Multiclassing in D&D 3rd Edition

My best friend Rob Heinsoo was the lead designer on 4th Ed, and one of his jobs was to fix things that 3rd Ed hadn’t fixed. Multiclassing was on that list of systems that needed work. At one point when playing 3rd Ed, Rob was running a 3rd level barbarian-fighter-ranger. Given the way multiclassing worked, why not?

3ephp.jpg

Meanwhile, the barbarian-cleric I ran in the RPGA never gained a 2nd level in barbarian. Giving up cleric spells would have been too high a price to pay, and in fact the one level of barbarian that I had given this character was a nod to style and a tactical mistake. (Arguably playing anything other than a full-on cleric in 3rd Ed RPGA games was a mistake.) The Third Ed version of multiclassing “worked” in that you could mix and match as you pleased, but it didn’t really work in that most combinations were a mess. Multiclassing rules are a bitch.

When we started design on 3rd Ed, we knew that multiclassing would be an issue. The earliest takes were basically classes that combined the traits of two base classes, with a slightly steeper XP curve for leveling up. Theoretically, this system is like the Elf class in Red Box. The approach was solid in that it would have let us balance each “multiclasses” like we balanced the base classes. But this system seemed too limited for our purposes. Third Ed was about busting open limits, and combo class system seemed to make multiclassing more restricted than before. Today, after seeing the “mix-and-match” system in play for 20 years, I wonder whether we might have done better by developing that original system.

As it is, we got pretty far in the design process without solving the multiclass problem. In the end, I proposed more or less the current system, with levels from different classes stacking benefits on top of each other. The best thing about the system, I figure, was the concept of prestige classes. They were basically “multiclass only” classes. The prestige class concept was pretty exciting and made all sorts of interesting designs possible. And the beauty of the “libertarian” approach is that it required almost no work to balance. It wasn’t balanced.

One of the guiding tenets of the 3rd Ed design was “consequence, not restrictions.” It meant that we wouldn’t tell you that you can’t play a halforc paladin. Now halforcs have a Charisma penalty, so there will be consequences, but you can do what you want. This approach can be something of a disaster when it comes to making permanent choices about your character. And with the “anything goes” rules for multiclassing, there were more ways to build a weak character than to build a strong one.

On some level, balanced, anything-goes multiclassing rules are systemically impossible, and here’s a thought experiment to help you see what I mean. Suppose that the game designers hand-balance the base classes so that they play well next to each other. These base classes have the right power level and that right number of options: not too many or too few. That’s where you want the classes to be. Now imagine that you add on an algorithmic system for taking any two of those classes and combining them in any combination of levels. Maybe throw in a couple extra classes, up to as many classes as you have levels. What sort of “class” are you going to end up with when you combine different classes into one? The ideal result is that the character has more options balanced against less overall power. In addition, the increase in the number of options has to be modest enough that the player doesn’t get burdened by having too many. If you hit that ideal sweet spot that balances power with options, you’re lucky. Most combinations, especially with spellcasters, come with too harsh a penalty for the benefit. For others, like the fighter-ranger-barbarians, there was an increase not only versatility but also in effectiveness.

The multiclass rules are a dramatic example of how treating things the same is a mistake if those things are different. The rules allow players to mix and match classes in virtually any combination, as if the Nth level of any class is the equivalent of the 1st level (or Nth level) of any other class, even when combined. With this “wild west” or “libertarian” approach to multiclassing, combinations are bound to vary from weaker to stronger depending on how well the classes line up. Two classes that rely on Strength and Dexterity, like fighter and ranger combo up pretty well. But what about a Strength-based, heavily armored class with an Intelligence-based class with spellcaster that’s penalized for wearing armor? Any system that makes the fighter-ranger OK is going to be hard going for the fighter-wizard. If the game designers balance the system to makes the fighter-wizard OK, then the fighter-ranger is too strong. Those two combinations are quite different, so using the same rules for both of them leads to imbalance somewhere in the system.

To complicate things further, there were countless ways to combine two classes. If the fighter-1/wizard-9 is balanced, can the fighter-5/wizard-5 be balanced, and the fighter-9/wizard-1? Not really. There are so many multiclass options that inevitably most of them are going to be too strong or, more likely, too weak.

One problem with multiclassing is that classes came front-loaded with lots of great stuff at 1st level. If you’re a barbarian, the reasoning went, you want to be able to rage at 1st level. We toyed with the idea of giving each class a special feature that only single-class characters would get, but it was a new idea and it would have taken lots of work to get right, and we passed.

For 4th Edition, an overarching goal was to prevent players from making choices that led to them being disappointed. They headed off the problem of multiclass characters by not allowing regular multiclassing. A fighter could pick up some bits from the wizard class, and you could play a class built from scratch to be an arcane spellcasting warrior, but you couldn’t give yourself a bad experience by building a fighter-5/wizard-5.

For 13th Age, Rob and I forced a solution. For one thing, the rules support only an even split between two classes, reducing the complexity by at least two-thirds. The rules ended up somewhat resembling the AD&D multiclass rules, combining reduced-power versions of two classes. We also force every class/class combination to care equally about two different abilities. That way there’s no natural advantage for a combination of two classes with the same main ability, such as the bard-sorcerer, who needs Dex as much as Cha. Each class-class combination also got hand-balanced with power possibly adjusted up or down and special rules provided when necessary.

Fifth edition gets a lot of things right. It has some forms of “multiclassing” built into the classes, such as the fighter’s eldritch knight option, which is a nice touch and easy to balance. Fifth Ed also returns to the mix-and-match system, but they plug a lot of holes when they do. Many rules contribute to a smoother multiclassing system: ability minimums, limited proficiencies, more generous spellcasting, classes getting cool stuff at 2nd level, and the universal proficiency bonus. These concise, useful rules obviously come from people who played the hell out of 3rd Ed and knew exactly what was wrong with multiclassing. Even so, the various combinations all are going to work more or less well, and only some of those combinations can be balanced right. Spellcasters still lose out on their most powerful spellcasting levels, making it painful to multiclass with a non-casting class. Multiclass rules are a pain to design.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Tom B1

Explorer
This is a tired excuse for not trying to fix rules that don't do what they're supposed to do.

