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%


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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Minigiant are confused

The swingyness of D&D is a result of the d20 and the size of the modifiers relative to the DC, not based on game balance. nor fairness.
 



ECMO3

Hero
While 5E is a far cry from "perfectly balanced and linear," it did flatten a huge amount of stuff.
  • Characters all start with the same six ability scores. Remember the Elite Array of 3E? Nowadays we have Point Buy, which is only slightly different.

But it is only one option, and a variant option at that. Rolling 6 ability scores is still the RAW standard. I do agree 5E flattened a lot, and the options here do that, but a lot of tables still roll abilities. Most tables IME.

Again, 5E is not "perfectly balanced and linear." Weapons, feats, and spells are all over the place, and are the source of most of the "randomness" and "imbalance" that I read about here on ENWorld.
I would argue that randomness due to dice are the source of the most imbalance in 5E, with the things you mention being the second largest source.

Important in this discussion though is the choices that those things offer, so while they do lead to imbalance with some weaker options, those who choose those weaker options usually know they are doing that.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
But it is only one option, and a variant option at that. Rolling 6 ability scores is still the RAW standard. I do agree 5E flattened a lot, and the options here do that, but a lot of tables still roll abilities. Most tables IME.
I'm glad to hear that, actually! We roll our character stats as well, and have for years, but I got the impression from many, many people here in these forums that it's far from the preferred method. I've read several dissertations on how it should "go away," or at least be demoted to the variant method in favor of Point Buy.

I would argue that randomness due to dice are the source of the most imbalance in 5E, with the things you mention being the second largest source.

Important in this discussion though is the choices that those things offer, so while they do lead to imbalance with some weaker options, those who choose those weaker options usually know they are doing that.
I would argue the same.

Note the qualifier I used, "...that I read about here on ENWorld." This poll is a response to all of the many, many comments and threads here on ENWorld that pertain to "unbalanced" features in 5E. I'm sure you've seen plenty of them yourself. Among those who chose to participate, I honestly expected everyone to be a lot more polarized into the two extreme camps (especially after giving everyone else two ways to opt out). I'm actually quite happy to be wrong so far.
 
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Clint_L

Hero
Rolling 6 ability scores is still the RAW standard.
That or standard array, per the PHB:

You generate your character’s six ability scores randomly. Roll four 6-sided dice and record the total of the highest three dice on a piece of scratch paper. Do this five more times, so that you have six numbers. If you want to save time or don’t like the idea of randomly determining ability scores, you can use the following scores instead: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8.
 


EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I’d love a D&D that’s “balanced” in a very different way than what WotC strives for. Rather than everyone being able to contribute a similar amount in combat, I’d like the game to be balanced by having different classes excel in different contexts (and struggle in other contexts). Yes, that would mean a balanced party would be necessary; that would be a feature, not a bug in my opinion.
That would require that different contexts get as much "screen time" as combat (per the rules) and that seems unlikely.
I mean, my experience is that combat and exploration (primarily exploration of dungeons) get similar “screen time,” so at least the fighter and the rogue would be in a good spot. But, yeah, other modes of play would need to get more fleshed out. I think that would be another positive change.
Grouping these together 'cause all one topic. There are games that strive for this. And it's...often pretty bad, because there are three key pitfalls:
  1. The "hacker problem," aka "Matrix stuff" a la Shadowrun. If you have totally siloed-off rules for different classes, and need to fill each silo, it's borderline impossible to keep that interesting for everyone at the table. Either the hacker stuff is superfluous so bringing one is crap, or it's too important to neglect which means everyone gets to sit around and watch the hacker be awesome for half an hour. If there's a sweetspot, I've never seen it happen. Works great in solo/duo games though, where such focus isn't so out of place. Note that it doesn't need to be hackers specifically. A pure-fantasy game could have Mediums that have exclusive right to negotiating with spirits--same problem, different clothing.
  2. The over-breadth problem, aka "D&D Wizard"/"Magicrun." Magic, consistently, gets designed to do too many things all at once. And when you find the rare unicorn that breaks that pattern, either it makes magic genuinely pretty trivial (and thus has the same problems as "hackers/etc. are useless" as above), or people constantly and tediously complain that that's what the game does, even though it actually doesn't. Any single individual player might accept a particular form of limit on "magic," but for players collectively, it needs to be all things to all people and thus gets eternally pushed toward omnipotence (do all the things real real good) or impotence (do all the things crappily.) Note that "real real good" often gets demoted to "crappily" by saddling powerful magic with horrifically awful side-effects or costs, which leads to...
  3. The "Spotlight instability" problem. Spotlight balance is inherently unstable. Even if you actually do balance each of the Rol--er, Paradigms, shall we say--so that each one truly is incommensurate and essential, it will almost always be the case that one of the roles will be demonstrably most important, which might vary from table to table. Once that is identified, the entire group has a perverse incentive: Keep the spotlight on the most important character as much as possible, and avoid allowing it to fall on anyone else ever, especially in any way that might have negative consequences. And I'm not actually convinced that it is possible to make each of the, ahem, Paradigms truly 100% incommensurate-and-essential.
This is why I am fully convinced that the only way to create a rich but approachable, deep but user-friendly RPG experience is to ensure that every character always has something meaningful to contribute to every "pillar" of play. "Pillar," of course, being the common term nowadays for the core design focus(es) of a game: the specific mechanical (as opposed to conceptual) things the game is "about," so to speak, the stuff the designers decided was sufficiently interesting to be worth writing mechanics about. (That they are specifically manifested through mechanics is what makes "pillars" different from my hypothesized "game-design-purposes" I've mentioned before: "pillars" necessarily must follow after you've decided which game-design-purpose or -purposes you wish to pursue.)

