parties already will have a high Intelligence character who should take all of Arcana, History, and Religion. The defender usually covers Athletics, and often Endurance. So, most parties at this point will need either a high-Charisma party “face” (invested in Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Streetwise) or a backup high-Wisdom character (to pick up any of Dungeoneering, Heal, Insight, or Nature that the scout lacks). If your party still needs both roles, then you probably ought to go back and rejigger your lineup. Again, we’re optimizing for a campaign experience, which goes well beyond just winning fights. We need to field the right man for the right skill challenge when that time comes.
Fortunately, a leader can fill either role easily, it’s just a matter of picking the right leader. A Bard makes an excellent party face, though the Ardent or BravuraLord are stiff competition for the role. For parties needing another Wisdom-based build, a Cleric would be a natural choice assuming that wasn’t the first pick, with Artificers and Shamans giving them a run for their money.
Note that each character in the party is expected to pick up every skill for his primary (and possibly secondary) attribute, with the exception of the two Wisdom-based characters who split the five Wisdom-based skills among them. This will tend to steer skill-optimized parties toward a Dex-Wis scout, one more Wisdom-based character, a single Charisma-based build, and a single Intelligence-based build. Often, a stumbling block for five-member parties is wanting to have two or more Intelligence-based builds (the controller and at least one leader). This tends to leave either Wisdom or Charisma skills uncovered by the party as a whole.
Those builds that have skill slots left over after covering their responsibilities should invest in the obvious choices: Perception, then Heal. In a campaign with strict item rarity and grittily realistic medieval terrain, Athletics should join this elite group.
Stealth is a special case. Every party needs a single scout, because knowledge is nearly as important as mad skillz when it comes to consistently winning fights, but most parties don’t need anyone else with the skill. That said, it would be perfectly valid to build a party around a “SEAL team” concept in the right campaign. If everyone can find a way to purchase both Stealth and a modest Dexterity, then a lot of fun tactics will open up for the group. In practice, this will be pretty hard to implement. There aren’t that many leader builds that can even pretend to be a Ninja Lite.
At this point you’ve essentially completed the first draft of the party. It’s time to proofread, and the first thing to look for is overreliance on melee or (much less commonly) ranged attacks. If no one in the party can attack an enemy 6 squares away, it’s time to start over, and ideally everyone in the party can contribute at least some form of attack up to 10 squares away. (All hail the mighty javelin.) Optimizing melee DPR is tempting, even addictive, but an alternate party that can bring 85% of the melee heat and 300% of the ranged heat will have a longer career.
Conversely, a party of ranged specialists better have someone who can stand tall in the thick of melee. Generally this isn’t an issue for any party with a defender. But it’s even better if the ranged characters have some sort of option for helping the meat shield clear a 25-by-25-foot gatehouse full of goblins. Sentinels who specialize in summoning and Shamans add a great deal of value to ranged parties, because their companions and summons can serve as shield walls.
A lot of builds will be centered around a particular paragon path, and that’s fine, but from the party optimization perspective the best paragon paths are those that benefit the party as a whole. Five PCs each benefiting from five powerful knock-on effects at level 16 are way ahead of five PCs each with a single slightly more powerful effect. Some of the best of the best include:
Battle Captain: The gold standard for buff-at-will optimization.
Battlefield Archer: If Battlefield Expertise applies to the whole party, this just adds win to win.
Divine Oracle: This still adds a huge party benefit (no surprise), even if it was a lot sexier on a Wizard before the Cleric=>Templar nerfs.
Flame of Hope: Adds strong leader buffs to a controller.
Guildmaster Thief: Two huge effects. AP redistribution is extremely powerful.
Hospitaler: De facto makes the entire party much tougher.
Moonstalker: Does for proning parties what Morninglord does for Radiant Mafias.
Morninglord: The straw that stirs the Radiant Mafia drink into a cheesy froth. May be considered setting and religion specific.
War Chanter: Listening to “Carmina Burana Carl Orff-O Fortuna” over and over again is a small price to pay.
So what have we missed? The original version of this post described 30 party functions, broken into three tiers of 10 each. They were sorely outdated, so let’s revise then review them to see if any are particularly lacking:
1. Nova/alpha-strikes [situational (see Rule 1), reduces need for healing, tends to synergy with multiple attacks or big basic attacks]
2. Marking/defender aura [more than one is good, inverse relationship to nova capacity]
3. Healer [more than one is good, decreases in importance as nova capacity increases]
4. Multitarget and/or AoE attacks [at least one is extremely handy to “acid test” for minions, larger parties need more and benefit more, to the extent that really large parties may be best optimized with nothing but AoE specialists]
5. Extra attacks and moves [less important for mobile ranged parties, big basic attacks add value]
6. Debuffs [more important for ranged parties, terrain-making can be a substitute]
8. Ranged attacks [gain in importance with party size]
9. NAD attacks (particularly vs Reflex and Will)
10. SoloLock [nerfed heavily, but an orb Wizard remains handy, larger parties can round-robin this function with stunning attacks]
1. Trapmaster [Thievery, ideally integrated with Sneak for a perfect scout, varies by DM fondness for traps]
2. Sneak [Stealth, ideally Perception and Thievery too]
3. Terrain-making [zones, etc, more useful in forced movement—heavy party]
4. Big basic attacks [adds value to extra attacks]
5. Single-target multiattacks [adds value to keyword themes]
6. Hawkeye [Perception, useful among all PCs]
7. Face [Diplomacy, ideally all 4 Charisma skills barring C5 being filled]
8. Synergys [spare resources dedicated to partywide benefits]
9. Uniques [detect chaotic evil, tiny shapeshift, etc]
10. Ritual caster [depends on DM, needs high Intelligence and ideally Wisdom]
1. Wall (tanking defender) [great in dungeons fronting ranged parties]
2. Companions (animal, spirit, etc) [great for smaller and/or ranged parties]
3. Lay healers [useful among all PCs, especially thanks to skill powers]
4. Athletics expert [varies dramatically with magic item rarity]
5. Intimidate expert [not necessarily the party face in this case, given there are Str-based builds]
6. Dungeoneering expert
7. Acrobat expert
8. Sprinter [generally more useful as partywide emphasis]
9. Endurance expert
10. History expert
See anything there you missed? Time to go back and refine your party dynamics. At this point, of course, you’ll have to rob Peter to pay Paul, so don’t expect to be able to do everything with any given standard-size party. However, a well-designed five-PC party can bring a respectable (if not outlandish) nova and fill 25+ of these functions without breaking a sweat.
Comments welcome, as always.