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Blog (A5E) Class Balance In A5E: How Much Damage Should A Damage Dealer Deal?

In Level Up: Advanced Fifth Edition, we’re creating new incarnations of the 5e character classes. Before we build our new classes from the ground up, we need… a teardown of the originals to see how they work!

Our design goal is to produce characters of approximately the same power level as the ones in the Players Handbook. We’ll need to do some math to figure out the targets we’re shooting for. Before we crunch the numbers, though, let's talk about what we mean by power level.

World Power Level

First, let me say that we're quite happy to expand characters’ abilities when it comes to the social and exploration pillars of the game. Some classes need more expansion than others. Currently, the wizard has dozens of exploration spells: scrying, teleportation, Jump, Find Traps, and many more. The bard has the social pillar covered, with Friends, Glibness, charms of all kinds, and the Expertise class feature which allows her to double her proficiency bonus. The rogue has Expertise but can't compete with the bard's spell tricks. A good roleplayer can do a lot with a fighter, but the class features don't do a lot of the heavy lifting.

We aim for each character class, including the non-spellcasters, to gain unique, powerful non-combat mechanical elements that let them do things that no other class can do. Let the spellcasters be jealous for once.



Combat Power Level

When I talk in this article about preserving the game's current power level, what I really mean is that a party of Level Up characters won't overperform or underperform a standard D&D party in combat. That means that you can play any D&D adventure, official or third party, and get the level of combat challenge that its designers intended.

Most of a class's combat statistics are pretty easy to figure out: How many hit points can we expect a fighter to have at level 10? What's a monk's typical Armor Class at level 3? Harder to calculate, but no less important, is this: how much damage can a character dish out at a given level? Without that piece of information, we can't really balance the classes' combat effectiveness.

There are so many variables in calculating damage that completely answering this question may be impossible. But we've got to start somewhere.

Let’s start with some assumptions.

1. I'll benchmark each character of level X against an enemy monster of CR X. Without some sort of class-granted accuracy bonus, each character hits 60% of the time. (Character attack bonus and monster Armor Class tend to increase at roughly the same rate.) If a class feature grants extra accuracy or advantage, that needs to be factored that into their average damage per round. (A mere +1 bonus to hit can result in an 8% damage boost!)

2. I assume that every area attack hits two monsters.

3. I average a character's damage over the first three rounds of combat.

4. For my benchmarks, I built Players Handbook-only characters, and I leaned towards the simplest subclass available. When presented with a class option, I chose the bigger-damage option. For instance, I built a Great Weapon fighter instead of a Protection build. I didn’t use feats, since I’d like this test to focus on class damage, not on feat effectiveness.

Before we start crunching numbers, we have an important decision to make. Which fight shall we simulate: an easy battle in which the party is conserving their resources, or an all-out assault where the wizards are using their highest spell slots, the fighter is using Action Surge, and the paladin is smiting everything that moves?

Why not both? Some classes can go nova, throwing down a lot of damage in a big fight, and some classes do steady damage throughout multiple fights. We need to be able to account for both of these strengths. So for each of the classes I surveyed, I charted their "no-resources" damage (using only infinitely-repeatable attacks they can perform at will) and their "nova" damage (using up every spell slot and class feature in order to maximize the amount of damage that they can deal).

To start, I charted the four "basic" D&D classes: the fighter, wizard, cleric, and rogue, plus two more I was interested in: the paladin, which I've heard is overpowered in combat, and the ranger, about which I've heard the reverse.

Here's my chart, on which I track average damage per round for the six classes for levels one through twenty. The solid lines represent maximum nova damage, and the dotted lines represent at-will damage. The rogue only has one damage line, because it really has no limited nova powers.

classchart1.png

The first thing that jumps out at me is that most of the classes fall into one of two categories: high-nova/low-at will, or medium-nova/medium-at-will. The evoker wizard and life cleric can really lay down a lot of damage in a boss fight, but when they're not burning spell slots they plink away with low-damage cantrips. Meanwhile, the champion fighter is right down the strike zone on every pitch. It's always producing around the same amount of damage.

