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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?
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."
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

If said trap finder is only good at finding and disarming traps, and traps make up for ~5% of the total game, then that is, by definition, an imbalance of relevant game time. At least in terms of games-y interaction. But I believe that we need to design games in a way that the DM's subjective jurisdiction can be taken out of the equation. Because oftentimes DMs play "by the rules" and little more.
I guess we've played with very different groups. Most of my RPG experience has involved very little rules integration. If you roll the dice, you have a chance of failure. Better not to roll them at all.

Also, what you describe is a good example of DMing done right - you considererd the background of your player's classes and let them fill their social niche regardless of skillset. Healing the sick for reputation, for example, is not how the "hard rules" expect you to impress people. At least in D&D. And I guess if you asked for a skill roll, then your rather unskilly cleric would likely screw it up.
Is that good DMing. Seems standard to me. I told the players the situation. The players just told me what the did, and we adjusted for the situation. Everything was very organic. If they didn't want an intrigue-based game, they could have left the city and investigated the ruined vaults of the dragon kings or dealt with the pirates on the coast.

Don't get me wrong, I do not wish to say that you're doing it wrong, on the contrary. I just had my fair share of situations where I got an interesting/fitting idea that should have totally worked, only to be limited by "rolling too low" or "not having the required skill". Putting too much faith in good and fair DMing is not a good sign for a game's design philosophy.
I disagree. When I DM, I want as few rules as possible. Unnecessary rules get in the way of a good adventure. I simply tell the players what's happening. The players tell me how their characters react. Then the world reacts to the characters. Sometimes dice and involved. Sometimes they aren't. I don't think it takes a genius to figure that much out.
 

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DMMike

Game Masticator
One major issue is that balance is very poorly defined.

My definition is very different from many poster's here. I'm not interested in combat balance nor spotlight sharing. I want classes that bring a unique way to solve problems to the table. The fighter fights; the cleric turns level-draining undead the fighter can't handle and heals the fighter's wounds; the thief scouts to make sure the fighter doesn't get into too much trouble; and the wizard has the Oh-S*** buttons to ensure that if any of the other three f*** up, at least one of the characters survives.

If your definition includes combat roles, our definitions and metrics won't align. One game you might find balanced, but I won't. Another game, I might find balanced and not you. We both might even be right.
I can see my efforts back on page 1 went unnoticed.

To paraphrase HL Mencken, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

Because it's totally irrational to (a) define the goals you intend a system to support, (b) establish metrics by which you can check how well you've met those goals, and (c) iteratively design until those goals have been met. That's what "balance" means.
That sort of thinking resulted in 4th edition. I like the Mencken paraphrase...may have to use it.

I don't know. I think a dragonborn wizard with 8 INT might not be the best option, regardless of subclass.
Might not be the best, but it sounds like something I would play!
 

I can see my efforts back on page 1 went unnoticed.
From page 1, I gather you consider combat important, while my players and I try to avoid it at all costs. Combat is where characters might die. Better to steal the lord's gold than try to fight his garrison for it. Something, however, inevitably goes wrong and sometimes combat is unavoidable. That's what the fighter is for.

Might not be the best, but it sounds like something I would play!
Agreed. It would probably be a blast to play.
 

Krachek

Adventurer
Roleplay doesn't need to interact with the rules mechanics. However other aspects of the game do. A lot of D&D involves problem solving, whether the problem is "how do we fight off these orcs", "how do we get past the guard" or "how does my character go about achieving his ambitions"

Exactly! Now you're starting to get it.
I don’t think so, since I can perfectly imagine an experiment player playing a champion fighter, and be the effective leader and spotlight of a group a rookie players playing mage, cleric and other full of tools classes.
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
I guess we've played with very different groups. Most of my RPG experience has involved very little rules integration. If you roll the dice, you have a chance of failure. Better not to roll them at all.

Is that good DMing. Seems standard to me. I told the players the situation. The players just told me what the did, and we adjusted for the situation. Everything was very organic. If they didn't want an intrigue-based game, they could have left the city and investigated the ruined vaults of the dragon kings or dealt with the pirates on the coast.

