Advice for a party out of balance

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I'm leading a campaign where it was the first time any of us had played DND and the party has turned into a mess.  We recently lost player, our ranger, which leaves us with a half-elf wizard, deva a swordmage, and a human cleric. 
So the party is are highly arcane and divine, but they can't pick a lock to save their lives. They have massive amounts of history knowledge but can't perceive their way out of a paper bag. Basically they are limited in what they can do so they are getting a little board and they are stepping on each other's toes trying to outdo each other with the limited skills they have.

The party is leveling and they are all open to making some changes to balance things out, but there is only so much they can do without rolling up new characters. I'm wondering there anything I can do from the DM side to help?

Present challenges that speak more directly to their skills, and try to always have more than one thing going on at once. I like the obelisk sinking into the lava during a fight. It takes 4 standard action skill checks to interpret the writings on the obelisk, but it will be gone in two rounds. Meanwhile, it's 10 fire damage a round to stand close enough to read it, and the kobolds aren't about to let up. They'll be glad they have so many History experts on hand, and no one of them will be able to do it on their own. Etc.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Present challenges that speak more directly to their skills, and try to always have more than one thing going on at once. I like the obelisk sinking into the lava during a fight. It takes 4 standard action skill checks to interpret the writings on the obelisk, but it will be gone in two rounds. Meanwhile, it's 10 fire damage a round to stand close enough to read it, and the kobolds aren't about to let up. They'll be glad they have so many History experts on hand, and no one of them will be able to do it on their own. Etc.



I would second this. 


Always present opportunities for them to shine, it is ok to expose the flaws of a certain character or various shortcomings on occasion, but it is generally a bad idea to capitalize on the vulnerabilites of an entire group.  One helps to develope and define a character, the latter simply shows that the DM can one-up you.     


Sometimes it can be hard to draw the line between the two, especially in circumstances where the party is so similar.  A simple test can help though, if X would render the entire party Y (helpless, dead, incapacitated, etc) it is a bad idea, if X renders players A and B helpless but players C and D will still survive or be able to reverse X then it is ok.  Generally, just try to use good judgement.  


For example throwing a lot of dextrous poisonous creatures which do INT or WIS damage at the group is a recipe for disaster.  Low fortitude saves, touch based attacks, and the lethality of the ability damage would pretty much screw the group.  On the other hand, swarms of creatures that do Dex, Str  or even Con dmg would be more appropriate and still challenging.  This would require spell slot or spell point usage, likely in the form of valuable AoE spells, possibly hitting each other and possibly slightly lower their physical abilities hindering already weak scores.  It puts them at a disadvantage but isn't devastating in one fell swoop.
...and in the ancient voice of a million squirrels the begotten chittered "You have set upon yourselves a great and noble task, dare you step further, what say you! What say you!"
Thirded.

Part of a DM's job is coming up with appropriate challenges for the PCs he has.  If the PCs can't pick a lock to save their lives, make sure they don't have to.
If a door or chest is locked, someone is bound to have a key, right?  Maybe even multiple keys.  Or couldn't they bash it apart?  Burn down the door with magic?
If you mean traps, just use less of them.  The party should be able to figure out ways to get around them.  After all, if the dungeon has any monsters that are not trapped in the room, how do they not get hit?

Other than that, yeah, just pander to their existing skills.  If you still want something specific, maybe one of them wouldn't mind picking up skill training.
There is a long running joke that parties don't need a rogue, beyond "Log the trapfinder".

In general I don't like how DnD handles traps and the role that the Rogue is supposed to play.

But for your party, I suggest what I call "intelligence traps", things like you you have five levers on a wall and a riddle inscribed above it. Without a Rogue they will have to solve the riddle, either by being smart of by trial and error.

5e should strongly stay away from "I don't like it, so you can't have it either."

 

I once asked the question (in D&D 3.5) "Does a Druid4/Wizard3/ArcaneHierophant1 have Wildshape?". Jesse Decker and Andy Collins: Yes and the text is clear and can't be interpreted differently. Rich Redman and Ed Stark: No and the text is clear and can't be interpreted differently. Skip Williams: Lol, it's worded ambiguously and entirely not how I intended it. (Cust. Serv. Reference# 050815-000323)

Consider creating problems with no predetermined solutions. Don't think Lock = Thievery check. Or at least, don't consider that the only approach. Broaden your process when it comes to seeing which skills apply, based on the fiction the player gives you for how they want to deal with the complication. For example, a History check can open a lock, if the challenge is more about remembering how locks worked in the era this dungeon was constructed, and less about its mechanical complexity or the like. Another example - You can perceive a monster in an area because you have some knowledge of Religion and know the warning signs of stalking ghouls. One more - You can get on the goliath king's good side by chatting with him about his favorite sport (goat-ball) using Athletics. (If you make these checks, of course.) Thievery, Perception, and Diplomacy are all applicable to these examples as well, respectively. By broadening your idea of how skills apply in different situations, you will tend to see the players generate a lot of fiction to justify their use, establishing new details that add to the storytelling experience. This adds depth to the scene and over time to the campaign.

