The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Zen and the Art of Working With Allies

Art by Jason Behnke

Art by Jason Behnke


This is an old post (July ’09) of mine I ran into that I thought was worth capturing here. The conversation had been about 4E controllers, initiative, and melee PCs, centering on whether a controller should feel compelled to drop AoEs on allies that close with their targets.


I offer a themed guide on how to work with other PCs to handle cases where other
PCs might have a reason to harm other PCs.

1. The Tao of Tactical Positioning
Every PC has a role. Based on the role (and possible choices within that role,
such as a class feature or choice of weapon/powers), that PC has an ideal way to
position themselves and their powers within the battlefield.

In particular, tanks/defenders tend to rush forward to engage the enemy front
line. Often these move slowest, weighed down by armor and heavy weapons, allowing
others to strike over their heads. However, at times they can be fast, reaching the enemy
with blinding speed. Strikers tend to either hang back from range or engage the midline
or rear ranks. Controllers generally hang back or in their midline, using AoE to get as many
foes as possible. Leaders generally operate from the rear, but some engage the front and
mid-lines, positioning so as to maximize the benefit of their (short) healing range.

With few exceptions, each PC has a specific ideal operating range. Working
outside of that range is inefficient (lowering their offense) or risky
(subjecting them to too much or too little damage; too little shifts the damage
onto other PCs, weakening the party).

These different positioning requirements may seem contrary to one another, but
they actually are ideal. The Tao is achieved when each PC’s disparate
positioning works together, complementing one another. To deny the defender
access to the front line is to allow brutes and soldiers to engage your midline
and backline. To deny your controller options is to allow your foes to surround
you and operate at their peak effectiveness against you. A rogue that prefers to work up
close faces a dilemma as well. If they act too quickly, they become the focus of the enemy.
Thus, their daggers often work best from afar at first, then up close only once a foe is
engaging a defender.

2. Sharp and Precise Brush Strokes Upon Clean Canvas
Communication is the key to the battle. Because one’s allies change from week to
week, and because each PC is built differently, one cannot assume that one
understands another PC’s tactical positioning requirements, nor that others
understand one’s own.

In general, the burden of communication falls upon the shoulders of the most
complex combatant. The controller has a myriad of options, while the defender or
melee striker generally has a few logical and straightforward approaches. The
Dark Pact Warlock has unconventional tactics that, at a cost to an ally, can
have greater impact on a foe. Thus, the most complex PC must help guide other
allies through clear communication. The shaman’s spirit is a tremendous boon
when used effectively, a wasted resource when ignored.

Communication should be fluid and constant. When the defender could move five
feet to the left and allow the controller maximum effect, the controller must
ask this. When the shaman can offer free healing to allies adjacent to the
spirit, the shaman must explain this. This communication must be both polite and
clear. The defender or melee striker, fulfilling their role, must have clarity
of why they should sacrifice their ideal positioning. At the same time, the
controller must understand the danger of the defender allowing a route to the
midline and backlines and of any ill effect upon that melee PC.

Some tales describe the lone wolf who prefers to work alone, on their own terms.
Or, perhaps, the story of the contrarian, who shrugs off their stated role and does the
unexpected. These rare combatants bear an even greater responsibility to communicate
their methods.  Being different is no excuse for failure.

3. Time is Short, Friendship Endless
In the thick of melee, the time for communication is short. Thus, in the case of
a disagreement regarding positioning, readying, delaying, and the like, the PC
currently acting must make the final decision. All allies share the
responsibility to understand this and not to harbor ill will for that ally’s
decision. Perspective is not without fault, and harboring ill will only
strengthens foes and weakens the enjoyment of battle.

4. Ying, Yang, and the Cost of Harming An Ally’s Soul
Sacrifice is often the key to victory. To achieve a harmonious victory, at times
it is effective to draw the blood of one’s own allies. Certain classes, such as
the Warlock and various controllers, have capabilities that may be stronger when
an ally takes damage.

For a proper balance and harmonious result, the damage inflicted must be
permissible to the allies involved. Without their support, the damage simply
cannot be inflicted. The burden falls upon the PC inflicting the damage to
explain the benefit, but also to live with the ally’s decision and to maintain
inner peace with their response. Warriors and battle are both complex. Thus,
though it may seem foolish for an ally to deny your request, it is equally
foolish for us to discount that they may have superior reasoning.

5. Humility is No Excuse for Ignorance
Though we may believe our skills insufficient, and respect others above ourselves,
that does not mean we should not communicate nor be a part of the team. Even the
youngest and least experienced bears responsibility for effective strategy. While
humility may be a virtue, it should never become a liability. The youngest warriors
still bear a responsibility to know their potential, understand their powers and
weaknesses, and find their place within a team.

Learning never ends. From the weakest to the mightiest, all are fools if they do not learn
from each combat. Observe the moves employed by allies. Note the comments others make
and their requests of you. Understand the rules of warfare. Ask questions. Observe the
Hand of the Heavens (the DM) and learn from their response to your presence. Above all,
do not carry a heavy soul – enjoy the journey and the very process of learning. A mistake
should result in contemplation, not anger, whether your own or that of another.

6. Arrogance Harms the Self
Throughout battle, it is easy for a combatant to deride the decisions of
another. This, however, only weakens the group. Further, it harms the self, for
it is possessed of arrogance and pride.

The sin of arrogance can blind the striker who thinks their damage is most important, the
leader that believes all should wait for them, or the controller that thinks their allies should
dance to their tune. None is superior.

A true warrior understands that battle is fickle, ally capabilities diverse and
complex, and that there is no single way to defeat enemies. A true warrior is
humble, honoring their allies and considering options as the tides of battle
change. A decision by one ally is understood and respected and never erodes
one’s appreciation for them, or for the role of the self.

When battle is complete and the foes punished, only then can one spare the time
to review what has transpired and, still with humility and acknowledgment of the
danger of perspective, communicate such that the team become more capable for
future engagements.


This entry was posted on October 1, 2015 by and tagged , .


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