Balance is completely unimportant to D&D. It makes the game rigid and is detrimental to fun.
I doubt I could have started with a more inflammatory comment without mentioning fundamental Islam, Hitler, and homosexuality. Or possibly tying the three together in a single statement of epic inflammation.
But I stand by what I said as completely and utterly true. Except when it isn’t.
Here’s the unfortunate catch, the importance of balance is subject to personal opinion. To some balance is paramount, to others it falls second to fun, while others still ignore balance altogether. The differing opinions were highlighted nicely in a Legends & Lore poll on the importance of balance with the results found here .
And, after I decided to weigh in on this important topic, yet another important person in D&D weighed in on balance, this time from beyond the grave.
In an old interview, Dave Arneson talks about balance, saying that it is the most important part of game design:
Game mechanics. Making a balanced game. It doesn’t happen very often, especially in computer games.
When I started gaming back in the 60s, there’d be one new game a year from the Avalon Hill Company. And it was a very good game, and again, good game mechanics is central. But you couldn’t pick and choose.
But today, we figured out that, including shareware games, there’s about 10,000 games produced, of which maybe a few hundred actually get into a store someplace. And maybe about a half dozen are worth playing.
These guys are under a lot of pressure to get the games out, and often times what happens is they don’t really test them ahead of time. They have a lot of bugs and stuff. We get after our students about that. We know they’ve only got four guys and six months to get a game out. We’ve had some good ones, and we’ve had some that were so buggy they barely ran.
This, of course, prompted another large forum thread here.
Benefits of Balance
Solid balance creates a level playing field. This is essential for competitive games. No one would play chess if only black got a queen. It means the game becomes a contest of skill and tactics, and not a challenge of finding loopholes and exploiting flaws.
It’s arguable that balance is less essential for cooperative games, where players work together. However, if one character is noticeably weaker or stronger than the others it can impact fun. Few people like it when another player can do much more than them, especially if the emasculated character was designed to do exactly what the super character does so much better. It’s no fun for the player of a striker when another striker does twice their damage, and even less fun when the defender deals more hurt to a monster.
Player character balance has two components: making sure a character cannot be made too strong and making sure a character cannot be made weak. Both are equally as important. While making sure there are no God characters that can do everything is important, it is also key that players cannot make unplayable characters.
Balance is also important across the other end of the table; if a monster is too easy or seems too difficult for its level then this also impacts fun. Player’s don’t like it when a supposedly easy fight turns against them or consumes too many resources, and DMs do not like it when their scary monsters are de-fanged by potent PCs. It helps design encounters, by establishing how many foes are a threat and what the challenge of an encounter should be. This sets the ratio of risk-to-reward. If the ratio is off then characters are receiving too much treasure and experience for the threat, or too little.
So all elements must be balanced: player to player, player to monster, and monster to party.
Balance essentially keeps everything fair. It keeps the DM from exploiting the rules to kill the party. As everyone plays with the same rules it’s the great equalizer of the game. And it’s especially important in RPGA and other public play.
Ideally, a balanced game of D&D would be similar to rock-paper-scissors. There are three options and all are equal with one being defeated and one being victorious. Many martial arts or games work with a similar design, with certain tactics being either ineffective, normally effective, or super effective. The battle system of Pokemon can be viewed as an expanded and complex game of rock-paper-scissors. And the LARP variant of Vampire: the Masquerade (Mind’s Eye Theatre) settles action via RPS rather than dice.
Another good example is RPGKids created by the increasingly misnamed Newbie DM. In that game there are monster types (akin to the 4e monster types) and different types of Player Character. However, the two are comparable and matched, so playing a monster is no different than a PC. And thus, balance!
Balance does add value to published books. The tighter the balance and more work required to maintain said balance, the fewer people that will be able to adequately produce viable content. It takes time and energy and playtesting. The strict balance of 4e is arguably one of the reasons 3rd Party Products are less popular (paired with the stricter GSL and the tyranny of the Character Builder’s ease of use). Even in the free days of 3e, the companies that wrote even half-balanced material gathered a reputation for quality. People are more likely to pay for official content rather than attempt to make it themself, which always felt like a viable option in 2e.
Benefits of Imbalance
Now, given the above, why would anyone defend imbalance? Here’s the thing, people like imbalance. Their fun and enjoyment of the game is tied directly to imbalance.
