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

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
The mechanical goal is not to make the DM's life harder to do it.
Sure. I just wish we would actually try to design games that way, instead of insisting that no-testing hobbyist game design is always the end-all, be-all.

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.
You're still talking about a spotlight. That is the very problem I'm talking about. There is no need for a spotlight when the rules inherently furnish opportunities and effects that interlock with one another. The DM's job thus becomes purely focusing on which interesting opportunities they wish to furnish--which is a much more productive use of the limited time available to many DMs.

And yes, I can think of such games. They were badly-designed games, and thankfully, I don't play them very often. In any game I would call even remotely well-designed (and, I admit, I have high standards here!), this doesn't happen. I have had games where I wanted things that just weren't in the rules, but that is an entirely different problem--one of my tastes being different from those catered to by the game's design. (We do not call a minivan badly designed solely because it cannot function as the pickup truck needed for hauling large furniture; we simply say that its design and our "need to move furniture" desire don't match.) But every game I've played that I considered well-designed--4e D&D, 13A, Dungeon World (and other PbtA systems), Fate, Dogs in the Vineyard--was specifically designed to make it really really really easy for DMs to furnish interesting opportunities (e.g. top-notch encounter-design rules, fiction-first mechanics, One Unique Things, and other rule structures), to the point that some of them (mostly 4e, sort of 13A) have been mocked for "removing the DM entirely" or the like. And every single one of those games also makes it easy for players to engage with those opportunities in dynamic, fluid, interesting ways on a regular basis just by following the rules as written.

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'."
A well-designed game doesn't need a DM constantly on the lookout for "wow, I accidentally let the Rogue do nothing at all last session, I have to fix that." Instead, it has every class designed so that, unless you actively and intentionally ignore the rules and guidance, simply providing a challenge at all will give the Rogue a chance to Do Their Thing and meaningfully participate. Will they always participate at absolute peak performance, killing it every single session guaranteed no question perfectly forever? No. That's an impossible, foolish, and most importantly strawman goal, one I never stated and would never state. Instead, a well-designed game makes it so that every major player option (like Classes and perhaps Races, for games that have those mechanics) always has something at least moderately cool to do, no matter what situation you throw at them.

You're talking about pushing everyone to the ceiling 100% of the time. I'm talking about raising the floor. It really isn't that hard to create a game with a much, much higher participation floor than (for a common example) 3.5e D&D. Sound game design--which involves the stuff I described above--builds that floor so that you never have those "uh oh, Barbarian got completely left behind last time" moments. 4e, 13A, and DW all accomplished these things. It's not a one-off or system-specific or even designer-specific thing. It's just a product of really good, really serious design. Most tabletop designers are not serious.
 
And yes, I can think of such games. They were badly-designed games, and thankfully, I don't play them very often. In any game I would call even remotely well-designed (and, I admit, I have high standards here!), this doesn't happen. I have had games where I wanted things that just weren't in the rules, but that is an entirely different problem--one of my tastes being different from those catered to by the game's design. (We do not call a minivan badly designed solely because it cannot function as the pickup truck needed for hauling large furniture; we simply say that its design and our "need to move furniture" desire don't match.) But every game I've played that I considered well-designed--4e D&D, 13A, Dungeon World (and other PbtA systems), Fate, Dogs in the Vineyard--was specifically designed to make it really really really easy for DMs to furnish interesting opportunities (e.g. top-notch encounter-design rules, fiction-first mechanics, One Unique Things, and other rule structures), to the point that some of them (mostly 4e, sort of 13A) have been mocked for "removing the DM entirely" or the like. And every single one of those games also makes it easy for players to engage with those opportunities in dynamic, fluid, interesting ways on a regular basis just by following the rules as written.
One problem is that those games are also quite narrow in focus.

I appreciate that D&D's scope is incredibly wide. I can use the same rule set to simulate a plane-hoping intrigue adventure with wizards who can end the world with the flick of the wrist, an animated suit of armor who wants to be a real knight (in which the armor is played simultaneous by 3 players), and a bunch of commoners trying to make in a rough economy by taking odd and dangerous jobs. In fact, the plane hopping adventure and the commoners and dangerous jobs were actually the same campaign with many of the same characters.

In 4e, everyone begins as a hero with a few years experience under their belts

Dungeon World does a good job with heroic fantasy, but once again, isn't so good at doing unremarkable commoners. Not does it does it allow for character who can destroy a village by gritting their teeth.