Overall, I like the design of these classes. If it was me, I'd differentiate cleric a bit more by having it do more at-will damage and less nova damage than the wizard, but that's just a minor quibble.

The next thing I notice is that people are right about the paladin and ranger. The nova paladin puts out almost twice as much damage as the nova ranger (and my ranger is trying hard, using bonus action spells every turn and Conjure Volley when it becomes available). And the paladin doesn't give up much to the ranger in any other category to make up for all that extra damage. The paladin's at-will damage is only a hair under the ranger's. The paladin has better armor, the same hit points and better healing abilities.

I know I'm cherry-picking a bit here since I've chosen classes I know to be badly balanced against each other, and I'm compounding this by sticking to the Players Handbook ranger when I know there are higher-damage options in Xanathar's Guide. Nevertheless, it's good to get a sense of what the combat-effectiveness extremes look like.

The last class I want to talk about here is the thief rogue. Since it doesn't have any nova capabilities, you can judge it as either an at-will or a nova attacker. As an at-will user, it's among the better ones, keeping pace with the champion fighter. But judged as a nova class, it's by far the worst. It gets left in the dust by the nova champion fighter. In fact, it gains a big edge over only one nova class—the ranger—and only at levels so high that they are seldom played.

It's worth noting that so far I've only graphed one subclass for each of the classes I've examined, and subclass can make a big difference. To illustrate that, here's the battlemaster fighter graphed onto the same chart.

classchart2.png

The battlemaster is a much better nova subclass than the champion! It almost challenges the paladin for the melee damage-per-round crown. If we accept the fighter as the "right down the middle" class who always produces medium damage, this widens the strike zone a great deal.

So now that we've squinted at some charts, what conclusions can we draw for our character class redesigns?

Lesson 1: Character damage increases linearly with level.

It's a bumpy ride along the way, especially at the first level of each tier (5, 11, and 17), but on the whole, the classes I've graphed do somewhere around 5 + level damage when not using any resources, and somewhere around 5 + (3.5 x level) when they're going all out.

More work is needed here. These patterns need to be borne out with an examination of the rest of the classes and subclasses, more sets of different assumptions (what if character level doesn't equal opponent CR? What if area attacks hit 4 enemies?), and, of course, double checking the math.

Lesson 2: We should try to stay true to the AGGREGATE average damage numbers instead of maintaining each class's current Damage Per Round.

I don't think there's anything sacred about the paladin being the best nova melee class and the backstabbing rogue underperforming everybody. I'd be happy to adjust the damage outputs of the specific classes to better match peoples' story expectations.

D&D doesn't need to be perfectly balanced - it's not a pvp game - but there shouldn't be classes that are much stronger or weaker in combat. Most peoples’ D&D games feature a fair amount of combat, and everyone deserves to have fun during that chunk of their week.

Lesson 3: Damage isn’t dealt in a spreadsheet.

This isn’t something I learned from this graphing exercise, but it’s a reminder not to take it too seriously. The circumstances of every battle are different. And that’s vital to remember when we’re designing class combat features. Depending on the location and the opponents, each class should have a chance to shine.

Wizards should excel against big groups of weak foes clustered within fireball range. Clerics should wreck undead. Rogues should deal the most damage when attacking from ambush. As for the rest of the classes… that’s where you come in.

For the people who have stuck with me through this long post, I have some questions for you. I'd love it if you posted your answers in the comments.
  • For each character class (or for a few classes that you have opinions about), what are the combat circumstances in which you'd expect them to excel?

  • Am I overthinking this? Does combat damage matter to you?

Continue reading...
 