I disagree. When I DM, I want as few rules as possible. Unnecessary rules get in the way of a good adventure. I simply tell the players what's happening. The players tell me how their characters react. Then the world reacts to the characters. Sometimes dice and involved. Sometimes they aren't. I don't think it takes a genius to figure that much out.
I guess you are fine then. You don't need balance, you don't need a helping hand, or rules to help every player get their fair share, because you know how to give your players what they need. And that's great! From what you say, I understand that you strive in rules-light systems and that's cool as well.

I guess I would like playing a PC in one of your groups ;)

But please consider that "you" as DM are only one example. There are plenty of inexperienced or just mediocre DMs out there. DMs with less empathy or social skills. DMs who are usually the "all about me" player who agreed to DM because no one else would. And rules that include balanced classes (in some way or another) can help players of these DMs to have more fun.
 

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
One major issue is that balance is very poorly defined.
It has a perfectly cromulent definition, people are just rather bull-headed about which one they advocate. Mine isn't complicated to say, but is inherently contextual to apply: "A balanced game reliably meets the expectations, and produces the play experience, for which it was designed." Optionally, if you want it to be a well-balanced game, you can insert a "without needing intervention" at the end (meaning the most natural and straightforward application of the rules consistently produces those results). There is, of course, a squishy term in there--"reliably"--but that's just a matter of setting the acceptable spread of results, equivalent to picking your p-value before you start a statistical analysis. (Often it will be that exact thing, because TTRPGs, and D&D versions specifically, almost always use some source of randomness to generate unexpected outcomes, and thus the game's behavior is inherently a statistical spread to begin with.)

In order for this definition of balance to be useful, you have to:
(a) Decide what you want the game to do (set well-defined goals)
(b) Decide what play experience you want to produce (determine specific objectives within those goals)
and (c) Set your desired level of reliability/consistency (how rigorous you want those goals to be).

Very few TTRPG designers ever bother with (b) or (c), and far too many don't really bother with the first beyond platitudes and jargon. Many players react with open hostility and vitriol if you suggest (b) or (c), and similarly rarely go beyond empty non-answers for (a).

My definition is very different from many poster's here. I'm not interested in combat balance nor spotlight sharing. I want classes that bring a unique way to solve problems to the table. The fighter fights; the cleric turns level-draining undead the fighter can't handle and heals the fighter's wounds; the thief scouts to make sure the fighter doesn't get into too much trouble; and the wizard has the Oh-S*** buttons to ensure that if any of the other three f*** up, at least one of the characters survives.

If your definition includes combat roles, our definitions and metrics won't align. One game you might find balanced, but I won't. Another game, I might find balanced and not you. We both might even be right.
My definition is more basal than that. Any game--indeed, anything that can be designed at all--will meet my definition. Because that is what design is: creating a something (doesn't even need to be a physical product!) that produces the desired results with sufficient consistency. Your rebuke of something like "combat roles" is getting too far in; you are not asking "what is balance?" but rather "what kind of game should D&D be?" This is a vitally important question, to be sure--and one that both designers and fans consistently stick their heads into the sand about and pretend that "whatever you want it to be" is not just a valid answer but the valid answer (when it is quite obvious that D&D is not nearly that flexible).

I can see my efforts back on page 1 went unnoticed.
TBH, I only skimmed the earlier stuff before posting, so I've now gone back and read your page one post. Gotta say, not too much of a fan--I absolutely agree that non-combat must be balanced differently than combat, and by necessity is probably a broader spread of results, but I disagree that balance exclusively applies to the combat sphere. See my definition above for what I consider the only useful definition of "balance" in a game design context.

That sort of thinking resulted in 4th edition.
That was the point, yes.

I like the Mencken paraphrase...may have to use it.
Just be careful that it doesn't come back around to bite you. I have had this happen to me.