DinV feels contrived. I don't feel like I'm playing a character. I feel like I'm playing a bunch of unrelated mechanics that cannot be described in the world. What is "heart"? I don't get the bidding.

Fate is odd. No one has yet to explain to me what fate points are and how the characters spend them. I can't wrap my head around the unification of the fiction and the mechanics.

While, those games might be balanced, they aren't for me. They can't simply do what games like D&D and DragonQuest thrive on. I have no idea how I would convert my world to Fate or Dungeon world.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
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.
Many well done and enjoyable RPGs do not have any form of interdependance designed into the rules system. Many work fine with a party - or solo adventures. Some games, mike Marvel Heroic Roleplay, explicity expect you to be only teamed up part of a session and have mechancial support for if your hero is best/worst on teams, team-up (just one other PC), or solo as all are expected modes of play during a session.

I think that we have enough counter-examples in other games.
 

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
One problem is that those games are also quite narrow in focus.
Er...have you seen the variety of PbtA games? Monsterhearts is Teen Monster Romance (and, uh, other things teens do). Masks is budding superheroes. Grim World (which has lovely mechanics, but I don't like the fluff) is "dark fantasy" (possibly with just a little "weird fantasy" a la LotFP). The original Apocalypse World is post-apocalypse zany mayhem. I know for a fact there's a My Little Pony PbtA game, though I've never actually seen the rules myself. I've got a PbtA hack for running Shadowrun, and it looks solid. Fate is literally "whatever you want it to be," because its Aspects and Skills can be whatever the player and DM agree is reasonable. It's been used for Dresden Files (urban fantasy), Age of Arthur (semi-historical medieval fantasy), Atomic Robo (pulpy retro-futuristic sci-fi), Spirit of the Century (classic pulp fiction), Houses of the Blooded (explicitly designed to be an "anti-D&D game," that is, a fantasy RPG that focuses on all the stuff modern D&D ignores), Diaspora (hard sci-fi)...I even once looked into a game (that I can't remember the name of, now) which used Fate but built it for

I appreciate that D&D's scope is incredibly wide.
It's really not. Like, really really not. The engine almost exclusively handles combat, with non-combat stuff often handwaved or reduced to a single roll. And 5e actually retreated from the one new non-combat resolution thing that 4e introduced (skill challenges).

People say that D&D's scope is really wide, but you'll have to do better than Fate and PbtA above in order to make me believe it. For God's sake, in some of the "how to play" guides I've seen for Fate, they explicitly talk about playing a legit straight-up accountant. Not a battle accountant, not a Fighter who went to accounting school. Just a proper, normal accountant. And the system effortlessly enables players and DM to give that idea legs, make it actually work in the world.

I can use the same rule set to simulate a plane-hoping intrigue adventure with wizards who can end the world with the flick of the wrist, an animated suit of armor who wants to be a real knight (in which the armor is played simultaneous by 3 players), and a bunch of commoners trying to make in a rough economy by taking odd and dangerous jobs. In fact, the plane hopping adventure and the commoners and dangerous jobs were actually the same campaign with many of the same characters.
Both Dungeon World and Fate inherently do those things, though for some you'd have to use homebrew content, because that's core to the DW experience. Using exclusively first-party content would far too heavily limit yourself, particularly since DW itself is a piece of homebrew. Its creators loved playing Apocalypse World, but wanted something more like what they remembered of playing classic D&D (1e, I believe, but possibly OD&D).

In 4e, everyone begins as a hero with a few years experience under their belts
You might want to check what 5e says about classes like Bard, Fighter, Monk, Paladin and Wizard before singling out 4e in this way. Emphasis added: "Discovering the magic hidden in music requires hard study and some measure of natural talent that most troubadours and jongleurs lack." "Not every member of the city watch, the village militia, or the queen's army is a fighter. Most of these troops are relatively untrained soldiers with only the most basic combat knowledge. Veteran soldiers, military officers, trained bodyguards, dedicated knights, and similar figures are fighters." "The monks who live there [in the monasteries] seek personal perfection through contemplation and rigorous training. Many entered the monastery as children..." "Fighters are rare enough among the ranks of the militias and armies of the world, but even fewer people can claim the true calling of a paladin." "Though the casting of a typical [Wizard's]
spell requires merely the utterance of a few strange words, fleeting gestures, and sometimes a pinch or clump of exotic materials, these surface components barely hint at the expertise attained after years of apprenticeship and countless hours of study. [...] The closest a wizard is likely to come to an ordinary life is working as a sage or lecturer in a library or university, teaching others the secrets of the multiverse."

