D&D General Worlds of Design: A Question of Balance

Some people think that every character class must be equally balanced with every other class, but why is that necessary? Are they competing with the other players in a co-operative game?

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The Destination or the Journey?

When approaching a discussion of class balance, it's worth asking the question: is an RPG session a destination or a journey? Or to put it another way, is an RPG session "mental gymnastics" or an "adventure"? I think the latter in both cases. Consequently, shouldn't character classes be about different ways to succeed, not about "power" (or whatever it is that has to be "equal" between each character)?

The concept of asymmetry--different starting capabilities and assets on each side--is very important in some kinds of games, like historical strategy games. It's hard to sensibly reproduce history symmetrically, in which all players start at the same level of power; for an example of how this is handled in a board game, see Risk. There's good reason for this. One of the easiest ways to achieve "balance" in a game is to make it symmetric, with everyone beginning "the same."

The need for symmetric play has spilled over in video game design, with all classes being balanced against each other, even in single-player. That style of game development has influenced modern tabletop games for similar reasons: keeping all players equal smooths out the game's design. But I think something is lost in forcing symmetric design in a tabletop role-playing game.

What's Class Balance, Anyway?

The first problem is that "class balance" is a fungible metric. Presumably, all classes are "equally powerful" but what does that mean, really? If play is all about the individual, the game turns into a competition between players to see who can show off the most. For games where personal power is important, this can make sense--but I don't find it conducive to the fundamentals of teamwork Dungeons & Dragons was built on. If D&D is about cooperation, flattening out every character's power implies that they're in competition with each other.

When the game is about the success of the group as a whole, about co-operation, then there may be compensations for playing a less powerful class. In fact, some of the classes by their very nature are inherently unbalanced for a reason. Jonathan Tweet's most recent article about The Unbalanced Cleric is a perfect example. And there are opportunities for creativity in how your "less powerful" character copes with adventuring.

Variety is the Spice of Life

There's also something to be said for the variety that comes from characters of differing capabilities. It doesn't matter to me if some characters are more powerful than others, whether it's because of class, or items owned, or something else. Different characters with different power levels creates a form of interesting play.

Here's a real life analogy: The soccer striker who scores a lot versus one who makes many chances/assists and helps the team maintain possession. But in a profession where it's so hard to score, the one who scores a lot will usually be regarded as a better player ("more powerful"), or at least the one who is paid more. Yet both are equally valuable to the team. And offensive players tend to be more highly regarded than defensive players.

Magic is Not Balanced

Then there's the issue of magic. In earlier versions of D&D, magic-users did much more damage than anyone else thanks to area effect spells (I tracked this once with the aid of a program I wrote for a Radio Shack Model 100!). In a fantasy, doesn't it make sense for the magic users to be the most powerful characters? Heroes in novels, who often don't wield magic, are exceptions in many ways: without a lot of luck, they would never succeed.

Designers can avoid the "problem" of character class balance by using skill-based rules rather than rules with character classes. You can let players differentiate themselves from others by the skills they choose, without "unbalancing" them. And shouldn't each character feel different? There are certainly archetypes that character classes often follow, yet those archetypes exist for reasons other than "play balance!"

Still, won't magic use dominate? A GM/game designer can do things to mitigate the power of magic. For example. magic can be dangerous to use, and the world can be one of low rather than high magic, e.g. like Middle-earth more than like The Wheel of Time.

The Value of Combined Arms

In the only RPG I've designed--which is intended for use with a board game, so that simplicity is paramount--I use a classless system. But for a bigger game such as D&D, multiple classes help provide both differentiation and opportunities for cooperation ("combined arms"). And I enjoy devising new character classes. Whether you need a dozen or more classes is open to question, however. Nor do they need to be "equal."

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Perfect balance is neither really achievable nor necessary. Each player of a different class should have his strength and weakness, and opportunities to "shine" regularly.
If I know a campaign is mostly wilderness, not many locks to pick and trapped chests then i recommend to my players not to select a rogue.
If I run (classic) ravenloft I tell a player that he is in for a really good chance for a very short life as an adventurer if he wants to play a (good aligned) paladin.
If it is some city setting with much communication and interaction with NPCs I recommend to my players to put some points into charisma or wisdom or intellect and / or social skills.

Balance in form of dpr output is neither measurable properly (How do you rule that your beefcake is charmed or dominated easily and how do you put that one into the equation?) nor necessary.