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Pail Hughes

Comments


vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I'll start by saying that combat damage does not matter that much for me, so my opinion on this may be safely ignored :p

The situation for ''spotlight'' damage dealing for each classes, to me, would be something like this:

- Fighter: at-will damage, one-on-one, tactical or long combat
- Rogue: underhanded tactics. Ambush and stealth yes, but the class damage features should be able to exploit the weakness of an enemy, being stronger against enemy somehow debuffed by a condition.
- Paladin: best against fiends and unholy creatures, less than a fighter against normal foe.
- Ranger: best against hordes or singular gigantic creatures. Make the ranger the ''last stand'', army-of-one, david vs goliath guy.
  • Druid: Best when in its ''terrain''. A creature that despoil the chosen terrain of a druid should be a dead creature.
  • Cleric: Strangely, I dont think destroying undead makes sense for all cleric. Instead, cleric should be big damage dealer against the things antithetical to their domain. Life domain could destroy undeads, but a Fire cleric should be able to destroy cold-based creatures.
  • Bard: I'd prefer bard that deals their damage through their companion, by buffing their damage, granting attacks or forcing foes to attack their allies, and this, at-will. The role of supporter for the bard should be able to be used turn after turn.
  • Wizard: AoE damage, evidently, but also dealing more damage to the creatures affected by their spells. A wizard should be able to maximize the damage dealt by a Cone of Cold to a creature under its Web spell effect.
  • Sorcerer: Artillery spells, raining damage in burst or blast. The sorcerer should be able to break through the limits of spells to add more damage and greater area of effects.
  • Barbarian: I personally love the Carnage feature from the barbarian in Pillars of Eternity, where the raging barbarian deals damage to every adjacent enemies. Barbarians should hit hard while raging, yes, but their frenzied attacks should it every foes next to them.
  • Warlock: Warlocks cheat at magic. Like the rogue, they should be able to exploit the condition affecting their target and be best at killing mages to steal their stuff. The ''steal magic'' feature of the arcane trickster should definitely be a big part of the warlock.
  • Monk: Wel...I dont think there's any raison d'être remaining for the monk, so I got no idea. Their unarmed/unarmored stuff should be split across the other classes to create trope archetypes such as the brawler fighter, wu-jen elemental bender wizard, ninja shadowdancer rogue, jester carnival bard, sacred fist paladin etc.
 

Gammadoodler

Explorer
I'd question the AoE damage assumption. A 10 ft cube, and a 60 ft radius effect both only striking 2 targets will have significant impact on the expected damage output comparisons.

Instead of that, perhaps it'd be possible to have an enemy population density variable applied to the Areas of effect? Maybe have a HIgh, medium, and low and average or apply some weighting to get an 'expected' density so you can get to 'expected' numbers of targets for each effect.

(A fringe benefit in all this btw, is that you can start calculating some breakeven points in AoE effects for the purposes of effect balance and encounter design)

And/or you could layer in the total number of enemy combatants for the encounter, and multiply by the density multiplier and apply to the AoEs to get some caps on potential AoE damage.

In addition, it would likely make sense to split out as incremental, damage to multiple targets vs. single target damage. So you'd likely be looking at single target nova, multi-target nova, and their at-will counterparts. (And in this analysis, you'd likely want to look at both damage per target and total damage)
 
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duneguy

Explorer
What "nova" spells is a Life Cleric considered to be using that put them in the same range as an Evoker Wizard?
I used Spiritual Weapon (no concentration) and Spirit Guardians ASAP, often with higher-level spell slots. I'll grab numbers and add them to this reply in a minute.

Edit: OK, so let's take a look at life cleric at level 11, where it does higher damage than the evoker.

Round one: As a bonus action, cast Spiritual Weapon (not a concentration spell) at level 5: 13.5 (3d8) each turn for 3 turns, for 40 damage overall. Then cast Spirit Guardians at level 4 (concentration), 18 (4d8) damage for 3 turns against 2 targets. 108 damage - or 72, if you assume that the cleric's concentration gets ended one turn early.

Round two: Lv 6 Flame strike hitting 2 targets for 63 (18d6) or half on a failed save.

Round 3: Lv 4 Inflict Wounds for 33 (6d10) damage.

Reduce that all for misses chances and saving throws, divide by 3 over 3 rounds, and it's still a lot.

The cleric competing so well with the evoker wizard may actually be a function of me underestimating the wizard, who mostly slings fireballs.
 
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ThatGuySteve

Explorer
What do the results look like if you average the nova and at will damage die each class?

In my experience playing a caster, most combat will be a mix of slotted spells and cantrips, not one or the other. Eg start a slotted concentration spell in round one, then pink away with cantrips for a couple of rounds.