And that's just the ones where the text is explicit that it "requires" hard study or that these types of people are "rare." The game in general strongly indicates that it's not nearly as flexible as you're using it--which means you are deviating from what the book says. Note that I am NOT saying that you're doing it wrong or having badwrongfun: what I'm saying is, you are comfortable doing this thing in 5e, but for some reason you are not comfortable doing it in 4e, even though it is just as much a break from the official game regardless of which game you look at.

(And this doesn't even touch on the whole reskinning thing. It's 100% valid, and explicitly encouraged by 4e's designers, to take whatever monster stats you've put together for a given XP budget, and call them whatever you want. You can totally have a 4e game where the party starts as children fighting oversized rats and rabid dogs, only becoming "proper" adventurers later on. In fact, with the hybrid rules, it's actually quite feasible to put together "zero-level" characters that don't even have all the "basic" stuff 4e offers, though that too is homebrew adaptation--you seem comfortable enough doing that as it is, though, so that should be no problem. Likewise, taking the mechanics of an Earthsoul Genasi and saying that that character is actually a dwarf princess of a long and storied noble lineage--an example someone once shared with me on another forum.)

Dungeon World does a good job with heroic fantasy, but once again, isn't so good at doing unremarkable commoners. Not does it does it allow for character who can destroy a village by gritting their teeth.
It's no better or worse than 5e, which explicitly isn't about "unremarkable commoners." "Adventurers are extraordinary people, driven by a thirst for excitement into a life that others would never dare lead." (5e PHB p 45, emphasis added) And, uh, I'd like to see where in 5e you can do the teeth-grit-village-destruction thing?

Fate is odd. No one has yet to explain to me what fate points are and how the characters spend them. I can't wrap my head around the unification of the fiction and the mechanics.
Are you comfortable with 5e's Inspiration mechanic? Then you're already 90% of the way to Fate Points. People are granted Fate Points for obeying a "compel" (essentially, turning some aspect of their character's nature against them, as long as it makes narrative sense in context), which is almost perfectly analogous to granting a player Inspiration in 5e for going along with some contextually-unfortunate element of their Background features/BIFTs (bonds, ideals, flaws, traits). And just like Inspiration, Fate Points don't have to be spent on something explicitly related to the thing that gave them--just as you can earn Inspiration for giving into your weakness for forbidden knowledge and then spend that inspiration on a Persuasion roll to get the Mayor on board with the group's plan to save the town, you can spend Fate Points on later story elements that have nothing to do with the Compel that gave them. Instead, they're a representation of narrative weight, of "setbacks accepted on the road to success," more or less, because Fate (like DW) is fiction-primary, as opposed to D&D's mechanics-primary structure.

While, those games might be balanced, they aren't for me.
You are entirely within your rights to say so; no one can tell you the games you should run, though I think it is good for people to provide advice and explanations where appropriate (as I attempted to do in the previous paragraph).

They can't simply do what games like D&D and DragonQuest thrive on.
This, however, is false. Fate can literally do anything you want it to thematically. The only way this could be true is if you only accept D&D mechanics, but your whole argument is about the theme, not the mechanics, so...I just don't see how that cashes out.

I have no idea how I would convert my world to Fate or Dungeon world.
You seem to be under the impression that you would have to rewrite the world in order to make it fit the mechanics, and that's....not correct. You would, instead, use either game's extensible framework to build the mechanics to whatever standard you wish. I could probably show you, if I knew more about your game, but I don't really think it's worth doing unless you really wanted to do it. But yeah, Dungeon World is literally a toolbox for building the stuff you want, and I have personally done so--my weekly game is an Arabian Nights-style adventure in a custom setting (heavily inspired by Al-Qadim and FFXIV's Ul'Dah and Ala Mhigo), but I've also played in science-fantasy, high-fantasy, gritty intrigue, and pirate-adventure themed games of DW, plus other PbtA games (same engine, applied differently) for supers, teen monster drama, post-apoc, Shadowrun, and more.
 
I'm not really talking about 5e D&D - I've only played a few sessions of that version. I usually play BX D&D. I like that BX provides almost nothing in the way of non-combat mechanics so my players and I can play all of those things out using dialogue and negotiation. I only really need mechanics for spells, combat, monsters, and special abilities. Everything else can handled by ability scores and common sense.

I'm not really sure how Fate can "do anything" - at least not with the system as written. When I look at it, I see I system that lacks tools. It's like the a toolbox with many different empty compartments. It can't do anything (that I'm interested in) that BX can't already accomplish, and requires a lot more work to do so.

