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
What I like about BX is the lack of universal system. Fate's skills, in my opinion, are less flexible than BX ability scores. I'm not sure what to do, if a player's action falls well outside any of the listed skills, like teaching a chimp sign language. Yes, I can modify the list, but that's difficult to do inside a multi-year campaign. In BX, I feel more comfortable improvising. I feel FATE Accelerated might do a better job here, though.

I'm not sure what you do in BX under that situation. You've some things, none of which really fit to try working with. Fate has other things that don't quite fit.

Again, my main problem with FATE is my inability to understand what spending a FATE point (or not spending a FATE point) a means inside the fiction. I don't get how to visualize it.

This is on a character by character basis. Fate has in its ancestry the World of Darkness games - and in cross-splat games everyone had two meta-currencies; willpower and whatever their character type had (Vampires had their blood pool, mages had Quintessence, etc.). Willpower could be spent for additional dice in your dice pool, and your magical meta-currency could be spent however it could be spent.

Fate merged and generalised the two pools as it found far more interesting when people had their back up against the wall and where they chose to act than tracking multiple pools. And it found possibly the most interesting part of the World of Darkness system was the way you used your vice to recharge your willpower pool.

This means that in Fate you can either run Fate points as a mix of willpower and endurance or you can use them to power the special sauce of your character. If, for example, you wanted to play a World of Darkness vampire your High Concept might be "200 year old Malkavian", your Trouble might be "Messy blood drinker", and two of your aspects might be Presence and Obfuscate. You'd run your Fate points as a Vampire blood pool because that's how you'd set things up. Meanwhile someone else at the same table might be playing a Mage and run their Fate point pool as Quintessence, with Paradox as their flaw and a couple of Spheres as aspects.

What Fate Points are is frequently down to how you build your character and what your character's special sauce is, and whatever it is they enable it. If you absolutely need to visualise spending them then set your character up for that.

The one time I played FATE, a player took the stunt, "I end the world." At any time, the character could simply cause the universe to implode. Another created the stunt ,"Mouse Man," which caused everyone around him to think he had become a mouse (when he hadn't). It was fun, but not what I'd call balanced.

This makes about as much sense as a critique of Fate (it hasn't been all caps for a long time) as a critique of B/X where one player was the GM's girlfriend and was loaded down with magic items from "another campaign" and playing a custom race, and a second player was playing something out of the Arduin Grimoire. I have no doubt what you describe happened - but it's seriously outside anything the guidelines suggest doing.

If I ever play FATE again, I will probably need to create a list of stunts for players to choose from.

The Fate Core SRD has some good guidance for creating stunts - and if you want an overwhelming list of examples the Spirit of the Century SRD has plenty (ignore the prerequisites in the Spirit SRD - Spirit comes from an older version of Fate where people had far more stunts).

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We play BX using all the rules. I've never needed to ignore them, and they all provide an excellent framework. Sometimes I add things (new classes) or have to make rulings, but I don't house rule - so I wouldn't call what we do freeform RP.
Every example you've given of the flexibility and wonderfulness of the system has absolutely been you ignoring the rules, and substituting DM fiat and freestyle RP. Which is dandy, really, a lot of DMs run great freestyle games through the simple expedient of choosing a primitive/familiar, minimalist or even dysfunctional system so the players won't be tempted to challenge their rulings and improvisation, and will avoid rules-lawyering or even touching dice as much as possible.

"Bad rules make good games" is how one of the WWGS guys summed it up.

Balance - or virtually any other nominally-positive system attribute one might theoretically posit - can be downright anathema to that sort of style.

Ironically, you're ripping up Fate, but it actually does support improvisational, near-freestyle types of play. It just does so with rules that actually enable & encourage that kind of play, when you use them.
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