The Bad Side of Balance, the Falseness of “Always Say Yes,” and the Paralysis of Freedom; Part One

As a DM, I think I’m learning to hate 4E D&D. This is a strange feeling for me. I was a huge defender of D&D at release, and I love class and level systems. As false as they seem compared to “real world” thinking, I find that I enjoy these more than freeform advancement systems. I like Dragonborn, I love the new Tieflings, I like a lot of new mechanics (not all, but a lot), but something is starting to wear on me in my looking at D&D through DM eyes, and that is the difficulty of creating a new playing space inside (and this word “inside” is important) the game. D&D 4E is a pain in the neck to homebrew for, and here’s why I think this… feel free to disagree, but I wanted to get this out of my system.

The Bad Side of Balance
I’m a pretty big fan of the way the 4E writers have struggled to achieve a “heroic baseline” of balance in the system. I like the fact that they have improved, streamlined and evened out a lot of the class/race issues of past editions. This has a couple of seriously negative impacts though.

Whenever an option appears that is “off-the-curve” is becomes immediately apparent as a problem. This happens whether the option is poor or excellent. Options which are poor simply disappear, as no one takes them. This means that a chunk of options in the game simply might as well not exist. But the worse issue is overpowered options, which cause breakdowns in play. But broken mechanics aren’t really my issue; I just wanted to point them out.

The bigger culprit is that the balance of the game mechanics relies on numerical issues improving at a certain rate over a certain span. PCs in any edition of D&D prior to this one have never had more reason to min/max, more reason to stick to ONLY their prime attribute scores and to specialize. Despite the improvement of say, letting PCs raise two attributes by a point at levels 4,8, 14, 18, 24, and 28; the problem remains that you will only raise the two attributes vital to your class powers, with the occasional (rare) exception where you blow a point to help qualify for a feat at some point. And despite the promises of a game where magic items mattered less than in 3E, you are still defined by your gear.

My case in point. A first level wizard is more accurate than a 30th level wizard, relative to level. Because a 1st level wizard hits without the aid of a +6 magic wand. Take the 30th level wizard’s wand away and he won’t hit anything even remotely on level. So now, instead of providing some form of bonus, the items are actually mathematically necessary. This same holds true for armor, weapons, totems, neck slot items… everything. (I recognize that DMG 2 offered some solutions to this issue in the form of inherent bonuses, etc. But that requires changing the system from player expectation. More on that later.)

Finally, the balance issues create weird discrepancies. PCs have ACs that are all very similar, and one or two of their defenses will be high’ish, but then they will always that weird, lagging defense. And armor is a joke. Since it was important to keep AC within a certain range, without regard to class/race/role, it becomes imperative that a hide wearer is still within a point or two of a plate wearer at the table, because otherwise it skews the mechanical curve. But a warden with no emphasis on WIS is going to have an abysmal Will defense at higher levels… (just one example). Or a rogue is going to have an awful Fortitude defense, assuming Artful Dodger (lagging, 6 points behind a Reflex and 7 points behind AC, and that’s a PC rogue starting with a 14 in CON, and taking Robust Defenses at Epic). A Goliath Fighter in Godplate, with a shield and Robust Defenses lags a full 12 points behind his AC in Reflex.

This discrepancy is even worse in the case of skills… Skills are going to be highly skewed across levels, and it’s rare to see players take training in skills on their class list that don’t directly correspond to an attribute they are high in, except when they have to. (and this is a completely different post, but don’t get me started on how the class skills often seem to have been decided by random chance instead of thoughtful design.)
This skill issue is reflected in the revamping necessary to fix the Skill Challenge system to make it possible for ‘untrained’ characters to succeed in challenges of skill. This is reflective of a system-wide issue created by the absurdities of “balance.”

I get it, I know what they were trying to achieve, and it’s a good try. But the quest for certain kinds of mechanical balance have created a whole new set of issues that are starting to make me wonder if the cure is not worse than the disease.