With regards to PbtA, the fact that it needs so many different versions of the game demonstrates how inflexible each game really is. BX can do swords and sorcery, high fantasy, pirates, horror, intrigue, war, etc. all inside of two 64-page booklets. It gives me what I need and nothing else - nor does it require me to build my own game system. PbtA, on the other hands, seems to require a different game for each of those genres. Maybe I'm missing something, though. Who knows.

My whole argument isn't about theme. It's about the interaction between theme and mechanics. Fate probably does theme well, but the mechanics are clunky and get in the way (at least in my experience). When I first read Fate, I thought it was great, but after playing it, I found it awkward. The narrative always seemed to be at odds with the mechanics. Maybe I was doing it wrong. I don't know. But in BX I get concrete rules for things like combat and magic - and little else. Which for me, is perfect.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Which means chess must be crap 1/2 the time, whenever it's not your move?

It's balanced all the time.

Just get away from the expectation/entitlement that says your PC has to be involved in everything at every moment. There's times when you'll be on the ice, and times when you'll be on the bench catching a breather, but in the end you'll get just as much ice time as everyone else.

Really? The Critical Role players frequently sit around for four hours not contributing to the game and not saying very much?
Given that the CR players are knowingly and intentionally putting on a show, I don't take much of what they do as being all that reflective of what happens around a typical home table.

Oh, you mean the audience? Do you sit down to play D&D to be part of the audience?
In part, yes. I'm there to be entertained by the DM and-or other players, and to entertain them in return.

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.
And to me the example of the 3e Rogue is simply an accepted fact of life in the game; in some situations there's just not going to be much you can do. My usual go-to example for this is a 1e Illusionist in an adventure against lots of mindless undead.

And in these cases it's on the DM to present a variety of adventures (something that isn't really pointed at much in any DMG but IMO should be, for more reasons than just this) and as far as possible avoid sticking to a particular theme; e.g. if you're running an undead-based dungeon crawl this time, try to make the next adventure something in the wilderness provided they bite the hooks.

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?
Well, if I'm starting a campaign my own assumption as DM is that it'll last as long as people want to play in it; and as the three I've started that got past their first three sessions have each lasted for over a decade I'm not too worried about campaign longevity issues. :)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
But every game I've played that I considered well-designed--4e D&D, 13A, Dungeon World (and other PbtA systems), Fate, Dogs in the Vineyard--was specifically designed to make it really really really easy for DMs to furnish interesting opportunities (e.g. top-notch encounter-design rules, fiction-first mechanics, One Unique Things, and other rule structures), to the point that some of them (mostly 4e, sort of 13A) have been mocked for "removing the DM entirely" or the like. And every single one of those games also makes it easy for players to engage with those opportunities in dynamic, fluid, interesting ways on a regular basis just by following the rules as written.
Other than maybe 4e, the games you cite are all more or less player-driven - which is fine if you've got players who are willing to drive and thus push the DM to the side a bit.

Not all of us have that, or not all the time.

A well-designed game doesn't need a DM constantly on the lookout for "wow, I accidentally let the Rogue do nothing at all last session, I have to fix that."
Where I to some extent put this back onto the Rogue's player for not finding ways to contribute even though the situation wasn't ideal.

Now if it's a situation where the Rogue was off elsewhere - say, on a solo scouting mission - for most of the session, one must assume this is accepted by all involved; that there's going to be time when the DM focuses on the main party and ignores the Rogue and there's going to be time when the DM focuses only on the Rogue and ignores everyone else. But that's probably a separate thing, so let's assume everyone's together.

Instead, it has every class designed so that, unless you actively and intentionally ignore the rules and guidance, simply providing a challenge at all will give the Rogue a chance to Do Their Thing and meaningfully participate. Will they always participate at absolute peak performance, killing it every single session guaranteed no question perfectly forever? No. That's an impossible, foolish, and most importantly strawman goal, one I never stated and would never state. Instead, a well-designed game makes it so that every major player option (like Classes and perhaps Races, for games that have those mechanics) always has something at least moderately cool to do, no matter what situation you throw at them.
Which tells me a few things at first glance:

--- that in order to be so adaptable to any challenge the PCs' abilities must have a large amount of overlap (so bang go niche protection and interdependence and thus the main reason for forming a party in the first place);

--- that it's made much more difficult to specifically and intentionally challenge the abilities of just one PC or class (not that this comes up often but it's nice to have in the toolbox);

--- and that a party can competently take on any challenge regardless of its class-race composition (thus making party composition almost irrelevant to the run of play).

