Friday, February 22, 2013

Class Imbalance

Gamer A: Class balance is a tough problem, but designers must solve it. Without balance between classes, the game is broken.

Gamer B: Class balance is a phantom. It can't be achieved, it can only be imposed, and when you impose things on characters, the game is broken.

As we designed 2nd Edition AD&D, we didn’t fret much over class balance. That’s not to say we didn’t care or didn’t consider it important. The question of class balance was bandied around endlessly in the office, in letters to The Dragon, and at conventions.

We didn't fret over it for two reasons. First, no one could agree on what well-balanced classes would even look like. Second, the effectiveness of any character or group of characters is influenced by so many variables beyond the game designers' control that we concluded issues of balance are best left in the hands of individual DMs and dealt with at the campaign level.

In 4th Edition, D&D tried to take control of those variables. The trouble is, once someone “takes control” of a variable, it ceases to be a variable. It becomes a constant. One of the regular complaints against 4E is that all characters wind up being copies of each other, number-wise, no matter what the players do. Going up a level takes on aspects of “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.”

Keeping a tight rein on the numbers that way has a positive payoff—largely for the DM and the game's designers, whose jobs become simpler. It comes at a cost in verisimilitude and free choice, and the cost is borne largely by players. Some players are unwilling to pay it.

From a game designer's standpoint, creating a system that establishes balance between characters without interfering in the relationship between the character and the player is a very tricky and difficult problem.

Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean game designers should throw up their hands and surrender. As my Nuclear Engineering 101 professor liked to say, "this is a technical problem, and it has a technical solution. We just haven't found it yet." Given enough time and money, engineers will find the answer. Seen in that light, the question is revealed to be, "how much time and money are you willing to invest in the search for balanced character classes?"

Before pressing on, I'd like to define two useful terms: "wide" balance and "narrow" balance. To define them, refer back to the previous post on Class Balance. In it, I outlined two simple roleplaying games. One assigned the numbers 5-3-1-0 to character abilities, and the other assigned the numbers 4-3-3-2. Narrow balance is typified by the 4-3-3-2 game. Wide balance is typified by the 5-3-1-0 game.

Narrow balance is relatively easy to achieve. The simplest approach is when the game tells you what your characters can do, and they can't operate outside those bounds. Chess is narrowly balanced. Characters in the D&D boardgames (Castle Ravenloft et. al.) are narrowly balanced.

Wide balance is difficult to achieve. It must leave characters great latitude to specialize in innumerable ways, yet somehow ensure that the character-building resources I invest in Diplomacy skill are as valuable as the resources you invest in combat. Balancing such disparate concepts is like trying to determine which is rounder, an idea or warmth.

That's enough definitions.

The point of the first Class Balance post was that some people like a narrowly balanced game, and some would rather play a widely balanced game. Neither is "true D&D," but one or the other is almost certainly the D&D you prefer.

Whether you want widely balanced, narrowly balanced, or completely unbalanced classes, I think most people can agree on this: If class balance could be achieved in a way that did not impinge between players and their characters, that would be a good thing. That type of balance would help players and DMs who want it and remain invisible to those who don’t want it or who don't care.

Narrow, 4E-style balance is not invisible. The limits are always present, and certain players will forever strain against them.

Wide balance, on the other hand, can be so invisible as to seem nonexistent. That's what led to so many arguments about balance in AD&D. Some players felt it had no balance whatsoever while others argued that it was excellently balanced, but the effect was so subtle it was easy to miss, like leanness in wine or the humor in Howie Mandel's standup routine.

Can Wide and Narrow Balance Coexist at the Same Table?

They can, except … those who reject the notion of wide balance prima facie will never accept that the situation actually is balanced.

A problem with wide balance is that it's so easily abused. It allows for the creation of “dump abilities.” A dump ability is just like a dump statan ability your character has the potential to be good at, but since you don’t intend ever to use it, you invest no resources into it. Who cares if your Charisma modifier is -4 if you arrange things so someone else makes all the Charisma rolls?

Let's look at it in the context of our wide game example, where a character's four abilities add up to 9 points. The standard character spread is 5-3-1-0. The gap between 5 and 0 is substantial, but the character excels at one thing, is average at a second, is familiar with a third, and is incompetent at the fourth. If players are allowed to distribute 9 points however they want, it will take about 6 seconds before an optimizer presents the DM with a 9-0-0-0 character. His combat ability is off the chart, but everything else about the character is a disaster. In fact, we’ll call him the “ability disaster.”

If the game allows this, a player can feel completely justified in creating such a character. Why not? Most players know that the DM won’t let a bad skill roll bring the campaign to a screeching halt, but they suspect or know that the DM will let characters die in combat. Under those conditions, putting everything into guaranteeing that you won’t die in battle and relying on the kindness of strangers for everything else is a logical, if selfish, strategy.

This is the diametric opposite of the optimizers’ frequent complaint that characters who aren’t optimized for combat drag down the whole party, because someone else has to pick up their slack on the battlefield. In a balanced campaign, where characters face challenging episodes of combat, exploration, and social interaction, ability disasters like this character also drag down the party, because someone must pick up this character’s slack off the battlefield. If the other players don't do it (maybe they've all optimized for DPR, too, or they're sick of this player's single-minded self-centeredness), then it falls on the DM, who all too often winds up softening the game's noncombat biscuits so toothless characters can chew them.

