There are some things that, regardless of system or genre, are abilities which should always grease the wheels of campaign success. Of course, some campaigns will lack diversity and might be locked in very static play styles, but even in some of the most locked scenarios these key abilities will find a place, unless your Gamemaster has no imagination at all. While there are countless ways to roleplay, I suggest these four special abilities should be available in some way in the party, so much so that I think they are the starting points for creating the characters in the party.
Ask anyone in any special support services and they’ll all agree, knowing what you are facing is vital to mission success. How you gather the information will depend on the system, but includes things like Clairvoyance and a good thief in fantasy, through to drone riggers and hackers in Cyberpunk.
The purpose of information is the ability to make a decent plan. This helps avoid spells being wasted or at least used to best effect. It reduces the number of combats ask the scout can guide the team around. Tings like mind reading can also give vital information like passwords and the ability of key foes. Imagine having all the right protection spells cast before you even enter combat! Or just knowing which of the cabal of kobold shaman is the key leader whose death will demoralise the enemy.
Remember that good scouting often occurs on multiple levels. Take Shadowrun for instance, where you have the Net, the Astral, and then the physical protections. You objective is to leave as small a footprint as you can in run, so countering these three tiers of defence is vital. For D&D the tiers are more like traps, magical wards, and physical guards. Though both systems are on almost opposite ends of the spectrum they are remarkably similar in the obstetrical the PCs will face.
I cannot stress highly enough how undervalued this set of abilities are. Most bards only learn good social skills to chat up barmaids, but the skills can be worth so much more. Baked by good intel a social character can often just walk through the front door of a well guarded facility.
Social skills don’t need to be skills either, as a Charm Person makes an instant friend. My party in the Great D&D Play through often started each dungeon raid by isolating a denizen and let the elf charm them. They’d sit and talk about the dungeon for a while, just two friends having a chat, and the services of the charmed victim might be further used as a guide through a part of the dungeon.
Combat commonly uses up resources and wears the party down, while social skills usually cost nothing and can still ‘defeat’ encounters even though a blade was never drawn. Social skills also include things like Intimidation so even if a pleasant chat isn’t an option, intimidation usually is. D&D 3.x breaks the process into three potential interactions; Diplomacy = being nice, friendly an basically honest, Bluff = Lying for advantage, and Intimidate = being able to bully and demoralise your opponent. All options can reach similar ends.
In a recent gaming session the mostly evil party encountered some celestials which were considerably higher in power. The party sorceress proofed that her social skills were so high that she could stand face to face with a Celestial and just lie to her heart’c content. Yes, the celestial had the power to detect untruths but only a number of times a day, and as far as the Celestial was concerned, this person’s word left no reason to doubt anything.
The hardest thing about being the social person in your group is that you often suffer serious penalties, so it’s a dedicated path because you have to be not just good, but great at social things. TORG is a great system because it supports a lot of skills which, if done well enough, grants a level of control of their foes. Maxing out a skill like ‘taunt’ can suddenly turn a tough encounter into a walkover for the party. More in this later.
Controlling the Flow of Battle
The methods and ways you can alter the battlefield are legion. You might use spells to sculpt the battlefield, or use charms to have leaders misdirect troops. A hacker on the comms could easily use voice modulation software to give commands in the commander’s voice while muting his foe’s mic.
In a very recent encounter in my campaign the thief returned to report that there was a Drider commander in the next room, but he was high up a wall on a web. The party figured he was a sorceror as most of the other were, and the fact he was leading a very large group of slaves correctly indicated he must be powerful. Driders also have spell resistance and if coupled with Protection from missiles the party were fighting an uphill battle. They asked the wizard to fireball the web, figuring that would bypass the spell resistence, but the wizard had already spent all his spells in previous battles. The party entered to do the best they can, and while most of the party went in with missile weapons, one enchantress whispered into her sister’s eye and the sister just strode to the middle of the room with mace in hand and waited. The first spell the enchantress uses is one from the Draconomicon called Miser’s Envy. The spell simply makes someone desperately want a chosen thing. On the Drider’s next action it rushes off its web onto the floor where it grabs up a common hammer it feared would be stolen. It was now on the floor, and the fighters of the party (including the enchantresses sister) made short work of it. Put simply, the terrain around the target couldn’t be changed so the enchantress changed the location of the prey.
TORG is one the best systems for showing a true understanding of the value of control. They offer four skills, each attached to it’s own attribute so regardless of character build there should be a skill you can develop. On minor successes you can make opponents more vulnerable, but on a maximum result, you can more or less control that person’s next action within reason. What make this system great is it helps encourages players to take a more active part in the narrative, so it feels like everyone at the table to helping to build the story.
You really have to think outside the box and ask the GM a lot of questions, but if you think the environment isn’t to your advantage, then look for ways to change it. It’s something you have to actively search for, and maybe bring the right supplies. A dud grenade can be used a lot more times than a real grenade but if you chase guards from cover, both can work as well as the other.
When all is said and done there is one trick that pretty much always works well, and that’s a good hard punch to the face. Poke fun at the meatheads if you want, but if the thief fails to pick the lock then the barbarian should be able to kick the door in on the first attempt, thus limiting preparation time for bad guys.
Well built devoted muscle heads are the heart of a party, and they’ll often receive the glory at the end of the day. A well built fighter will usually out-damage a wizard, and if the two work together the output increases exponentially. Prolonged fights are rarely a good thing in any system, and a long fight will draw in more combatants, and in the vast majority of cases the new fighters won’t be on the PC’s side. Brutal and fast is best.
Unless the party has many semi-fighters, the prime fighter should always just be a fighter, not diluting their class overmuch. So if you are a Shadowrun Street Samurai, then it’s fine to have skills in Biotech, but ultimately your skill points need to be spend on really hurting people well. Don’t be afraid to play the min/max game a little with the party thug, he dosn’t have a lot of special stuff going for him so at least let him do the one thing he does well.
I absolutely do not agree with the common concept that fighter is the class for new players. Fighter needs experience in order to know how to do their job well. Also, new players only get to roll a die to hit while everyone else gets to do lots of seemingly cool things while they just have a stick. Give a new player something that fits their personality and where they really feel they are supporting others, such as a cleric, where they can fight and support others. Just please don’t force them into a healing only role.