The Character Op forums are all about imbalance. If every option were balanced those threads would not exist, there’d be no way of making an optimized character as every option would be equal. There are many, many people whose main enjoyment of the game stems from finding the best possible combination of powers. They want to “win” at D&D and know that the easiest ways is to make the best possible character (read: “the most broke-tastic” character). If all options are equal then there is no fun in building or designing characters.
The dirty little secret of balance is that it comes at the cost of variety and diversity: you can have a customizable game or a balanced game. Arguably. the best way to balance D&D is remove damage types and weapon types and allow the player to flavour their power accordingly. Fireball would just do X damage to a certain area and it would be mechanically identical to the rogue “dagger barrage” power, but the wizard’s player could change it to “acidball”. Meanwhile, the fighter would be wielding a “one-handed melee weapon” and deciding if it was a warhammer or battleaxe or longsword entirely with their mind.
It’s harder for WotC to sell books with perfect balance. Books require more work the more balanced the game is, because you cannot risk adding imbalance to the game. Equilibrium must be maintained! And if a book is not going to make your character any better and only provide new but equivalent options then there’s slightly less pressure on a player to purchase the new product. And, using the examples in the above paragraph, once you have the one area burst power (fireball) you do not need others, so additional books are superfluous. Adding content to a perfectly balanced game is always awkward, such as adding Spock and Lizard to rock-paper-scissors; there’s the additional drain on memory, the learning curve, and even a strain on verisimilitude (how does Spock get beaten by a lizard??).
It’s a whole lot of work for something not entirely necessary to play the game. D&D survived twenty-odd years with only the loosest attempts at balance. And many other games still ignore balance. There are many, many fans of Palladium games, despite the fact that system is still designed like it is 1983, with characters that can be so broken than the game allows them to do a hundred times more damage than other characters. Yet the game is still quite playable… with a good GM. If the group works together to set a maximum and minimum potency it plays fine and can be a lot of fun.
Neither. Obviously. Instead, there must be an *ahem* balance between balance and imbalance in the game.
Like most things in life, when two opposing options are presented it is the unstated middle option that is correct.
Balance is unforgiving and true balance comes from removing options, reducing variability and decreasing flexibility. But that does not serve the needs of WotC as a company, does not engage a large segment of the fanbase, and is very difficult to maintain. And things get increasingly complex.
I know other game systems are more forgiving to pure reflavouring as a means of customization, such as the new Gamma World. However, I do not think it will work as well with D&D that has such a long history of building characters and increasing customization between editions. It would be a return to the static fighters and martial characters of earlier editions, only applied to ever class. It’s contrary to the tone and history of the game, a game that once had separate and individual stats for an improbable variety of polearms. Even reducing the game’s selection of weapons to “one-handed sword” seems anathema to expectations.
In a balanced game, it is skill that is the deciding factor. Even in RPS there can be a psychological and strategic element. However, skill is impossible to balance and is therefore innately unequal.
If D&D becomes completely balanced then the onus o failure must be entirely on the players. And that’s hard. If you cannot save a sliver of pride by blaming your build or the monsters for the TPK, it’s much harder to keep playing and accept the loss of the combat or beloved character or entire campaign. And, when another player is much more effective at the game, that also means they’re just better at D&D than you. A rather humbling realization.
As someone who is not a good tactical player (I always, always lose at board games) the tactical miniature combat element of 4e never had any appeal because I suck at tactical miniature combat. But, if I wanted, I could “cheat” and make a broken character so I could at least partially be as effective as the rest of the party. Imbalance helps me balance my personal game.
No matter how hard WotC works to balance the game between the players and the DM it will not matter because my suck will destroy the balance; combats will always be easier for my players and the risk : reward ratio skewed.
Balancing balance. It’s a hard line to walk.
The initial design of 4e with its AEDU classes (At-Will, Encounter, Daily, and Utility) made the classes fairly well balanced but samey. Essentials added some variety to class construction but removed the modularity from classes, so builds and options were incompatible. But it’s significantly more balanced than even a rebuilding of 3e just to incorporate hard math. But, at the cost of all the flexibility of 3e, such as picking classes on a level-by-level basis.
Was it worth it? That’s for better minds than mine to answer. But I’m going to go with the cop-out BS answer again, and be thankful that there’s a choice and players can pick the flavour that they like best.