D&D General Balanced vs. Imbalanced vs. Today's D&D

Suppose there are three versions of D&D. Which one would you choose?

  • Perfectly balanced, but also predictable and linear.

    Votes: 13 14.6%
  • Not balanced, but also unpredictable and swingy.

    Votes: 23 25.8%
  • The version of D&D that we have today.

    Votes: 30 33.7%
  • Whatever, let's just roll up some characters.

    Votes: 12 13.5%
  • No house-rules allowed? Tyranny!!! I wouldn't play any of them.

    Votes: 11 12.4%

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
And how do you achieve that without risking all the character classes and species ending up being mechanically the same, or very close?
A significant investment of time and statistical analysis. Which is what I've always said is one of the important steps required for good game design. Serious, methodical data collection and analysis feeding into a feedback loop. (You also have to have a clear idea of what things the game is "for," and sufficient honesty to admit when the thing you were trying to do just isn't working.)

I go the other way: each class (or species, maybe, but let's stick with class for now) should be very good at a few things and rather poor at all the rest, meaning that in any given situation either someone's going to be the expert (and thus get the spotlight for that scene) or nobody is, meaning the party have to find a sub-optimal way through.
Again: the problem is that this turns into, as TVTropes would put it, "four lines, all waiting." (There it means "four simultaneous plots in a TV show, so none of them actually go anywhere.) This type of balance actually results in at least one of either (a) only one player is ever DOING anything, and everyone else is just sitting there waiting to get to do things, or (b) only one (or perhaps two) players is actually THE person-who-does-things, and everyone else is given an active incentive to NOT personally do things because the person(s)-what-does-the-things will simply do them better.

It's also impossible to actually implement this in D&D, because the Wizard will always be able to be amazing at multiple different things.

Repeated failure makes success, when it finally happens, all that much sweeter.
Sometimes. Sometimes, repeated failure sours the eventual victory. Hence why I spoke of it as I did. If you start looking at the game and realize, "It's literally nothing, at all, about what I choose to do. It's about whether the dice allow it to happen." That is, consider the "game" where if you draw the Queen of Hearts, you get to start reading a book you are pretty confident you will enjoy reading, and if you draw any other card, you will get a mild but painful electric shock. Does that make reading the book sweeter because you expect to get ~10 electric shocks before you get to read the book? Do those electric shocks add anything at all to your enjoyment of the book? Now imagine that you're only allowed to draw one card a week--so you have an expectation of about two and a half months of electric shocks before you get the chance to read the book.

"Failure makes success sweeter" requires that it actually be something closer to "partial success makes ultimate success sweeter." That is, when you clearly keep making progress, even if you fall short each time. Simply getting slapped back down to square one over and over and over is often just demoralizing. That's why, for example, the FromSoft-style "super hard action RPG" games are so frequently called "hard but fair." Because if they were simply stupidly hard without the fairness, it would be miserable, not motivating--and why even very very hard FromSoft games usually include some form of "pity" system or the like, which makes even repeated failure contribute to future progress.

So people keep saying, but until a) playing 3e and b) reading about it here for older editions I'd never heard of such a thing.
I mean, if enough people report to you that it is true, perhaps it actually is?

Meh - it's hard if you're starting from scratch but (and here I speak from long experience) nowhere near as hard if you're starting from a kitbashable base system and working from there.
Sure, but part of the problem with a "kitbashable" system is usually that they achieve that by simply abdicating design in the first place. "You figure it out" certainly makes it easier to design! A well-balanced system will be hard to design for, not because it is fragile, but because a well-designed system will usually be pretty transparent, which makes it easy to see when a thing you've drafted isn't actually worth doing (or is stupidly OP.)

And there also comes a point - perhaps more relevant to RPGs than to most other game types - where a system can be overdesigned. I'd argue that both 3e and 4e D&D are guilty of this, for different reasons.
Conversely, as noted above, it's quite possible for an RPG to be under-designed as well. You, of course, favor games with the minimum amount of design necessary to achieve their aims, even if that means not fully supporting all of the parts thereof. I, on the other hand, prefer games with no less than the amount of design needed to achieve an effective, well-made product, even if that means parts that aren't entirely necessary. That's part of what doing the statistical analysis I mentioned achieves; that plus actually well-designed surveys helps you filter things down to, hopefully, the Goldilocks zone.