--> Respectfully, no. We've went through BECMI, the little books, AD&D 1st ed, AD&D 2.0, AD&D player's option, 3rd, 3rd and a half, 4th (or into Pathfinder 3.75 Ed basically), and now 5th edition. What has that taught anyone paying attention: That EVERY one of those is a very complex mix of rules that in practice cannot be balanced all together. The systems are many, the interactions many, the loopholes many, and furthermore, the potence of characters can be impacted vastly by: player smarts at the table, player luck with dice at key moments, teamwork, optional rules in play, how generous the GM is at handing out enhancements or balancers, how likely the GM is to house rule to nerf an overpowered character, how likely a GM is to steal gear or otherwise balance things (old school), and a hundred other factors. Those all go beyond trying vainly to balance character classes and multi-classes. EVERY D&D edition has fixed some things and broken some new ones.

--> And yet, we manage to tell stories and have fun. Why? Because a good GM and players that don't deserve to get kicked out of a friendly game group (min-maxers and treacherous curs...) can work around any flaws in any version of the game.

--> In my experience, AD&D wizards, especially if you used spell points (Player's Option) were deadly, even with fatiguing casting. The fireball cooked piles of foes, ditto other major AoEs. Yes, the Wizard was clearly the single most dangerous killer on the table... if he had the space to work... and if the fighters kept the enemy hitters away from his weaker, easier to hit person....and if the clerics were handy to heal him if he did get a hard swat. The TEAM had to work together for optimal outcome.

--> And if you GMed to challenge the players by knowing their ability to soak damage or spit it out, you just tweaked your monsters, even on the fly, to last a bit longer, to hit a bit harder, to use mob tactics, etc.

--> And if you didn't fiddle with every last action to grant XP, you could either let the whole group move up on a common schedule (because all XP were shared evenly) or you could skip all the accounting and simply level the party up every 3-5 sessions (honestly, players who never knew their XP scores would never know the difference.

--> I won't disagree that 5E or 3.5E or 4E or AD&D or whatever system you want to say is broken. The illusion is that you can fix that level of complexity in a way that preserves flavour and that can somehow balance across all the decisions and play styles of players and house rules and.... yah, not happening.

--> You just have to learn to live with the monster in the closet, recognize the group is a team and everyone is vulnerable in some way at some time. And you have to recognize that cockey players make mistakes they (and their team) pay for.

--> Now, if you always play RAW and play standard modules exactly as is, yeah, you might see someone shining very brightly compared to the others. We just never seemed to experience that problem. The steel clad ones had to keep the wizard from being touched (like a quarterback) and he had to take out major magical threats and large numbers of hostiles (or soften them). The clerics would alternately buff or heal and sometimes fight. The rogues scouted, found traps, and fought as strikers and backstabbers. Everyone had a role and all that mattered was that monsters appeared in enough number and toughness to challenge the group and leave some of them in peril. That's good GMing, which is ALWAYS useful because NO ruleset will be without serious flaws unless the rules are so trivial as to be uninteresting and mostly of not much use.

If players are not capable of approximately equal contributions to the hard, mechanical portions of the game, then those "roleplaying choices" are closed off to them. Characters that aren't mechanically viable don't get to sit at the table long enough to explore their roleplaying hooks.

--> Not if a GM is doing his job.

--> Frankly, 3rd edition and 3.5 edition were the worst for having non-optimized builds be very uncompetitive (due to the need to feat stack and the existence of feats). 5E makes them largely optional and even without that, tend not to stack. That's one of 5E's better decisions.

--> We played all the way through one of the big Eberron arcs. I finished as an 18th level hobogoblin - mix of Marshal and Fighter. The highest level PC was a shifter fighter or ranger who ended up 22nd level. I am sure some of us were at times and in some situations hugely more effective than others, but the circumstances would change and others' powers would become necessary and critical. The real important thing was team work and mutual support.

An AD&D Cleric/Mage 8/7 sacrifices power for versatility versus a Cleric 10 or Mage 10, and is capable of hanging in the same adventuring party as the higher-level characters.

--> Um... yeah, maybe. AD&D... seem to recall that meant without elven chain, you weren't pulling anywhere the same AC as the Cleric 10 could. Nor did you have the hit points. Both of those things mattered. Multi-classing any 1E character into something with less around and HPs rarely paid off.

A WotC D&D Cleric/Mage 6/4 is sacrificing power for a bitter lesson in the disparity between narrative and mechanics.

--> But 3.5E did just about as bad to 10th level Ftr (for instance) with sub optimal and non-stacking feat picks with no synergies so you'd have to fix that too... then other things.... and onward.
 

Tom B1

Explorer
Dipping is a powercreep problem, but even split is a power problem in the opposite direction.

Suggestion is what they did in 3.5 with mystic theurge as mentioned by @Tyler Do'Urden

1. Multiclassing can be only with 2 classes.

2. classes MUST be within 1 level on each other.

3. Bonus class levels at levels 5,8,11,14,17 and 20. Average HP on those levels.

I.E. 5th level figter/wizard would have class features of 3rd level fighter and 3rd level wizard. But would be 5th level character with 2 d10 HDs, 2 d6 HDs and 1 d8 HD(average of d10 and d6)

8th level would be 5/5 split

11th level would be 7/7 split

14th level; 9/9 split

17th level; 11/11 split

20th level; 13/13 split
The issue with this is .... we can't build the character who is a good fighter but can also dabble as a lock picker or a weak healer in that case.