All of these to me would be bugs in the design rather than features.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Many well done and enjoyable RPGs do not have any form of interdependance designed into the rules system. Many work fine with a party - or solo adventures. Some games, mike Marvel Heroic Roleplay, explicity expect you to be only teamed up part of a session and have mechancial support for if your hero is best/worst on teams, team-up (just one other PC), or solo as all are expected modes of play during a session.
Which is fine for those games, but D&D in all editions is built around the core concept of the adventuring party. As such, there needs to be a compelling reason for the PCs to join together into a party (beyond "just because"), and that's where interdependence comes in: the knowledge (maybe earned the hard way during the first few adventures!) that there's certain skill sets that you're likely gonna need and though you can maybe get by without them you risk leaving your group more vulnerable by doing so.

Solo play, while certainly possible in D&D, isn't really what the game's designed for.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker
Which tells me a few things at first glance:

--- that in order to be so adaptable to any challenge the PCs' abilities must have a large amount of overlap (so bang go niche protection and interdependence and thus the main reason for forming a party in the first place);

--- that it's made much more difficult to specifically and intentionally challenge the abilities of just one PC or class (not that this comes up often but it's nice to have in the toolbox);

--- and that a party can competently take on any challenge regardless of its class-race composition (thus making party composition almost irrelevant to the run of play).

All of these to me would be bugs in the design rather than features.
A game with those aspects (bugs or features) seems as though it would be more about GMs putting parties through published book adventures, rather than homebrewing a world and/or adventures. Seems to me there's a reasonable expectation on the part of inexperienced GMs that just about any party would be able to get through just about any (published) adventure. Running a bespoke adventure for the party you have is something that might be intimidating to someone new to GMing.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A game with those aspects (bugs or features) seems as though it would be more about GMs putting parties through published book adventures, rather than homebrewing a world and/or adventures. Seems to me there's a reasonable expectation on the part of inexperienced GMs that just about any party would be able to get through just about any (published) adventure. Running a bespoke adventure for the party you have is something that might be intimidating to someone new to GMing.
You're right in what you say, hence the 'like', but though I run quite a few homebrew adventures I don't often run 'bespoke' adventures for a specific party or PCs, for a few reasons:

--- I often don't know what the party will consist of ahead of time. Each player in my campaign has a number of PCs, who they're free to cycle in and out between adventures if-when it makes sense, so if I design an adventure based on an expectation that a particular Human MU and a particular Part-Orc Fighter will be in it and those players decide at the last minute that for this trip they're bringing their Hobbit Nature Cleric and Elven Thief instead, the point is lost.

--- the times I actually have designed an adventure around one or more particular PCs haven't often ended well. What tends to happen is that by sheer luck the key PC is the one who dies at the first possible opportunity, again leaving the point rather lost.

--- the exception is quests or geas based adventures, where usually one PC is the reason they're on the trip at all. These tend to kind-of work out OK, though the extended focus on just the one PC isn't always great.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker
I guess that by "bespoke" I meant that I don't work very far ahead of where the parties are. Also, both the campaigns I'm running are more story-based, I guess, in that there are things the parties are working toward, which are either connected to the PCs' backstories or stuff that has emerged over the course of events. I probably run a less-lethal game than you (though not non-lethal), which may be part of the reason I'm willing to center a story thread around one character (at least more than the others). I also have consistent players, who are also running one character each, so I have that easier than you.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Which means chess must be crap 1/2 the time, whenever it's not your move?

It's balanced all the time.

Just get away from the expectation/entitlement that says your PC has to be involved in everything at every moment. There's times when you'll be on the ice, and times when you'll be on the bench catching a breather, but in the end you'll get just as much ice time as everyone else.

Given that the CR players are knowingly and intentionally putting on a show, I don't take much of what they do as being all that reflective of what happens around a typical home table.

In part, yes. I'm there to be entertained by the DM and-or other players, and to entertain them in return.
For the most part, I agree. Not everyone needs to be involved in everything going on at the table. I do think, however, that everyone needs to be given real opportunities to be involved in some way every game session. We meet once a week for our games and if a player is side-lined the whole session with virtually nothing they can do about it, that's a poor use of their time. If they specifically pass on that opportunity because they prefer to sit back, then that's OK.