That said? 3e was absolutely 100% over-designed. No question there. I disagree that 4e was--because it relied heavily on exception-based design, rather than on having everything cooked into the core first. Just compare the 3e grappling rules to the 4e ones (which, noteworthy, is one of the few areas where an actual 4e rule truly was translated to 5e, rather than gruesomely flayed so the 5e rule could walk around inside the skin of the 4e rule while doing something very different.)

Though I never played at Gygax's table...or even within many degrees of separation...what you say here about early-edition play doesn't agree with my experience (with one exception).

Metagaming is NOT expected, and is thoroughly frowned upon. The narrative does matter, often in the moment and nearly always in hindsight. Simulation is just as - if not more - important than gamism. Monsters do not lose (or gain) abilities if-when they join a party - a charmed meat-shield Orc remains just like it was before it was charmed, only it's on our side now.

The one exception: murderhoboes for the win! And I'm just fine with that.
The metagaming thing is extremely surprising to hear. I had thought a core part of "player skill" was, for example, remembering that trolls are weak to acid and fire because you fought them with acid and fire in the past....even though it was a different character, and thus you shouldn't know that that's a thing. That's metagame thinking--and, as far as I've always been told, an expected part of "player skill."

And I can absolutely say that, for anything close to Gygax's actual table, removing such abilities from monsters was the standard state of play. A number of other such things also applied. For example, both versions of Gygax's approach to non-standard player characters are pure metagame and don't care. The first, as recommended IIRC in the AD&D1e book, was to metagame by actively punishing players who choose the wrong options (meaning: monstrous characters), until they wise up or eventually leave the table. The second, as actually demonstrated from his own table, was to embrace the weird and quirky stuff his players wanted to play, but always have them brought down to low power first, e.g. the person who played a balor was playing a depowered one that had to recover its strength, the person who played a dragon was playing a young dragon that was just beginning to go out and build up its hoard, etc. The requirement that every character, no matter what their origin, must start out at the rough equivalent of a first-level character is pure metagame design, but it is helpful to the game experience.

The middle bit though, about narrative and simulation, absolutely make sense. Because those things are precisely why things have steadily moved away from the original form of the "old school" style. Narrative becomes important in the moment, and then actively trying to build it in the moment becomes important too, and looking forward to building it as well--which leads to the "I'd really rather not have my character spontaneously combust from two bad rolls please." Simulation becomes important, which leads to much more involved game design, and wanting to have rules with specificity--and with its rise, unabashed gamism begins to fade into the background.

You have, quite literally, described what I said: that the style adapted because it had to.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Voadam

Legend
And how do you achieve that without risking all the character classes and species ending up being mechanically the same, or very close?
Most D&D does for the combat pillar. 4e's explicit combat roles with variations on executing the roles is a decent model encouraging group variation and teamwork.

5e does a decent job for the exploration and social pillars with their skills system.

Everybody gets at least four skills (out of the broad 20 or so) including two that are from background and so class/race independent. This means anyone can choose to be skilled at a social skill to be at least decent at the mechanics of the social area. Also there is the tag team aid another where you aid someone else's efforts and give them advantage. This means the non-face players have a mechanical incentive to actively participate in social encounters to contribute.

This is a contrast to say 3e where if you did not have the points you had a good shot at mechanically doing very poorly with resulting bad consequences for failure so the incentives are for specialized face characters only to participate in the social pillar and for non-face characters to choose to actively not participate.

Exploration can be achieved by having things be mechanical skill based challenges or player skill things where anyone can participate regardless of class stuff. Leaving things up to other things on the character sheet generally favors casters when the list includes spells, magic items, class abilities, race abilities, and feats.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Most D&D does for the combat pillar. 4e's explicit combat roles with variations on executing the roles is a decent model encouraging group variation and teamwork.

5e does a decent job for the exploration and social pillars with their skills system.

Everybody gets at least four skills (out of the broad 20 or so) including two that are from background and so class/race independent. This means anyone can choose to be skilled at a social skill to be at least decent at the mechanics of the social area. Also there is the tag team aid another where you aid someone else's efforts and give them advantage. This means the non-face players have a mechanical incentive to actively participate in social encounters to contribute.

