D&D 5E What is balance to you, and why do you care (or don't)?

James Gasik

So a lot of discussions about the game come down to balance. Is it a goal? Should it not be a goal? I really hope this doesn't bog down in arguments, as all I want is opinions. I have my own feelings on the topic, which often clash with those of others. Every gamer is different and has differing desires for a game system.

I marked this as a 5e discussion since there are rumblings of changes in the game's future, but obviously, this topic is applicable to any game or gaming experience. I'll start with my personal view.

Let's compare game design to music. In the studio, bands can spend long hours, weeks, months even, searching for that elusive quality- perfection. You have a group of creative people, working together, but trying to push their vision to the forefront. The result is a mishmash of different takes, take a little bit from session A, add in a bit from session B, maybe use that awesome drum solo from session C, and sure, we can keep the xylophone bit to please our producer, but then overdub it to the point it's barely audible on the final track! If you did your job right, you have a classic on your hands.

Otherwise, it's a hot mess.

But live? On stage? It's not about perfection. It's about the moment. Connecting with your audience, and blowing them away with your passion and energy. So you're exhausted from touring. You're all out of tune. So you forgot some of the words (decades later, people will remember the time you quipped "does anybody remember laughter?" in the middle of a song). Your drummer decides this would be the perfect time for a 20 minute solo! It doesn't matter, as long as everyone leaves the auditorium energized.

Thus I feel balance is a goal at the design stage, where everything is white room simulations. Get the game running like a fine tuned machine. But be fully aware that, for the players, it's about the moment when Bob's Rogue jumps on the back of a dragon and stabs it in it's eyes! When a Wild Surge explodes in the face of your Sorceress, but takes out the BBEG (or just turns her into a tween girl). When the Barbarian rolls a 1 when trying to dive off a cliff into icy water, lands in the rocks and vanishes into the brine...only to throw a thumbs up out of the water and say "it's ok, I'm fine!" after taking 50 points of damage.

In these moments, the rules need to be able to fall away, and not interfere with the story.

But balance is important. If one class does a thing better than the other, and doesn't seem to give anything up for that privilege. When one Feat is simply better than another in every way. When two spells of the same level have wildly different strengths. That leads to questions. Is this feature too strong? Broken?

Or is the other too weak? If one player is getting too much "spotlight time", or another has an ability that trivializes challenges (be they combat or otherwise), then we switch from "balance isn't important" to "what the heck is this over/underpowered garbage doing in my game?".

Games have rules to resolve conflicts. Otherwise, it's all cops and robbers. "Bang bang, you're dead!" "No, I have armor!" "I shot you in the head!" "You missed!"

I feel we need to be able to trust these rules to function when they are needed. Not "well we didn't fully balance the game, but you can figure that out". By that same token, you could create a game where the rules work perfectly fine, and we can figure out when we can ignore them, no?

Obviously, comparing apples and oranges is impossible. We know that Fighters are supposed to be strong in combat. We know that Rogues have many more out of combat options than Fighters. So obviously, no one expects Rogues to be able to fight like Fighters. But at the same time, we don't want to get into a fight and have a Rogue stand around and plink things with arrows and try not to die! Perhaps like me, you saw way too much of that in the murky past, when Rogues were called something that started with a "T".

But the reverse is true. We don't want Fighters scratching their heads and looking dumb when the game shifts to "so we need to infiltrate the Slaver's fortress". We need a game that says "no Rogue? no problem!"

And yet...when we give ways for other classes to succeed at these tasks, we run the risk of trivializing the Rogue. Stealth mission? "Hey I can cast Pass Without Trace! or Invisibility!". Sure, those are limited resources, but it doesn't matter if, that one time the Rogue was like "alright! time for me to shine!" and another character, who already has had times to shine, comes in and steals their thunder.

A lot of this falls upon the DM/GM/ST/Judge/Referee to balance. To create scenarios where that shouldn't happen. Or hand out nerfs to abilities that are working too well/buff abilities that aren't working well enough.

