I love building characters and leveling them up. Doesn’t everyone really? 🙂 Pouring over new class abilities, feats, and spell selections in anticipation of your next level is a great way to keep playing between sessions. How cool would it be if, in addition to players leveling up their characters, the whole group had the opportunity to level up as a party? After all, this band of adventurers is spending a lot of time together. What does it look like as they learn about each other’s talents and start finding synergies that work well? Would it be possible to find new elements of play that compliment individual character journeys while emphasizing the team dynamic?
Where is the Party?
The D&D party is one of the defining characteristics of the game. The interplay between players and their characters is at the heart of role-playing, exploration, and combat at the table. Some of the game’s subsystems, like encounter planning, use the party in the underlying math of the game. And yet the only mechanical reference I’ve seen in D&D 5e to the adventuring party itself appears in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything in the form of Group Patrons. It’s a cool idea, but I think that the adventuring party deserves more!
Blades in the Dark formalizes the crew with mechanics of its own. I’m sure that there are other RPGs that do something similar. As I was writing my last post about Party Factions I realized that there was one major faction in the game that I wasn’t accounting for – the party itself! Now I’m wondering if the adventuring party should be its own game mechanic that looks a bit like a faction but is controlled by the players themselves.
The Adventuring Party
I would introduce the idea of the adventuring party during a session zero meeting. Ask the players how their group come together or if they are just meeting for the first time. How does the campaign world view this newly formed company of adventurers?
- Are you a ragtag band of kids trying to survive on the streets of the city?
- A band of brothers caught in the middle of a war?
- Long-time friends displaced from home by a cataclysmic event?
- Or maybe you are treasure hunters or mercenaries always looking for the next job.
Whatever it might be, the inspiration for the party is a statement about the type of game the players want to play just as the setting itself often reflects what type of game the DM wants to play. Obviously, it is best to align your party concept with the concept for the campaign overall.
The Party Sheet
The party sheet is much simpler than your character sheets but the intent is the same: capture the characteristics of the party that might be important to the game. I suggest that it has three sections:
- Party background is a description of who the group of adventurers is in the world. Just like character backgrounds, we briefly describe where the group comes from and any characteristics they may have as a result of that experience.
- Party reputation is a place to track their reputation score with the various factions in the world. See my article on party factions for more on that.
- Party features are special traits and abilities that the party has while working together. These are similar to class features that each individual character has, but accessible to every member of the party. It is through party features that we can introduce the idea of the party growing as a team.
When your characters level up, so should the party. But what exactly happens when the party levels up? Where is the list of features, spells, and feats that we can pour over in between sessions?
Rather than introducing a whole new set of party stats or attributes, I propose that the players select a new party feature every time they level up their characters. The list of party features is created by the DM at the beginning of the campaign (ideally, with input from the players during session zero) and has more options than the players will be able to choose over the course of the campaign. If the party may get to level 20, I might start with 30 features to choose from. Every time the party unlocks a new feature on the list, the players should feel like they are reaping the rewards of working as a team.
NOTE: You might want to have the party advance more slowly by leveling only on odd character levels or even every 4 or 5 character levels.
Of course, there is some work that goes into creating a list of party features in the first place. I think it would be important to share the list with the players very early on in the campaign. That way they can look ahead and see how each choice they make might open up additional options down the road.
Some party features will have prerequisites that serve as gates for more powerful features in the list. Some might be selected more than once, getting more interesting and more powerful as the players gain more experience together. There might also be room on the list for a few secret party features that the DM only reveals to the players when certain events unfold in the campaign. If you combine this post with my post on factions you might find ways to integrate the party’s reputation as prerequisites for some party features.
To be inclusive of a wide variety play styles I recommend organizing the list of party features around the three pillars of D&D: role-playing, exploration, and combat. A group of true murder-hobos may invest heavily in only combat features while a more balanced group of role-players might choose party features from all three categories. Here are a bunch of generic adventuring party features that my friends and I came up with. Use them or create your own that are more specific to your campaign and party background.
- You go first. At the beginning of each encounter any two party members can swap their initiative positions.
- The one-two punch. Once per short rest, when two members of the party start a round flanking an enemy creature, the can both take their turn before the flanked enemy’s turn that round.
- Look over here. Coordinated attacks confuse and overwhelm the enemy. Once per short rest, any party member can use the Help action as a bonus action. Each time you select this feature you get one additional use of the feature between short rests.
- Eye in the Sky. When two party members are within 10 feet of each other and at least 30 feet from an enemy, one can use a spyglass and their Help action to range targets for the other wielding a ranged weapon. The next attack made with that weapon is made at advantage and ignores the effects of long-range and partial cover.
- Martial magic conduit. Once per short rest, any spellcaster in the party that uses a spell attack can choose to target a melee weapon or piece of ammunition being held by another party member instead of a creature. The spell attack automatically hits. If the wielder of the targeted item hits an enemy with an attack with that item before the spellcaster’s next turn, the attack does both the normal weapon damage as well as any damage or effect from the spell.
- Not getting through. When two or more party members are standing no more than their maximum reach apart the empty squares between them are impassable by enemies.