Every MC system breaks somewhere. Some worse than others. 3/3.5 Feats and the need to optimize and stack made a vast imbalance in power for players who could not optimize or would not. There are always badly broken mechanics. The solution is not in another system which also is broken, but instead in figuring out how to still challenge and present a threat to a party of mixed power levels. Part of it comes from realizing the entire team needs to participate and that the group wins or loses as a group, not individuals.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Right now I am combining bard (college of sword) 5 and rogue (Arcane trickster) 3 and just added sorcerer (divine soul) 1 because it was just fitting the story and I don't feel as if my char is inferior. No, I don't have highest level spells, no I don't do too much damage and not all abilities synergize... but in a two man party I bring a lot to the table. I am a jack of many traits.
Sorry to pick on you here but this character is exactly the sort I don't like to see, simply because it is a jack-of-all-trades and thus as such doesn't need a party nearly as much as a single-class type, as neatly evidenced by your note of being really useful in a party of only two characters.

My experience with such j-o-a-t characters (and I've tried playing them myself too now and then, just for kicks) is that they end up in the spotlight far more often than anyone else, particularly in a larger group.

Alanna: "I'll talk our way in past the guard." Jack: "I'll help!"
Sneakers: "I'll climb the wall and scout things out." Jack: "I'll come too!"
Thrug: "Point me at the fightin' and lemme at 'em!" Jack: "I'm right beside you!"
Wizzly: "Let me try some divinations and see if I can get some answers here." Jack: "I'll do the same."

Much rather see each character have distinct strengths and weaknesses in order to encourage inter-reliance, and if your party has a glaring weakness then recruit an adventuring NPC (or roll up another PC and play two at once) to fill the gap.
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
In 5e it is very hard to build a character that does not contribute at all.
Even if you can't pull your weight in combat, there is certainly some game element, where you can help.
You can't pit skillpoints wrong, you can't lose proficiency bonus, every class has some neat abilities in the first three levels, often some very powerful abilities that are helpful even in highest level play.
Cunning action and action surge or divine smite or invocations come to mind.

So even if you combine many classes for few levels, you get a somewhat competent character. And even if you lose your highest level spells, you will get some compensation.
A fighter 2/wizard x is a very competent fighter mage. For the cost of being 2 levels behind, you get heavy armor, some extra hp, con proficiency, and the ability to cast 2 fireballs if needed.
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
Sorry to pick on you here but this character is exactly the sort I don't like to see, simply because it is a jack-of-all-trades and thus as such doesn't need a party nearly as much as a single-class type, as neatly evidenced by your note of being really useful in a party of only two characters.

My experience with such j-o-a-t characters (and I've tried playing them myself too now and then, just for kicks) is that they end up in the spotlight far more often than anyone else, particularly in a larger group.

Alanna: "I'll talk our way in past the guard." Jack: "I'll help!"
Sneakers: "I'll climb the wall and scout things out." Jack: "I'll come too!"
Thrug: "Point me at the fightin' and lemme at 'em!" Jack: "I'm right beside you!"
Wizzly: "Let me try some divinations and see if I can get some answers here." Jack: "I'll do the same."

Much rather see each character have distinct strengths and weaknesses in order to encourage inter-reliance, and if your party has a glaring weakness then recruit an adventuring NPC (or roll up another PC and play two at once) to fill the gap.
I don't feel picked at.
Good that you mention your points. The other character is a Diviner2/druid7 and is equally skilled at being a jack of many traits.

But put us in a party of 5 and it will be obvious that we are lagging behind in straight power. So in my book it is a strength of this multiclassing variant, that you can adapt to many situations and that there is no obvious best way.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The issue with this is .... we can't build the character who is a good fighter but can also dabble as a lock picker or a weak healer in that case.
Easy in 1e with a bit of houseruling, because levels advanced independently by class. Not so easy at all 3e and forward due to levels being additive.

Every MC system breaks somewhere. Some worse than others. 3/3.5 Feats and the need to optimize and stack made a vast imbalance in power for players who could not optimize or would not. There are always badly broken mechanics. The solution is not in another system which also is broken, but instead in figuring out how to still challenge and present a threat to a party of mixed power levels. Part of it comes from realizing the entire team needs to participate and that the group wins or loses as a group, not individuals.
To its credit, 5e is much better at handling variable levels within a party than either 3e or 4e were.

But I think the solution still lies in coming up with a system that works better and isn't so broken.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't feel picked at.
Good that you mention your points. The other character is a Diviner2/druid7 and is equally skilled at being a jack of many traits.

But put us in a party of 5 and it will be obvious that we are lagging behind in straight power.
But your lack of power in the party of five would depend on the levels of the other three, would it not? If the other three were 7th-8th level single-class and your two were multi-class 9ths you'd probably fit right in power-wise.

So in my book it is a strength of this multiclassing variant, that you can adapt to many situations and that there is no obvious best way.
Yeah, I can't remember the last time - if ever - I've DMed a party of just two characters in a full adventure (as opposed to what we call mini-dungeoning to catch someone up).

Due to self-isolation my normal game's down for a while, so just for kicks I've started running a game with my wife as the only player - but even there it's a 5-character party (and given the adventure I'm running, they'll need 'em!) in order to fill gaps; two of her own and three* adventuring NPCs which she'll by and large control the actions of.

* - two of whom are very similar; the party really only needs one of the two but the plot puts them both there.
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
But your lack of power in the party of five would depend on the levels of the other three, would it not? If the other three were 7th-8th level single-class and your two were multi-class 9ths you'd probably fit right in power-wise.

Yeah, I can't remember the last time - if ever - I've DMed a party of just two characters in a full adventure (as opposed to what we call mini-dungeoning to catch someone up).

Due to self-isolation my normal game's down for a while, so just for kicks I've started running a game with my wife as the only player - but even there it's a 5-character party (and given the adventure I'm running, they'll need 'em!) in order to fill gaps; two of her own and three* adventuring NPCs which she'll by and large control the actions of.

* - two of whom are very similar; the party really only needs one of the two but the plot puts them both there.
I assumed 9th level characters.
Otherwise it is obvious that yoir extra leveks improve your character objectively, no matter how bad they synergize.