The question I always have when this occurs is "did it have to be this way? Did the developer of the game think to themselves 'say, this is a really good option? too conservative?'. Or were they just tasked with creating 30 new spells to round out a new product for sale?".

And that's why I think balance is an important goal. Otherwise, you could just as easily create your own game (such as the version of D&D under construction on these very forums).

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Firstly, balance is inherently contextual. The balance of a free-for-all PVP game will be very different from the balance of a purely cooperative game. This means we need the context for D&D (since I presume that's the balance you want to talk about).

In terms of its game (as opposed to its equally-important roleplay), D&D is a cooperative game of adventure, growth, exploring a world and its contents, and overcoming challenges.

As a result, I take "balance" to mean:
  • Unless explicitly stated otherwise, options that players must choose between (e.g. two distinct races) are of approximately equivalent average worth, over both comparative short-term and long-term scales. In practice: someone choosing to play Druid instead of Wizard should not make them dramatically more, nor dramatically less, capable of securing "success" for the team than anyone else.
  • The designers have (a) decided on the purposes the game is intended to fulfill (e.g. the "Pillars" of combat, exploration, and socialization are various purposes), (b) set clear and identifiable goals for how those purposes will be enacted (e.g. "some classes are more defensive, while others are more offense oriented"), and (c) developed testable metrics for whether those goals have been met and actually followed through with the testing to ensure they have been so.
  • Because D&D uses randomness as part of its resolution system, "balance" must be allowed to vary around a central tendency. This, combined with the variation between tables, means that "balance" cannot ever be "perfect," but instead can be expected to fall within certain acceptable ranges, while allowing for the possibility that, sometimes, things will go pear-shaped. That's how probability works.
  • The rules are designed such that future additions are unlikely to have deleterious effects propagate back into already established mechanics. That is, using tools like exception-based design and careful selection of keywords, you create a hierarchic structure within the rules, such that in general implications only go "one way" (down the chain, from higher-order, more-generalized effects down to the lower-order, more-specific effects). This helps avoid accidentally creating paradoxes or infinite loops or the like.
  • Being honest with yourself and the players about whether or not an effect is actually workable in practice. Wish, as originally conceived, is fundamentally unworkable; it encourages a BS arms-race between players giving ever-more-perfectly-specific wishes that can't be fouled up, and DMs inflicting ever-greater harm or punishment for overpowered wishes. Such mechanics simply cannot be just dropped into the lap of a player who wants them. Instead, they need to be handled very differently; this doesn't mean wish has NO place in D&D....but it does mean it has no place as a spell ordinary wizards of high enough level can learn to cast. I find a LOT, and I mean a LOT, of players are unwilling to admit that certain things just cannot play nice with being available as generic rules, and instead need to be turned over to DM-provided boons or the like.
A game that hits all of these points is almost certainly going to be well-balanced.

As for why these things are important? I personally think it's very simple, but apparently a lot of other people don't. D&D is a game. It is also roleplay. Both of those things are vitally important. A game requires balance, and in this context it must be appropriate balance for a cooperative game.

One chooses to play a game, rather than simply roleplay without rules at all (which is quite doable, I did that for many years), because the game part adds something to the experience. A game invites strategy, because a game can be played poorly vs played well, in the sense of "succeeding less" vs "succeeding more." But for a game to be worth playing, the strategy must be non-trivial and learnable. In order to learn how to play the game, the player must be able to make informed choices (so they can actually strategize in the first place), and must be able to clearly see how their choices led to the consequences (so they can actually learn from both success and failure). If the player is constantly acting on false information, they are not learning how to play. If the consequences are disconnected from what the player chose to do, then they will falsely associate those consequences with their choices, when in fact some other thing caused those consequences.

Making informed choices is much easier with a balanced game, because one need not be constantly looking for hidden gotchas nor second-guessing whether one has chosen an actually effective option or a dud. Likewise, in a well-balanced game, it is significantly easier to learn from the consequences of one's actions, because similar inputs will necessarily lead to similar outputs (up to the randomness of the dice, of course). Hence, balanced systems foster greater strategy, and thus offer superior gaming.

