Should the game be "balanced" and what does that mean?

I recently came across a twitter thread criticizing the lack of DM support in 5e that seemed to gain a lot of traction. The argument was this:


It seems to me a pretty common complaint, and especially one that pushes people to Pathfinder 2e (and perhaps also to Level Up or products like Flee Mortals from MCDM). The main objection with the lack of DM support is that the game is not "balanced" in a way that allows for the DM to play it with "mechanical integrity." I think this means that the author here wants as a DM to present authentically challenging encounters (where they don't have to fudge dice or HP) while still generally having the players emerge victorious if they are tactically competent. In sum, "combat as sport." This would supposedly enable WOTC to add in more character options (classes, feats, etc) without "breaking" the game (also similar to pathfinder 2 (apparently; I have no experience with pathfinder).

Now, contra some of the claims of the OSR, concern for game balance is not new to wotc editions. But "balance" and "breaking" are terms we use a lot in talking about games, and it might be worth interrogating what we really mean. What do we want if we want the game to be "balanced"? What counts as "breaking" the game? What does more DM support look like--a more streamlined game or one with more precise math? Extensive rules and subsystems (strongholds, magic item economy, water combat) or more vague advice on how to design your own?

For example, one response agreeing with the above twitter thread gave a very specific example of the 5e being unbalanced and not supporting DMs: random encounter tables that are not balanced for party level, so that 1st level characters have a chance of randomly meeting a manticore, which will tpk them. Because players will have their characters fight the manticore, rather than parlaying or running away. Is that what balance means? And if so, should a design ethos focused on balance and explicit and extensive rules underpin the game as a whole?

Note: this issue probably doesn't matter to most 5e players, and so perhaps shouldn't even be a concern for the revised edition. Carry on.
 

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Jer

Legend
Supporter
I had to go back to the very first post to see what he was talking about in context.

And then I laughed for a full 5 minutes.

Nearly 50 years of game play and revisions and new editions and that very first post with the complaint in it could have come from a Dragon Magazine letter written in 1983. Heck I probably can dredge up an issue that has a very similar Forum letter in it. Except it would have been written about AD&D 1e.

Anyway what is balance? Balance is the game runs at my table without me having to do a lot of work to make it run. What is an unbalanced game? An unbalanced game is one that gets away from me and my players in a way that makes it unfun for us because it turns into a job instead of a game.

I will also take issue with his second Tweet that you quote above - 5e actually IS a game whose mechanics, EXCEPT FOR THE COMBAT ENGINE, are a narrative focused rules-lite game. The game basically boils down to "roll a d20, add a number, try to beat a difficulty number" outside of combat - it doesn't get much more rules lite than that. It's a narrative focused rules-lite game with a slightly more complex tactical combat engine bolted onto it. The mistake is in thinking that because it has a somewhat crunchy somewhat tactical combat engine that means that all three "pillars" of the game are equally crunchy - and it really isn't.

And he's actually doing what I actually encourage folks who are thinking along these lines to do - start looking at other games! D&D is not and should not be the be-all end-all engine when it comes to RPGs. It's a great intro to the idea of roleplaying, and for some folks it's exactly in the sweet zone for rules and they never need to look any farther. But if you're hitting the limits of what the system can do and it's causing you to lose enjoyment in the system then trying a different game is exactly the right thing to do! It's what we always did once AD&D started to chafe.

Edit - on thinking about it further - "narrative focused' is wrong because there's actually no focus in the non-combat portions of the game at all. D&D's non-combat rules are a freeform improv framework. The focus has to be brought by the DM and the players at the table rather than by explicit rules to reinforce a narrative.
 
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payn

Legend
Well the random monster table sounds like its bad adventure writing and not an unbalanced game. This is a long held tradition of random tables. Some folks think there should be Froghemoths that 1st level characters can encounter if they are unlucky in the draw. Smart players should run away. Thats a bit old school of an idea I think. In nu skool, random encounter tables are constructed with thought in that any encounter on the table makes both narrative sense, and is something that the party should be able to handle. Further, bounded accuracy makes this actually work better than it has in the past. So, I don't find this argument about 5E very compelling.

Now the tweet in the OP, seems to be talking about missing rules for perceived important things. Sounds like some chafe against rulings over rules philosophy. You dont need a rule for every instance, the GM can just arbitrate it as necessary. This being seen as a weakness or imbalance, is sort of why rules over rulings was popular about 20 years ago. There certainly is a difference in playstyle here, but im unsure what it has to do with balance?
 

