The Alexandrian

Fetishizing Balance

September 3rd, 2008

While writing my essay on “Revisiting Encounter Design”, I kept drifting towards a related topic: The fetishization of balance that appeared in 3rd Edition’s fandom.

“What’s wrong with balance?” you may ask.

Nothing. In fact, there are lots of perfectly valid reasons to seek balance. However, if you fetishize the pursuit of balance in a way that needlessly limits your flexibility, then you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

THE IRON MAN PRINCIPLE

Let’s back up for a second: The designers of 3rd Edition wanted to provide DMs with some basic guidelines about what challenges would be appropriate for PCs of a given level. In order to do that, they first had to make some baseline assumptions about what the power levels of the PCs would be at each level. And in order to do that, they had to understand the Iron Man Principle.

The Iron Man Principle is simple. As long as:

(A) There are magic items which are useful (particularly in combat); and
(B) The PCs can have those items; and
(C) The designers care about game balance at all; then
(D) There will need to be guidelines for how many items the PCs should have.

Because there is a difference between what Tony Stark can do and what Iron Man can do.

A lot of people get frustrated by the Iron Man Principle. You’ll hear them say things like, “All the classes should be equally powerful with or without equipment!” or “I should be able to run a low-magic campaign without changing anything else!” Sorry, folks, but it just doesn’t work that way. If you take two perfectly balanced twin brothers, tell them to fight, and then stick one of them in the Iron Man suit… well, that guy’s gonna win.

A COUPLE OF BIG MYTHS

Myth #1: Older editions didn’t feature as many magic items.

Myth #2: In 3rd Edition, PCs level up much faster than in older editions.

A couple years ago, Quasqueton at ENWorld posted a detailed analysis of the classic modules from the 1st Edition era. His conclusions shocked many people: If you played through those classic adventures by-the-book, you would level up at pretty much the same pace and you would have roughly the same number of magic items.

There is a slight caveat with Myth #2, however. In older editions of the game, XP was rewarded for treasure. For every 1 gp of treasure a character got, they were also supposed to receive 1 XP. The vast majority of groups, however, considered this to be a “stupid” rule and didn’t play with it. The result was that almost everybody remembers advancement in previous editions being slower than in 3rd Edition (and those memories are quite accurate… insofar as they weren’t actually playing by the rules).

(I’m going to take a tangent for a moment here and defend the GP = XP guideline. Experience points are, fundamentally, an abstraction that exists almost entirely in the metagame. This is often misunderstood, which is why you’ll hear people saying things like “you shouldn’t get better at jumping because you killed some orcs”. But the reality is that the rewarding of XP — whether it’s for overcoming combat challenges, surviving traps, achieving story goals, or exceptional roleplaying — is ultimately a dissociated mechanic. In the case of classic D&D campaigns, treasure wasn’t just laying around. You gained treasure by exploring dangerous dungeons, surviving traps, and solving puzzles. Rewarding XP for treasure was a proxy reward: It wasn’t about rewarding someone for picking up a gold piece, it was about rewarding them for the effort it took to get that gold piece. But I digress…)

So what the designers of 3rd Edition basically did was simple: They looked at the older editions of the game, broke down the expected style of play (as represented in the classic modules), and then hard-coded those values into things like the Wealth By Level table.

Now, your personal experience with previous editions may have varied quite a bit from what 3rd Edition hard-coded into its expectations. That’s because pretty much everybody extensively house ruled the older editions in order to cater them to their personal tastes and (in some cases) just to make them playable at all.

THE FALSE FASCISM

With 3rd Edition, however, a kind of false fascism arose. It looked like this: Older editions were easier to house rule. Why? Because in the new edition if you make a change you’ll screw-up the game balance!

There is an iota of truth here: The previous versions of the game were so badly balanced that the entire concept of “game balance” was pretty much a joke. Anyone trying to convince you that dual-class characters were balanced compared to multiclass characters, for example, should be taken immediatey to a detox center.

So it wasn’t that the extensive house ruling of AD&D wasn’t changing the balance of the game… it’s just that the “balance” of the game was already so screwed up that nobody could tell the difference if you screwed it up a little more. (And it was pretty easy to make it a little better without a lot of effort.)