Might not be the best, but it sounds like something I would play!
Honestly, I don't get the appeal of intentional self-sabotage like "Int 8 Wizard" or "Cha 8 Warlock" or whatever. It has no correlation with better roleplay or improved engagement. A Dragonborn Wizard whose highest stats are Str and Cha? Sure, no problem, you can still get 12-14 Int using PB. You'll be weak in certain key areas (likely AC and HP, since having mid-high Str, Cha, and Int means few points for Dex and Con), but it could be an interesting "battlemage" type, and it's definitely not what a typical opponent would expect--you could either lean into the battle stuff with War Magic/Bladesinging, or you could lean more into the tricksy-ness side of it with something like Illusionist. (Having mediocre Int means you won't be very good at the illusions, but I'm trying to work with at least something like the description.)
 

It has a perfectly cromulent definition, people are just rather bull-headed about which one they advocate. Mine isn't complicated to say, but is inherently contextual to apply: "A balanced game reliably meets the expectations, and produces the play experience, for which it was designed." Optionally, if you want it to be a well-balanced game, you can insert a "without needing intervention" at the end (meaning the most natural and straightforward application of the rules consistently produces those results). There is, of course, a squishy term in there--"reliably"--but that's just a matter of setting the acceptable spread of results, equivalent to picking your p-value before you start a statistical analysis. (Often it will be that exact thing, because TTRPGs, and D&D versions specifically, almost always use some source of randomness to generate unexpected outcomes, and thus the game's behavior is inherently a statistical spread to begin with.)
That seems like half a definition, but we can roll with it. So what (in your opinion) should the gameplay expectations for D&D 5e be?
 

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
That seems like half a definition, but we can roll with it. So what (in your opinion) should the gameplay expectations for D&D 5e be?
I'd be curious what you think the other half is. But, to answer your question:
The designers have expressly said that they want this to be a game about Combat, Exploration, and Socialization (the "three pillars"). That means those are the most key, most fundamental components of the play experience, whatever those terms mean in the context of the game. This, incidentally, is part of what I mean by giving non-answers; people throw out jargon terms like this without defining what they mean, assuming--IMO very unwisely--that people "just know" what they mean.

Before we get into that, though, there's a more important thing that the designers rarely talk about--it's so fundamental it often gets forgotten in design discussions. That is, D&D is a cooperative game...and that is also something that often goes without definition because people (IMO unwisely) assume that everyone just knows what a "cooperative game" is. I define a "cooperative game" as a system of rules that determine the success or failure of individual actions directed toward player goals, for which multiple equally-valid solutions (meaning it's not a puzzle or a trivially-solvable game like tic-tac-toe/noughts-and-crosses) and strategies exist--in other words, a game--wherein each player is given equal opportunity to participate in the process that determines the overall success or failure, and where it is not possible for any individual player (and perhaps even not possible for any proper subset of players!) to produce a unilaterally successful strategy.

In more jargony terms: It's a non-trivial/non-solved ruleset, with one or more resolution mechanics, that both offers and depends on every player having equal opportunity to participate in all essential aspects of the ruleset. Non-essential aspects, being non-essential, can be divvied up however one likes, because those are merely..."experience enhancers," if you will. Analogically (and yes, I know the perils of argument by analogy, but): Guacamole isn't an essential part of nachos, but chips and cheese are--it's not really vital that every plate of nachos get some guac on it, but a plate of nachos that has a heavily skewed ratio of chips to cheese is probably going to get a bad reaction.

So, what are these "essential" things? Let's start with combat. No version of D&D has really broken the mold of combat, so we actually have quite a good idea what that is. It involves things like HP/damage, initiative, weapons/spells/items, AC. If combat is meant to be a "pillar" of the game, an essential part of the experience, then every player should have a part to play in how combat happens, and no player should have unilateral control over how combat happens. Furthermore, it is desirable to ensure that, no matter what choices players make, they DO have SOMETHING to contribute (even if it's similar to what others can contribute or not necessarily the strongest way to do that particular "something"). This is where your bugaboo about "combat roles" becomes an issue: you are, at least as I understand the term, opposed to players having guaranteed minimum competence in something the game explicitly says is essential to the experience of D&D. Asking these questions Socratically, not because I'm implying anything about your actual beliefs: Does this mean you simply want some people to just get left out of combat? That you want some classes to have unilateral control over it? That you oppose what the designers have said, and assert that combat is not an essential part of the D&D experience? etc.