There certainly is a difference in playstyle here, but im unsure what it has to do with balance?
For example, players who want a magic item economy in which the power of a magic item is quantified in a more explicit way. But yes balance and dm support are somewhat conflated here
 

payn

Legend
For example, players who want a magic item economy in which the power of a magic item is quantified in a more explicit way. But yes balance and dm support are somewhat conflated here
Yeap, all part of the rulings over rules. Folks found even in the 3E era where they tried to explicitly make economies in the rulebook, they still made no sense. To me, this is like a macro complaint of the "only can do things on my character sheet" only its now "I can only do things in game that are in the rulebook." Both players and GMs could learn to be a little more flexible and quick on their toes with the game. Of course, some tastes like that combat as sport codified gaming style and its totally valid too. Though, they should keep in mind 5E is not a rules lite game. Its a rules lite D&D edition.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
To me, this is like a macro complaint of the "only can do things on my character sheet" only its now "I can only do things in game that are in the rulebook." Both players and GMs could learn to be a little more flexible and quick on their toes with the game.
I think that's a bit harsh - I do think that 5e does not do a great job of explaining what kind of game it actually is and expectations get set in wrong ways. Because it looks like the kind of game that wants to give you all of the answers - I mean, there are 3 whole books of rules! Long tables of equipment! Pages and pages of magic items and a whole DMG full of stuff! Shouldn't all of your answers be in there somewhere?

And I think that lack of explanation of what kind of game it is stems from its origin as a compromise edition between the folks who thought 3e and 4e were just too much complexity and wanted to go back to a more freeform handwavy game and the folks who liked the structure that 3e and 4e brought but thought that it took things too far. And I personally also suspect that Wizards basically thought this edition was going to be the "caretaker edition" where they'd keep the game in print and the brand active as a low selling game with a reduced staff to support it so they didn't need to really engineer the heck out of the game they way they did with 3e and 4e - and then were surprised to find out that the market was hungry for an under-engineered game again. I think that they don't explain what kind of game it is because they didn't really know what they were making when they made it and stumbled into something by accident. Heck sometimes I'm not sure they've figured out what kind of game they've made even after 8 years of shepherding it...
 

Yeap, all part of the rulings over rules. Folks found even in the 3E era where they tried to explicitly make economies in the rulebook, they still made no sense. To me, this is like a macro complaint of the "only can do things on my character sheet" only its now "I can only do things in game that are in the rulebook." Both players and GMs could learn to be a little more flexible and quick on their toes with the game. Of course, some tastes like that combat as sport codified gaming style and its totally valid too. Though, they should keep in mind 5E is not a rules lite game. Its a rules lite D&D edition.

I agree...I think 5e could handle being a rules lite game with rules medium combat when it was just the PHB. Looking at the new UA, it strikes me that every addition and change (feats, races, class features) makes the combat part of the game more complex and slower without, seemingly, satisfying the subset of players who want a more balanced, tactical combat-as-sport game. I know this happened with 3e--bloat--but if they want to make revised 5e and continuation of the current, I don't know what exactly they can (except to stop publishing new character options)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I recently came across a twitter thread criticizing the lack of DM support in 5e that seemed to gain a lot of traction.

First, just to clear the air here - 5e does not pretend to be a narrative-focused, rules lite game. This is just... incorrect. It may be seen as slightly more narrative focused and lite than some previous editions. But it has no pretensions of being lite or narrative as compared to the broader gaming ecology out there.

I have seen this assertion before in discussions here - they are usually the result of someone taking what another person has said, driving it to a pole, and asserting the game itself claims to be thus. But in all honestly, if you look at the game itself, it doesn't.

That aside, and ignoring other nitpicks on the twitter thread, yes, I think going forward the game should be balanced. And I mean balance in the sense that by and large, most choices available to players should be fairly effective ones. Balance, from my perspective, is a quality of a system that means the GM does not usually need to work hard to correct for mechanical disparities that lead to disparities in spotlight time and effectiveness. A player should be able to open the book, make standard choices, and not end up feeling like they made errors, or are stupid, or their character is worthless to the party.

I don't care about balanced economic systems, for example - real economics is tedious, picayune, and poorly understood even by economists.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
For all the disparaging of people wanting the rules they paid for to actually have rules and rather insist they be able to improv...

Then the books should have some discussion and instruction on how to improv.

If every answer to the players' questions is 'ask you DM', then the DMG should be telling the DM how to answer and how to arrive at those answers.