That said, my original point was how these issues cloud the situation with home brewing. It is very difficult to create balanced content for 4E that is also mechanically interesting. I’ve been creating content for my games for a long time, and not just older versions of D&D. I enjoy adding to the game. With 4E though, it feels like a house of cards waiting for a strong wind whenever I add something.

I mention this because of player expectation. As I wrote above, the DMG2 offers some interesting alternatives to items. The alternate rewards system creates a way to allow PCs to stay mechanically constant without the need for +6 Plate Armor or a +5 Executioner’s Axe. Well, that’s great, but I have two problems with it: 1. PCs now have two separate “level” bonuses, the basic one they get for leveling and the alternate reward one that happens every 4 and 5 levels. 2. It changes player expectation. Now, whenever a player sits down at my table I have to explain that, “well, we do things a little different around here…” and that creates a cognitive problem for some players. This is a bigger deal if you don’t play with the same group of buddies all the time, but rather, semi-strangers. When I add something to the game, change something about the game, or whatever, I want it to not throw off players’ sense of expectation. In many games, this is easier because “expectation” is less mechanically rigid. Not so 4E.

But balance is the smallest of the three issues in my title… Check back in a few days for the second installment… The Falseness of “Always Say Yes.” In the meanwhile, comment, question, poke and prod. I need fresh eyes on this issue, mine are tired.

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7 responses

  1. I agree that being totally dependent on gear is annoying, but (in my experience with 3.5) people are used to it and they roll with it. The PC’s never use Disjunction; the monster’s never take Improved Sunder, and we move on. I occasionally have a conversation with new players to the effect of “Look, the monsters could strip you naked in a few rounds. You can blow the “Blade of Pain and Cheese Doodles” out of the Overlord’s hand and make him suck. Neither of those things is particularly fun, so let’s not make them happen, Mmm’kay?” It’s just part of the system that everyone acknowledges and works around.

    I’m a little confused about why everyone having a crappy [blank] defense is bad. Shouldn’t people have a weakness?

    As for player expectations, I don’t know if the flaws of 4th ed. are as generally agreed upon as the flaws of 3.5, but my player’s are usually already playing by the same set of tweaks because everyone thinks similarly. Like 3.5’s Massive Damage (you need to make a DC 20 Fort Save or die, if you take 50+ damage from one hit). I’ve never played in a game where that rule got used, because nobody thinks it adds anything to the system.

    If I add something not as widely used, like converting Vancian casting to Mana-based casting (which I do all the time), I just explain it to the PCs first and ask if anyone has a problem with it. If you end up with a ton of house rules, then it becomes a problem, but I haven’t hit that point yet.

    As long as you don’t rewrite half the PHB, I think some house rules are fine. The players will adjust.

  2. Dominic Amann | Reply

    It seems the essence of what you are saying is that 4e has levelled the playing field to the extent that when you throw stuff in, your molehills stand out too much, whereas before they were obscured by the foothills already littering the landscape?

    As for skills – it seems that my characters usually have a 7 point discrepancy between trained and untrained, and this seems true across all levels.

    My Wizard has yet to use a wand at all, but I have little to no trouble hitting at 12th level. The main thing is I pretty much choose which defense to target (see your point about defenses – it applies to monsters as well).

    As for specialization and min-maxing, the Wizard is a bit of an unfair example. my Wizard has only one stat of any consequence – and it is the only character I have that is that way. My Tiefling Resourceful Warlord has 3 prime stats – Strength, Intelligence and Charisma. My Orc Beastmaster Ranger has 3 primary stats – to really max out damage, I increase Strength and Wisdom, but if I continue to wear light armour, I cannot neglect Dexterity. My Shifter Druid has 3 primary stats. As for specialization, I personally enjoy flexibility. I saw early on in 4e that having only one schtick would mean that I would need the biggest meanest schtick around, but if I had a whole toolbag of techniques, I just needed to exploit the enemies weakest. I love that 4e actually encourages generalist builds, and oddly enough, my one-stat wizard is my best generalist! (I call him a one-stat character because he is my only human character, and he started with an Int of 20).