We can get to the other stuff later. This is the one you've actually voiced opinions about (and also the one that's easiest to actually discuss, since it has definition in a way the other two really don't.)
 

I don’t think so, since I can perfectly imagine an experiment player playing a champion fighter, and be the effective leader and spotlight of a group a rookie players playing mage, cleric and other full of tools classes.
What do you think that I have said that gave the impression this would not be possible?

I'm pointing out that this scenario is the only one you are presenting and that you don't seem to be considering alternative arrangements of player and class capabilities.
Not that the scenario cannot exist in the first place.

I am sure that sometimes it is the capable player playing the less-capable class, and the less-capable players playing the more capable class.
What I am pointing out, is that sometimes it isn't. That the capable player ends up with the capable class, and the less-capable player ends up with the less capable class.
  • That this situation can lead to a player being or feeling sidelined.
  • And that making classes equally capable in out of combat activities as well as in combat would reduuce this and would be a good thing.
Not "the same". Not "does the same things". Just "class mechanics allow them to contribute equally".
 
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Krachek

Adventurer
What do you think that I have said that gave the impression this would not be possible?

I'm pointing out that this scenario is the only one you are presenting and that you don't seem to be considering alternative arrangements of player and class capabilities.
Not that the scenario cannot exist in the first place.

I am sure that sometimes it is the capable player playing the less-capable class, and the less-capable players playing the more capable class.
What I am pointing out, is that sometimes it isn't. That the capable player ends up with the capable class, and the less-capable player ends up with the less capable class.
  • That this situation can lead to a player being or feeling sidelined.
  • And that making classes equally capable in out of combat activities as well as in combat would reduuce this and would be a good thing.
Not "the same". Not "does the same things". Just "class mechanics allow them to contribute equally".
I overreact, I’m sorry.
I agree that usually skilled player tend to play more complex character.
I don’t know how to give equivalence of teleportation, scrying, and other magic capacities to none caster classes.
but I have seen that a cooperative attitude from complex Character can make all other characters shine more efficiently than any compensation mechanics. The DM can also help a lot to put the spotlight on less complex characters.
 

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
I overreact, I’m sorry.
I agree that usually skilled player tend to play more complex character.
I don’t know how to give equivalence of teleportation, scrying, and other magic capacities to none caster classes.
but I have seen that a cooperative attitude from complex Character can make all other characters shine more efficiently than any compensation mechanics. The DM can also help a lot to put the spotlight on less complex characters.
I appreciate your calmer response here--it's not an easy thing to admit overreaction.

However, this does present us with a valuable new question to ask: If I am one of those players who struggles with the ultra-creative/ultra-adaptive solutions in play, why is it a good and necessary thing that my fun be dependent on the magnanimity of talented players and/or players who picked talented classes?

I completely agree that this is a difficult, thorny issue with few clear answers. But it seems to me that you're saying it's inherently good to focus all support on the talented and flexible players, and just hope that they kindly choose to prop up others instead of focusing on their own contributions. It frankly sounds like "trickle-down economics," just re-worded for game design. It's completely fine to concentrate a ton of power, versatility, and influence into some classes and not others. The powerful will share their bounty because of social contracts and the general awareness that everyone gets a better experience!...even though in practice that's often untrue and people often need much greater incentives to share their resources that way.
 

Krachek

Adventurer
I appreciate your calmer response here--it's not an easy thing to admit overreaction.

However, this does present us with a valuable new question to ask: If I am one of those players who struggles with the ultra-creative/ultra-adaptive solutions in play, why is it a good and necessary thing that my fun be dependent on the magnanimity of talented players and/or players who picked talented classes?

