D&D 5E Encounter Balance holds back 5E


Follower of the Way
In a game where exploration is a central pillar of play, encounter balance serves as an unnecessary gatekeeper to immersion, storytelling, and creativity.
This, here, set a very bad precedent for the rest of the piece. It cashes out as "balance is inherently opposed to immersion, storytelling, and creativity." Re-framed as "excessive preoccupation with perfect lockstep balance is an unnecessary gatekeeper to immersion, storytelling, and creativity" is true, but is a significantly weaker claim in the doing--because it is the excessiveness and the perfect-lockstep-ness that is quite clearly the actual issue. An excessive preoccupation with keeping anything in a rigidly fixed state is negative. Balance isn't the perpetrator, it's the victim here.

This thesis relies on the idea that encounter balance, defined as having a rigid system that can output the potential difficulty of a fight depending on their level, not only fails to function in the environment 5E creates, but also hinders 5E's promise of uniting mechanics with the fictional world.
I reject this definition of balance wholeheartedly, because it conflates beliefs about balance with balance itself.

A balanced encounter-building system simply means you know with good confidence (not perfect! just good confidence!) how dangerous a particular encounter will generally be for a group of characters. Because D&D includes both randomness and diverse options, perfect balance is impossible, even before we get to the fact that perfect balance is both not generally feasible in the first place and not generally worthwhile even when it is feasible.

Not one thing about a balanced system requires you to use it in any kind of perfect lockstep straightjacket format. The conflation of "balance" with "rigid(ity)" is the problem here. Balance is not rigid. Balance is simply reasonably-accurate information. Rigidity arises only in how people use the tools they're given.

For the first point, while classes are roughly balanced between one another, avenues of subclass, spell access and selection, feat choice, magic item availability, and player taste and competency all impact how classes actually perform. When viewed through this lens, the only true balance you can hope for is a soft balance wherein no one feels particularly outshined by another player at the table.
There are other, quite relevant, forms of balance that have nothing to do with whether a player feels outshone at the table. Most of them have to do with (1) deciding what experiences your game is meant to foster (even if it may also foster others), (2) setting design goals intended to bring about those experiences, (3) writing mechanics that fulfill those design goals, (4) testing, both qualitatively and quantitatively, whether those goals have been met, and (5) adjusting the mechanics (or, if no mechanics seem to function, the design goals themselves) until the goals are met.

In other words, balance is a matter of asking whether a game actually does what it was designed to do. Just because something is designed to do a particular thing, does not mean it cannot also be used for other things, those things are just not part of the rigorously-tested stuff--your mileage may vary, in other words.

Whether 5E has achieved this soft balance is debatable
Variation between tables does not mean balance is impossible. It means that one must consider a range of acceptable outputs, rather than having the ludicrous and irrational demand of perfect consistency. What, exactly, is an appropriate range of acceptable results, and how one should test for that, and what even counts as a worthy design goal in the first place, and what things one should strive to make a game be about, are not questions that can be answered within the realm of game balance, for the same reason that questions of "well, what makes good science? what separates good science from bad science, and both of those from pseudoscience? how do you know that your research program is sound?" cannot be answered purely within the realm of physics--these are questions for philosophy of science.

The second, greater point is that a focus on encounter balance hinders 5E's promise of uniting mechanics with the fictional world. What I mean by this is, encounter balance says that at X level, Y number of Z creatures will be of a certain tier of difficulty. As 5E is a game, such a system is partially required; its better to know the general "power level" of your individual monsters as a DM.
On this, we are perfectly agreed. That is precisely what an actually balanced system does: it does not, in even the slightest degree, tell you whether you should use creatures of any particular level. All that it tells you is, if you use creatures Y1, Y2, Y3... of power Z1, Z2, Z3, ..., then you can have a reliable understanding of how dangerous that will be to any given party. If you use two Cragmaw ogres and three hobgoblin soldiers, a second-level party will almost surely die if they try to stand and fight, while a tenth-level party will almost surely wipe the floor with them and barely notice. A party in the middle will have in the middle chances, with the fight becoming "challenging but quite doable" around level 4-5.

But this does not mean that 5E's methods and culture around doing so are necessarily precise or good.

By arranging the world in a way that adheres to strict power level,
As stated: A balanced system does not ever require this. No balanced system I have ever read even remotely hints at this. As a matter of fact, every single one has gone out of its way to be very clear: DO NOT adhere to a strict power level. Do not give perfect, lockstep fights. Vary as many variables as you can, with the aim of keeping things distinctive and exciting.