I also do feel that there are some times in which a particular PC isn't going to be as useful as another. It happens if characters aren't all the same and the players have varying choices on what to build. And I agree with you that there are times in which that player who isn't at their most optimal has to take responsibility to be useful. A 3e rogue in a plant-heavy, trapless dungeon can still use their stealthy skills to scout around. But as DM, an even better idea might be to use the sneak attack rules in PF rather than 3e. PF stripped a lot of sneak attack immunity because of experiences gained in 3e play and I recognize they made a better design choice from a game play perspective without losing too much of the base game's character.
 

Hussar

Legend
Which means chess must be crap 1/2 the time, whenever it's not your move?
Oh, is your D&D game competitive? That's interesting.

It's balanced all the time.
Yup, it's a competitive game WHERE EVERY PLAYER GETS EQUAL TIME.

Just get away from the expectation/entitlement that says your PC has to be involved in everything at every moment. There's times when you'll be on the ice, and times when you'll be on the bench catching a breather, but in the end you'll get just as much ice time as everyone else.
Again, missing my point. I totally agree that there will be times, in the game, when my character is not in the spotlight and that's fine. What isn't fine is when the mechanics of the game say, "Sorry, you get to ride the pines 2/3rds of the time" regardless of whatever is occuring in the game.

Given that the CR players are knowingly and intentionally putting on a show, I don't take much of what they do as being all that reflective of what happens around a typical home table.
You brought it up though. If you didn't think it was relevant, why did you bring it up?

In part, yes. I'm there to be entertained by the DM and-or other players, and to entertain them in return.

And to me the example of the 3e Rogue is simply an accepted fact of life in the game; in some situations there's just not going to be much you can do. My usual go-to example for this is a 1e Illusionist in an adventure against lots of mindless undead.

And in these cases it's on the DM to present a variety of adventures (something that isn't really pointed at much in any DMG but IMO should be, for more reasons than just this) and as far as possible avoid sticking to a particular theme; e.g. if you're running an undead-based dungeon crawl this time, try to make the next adventure something in the wilderness provided they bite the hooks.

Well, if I'm starting a campaign my own assumption as DM is that it'll last as long as people want to play in it; and as the three I've started that got past their first three sessions have each lasted for over a decade I'm not too worried about campaign longevity issues. :)
Again, that's fantastic. Us mere mortals however don't typically have that option. Which means, for everyone that isn't you, balance over time sucks.

Me, I'd rather play a game where every character can contribute in every situation. So, if we're in the undead dungeon, that rogue can still contribute and doesn't have to sit and be an observer for the next 10-15 HOURS of play time just so that he can actually get to play the game for the next 10-15 hours. That's not balance, that's garbage gaming.

I mean, what is being gained by mechanically sidelining a character? How is the game more fun if Bob gets to ride the pines for the next 10 hours rather than simply unbending the stick just a touch and allowing rogues to sneak attack undead (as an example)? That's what truly confuses me in these discussions. How is it a good thing to EVER mechanically sideline a player? Sidelined because of the events in the game? Well, ok, that's groovy, that is unavoidable. Sidelined because some game designer thinks that undead should be immune to illusions because of some misplaced sense of believability? Bugger that.
 

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
Other than maybe 4e, the games you cite are all more or less player-driven - which is fine if you've got players who are willing to drive and thus push the DM to the side a bit.
I actually don't--my players can be frustratingly passive. It's an issue...mostly for me, ironically. The players are having a blast. I'm frustrated, 'cause I feel like I dangle interesting, relevant plot threads, opportunities, and intrigue and it...doesn't get investigated until I force the issue. We're working on it.

Where I to some extent put this back onto the Rogue's player for not finding ways to contribute even though the situation wasn't ideal.
Why is it the Rogue's fault that (as Hussar noted above) undead and plants aren't subject to Sneak Attack, and thus the awesome Shadow Druid dungeon I've put together will completely shut them down through no fault of their own? (And, as a related issue, why is it that it's always a specific type of preference that gets shunted into the "well YOU have to be creative just to make sure you justify your presence. The people who don't have this preference just benefit from being creative; the game automatically justifies their presence." Isn't that a mean thing to enforce on people?)

