Is D&D Built For Team Play?

Really, this can apply to a bunch of different games, but let’s focus on the granddaddy for now. Is D&D mechanically built for team play?

You roll initiative as an individual and play out a series of rounds with individual turns. Not all classes are built to provide benefits to characters other than themselves (for example, the Rogue is all about themselves and doesn’t have a single class ability that helps someone else) and the only means to mechanically help someone is to sacrifice your actions to give someone else a boost. For example, you can provide advantage on a skill check but then that’s your action for that round. You don’t roll dice to contribute, you just say you’re helping… and that’s it.

Narratively, however, the game is about a party of adventurers banding together to thwart evil. Aside from some class abilities, the mechanics don’t seem to match the intent of the game as written. Players have to actively make that happen by the choices they make at the table.

Now, if you ran your D&D game like you’re mercenaries rather than heroes who are struggling the work together and need to forge that cooperation over time, the mechanics start to line up better. But that’s a kind of hack, not exactly as written.

This is my theory and it’s very likely biased from my own experiences. So I’m curious to get others takes on this. Do you think D&D is mechanically built as a team game or as a group of individuals working together? And does it matter?

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Wut? You’re talking mechanics, right? Couldn’t disagree more - but maybe you’re hung up on some semantic point I’m not getting.

No class is an island. During character gen, don’t your players always ask “Who’s our Healer?” “How many Tanks we got?” Some classes DO buff. Some classes DO heal. Some classes DO strike. Some classes control the battlefield for everyone.

“The rogue is all about themselves”? Wut? How is taking an enemy out in the first round before the enemy is alerted not a team action (reducing the enemy threat quickly, increasing the probability of surrender/defeat?)

Inspiration can be used BY anyone ON anyone. My players do it ALL the time.

Also, why isn’t “sacrificing an action to give someone a boost” considered team play? Isn’t it the very definition of team play?

Please forgive if I’m not understanding your point. Could you suggest alternate mechanics that would be more in line with what you mean by “team play”?

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I agree with @OldSchoolDM. A group of adventurers or an infantry fire squad will really only succeed if they work together. I really don’t think its the rules @Warden. A better question might be, “Are My Players Built For Team Play?”

Semper Fidelis
HOOS

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If a single rogue takes out the Big Bad in the first round, that doesn’t count as a team action because it only required one person to do it. It benefits the team, yes, but it’s a solitary deed. And that’s an action chosen by the player based on the narrative situation presented by the adventure. That’s like saying driving a car is a team action because the passengers are also in the car.

Also not doing something on your turn so that someone else can do the rolling for you benefits the other character. Does it end up benefitting the team? Yes, but not because of the team. If you were watching a video feed of a game in action without any sound, would you be able to tell a player is aiding someone or holding their initiative or outright skipping their turn. The sequence required to do either is the same - say it and then do nothing. No dice touched, no check mark on a character sheet, nothing.

A helping character simply gets the satisfaction of knowing they helped. If the helping player got to roll WITH the other players, then sure but that’s a houserule because that’s not as written in the rules. Can Inspiration be awarded for it? Sure, but that’s discretionary. Once again, not rules as written.

Each individual accomplishment goes toward helping the group but there’s nothing in the game that actually has the group rolling together unless they’re making saving throws from a breath weapon attack or something.

So let’s try some possible example of a team actions in D&D. Perhaps flanking is instead allowing the second character who is flanking to attack immediately after the first character’s attack. It’s a tag team that can allow 2 attacks in a single enemy without coping with your initiative results. Or the party makes a single initiative roll and can act as freely as they like within their turn until someone fails a roll or all party members have had a turn. Or having party XP where you gain bonuses for certain party-based actions, like the fighter using their reaction to deflect an attack against a nearby ally.

How about the fact that the characters never gain team benefits as they go up in level? Each individual gets stuff they can apply to help the party meet their goals but they don’t get better as a team. All that practice, combat, and time on the road does nothing. If a PC dies, a random character could show up and the group would not skip a beat. It’s only a narrative difference if the groups wants to go with that approach (and yet how many of us have rolled Insight against every NPC to see if we can trust them but gave a big ole hug to this one stranger who just happens to be the new PC… but that’s another discussion).

I’d say the only way D&D is built for teams is in encounter design. It’s carefully crafted to assume these monsters will endure for a certain number of rounds assuming a party of 3-4 characters of X level. It we, as the players, who make this a team event via the narrative we create.

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I think I’m missing something. I guess my definition of “team” is pretty in line with “group of individuals working together.”

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I have to admit, I’m with Todd on this one.

If you hold up D&D against a game like Savage Worlds, D&D feels like an exercise in individuality that just happens to be performed next to other individuals. The vast majority of mechanical advantages are individual in orientation. Each PC has their role and (mechanically) they really can’t stray far from that no matter how creative the player is.