I am also playing curse of Strahd with just two PCs. One is a straight eagle totem barbarian, one is a hexblade bard. The game works well enough, even in that constellation. You need temporary help from NPCs for certain things, but for this adventure it helps you get into the story because you need to interact and find allies.

As long as you be a bit more generous with your xp and have your party of 2 a few levels ahead, you are good.
For the first 6 levels, the 3rd edition rule of being 2 levels higher means 2 times as strong holds more or less true. At level 7 you usually this falls a bit apart. Probably a level 8 character is as powerful as two level 5 characters and level 9 makes you twice as powerful as level 6.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
--> Respectfully, no. We've went through BECMI, the little books, AD&D 1st ed, AD&D 2.0, AD&D player's option, 3rd, 3rd and a half, 4th (or into Pathfinder 3.75 Ed basically), and now 5th edition.
I am not always very polite or very respectful of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, so you might take this with a grain of salt... but this list of D&D editions you've played, to establish your credentials, isn't merely the list of times the designers have changed major rules systems to make them "work better".

It's the list of categories of times they've made those changes, with each edition representing dozens or hundreds of little changes, and the three WotC "full" editions representing complete overhauls that nearly rewrote the previous games from the ground up.

You say that all of these changes are "in vain", and that a good group doesn't need them to have fun, but you've clearly paid for them several times.

--> Now, if you always play RAW and play standard modules exactly as is, yeah, you might see someone shining very brightly compared to the others. We just never seemed to experience that problem.
So, you changed the rules of the game to make it more balanced and fun for your players, and that's why it isn't necessary to change the rules of the game to make it more balanced and fun for your players?

--> Frankly, 3rd edition and 3.5 edition were the worst for having non-optimized builds be very uncompetitive (due to the need to feat stack and the existence of feats). 5E makes them largely optional and even without that, tend not to stack. That's one of 5E's better decisions.
I will agree whole-heartedly with the former statement... and as long as we're limiting ourselves to discussion of feats, I can agree with the latter.
 

Tom B1

Explorer
Much rather see each character have distinct strengths and weaknesses in order to encourage inter-reliance, and if your party has a glaring weakness then recruit an adventuring NPC (or roll up another PC and play two at once) to fill the gap.
I take it y our own group or groups then never go beyond 5 players? It's pretty hard to keep that distinction and let players create a character THEY want when numbers exceed 5.

I think the most we ever played with, over the course of 20 years in the same campaign world, was 12. But 7-9 was altogether unsurprising on any given day.

Just like how you adapt in smaller parties (multi-class characters, have PCs run multiple characters, or have a GM run some NPCs with the group - of which I actually think multi-class is the LEAST troublesome), in larger parties, one scales out. Our group at times included:

Swashbuckler/Rogue
Wizard (Necromancer but not officially as that would be illegal)
War Cleric 1
War Cleric 2
Moon Cleric
Paladin of Moon Cleric
Paladin of the War God
Fighter/Marshal
Psionicist/Thief
Fighter/Magic User
Fighter (Knight)/Marshal
Fighter
Fire Mage
Paladin of the God of Order
Bard
Fighter
Fighter (Knight)
Fighter (Knight)
Wizard (Elementalist - Fire)

NPCs that Travelled with the Team time to time
Ranger (Henchman)
Lizardman Fighter
Fighter
Fiighter

Now, you'd think that two Clerics at once, or three, would really be dimming each other's spotlight, but it wasn't that noticeable most of the time. Frankly the two War Clerics (of the same War God) got into a situation of a schism (each thought the other wasn't living according to the tenets of the faith). Because we restricted spell lists by God for flavour, having Clerics or Paladins of different Gods brought a lot of different things to the table. Similarly, all of our wizards were specialists (except the fighter/Magic User) and thus had very different spell lists. The Bard and the Fighter/Magic User usually had a different spell list than the Necromancer or the Fire Mage and tended to create or collect spells and items of different thematic nature and practical utility.

Recons and Infiltrations ran with usually the Bard and the Swashbuckler/Rogue and at times the Psionicist/Thief. The 'hard shell' and 'shock' element were Fighters, Knights, etc. The Clerics handled multiple concurrent healing cases (but weren't as good as a Cleric of the God of Healing but their Clerics were hardcore pacifists), trap stuff was dealt with by a mix of Clerics/Wizarrds/Rogue types. The Bard and Fighter/Marshal and the War Clerics were about defensive buffs, although the Necromancer eventually started creating disposable energy buffs for the sneak-and-peak squad because they complained about his artillery landing on them when he didn't know where they were.

Fights usually had either a lot of mooks/goons/minions and some tough guys, one to three really big baddies, or a pile of just moderately dangerous threats (Drow was a popular ongoing enemy force, but so were advanced Minotaurs, True Dragons and their minions (Draconians), and so on).

When you have a bunch of people at the table (more than 4 or at most 5), you learn to keep things moving, and the group as a whole agrees to generally limit splitting the party (recon was necessary, but it was usually somewhat expeditious and still involved a few players once the Clerics and Wizard types could scry or look for Omens).

You also understand that the team survives as a group in all cases. The times that we had partial PKs was because people got stupid ('Hey, we're fully engaged at the front, let's open some new doors at the back and trigger some new foes...'). The fights usually saw people down. At lower levels, that often enough meant deaths. At medium to high, they usually got stabilized and helped (eventually).

Without the hard ring, the mages wouldn't have lived (even once they got mobile and protected against ranged stuff, enemies like Drow could end up beside them). Without the Clerics combined defensive power, the large number of foes would often have swamped the team. Their ability to raise berms and walls and channelize the enemy as well as to contribute in fights or help keep the Wizards un-fatigued (we used fatiguing magic and a flexible spell point system from Players Option and then later equivalents) and heal them when they got scuffed, and the arcane casters were all about versatility, artillery, and counter-enemy arcane caster duty. Rogues would do recon and were flankers and strikers or sometimes deep penetration folk who tried to get to enemy casters/leaders.

