Like I stated in my previous blog post, I work as a Systems Game Designer in the video game industry. Balancing systems is not only a passion for me, but a necessity. Because a video game offers a finite number of possibilities, each ability, item or character needs to be carefully designed to offer players an edge in an equal number of situations. Failure to do so generates frustration, especially in competitive multiplayer.
In table-top RPGs however, possibilities are (or should be) endless. Players abide by a set of strict rules, but what they do is up to their imagination. I can only imagine that balancing must be approached in totally different ways and that systemic design should be harder to use. That’s why I think we’ve always felt in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd editions that not everything was well balanced; most things were, but some of the core elements were not.
The Systemic Design of D&D4
In the 4th edition of D&D, the approach was similar (if not identical) to what we see in tactical board games and video games: every player excels in combat in a different, but equivalent way. This is not only because of the character features and capabilities, but also because of the system itself: weapons, spells and abilities are treated the same ways (they all need to hit against defense, they can each create effects, be mitigated and be avoided). This made the 4th edition an excellent tactical game, but a poor role-playing game at the same time.
In my opinion, it’s not unbalanced to have a character that excels in melee combat be totally powerless against a wizard. It’s all right for a rogue to be frail and weak in combat encounters if he’s able to avoid encounters altogether with either honeyed words or a deadly backstab.
What’s missing in D&D nowadays? Situations where specific players can shine with “epicness”: heroic manoeuvers, ingenious decisions, sacrifices, one shot kills… A good DM can easily create enough situations for all of his players to have their 30 seconds of fame. Some players complained that playing a 3rd edition fighter was uninteresting. It’s true that the combat manoeuvers back then were not well implemented, but if a player wished to perform flashier tricks than a trip, disarm or sunder, he probably needed to play a rogue, ranger or even a spellcaster. Truth is, fighters always were real heroes when the angry troll needed to be tanked on the front line while the spellcaster searched his bag for a burning hands scroll.
One good approach for balancing dndnext might be to force characters to only excel in a limited number of situations, not limiting a character’s potential strength in one specific situation. These situations might be: melee combat, ranged combat, protecting allies, diplomacy, assassination, exploration, survival, area spellcasting, effects spellcasting, healing, knowledge… These are situations, not skills. The same character could excel in one, two or three of these situations, for example, but not all of them. It's not possible to predict how many different situations there will be in a table-top RPG game. That's why it would not always feel as balanced as the 4th edition, but character creation and role-play would have a bigger impact.
That being said, it would be hard to come up with a system that has the same tactical depth as 4th edition with such a strategy, but it’s been said before: some board and video games already offer solid tactical experiences.