You'd probably end up with everyone looking closer to the rogue on average (except poor old ranger).
 

So a few notes:

1) It would be good to get a small breakdown of more of your assumptions. For the casters, which spells are you using? For the battlemaster, which maneuver dice were you expecting? With the paladin, are you assuming a lot of strength, or less strength in favor of more charisma? There are a lot of gearheads on Enworld that have done a LOT of DPS work, so they are going to ask:)

2) One thing I think is telling is that the evoker wizard is one of the highest novas...and that's with only a 2 person per area effect assumption. If we push that assumption even a little higher, lets say 2.3 or 2.5 average....I'm sure that nova looks even stronger.

3) One of your assessments that I strongly disagree with. "Lesson 1: Character damage increases linearly with level. "

Looking at the data, I think its much better to say: "Character damage is mostly flat by tier, with strong bumps by tier".

This is a very different conclusion, and its important to the "feel" of the mechanics, because remember that Going from levels 5-10 lets say could be a LONG time for a game (it could in fact by the whole campaign). If character 1 is getting a damage bump every level (even if its small) while character 2 is not increasing at all.... it doesn't matter that 4 levels from now character 2 will get a large damage bump that will equal (or exceed) character 1. All character 2 will see is number 1 is getting cooler and they are not.

Put more simply....the journey is much more important than the ending. And a linear character damage increase is not the journey core 5e provides.

4) To your question, does combat damage matter? It matters in terms of the greater thing you noted .... each character needs a chance to shine. Damage is one way to do that... if I'm the big damage dealer of the group, I'm going to feel cool. If I do the least, there is the question of "am I pulling my weight?". But damage can be compensated for. I think this is where a lot of the "Monks are actually awesome" camp come in with Stunning Strike. We can look at DPS arguments all day long, but a monk player who gets to stun a key monster and let the party wail on them....they feel like a million bucks doesn't matter what the spreadsheet says about DPS and stun chances.

What this also leads in to me.... nova matters more than at-will. No one is going to comment about the fighter where the champion attacked 5 times "pretty good" and beat the monster. But they will absolutely remember the time the paladin got 2 smites in on one round, both were crits, and did hundreds of points of damage. The time the evoker caught 6 people in a fireball that he rolled super high damage on, and fried them to bits....that will live on in the gamer's memories for a long time.

So when considering damage, I absolutely think nova should be weighted much stronger than at-will, as that is what the players will remember about the experience, much more than any DPS spreadsheet would note.
 

tetrasodium

Hero
Supporter
There are a couple things not on the chart & in one case I'm hoping that's because such silliness will not be repeated
  • agonizing repelling blast (nova) scorlock. Same fireballs as the evoker with multiattack1d10+cha force damage with a no resist knockback to each bolt
Nova damage needs to take into consideration how difficult it is to recover from that nova. A class built to exploit the 5mwd should not have a nova that compares to classes that are not built by an unchecked munchkin. Ideally classes should not be buikt to exploit it.

A really important set of things missing though because 5e pretty much completely drops the ball here by overusing concentration & in may cases crippling relevant spells
  • How much damage does everyone else do when a buffer is at the top of their game as a result of those buffs
  • How much damage does everyone else do when a debuffer is at the top of their game as a result of those debuffs
  • Is the difference enough to justify that as a playstyle should the two need to be combined/enhanced in other ways like more battlefield control & meaningful buffs/save or suck/save or lose spells. In base 5e the answer is almost certainly no it is not enough
It's ok to have nova's that destroy an encounter, but recovering from those novas must be a painful process that makes going nova unthinkable unless your watching a tpk about to unfold.
 

duneguy

Explorer
1) It would be good to get a small breakdown of more of your assumptions.
Great point, let me post that in more detail so you guys can correct any flaws.

nova matters more than at-will. No one is going to comment about the fighter where the champion attacked 5 times "pretty good" and beat the monster. But they will absolutely remember the time the paladin got 2 smites in on one round, both were crits, and did hundreds of points of damage.
That matches my experience as well. I think rogue plays better than it looks DPS-wise for this reason. A fighter might be able to outdamage it over three attacks in one round, but the rogue's one attack generates a very high damage total.
 

