Thursday, December 10, 2009

What's wrong with game balance?

Spend any time in the "old-school" blogosphere and you will read plenty of reasons why modern versions of D&D are crap. Some criticisms are valid, some seem a tad contrived, but the only one I've seen that really seems completely out in left field is game balance. Apparently game balance is bad. Personally, I would have thought the desirability of game balance would be self-evident, but apparently not. I have strived to understand the argument, although I don't feel I'm there yet. However, I have acquired a few insights, so I thought I would write them down, in hopes that some old-school reader would further enlighten me. Some believe the pursuit of game balance places too much emphasis on combat. This is probably a fair criticism of D&D 4e in which the pursuit of combat balance has introduced a dreary, mechanical sameness to all the classes. For 3.x/Pathfinder, however, I'm just not buying it. The designers of these editions never attempted to make all classes equal in combat. Fighters and their ilk are clearly superior at low levels, while spellcasters (especially arcane spellcasters) have an undeniable advantage at higher levels. Yet, people still play rogues or clerics because they bring other talents to the game that are just as important as combat power. Having said that, few people want to play a character that is useless in combat and few groups want such a character in their party. So, some level of combat effectiveness is essential for all character classes.
Furthermore, the skills and feats in 3.5/Pathfinder make it easy to balance character classes based on criteria other than combat effectiveness. Rogues and rangers, for example, have a lot of skill points, relative to fighters and sorcerers. This makes these classes more versatile. The ranger can track and survive in the wilderness, has finely-honed senses and is fairly stealthy, giving him a lot of capabilities that the more combat-oriented fighter lacks. Likewise, the rogue has many options. He can concentrate on stealth, climbing and acrobatics and be a cat burglar. Alternatively, he can go for opening locks and disabling traps and be more of a safecracker. He can even specialize in forgery and bluff and be a con artist. This level of versatility certainly never existed in AD&D. Every thief had more-or-less the same skills as every other thief of the same level, with only minor racial variations.



Derobane-bane said...

The lack of so-called ballance is exactly why I love the 3.x/ Pathfinder stuff. I personally love the challange of playing a PC that is not maximized for combat. It seems more 'real' to me if things are out of ballance.

When game systems like 4E start to hold your hand and ballance everything between races and classes, you start to lose imagination and ingenuity- the very attributes that make D&D so appealing to me in the first place. In the old days, if your PC was terrible at combat, you did something about it. You got creative and compensated for weaknesses in one way or another.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I'm probably one of those who derides game balance, for exactly the reasons you mention.

Game balance is important in a competitive game. For example, i'm not interested in playing a boardgame where one player has an unfair advantage over the others. Who wants to play the germans in a WWI game, if the game is designed so that the Americans always win? But I don't understand why game balance is all-important in an cooperative game like an RPG. Doesn't the DM has some responsibility to make sure everyone gets her/his moment in the spotlight?

As for 3e and 3.5, I tried them a couple of times, but they never seemed to scratch my role-playing itch. I don't particularly dislike 3e/3.5, but they never really wowed me.

James V said...

When game systems like 4E start to hold your hand and ballance everything between races and classes, you start to lose imagination and ingenuity- the very attributes that make D&D so appealing to me in the first place.

Hear, hear.

I think the opposition to game balance is a reaction to the way games have become more focused on balance, a method that I think is epitomized by 4e.

In my experience, while some people are saying there's something wrong with game balance, more people are saying that there nothing wrong with imbalance, and I am of the latter. I think that way, because the stuff on the sheet is just the beginning of the character IMO, and the player should be allowed to 'play the game' and use their noodle.

I've had plenty of PCs who made up for their statistical shortcomings with a healthy dose of cleverness.