This style of play has all but gone extinct in the 40 years since. It looks so strange nowadays when you write it out.
Sure, for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, because it substitutes "keep throwing yourself at something until you succeed" for actual difficulty. Die and reroll, die and reroll, die and reroll, die and reroll, di--oh, wait, you survived to level 3? Wow! Hey, now you can actually DO stuff. That's why DCC invented its funnels, which are excellent game design, but they do inherently move away from some of the stuff you describe. Because they recognize that the original style's (intentional) "just keep failing, often in ways beyond your control, for 3-6 business weeks" is just...neither fun, nor particularly enriching or engaging, for a significant chunk of people, once they realize that there really isn't that much tension involved.

It's not that the oldest of old school style is dead, per se. It's that it had to evolve to survive, and in evolving, it became a new but related species. One that retains many, many traits of its forebears--moreso than any other branch of the cladogram--but which still had to change somewhat or else, as you say, go extinct. Such is the way of things; not survival of some weird abstract "most fit" thing, but survival of the thing fit for the context it finds itself in.

While 5E is a far cry from "perfectly balanced and linear," it did flatten a huge amount of stuff.
  • Characters all start with the same six ability scores. Remember the Elite Array of 3E? Nowadays we have Point Buy, which is only slightly different.
  • Characters all start with max hit points, and can choose an average roll at each level-up. The exact number of hit points still varies by class and Constitution score, but it's much more flat.
  • Character classes all have the same XP advancement tables, and most of the spellcasting ones use the same spell progressions. Most classes get their features at the same levels. There's a lot of argument about whether some classes are innately better than others in certain situations (are wizards are just as effective in ranged combat as rangers? should they be?) but these differences are becoming less distinct.
  • Most species start with the same ASIs and with the same features (like darkvision and bonus proficiencies). This is especially true for the most recent character creation rules, in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. There are some species that can breathe underwater or fly, sure, but they're as uncommon as they are controversial. For most tables, no species is going to be innately better than any other.
3e also had PB, so I'm not sure what your point is there. It was also an extremely common house-rule, even before 3e, to give first-level characters max HP; I want to say that was an explicit official variant rule in 3e. 4e HP work very differently so we can't draw direct comparisons, but the effect of the rules was more or less comparable to maxed HP at first level. 3e was the edition that introduced XP uniformity. Really only that fourth point is semi-unique to 5e. 4e also had all races with +2 to two stats; it evolved later to be +2 to one specific stat, and +2 to player's choice of two specific other stats. You also had far less of a gap between races; 5e dragonborn suck mechanically, that's why they've gotten repeated reworks now, whereas 5e half-elves are amazing, etc. So I kinda have to line-item veto your fourth bullet: For many tables species can be innately better, sometimes to a pretty significant degree (e.g. if you have Variant Human, Half-Elf, Gnome, and PHB Dragonborn as your PCs' races, you're gonna notice some pretty major power gap.) But, if most players pick the other common options (e.g. Variant Human, Half-Elf, High Elf, Tiefling), you probably won't notice that much of an issue at all.

Again, 5E is not "perfectly balanced and linear." Weapons, feats, and spells are all over the place, and are the source of most of the "randomness" and "imbalance" that I read about here on ENWorld. (Add multiclassing into the mix and hoo boy.) But when you step back for a minute and look at how the game has changed over the last four decades, you can see how the game has moved away from that wild, unpredictable randomness.
Moving so you are five feet away from a blazing gasoline fire means you receive 1/25th the energy it outputs. That does not mean that being five feet away is now safe. I assert a similar issue here. Yes, we have moved further away from the "almost anything can happen" local-scale unpredictability, but local-scale unpredictability is still extremely high, and as a consequence, players are strongly encouraged down narrow, predictable paths on the broader scale. Avoid, subvert, exploit: rules are a danger and a yoke, not a platform nor a backstop.

Excellent point. If you take this all the way to its most extreme, you would end up with just one character class, one single species, with the same ability scores and hit points, and the same decision tree at every level-up. All characters would be different in description and flavor only. And you're basically playing Skyrim, on a tabletop. I'd probably still play it, but...meh.
Hence why most folks who see value in balance bristle when we hear talk of "perfect" balance and terms like your "linearity" and "predictability."