That matches my experience as well. I think rogue plays better than it looks DPS-wise for this reason. A fighter might be able to outdamage it over three attacks in one round, but the rogue's one attack generates a very high damage total.
Looking at your chart, I also think the fact that the rogue's damage goes up more frequently with level is probably a factor. He may have a lower baseline but at the table people see that his damage is going up "all the time". Oh btw, were you assuming TWF with the rogue with your damage numbers?
 

duneguy

Explorer
I'd question the AoE damage assumption. A 10 ft cube, and a 60 ft radius effect both only striking 2 targets will have significant impact on the expected damage output comparisons.
Yeah, if anything my estimates far underestimate what an AoE character can do in the right circumstances. Fireball, for instance, has an insane range and area and can tag quite a few foes, especially with Sculpt Spell. I need to do separate analysis for different types of combats: the Big Boss (where the AOE spells will look worse) and the Many Minions (where the fireball essentially trivializes the encounter).
 

duneguy

Explorer
Looking at your chart, I also think the fact that the rogue's damage goes up more frequently with level is probably a factor. He may have a lower baseline but at the table people see that his damage is going up "all the time". Oh btw, were you assuming TWF with the rogue with your damage numbers?
Yep, 2 shortswords. Without feats it seemed a bit better to me than hidey sniper.
 

Based on your comments about existing dpr, are you planning on weakening some classes (the Paladin, for example) in combat? If so, what would you do to compensate? I assume we want to encourage crunch-minded players to use the Level Up versions of the classes over the PH ones. It may not sacred to the concept, but I think the strong nova status of some classes is a selling point.
 

Gammadoodler

Explorer
Yeah, if anything my estimates far underestimate what an AoE character can do in the right circumstances. Fireball, for instance, has an insane range and area and can tag quite a few foes, especially with Sculpt Spell. I need to do separate analysis for different types of combats: the Big Boss (where the AOE spells will look worse) and the Many Minions (where the fireball essentially trivializes the encounter).
Exactly, and the reason I brought it up was as it relates to the paladin to hunter ranger comparison. Since many of the ranger class and hunter subclass's best features are AoE in nature, and some of these rather large AoEs, I think the assumption sells them a bit short.

An additional (likely waaaay more difficult to analyze) element of this is the range to melee assumption. What is the average number of actions a paladin has to waste on dashing or doing nothing until there is an enemy in range on which to apply damage? For the average, archery-focussed fighter or ranger, and most spellcasters, this number is going to be close to zero.
(Edit: also note that this number should likely increase as characters increase in level as more and more creatures have abilities to get and keep themselves out of melee, e.g. flying)
 
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Tormyr

Adventurer
I have been impressed with the quality and insight that has already come out of the level up team. I am looking forward to what develops down the line.

Answering questions

1. I think the graph shows that most classes are fairly well balanced if you average at will against nova for each class. A difference of 10 DPR does not feel like a lot to me (roughly the difference between the champion nova and battlemaster nova). This makes sense to a certain extent. Everyone has roughly the same bounded accuracy range and progression through the levels.

What I think should set classes apart is how they express and use synergies between the characters in combat. A lot of these synergies already exist but sometimes get underutilized or ignored during theory crafting, but I feel they are key to the classes.

fighter: should be able to hit things and capitalize on synergy opportunities from other classes.
cleric: keep people in the fight and hit hard when needed
wizard: set up synergies (grease, foresight, web) and nuke when needed
paladin: auras and the best nuke (decide to use after you crit)
rogue: consistent high damage but needs teamwork to consistently utilize it.
sorcerer: altering damage and buff spells to enhance effectiveness
barbarian: as much for soaking damage as dealing it
bard: more about synergy than damage until they call a tidal wave or turn someone into a t-rex
warlock: consistent damage with a few nukes
ranger: got the short end of the stick. It is harder to reliably boost damage without hiding in the back with a bow and hunter's mark. Even then, you don't get a lot

2. Damage is great, but I think that most classes are already somewhere close to each other when we exclude feats and synergies between PCs (and average the nova and at will damage). I would be interested in more ways of reliably creating synergies between PCs for each class. Some classes do that better than others, and some game styles prompt those synergies more readily. Finding ways to include those synergies across the different game types may be more useful than just focusing on damage. (although maybe spare a thought for the ranger)

Some other thoughts I had reading this post:
Assumptions. I like the assumptions. Although I tackle some things slightly differently when I am theory-crafting (and setting CR for custom monsters).
1. I view average chance to hit as slightly higher at 65% based on the suggested AC from the DMG for creatures at a given CR. Your fighter comes out with the same average damage, so it looks like your spreadsheets came out to 65% and you just wrote 60%.