Balance in form of equal XP levels is basically built in into the 5e rules. But even if you run it differently e.g. only players present in the session get XP, this matters not much in 5e which can easily handle level differences of +- 2...3

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Sure. Because players really enjoy feeling they made the wrong choice while other players who picked the uber-class with all the winning feats and combos have more opportunities to shine, succeed, and otherwise dominate the game.

Is it really this easy for game designers to forget the most important aspect of any game is the player experience?

« Playing DnD is an exercise in collaborative creation »
These are the words of M Mearls in the preface of the PHB.
Balance take another flavor when you evaluate it from the collaborative point of view.


The problem with "weak" classes or archtypes is that the "tough champion" who doesn't suck is a character concept it can easily discard. If magic is super strong, and PC non mages suck compared to mages, then entire character concepts that onclude "doesn't suck" are ruled out.

And doesn't suck is a reasonalble character concept to want to play.

Balance in this sense is the freedom to have more character concepts that include "doesn't suck".

So 3e CoDzilla? Means that in comparison, every "mundane" PC simply sucks.

In a level-based system, playing a character that sucks is really easy. Just play a character far lower in levels than the rest of the party. When the game also makes certain archtypes suck at what they are doing...

I've played around with this in 3e. Given the tiers, what if a fighter literally gained 2-3 levels for every level a spellcaster did? At some point even that breaks down; a "level 500" fighter (who kept on getting HP, iterative attacks, HP, and (sub-epic) feats) will still "lose" to a level 17 batman wizard in most aspects of gameplay. But at least now that fighter can do some things that the wizard has to work at.
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I think class balance is to get Players to play a greater variety of classes, or you may just end up with most groups just coalescing around elf wizards or some other Munchkin combo.


I think a more generally accepted meaning of balance when discussed by those familiar with the topic, is that there should be reasonable parity between any two given concepts. It doesn't mean they necessarily need to be perfectly equal in all things. Even 4e, arguably the best balanced version of D&D, never did that.

The example of the soccer player who scores lots of goals vs the one who gets lots of assists is an apt one. However, if there is a third player who is functionally just running back and forth across the field, effectively just watching the game despite trying to contribute, that's a real issue of balance.


Balance is an ethereal concept that, IMHO, is badly misunderstood. Balance does not and cannot create a parity among the character classes because the roles of those classes often differ so much. Each character is played by a different player. Each character has different experiences as they progress. Even by third level, two human fighters taking the Champion sub-class will like look and play differently, as just one example.

Where balance comes into play is in empowering an engaged player to get the most out of their character, because each class can make a difference. In terms of D&D, I think 3E and 4E did a better job of this. They were not perfect, just better. The 5E Ranger, in the hands of an engaged player, can be successful, but it is still largely unnecessary as a class. I love the 5E Warlock, but I think with the way spells have been changed, that it overshadows wizards and sorcerers, especially the latter. Who needs Raistlin or Polgara when you have Elric?

But people still play these classes with great success. How? Because the game is versatile enough to allow different characters to slot into a party and fill a role. Rangers are not tanks, but they can fight and cast spells. Wizard and sorcerers do have fireball and other damage spells as well as utility options. Niche protection is largely gone, which is one knock against the idea of balance in my opinion. Balance and flavor are harder to, well keep balanced. One largely negates the other and vice versa.

Issues with balance during a session or campaign are something the DM needs pay close attention to. Although I am often reluctant to throw myself and other DMs under the bus, the balance issues in the early versions of the game are largely a function of poor encounter design. The example always given are fighters and magic users, but there are other examples as well. But the DM who paid attention was always able to challenge high level spell casters while letting the fighter wade into the fray and be a hero.

Game design cannot meet every need. That is why a variety of game types, even centered around the same basic mechanics, are better than one game trying to please everyone.


4th Edition D&D was a great example of creating balance with asymmetrical (or "unbalanced") design between character classes. If you did a one-on-one PvP battle, a striker class would likely annihilate anything else. Leaders made the group better with buffs and healing. Defenders soak up damage and punish monsters. Controllers debuff, shape the battlefield and do area damage. Strikers hit hard, doing big single target or good area damage.
And yet it gets guff for "sameyness" or "being too balanced" or whatnot. It's perfectly fine - as stated by Fanaelialae - for classes to not be equal in all things. They all have to be equally valid choices however. 3rd Edition failed at that miserably, and one can argue that 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D were pretty bad at it too. For me, 5E seems to have gotten the balance right, more or less. YMMV.


I believe it was Professor DM (Dungeon Craft) who said this is a game. As such, anything that lets one player be able to do 'more' on his turn, than other players, is overpowered/unbalanced.
For example, the old 3.5e monks with flurry of blows (4-5 attack rolls/turn) while a rogue got 1 attack roll.

