D&D 5E I think Wizards balances classes using damage on a single target nova over 3 rounds.

FallenRX

Adventurer
Ive currently been looking into kinda how they loosely balance the budget of power of classes and after some minor resources and referencing some things in the DMG, and words of Crawford like them assuming characters are at full power for encounters. And somethings they have said about the adventuring day, and how they account for everything on "virtual damage" which i have a whole post about here. And i think i've kinda got a working theory for it, and its kinda obvious now looking at some stuff. I think they balance the classes basically kinda like how they calculate DPR via CR, and HP.

Which is over 3 rounds, doing as much as they can to get as much single-target damage as possible over 3 rounds. And once you view the games balance this way, a lot of things start to make more sense.

If you run the math of the total damage(using all resources) of a class over 3 round periods, they always come around the same exact ranges of power, which is around 27ish at level 5, 11th level around 40 damage, and at level 17 around 60-70 damage.(Some classes like Rogue and Barbarian tend to have specific subclass features that chart them up to this damage especially notable on Thief and Berserker, they also account for advantage generation too.)

Its is extremely consistent with a notable exception.

Fighters, Wizards and Sorcerers. These classes seem to be what Wizards value as the "Damage" classes. They are specifically meant to do more damage then the average classes and are all seen as in parity with each other in DPR. Its why you notice all of the real "overtuned" spells in terms of raw directly done damage are usually Wiz/Sorc spells. For example the 3 round dpr of a fighter spending basically everything vs a wizard spending all of their strongest spell slots seems to consistently hit around a 104-114 range of damage, specifically.(though there are some variables heres).

This goes back to that "virtual damage" thing i posted yesterday...they value everything as damage, even utility effects, so in their eyes, a fighter action surging and spending all of their resources to them at level 20, is about the power of a 9th-level spell to them the high end. Thats all they seem to really care about here.

Now the question some are asking are?

What about AoEs? Thats simple! They ignore them...

Why? Because they value above all else Actual Power, not potential(crawford goes into this here.)

They do not view AoE's power as Actual power because.

  1. Their might not be multiple targets in a fight
  2. Even if they are around, they might not be anywhere near each other position-wise(such as flanking, cross formations, Frontline/Backline, or just being separated, all common scenarios.)
This leads to AoEs not being quite as counted for at all, the only time they seem to consider it for spell damage is when the radius of the spell is comically huge. And as for big swarm situations, AoE is always good there no matter how they slice it, and nerfing it to account for something not even guaranteed, which leads it to it feeling bad, so they rather it feels good there.

This also explains why they do not value the conjure spells, and things like it, because those spells also have high potential power, but their actual power is not guaranteed, since they usually are.

  1. DM dependant, especially the conjure spells
  2. Can be killed or lose concentration on before doing anything over budget(especially true when they test without feats, so War Caster/Resilient cant save the day).
So in short, when it comes to balance, they mainly look for guaranteed single-target damage assuming all classes are doing as much as possible to get as much damage as possible over 3 rounds.

So what about resource management?

The resource management game in their eyes isnt spending a certain amount of resources over a day(they only care about health for that). The resource management game is choosing when you nova or choose not to nova.

How this factors into the balance of the classes, is that their novas with the exception of the big damage classes such as Fighter/Wizard/Sorc are all around similar power to each other. The non-damage classes usually have something to compensate in their eyes(for example. Clerics have healing and lots of powerful buffs and more active class features/better hit dice/armor, and so on then Wiz/Sorc, Rouge in their eyes basically has 2 turns of actions with cunning action that can rapidly generate advantage/defense, and is very good at skills).

And the balance in their eyes of Martials(and warlock) vs casters is actually also quite simple.

Its nova recovery. Martials(and warlock) nova tend to be either

  1. Recoverable by short rests. (Fighter/Monk)
  2. Long-lasting. (Barbs Rage lasts a whole fight usually, and Rogues nova is simply conditioned on getting advantage).
The gimmick of casters to them is, once they spend their nova(their strongest 3 spell slots), they view casters as being behind the curve the rest of the day, and only declining, so in exchange, they get utility and/or AoE where they can exchange their lower damage output instead for useful abilities that give them advantages in certain situations or help the team regardless. Its also why high-level spell slots such as 7th+ are so powerful, more so than previous tiers. Because in their eyes, they are giving up their nova for the day to do something more useful outside of combat.

It also explains why 10-minute short rests in a lot of people's eyes, adjust the balance to feel way better. Because that Nova Recovery part is now specifically highlighted and empowered.

It also shows why short rests they do not wish to take 10 minutes, because to them, that resource management game is choosing when to do that nova or not do it, that decision is important to them, and making it 10 minutes on base probably trivializes it to them. It also further explains why stuff like Heroic Resting is seen as a perfectly balanced option, because that's specifically for games where they dont want resource management to matter at all and its just a nova game, the only reason they restrict higher-level spell slots, in that case, is probably due to the power of their utility effects mainly.

It also reveals that its mainly a tone/pacing tool for them, and at base they rather it in the game.

It also highlights the main flaw with their caster design which some non-damage dealing spells and conditions are simply a bit too strong, and need to be brought down a bit(which is why thats likely the only magic nerf casters will see in 1DnD). It also shows why they felt some abilities(Like twinned spell, stunning strike, hex/HM and quivering palm) were too strong in the playtests and they hand to nerf them down a lot because they really value and account for that big nova all in, resources be damned. And those abilities would REALLY overshoot in their eyes that budget of power.

