Player vs. DM
The rule books for most roleplaying games insist that the DM and the players are not actually playing against one another (usually in the same chapter in which they insist that the game is not the kind you can win). However, I would argue that, particularly during combat, the DM and the players are set against one another. A good DM, trying to create as much challenge and tension as possible, should be doing his best to defeat the players while following the rules of the game and encounters that have been designed fairly. This is especially true in D&D 4E (and, to some extent, D&D 3.5E) wherein the mechanics of combat are fairly solid and there is a method in place for creating balanced encounters that are challenging but fair. A good D&D combat is, for all practical purposes, a contest between a team of monsters (controlled by the DM) and a team of players and their characters.
Even if your DM doesn’t create and run his games in this adversarial way, D&D 4E still assumes that the players will function as a team. One of the first choices the PHB encourages you to think about is your role; essentially your position on the team. D&D works best, as The Players Strategy Guide explains, when the players work together to create a well-balanced team in addition to creating effective individual characters. Beyond that, there is a lot of synergy between character classes, powers, feats, and even combat actions. However you look at it, D&D 4E is a team sport and therefore relies heavily on teamwork.
I should also note that this is nothing new to D&D. The Holy Barbershop Quartet (fighter, cleric, rogue, wizard) has been around since almost the beginning, if under different names and guises (admittedly, in the far distant past it was a Holy Trinity). When team-based online games appeared, the Holy Barbershop Quartet popped up there as well, using phrases like tank, off-tank, DPS, crowd-control, and healbot. 4E simply acknowledges that this idea has always existed and therefore should be built right into the framework of the game and gives each character the tools to do the job they were always meant to be doing.
Sportsmanship and Team Victories
Despite all of this, I have been exposed to some truly baffling behavior through the years. Sometimes, it appears at my own table. Other times, I hear other DMs and players talking about it, posting about it in blogs, sobbing about it into beers at the local gamer bar, and ranting about it on Twitter. And all of the various complaints come down to one thing: sportsmanship.
I am not going to harp on this because I think I’ve already made my point while impressing you with my hockey expertise; I’m just going to come out and say it and hope it is self-evident. PCs do not win encounters, parties do. Your individual contribution to the battle doesn’t mean anything if the party loses. Likewise, if the party loses, the loss is on everyone at the table, even if only one character actually died. D&D 4E is designed to be played and won by teams. And so I am baffled by the pissing contests about who did more damage, who didn’t heal who, and whose stunlock is the only reason the party killed the dragon.
I’m not saying all players engage in this behavior, but I’ve seen it enough and heard about it more than enough. If you’re one of these players or in one of these groups, knock it off. You may not realize it, but you’re robbing yourself and your party of some amazing possibilities.
Everyone’s a Leader
With that out of the way, we come to the major point of all of this discussion: everyone is a leader. By leader, of course, I am referring to the role as defined in 4E. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many imply that the role of leader is the role of healer which shows a very limited understanding. The leader’s role is really about letting each member of the party be the best that they can be at their chosen role. Apart from healing and removing conditions, leaders have many powers and abilities that enhance the party. The tactical warlord, for instance, specializes in handing out extra actions and a good tactical warlord understands what those extra actions mean in the hands of each party member. For a fighter, an extra attack is an extra mark. For a wizard, an extra attack is an extra chance to stop enemies from outflanking the party. For a sorcerer, an extra attack is more damage slammed into an enemy. Clerics can enhance accuracy and damage and help the party strikers focus on hard targets or help the party wizard lay down seriously detrimental conditions and make them stick. Every leader class has some way of making the party members more effective and every leader has to understand who is in the best position to take advantage of those enhancements.
But, that shouldn’t stop with the leader. The leader should never be the only team player at the table. All too often, the mere presence of a leader makes the rest of the party forget that every team member has a responsibility to help the others operate at peak efficiency. Heck, its to your own benefit to make sure everyone is doing well.
For example, the fighter relies on the wizard to control large groups and prevent him from being overwhelmed. He can’t lock down everyone. And the wizard relies on the fighter to keep enemies from closing to melee range and eating him. The striker needs defenders and controllers to keep enemies off of him so he can maneuver and take out vital targets. The defender needs strikers to take out the difficult, hard to reach targets like enemy artillery and controllers. The list goes on and on. Every character in the party relies on the others to do their jobs as well as possible. And so, everyone benefits from making sure everyone else has every advantage. In short, everyone should try to be a leader.
Returning briefly to the example of hockeying: a good defensive hockeyist cannot stop at simply preventing the other team’s offenders from kicking the ball into the hoop. If the defender simply tackles the offender and sends the ball flying off across the court in some random direction, he has protected his net, but he hasn’t really done much for the team beyond that. Instead, the defender should try to steal the ball and pass it to one of his own offenders so that offender can now try to score a check mate.
Likewise, the fighter who marks a bad guy is doing the minimum required of him. The fighter who marks the enemy and slides him next to another so that the wizard can hit both next round is being a leader too. The warlock who curses an enemy and keeps firing away until it is dead is doing his job, but the warlock who changes targets when he sees that an enemy archer is machine-gunning his flagging defender is also being a leader. Again, this may seem very obvious to you, but most players just don’t take this idea very far. Sure, they understand they should flank with the rogue, but do they understand the importance of flanking on the corners instead of the sides so that the wizard can play too?
Of course, this relies on knowing and understanding your teammates. And knowing what role they are is not enough. The paladin, warden, swordmage, and fighter are all defenders, but they are all very different in how they defend. Their marking mechanics work very differently. For that matter, the high-wisdom fighter and the high-constitution fighter also play quite differently. The paladin and the fighter only work well when they can sit right next to their mark. The swordmage works best when he is using control abilities against someone other than his marked target. But if you understand your assault swordmage buddy, you’ll realize that when his marked target is right next to your wizard, the best thing you can do is usually to draw an opportunity attack as you move away. I’ll let you work out why.