Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about player synergy.
Today’s topic is an interesting one, because for most groups the concept of player synergy is an innate one. Player synergy is only ever really an issue for new groups or groups that don’t know each other very well. But before I dive too deeply into this discussion, let’s talk about what player synergy is before I talk about how you can promote it.
What is Player Synergy?
At its most basic level, player synergy is the act of using players to create something greater than each individual player himself (or herself). It is combining one’s efforts, actually working like a team, and getting stuff done. A good example of player synergy comes in the form of buffing. For example, let’s say a 1st-level wizard has a choice between preparing magic missile or enlarge person. Which is the better choice?
Well, truth be told it is impossible to say that one spell is better than the other. They both have very different roles. Magic missiles excels when the party needs to fight something that A) is susceptible to force effects or B) is difficult to hit. Enlarge person makes the wizard bigger, which improves the damage it deals at the cost of its AC. Very different spells with very different options. Now, let’s take those spells and apply them to a group. Which is more synergistic to the party? If the wizard casts enlarge person on a martial character, such as a fighter, then the fighter gets a sizable bonus to damage. One that would likely end up beating the 1d4+1 damage from magic missile because of enlarge person’s duration combined with the fighter’s “never run out of melee attacks” attitude. In this way, enlarge person allows both the wizard and the fighter to work together to create something that is stronger than either of them would have been able to accomplish separately. That’s player synergy.
In essence player synergy is supposed to be the “balancing act” between martials and casters. Basically, a martial who has been synergistically enhanced by a caster should be stronger than either martial or caster could be on his (or her) own. Does this always happen at every table? No, not really, and we’re going to look at a couple of reasons why this happens.
Deterrents to Player Synergy
Most of the deterrents to player synergy are psychological, not mechanical. Let’s take a look at a few.
- The Psychology of Blasting: As someone who plays a transmutation / evocation sorcerer, I will be the first to claim that rolling oodles of dice from spells like fireball and disintegrate is one of the most fun aspects of the PRPG. Picking up oodles of dice and watching things die when you roll them is a powerful psychologic enabler that makes synergistic playing look a bit boring by comparison. It is less exciting to buff a party with heroism because even though your heroism bonus might have allowed your fellow player to hit his target, you don’t really feel the same rush as you do from rolling oodles of dice. In short, it is more fun to be Magneto than Professor X.
- The Psychology of God: You often see comments on the forums about people who cherry pick their spell lists to have absolute control over all aspects of play at all times. They call themselves, “the God Wizards,” or something arrogant like that because like a chess player moving pawns, they effortlessly predict and control the battlefield. Just as throwing oodles of dice and killing everything can provide a great rush, dominating the game is also a very good feeling. Watching hours of tactical debate and strategy (or maybe 10 minutes surfing the forums) pay off is an excellent feeling. The problem with being God, however, is that you make everyone else at the table feel like peasants in comparison.
- The Psychology of the Unknown: The final deterrent to player synergy is not knowing who your fellow players are going to be. Although mostly restricted to organized play, groups that are just meeting for the first time or that include a new player sometimes go through this type of psychology. It is difficult to have the faith in your fellow players that true synergy requires if you don’t know those fellow players very well. This is why in Pathfinder Society you see plenty of folks with ridiculously potent combat abilities but less than stellar skill abilities.
Why is Synergistic Play Important?
So, why do you, as the GM, want synergistic play at your table? Well, here are several brief answers to that question.
- Positive Atmosphere: A table with a positive atmosphere is one where every player is invested in the success of every player’s character. A party that works well together and supports one another is less likely to get into arguments at the table. The players feel secure that everyone at the table is invested not in his or her own success, but the success of the group as a whole. Without player synergy, there is no reason for multiple players at a table to care about what happens to the other player’s characters. Instead of being upset that Sir Ronald the Daring died in a fight, players with a lack of synergy say, “Oh well, we can always have a new beat stick join our party.” But if Sir Ronald was a key player in the party’s success, perhaps by using his Intimidate skill to make it easier for the wizard to cast her spells, the party will say, “Oh no! How are we going to function as a group without Sir Ronald?”