If one wishes to have a D&D that respects the fact that it is just as much a "game" as it is roleplaying, then it follows that balance is necessary. This, of course, naturally leads to questions of where, what, and how, but those are entire threads in their own right, so I will not answer those questions here.
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Busy Sunday, another pandoras box thread!

at base balance mean some sort of equality and thus need some sort of measurement.
and measurement In DnD become rapidly very clunky. How do you measure hold person vs spiritual weapon?

But most important is what you want to balance?
Fun, Role play, combat efficiency?

how do you measure a social encounter. On the success of the last skill check? On the informations gathered? On the fun players has during it?

Balance discussion is useful when it allow the know what players are looking for in the game.
It allow to know the various gauge of the players, and thus to provide a more satisfying play.


Balance is a game design theory that is a useful for game designers work, but not something I care about as a DM or player in D&D.

If the DM & players are more into role playing & story than Char Op (character optimization) or Min-Max, and you stick to the Core Rules for your edition rather than emphasizing the late-in-edition, semi-intentionally overpowered stuff, Balance isn’t a major concern.

For example, in the thread about a player who wanted to use a Wish to become a vampire for Char Op, Balance advocates said it was unfair and should not be allowed or it could be allowed but then it must be an NPC.

I say, as Mr. Balance isn’t important, say “Yes, and” like an improv troupe - let the player do it, but have it actually change the character, and launch the story in a new direction, to convert the player from thinking DPS to thinking “What’s it like to be a vampire”.

Worrying about whether Spike the Vampire, with all his advantages and disadvantages, is better than Willow the Witch or Xander the Fighter, gets in the way of actually having fun playing the character, imho.

Balance is a game design theory that is a useful for game designers work, but not something I care about as a DM or player in D&D.

If the DM & players are more into role playing & story than Char Op (character optimization) or Min-Max, and you stick to the Core Rules for your edition rather than emphasizing the late-in-edition, semi-intentionally overpowered stuff, Balance isn’t a major concern.

For example, in the thread about a player who wanted to use a Wish to become a vampire for Char Op, Balance advocates said it was unfair and should not be allowed or it could be allowed but then it must be an NPC.

I say, as Mr. Balance isn’t important, say “Yes, and” like an improv troupe - let the player do it, but have it actually change the character, and launch the story in a new direction, to convert the player from thinking DPS to thinking “What’s it like to be a vampire”.

Worrying about whether Spike the Vampire, with all his advantages and disadvantages, is better than Willow the Witch or Xander the Fighter, gets in the way of actually having fun playing the character, imho.
Would it surprise you, then, to learn that I—a DEEPLY passionate advocate for balance—was not only completely in favor of the wish exactly as presented, but specifically proposed useful ways the DM could roll with it to produce more interesting story?

Because the issue with wish (as noted in my post above) is not that it exists at all. The issue with wish is that it is available to LITERALLY EVERY Wizard who reaches the appropriate level, who can then start doing her best Disney villain impression.

As a generic, anyone-can-learn-it spell, wish is broken, and always will be.

But as something worked out between DM and player, with forethought, care, and individual attention, wish can be a beautiful thing.

A well-balanced game excludes things like wish from its GENERIC mechanics, meant for general consumption without needing prior review. That does not mean that these mechanics are excluded entirely. They're just reserved for the place they should be: conversations between DMs and players.


My view has definitely shifted over the years. I used to get caught up in numbers and tiers and all that stuff - now I think balance only ever matters at the table you are currently playing on. At the end of the day if everyone is happy, the balance is right. If they aren’t, talk about it and work out changes to help fix any perceived issues.

This might be different in public games because there needs to be an equity of experience and strangers might not embrace this as readily as friends. But in private games, balance is infinitely less important than fun.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
There's (at least) two types of balance when the topic comes up in D&D.

First, there's player balance that you're describing that exists between the players (PvP). Then there's game balance between the players' side and the game system, or the environment side (PvE). The latter can also be described as the DM side, as it the game master's responsibility to ensure the game side of things are dialed-in appropriately to challenge the group while meeting their expectations. Since we're talking about classes and equivalent worth between players, I'll assume this discussion is about the former.