But the fact that the designers of 3rd Edition actually did a lot of work to improve the balance of the game doesn’t mean that house ruling had suddenly become impossible. For me, the firmer foundation of 3rd Edition made it a lot easier to tweak just the stuff I wanted to tweak to achieve whatever effect I was aiming for. But, for other people, the firm foundation became a kind of golden handcuffs — discouraging them from tweaking the game to match their personal tastes, while leaving them feeling trapped.

CHALLENGE RATING OCD

Let’s see if I can explain this as concisely as possible. The designers of 3rd Edition:

(1) Set certain expectations regarding the capability of an average party of level X.

(2) Used those expectations to create a rough ballpark determination of what type of challenges a party with average character level X could face.

(3) Classified encounters using a challenge rating and encounter level of X, where X equals the average character level of a typical party that would find that encounter challenging.

For me, this seems pretty clear-cut. The CR/EL system is not a cure-all. It doesn’t allow the DM to turn off their brain. But it does provide a pretty useful tool for quickly narrowing in on the particular range of encounters that would be appropriate for a given party.

But some people just don’t seem to get it.  And this is where the fetishization of balance takes hold, causing people to respond in one of two ways:

First, there are those who bash the CR/EL system because it isn’t a cure-all. They argue that because it’s possible to create a party of characters who are either less powerful or more powerful than the expected standard, the CR/EL system is useless.

Second, there are those who feel that any deviation from the expected power levels for group X is a sin. If a party of level X isn’t capable of taking on challenges of EL X, then somebody has screwed up. It’s simply not acceptable for the party not to have a meat-shield; or for the rogue to take Knowledge (nobility) instead of Disable Device; or for the arcanist to specialize in non-combat spells; or for a 15th level character not to have a cloak of resistance.

MOVING PAST THE FETISH

Here’s one way in which we can move past this fetishization of balance:

(1) Understand that the CR/EL system measures capability along an expected baseline.

(2) Understand that, if you deviate from that expected baseline, the CR/EL system will become increasingly less useful.

(3) Don’t worry about it.

Seriously. The CR/EL system has a lot of nice utility, but there’s no reason to let that utility needlessly handcuff you.

For example, I frequently hear people complain about how “difficult” it is to run a 3rd Edition campaign without giving the PCs the magical items the designers assumed they would have. This just isn’t true. If you want less magical equipment, just do it. This means that you’ll have to use less powerful monsters to challenge the party, but that’s hardly the end of the world.

As another example, there was a recent thread at the Giant in the Playground forums in which a DM was fretting because one of his players had chosen to play a plain-vanilla fighter from the core rulebooks instead of pursuing the more tweaked out options from some of the supplements. In a similar discussion a few years back, a different DM was worried because the fighter in his party was making sub-optimal feat selections (including Skill Focus).

And, once again, the solution is simple: Just do it. If the relative weakness of the meat-shield is reducing the party’s ability to handle combat encounters, use easier foes. If the concern is one of the player not being happy because their character isn’t performing well compared to the other PCs, then you can talk about letting them redesign the character. But the truth is even that problem is less likely to arise in 3rd Edition because of the niche protection afforded by the design of the game.

(Short version, which I discuss in greater length in the “Death of the Wandering Monster” essay: Fighters can perform consistently and constantly across many encounters. Wizards, on the other hand, get larger bangs than the fighter — but can’t use them as often. The fighter will only feel out-performed by the wizard if (a) the player of the fighter would prefer to be playing like a wizard or (b) the overall style of play in the group is favoring the wizard instead of the fighter. But those will become issues regardless of the overall optimization of the fighter or wizard.)

One of the great things about 3rd Edition is the broad range of power levels it’s capable of handling — from low-powered commoners at 1st level all the way to insanely high-powered demigods at 20th level. (This is something I also talk about in “D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations“.) One of the nice things about this range of power levels is that it gives you all the tools you need to easily customize your campaign based on the actual (and not expected) power of the party.

If you were somehow mandated to use only CR 5 creatures when building an encounter for 5th level characters, then the fetishization of balance might have some point to it. But if the PCs are under-powered for 5th level (because you’ve limited their magic items; because their equipment has been stolen from them; because their characters haven’t been optimized for combat; because there is a non-standard mix of classes in the group), then you can simply use less powerful foes. And if the PCs are over-powered for 5th level (because the PCs managed to loot more treasure than you expected; because they have higher than normal ability scores; because the players are just really good at the game), then you can simply use more powerful foes.