Which tells me a few things at first glance:

--- that in order to be so adaptable to any challenge the PCs' abilities must have a large amount of overlap (so bang go niche protection and interdependence and thus the main reason for forming a party in the first place);
Uh...no? 4e absolutely has a reasonable amount of niche protection, and is by far the most overtly team-oriented D&D made since WotC took up the game, and possibly earlier. (I have argued elsewhere that, at least in 3e and to some extent 2e, playing D&D was not a teamwork game, but rather a game of 4-6 people who happen to be adventuring in the same place at the same time. It was painfully true in every version of 3e, and my experience has shown it remains true in 5e, albeit to a slightly lesser extent.) Picking up a second full-time role in 4e is not trivial--it's not impossible either, to be sure. But taking (say) a non-Leader and building it to do even most of what a Leader does requires investment, usually by way of taking features from a Leader class (e.g. a multiclass feat at least). What a well-balanced game does is making sure that, whichever niche you pick, that niche has something to contribute to every essential experience.

4e's combat roles are an obvious example, but its skills are another. 4e has a short list of broadly-applicable skills, which individual player characters can (usually) only access a small subset of. If you want to succeed at skill challenges, you need a relatively diverse set of trained skills in the party, and bringing a mix of classes is exactly how one does that--the game furnishes interesting and appropriate opportunities (skill challenges), for which PC abilities (trained skills) interlock both with those opportunities and with one another's abilities, unless the players specifically choose to avoid the advice that a group be made that covers a diversity of options. (Frex, a "Radiant Mafia," which usually means an all/almost all Divine party, and thus an overemphasis on Religion and Insight and a weakness with more skullduggery type skills like Bluff, Streetwise, Thievery, and Stealth.)

For a completely different example, Dungeon World's classes are all very different (with one very specific exception: all the baseline "divine" classes use the Cleric's spellcasting mechanic if they opt into it, only Clerics get it by default) and feature major, defining elements baked into each of them that produces a very different experience. Yet these baked-in elements also give every player something to contribute. Fighters are actually GREAT for exploration, particularly urban exploration, because of their Bend Bars, Lift Gates move (essentially: feats of strength to overcome environmental obstacles, but potentially with down-the-line consequences). Paladins are great for nearly any challenge, as they have the Quest move; it lets them set a Quest for themselves, granting divine boons while they pursue that quest, but also inducing divine vows (like "don't use underhanded tactics" or "always give aid to those in need"), and these divine boons can be ENORMOUSLY helpful if chosen carefully (examples include "immunity to <type> damage" e.g. fire or slashing, "an unerring sense of direction toward <target>," "senses that pierce lies," etc.) Clerics and Wizards have their spells they can prepare, of course. Druids aren't natively spellcasters, but their shapeshifting is hugely diverse. Etc. Dungeon World emphatically does not have samey classes a lack of "niche protection and interdependence."

--- that it's made much more difficult to specifically and intentionally challenge the abilities of just one PC or class (not that this comes up often but it's nice to have in the toolbox);
What? Why on earth would that be the case? I must be misunderstanding what you mean here.

--- and that a party can competently take on any challenge regardless of its class-race composition (thus making party composition almost irrelevant to the run of play).
Nope! I honestly have no idea how you got to that given I've been talking about 4e. 4e tells you what is expected, and offers a wide variety of options for what to pick to meet that--this is something that has been understood since time immemorial, hence the "alright, who's gonna play our Brother Bactine healbot AHEM cleric?" problem that 3e tried to solve by making Clerics ridiculously powerful so people would want to play one (and then with the whole "optimize your personal performance" thing, this quickly became "why ever play a Fighter when you could be a Cleric???")

All of these to me would be bugs in the design rather than features.
I completely agree that completely equivalent classes, inability to highlight particular character focus, and/or "do whatever, it never matters" would be problems. Literally none of that is true of any of the games I described. The 4e Sorcerer is balanced with the 4e Rogue, but the two do different things, and the party will play and feel and (perhaps most importantly) achieve differently if it has the former vs. the latter. A 4e party that has {[Defender class], [Leader class], [Striker class], and [Controller class]} is essentially guaranteed to be competent unless the players actively ignore the fundamental class advice (e.g. dumping Intelligence as a Wizard), regardless of what choices the party made for each of those things. But the experience of their success, and more importantly the direction of their success, will differ greatly between {Fighter, Warlord, Ranger, Druid} and {Paladin, Shaman, Rogue, Wizard}, even though both parties are well-equipped for a fairly diverse field of challenges, both combat and non-combat (the former leans more into exploration, hunting, and survival; the latter leans more into intrigue and magic).
 
4e absolutely has a reasonable amount of niche protection, and is by far the most overtly team-oriented D&D made since WotC took up the game, and possibly earlier.
One interesting thing 4e did was in teasing out Role and Source from Class (then, y'know, putting them back, which, well, whatever)

Point being that prior to 4e, you had the Big 4 classes - Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic-User - that both represented what you did for the party - Tank, Heal/Turn, Traps/Sneak, Anything - and how you did it - Hit it With a Big Stick, Divine Intervention, Mad Skillz, Maaaagic.