This is a contrast to say 3e where if you did not have the points you had a good shot at mechanically doing very poorly with resulting bad consequences for failure so the incentives are for specialized face characters only to participate in the social pillar and for non-face characters to choose to actively not participate.

Exploration can be achieved by having things be mechanical skill based challenges or player skill things where anyone can participate regardless of class stuff. Leaving things up to other things on the character sheet generally favors casters when the list includes spells, magic items, class abilities, race abilities, and feats.
What I really miss is a skill system that you can interact with beyond level 1, such as 5E. I get the rub about 3E and how many characters get left in the dust, but I think bounded accuracy has done a lot to close that gap. However, it seems skimpy skill system is in order since anything more complicated would make leveling take more than 20 seconds in 5E.
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
See above. My experience is exactly the opposite. An unbalanced system encourages the player to view that system as a puzzle to be solved--break the game so you can win better, which will make sure you can actually achieve the goals you set for yourself, rather than getting screwed over. When you know the game is unbalanced and can study and learn from the system to find its weak points, you have every reason to stop thinking about it like a fictional world you're interacting with, and start thinking of it as a buggy Matrix you can poke and prod into giving you superpowers (or whatever.)
I have a slightly different opinion about unbalanced games. They can be more easily abused by those who view them as a puzzle to be solved, but in the many, many groups that don't do that, they are also among the most fun to play in. I don't think they encourage such behavior so much as don't curtail it for those groups who like to min-max. But hey! There's nothing wrong with min-maxing, so it's all good unless you mix player types in a single group. Then it might be damaging to enjoyment, depending on the individuals.

I think 3e was a bit too unbalanced, but it was by far the most fun for me of any edition I played in or ran.
 

Voadam

Legend
What I really miss is a skill system that you can interact with beyond level 1, such as 5E. I get the rub about 3E and how many characters get left in the dust, but I think bounded accuracy has done a lot to close that gap. However, it seems skimpy skill system is in order since anything more complicated would make leveling take more than 20 seconds in 5E.
Different tastes. :)

I generally prefer the 4e and 5e binary ways of doing skills for characters over 3e's points per level with level based caps.

As a DM I do like knowing the characters have a few binary areas of strengths that are fairly constant and do not change a lot level to level. It is an easier hook to riff off of than a party who has put a complex array of spreading points around to hit some basic DCs in some things and be maxed out competent in others (spot, concentration).

I agree that bound accuracy also helps a lot in not freezing out non specialized face players from participating in social encounter skill checks.
 

Oofta

Legend
Right!? It was and is my favorite edition, but balance was not what it was known for. :p
I gotta admit, I made some really broken characters. I kind of miss it. Well, I considered them broken until about 15th level when the uber-broken casters hit the scene.
 

Voadam

Legend
Right!? It was and is my favorite edition, but balance was not what it was known for. :p
Which is ironic because it was the first edition to explicitly have a design goal of all characters being combat balanced at each level.

Oh well, great goal, just missed the execution in a number of areas.
 

TwoSix

Uncomfortably diegetic
I have a slightly different opinion about unbalanced games. They can be more easily abused by those who view them as a puzzle to be solved, but in the many, many groups that don't do that, they are also among the most fun to play in. I don't think they encourage such behavior so much as don't curtail it for those groups who like to min-max. But hey! There's nothing wrong with min-maxing, so it's all good unless you mix player types in a single group. Then it might be damaging to enjoyment, depending on the individuals.

I think 3e was a bit too unbalanced, but it was by far the most fun for me of any edition I played in or ran.
3e was definitely the best version at capturing the idea of the "wizard power fantasy". With enough player planning, and enough in-game time and resources, you can do damn near anything. But not have the right buffs or contingency plans in place, and you can get vaporized in a turn by a similar level enemy. It rewarded planning and game mastery more than any other edition, which is its own type of fun.
 

I generally prefer the 4e and 5e binary ways of doing skills for characters over 3e's points per level with level based caps.
I do as well, but... I kind of miss pondering whether my Fighter could get by with just Int 8, while being tempted by Int 14 giving so many more skillpoints (and access to a lot of fighting feats).
 

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top