Posted by: Sean | August 21, 2008

Role-playing the Five Man Band (Part One)

Five is a good number. In Chinese numerology, it represents balance and harmony. It’s the number of fingers we have on one hand, as long as you count the thumb as a finger. In World of Warcraft, of course, it’s the number of people you’re able to have in a party without it becoming a raid, and ergo the number most likely to be taken into most instances.

It’s also the number of characters in one of the most enduring basic team constructions of storytelling: The Five Man Band. Really, TV Tropes does as good a job explaining the concept as you could ever ask for, but here’s a summary anyway.

  • The Hero is the nominated head of the group. He’s a straight arrow, does things by the book and believes in all those words like freedom, justice and truth. He’s a good guy, but more than a little stuck up, but that might be partly because he has to deal with…
  • the Lancer. The black hat to the Hero’s white hat, the lancer has no time for any of those silly speeches or needless rules. He knows the score, understands that the bad guys don’t comprehend any language other than brute force, and he speaks that language well. As such, he is constantly at loggerheads with the Hero, but the unspoken reason for this tension is really…
  • … the Chick. While sometimes acerbic or sarcastic, she unfailingly has a good, true heart and is the group’s source of compassion and care. She may be in a relationship with the Hero, but nearly always finds the Lancer intriguing and appealingly dangerous. While the fight for her attention is what keeps the Hero and Lancer from just duking out their differences, she also keeps peace by having a kind word for…
  • … the Big Guy. Massive and a bit slow, the Big Guy is destruction on two legs. Usually though, he’s a sweet guy underneath it all who probably has more emotional intelligence than any of the other men (as a side note, the Big Guy can definitely be a girl, too) in the group and definitely more than…
  • … the Smart Guy. (Again, can also be a girl.) Often physically weaker than the others in the group, the Smart Guy makes up for this with a blisteringly quick mind. While frequently played as annoying or funny, the Smart Guy often ends up being the crucial member for the plot, as he’s the one working everything out while the others bicker. However, he has a dark side too; if anyone in the five man band is going to be a traitor, it will be the Smart Guy.

So why do we care as World of Warcraft role-players? Because all too often, role-play vanishes the moment people set foot into an instance. People suddenly bunker down, forget roles, and instead start focusing on the game elements moreso than the story; a particularly silly thing to do since there is no reason at all you can’t focus on both. Instances, in fact, are often the perfect place to do cut-scenes after battles, fight out nasty arguments and play up drama to the hilt. Why? Because in most instances the bad guys don’t respawn; there’s none of the pressure to get the heck out of the area after accomplishing an objective. (How often have you killed some major bad dude in the a world area, done a scene afterwards to mark it, and then had to suddenly kill his previously unknown twin brother? Admit it, it’s happened more often than you’d like.)
The Five Man Band is a nice way to get around this. It easily fits people into basic roles for instanced role-play, giving you good solid guidelines for interaction. So how do you fit people into the roles? Let’s look at two models you could use to make the Five Man Band work in World of Warcraft, showing which class can fit in where.

  • The Hero: Paladins or Warriors. Without a doubt, the Hero is the classic tanking role. Getting out in the middle of it all, leading by example, taking one on the chin for the team, this is the classic point of the Hero. Of these two classes, an Alliance Paladin probably stands out as the best example you’ll find. Paladins are made for five man instances, and they can do the square-jawed straight arrow better than anyone. That said, on the horde side the only Paladins are the loathsome Blood Knights, so unless you’re an unusual example, the strong Orcish or Tauren Warrior might be a better choice.
  • The Lancer: Druid, Hunter, Mage, Rogue or Warlock. Definitely the edge to the rogue here. The point of the lancer is in his bad-assery, how much damage he can dish out at will, showing up the Hero as the also-ran in the combat stakes. As the four pure DPS classes, Hunters, Mages, Rogues and Warlocks can do this the best. The Warlock and the Rogue also bring a nice element of disrepute into their play, and the Hunter can play up a nice ‘more comfortable with animals’ aloofness to the role, but I’m picking the rogue over the others for two reasons. First, this makes both the Hero and the Lancer similar in combat style; both are close-range melee types. Second, I think there’s a better place for the warlock. The Druid option is a little different; while druids can deal out hellish levels of damage when set up right, the idea here is to position the Lancer as also a potential off-tank, so that he can yell at the Hero about having to do his job when the tank misses mobs.
  • The Chick: Paladin, Priest, Shaman, Druid. Sigh. Yes, that’s all the healing classes. As much as I hate to do it, the Chick really does work best in a healing role; it’s a nice metaphor for her team-building and maintenance skills. To avoid the obvious, I’d recommend a paladin for an Alliance five man band; it makes her a bit more action girl than damsel in distress, still lets her heal, but puts her potentially on the front line a little more and lets the Hero and the Lancer get all worried about her as a result. Plus it puts her in sexy skimpy plate armor after level 40. For the Horde, I’d recommend a Shaman; the idea of mixing the Wise Woman archetype with the Chick has a lot of intriguing possibilities – Think of the Maiden in the Maiden, Mother, Crone trinity; wild and nature-bound.
  • The Big Guy: Druid, Shaman or DPS based Warrior. The key here is size and damage. On the Alliance side, the best bet is probably a Draenei warrior; they’re physically massive, and the Draenei’s ties to the light nicely tie into the emotional aspect of the Big Guy. With the Horde, you’re probably looking at a Tauren warrior or druid. The druid will be mostly fighting in cat form here, but the Tauren cat is pretty huge anyway. Actually, the Tauren are mostly huge everywhere. A Shaman could also fit since both of these two huge races can be shamans.
  • The Smart Guy: Mage, Shadow Priest or Warlock. And the Warlock totally has the edge in this race. Remember; if anyone is going to betray the group, it will be the Smart Guy. The Lancer, for all his bluster, is never really disloyal. But the Smart Guy might be, and that utterly fits a Warlock. If you want to play the Smart Guy more honestly, then the Mage is your best bet.

So there you go. A classic five man band, and for World of Warcraft, one tank, one healer, two dedicated DPS and either a swing-man or a third DPS in the Big Guy role. Not only is that a well constructed instance group, it’s also a perfectly set up role-play group. Later today, however, I’ll show you a different way of setting up the five man band that rejigs this to something a little more unconventional. Stay tuned!



  1. I’d argue that roleplaying in an instance can certainly be ill-advised sometimes. Roleplaying after battles is fine, but there’s nothing like roleplay causing three wipes in a row to make half the party intensely bitter.

  2. Hi Sean. I see you have been extremely busy writing all of this up. I didn’t know you were such an RPG connoisseur. Sound like you are building up a definitive guide for role playing peeps. What about practical stuff people can do to actually prepare themselves before venturing out? You know, take the ideas and say define their characters on paper, so if they ever feel they are falling out of character they can use the “tool” to refocus themselves? I’d like to see what you come up with. Keep it up!

  3. Hi David, glad you found the site.

    Believe me, a character development guide may just be in the works.

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