We ran sessions with numbers of 6-9 fairly regularly, but we played with as few as 3, or as many as 12.

I don't ever recall anyone in the group ever making a big issue over game balance, even with:
  • flexible spell point magic balanced by fatiguing casting
  • feat stacks when we were in our 3.5 era
  • very customized classes from Players Option 2E when we were in that phase,
  • when we started in AD&D which had some allegedly serious balance issues with Cavaliers, Psionics, etc
  • Varied spell lists by gods (but expansive)
  • NPCs presence in the team (at some points, the party figured they needed some protection for the key casters, but didn't want to tie down the clercis, so for quite a few levels, NPC body guards for the key arcane casters was normal)

When we played with small numbers, we could do more individualized play. We also supported doing some separated-from-the-party stuff in play by post so it was resolved between sessions. When we had big crowds, it was all about a few key players helping the GM by moving the team along and ensuring people didn't dally in combats.

We played from AD&D, through the red 'Kit book' era, into 2E D&D, then into Skills and Powers, then into 3.5 edition, and now 5E. I think the last time I counted, we'd had maybe 25 different players in and out at times, with a core of 7 or 8. Technically, we had a hiatus in the early 2000s for a while, but we're back in that world now via VTT and some kids now playing. I honestly can't estimate the number of hours at the table - somewhere in between 40 a year and likely 120+ a year. So that's probably heading towards 1000-1200 overall now.

All that is to say, I've seen the skewed mechanics in every version, but if the players are encouraged to focus on story and group success, the only 'game balance' I need to worry about is whether the group as a whole has a good challenge day to day, no matter the size. I got pretty good at that.

No version of the game was unflawed. Generally, they improved stuff and broke others (bizarre attribute bonuses, the original Cavalier gave way to things like Feat stacking and free casting and so on as you went between versions). Think of this: Every game is complex beyond a simple boardgame and thus we have so many different ways to examine balance and however many you look at and try to balance against each other, you'll miss some. And every patch will break something else.

So at some point, it isn't laziness to not fix the rules. It's WISDOM that every set will be broken in someone's eyes in some scenario, but 95% of them can be worked around by focus on group success and the shared story. Every flawed version of D&D gave us many, many hours (and many, many, many person-hours) of great fun and great memories.

The ONLY time I think I ever changed a rule with any particular reference to game balance was chucking psionics. That wasn't because it was imbalanced (it sure as heck was in a world where the game engine didn't provide wholehearted integration with spells and items and class features to allow others to deal with psionics at least somewhat), it was mostly because it was a very weak system in that it had never been fully explored period - psionic items, interactions with other class abilities, etc. all were just not there and it provided yet a third or 4th sort of magical sourcing effectively and we found ourselves having so many unanswered questions even the player running the very potent psionic/thief combo agreed it was more time consuming and frustrating for everyone than it ought to have been. So we let that go and let him re-class.

I never changed game mechanics for balance beyond balancing open spell casting (spell points) with fatiguing casting. That one seemed obvious and worked well. Oh, I lied... we removed and early AD&D critical hit system we loved/hated because it could just kill you... and we realized people had invested time into their characters so that should not be a 20 followed by a high 90s percentile role. It made for some heroic sessions of death and sacrifice, but after a year or 18 months, we toned down criticals (but that was with everyone's agreement - not a cross class balance thing).

Other people seem to regularly worry about game balance because they have an illusion that it is possible and that every fix they put in isn't just bending the fabric of the game in another direction that will have its own flaws.

That may also be driven by people playing set piece, 3-act, railroad plot modules with specific enemies that the GM naively thinks will be a good match for any party mix and player mix that shows up. That's never been true, but the harder a GM tries to hew to it, the more frustrated they'll get thinking about this or that aspect of this or that rule or character build being unbalanced IME.

Sandbox gaming and nuggest & actors and a GM who has the experience to adjust foes well before the encounters for his team but can also tweak in play invisibly to get best challenge/lethality balance.... that's a much more adaptable mode and play balance is only discussed as how the party is enjoying its challenges as a group and how the story is unfolding (driven by player agency, not pre-assumed endings and plots).
 

Tom B1

Explorer
I assumed 9th level characters.
Otherwise it is obvious that yoir extra leveks improve your character objectively, no matter how bad they synergize.
In every version of D&D we played through, from original bare bones 1E to 5E, there are some minor sweet spots and some weaker choices. (but there are so many throughout any rules set, and every patch has a side effect, that you need to look to entirely different ways of understanding what balance means at the table).

I am also playing curse of Strahd with just two PCs. One is a straight eagle totem barbarian, one is a hexblade bard. The game works well enough, even in that constellation. You need temporary help from NPCs for certain things, but for this adventure it helps you get into the story because you need to interact and find allies.

As long as you be a bit more generous with your xp and have your party of 2 a few levels ahead, you are good.
For the first 6 levels, the 3rd edition rule of being 2 levels higher means 2 times as strong holds more or less true. At level 7 you usually this falls a bit apart. Probably a level 8 character is as powerful as two level 5 characters and level 9 makes you twice as powerful as level 6.
It's nice to be able to gauge what to throw at your players, but we used to play with up to a 4 level disparity and there was always stuff for the weaker characters to do - waves of enemies often had some flankers to take on, there's always a need for extra eyes and for trying to hit enemy leaders or casters with ranged fire, or for getting up some of the bigger characters after the enemies target their greatest threats. Level difference that is pronounced can kill in some situations - like the player who was supposed to join the group who were about Level 5-7 and he would have been level 4 but demanded to pay a 1st level character... and he ended up getting backsplash from a fireball, taking full damage, and dying. If he'd been even 2nd level, he'd likely have survived (definitely at 3rd or 4th).

