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D&D 5E Encounter Balance holds back 5E

Gonna be honest, I have no idea how that analogy applies.
D&D is designed for a specific mode of play, and that design actually has some depth to it. That mode is attrition-based and combat-centric. Just as a Ferrari is designed for racing through winding (and hopefully traffic-free) roads at high speeds.

Now you can of course use a Ferrari to take your kid to school, or go down to the shops, I've literally seen it happen. But that's not what it's for, and it's not what it's good at. You might want to consider a minivan or a Prius or something, as it were. Especially as RPGs cost a lot less and don't require a garage!

If you prefer, you swap out the Ferrari for a different special purpose vehicle. The US is full of hilariously inappropriate 4WD super-powerful, gigantic pick-up trucks for example, which will never do anything more challenging than transport an 80 inch TV from Best Buy, whilst guzzling gas at a fantastic rate, causing accidents to be far worse than they are in other countries, and challenging the concept of "parking spaces".

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In a game where exploration is a central pillar of play, encounter balance serves as an unnecessary gatekeeper to immersion, storytelling, and creativity. 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.

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. Whether 5E has achieved this soft balance is debatable; many argue that this isn't true from 9th level on, 11th or 13th level on, and some more extreme opinions even posit after 5th level (or 1st). Likewise, just as many haven't had any issue with inter-party balance. The fact that both opinions can be encountered in large numbers indicates how much the aforementioned avenues impact class balance in the game. How one person plays a battlemaster is not how another person does, and that's before factoring in the GM, the type of game it is, how much loot is given, what kinds of enemies are faced, what optional rules are used, and so on. A Rakshasa will be a very different combat if the party is composed of a Warlock, Wizard, Cleric, and Druid as opposed to a Fighter, Ranger, Barbarian, and Monk.

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. 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, you bring to the forefront the combat simulation of the games more so then it already it. You say that while this is a game about exploration and social interaction, its really just about combat, because the pacing of the game is based specifically on the tier-difficulties of the encounters you'll be experiencing. 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 to match certain metrics with narrative justification given afterwards. While this in and of itself is not a problem, the deconstruction of this is that certain parties of enemies are therefore excluded from the game not because of narrative justification, but because of their mismatch with the necessitated numbers. 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.

More ripple effects come from this. Play culture begins to turn away from creatively using what's at hand to find ways around or over massive challenges to instead using raw mechanics in optimal ways to win against enemies that were designed to be won against. Having encounters where your party is meant to feel powerful is not a bad thing; however, when every encounter is balanced along these lines, it means that players are rarely forced to think outside the box for overcoming challenges.

Playing the game purely in this way leads to a more rote experience, reducing the scope of the game in effect. This reduced scope of play is what I mean when I say that encounter balance holds back 5E. Instead of creating new tools for helping DMs come up with creative ways that a level 5 party could beat an Ancient Red Dragon (such as with a Bard-esque arrow to a weak spot over its heart, or by finding a special gem that steals the dragon's vitality, or by giving ways a legion led by the PCs could potentially trap, restrain, and butcher the dragon), we instead get a bunch of stat blocks that show the dragon in various power stages, limiting the stories that are being told to "Can you kill this thing in a straight up fight now or later?" And while this type of story is fine, and I enjoy it, it would have been interesting if 5E embraced a variety of fantastical stories instead of just that one. The Wild Beyond the Witchlight was a great attempt at doing so. More like that, with less of a kid focus and more of an Odyssey focus, would have led to a more open and varied D&D ecosystem IMO.

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.
It's difficult to enter a conversation 20 pages in. Not sure how 'on-topic' it is at this point as I've only read the first two pages but, to comment on the OP:

I think this isn't unique to 5e. As far as I can remember, this has been an issue with every version of D&D I've played - speaking specifically about how appropriate CR to PC level can affect the narrative.

A few things I've always noticed in d20 games:

1. The PC abilities interact primarily with the combat mechanics. Often abilities that interact with other pillars are considered by many as 'too weak' (the Battle Master's "Know Your Enemy") or trivializes an entire pillar (some of the Ranger abilities or, arguably, the Outlander background on the exploration pillar.) There are almost no abilities besides spells and, maybe, one or two feats that interact with the social pillar.

Because of this, a DM is more likely to use combat to provide PCs an opportunity to use their abilities. As they level, combat gets more difficult as a way to test and challenge those abilities which has strange consequences on the World.

2. The Campaign World has to reconcile the fact that there are Dragons and other nearly unbeatable creatures wandering the countryside. Why has the wilderness become so dangerous just because the PCs are higher level? At low levels, an Ogre is rare, but now they just randomly leap out of the bushes when traveling down the road!

And if the DM splits their world into 'civilization and wilderness' Where the civilized lands have less 'danger' (which enables 1st level PCs to travel and explore without encountering an Ogre or Ancient Dragon), then the assumption is the Ruling Power must have a standing army with NPC Wizards or Fighters that have enough power to stave off such threats. This has repercussions on the structure of the world itself.

As far as alternating the challenges for PCs go, one of the better DMs I've had did a few things to mix it up and made the campaign world make sense:

1. The fiction was well-established. Most people didn't travel the Ogre Hills...because it was reputedly full of Giants. We ventured there at second level and it was a TPK as we encountered 3 wandering Hill Giants. We learned our lesson and rolled up another set of characters. Sure, there's an Ancient Dragon in the Dragon Peaks but it's so far away and difficult to access that, even if you wanted to get there, it would be near impossible to access. As you levelled, you were able to venture further into more dangerous territory and your reputation for being able to survive those challenges allowed NPCs to send you on adventures because you were some of the few who would choose to brave those areas. Sure, there were other powerful NPCs but they were rival adventuring groups or those working for Powerful People who liked to keep their Body Guards close.