- Harder Challenges: Through the very definition of synergy, players who are playing synergistically are able to combat more difficult encounters than those who are not playing synergistically. Often when people complain about the lack of difficulty in published adventures, the real problem is that most Adventure designers (especially designers of modules) are all-too aware that they need to account for the fact that their players may not be playing synergistically. When players are supporting one another and covering each other’s bases, they can take on more difficult challenges. For an author anecdote, I once throw a monstrous underwater monster at my players with a ridiculous amount of hit points, a high Armor Class, and the ability to deal a high amount of damage to its targets (it was designed to be able to easily two-shot the highest AC / hp player in two rounds). The reason I threw such a ridiculous monster at the PCs was that the party had a player who wanted to be a dedicated healer, so I gave her something (or someone to dedicatedly heal). While the combat was raging, I also had spellcasters summoning in swarms of little monsters to harry the players who weren’t being attacked by the big monsters, making the entire engagement hectic for everyone. The players ultimately won the fight, not because the encounter was easy but because they played with strong synergy.
- More Fun: When players work synergistically together, everyone has more fun. The encounters where everyone was playing with peak synergy are the ones that players remember most, the ones that continue to get talked about for years to come.
Promoting Player Synergy
So, let’s address the topic: how do you promote player synergy? Well….
- Make your players aware. During character creation, make sure you alert your players that they will need to have certain bases filled. Tell them that their party will require a dedicated healer, some battlefield control, someone good at certain skills (list the skills if you wish), and probably a beat stick or two. He also told us that we would be expected to have lots of downtime and that we should choose appropriately. For example, when Justin told my brother and I about our Jungle campaign, he specifically told us that the game was going to be face-based so we would need someone with good Charisma skills. He also told us that he would give us an NPC healer, but we were on our own for damage skills. Adam and I took all of this into account when we designed our two-person party and ultimately came up with Kyr’shin, my crazy Charisma-based kitsune, and Dyne, Adam’s elven bladebound “I’m going to blow you up now” magus. When we reached 7th level and got our Leadership cohorts, I took a character that could disarm traps and he took a character that could craft us stuff. Ultimately, we made these choices because of what Justin told us about the nature of his campaign. If you expect your players to have a dedicated healer and they don’t plan for one during character creation, in the long run it is as much of your fault for making them unaware of what you expected as it is theirs for not having thought of it.
- Try to keep players consistent: Rotating players is a necessary evil for things like Pathfinder Society, but keeping your players working with a steady roster of other players is important to promoting synergy at your table.
- Create scenarios where all players can shine. If a player emphasizes face skills, make sure he or she has moments where those skills matter. Player synergy does not work if one or more of the players feels as though a fellow player is not carrying their weight, and you (as the GM) have the power to give every player weight to carry. For example, if you have a player using my Master Spy build, then having absolutely no face opportunities would be the same as having no engagements for a fighter player. This also goes back to Point 1: make sure your players know what your campaign is going to focus on so they can plan synergistic builds.
- Create scenarios where one or more players are worthless alone. If you want to motivate your players into using synergy, you’ll need both a carrot and a stick. Make sure that there are encounters that your player’s typical, self-serving tactics can’t overcome. One of the best creatures you can use against a blasty spellcaster, for example, are golems. Golems are outright immune to almost every blasty spell in the game and with the amount of damage reduction these creatures possess, your spellcasters are going to need to channel their powers into helping their allies succeed at doing what they cannot.
This is just scratching the surface of promoting synergistic play, but it is a good start nevertheless. What do you think? How do you promote synergy at the gaming table? If you don’t, why not? If you’re a PFS guy, what are some tips you’ve used to try to make your games more synergistic? Leave your answers below and I’ll see you next week for another GM’s Guide to something!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune synergist, and yes, that’s actually a class. Or at least, it is going to be. I think its in Amora Games’ upcoming book. Time will tell.