(And it should be noted that, even though I talk about monsters and foes a lot, this advice applies equally to other aspects of the system as well — skill checks, environmental hazards, traps, and so forth.)

In the final analysis, of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing straight by-the-book D&D, either. The standard party compositions, typical combat optimization, expected wealth and equipment, and the usual focus and pace of dungeon-crawling activities have made the game beloved by millions, after all.

But, on the flip-side, there’s no need to be stitching up arbitrary straitjackets for yourself when the game has plenty of flexibility to cater to your needs.

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7 Responses to “Fetishizing Balance”

  1. Justin Alexander says:

    ARCHIVED HALOSCAN COMMENTS

    Justin Alexander [http://www.thealexandrian.net]
    I’d certainly be willing to see these quotes cited.
    Tuesday, April 20, 2010, 1:15:34 AM


    Guest
    Actually, Q’s analysis was flawed. It assumed maximizing the potentials of older modules, which was certainly not the intentions of the designers. There is no assumption pre-3e that the majority of treasure (and thus, the majority of potential XP) will be found. To refute Q’s analysis, quotes from modules were used, as well as statements of expected levelling speeds from both Mr. Gygax (re 1e) and Mr. Cook (re 3e).

    That PCs are expected to level in 3e faster than in 1e is not a myth; the designers said so.
    Tuesday, April 06, 2010, 9:00:46 AM


    Justin Alexander
    I think maybe I should have called the essay the “Fetishization of Optimization”. That might have hit closer to the mark, while being a little less encompassing.

    Like I say, the only time I’ve ever had optimization become a meaningful issue is when:

    (a) There are two PCs in the same niche (which leads to the better PC getting all the spotlight time while the other guy gets the occasional second-rate assist).

    (b) When the campaign is not geared towards whatever niche or speciality the character is geared towards.

    But the game gives you more than enough tools to find variety within a niche (or an entirely new niche if necessary). And the latter is going to be a problem as long as the game is flexible.
    Friday, September 12, 2008, 4:04:07 AM


    donny
    I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. There is no such thing as a sub-optimal character.

    The rules do not trump the enjoyment a player gets in playing a half-orc sorceror period.

    While a “build” may be MECHANICALLY weak, that means squat if the character is fun to play Gnome Paladin anyone?

    The main issue with CR/EL is the number of variables involved. SR and DR are major culprits in trying to balance an encounter. This translates into more work for the DM…which is lame.

    I do enjoy 4E. It is different, but still enjoyable. 3E is also fun, in a different way. Same as WoD, once again, fun but different.

    Balance is good, but I agree, there can be too much of a good thing.
    Thursday, September 11, 2008, 1:25:53 PM


    Tetsubo
    I am not one that bows too deeply at the altar of Game Balance. I have often heard the complaints that you discuss here. I always respond the same way: As GM, I. Am. God. I can freely scale any encounter up or down in an instant.

    Party wiping the floor with your goblins? Send in a squad of orcs. I have infinite reinforcements at my disposal.

    Are the players having fun? Then you are a success as a GM.
    Thursday, September 04, 2008, 9:54:47 AM

  2. PhelanArcetus says:

    The two biggest flaws in 3rd Edition’s balance, to my mind, are:

    1. The game balance is built on the assumption of a certain length “workday”; i.e. a typical number of rounds of combat, generally viewed as 3-4 encounters a day. This is how the “big gun, limited ammo” of the wizard and other full casters are balanced against the “smaller gun, unlimited ammo” of the fighter and other non-casters. (This prevents the wizard, cleric, druid, or sorcerer from entirely dominating every combat and also making many skills superfluous with the use of spells, but it also breaks down horribly with the “5-minute workday”, which is not uncommon. Suddenly, with only one 4-5 round encounter each day, the spellcasters can afford to unleash big guns round after round, while still maintaining lower level slots for buffs and utility.

    2. This one is true of every system that makes optimization of any meaningful degree possible and really relies entirely on the DM to be vigilant (or the players to be party-friendly). The biggest problem in balance is when there is a vast disparity in capabilities among the PCs, such that, in the most common example, one character dominates the rest, and a situation that is challenging to him is impossible for the rest, but something challenging for the rest is trivial for him. As noted, this is by no means exclusive to D&D, 3rd Edition or otherwise. It needs to be solved by the DM and players. In that situation, most likely, the one player is over-optimizing for the table. That might be an entirely appropriate character build for another table, but not this one. He needs to leave or rebuild the character to be at a power level more reasonably in-line with the rest of the party.