Vary their difficulty: from exceptionally hard to curbstomp-easy--and, in particular, consider re-using monsters that were once terribly difficult after the players have gained several levels, so that they can feel their growth, as they now trounce things that used to scare them. Vary the opponents and their tactics: include tricksy, sneaky types and teleporting dangers in one fight, and a strong defensive line with artillery support in another fight, and crazy melee with hordes of enemies in a third, etc. Vary the terrain: some fights in open fields, some in twisting corridors, some in the literal gullet of a kaiju, some ascending a stairway spiralling up the outside of a tower, some hopping between floating islands/rocks, etc., etc. You preserve player fun and creativity by being fun and creative with your encounter design. Vary the battlefield environment itself: braziers and columns in a cultist temple, cliffs and sand on the beach, traps and acid pools in forgotten dungeons, etc.

The 4e DMG, for example, repeats this advice in three different sections. The part specifically about encounter design goes into the most depth, of course, with about half a page of pure text just on this topic alone. It says, point-blank, that it is boring and staid to only throw at-level combats at the party over and over until they level up. IIRC, 13A and DW both also use similar text, albeit not quite as lengthy. They certainly both make clear that you should never use perfect lockstep matching of party level.

The system--the balance--was never at fault. It was always in the belief, which has no foundation whatsoever in the text. Not in 4e, and not in 5e either, even if the 5e DMG is among the worst I've ever read.

Since the DM is encouraged in a way of thinking that models the game as a combat simulator, parties of enemies are then built strictly
No. This is purely the DM's choice. The books do not recommend this. Not even 5e's books recommend this--and you know I would not pass up the opportunity to criticize the 5e DMG. This is a diseased culture of play that has no roots in the game itself whatsoever. Don't blame the system for people projecting an actively bad, un-fun perspective onto it.

The level 5 party will not encounter an Adult Red Dragon and have to creatively navigate around it; they'll encounter, at best, a Young Red Dragon, if that, maybe even just a Wyrmling. The scope of what I can create is hemmed in, which is fine in certain ways, but the stories that I want to tell are partially rendered incompatible with the game itself.
Nope. They are rendered incompatible only with this foolish belief that a balanced system requires lockstep design.

We cannot go back to the ignorance of before. We cannot go back to a system that shrugs and says "who knows!" about encounter design--not just combat, non-combat too. People need to learn that knowing that a fight is nigh-impossible is not the same as knowing you shouldn't ever use it--instead, it means that if you ARE going to use it, you'd better be open to (and/or prepare options for) the party to flee or parley...and you'd probably also better prepare for the party to potentially fight a battle you're quite sure they'll lose, because sometimes players will do that. (That--the problem of "how to tell adventurers that no no, this fight REALLY IS unwinnable even for you" when so much of the game is literally about doing things that are unwinnable for ordinary people but not for Adventurers!--is a topic for a completely different thread.)

More ripple effects come from this. Play culture begins to turn away from creatively using what's at hand
Not at all. You saw the exact same problem back in older editions, which so many laud as being "unbalanced," as though that were a positive thing. That's precisely what SOPs were--stop using creative thinking, switch to consistently reliable patterns that produce results. And, in an unbalanced game, the only meaningful response the DM can provide is to engage in an arm's race, which is where we got cloakers and ear seekers and cursed items from.

There will always be a push toward replacing creativity with dull, reliable solutions so long as creativity is not as rewarding as dull reliability.

Playing the game purely in this way leads to a more rote experience, reducing the scope of the game in effect.
Again: only if you conflate "this system is well-balanced" with "the only way to do encounters is perfect lockstep level-matching." Balance is not uniformity. Balance does not require uniformity. The best-balanced games foster creativity, because they eliminate easy choices: calculation is no longer capable of deciding the right thing to do, and so you must evaluate instead.

You defeat rote-memorization by providing a rich, diverse palette of encounters (combat and non-combat). A well-balanced system allows you to have confidence that you are, in fact, providing a range of difficulties. For particularly well-balanced cases, where you can do things like inserting traps into combat itself (as was possible in 4e; I'm not sure if that's also true of 13A), you can even have confidence that the environments are sufficiently threatening, and rewarding, such that the players cannot even just rely on their own abilities--they must think about the environment in which they find themselves in order to succeed, at least some of the time. (As stated above, sometimes, it's good to include fights where the players just absolutely stomp their opposition. As a sometimes-food, that feels good. Especially if the things they're stomping are ones that used to strike fear in them before.)