I completely agree that this is a difficult, thorny issue with few clear answers. But it seems to me that you're saying it's inherently good to focus all support on the talented and flexible players, and just hope that they kindly choose to prop up others instead of focusing on their own contributions. It frankly sounds like "trickle-down economics," just re-worded for game design. It's completely fine to concentrate a ton of power, versatility, and influence into some classes and not others. The powerful will share their bounty because of social contracts and the general awareness that everyone gets a better experience!...even though in practice that's often untrue and people often need much greater incentives to share their resources that way.
You may find useful to take a look a the preface of the phb.
I do understand from this text that they design the game assuming fairness, goodwill and cooperation between players and the Dm. Adding incentive or even coertion to impose this behavior dont seem to be necessary when they design the game. Maybe they put to much faith in their players, but we have to play with a ruleset build with this philosophy.
 

Hussar

Legend
So if each class can shine 1 session out of three and be support for the other two, then balance - right?
Nope. That's balanced 1/3 of the time and crap 2/3rds of the time. No interest in playing a game that is crap most of the time.

Or is finding ways to contribute notwithstanding.
Orthagonal to game design. A "shine all the time" class can contribute "notwithstanding" just as much as anyone else.

The Critical Role gang might beg to disagree on that. :)
Really? The Critical Role players frequently sit around for four hours not contributing to the game and not saying very much?

Oh, you mean the audience? Do you sit down to play D&D to be part of the audience?

Here I disagree, to the extent that I take it as a given there's going to be some sessions where I have little to nothing to do and other sessions where I'm at the center of everything. To me it's just part of the game.
There is a difference though. Is the reason you have little to do simply an artifact of the situation, or is it because the mechanics of your character mean that you can't really contribute anything? The first, sure, that is going to happen. It's unavoidable. But, that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about being sidelined because the mechanics of the game - a 3e rogue in a dungeon full of plant monsters and no traps. The rogue player did nothing wrong, but, because of the mechanics, cannot really contribute anything mechanically to the game. Sure, he might have great ideas, but, that is irrelevant to the class he is playing.

I put that right back on you. A MU of the sort of level that only gets one spell a day is (relatively speaking) quite capable in melee*, and in theory has enough intelligence to pull off all sorts of other things outside of combat e.g. planning, tactics, negotiation, etc.

* - I know this because gawds know I've played enough of 'em. :)
True enough. In 1e, it was actually fairly valid for an MU to fall back on a staff or darts and actually contribute. Thus, balance was, somewhat, achieved.

The point is, if the mechanics of the game is sidelining a character, then that is rather poor balance. And, again, I do not believe in long term balance. That's an illusion and it doesn't actually work because there are far, far too many presumptions built into it. Primarily, will the campaign actually last long enough?
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
How do players win at RPGs?

They have fun. Simple as that.

(If you want to disagree with that, please include what you think the majority of players would accept gaming actively not being fun to get.)

So balance is not about characters being equally useful in all situations. Balance is something that happens at a table with everyone is given chances to shine and have spotlight equally.

So balance isn't mechanical. But mechanics can make it a lot harder to give everyone a chance to shine. If one character dominates every scene and the the players of the other characters don't feel like they are contributing or useful, that's not balanced.

So to me, the mechanical aspects of balance are giving everyone that shot - averaged over time. It doesn't (and likely can't) be perfectly balanced in every scene. But over an adventure or campaign, sure. The ranger gets to track, the rogue steals and disarms traps, both of them scout, the bard inspires with her speeches and the dwarven barbarian has long philosophic conversations and writes love poetry to help unite a shy lover and his beloved. Or whatever gives the characters chances to have the spotlight and contributes to fun.

The focus of D&D on combat both in terms of theme (most D&D games follow the historical roots and have combat as a regular and important part of overcoming many challenges) as well as in terms of percentage of time spent in session, means that it's easy to mistake balancing characters in combat for balancing spotlight time for players. It's not actually the same.

Other RPGs don't try to balance in combat, but mechanically balance in relevance. Marvel Heroic Roleplay is fine with a buddy session of Captain America and Black Widow even though they don't fight in the same league.