    The great flaw in CR itself is how arbitrary it can feel. (Some of the designers have made mention of this, though I don’t have references handy.) There are high CR monsters out there, 20+, in the WotC books, which are actually absolutely no threat to the party in the wrong circumstances (a creature that can’t fly at all outdoors at those levels, for example). Obviously it’s on the DM to keep those monsters in places where the party can’t hover out of reach. I know that in my main gaming group, there is a consensus that Monster Manual 2 monsters are generally powerful for their CR, compared to other sources.

  3. Scryer's Eve says:

    Definitely saving this page. I’ve never thought balance was to be put on a pedestal. Interesting stories are born of imbalance; would you be interested in reading about the exploits of Hercules or Achilles if the company they kept were “balanced” with the other characters in their stories?

  4. Baalbamoth says:

    So if you have a weak fighter in the group you power down the encounters so the other characters breeze through them without challenge or drama and make the player playing the fighter feel that his uber cool bad ass fighter is really a pathetic weakling when compared to the min/maxed characters?

    Or the other option, you leave the encounters where their supposed to be and just kill off the fighter at every minor boss battle?

    Neither of these is a good solution.

    Option 4- try and convince either the fighter’s player to drop his pretentious gamer elitism and scale up his build to match the group or convince the other players to scale down. Either of these will cause resentment and if your players aren’t wearing their big boy pants it could lead to a table split.

    Option 5- Find a better system where min/maxing or not min/maxing does not produce such huge differences in character power level. This would be my solution.

  5. James MacKenzie says:

    Baalbamoth, paert of Justin’s point was that the class niche structure of 3.5 lets GMs tweak encounters to cater to different power levels in the same group.

    As an example, if your players have a badass rogue and killer wizard, but a lame fighter, you could amp up the number of “wandering monsters” (forcing the wizard to keep several spells in reserve) and regularly plug in foes that frighten rogues (undead, constructs, amorphous blobby things..). In such a game, the weaker fighter would still have the chance to shine.

    To reverse the situation, a game with an unusually potent melee-type (perhaps a super-high AC “cork”) and weak wizard-type could be balanced by minimizing the number of “random” encounters, allowing the wizard to go “nova” in more encounters. Foes that require magic to effectively attack them or which use special attacks (ignoring his Uber-AC) could pose effective challenges to the “cork” without massacring the wizard.

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    Exactly.

    In addition:

    (1) In reality, encounters aren’t so preciously balanced that dropping a couple of goblins is going to result in the group “breezing through them” or that adding a couple of extra HD on the boss monster is somehow going to result in a less-than-optimized fighter biting the dust in every single encounter. Fix your thinking on encounter design.

    (2) Even if you do somehow end up with characters “breezing” through combat encounters, the reality is that this just doesn’t matter that much unless your entire campaign features nothing except combat.

    It is possible for two characters to get so mechanically out of whack that juggling balance becomes an issue (and this is something I’ve talked about elsewhere). But this requires huge 15-20 point swings in bonuses on multiple core combat checks. It’s not happening because somebody chose the “wrong” feat at 4th level.

  7. Dave says:

    Re: Iron Man Principle

    The 3e’s designers reasoning is sound and is logically consistent, but there is an alternative that I believe actually would’ve made everyone happier. Instead of assuming a character of level X has Y magic items and thus he can face challenges of Level (x-4) to (x+4) when equipped as so and has to face weaker challenges if he doesn’t, they could’ve designed the rating system around a character with NO magic items and had guidelines for calculating what his actual effective character level with magic items is. This would’ve played out similar mathematically if the characters have the expected amount of magical equipment, but would also allow transparently for having campaigns with greater or fewer numbers of magical items.

    This would have several benefits:

    (1) Instead of having to just guess how strong a 10th level fighter with only mundane equipment is, the system would tell you. Instead of guessing how strong characters with double treasure are, you would be able to estimate based on a system.

    (2) Magic items would be framed as something that makes you objectively stronger, instead of just keeping up with the power curve. How many items you receive would be a parameter of the campaign instead of something everyone assumes you are entitled to.

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