2. At higher levels, we would often encounter challenges that were super easy. Of course we would! We were some of the most powerful adventurers in the country! The problem is that we had too much to do! Some jobs were a nuisance. We eventually hired lower-level NPCs to do all the adventures that had some urgency attached to them but which we didn't have time to do. Sure, there was Ogres attacking our home village but we really needed to go to the Shadowfell to take care of that Necromancer that was summoning an Undead Dragon. We sent Team B to the village. And, eventually, Team C. We had more than enough secondary magical items to kit them out.

I think many Campaign worlds get structured this way because of how the narrative must interact with the mechanics


But what if the Paladin or worse the Cleric does not have religion proficiency? Are you saying they should know nothing about religion and they should not even have a chance to make that check .... despite the fact they pray every day? What if the Rogue is the one with Religion proficiency (or even expertise)?
It really depends on the situation, hence why checks are gated by DM choice exclusively. If the Paladin and Cleric chose to not have Religion Proficiency, but the Togue did...then yeah I would give the Rogue checks for Teligion that I would not allow the Cleric and Paladin to do. As per the DNG Skill check guidelines.
And you are saying the Barbarian with an 8 should just not be allowed to ever talk to someone and try to get them to do something? If the town magistrate asks the Barbarian if the party stole the King's jewels (which would call for deception) is he not allowed to talk in your games? ... or is it an automatic fail? ......
I as the DM control the NOCs, and would not force the non-face into that situation. If the non-face tried to force it, depends on the situation: if they try to talk over the face, possibly an auto failure, possibly a higher DC with Disadvantage.
Now here is a curveball - what about when my max-Wisdom Ranger with a 14 Charisma takes expertise in Persuasion and then goes Fey Wanderer and can destroy the Bard on Persuasion checks, while also being equal or better on Performance and Deception. After 3rd level, should those skills now be protected for me and the Bard should no longer be allowed to make Persuasion and performance checks since I am the best at it now?
Then they are both faces, and can alternate fave moments. Really not that hard.
I don't know of any gated proficiency checks in the WOTC adventures. Do you have examples?
My books are all in boxes on a moving truck, so I do not have examples to hand. But "trained Skill checks" abound in the published Adventures...specifically to protect niches from dice randomness.


Which most people ignore.
Honestly not sure that is true. Several people in online forums do, but after a decade of real play data WotC isn't changing the system at all. That suggests to ne that a faur number of people do use the rules...and those that don't mostly are happy not to.


Performance and Persuasion are both skills the Barbarian has scores in. He should be able to make a check.
This is literally not how the rules work in 5E: that's how they worked in 3.x instead. In 5E, a DM can choose to call for a roll or not, and dictate the Ability and Proficiency that apply.


The biggest problem I have with restricting skill checks, second to simply breaking the RAW in a big way and upsetting the presumed balance, is that the DM places themselves
Hold up: the RAW is that the DM calls for checks. The guidelines from the DMG are the opposite of what you seem to think RAW is...?


I really feel like we are talking on two different, parallel tracks here. This whole thing started with a claim that D&D 5E "wants" to have a lot of combat. Then I said that the only thing lots of combat is important for is making the resource management part of the game work better and not every group really cares whether that system is operating at peak efficiency or not, because they may be focusing more of their attention on other things. And that those groups aren't doing anything wrong, if that's how they prefer to play.

Do you disagree with those statements? They seem really self-evident to me, and I honestly don't understand how it's led to accusations that I'm not really playing D&D or that I want to completely ignore resources altogether, to the point of allowing unlimited use of consumables. I'm not even talking about my own table(s) here, just observing that a wide variation in playstyles exists. Which, again, I don't see how anyone can dispute.
I, uh, don't know who or what you are responding to here, but everything you say seems reasonable?


Morkus from Orkus
I mean, sure, and you can have a CoC adventure where the Mythos doesn't appear and the PCs just go around doing 1920s stuff or w/e (I actually did consider running CoC 1990s without the Mythos once recently, but more as a prank than anything else), but D&D 5E wants to have a lot of combat in the way a Ferrari wants to be driven with some pace through twisting roads, not used on a suburban school run. 6-8 "medium" encounters per day to be precise and sure some of those might not be combat but they'd be intended to waste as many resources as combat, so be pretty intensive.
When I was younger I passed a woman who looked like she was in her 80s driving a convertible Ferrari 20mph in a 35mph zone. It was a sin! 🤦‍♂️

And for the sake of clarity, it's not 6-8 encounters per day, it's 6-8 encounter per adventuring day. You could have 2 months go by without an encounter, but if you have even one encounter, the game wants you to add 5-7 more for that adventuring day.


Morkus from Orkus
My experience of living in Silicon Valley is that hot cars are often driven super cautiously, but Hondas get driven like hot rods.
Yeah. When I was a teenager(1988/89) I used to race sports cars down the winding Laurel Canyon road. In my 1978 Volvo!!! And I would win because I was a crazy teenager and they were afraid of the turns. To be fair, though, I lived near the top of that street at the time, so having driven it almost every day, sometimes multiple times, I knew those turns very well.

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