A game like Savage Worlds is built around the concept of team.

Just a couple of examples:

  • combat has the gang up bonus. For every ally next to the target you are attacking, you get a +1 bonus to hit (max +4). They just need to be next to the target, no need for directly opposite.

  • checks like taunting, intimidating and tricks provide bonuses that can be leveraged by other PCs.

  • the dramatic task rules are employed when the outcome of the task could result in catastrophe for all, and it is designed so that the PCs collaborative efforts affect the outcome.

  • PCs can assist other PCs with a task, even if the skill they use is not the the one being employed for the task. Example:

The party is being chased by soldiers on horse back. The fighter is driving a horse and cart through a busy city street and her fellow PCs, except the elven rogue, is on the cart as well. The rogue is running along the roof tops along side.

The fighter needs to make a driving check to avoid crashing and, if the roll is a success with a raise, put more distance between the pursuers and the party.

Due to the amount of things and people on the road, the chance that the fighter will succeed is greatly reduced, however … our other PCs are not helpless bystanders here, at least not in Savage Worlds.

The bard uses his performance skill to yell at the people ahead in an attempt to convince those ahead to get out of the way. For every success rolled, out fighter gets +1 to their driving roll.

The wizard declares that they know this area of town well and will make a common knowledge roll to tell the fighter exactly when to turn down an upcoming side road. Every success adds +1 to the fighters driving roll.

The Cleric, follows the lead of the wizard and declares, she will move to the side of the cart it will be turning and lean out, counterbalancing with her weight so that the cart does not tip. Every success rolled on the clerics athletics check, adds +1 to the driving roll.

The rogue on the roof top declares, that they will fire an arrow at the pen gate holding the pigs up for sale, just after the heroes cart passes it, sending startled pigs into the path of the pursuers. For every success rolled on his shooting roll … you get the idea.

You could potentially house rule all that to happen in D&D, but the above is rules as written in Savage Worlds.

D&D is mechanically ridged and rules as written is far more focused on the individual actions over collaborative ones. Collaborative comes from the narrative of choices made, not from the mechanics in the vast majority of play.

Other games are built the other way around, especially more modern ones, but even then, what Todd has suggested is (IMHO) the norm for many systems.

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What Todd is presenting here is that while the game involves a team, the team work is facilitated by the narrative more so (and I would argue even in opposition to at times) the rules as written.

The rules themselves are not focused on group play as the advantage.

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“Collaborative” is a far better term for this, yes. Thanks, @Pure_Mongrel

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I will add that I am not saying D&D is a bad game because of this. (I don’t believe Todd is either) It is what it is and people love it.

It is not my go to game for this reason however as I enjoy games where the party dynamic, and collaborative creativity, has more mechanical impact on the game.

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I think this is an interesting exploration of rules and how they are implemented. Especially looking at 5e, I do think D&D has team mechanics, but I also think D&D, as expressed doesn’t always make those team options transparent.

Some of this is legacy presentation issues, and some of this is a legacy play culture issue. You can enjoy the game as written, and play with legacy assumptions, and you aren’t “doing it wrong.” However, it does make some of the advances in the rules less transparent.

From the beginning, clerics have been a “collaborative” class, but because a lot of that collaborative gameplay was loaded to a particular class, this became almost a trope, casting clerics as something someone “has” to play. Specifically, clerics healed, removed conditions, and reversed death at higher levels.

  • Fighters, Rangers, Barbarians, and Paladins have traditionally been “loners.” They do damage, and the only thing they need from the rest of the team is for them to remove conditions or give them hit points. 4th edition actually made Fighters and Paladins more team players as defenders, as part of their job was to get the attention of opponents and keep those opponents focused on the Fighter or Paladin. The Battlemaster fighter retains some teamwork elements into 5th edition. Rangers and paladins can heal and remove conditions, but neither one is as efficient as a cleric at doing so.
  • Rogues went from a very solitary focused class, one that was most effective if it snuck up on someone and stabbed them, then GTFO, to a class that “follows up” with extra damage dice when they attack someone being attacked by an ally.
  • Druids and Wizards are in a similar position, because both classes have a wide variety of spells that can shift from direct damage, area damage, boosting allies, or locking down opponents. Boosting allies and locking down opponents are very much a teamwork oriented tasks, but because they have so many options, neither HAS to be a team player.
  • Bards are a class that has changed a lot. 1st edition bards . . . are hard to analyze. 2nd edition bards have some general “help others” and “know useful things” abilities, but they also had a wide open spell selection, putting them in the same category as wizards and druids. Current bards in 5e have abilities to grant benefits, and many of their spells do damage and inflict a condition, or lock down opponents, which again is a good team activity.

So what does D&D do to “hide” the teamwork options or to make things feel more “individual” than “team” focused?

