My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
Note: Special thanks to Larry Smith for inspiring this topic.
Balance is a funny concept, because it means something different to almost everyone. It has been a part of the game since almost the beginning. Of course, for as long as gamers have known about balance we’ve also argued about it.
At its most basic level, balance means that every player begins on an even playing field. As a concept, this is most obvious in a competitive game. When you pit yourself against an opponent, you don’t want a game that levies an unfair penalty against you or gives an unfair benefit to them. Why compete on an uneven playing field? That’s a poor test of skill.
Of course, the key word is “unfair”. You might intentionally unbalance a game in order to account for a gap in skill between two players. An experienced player might forgo a sneaky strategy to help a new player learn a game. And some games have a luck component that might give a player an advantage in one match, but is just as likely to swing the other way in the next. Generally speaking, as long as a game feels fair then players are likely to call it balanced. Everyone has a different threshold, however, so one person’s balanced game is another’s broken, unfair disaster.
While that basic definition of balance is nice, it doesn’t do much for Dungeons & Dragons. After all, D&D is a cooperative game. Why would we care about balance when the players are working together?
D&D: Competitive Cooperation
I have a personal theory about D&D, one that ties into observations that smarter designers than I have made in the past. A few years ago, I read somewhere (it may have been an article written by 3E co-designer Monte Cook) that D&D is balanced as long as players feel that they share the spotlight equally during an adventure. The rogue sneaks into the corrupt noble’s villa and steals his plans to betray the king. The fighter blocks a doorway and hews down the dretches summoned to overrun the temple of St. Cuthbert. The cleric pulls the stricken high priest back from the brink of death, while the wizard wipes a vrock out of existence with her disintegrate spell. At the end of the adventure, each player can look back and point to a moment where his or her character was the most important member of the party.
Balance in D&D isn’t about giving everyone the same damage output. That doesn’t speak to the entirety of the game. It’s about giving everyone an equal chance to shine (a topic which relates to the most recent DM Experience article: "Moment in the Sun").
While in a perfect world everyone gets a share of the spotlight, the reality is that the game rarely works this smoothly. A few bad die rolls might turn a competent fighter into a buffoon. The rogue could pick a lock and sneak into the castle, or the party might decide instead to pose as wandering minstrels to gain entrance.
However, there might be another factor at play.
I think that players have a natural tendency to seek the spotlight. When we build characters and play the game, we want that spotlight. That’s where the fun is! Of course, some players are content to play a supporting or lesser role. A new player in a group of veterans might be too busy learning the rules to take center stage. Other players are at the game for the social element. Good conversation and funny jokes are their idea of the spotlight.
Sharing the spotlight can cause problems for those who want it. When D&D players talk about balance, I think that’s what they’re typically referring to. If one class can dominate every important battle or scene, then the rest of the group feels left out.
However, even that definition can vary from group to group. In a campaign that relies on lots of character interaction and intrigue, a bard might come across as a broken class. In one where the DM likes to throw single, powerful monsters at the group, the wizard shines with spells that shut down the enemy. Turn those enemies into golems (notably in 3rd Edition), and suddenly the wizard feels useless. Not only do we have definitions of balance that vary from player to player, but the structure of a campaign or a DM’s preferences can redefine balance between groups or even between adventures.
On top of all that, some folks think of balance purely in terms of the game’s fiction. A wizard might be able to level an army with a single spell, but that’s OK with them. That’s what wizards do, they’ll tell you. As long as the players understand the power relationship between the classes, the game is balanced. If you want to play a powerful character, shepherd a wizard from 1st level on up. If you’re content with a fighter or rogue, that’s your decision to make.
Design and Balance
If you’ve been following this series, I’m about to come to a conclusion that shouldn’t surprise you. I think that balance is something that depends on the group. As designers, we can take a best guess at what the typical group wants, but we can’t stray too far in any one direction. Balance and fairness are perhaps the most difficult elements of design in D&D, because they speak to our emotions. If someone feels wronged by the game, it’s hard to rely on math or design essays to convince them otherwise.
At the end of the day, R&D should try to make each class feel like a viable option. There will always be some imbalance within a group, simply based on personal preferences and play styles. A wizard should feel powerful, but a fighter should have the same capacity for epic achievements and greatness.
However, the greatest tool for balancing a game has been and remains an individual DM. Tailoring adventures and campaigns to meet your players’ needs is still the best way to give everyone a fair shake. R&D can provide the foundation for a balanced game, but a game that tries to mathematically balance everything against a supposed ideal may prove too limiting in scope and options for players to enjoy—especially a group of players as diverse as D&D gamers.
Legends & Lore Poll Results: 03/29
What do you think of the delve format used in 4E adventures?
I like it for some encounters, but not all of them: 64.2%
- I hate it and want it replaced: 20.6%
- I like it and prefer it to other formats: 15.2%
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.