And I get why it's not. I'm writing a DMG-type section right now and it's hard, especially when you're 20 years deep into DMing by the seat of your pants and can throw out new NPCs like ninja stars. But the fact of the matter is, anyone actually trying to read the thing is not going to be a seasoned game-runner and is going to need guidance on hoe to get there.

Guidance that, not just in 5e, but historically, across most of the hobby, has not been there in the books.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
To me the balance that matters is balance between the PCs. You don't want a BMX Bandit/Angel Summoner situation. The DM can always make encounters smarter/tougher, sometimes merely by changing tactics.

And I've been discovering that the balance between PCs is... fraught, because player skill matters almost as much (and sometimes a LOT MORE) than the PC's powers.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
Then the books should have some discussion and instruction on how to improv.
yes. This. They absolutely should. And it's so much easier now than it was 30 years go because the basics are all right there - have the players roll a die and add a number and decide what happens. The DMG would be far more useful to new players - though far less useful to me personally - if it had just some casual essays on DMing from different points of view and how to make those kinds of decisions rather than what DMGs have tended to be over the decades. Just knowing that there's more than one way to make these decisions and that's why you get to make the decisions is like half of figuring these things out.
 

I think, broadly speaking, that balance means the game is fun to play. Is D&D 5E fun to play? The game as written in the PHB? I believe so. Maybe not as fun as I think it could be (hence the homebrew rules I’ve made), but fun enough that if a friend were to invite me to a basic game I’d jump at the chance. No TCoE or XGtE needed.

So yes, balance is needed.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
To me the balance that matters is balance between the PCs. You don't want a BMX Bandit/Angel Summoner situation. The DM can always make encounters smarter/tougher, sometimes merely by changing tactics.

Exactly correct. The DM has (edited)huge amounts of room to adjust encounter difficulty, but if the PCs themselves are imbalanced, the play experience suffers.

As for what that means? It means any given PC needs to be to allow the player to adequately contribute during the game session. And yes, contribution is certainly player dependant but if some PCs are able to do anything another one can do AND still do their own schtick, play will suffer for PC white playing second fiddle.

And I've been discovering that the balance between PCs is... fraught, because player skill matters almost as much (and sometimes a LOT MORE) than the PC's powers.

I think there are elements of this. Interestingly, I've found that player skill tends to matter in different ways than people think.

For example, conventional wisdom is that casters require more player skill than non casters and that players tend to play them once they get better with the rules.

But I've found it usually takes greater player skill to design and effectively play a non caster because non caster players have to know the rules better and how to use them better than caster players in order to effectively keep up. Especially in multiple tiers of play.
 
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For all the disparaging of people wanting the rules they paid for to actually have rules and rather insist they be able to improv...

Then the books should have some discussion and instruction on how to improv.

If every answer to the players' questions is 'ask you DM', then the DMG should be telling the DM how to answer and how to arrive at those answers.

And I get why it's not. I'm writing a DMG-type section right now and it's hard, especially when you're 20 years deep into DMing by the seat of your pants and can throw out new NPCs like ninja stars. But the fact of the matter is, anyone actually trying to read the thing is not going to be a seasoned game-runner and is going to need guidance on hoe to get there.

Guidance that, not just in 5e, but historically, across most of the hobby, has not been there in the books.
This, this, this, a thousand times this.

I have only been GMing with this edition, since 2015. Learning how to GM is/was very difficult, and is a perishable skill, especially early on. Figuring out how to balance different player expectations, the nebulous rules of exploration and social interaction, when rewards should be given out, and how to pace the game should be done for me in the DMG. I shouldn't have to go trawling up youtube videos, hopping on tiktok, or digging into 50 year old forums in order to run the game.

Almost every single RPG in print right now indeed suffers this same flaw.
 

On top of that, the word "balance" ought to have an official definition! If it is THAT important to the game, then the game should explain to you what literally BALANCE means. Not doing so and leaving it to us to argue is assinine!
 

On top of that, the word "balance" ought to have an official definition! If it is THAT important to the game, then the game should explain to you what literally BALANCE means. Not doing so and leaving it to us to argue is assinine!
The manticore example struck me, since what was seemingly annoying about it is that it is an unbalanced encounter for level 1 characters. Unbalanced there means that it is overly deadly if engaged in straight combat. I personally don't see the problem with that; that's when you come up with other strategies (including running away).
 