But consider this as well: Sometimes, actions just aren't skill checks. The group doesn't need an Athletics check to chop its way through thick forest. It just needs a machete and some time. But if time is of the essence and there's something at risk, then you ask for an Athletics check. Getting through that lock is immaterial given a few minutes to hang out and work on it. Getting through that lock before the sand fills the room and chokes everyone to death calls for a check. Just make sure that even if the PCs fail, that failure should be interesting in context. If the only failure condition you can think of is "nothing happens," it shouldn't have been a check in the first place.

Generally speaking, I follow the guidelines from Marvel Heroic RPG because it applies to 4e pretty well:

Roll the dice when…


  • You’re not sure if your hero will succeed or fail.

  • You want to try something that’s bold, challenging, or dangerous.

  • You want to oppose, challenge, or thwart another character.

  • You want to show off your hero’s super-powers or cool abilities.


Don’t roll the dice when…



  • The outcome isn’t an interesting part of the story.

  • There’s no risk, challenge, or threat involved.

  • The only outcome of either success or failure is that nothing happens.

  • There’s nothing or nobody to stop your hero from doing something.

  • The situation is outside your hero’s ability to change.

Ironically or not, I am faced with a similar situation in my 3.5e game.  The rogue is played by a woman who now has an infant to take care of and therefore can no longer play.  The damage dealing fighter moved out of state.  Luckily, we are getting a new player to back fill a little, but (based on conversations) chances are she will not exactly fill either role.

But I have two house rule modifications to the skills rules (in my 3.5e game) that mitigate a lot of the issues that would normally result from "missing" skills:

- at first level all skills are class skills: at first level all players can choose any skill for their character and from that point on that skill is treated as a class skill (one point per rank).  So you can have a highly knowledgeable fighter, or a sneaky cleric, or an athletic wizard.  If a player wants to take what would be considered a cross-class skill after first level the RAW applies (two points per rank).
- all skills can be performed untrained: just because you are not trained in the art of lock picking does not mean you cannot try to pick a lock; just because you are not trained in spellcraft does not mean you are completely ignorant as to what spell the NPC wizard just cast.

Another aspect of these houserules that I recently realized in a Pathfinder game I was playing in - use an untrained skill enough and you can become trained in it.  In the Pathfinder game, the party was traveling on a ship to an island.  During the journey, an NPC (the first mate) offered to teach anyone the art of seamanship.  In game mechanics terms, any PC or NPC willing to be taught would get the skill "profession: sailor" with up to three ranks in that skill (based on how much time you spent learning), without having to have the skill points to apply them to the skill...it is a free bonus skill.

The same thing can be applied to being "self-taught."  Yes the process will take longer, but as the DM, you can give players a chance to get free bonus skills.  For example, the locked treasure chest... The party tries to pick the lock and fails and eventually just busts the chest open, but the lock remains in tact.  maybe a player picks up that lock and each night tries to work it.  Given enough time, you the DM, could give that player character a free skill point in lock picking.  As a cross-class skill. he/she only has half a rank, but next level he/she can invest another skill point to get that one rank and now be fully trained in lock picking.

You just have to be careful to not allow your players to abuse that generosity.  You have to set parameters.  Like the character trying to learn (3e) lock picking - he has to invest in thieves' tools at the next available location (town) and work that lock he picked up every night for a month and while concentrating on that effort he has to take a penalty to his (3e) spot/listen or (4e) perception to detect anything (if applicable).

 

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Are you really "entitled to your opinion"?
RedSiegfried wrote:
The cool thing is, you don't even NEED a reason to say yes.  Just stop looking for a reason to say no.
Problems don't need to be about what they appear to be about, either. Maybe the negotiations with the king would be trivially easy, but a complex web of feuding bureaucrats keeps the players from him. If the players can unpick their historical disputations (which involves attending multiple simultaneous functions) they can trick the bureaucrats into getting them in front of the kind.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.