By 3e, the Thief was the Rogue and contributed some spikey damage via SA, as well as being the trapfinder, but aside from that progress, it was status quo.

4e broke those contributions up and formalized then into roles - Defender, Leader, Striker, and Controller.
And also uncoupled them from the concept how you made those contributions, which became Source - Martial, Divine and Arcane.
Thus if the party stereotypically "needed a Cleric" but you didn't want to play some pious glowy guy, you could play a Warlord, instead - or later, a Bard, Artificer, Shaman, or even Ardent.

But, y'know, it wasn't really niche protection, it was role support. That is, there wasn't one kind of contribution that only a given class (or even Role) could provide, that no on else could, at all. Rather, there were features each class had that made them particularly good at a given Role (and often able to fill in with a second role, a bit).
Subtle distinction, I suppose.
 

Hussar

Legend
Is balance between the characters important? Well, that's easy to demonstrate.

Let's do a little thought experiment. We'll play a D&D campaign together. It's a @Lanefan game, so, it's going to last ten years. At the start of the campaign, I'm 21st level and everyone else is 1st level. We houserule that my character gains levels at the same rate as the rest of the group - so, when everyone else is 2nd level, I'm not 22nd level and so on.

If balance doesn't matter, that would be a fun game.

However, let's be honest, that game would suck.

So, once we accept that balance matters, now it's just a question of degree. How much balance is the right amount to make folks happy most of the time?

All we're doing is arguing degree.
 

Lylandra

Explorer
I mean, what is being gained by mechanically sidelining a character? How is the game more fun if Bob gets to ride the pines for the next 10 hours rather than simply unbending the stick just a touch and allowing rogues to sneak attack undead (as an example)? That's what truly confuses me in these discussions. How is it a good thing to EVER mechanically sideline a player? Sidelined because of the events in the game? Well, ok, that's groovy, that is unavoidable. Sidelined because some game designer thinks that undead should be immune to illusions because of some misplaced sense of believability? Bugger that.
As a small nitpick, I did find some of the standard D&D offenders vs. rogues/precision damage and illusions/charms to be illogical. PF addressed some of it - making undead sneak-able for example - but kept the illusion/charm part.

Which is fine for undead who use other senses than sight (but again, there are illusions that include thermal/smell/tremor/audio), or golems, which are immune to all magic. But I do not get why an intelligent vampire, lich or even ghost should be immune to stuff effecting their minds. They got a mind, so why should it not be effectable?

Also, totally agree. Getting the really short end of the stick for more than two sessions would make me debate the GM. Because I don't want to spend 10 hours doing nothing of value. It is still my valuable free time you're talking about.

(Now a really good GM who doesn't want to houserule would still find ways to include an illusionist in an automaton adventure... but then again, the game designers shouldn't rely on good GMs.)
 
I actually don't--my players can be frustratingly passive. It's an issue...mostly for me, ironically. The players are having a blast. I'm frustrated, 'cause I feel like I dangle interesting, relevant plot threads, opportunities, and intrigue and it...doesn't get investigated until I force the issue. We're working on it.
That’s what happened to me too and ultimately the solution was to let go of my passive players and to write novels instead. Now I have active readers 😅
 

EzekielRaiden

Explorer
That’s what happened to me too and ultimately the solution was to let go of my passive players and to write novels instead. Now I have active readers 😅
Given three of my players are my three closest friends (to the point that I spend almost all of my social time with one or more of them), and the fourth is a roommate of one of the others? Yeah, no, not gonna happen.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
As a small nitpick, I did find some of the standard D&D offenders vs. rogues/precision damage and illusions/charms to be illogical. PF addressed some of it - making undead sneak-able for example - but kept the illusion/charm part.
Logic here is one of those things that depends an awful lot on your initial assumptions. If you take something like a sneak attack or other precision damage to involve damage to vital systems or shock, then it makes sense for undead, plants, elementals, and constructs to not be affected. But you can adjust your assumptions to include things like vulnerable body structures and not just vitals.

With respect to mind-affecting effects, same thing. If you assume those things need a live mind to affect, then undead should be immune even if intelligent and free-willed. It might also come from a niche protection assumption - that necromancy should be appropriate magic for controlling undead rather than magic used to control living beings.
 

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