  • First off, this is more of a play culture thing, but I’ve seen so many people that will do almost no damage and have little chance of hitting, but they will try instead of aiding an ally and boosting their ability
  • In earlier editions, the fact that you “could” boost or assist others was contingent on using your limited resources to pick those options over options that allowed you to do things directly. This also meant you have had to trust your allies to use your resources better than you.
  • In the current edition, all of the “helper” options are spread out between choices of spells, subclasses, and other variable class abilities.
  • 4e had a stronger team aspect, but it also introduced the idea that many team options could be triggered with a minor action, allowing a character to still have “their own fun.” This lives on with a lot of bonus action abilities in 5e.

So I think its less that D&D doesn’t have team options, or that it always has to be about individuals being heroic separately, but because there isn’t a lot of discussion on the “right” way to coordinate actions (any given option is presented more or less and neutral and just as good as any other), and because its possible for people to take “self focused” abilities and still manage to be successful.

What would be interesting in light of this would be if each class expressly had a bonus action ability that specifically made things better for another team member, so that it is always important for a character to set up someone else with a bonus ability that would help chain the group’s actions together.

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Huscarl & Old School have it surrounded.

D&D as a game is designed to be a “work together to overcome a problem”. You don’t go solo into the dungeons - you bring a team of specialists.

You don’t need a mechanical advantage in game to work as a team - In fact groups that try to show how cool each of their individual PC’s are seem to get TPK’d more that the groups that try to support one another.

Flanking, fighter’s forming a wall to protect the mages, clerics turning undead or cast bless/heal spells on the party - the rogue removing traps or sneaking around for a surprise strike on the enemy spellcasters - the wizards dropping the baddies that have bunched up on the fighters.
Real teamwork does not require a “mechanic” built in that grants a bonus to another class (though a good chunk of cleric/wizard spells are designed to do just that from OD&D through to 5E).

This is a PLAYER ATTITUDE issue - not a problem with the game. The problem you have is with player attitudes - they all want to be “Wolverine” or “Batman” - no one wants to be a part of the team.
You’ll know that when you hear “Ugghh, I guess I’ll play a cleric seeing as we don’t have one yet”

Grrrr. This one made me grumpy
I’m just going to go sit and curse into my grognard November beard about kids these days…

Rory

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I see what you are saying, and even agree with you, but I feel it does not counter what Todd is talking about.

Using the lone wolf / selfish play example, I would argue that the rules (which is what Todd is taking about) provides limited incentive for players to work collaboratively.

Players will decide amongst themselves how to control ground and keep squishy PCs safe, and yes, done as teamwork this increases the chances of survival in combat. This can not be argued.

However, beyond being within the radius of a bard songs or other spell effect, what mechanical advantages can players leverage? What about outside of combat?

Every table is different, so we are all coming at this from our own viewpoints.

I come at this discussion from the experience that games (like Savage Worlds) that mechanically promotes collaboration and team leveraging play, over other games (like D&D) that are mechanically focused on what individual characters can do, are more likely to dissuade selfish play and promote team play.

I would also go as far as to argue that D&D, mechanically, needs min maxing the character for achieving success in game. Games like SWADE is mechanically based on min maxing the in game situation to achieve success and has far more flexibility when applying character abilities in a party setup.

This alone would seem to give a lot of merit to Todd’s assertion.

It must be stated that this does not make SWADE a better game than D&D when it comes to fantasy RPG. It is for me as the GM and my style, but I can’t, nor won’t, argue that it makes it a better game.

D&D is richer in the genre it was built for and has many more proprietary rules for Fantasy. SWADE is a universal system. If Fantasy was all I played, D&D would still likely not be my go to system, but it would be a close second. Right now for instance I am looking at Pathfinder 2E as it’s character creation system “feels” better than the D&D one. Does this make PF 2e better? It might for me, only time will tell, but that will never negate that D&D will be the better system for many.

Focusing only on the assertion made by Todd, “do the rule mechanics promote team play?” I would have to be in that camp that says “mechanically” D&D does not.

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4e was definitely far more collaborative because of the roles, power options, etc. You could build it into your character as much or as little as you wanted.

4e does bring up the biggest issue lying at the bottom of this pool of water. It was considered an unpopular edition because it made some drastic changes that didn’t feel like D&D or tried too hard to make an MMO, however you wish to look at it. The changes were too much from some of its original mechanical principles. In that way, it may be impossible to successfully incorporate these kinds of changes to D&D because, when it comes down to it, the audience determines if it’s a good Edition based on its familiarity to previous ones while changing just enough to make it unique and yet similar.

3e was able to do it when they converted D&D from THAC0 to d20+skill rolls. But they had to keep other things very close to home, hence why we have Difficulty Class to work with Armor Class because that name change alone could have been too much of a change. It’s a very delicate balancing act.