That said, up to 3 or 4 level difference can work for a short time and the extra XP for 'working in an environment too rich for your blood' and XP curves will pull you up pretty fast.
 

Tom B1

Explorer
I am not always very polite or very respectful of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, so you might take this with a grain of salt... but this list of D&D editions you've played, to establish your credentials, isn't merely the list of times the designers have changed major rules systems to make them "work better".
I'm sure they tried, but they were guided by three things:
a) The illusion that you can build a complex system that won't always be broken in a myriad of ways
b) The illusion that you can patch any complex system without always having side effects that themselves may end up being worse (and unknown at first because 'hey, we fixed stuff!')
c) The commercial reality that if they ever made one perfect set of rules, they would never be able to sell edition after edition which each 'fixed' the ills of the last (and ironically, 5E came part way back to the OSR flavours as a fix... ah, the karmic circle comes around....)

It's the list of categories of times they've made those changes, with each edition representing dozens or hundreds of little changes, and the three WotC "full" editions representing complete overhauls that nearly rewrote the previous games from the ground up.

You say that all of these changes are "in vain", and that a good group doesn't need them to have fun, but you've clearly paid for them several times.
In my defense, and in a reasonable case I think, we must acknowledge that wisdom comes from experience. I didn't always have as much of it and I naively believed that 'the next one will fix this broken thing' and that usually led to buying from version to version.

That slowed with Player's Option 2E. We stuck there a long time because it was so flavour rich. We skipped 3.0. We skipped 4E. We only moved to 5E because 3.5E was actually more annoying to GM at higher levels (say 9-20) vs. older versions and b) new players wanted books and 5E had that and did, in its earliest core books, have some greater simplicity.

We debated going OSR, but 5E had enough callbacks to the simplicity and speed in play that mid to high level 3.5 didn't have. Nothing anywhere has touched the customization and ability to tailor a very specific flavour into characters that Player's Option rules introduced (and I will also say to tailor the magic systems - beyond spell points to different frameworks for 'elder god/monster' games to free casting, to pacts with things in the dark, to ... you name it). They gave the GM a huge toolkit for character and world customization in those rules.

We debated going back to AD&D rules, but there were a few minor things we didn't want to go back to:
a) Stat mods that were individual by stat
b) Clunkier save rules
c) Books not so well organized to find stuff

So, you changed the rules of the game to make it more balanced and fun for your players, and that's why it isn't necessary to change the rules of the game to make it more balanced and fun for your players?
In likely over 1000 hours in our long running campaign, I changed my outlook on whether individual subsystems needed repairs (they did and maybe on some level I could see why people think that even now) and hand in hand whether those repairs could make a better game (on the whole, no, because they just exposed side effects and there are too many aspects to patch and EVERY VERSION, including all home ruled versions, is broken in multitudes of ways).

It's just experience that taught me to focus on group vs. enemies experience, vs. character vs character worries which really end up not mattering.

The only things I ever rules changed because of annoyance were:

a) Going to softer crits after an early add on crit system proved a bit too unmitigatedly deadly which could lead to players losing characters in minor fights with bad luck

b) Psionics got tossed as a group decision because of its incomplete game integration and thus all sorts of time figuring out magic/psionic interactions or class power/psionic interactions or item/psionics interactions.

All other choices were actually made for flavour:
  • spell points let casters use what they needed vs and insured sometimes the utility spells that nobody ever memorizes in fixed slot casting got used
  • exhausting casting (it reminded us all of many great books of fiction where wizards would exhaust themselves casting their strongest magics)
  • a magic system that had varying densities by locations and even some 'meridian storms' which could make areas of magic quite volatile (for flavour)
  • a magical Talent stat governing magical ability for wizards (Gods just granted the hook to cast to their clerics, arcane casters had to build their own using their raw talent) existed mostly to differentiate clerical and wizardly magic and to help motivate some larger societal views (people feared/hated wizards because they were powerful and ungovered, clerics were okay because they needed their god to grant them casting power and they followed an ethos... and of course churches routinely did fearmongering to keep themselves as the keepers of magic and to scare everyone of wizards so that it wasn't that safe to be a low level wizard travelling alone)

We did things for flavour, not really for balance. Sometimes there was a short glance in balance's direction but again, we learned over time that balance of group and story-driven play meant that individual awesomeness could be okay (or mediocrity for those who wanted to pursue a non-optimized build and do their own thing - whereas if we didn't they'd have been seen as being a weak link in the team maybe).

I will agree whole-heartedly with the former statement... and as long as we're limiting ourselves to discussion of feats, I can agree with the latter.
A system like 5E PHB feats, with sane but interesting small customizations that don't stack, is a good character differentiator.

A system like 3.5E sells lots of books with lots of new feats and combinatrics but makes for some powerful synergies and a lot of weak ones so that tends to channelize character choices (most low to mid level fighters would benefit greatly from Cleave for instance).

I imagine 5E, to keep selling you new books, will continue in a slightly wiser way to splatbook or add things with every module adventure path thingie to keep people buying.

We've stayed with PHB, DMG, MM, and some other monster references plus home brew content (adapting out world's long held flavours) in 5E. Because we home brew and have a world, we can't use heavily place-specific and setting-specific hard cover adventure paths (so I have bought zero of them). I thought they'd make Saltmarsh setting-agnostic, but they walked that back and borked that up too.

Oddly, the best adventures for new players (our kids) are the original D&D/AD&D ones that were very generic - just do some 5E (or buy some 5E) conversions and you've got a module you can plunk into your own world without gross work. This is something WOTC just does not seem to see as a market - I guess they want everyone in their worlds and buying their adventure paths and they assume people now don't have time to brew their own world (or if they do, they'll brew their own adventures).

I'm not anti any particular version of D&D, each gave us good memories (my least favourite to play, and one we didn't adopt for my world, was 4E - perhaps the most thoughtfully balanced and playable - compared to anything that came before it - but the least rich in tactical thinking or character powers that made any sense...).