But rather than delve into the design features and flaws of various editions, I'll just speak to the players directly: Stop worrying about other people. Assuming they didn't choose your character for you, you decide the characters you wanted to play and how you want to play them. So unless they are opposed to your choices, you should be able to participate as much as you like within the social contract that exists in a healthy cooperative game environment.

Also, don't wait for rules and options to allow you to do specific things. Nor allow them to temper your actions in a roleplaying game. That's just nonsense! Just because you don't have the highest Charisma score in the group doesn't mean you can't talk or interact with anyone else in the world. Not everything hinges on a skill check or a combat roll, nor should it.

Likewise, don't be afraid to fail. Players have this weird tendency not to do anything instead of risking a bad roll or failed attempt. There's going to be a LOT of rolls in D&D, so you can't expect to maximize every attempt with skills, spells, help, divine intervention, and anything else you can think of in case that one result is going to unlock something special just for you. (Spoiler alert: it probably won't.)

If you're not enjoying the character you're playing for some reason, then try telling your group and see what they suggest. They may let you swap the character for another, provided this isn't a regular habit of yours. Or just they might make a considerate effort to help in some other way to let you enjoy your experience with them as part of the team.

Keep in mind that issues like this are usually blown way out of proportion on forums and online discussions. In real life, they are nowhere near as traumatic (dramatic?) as one might want us to believe. This is especially true in private games played among personal friends and acquaintances.
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So for me, balance in DnD relates to combat and how having 1-2 characters who are significantly more powerful than the rest of the party can throw off encounter design, most of which tends to relate to defensive stats like AC or forms of damage mitigation and the like. So as example, if say the ACs of party members range from say 12 on the low end to 18 or so at the high end, it's not going to be a huge deal. But if say the high end has an AC of 24+, now it is having a deforming effect on encounter design. Either enemies that are meant to reasonably hit the lower AC party members (40-60% of the time is a good ballpark imo) will most likely miss the supertank, or you scale up the accuracy of the enemies to hit Capt Brick, but that means you will almost always hit the lower AC members. I have even made it a point to ask more optimized inclined players to rein in AC creep and to instead work on other avenues of character enrichment, so that encounters can be more enjoyable overall.

For me, the general answer to "what is balance in DnD?" the most important answer is "when each player has roughly equal opportunity to contribute to the team."

A couple clarifications:

"Roughly equal" means no one notices the imbalance. It's okay if one barbarian pc does more damage than another if the gap is small enough that players don't pick up on it. But "noticeable" is a subjective category: some players will track every point of damage dealt and add them up and notice that Abby did 4 more damage than Beth over the course of the dungeon and feel bad about it. (Obviously that's an outlier)

"Opportunity to contribute" isn't the same as "contribution" - if Dave is a quiet player who always turns down the opportunity to engage with an npc and prefers to watch Fred rp because Fred is funny - Dave has not been slighted. Which brings up another point - any part of the game that gets played counts.

"Contribute to the team" does depend on my assumption that DnD is a team game. You can play it otherwise but I don't like that - and "contribution" is also deliberately vague. Combat effectiveness is really hard to pin down anyways in a game with many and varied control spells, but there are non-combat ways to contribute as well, which need to be considered.

In my experience, 5e's rules do a pretty good job keeping the game balanced, at least in as much as rules are a factor. The only imbalances I've seen come from not engaging with the game the way the dm intended or dm favoritism, not bad subclasses or whatever (although I haven't seen all the subclasses in play.)

Anyways, if no one's feeling overshadowed then the game is balanced enough, at least for that table.

Balance should definitely be a goal when designing the game. Perfect balance is going to be unachievable for D&D however.
For example in a combat-heavy game, the much-discussed balance between casters and martials is going to be reliant on the rest pattern of the adventuring day - which (currently at least) the designers cannot compensate for.

Balance is something that the DM will have to work for in-play as well. Ensuring that the entire group is engaged, no-one feels left out etc.