B/X D&D has great balance. Every class can do things the others can't, which means they're forced to rely on each other. Fighter's fight monsters. Thieves scout. Magic-user provide are there to help the party escape otherwise unwinnable situations. Clerics turn undead and clean up after wounds and ailments. Two fighters, a mage, a cleric, and a thief is a great party who all serve to cover each others' weaknesses.


Mod Squad
Staff member
I wonder if the author is more than willing to always play a commoner with no special abilities, in a party of upper-level characters? Or maybe play a game in which you are a low-level character among a party of high-level NPCs who do everything meaningful?


Well, then idea that "this is supposed to be collaborative" and "are they in competition" doesn't really dismiss the issue, does it?

Broadly speaking, players are not usually in competition, but most of them would like their fair share of focus time - moments where they get to be awesome, when their actions are seen as central to the action in the game. Nobody comes to the table to sit on the sidelines and not meaningfully contribute.

It is, in theory, possible for a GM to force sharing of focus time in a highly imbalanced game. But a balanced game makes sharing focus a bazillion times easier.


It is, in theory, possible for a GM to force sharing of focus time in a highly imbalanced game. But a balanced game makes sharing focus a bazillion times easier.
Why do you define balance as equal focus?
He didn't define balance as equal focus. He did so very explicitly in the very text you quoted. He stated balance makes sharing of focus easier. That doesn't define balance as equal focus. If I say "eggs make baking cookies easier", that doesn't mean I define eggs as chocolate chip cookies!

Why would you quote something someone says, then immediately ask "why are you saying something you didn't say?"

My first RPG character was a magic-user in Basic D&D. I was very excited to play a character I envisioned as Gandalf or Merlin wading through foes with blasts of arcane death.

The reality is that I hung out in the back of the party doing nothing for 90% of the fights. Once or twice a session I got to yell "I cast Sleep!" and roll a handful of dice. Then I went back to lurking behind the Fighters. Now, Sleep was a powerful spell so I probably contributed just as much to the success as anyone, but this fact didn't make it any less boring. Needless to say, it wasn't long before I kamikaze'ed my Magic-User and rerolled a Dwarf.

The argument "its not a competition" misses the point. I can "win" in a game but if I am overshadowed or not contributing 90% of the time it is not going to be a positive experience.


A lot of how people will see balance will depend on the goal of their RPG playing. Are you interested in the story, then characters are balanced if they can contribute to the story in the ways they want to succeed. Are you focused on combat, then the players will want to look at damage per round. Are you interested in the character development, then players might want characters that can do unique things.

Session zero should be helping to identify the players' and GM goals for the campaign, and help choose the system and characters to help make those goals fun.

I think the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game had some interesting mechanics to help balance the slayer versus the Scoobies.
Also, one of the best times I ever had was joining a game of over powered characters with a fairly mediocre half elven fighter cleric who had fun failing as much as having fun succeeding. I had fun making a silly character when everyone else was building characters that had the most pluses.


Guide of Modos
My first RPG character was a magic-user in Basic D&D. . .

The reality is that I hung out in the back of the party doing nothing for 90% of the fights. Once or twice a session I got to yell "I cast Sleep!" and roll a handful of dice. Then I went back to lurking behind the Fighters.
This is needed to frame the discussion. Despite Mike Mearls's assertion...
« Playing DnD is an exercise in collaborative creation »
These are the words of M Mearls in the preface of the PHB.
D&D is also about combat, and lots of it.* My suspicion is that "class balance" doesn't come up much if it's not in a D&D context, and it's not very useful to apply it across the board (no pun), anyway.

So, is class balance needed in D&D? As ninjayeti points out: yes. A D&D player isn't going to have much fun if his or her character doesn't do something interesting or productive, in combat, as often as the other PCs do. A DM is free to take the focus off combat (and away from the concept of class balance), but then you'll have an entire class (pun intended) of PCs scratching their heads, wondering why they're playing fighters, barbarians, monks, etc.

Some people think that every character class must be equally balanced with every other class, but why is that necessary? Are they competing with the other players in a co-operative game?
No, they're trying to have fun in a co-operative game (called D&D that revolves, more or less, around combat).

*This point is based on Attacking, to this day, being a required skill for all classes. Sure, they renamed attack bonus to proficiency bonus, and made it a tool proficiency instead of a skill proficiency, but it's still there. Also, all classes steadily gain hit points, which is a measure of how many (much) physical attacks a character can sustain.

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