I just realized focus on particular systems is what we sometimes did in our group in the late 80s and early 90s, but by late 90s, we'd realized fixes beyond the dead simple usually came with drawbacks, any new version was just a new passle of bugs waiting to be found (just like a new MS OS!) and that if we rejigged our focus to story and group vs. GM foes, we'd be fine with whatever rules we used.

Note, I matured as a GM and also got better at remembering to give spotlight in sessions and between sessions (or to put scenarios where spotlight would logically fall on individual players) to every player. Some crave it more and thus seize it and the others who are more shy sometimes get it with a 'okay, I guess I need to come to the fore and be noticed' look, but it helps everyone be engaged to the extent they are comfortable with.

We're mostly all old enough friends to be family now. My play group is early 40s to early 50s. The core group has known one another since 1987-1989 so we all know what sorts of characters people play, how they are going to be as players at the table, and we all want each other to have their time to shine. That community spirit also helps.

Age has its drawbacks (higher risk of mortality in pandemics for instance) but it comes with some settling and recognition of what one should fuss about (or can usefully improve vs. just change).
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Age has its drawbacks (higher risk of mortality in pandemics for instance) but it comes with some settling and recognition of what one should fuss about (or can usefully improve vs. just change).
If me and my group like the final results better, if other DMs and other groups like them better, then I've made useful improvements. Changing large structural problems into more numerous, but smaller, corner cases that are easier to avoid or patch over is a major benefit.

It doesn't have to be perfect for everyone. It just has to be enough better for enough people to justify the effort I've put into it.
 

Tom B1

Explorer
If me and my group like the final results better, if other DMs and other groups like them better, then I've made useful improvements. Changing large structural problems into more numerous, but smaller, corner cases that are easier to avoid or patch over is a major benefit.

It doesn't have to be perfect for everyone. It just has to be enough better for enough people to justify the effort I've put into it.
Really, if it makes you and your group happy, that's the main thing. I fit doesn't, you can change it again (I've done that in the distant past a lot). I'm all in favour of the creativity people have and if they find something in the rules needs changed for them, then I think it is great that they can do that. Gary was the one who said roughly: If you don't like it change it. The only thing he could have included is 'as a group' vs. his DM-centric view. I think we're more collaborative now.

If someone outside your group finds y our changes good, that's icing on the cake. I've published Traveller stuff over the years with that in mind (even a stupid little app that calculated how fast an n-square-meter hole in an interior space of such and such a dimension would evacuate to the point where unprotected people would pass out... and a program to calculate the coordinates of any subsector, sector, etc. in Traveller with respect to the navigational aide Reference... I should find those old PHP scripts and see if they will still work on my AMP stack on my server...

Anyway, don't let me dim your zeal, just keep an eye out for the feeling that every new version is broken in new ways... it creeps up on ya :0)

Be safe.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Might as well ban it, then. I am not trying to advocate for class dips and pinpoint charop... but fundamentally, the 5e rules do not work and will not work in the way you want to force them to. There is no combination of classes in which a 6/4 is capable of pulling their own weight in a party of 10th level characters.
A 3 fighter/7 hexblade works pretty well, thank you very much.

But there are certain level combo that are awkward as you say, and multi-level characters can take a long time to "come online". For example, a 6/5 character can work quite well (fighter/rogue?).
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
A 3 fighter/7 hexblade works pretty well, thank you very much.
3/7 explicitly breaks the rules people are trying to lay down about multiclass combinations being roughly equal. I was being generous with 6/4 when most such proposals would require classes to be within one level of each other.

Three levels and done isn't multiclassing; it's the exact sort of class-dipping they're complaining about.

And waiting for 11th level to be able to finally function as a 6th level character is the exact problem I'm complaining about.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
3/7 explicitly breaks the rules people are trying to lay down about multiclass combinations being roughly equal. I was being generous with 6/4 when most such proposals would require classes to be within one level of each other.

Three levels and done isn't multiclassing; it's the exact sort of class-dipping they're complaining about.

And waiting for 11th level to be able to finally function as a 6th level character is the exact problem I'm complaining about.
Very well. Bard College of Sword 6, Hexblade 4 :p

And a 5:5 fighter rogue, or rogue/monk, would be very good.

But I agree with you, overall it's not great.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
The issue with this is .... we can't build the character who is a good fighter but can also dabble as a lock picker or a weak healer in that case.
The problem is making a system that works both for the equal-time multi-class and for the dabbler. AD&D did well for equal-time, and IMO PF2 works well for the dabbler. But AD&D fails the dabbler, and PF2 fails the full-on multi-classer.

In my opinion, this is an unavoidable consequence of D&D's escalating power curve, where the gap between each level at high levels is bigger than the gap between two levels at low level (as a general rule – there are definitely steps at lower levels that have more impact than steps at higher level, but the general trend is toward escalation). If you want a system where either method of multi-classing works, you need to do something like d20 Modern or Star Wars Saga, which were a lot flatter in their structures.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I take it y our own group or groups then never go beyond 5 players? It's pretty hard to keep that distinction and let players create a character THEY want when numbers exceed 5.
Sorry, but I'm having trouble understanding what you're saying here - please clarify.

My groups never go beyond 5 players (except rare one-offs) as the space I live in simply doesn't fit any more with any degree of comfort.

But, at any time a player may play two PCs at once should he-she so desire, which allows for a player to, for example, have one charaacter that's a bit more unusual while the second fills a gap.

Just like how you adapt in smaller parties (multi-class characters, have PCs run multiple characters, or have a GM run some NPCs with the group - of which I actually think multi-class is the LEAST troublesome), in larger parties, one scales out. Our group at times included:

<big party!>

Now, you'd think that two Clerics at once... <etc.>
Similar to your experience, I've found having multiples of the same general role within a party is rarely a problem; players are generally good at making them play differently just through the personalities and quirks and traits they give 'em.