So back to the initial conversation…

Do you think you could take your character and do just as well alone if the dungeon was custom made for only one PC? Or would you be weaker because you depend on your allies to do as good as you do?

I bring all this up because I’m fascinated with the application and interpretation of mechanics, which is not always the same. It’s like how we all missed that Monopoly was designed as a game to warn us about capitalism but was packaged to embrace it. Hence my theory that D&D isn’t built to encourage collaborative actions but it’s played this way.

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D&D is built to sell books. :wink:

Any game not on itch.io is meant to sell books. Editions are like movie sequels - you’d think they’d be a sure thing but some of them were just awful. It’s a careful balancing act. I have so many changes I want to make to one of my first games that it doesn’t even feel right to call it a new edition; it feels more like a new game.

Converting D&D to a mechanically collaborative version really just comes down to class ability redesigns. Otherwise you risk too many core changes to the original material that it breaks a kind of suspension of reality we have about our favourite games. Changing the classes, however, is as old as the hobby itself.

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Yeah, that’s why I was saying I think it would be kind of interesting to give classes a few bonus actions that enhance other party members in a way that is thematic for that class, and see how that second tier of interaction would change the playstyle.

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I don’t think a solo D&D romp would work, for one basic reason in 5e. While 5e isn’t as lethal for characters as 1st or even 2nd edition, being alone and dropping to zero means you are likely to die, even if the thing you were fighting is almost finished off.

Having even one companion that can cover your back and stabilize you when you drop to zero dramatically increases survivability.

Of course, level of lethality and the idea that your primary fail state is dying is another legacy of D&D’s past. There is, for example, “concession” conditions you can take to take you out of the fight without killing you, like fate or the AGE variant used in The Expanse.

I would actually really like a condition system that allowed for penalties that don’t amount to a death spiral, that would give an alternate, story based resolution for defeat. It would be interesting to design a “concession condition” that actually made it easier to flee danger, but harder to engage in fights, so the mechanics match the mood.

But I’m drifting a bit off topic at this point.

It may be worth noting that Gygax liked books like Howard’s Conan and Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser, which were large parties working together, but featured one or two heroes. The size of D&D parties seems to be more a byproduct of the idea of “naming” the individual members of a small skirmish unit from a war game.

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Another reminder of a system I use that I find heavily encourages team play in my groups:

I still don’t get why some folks here might say this would encourage so-called Selfish Play… But, in practice it has encouraged team decisions about what rolls are most important to the group in real time.

I don’t play other RPGs, and so don’t have a comparitive frame of reference by using other games’ rules. And I won’t participate in a XYZ is better than D&D fight.

When I say I think D&D’s rules encourage team play, that’s because this has always been my experience since 1977. Mechanics, GM advice, house rules, and training up players over time.

I’m not saying that there aren’t selfish ways to play! Just that, in my games, that isn’t conducive to ongoing participation in my game. Mechanics have very little to do with it. :slight_smile:

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We actually have something like that coming out in our next issue of The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game: The Zine. A few story-based options for avoiding death. If you’re not a backer, I can try and remember to send you a copy.

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I like your token system @OldSchoolDM and have heard a few DMs using something like this, particularly rewarding players for helping clean & set up. The teacher’s pet award, as a friend calls it.

My intent is not to rip into anyone’s happy fun time, far from it. I still have a love for D&D, even if I have a hard time with it from a design standpoint. I publish a zine that merges 5e with indie game mechanics and ideas and have always dabbled with D&D third-party supplements for almost 15 years, even in the 4e days where the GSL pushed away many other publishers. Hell, I was even lucky enough to have an article published in Dragon Magazine back in 2001. D&D has been a massive influence in my design principles and philosophy… but it does come with an origin story.

Back in 2010, I was involved in a nasty car accident and was in a wheelchair for a few months. Because of where I lived compared to the other players in my D&D game (about an hour away), the DM of my group at the time set me up so I could play online with the rest of the group while they played at the table. It was exactly like that old web comic, whatever that was called.

The thing about that group is that there were 8 players. On average, I had a 45-minute wait between turns. And with so many people talking, no one could ever hear anything I said unless everyone was quiet. All those side conversations cut out my sound because that’s just how video chats work. So I would sit there and listen to the game for 45 minutes at a time without being able to contribute to any conversations with friends. This allowed me to experience the game without the fun aspects of it and that lead to questions on mechanics and the overall core loop of the game. Those questions are very much like the ones I ask now.

I asked the question about team-based mechanics in D&D because I wanted to see if I was missing something in my theory. Hence why I put it here, a forum that has pro-D&D roots but there’s also some experience with other games. If I ask the same question on another forum with indie game fans who happen to have played D&D, I get a lot more agreements than here. It’s like asking if veggie burgers are better than meat burgers by going to a vegan forum versus a non-vegan forum - the answers are going to be different but very revealing.