What's the solution? Ultimately, I still think we had the right philosophy in 2nd Edition, even if our underlying math was off. Every character ability in the game, whether it relates to combat, exploration, or social interaction, is only as useful as the DM allows it to be. The most awesomely optimized slayer in the Ten Kingdoms is just another chump if the DM gives him nothing but kobolds to fight. All that excess power is wasted and he'll look like a fool every time he's challenged with witty repartee or a locked gate. The same thing happens to the cleric who poured all his points into battling the undead if the DM keeps the dead in their graves, and to the ranger who's all about fighting giants when the adventure trail leads to the land of pygmies. Even less fortunate is the rogue who's a master trap-spotter when the fighter finds a magic shield that detects traps automatically.

All of those conditions and a thousand more like them are beyond the game designers' power to control, no matter how symmetrically the numbers are polished in the rulebook. Again, that's not to say game designers should throw up their hands and declare surrender. Certain aspects of characters can and should be controlled. But the moment you place a limit on a number, you create a situation where the player who finds a way to exceed that limit gains an unfair advantage over everyone elsethe limit comes with built-in incentive to break it. Changing the limit only shifts the target without correcting the situation.

Either players accept absolute, narrow limits for the sake of well-tuned balance, or they accept that "balance" means characters are going to be approximately equivalent but never equal, like two shapes with roughly the same surface area but completely different angles and numbers of sides. And whichever way they choose, everyone needs to understand that the system's balance begins tilting out of whack the moment it collides with the "real world" of an ongoing campaign.

This square and triangle have equal areas. If they were characters, and their height, width,
and number of angles represented distinct abilities, would they be balanced?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Class Balance

Let’s try an experiment – let’s design a simple RPG.

Characters have four abilities: Fighting, Spellcasting, Healing, and Thieving (covering all noncombat skill use). One of four numbers is assigned to each stat: 5, 3, 1, and 0. To use an ability, you must roll its number or less on 1d6.

Here’s a sample gang of adventurers.


To hit a foe in combat, Braggo must roll 5 or less on 1d6. To heal someone, he must roll 3 or less. To perform any sort of thieving (or use any other noncombat skill), he must roll a 1. He can’t use magic at all.

Every attack, regardless of whether it’s made with a sword, a spell, or your bare hands, causes 1d6 points of damage.

In combat, Braggo and Blippo will dominate, causing an average of 2.9 points of damage per round with Fighting and Spellcasting. Baldwin and Biggie average only about 60% of that at 1.75 points of damage per round. Instead of attacking, Baldwin can heal 2.9 points of damage per round. Outside combat, when the group needs to get across a chasm, negotiate with brigands, or find their way through the wilderness, Biggie takes the lead with his Thieving of 5.

I'd call that a balanced game. Everyone’s numbers are equal. The differences are in where they choose to put their strength and their weakness, and the spread from top to bottom is significant.

Now here’s a second game. It’s identical to the first in all ways but one. Instead of assigning the numbers 5, 3, 1, and 0, characters get the numbers 4, 3, 3, and 2. The gang looks like this.


Now the strongest characters in combat cause 2.3 points of damage per round with Fighting and Spellcasting and the weakest cause 1.75, a considerably narrower spread than before. Away from combat, the gap between the most skilled and least skilled characters is similarly narrow.

Both games are equally “balanced.” The rows and columns have identical sums within both games. In game 2, no one is ever left completely out of the picture, but likewise, no one shines so brightly at their specialty that they eclipse everyone else.

This is the question that gets debated endlessly in discussions over class balance. Can classes be balanced if someone must take a 0 or a 1 where someone else has a 5? Is such a broad spread inherently better or worse than limiting the range to 2-4? Game 1’s rows and columns all equal out, but can it be said to be “balanced?”

My answer is an emphatic “yes, but …”

I also say it’s the wrong question.

The right question is, which game do you prefer? Neither of them is true or false; they’re just different. As some people prefer soccer over football, some people will prefer Game A over Game B, and vice versa. If you like classes with rigid walls around them, you’ll probably prefer Game A. If you want classes that claim specialties without fencing off monopolies, you’ll drift toward B.

OD&D and AD&D are pretty clearly in the Game A mold. 4E follows the Game B mold. 3/3.5 starts out like Game B but quickly morphs into A as characters specialize through the stratosphere. Where will D&D Next land? More importantly, where would you like it to land? Which type of game do you find most satisfying?

Is it possible to have both types of characters at the same table? Absolutely ... maybe. It's actually a trickier question to answer than it appears. I'll delve into that next time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

An Amazing Find

Jon Schindehette, the D&D Art Director at Wizards of the Coast, had this painting in his office on Friday. It had been found in a WotC warehouse during a clean-out of old boxes. This was in a box with other paintings, most of them only around 10 years old. Fortunately, the warehouse folk know that before disposing of art, they need to alert someone up the chain and wait for instructions.

In case you don't recognize it, this painting was created by Dave Sutherland and used as the cover of the D&D introductory set in 1977. It's one of the most iconic images in the history of D&D.

It looks like the board has shifted down and to the left in the frame, but I didn't see any damage to the painting itself. The colors are amazingly vibrant.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Brigands of the Web

Not having written any of these Adventure Notebooks for a couple of months, I'd forgotten how much effort goes into one. At least I hadn't forgotten how much fun it is working with almost 100% random elements. This one feels a bit rough around the edges, but I strive to stick with the features that chance drops randomly into the mix -- that's largely the point, when these are considered from a mental exercise perspective. Plus, I've learned from long experience that I'm an unreliable judge of my own work. It's better for everyone to draw their own conclusions.