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.