  3. Thanks for the responses guys.

    @Paul: You make a couple of points that I agree with, but taking the issues of Disarm and Sunder as examples, you are doing what I am trying to avoid, which is, changing a facet of gameplay. This is by tacit agreement at your table, but it’s still changing a face of gameplay to fit your group. I’m not comfortable with this. If the system includes all the mechanics and support to create Trip builds and Disarm builds, etc, then I don’t want to be telling a player… “your build is unfun.” (Even if I agree that this is really, really, unfun.)

    Second thing, your example of, well, we play with Mana points instead of Vancian Casting, it is again, an example of severely changing player expectation. Some players will just roll with it, especially if you guys are comfortable together, but it’s a really big change to the game. Big enough that I would find myself asking “why aren’t we just playing GURPS, or Savage Worlds, or WHFRPG2e?”

    Finally, I don’t have a problem with a character having a weak defense, I have a problem with everyone’s defenses looking almost identical, except for which is the weak defense… and for some PCs the gap is huge. And the size of the gap stems from the weirdness of not spreading out stats, just rolling with whatever your important ones are.

    @Dominic

    The gap in most skills seems to be larger than 7 points in my experience, but I’m thinking 8 or 9 points so I guess it’s not that far off. Still, a 7 point gap is huge. That’s effectively 35% worth of probability on the die. Still, I think it’s the way skills are represented mechanically that troubles me more…

    As for Wizards… I’m confused by your comment. You are 12th level and don’t have a magic implement? I said wand, but that was just an example for “wand/staff/orb/rod/totem/ki focus/holy symbol.” You would be about 15% off the curve right now for attack rolls if you don’t have an implement of any sort at 12th level. I can’t imagine you hit much… but it may just be I should have said implement instead of using one sample (wand).

    Monsters don’t have the same gap in defenses as PCs. Some exceptions which prove the rule do exist, but in general a monster will have its baseline AC, a defense 3-4 points lower, 2-3 points lower, one NAD that may be higher… Some are equal across their defenses, and, as I said, a few have huge dips, but these are usually the ones whose AC was set too high to begin with.

    And you are the first and only person I have spoken to or played with, since the PH1 came out, that has every used the word generalist in the same sentence as 4E. Everyone I know or talk to about 4e specializes their builds. That’s how the game is designed. Yes, you want to have attacks to target multiple defenses, but that’s just a part of a build’s powers… What I’m talking about is, fighters pick one weapon and that’s what they do, mages have one implement and that’s what they use, etc. The entire class builds and feat structure is designed with specialist thinking in mind, because it’s the only easy way to keep the balance. If my Fighter spends feats to be good at Heavy Blades (for example) and then ends up in a fight with an axe (that’s not his magic sword, just some plain old axe) he’s just become a missing machine, who’s only job is to mark and hope he doesn’t get hit too much. Take away his plate mail and he’s just gotta go sit on the sideline and cry, cause now he’s basically useless, because he’s going to get hit so often and go down so fast that he might as well not be playing….

    The balance means you have to be good at one thing because it’s represented in the class builds, feat structure, attribute distribution and reward mechanics.

    But like I said, I’m pretty frustrated so… I don’t want to say you don’t make a good point, I’m just saying I’ve never seen anyone do what you’re saying, “at the table.” This response has gotten long… Sorry.

  4. Oh, alright. I get the defenses thing now. Yeah, that would be really irritating.

    As far is not making Sunder or Disarm builds, it’s a question of how much you like the rest of the system. I really like 3.5, except for X,Y, and Z. If I can get rid of those, and my players generally agree (or are apathetic at least), then we all have more fun. If the system is chocked full of things you don’t like, then it’s probably time to switch systems.

    I suppose I’m just used to changing things. When I get a new system, I read it and note the parts I think are busted. I starting talking to my usual players, and random people, about what they think is busted. Then we play a game and I see if our suspicions are correct. Afterward, I start knocking bits out and making changes until most of us are happier.