I see mainly two forms of balance:
  1. A fair distribution of spotlight between the players
  2. A comparable mechanical output (e.g. damage) between different character options given the same mechanical input (e.g. experience points)
I care a lot about the former, and not so much about the latter (not unless it impacts the former).

Forgot about the third form: preparing opposition for the players in a form that it presents a meaningful, but manageable challenge. Similar to point (2), I don't care much about this.
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For me, balance is providing a challenging encounter that may or may not be deadly depending on their tactics and dice rolls.

However, the players should also know when they are in over their heads, and have the sense to run away.


Really balance is about characters at the table having equal opportunities and fun.

Mechanics can certainly tilt that one way or another with "OP builds" and optimizers but the DM can easily tilt it back to center most of the time.

In the official rules the only think I can think of that is really unbalanced is the Strixhaven backgrounds, if you apply them elsewhere. If you keep them in strixhaven (where everyone is a student) even they are fine.

As an Old School DM I don't use the concept of balance at all in a game. Balance as a game design thing is just silly. Ask anyone to "balance" and they will do so. Some might agree to the "balance"...but some, maybe most won't. Balance is an unattainable goal.

A lot of balance problems that people have are because of play styles. People play the game one set way they choose, and then find that way disrupts ("unbalances") game play. But when this is pointed out to a gamer, they will simply ignore it.

The classic example:

At a high level, past say 10th level characters might encounter a flying ghost like foe. A mundane fighter that can't fly and has no magic at all can't do anything in this combat. So the player will just sit and do nothing. Many will say this is normal and acceptable and part of the game, while also saying they greatly dislike this. But as this is made into the rules, most feel nothing can be done.

At high level, say past 10th, characters might encounter an anti-magical glade with savage foes. The high magic spellcasters can't do anything in this combat. So the players will just sit and do nothing. Except here nearly everyone will be screaming that not only is this wrong, but it must never be done in a game.

So, why the difference? Why is it that doing massive negative things to a mundane character so they can't even play the game perfectly fine. But even the idea of doing anything to effect spellcasters will never even be considered?

Why is it fine to say to a player of a fighter or rogue character to just sit back as they can't play the game for a couple minutes? But it's unacceptable to tell the player of a wizard or cleric that they can't play the game even for just a couple seconds?

And that is one of the big "balance" problems right there. But the problem is the decisions of the gamers, not the game rules. Everyone plays the game how ever they want and that is all good and fine. But when you only drive your car on a rough rocky roads and find the ride quite bumpy....you don't stop and say that the cars tires must not be balanced.
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I am very old school on balance, it is my job to maintain balance and know my players and what they can and can not do so that one does not overpower the rest. I much prefer games that help with that but when it comes to encounters mine are concocted with the idea that my players aren't stupid and won't fight everything they come across. I find encounter design that focuses on a mathematical balance to be artificial and narratively janky. My players know when they are fourth level not to fight the Titan or Great Wyrm. They know not every creature they encounter requires blood, in fact, none of them do and they get the XP for overcoming the encounter without bloodshed. The same people who seem to take umbrage with DMs who run encounters with 5th level characters finding groups of stone giants seem to also be the ones who question violence and violent encounter design. Shift your play expectations. My Starfinder game is action heavy. My D&D game is roleplay heavy. We rarely roll for combat.

On encounter balance:

One of the big differences I notice between players/dms is where the encounter starts.

For some players/dms, the encounter starts as soon as the first evidence that a monster might be present is given - in which case, the players should take into account that said monster might be present and make choices based on that information. Other players/dms assume the encounter begins when initiative is rolled. The disconnect this can create is: if the encounter begins with evidence, than an unfightable monster that can be avoided is entirely fair. After all, the players had the information they needed to not get killed. Either don't go there or be sneaky if you do. This does assume avoid-ability, but that's usually assumed in these cases.

If players/dm's don't think of the encounter as starting before initiative, than all monsters need to be fight-able. Which is a much narrower set of monsters, based on pc levels.


For me, balance is 'close enough'. I'm not worried if one option seems more powerful than another or one option seems weak when you look at some non-combat feats compared with combat feats, for instance. So long as things are close enough, people are having fun, then the game is balanced.

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