2. My preference for estimating area of effect damage is to use the theater of the mind suggestions from the DMG. This equates to line length/30, cone length/10, and everything else (cube length, sphere radius, etc.)/5 and then round up. Then assume everyone makes their saving throws. The end result is that there is no difference for a fireball (2 at full damage is the same as 4 at half damage), but I feel it does a better job at estimating wide-reaching spells like firestorm as well as high-level dragon breath weapons and cone of cold.

Lession 2. This reminds me of something Jeremy Crawford said, to paraphrase, "the options don't have to be balanced; they just have to feel like they are balanced."

Lession 3. Too true that every fight is different. GWM is not a whole lot better if you use it all the time. Using it against weaker enemies or getting constant sources of advantage can make a GWM PC worth 2 PCs.

I think other people will have better input on how to come up with specific scenarios for specific classes, but I will be interested in what happens when feats and synergies between classes come into play.

A few places I have seen good synergy at high level:
  • Fighter with foresight. Lasts 8 hours (16 hours with Extended Spell metamagic; longer than that, call your doctor). This is an extreme example. A champion fighter can do a few hundred damage in a round with foresight, GWM, and action surge. The foresight all but guarantees that the fighter can hit with GWM against almost any opponent and get the bonus action attack each round. It takes a 9th-level spell, a feat, no shield, and a short rest class feature. The fighter can do this twice, and every other round is (only) 100 damage or more. I would be interested to see if this fits with the nova model you have inferred if you incorporate a second class's nova (i.e. does it come out to 5 + (7 x level)?
  • Monks stunning + just about anything. Splitting the enemy + granting advantage.
  • Multiclassing. I have a monk in my game that utilizes some monk + rogue class features to regularly juice his AC to the low 20s. It doesn't matter as much if you do a little less damage if you almost never take any damage.
 

tetrasodium

Hero
Supporter
Yep, 2 shortswords. Without feats it seemed a bit better to me than hidey sniper.
Why? They don't need anything for rapier & shortsword but go from a d6(avg3.5) to a d8(avg4.5) on the main. Sure it's not where most of their damage comes from, but that's practically the default mode for rogues & they can often afford the short sword fresh out of the gate just using background funds. The extra point migt not seem like much but it adds up over the course of a fight
 

duneguy

Explorer
Why? They don't need anything for rapier & shortsword but go from a d6(avg3.5) to a d8(avg4.5) on the main. Sure it's not where most of their damage comes from, but that's practically the default mode for rogues & they can often afford the short sword fresh out of the gate just using background funds. The extra point migt not seem like much but it adds up over the course of a fight
You get the ability to dual wield with rapiers from a feat right? I went with no feats.
 

You get the ability to dual wield with rapiers from a feat right? I went with no feats.
Are feats going to be in Level Up (I'm guessing yes since they are a culture option)? If so, they have a LARGE effect on damage, and that effect depends on class and weapons load out. Definitely something that will need to be added back in at some point.
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
“D&D doesn't need to be perfectly balanced - it's not a pvp game - but there shouldn't be classes that are much stronger or weaker in combat.”

I disagree with this notion.

As a player, my expectation in making a Fighter is that I’m going to be top-notch at fighting and less capable in other areas. Certainly, I’d expect to be much stronger than a bard, rogue, and wizard, and a fair bit stronger than a cleric or Druid. I’d expect rough parity with other warriors like the paladin and barbarian.

of course, nobody disagrees with the idea that everyone should have a fun combat, but I dont see how “there shouldn’t be classes that are much stronger or weaker in combat” means the same thing as every class having fun in combat.
 


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