Fights usually had either a lot of mooks/goons/minions and some tough guys, one to three really big baddies, or a pile of just moderately dangerous threats (Drow was a popular ongoing enemy force, but so were advanced Minotaurs, True Dragons and their minions (Draconians), and so on).
Most of the fights I've run lately seem to have been against one or two big foes rather than a bunch of lesser ones - just the way of it these days, and I'm sure the pendulum will swing back soon enough. :)

When you have a bunch of people at the table (more than 4 or at most 5), you learn to keep things moving, and the group as a whole agrees to generally limit splitting the party (recon was necessary, but it was usually somewhat expeditious and still involved a few players once the Clerics and Wizard types could scry or look for Omens).
Our lot split up all the time, and our pace of play many would consider to be glacially slow (even gets too slow for me sometimes, and I'm not one to normally care about such things), often due to out-of-game chatter and-or food/drink.

We ran sessions with numbers of 6-9 fairly regularly, but we played with as few as 3, or as many as 12.

I don't ever recall anyone in the group ever making a big issue over game balance, even with:
  • flexible spell point magic balanced by fatiguing casting
  • feat stacks when we were in our 3.5 era
  • very customized classes from Players Option 2E when we were in that phase,
  • when we started in AD&D which had some allegedly serious balance issues with Cavaliers, Psionics, etc
  • Varied spell lists by gods (but expansive)
  • NPCs presence in the team (at some points, the party figured they needed some protection for the key casters, but didn't want to tie down the clercis, so for quite a few levels, NPC body guards for the key arcane casters was normal)
I've tried spell points in the past, but went back to non-memorized slots. I've thought about deity-specific spell lists but with the number of deities in my games, life's too short. Closest I've got is to put deity-specific variants (DSV) on some spells e.g. a Cleric to a water deity will get double volume when casting Create Water, or double duration with Precipitation, that sort of thing; while taking a hit on any fire-based spells.

When we played with small numbers, we could do more individualized play. We also supported doing some separated-from-the-party stuff in play by post so it was resolved between sessions. When we had big crowds, it was all about a few key players helping the GM by moving the team along and ensuring people didn't dally in combats.

All that is to say, I've seen the skewed mechanics in every version, but if the players are encouraged to focus on story and group success, the only 'game balance' I need to worry about is whether the group as a whole has a good challenge day to day, no matter the size. I got pretty good at that.
Nice.

No version of the game was unflawed. Generally, they improved stuff and broke others (bizarre attribute bonuses, the original Cavalier gave way to things like Feat stacking and free casting and so on as you went between versions). Think of this: Every game is complex beyond a simple boardgame and thus we have so many different ways to examine balance and however many you look at and try to balance against each other, you'll miss some. And every patch will break something else.
Rather than jump from edition to edition like you did, I (and our crew) just started kitbashing 1e and never really stopped; and cloe to 40 years later it's still not perfect - I only hope it's maybe a bit better than it was.

That said, I've been tempted to go back and run a much-closer-to-1e-RAW game (except keeping our simplified init. system and ditching weapon-v-armour-type) just to see how it feels and to get a sense how far we've drifted.

So at some point, it isn't laziness to not fix the rules. It's WISDOM that every set will be broken in someone's eyes in some scenario, but 95% of them can be worked around by focus on group success and the shared story. Every flawed version of D&D gave us many, many hours (and many, many, many person-hours) of great fun and great memories.
Agreed.

My annoyance with the deginers comes when I see that their attempt to fix a particular problem has in fact made the same problem worse (polymorph abuse, i'm looking sruarely at you).

The ONLY time I think I ever changed a rule with any particular reference to game balance was chucking psionics. That wasn't because it was imbalanced (it sure as heck was in a world where the game engine didn't provide wholehearted integration with spells and items and class features to allow others to deal with psionics at least somewhat), it was mostly because it was a very weak system in that it had never been fully explored period - psionic items, interactions with other class abilities, etc. all were just not there and it provided yet a third or 4th sort of magical sourcing effectively and we found ourselves having so many unanswered questions even the player running the very potent psionic/thief combo agreed it was more time consuming and frustrating for everyone than it ought to have been. So we let that go and let him re-class.
I tried rebuilding psionics from the ground up several times. None worked. Psionics gone, at least for PCs (some monsters still get 'em).

I never changed game mechanics for balance beyond balancing open spell casting (spell points) with fatiguing casting. That one seemed obvious and worked well. Oh, I lied... we removed and early AD&D critical hit system we loved/hated because it could just kill you... and we realized people had invested time into their characters so that should not be a 20 followed by a high 90s percentile role. It made for some heroic sessions of death and sacrifice, but after a year or 18 months, we toned down criticals (but that was with everyone's agreement - not a cross class balance thing).
One of our sturdiest house rules is our fumble system. This came in in about 1982: roll 1/d20* then confirm with 1/d6 then roll d% on a DM chart to find out what you did. Other than minir tweaks to the chart this one's stayed locked in ever since.

* - or have your roll brought down to 1 by applied penalties, which in our system are always applied before bonuses; the chart for adjusted 1s is much less dangerous than the chart for natural 1s.

For crits (20/d20) we've always had a confirm die (actual die size/type has varied over the years) that takes all damage - as in, roll plus all bonuses - and either doubles, triples or quadruples it. For ages I've used a d10 to confirm, where 8 is x2, 9 is x3 and 0 is x4.

Other people seem to regularly worry about game balance because they have an illusion that it is possible and that every fix they put in isn't just bending the fabric of the game in another direction that will have its own flaws.

That may also be driven by people playing set piece, 3-act, railroad plot modules with specific enemies that the GM naively thinks will be a good match for any party mix and player mix that shows up. That's never been true, but the harder a GM tries to hew to it, the more frustrated they'll get thinking about this or that aspect of this or that rule or character build being unbalanced IME.
Particularly evident if the campaign is short enough that not all character types get a chance to be the star of an adventure.
 

Advertisement

Latest threads

In Our Store!

Advertisement

Top