Just to be clear, I am not saying that playing 5E as a combat-first game is badwrongfun. I play 5E like that often and enjoy it. What I'm saying is that 5E's focus on encounter balance gets in the way of creating more vivid and varied games because of the lack of tools and the created play culture which generally colors within the lines as opposed to outside. YMMV.
A focus on encounter balance does not do that. Forcing every combat to be in perfect lockstep is what does that. Balance is unrelated.

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There are no tactics that can compete with near infinite castings of Shield or Silvery Barbs.

Targeting a caster who just cast Silvery Barbs is very, very effective in play.

People think Silvery Barbs is an OP spell but it is not. It is an annoying spell, but it is not particularly powerful on a Sorcerer or Wizard. A lot of the combat power in Sorcerers and Wizards are in their reactions and Silvery Barbs kills this because it eliminates the caster's best reactions which are Shield, Counterspell and Absorb elements and a whole host of other spells to use on an AOO if they take Warcaster. At high levels there is a huge opportunity cost to casting it, especially if you cast it on the casters turn to make someone reroll a save.

As a DM once a PC casts an effective powerful spell against intelligent monsters they usually stop what they are doing and gang up on the caster, ignoring most other PCs ESPECIALLY if he uses his reaction on his turn. The Wizard casts Fear on 10 Orcs. 6 fail their save, he uses Silvery Barbs to get a 7th. The remaining three do whatever they have to in order to pound the wizard, taking mulitple AOOs if necessary. Chances are they hit him and kill his concentration.

Shield is much more difficult to counter, in part because it lasts the whole round. Cast it on your turn to beat an OA and it stays in place. There are still tactics to deal with it though. The easiest one is use enemies with high attack bonuses and don't let players know the finished score result (other than they are hit), drain the spell slot and reaction and still score damage! Another tactic to deal with it is to use monsters that combo elemental AOEs and attacks making them choose between Shield and Absorb Elements. Then there is counterspell. Finally, they only get 4 1st level slots and Shield is not nearly as "powerful" when you are draining a 2nd or 3rd level slot on a hit.
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This is a table problem: a 8 Charisma PC without relevant proficiency shouldn't even be making certain rolls in the first place.

So you are going to tell your players or another player what they should or should not do with their PC?

Sorry players can do what they want, it is player agency and it is common (and often required by the story) for low charisma players to engage in social situations and make Charisma checks.

That is not the only example though: Last night my Wizard with a +9 Investigation was repeatedly outdone by a Sorcerer with a -1 in a dungeon involving a lot of puzzles. Are you saying she should not have enen tried to solve it?
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So you are going to tell your players or another player what they should or should not do with their PC?

Sorry players can do what they want, it is caused player agency and it is common (and often required by the story) for low charisma players to engage in social situations and make Charisma checks.

That is not the only example though: Last night my Wizard with a +9 Investigation was repeatedly outdone by a Sorcerer with a -1 in a dungeon involving a lot of puzzles. Are you saying she should not have enen tried to solve it?
Yes, I am saying that the DM should use Proficiency gating to protect PC niches to avoid precisely these situations.


I'm confused, I mention player competency and tastes in the post, which is exactly what you described, so I'm not sure how what you quoted is a false premise since you just expounded upon what I said.
The idea that you can "hope" for a soft balance. This does not exist in real play. Perhaps it is an ideal that you can strive for, but it can't be achieved in actual play.

Perhaps I did not articulate that well, or I misunderstood what you were saying, and if so I appologize.


Yes, I am saying that the DM should use Proficiency gating to protect PC niches to avoid precisely these situations.
Why? What would be the positive?

I was pretty happy last night when the party sorc repeatedly solved all the puzzles (figured out there was a switch under the bird, that two statues turned, figured out the statues arm holding the shield could move).


Why? What would be the positive?
Because that's how Skill checks in 5E work...? Players don't call for checks, DMs do, and saying "no" to a low Charisma PC worh no persuasion or performance Proficiency giving a persuasive speech allows the Bars to always have the spotlight for that sort of thing. Si.ilarly, a 12 Intelligence Paladin who happens to have Proficiency in Religion should get rolls that require Religion Proficency to even try so that they get a bit to shine over a high Int characwith no Religion Skill.

The WotC books call for gated Proficiency checks all the time, and is clearly how the designers intend the DM to call for Skill rolls selectively.

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