So, do I expect balance from a mature RPG ruleset? It's a bit of a trick question because balance of spotlight comes at the table. What I expect from a mature RPG ruleset is that they don't make it hard for the GM to provide balance by allowing characters to be either too scene-stealing or too uninteresting.
 
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EzekielRaiden

Explorer
"Spotlight balance" Is a pernicious goal IMNSHO. It doesn't work nearly as well as advertised, in large part because it's so, so easy to fool (by making, or merely being, a character worth paying attention to regardless of the rules) or manipulate (by exploiting social contracts/gentleman's agreements/group-benefit-thinking, e.g. 5-minute workdays).

Hence why I focus on stuff like guaranteed minimum competence and broadly-applicable abilities and/or skills. There is no need to shine a spotlight, which often gets hogged and/or muddled, when every person naturally shines just by playing.

Edit: Also, saying that the goal is "fun" is somewhat like saying that the goal of cooking is "flavor" and the goal of sportsball is "points" (golf-like exceptions excluded). Yes, technically correct, but highly unhelpful, because all that means is "a positive experience or successful performance." The whole point of the balance discussion is that balance is a tool by which fun is to be had. Yes, obviously, one must use one's tools with due care and caution, remembering that the goal is a positive experience. But just flashing "c'mon guys, remember the POINT is FUN"? Really really unhelpful most of the time.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
"Spotlight balance" Is a pernicious goal IMNSHO. It doesn't work nearly as well as advertised, in large part because it's so, so easy to fool (by making, or merely being, a character worth paying attention to regardless of the rules) or manipulate (by exploiting social contracts/gentleman's agreements/group-benefit-thinking, e.g. 5-minute workdays).
That's why it's not the mechanical goal, but rather the DM goal. Which is a perfectly achievable goal and happens all the time - players each get a good amount of spotlight and are satisfied with a session.

The mechanical goal is not to make the DM's life harder to do it.

Hence why I focus on stuff like guaranteed minimum competence and broadly-applicable abilities and/or skills. There is no need to shine a spotlight, which often gets hogged and/or muddled, when every person naturally shines just by playing.
That statement - when you expand it out to "balance" - is demonstrably wrong. I am sure that you can think of a game you were in where it didn't happen equally and someone went home bummed. It does not naturally shine reasonably equally on all players so that everyone is satisfied just by playing. That's work on the DM part. And the players part at good tables. Sometimes it's easy and just flows, sometimes it more work.

The last campaign I ran the first page of my session planning was a list of all the PCs I copied each time with skills & features and other info, so that if some hadn't been getting enough spotlight I could make sure I put in more opportunities. "Hmm, the rogue was taking a bit of a back seat last session. Hmm, they are good at traps and I haven't had any recently, let me make sure I include them. Oh, and throw in a contact with that shifty 'friend' of theirs with another 'good offer'."
 
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Nope. That's balanced 1/3 of the time and crap 2/3rds of the time. No interest in playing a game that is crap most of the time.
No session, no play experience, in that hypothetical, is ever balanced. From a particular player's PoV, its imbalanced in his favor 1/3rd of time, and against him the rest.
But the pretense of balance exists only in retrospect.
Really? The Critical Role players frequently sit around for four hours not contributing to the game and not saying very much?
I assume they edit those bits out in post.

Oh, you mean the audience?
Yep, spectator sport, kinda a thing, now, and apparently moving books.

Do you sit down to play D&D to be part of the audience?
I do expect to pay attention to the other characters - and for that to be part of the fun, too.
And, yeah, it helps if all those characters are worthwhile.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well, your description only applies to old-school dungeon scenarios...

I understand your general idea though, but what you describe is essentially not about balance, but about interdependancy. To make sure a party needs each other in order to survive.
Interdependency is vitally important to the concept of an adventuring party (which D&D is largely built around) yet it gets reduced with each passing edition via the ongoing erosion of class niche protection.

Further, interdependency is in fact a form of balance: each character is there to fill in for the weaknesses of others.
 

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters

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