D&D 5E Encounter Balance holds back 5E

This is not the business plan, however.

Before 2000 the basic D&D idea was "here is a book of fun suggestions on how to play a game, but really just do whatever you want and have fun!"

And After you get...

"We, the Wizards of the Coast, are the only Official Gatekeepers of D&D! If you wish to play REAL D&D you must buy all our books and must follow all our iron clad rules! All you are is another D20 in the dice bag!
I do think it is a problem that stems from the introduction of combat balance as a focus in 3E.
 

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How horrible would be a game that had some sort of hard character balance! Soft balance is perfect for me. A type of hard class/character balance would indicate a rigid set of mechanics with fixed power comparisons and exact equivalencies.

Awesome! That sounds good to me. How boring would a game be where party composition did not affect how the encounters played out. Sounds to me like player agency actually matters when building characters in 5E.

Then why do you focus on encounter balance? The rules certainly don't. Sure, there are rules/guidelines for encounter building and daily XP budgets. But we all know that these are crude and inaccurate at best. So yea, the rules don't have hard lines around encounter balance, so why do you?

But it doesn't adhere to strict power levels. But it does have power levels. And this is good. It's core to the D&D experience. But it doesn't mean that it emphasizes the combat pillar.

What? Hmm... I think 5E does a much better job of not doing this than any other edition. My experience is that first editions had almost no useful rules or tools for roleplaying. Only combat and exploration / trap & hazard resolution. And those were... save or die. 3.X had rules for roleplaying, through explicit mechanics that turned role playing into roll playing with all sort of idiosyncrasies (too many overlapping and non-specific skills with mutual bonuses).

Yep, and this is true of any system that has rules. Especially resolution systems that rely upon mechancs and random number generators.

Then don't? Really, all of your problem seem to stem from your assumptions about how the game must be run. Nothing is stopping you from running and playing it differently than you self imposed restrictions.

Who says you can't do all these things? The DMG (I'm pretty sure!) actually suggest these types of "solutions" or encounters. I agree that the books don't tell a DM or player how to be creative, because there are just too many ways to do this. You could write thousands of pages laying out possibilities for just resolving an encounter with a dragon without resorting to combat, and you would still be incomplete.

How many discussions does this board have, how many memes get posted around the web, all about the 'party going off the rails'? This is exactly what they should be doing, finding unique and new ways to solve problems that the DM or adventure designer did not outline. Not because they couldn't, but modules are just outlines, they should never be taken as the single most interesting or best way to solve a problem. Combat is just the easiest way to document it, and if combat stats are not included, then the designer/DM has had one of the 3 pillars removed. Not true if the other pillars are not detailed to the same level. (because they can't be, because they are much more complex).

It really sounds to me like you have hemmed yourself into assuming the game is written to only be played one-way. IMO, it's not.
I think you misunderstand my points because we share the same viewpoint and perspective. ALl those things in those early quotes you respond to sarcastically -- I agree with the opinion you brashly put forth. I too prefer soft balance. t's good that party composition changes the game. It's good that things don't all play the same. It's not good that 5E pretends like this is not the case and overemphasizes a non-existent hard balance.

I'm not interested in responding to the rest of your post because you make a lot of assumptions about me as a person and a DM that are just not true, and it feels really combative. You haven't really done a great job of fostering a healthy and positive atmosphere for discussion in this thread.
 

In The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the PCs are encouraged/expected to seek out and negotiate with the main antagonists of the piece long before the party is in any shape to take them on in a fight.

But also, in that adventure, it is possible for the PCs to get through without ever taking on those antagonists in a fight at all.
Note that I specifically called out this adventure as a great example of what I'd like to see more of in the future.
 

Warpiglet-7

Satan’s Echo Chamber! Muhahahaha
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.
I think I have fallen prey to this thinking when I DM in particular.

In 1e and maybe 3e days…we just played. We ran a lot! We often knew we were asking for trouble. Not a proud moment…but in 1e days we came upon an aquatic troll and I said “think of the experience!” As we were near a level. It is now infamous since it was close to a party wipe…as it should have been.

I think the idea of a living world demands some level of chaos! But I will say a caveat is that many adventures that are published are pretty linear…and in that case no win scenarios are less an ideal.

I just noticed that for treasure in the DMG that people struggle to read through…it says if you don’t like the result, keep rolling!

Perhaps some language in encounter design can note that not battles are meant to be fought and this can in turn be better communicated to new players.

For my part, I try to play 5e with some 1e sensibilities. My kids who are new tot the game know, it might not be smart to fight. Their low level party thought they could take the bugbear guarding the bridge.

When the 2nd and 3D crept out, they decided to pay a toll…I am trying to learn ‘em right!

But good points u raise…
 

I think I have fallen prey to this thinking when I DM in particular.

In 1e and maybe 3e days…we just played. We ran a lot! We often knew we were asking for trouble. Not a proud moment…but in 1e days we came upon an aquatic troll and I said “think of the experience!” As we were near a level. It is now infamous since it was close to a party wipe…as it should have been.

I think the idea of a living world demands some level of chaos! But I will say a caveat is that many adventures that are published are pretty linear…and in that case no win scenarios are less an ideal.

I just noticed that for treasure in the DMG that people struggle to read through…it says if you don’t like the result, keep rolling!

Perhaps some language in encounter design can note that not battles are meant to be fought and this can in turn be better communicated to new players.

For my part, I try to play 5e with some 1e sensibilities. My kids who are new tot the game know, it might not be smart to fight. Their low level party thought they could take the bugbear guarding the bridge.

When the 2nd and 3D crept out, they decided to pay a toll…I am trying to learn ‘em right!

But good points u raise…
I find playing 5E like its an older school game has greatly improved the experience at my table too. Things feel a lot more exciting and magical, as well as dangerous and scary at times. I think 5E's secret strength is that if you completely ignore encounter balance, the game somehow runs even better than if you did.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
In The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the PCs are encouraged/expected to seek out and negotiate with the main antagonists of the piece long before the party is in any shape to take them on in a fight.

But also, in that adventure, it is possible for the PCs to get through without ever taking on those antagonists in a fight at all.
Fair enough. I'd love to see more of that sprinkled into the game and not mostly in one marketing pitch for one adventure, and also see it outside the Fey theme (which I'm not a huge fan of and which IMO WotC has overused).
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
This is not the business plan, however.

Before 2000 the basic D&D idea was "here is a book of fun suggestions on how to play a game, but really just do whatever you want and have fun!"

And After you get...

"We, the Wizards of the Coast, are the only Official Gatekeepers of D&D! If you wish to play REAL D&D you must buy all our books and must follow all our iron clad rules! All you are is another D20 in the dice bag!
Given that WotC first released the OGL in 2000, and their more recent turn to CC, I think this claim is mostly malarkey.
 


bloodtide

Legend
I find playing 5E like its an older school game has greatly improved the experience at my table too. Things feel a lot more exciting and magical, as well as dangerous and scary at times. I think 5E's secret strength is that if you completely ignore encounter balance, the game somehow runs even better than if you did.
I play a very Old School game, using the 5E rules. And it works out great.

Most of the games around me for 5E do the Balanced Encounter: Fight Monster--->Always Wins--->Fights Monster--->Always Wins. And it is fun for many players to see how they will win each encounter always (as they will always win).

My Unbalanced Game...is nothing lime that, an about half of all players enjoy it.
 


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