4e was more-so, IMO. The game seemed to actively resist changing anything.
Personally, I disagree. Instead, it was actually transparent about what kind of task you were signing up for if you decide to design something. People have gotten this bizarre notion that game design is easy; it is not. 4e actually told people the truth about how challenging game design can be. They interpreted that honesty as being told they shouldn't do it--when what they were actually being told is, "don't do it unless you're ready for a lot of work."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is exactly how ENWorld threads go when discussing game balance. I haven't seen a single thread insisting that D&D is "actually balanced" in years.
Oh, I totally have--or, at least, I have seen plenty of stuff from folks arguing that it should be so. It's just phrased differently, because the edition warriors successfully portrayed "balance" as a four-letter word. The well has been so thoroughly poisoned, no one can claim they like balance. To do so is to commit debate suicide; you will instantly be dismissed as either an idiot who likes making bad games nobody actually enjoys, or a fussy, persnickety, unsatisfiable malcontent. (Both of these I have regularly experienced on this very forum, and the latter, in toned-down form, was the specific reason why 5e's designers claimed they weren't going to preview the "Tactical Combat Module" that then never actually appeared.)

Because "balance" must be hated, but people still have many of the same issues as before, they have to circumlocute. "Fairness" is a common proxy. You'll also see people talk about options being boring if they're weak. "Overpowered" is still perfectly acceptable, even though it necessarily requires that someone have a standard of balance and a belief that it needs to be enforced. (See, for instance, the consternation over Twilight Cleric, Hexblade dips, and silvery barbs. Or, for a rather pointed example, the bloody firestorm over the UA "Spell Versatility" feature for Sorcerers. You don't have people saying "Spell Versatility is GONE. Rejoice!" and explicitly adding, "No stepping on the Wizard's toes with a stiletto heel for you." unless they genuinely believe that the game as it is is actually balanced and deviating from it would be unbalanced.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I'm glad to hear that, actually! We roll our character stats as well, and have for years, but I got the impression from many, many people here in these forums that it's far from the preferred method. I've read several dissertations on how it should "go away," or at least be demoted to the variant method in favor of Point Buy.
Sure. PB is the preferred method in most gaming circles I've seen. Rolled stats create inherently more and less powerful characters right out the gate--and with players generally wanting their characters to stick around long-term,* these discrepancies linger forever. It becomes further heightened because there is now an explicit, intended equivalence between stats and feats. Each feat is supposed to be worth, approximately, +2 to one stat or +1 to two stats. Which means that, if you roll a combined stat total of 66 (low but quite possible) and your buddy rolls a combined stat total of 78 (very slightly above average), you're now permanently 6 feats behind them. This gives a quantifiable gap.

*Mostly because it's seen, by many, as frustrating and boring to get invested in a story and then have it end abruptly with no fanfare or possibility of alteration or continuation.

A part of the early-edition style you did not mention, but which is extremely important for understanding why things have changed, is that early-edition fans as a whole were largely uninterested in narrative. Early-edition D&D is, in fact, often extremely gamist and doesn't give a fig about doing so, e.g. monsters would lose their darkvision if they joined the PCs because that would have been an inappropriate gameplay advantage. At least one person I've spoken to who played at Gygax's table, for example, had no patience for roleplayed descriptions of attacks. Just make the damn roll, get the result, and let's move on with the game. Ruthless murderhobo-ism and "metagaming" were expected parts of play in most cases.

Narrative, where it existed at all, was exclusively in the "Story After" model, if you'll forgive my use of Forge terms. You would make stories out of the gameplay you had experienced. This, like most things, rises from the wargame roots of the hobby. War stories aren't about what you set out to do; they're about what you survived, what you stumbled upon as you went, etc. This is, in part, why connected sequences of games are called campaigns.

I would argue the same.
Eh. Not really. Most of the imbalance is baked into the spellcasting rules and spellcasting classes; the dice do make things swingy, but not to so meaningful a degree. All the swingy design does is discourage people from doing things which depend on rolling to succeed. Cut out the dice middleman, as it were. Guess which part of the system is exceptionally good at removing or reducing the dependence on dice, or giving you special control over said dice? Spellcasting. Further, guess which classes are the most dependent on dice and have few to no tools for removing or reducing such dependence...unless they dip into the previously-mentioned part? Martial characters.

Note the qualifier I used, "...that I read about here on ENWorld." This poll is a response to all of the many, many comments and threads here on ENWorld that pertain to "unbalanced" features in 5E. I'm sure you've seen plenty of them yourself. Among those who chose to participate, I honestly expected everyone to be a lot more polarized into the two extreme camps (especially after giving everyone else two ways to opt out). I'm actually quite happy to be wrong so far.
I mean, you portrayed balance in the worst possible light, so you really shouldn't be surprised almost no one picked it. As I said, "balance" has been successfully poisoned. "Bad thing, but also bad thing and bad thing" isn't going to draw much attention.
 
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