Another thing viewing the game this way reveals is how Magic Items are balanced. Since the game is valued around novas, the balance of magic items seems to be around basically reflecting the player's power directly and not giving them anymore power than they already have, just more utility. Each magic item has about a certain spell level power in it at maximum.

(From the DMG p285)

Uncommon max power is 3rd-level

Rare's Max power is 6th-level

Very Rare's max power is 8th-level

Legendary's max power is 9th-level.

In the distribution table, once you enter the tier of play where characters innately have a certain spell level of power pretty much at will, they start to give you a lot of magic items of that rarity, you can see this in the Magic item tables distribution, and in Xanathars when they laid it all out.

For example, at 5th-level your expected to get a lot more uncommon magic items. Why? Because everyone has 3rd-level spells of power already, so at that point they just see it as you just getting more options, not any more power then you already have. Meaning in their eyes you can kinda just hand them out. This keeps going on in each tier, with rares becoming more common around tier 3, and very rares around tier 4. They also expect you to give a bit of the tier about(Like Rares in tier 2) but usually, only a very small amount of them, as that gives some power, but not too much over what characters already do nearing the end of the tier.

All and i this is most of everything i've noticed looking at trends in the math in this game, I am no mathematician, i am probably wrong in some places, most data i found assuming baseline classes and subs(with the exception of champ fighter because the math behind that is a bit fucky) no feats, no magic items so on, assuming the usual 65% baseline. correct me if i'm off anywhere, test it yourselves, if im wrong call me out, this is just a theory, but all i can say is, since viewing the game's design this way, the decisions and choices by the designer's perspective make 100% more sense to me.

I also can clearly see the errors in the design of the game too, and how they should adjust it to be better, and how they can manipulate these budgets to make the game a better experience for all.

TLDR. WoTC seems to value Single Target Guaranteed DPR in a Nova over 3 rounds, and balances the game around that not too dissimilar to how they calculate the power of CR. And that seems to reflect every design decision and choice they have made when viewed this way, and what they gauge class power around. The core resource management of the game is about novaing now or later, and how can classes recover their novas.
 

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EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Excellent work.

This makes some things that were previously baffling now have a kind of sense. I just deeply, deeply disagree with...both the model they've chosen and several of the assumptions they have employed within that model.

Also, I don't think it's 100% true to say they've ignored AoE. There are distinct damage expressions for AoE spells vs single-target. But it definitely seems that they've balanced around single-target damage, they've just got some formula or tool used to cash out what the "if this were a single-target spell, what would it do?" information.
 


EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I think Wizards take a wild guess.
Based on statements made by a few different people--IIRC, some of whom actually got credit as consultants for the books--this isn't totally wrong, but it isn't totally right either. Technically, everything I've heard only regarded monster CR, but it seems pretty reasonable to assume the same approach was applied everywhere (especially in light of things like the "ghoul surprise" podcast.)

That is, they start out with their formulae and create something. And then they test it...and it doesn't actually fit very well. In fact, it may fit very poorly. But instead of trying to fix the formulae...they allegedly alter the monster CR ad hoc until it more-or-less works.

In some senses, this is almost worse than wild guessing. At least with a wild guess, the problem is that there's no system involved in the first place. With this, it starts with a flawed systematic approach, and then becomes, for lack of a better term, educated wild guessing.
 

My personal view is it simply isn't possible to create a formula and expect it to work reliably. There are too many variables involved, especially with regard to party composition. To that extent, I think the existence of CR is a problem. People see the number, and they expect it to WORK! I've been creating adventures since 1st edition, when I learned to balance encounters "by eye" so to speak, and have been doing so ever since.

To create something more accurate, you could create "monster fight club" program, run it a couple of thousand times, and create a value that way.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
My personal view is it simply isn't possible to create a formula and expect it to work reliably. There are too many variables involved, especially with regard to party composition. To that extent, I think the existence of CR is a problem. People see the number, and they expect it to WORK! I've been creating adventures since 1st edition, when I learned to balance encounters "by eye" so to speak, and have been doing so ever since.

To create something more accurate, you could create "monster fight club" program, run it a couple of thousand times, and create a value that way.
I mean, 4e worked quite well. Not perfect, as things like needlefang drake swarms and "scale a dracolich to level 1" stuff can attest. But, by and large, across the majority of its level span, the numbers work. It can be done. I just don't think the people at WotC are willing to do the statistical analysis required. (Hence why I harp so hard on that: testing requires statistical analysis, not just gut feelings! And that counts for both numerical design and getting useful info out of player surveys and feedback.)
 


Hussar

Legend
But it did it by imposing a degree of standardisation on what PCs could do. Which is a trade off. You want CR to be accurate, you need to more tightly balance PCs.

Not really. Thirty some classes each with three to five options for powers at every point. There was a huge variety between classes. Far more than in 5e. Far more variance.

The whole standardization thing is largely a myth.

What you did have, however was very clear math and clear guidelines. Plus massively simplified monsters compared to 5e.

It wasn’t the phb that made the math work. It was the monster manual.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I mean, 4e worked quite well. Not perfect, as things like needlefang drake swarms and "scale a dracolich to level 1" stuff can attest. But, by and large, across the majority of its level span, the numbers work. It can be done. I just don't think the people at WotC are willing to do the statistical analysis required. (Hence why I harp so hard on that: testing requires statistical analysis, not just gut feelings! And that counts for both numerical design and getting useful info out of player surveys and feedback.)
In fairness, scaling a Dracolich to level 1 was never something 4e claimed to be able to do. IIRC, you could scale a monster's level by +/- 5. Beyond that you were supposed to rewrite the creature. So that one was more like an acknowledged technical limitation than something that didn't work well.
 


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