- This guy is going down. Any party member can use 5 feet of movement to drop to their hands and knees behind a large or smaller humanoid creature. If another party member who is flanking the creature uses the Shove action against them before the creature’s next turn, the creature is automatically pushed to the square on the opposite side of the ally on their hands and knees. The creature is knocked prone and automatically fails any saving throw to catch themselves.
- Incoming! Once per short rest, at any time during any party member’s turn, every other party member can use their reaction to move 5 feet. If you select this feature a second time party members can move up to half of their normal walking speed.
- A force to be reckoned with. When the majority of the party is present and conscious and combat swings in their favor (see below), all enemies within 60 feet of a fallen enemy must make a Wisdom saving throw or become frightened of the party for 1 minute. Scenarios where this can be applied include (1) when an obvious enemy leader is defeated, (2) when more than half of all enemies have been defeated, or (3) when the party defeats more enemies than there are members of the party in the first round of combat.
- Party critical. prerequisite: the party must already have the ‘A force to be reckoned with’ feature. When any member of the party scores a critical hit against an enemy creature the momentum of the battle begins to swing in the party’s direction. Each member of the party can score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20 for the rest of the encounter or until a member of the party rolls a natural 1 or an enemy scores a critical hit.
- Minor Help. prerequisite: the party must already have the ‘Look over here’ feature. Party members can use a bonus action to distract a creature within their reach. If another party member attacks that creature before your next turn, the first attack roll gets a +2 bonus to hit. Characters that have the Extra Attack feature can substitute this ability for one of their attacks (but cannot also use their bonus action in this way during that turn).
Role-Playing / Social
- Good guard / Bad guard. Once per long-rest, when two members of the party are engaged in a discussion alone with a single NPC that requires a Persuasion check, one character plays the good cop (Persuasion) while the other plays the bad cop (Intimidation). The highest of their two rolls is used against the NPC’s Insight to determine success.
- Name drop. The party is always keeping an ear out for hints as to the power structure of local communities. Once per long-rest, if the party has spent at least 1 hour in a community of humanoids, any member of the party can use the name of one of the community members to influence an NPC interaction.
- Cause a distraction. Once per week, any member of the party can spend one hour prepping a distraction that will attract the attention of a group of NPCs. Through a series of simple signals and timing, the party can coordinate the distraction from up to 1,000 feet away. The attempt automatically succeeds.
- Watch my back. Countless hours in taverns and inns keeps you on your toes. When at least two members of the party can see each other in a public space, they cannot be surprised and have ADV on ability checks for Perception.
- Without saying a word. Members of the party can communicate with each other without making a sound as long as their fingers are free and visible. Each time the party selects this feature they learn three non-verbal signals to represent a phrase, command, or warning.
- Social Reconnaissance. When the party spends at least 6 hours split up in a humanoid community they will reliably learn key power players, threats, and at least one secret that most outsiders would never know.
- Best inn class. When the party spends at least 1 hour in a humanoid community they can reliably identify a place to stay for the night that best meets of the following requirements: safest, most discreet, best reputation, most dangerous, or loosest lips.
- Search the room. When the majority of the party spends 10 minutes turning over a room they automatically succeed any Investigation check to spot interesting items or characteristics of the room. They have advantage on ability checks for Perception to spot and avoid traps.
- Loot the bodies. When the majority of the party is present and conscious at the end of a combat encounter, the party automatically finds any valuable or interesting items on the bodies of their slain adversaries. Additionally, they automatically spot any indications that their foes may have a nearby lair.
- Standard door procedure. When the majority of the party is present at a closed door they have advantage on checks to surprise creatures on the other side of the door when it is opened. Party members must use their first action after opening the door in a prescribed manner determined when this party features is unlocked.
- Expert climbers. When two or more party members attempt to climb a wall each rolls an ability check for every 10 feet climbed and the highest roll is used to determine the group’s progress. On a failure the party encounters a portion of wall that they cannot pass (but they do not fall).
- Toss. Party members with above party average Strength scores can use an action to give a boost to any party member that weighs less than they do. The booster’s Strength score is added to the boosted’s jump distance when they move through the first character’s space on their next turn.
- Synchronized Skills. Any two party members can both use the same Strength, Constitution or Dexterity ability check during consecutive turns of a skill challenge.
- Overnight Watch. When the majority of the party is taking a long rest, they can take watch in a prescribed manner determined when this party feature is unlocked. When they do so, they have advantage on checks to avoid being surprised.
- Overland Travel. Gain one of the following benefits when the majority of the party is traveling together each time you choose this party feature:
- Navigation. The party cannot get lost as long as no external force is actively trying to take you off course.
- Ease of passage. The party can travel through wilderness at the same speed as they can travel a well-maintained road.
- Stealth. When the party is attempting to travel without attracting attention, use the highest ability check roll for Stealth among the party instead of a group skill check.
- Supplies Scavenger. When the majority of the party travels together you can scavenge for supplies on the go. You are automatically able to find food and water each day to sustain the party.
- Helping Hand. prerequisite: the party must already have the ‘synchronized skills’ feature. Once per long rest, when the majority of the party is engaged in a skill challenge, any party member can use their action to assist another. Both players roll the same ability check and the highest roll is used to determine success.
This is one of the bigger-in-scope ideas I’ve presented here and I am sure that it is not perfect. I’d love to get your feedback and I might revisit this subject next time I start a new campaign. In the meantime…
Have fun out there.