TwiceBorn2

Adventurer
For example, one response agreeing with the above twitter thread gave a very specific example of the 5e being unbalanced and not supporting DMs: random encounter tables that are not balanced for party level, so that 1st level characters have a chance of randomly meeting a manticore, which will tpk them. Because players will have their characters fight the manticore, rather than parlaying or running away. Is that what balance means? And if so, should a design ethos focused on balance and explicit and extensive rules underpin the game as a whole?

Note: this issue probably doesn't matter to most 5e players, and so perhaps shouldn't even be a concern for the revised edition. Carry on.

I concur with those who would like relative balance between PC powers at a given level. PC powers don't need to be absolutely equal at every level, but they should be roughly comparable so that everyone feels they can contribute equitably.

I am not in favour of complete balance in random encounter tables. As far as I'm concerned, appropriate thematic content in those tables is more important than balance between PCs and adversaries. And within that thematically appropriate content, the tables should contain a range of difficulties, from easy to difficult (i.e., you'd best hide or runaway). We don't live in a "level-balanced world," and I don't think the PCs in the fantasy RPGs I run should, either. They shouldn't be able to outright slaughter everything they encounter. The game has far more tension and excitement when the PCs have reason to fear some of the creatures they encounter, and question their ability to take them head on.

And I make that clear to my players when I start an adventure or campaign. "You are not playing in a level-balanced world. You may encounter things that are deadly and not realistic for your characters to take on. It's up to you to assess risk, and to live with the consequences if you assessed an encounter incorrectly." Of course, I as DM am responsible for dropping a few clues in advance regarding the potential lethality of any given encounter. If the players pick up on the clues, excellent... if they overlook or ignore them, oh well, live and learn.

I am grateful that my players are on the same page and enjoy my approach to GMing. YMMV.
 

MGibster

Legend
I don't think WotC or any of the writers have ever asserted that D&D is a narrative focused rules lite game. I would laugh at such an assertion if I ever heard anyone voice that opinion followed by a confused, "Wha-? You're serious?" I admit to having a hard time figuring out what player characters can do with all the loot they accumulate. Yeah, the possibilities are near endless, but a lot of the ideas aren't usually possible for itinerate adventurers who don't spend a lot of time in one spot. D&D has gone far beyond its simply dungeon roots, maybe it's time to rethink how treasure works. And I do know the DMG has some ideas for rewards to give players aside from gold.
 

Oofta

Legend
I think perfect balance is a myth, as well as calling D&D rule lite or crunchy is danged nebulous.

You can hand two people exactly the same PC and one will likely be more effective than the other. It's just reality. In my home game we have a 16th level monk ... who rarely spends more than 1 or 2 ki points per day. We have a battlemaster fighter that's used maneuvers so few times I could probably count them without taking off my shoes.
Every once in a while I remind him he can do an action surge because otherwise he never uses them.

I'm glad they're in my group and we have a lot of fun, but there is no way that they are as effective running their PCs as I have been with similar PCs. As far as we're concerned though, the game is still enjoyable and balanced because everyone feels like they contribute.

I've never used random tables straight out of the book in any edition, they never made a lot of sense to me. Fortunately they aren't exactly a core tenet of the game.

As far as rule "lite" or "heavy", it's a spectrum. Want a truly lite game? Go out in your back yard and play cops and robber shouting "bang" at each other. I think 3.x was far more rules heavy, but then again for certain aspects so was 2E. It just depends on what you're looking at and, to a large degree, personal preferences and expectations. I'm not even sure how I would rank 4E because powers and interactions were very explicitly defined but could be quite complicated in play.

I guess I read things like this and simply think "Okay, D&D 5E isn't for you. Can't you just say that and move on? No game can work for everyone, all of this feels like fluffery to prop up your opinion. That's fine I suppose, but it's not really saying much and just as important it's not necessary."
 

The manticore example struck me, since what was seemingly annoying about it is that it is an unbalanced encounter for level 1 characters. Unbalanced there means that it is overly deadly if engaged in straight combat. I personally don't see the problem with that; that's when you come up with other strategies (including running away).
This is a distinct lesson the books don't teach.

For players, the lesson is "there are many ways to deal with creatures. Fighting is one, but only one. Running, talking, sneaking past, and others."

For dm's, the lesson is "don't start the encounter by rolling initiative. Players should always have a chance to see things coming and if they see it they should have a choice in how to approach it."

So the manticore is fine on a level 1 random encounter table IF the dm knows that rolling a manticore should be followed by 'evidence of a manticore in the area' and not 'a manticore attacks.'
 

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