    I’ve also found that most players (~80%) don’t care. I could tell them “Today, we’re using d30s and you calculate HP based on the number of letters in your name.” and they would go along with it. But if you’re really against violating player expectations, and a good deal of the system bothers you… I guess you need a different system, rather than letting this one drive you insane and make games anti-fun.

  5. I can definitely see what you’re saying about specialization – the first 4e character I ever built was an Eladrin two-weapon ranger. Now, that character sucked because I had to spread my points so thin – but what really bothered me was that I couldn’t really make the character very customized. I had wanted to put extra points in Intelligence – however, because I needed to keep my Dexterity up because of armor and later feat choices, I had to make it my dump stat (because of the Eladrin bonux, it ended up as a 10). Also, I would never be able to raise that stat if I wanted my character to ‘keep up’ hit and defenses wise with the rest of the group.

    I suspect the point-buy system is what makes everyone’s stat line seem so similar. I know when I am making a character, it seems to always have the exact same stat line, just allocated in different places: my main stat will get an 18, my secondary a 16, a 14 in a stat in the stat grouping that doesn’t contain my primary or secondary stat [for defense purposes], and then 10’s and 11’s in the last three. And except for characters that can focus on a single stat (like Wizards), it seems to be the case for everyone else at the table.

    This is in contrast to a Warhammer Fantasy 2e game I started (the game died after the second sessions). During character creation, I rolled abysmally (average stats should have been around 31, I was in the 26-28 range). My character would have still have been effective (either the rules, or the GM had put in place ‘max out one stat’ and reroll one stat), but instantly she seemed to have personality to her that my D&D characters haven’t for a long time (yes, I know, my character stats shouldn’t define what my character is like, but sometimes, you can’t help it).

    Now, my excitement for that character’s stats would probably have died as soon as she became horribly disfigured (or killed) in the first round of battle (did I mention I only had 10 wounds and this was Warhammer Fantasy?). However, it felt much more (for lack of a better term) real that my character’s stats were not average, than my characters with point-bought stats who felt cookie-cutter-ish (really, there are only some many ways you can build a dwarven shielding swordmage and still have her be effective).

    Perhaps rolling for stats (even though it is frowned on in 4e) would give a ‘less balanced’ feel to your games. It would mess with players’ expectations, but since most other systems do role randomly, maybe it won’t be as much of a departure as you think.

  6. @Jenny
    Actually, don’t feel too bad about your stat-line helping to determine your personality. Contemporary and old school game designers (and bloggers) have written pages about how a stat-line is a characterization tool.

    The biggest issue with stat line determining characterization is not at first level, when the PC is generated, but at later levels, when the stat line starts to be horribly skewed. Why do you adventure for 30 levels, gain vast amounts of experience, and your 8 INT turns into a… 10. But your CON grows from 18 to 28! Woohoo!

    Or even worse, why does your CON only ever grow from an 8 to a 9 by 11th level, even though you’ve spent the heroic tier engaged (most likely) in more strenuous activity than many people will do in their whole lives?

    WHFRP2e did have the virtue of most career advance schemes, at least, spreading out bonuses some across the various stats, to help even things out… but that is still not perfect (better).

    I guess what I’m looking for is something akin to the old Call of Cthulhu method where PCs raised abilities by using them, and that the higher the stat was to begin with, the harder it became to raise because you were nearing the pinnacle of ability.

    But I feel I’m slightly off-topic here. My other thought is that rolling for stats in 4E would be disastrous. And it’s because of that careful balancing act of modifiers and math that 4E is built on. Your 14 INT, 6 CON wizard won’t last past 5th level. Heck, 4E doesn’t even support PC stats lower than 8.

    Hence my complaint that there is very little “open” real estate in 4E to home brew. You can “support” the paradigm and just keep writing up endless versions of the same couple of modifiers, but outside of the Math/Balance equation, it is tough to find things to play with.

  7. @morrisonmp – That’s true about the random stats; though, I thought that the PH1 had a section about how to roll for your stats (If I remember correctly it was like: “here’s how to do it…But wait, look over here, point-buy is better!”. But you’re right, issues would come up with people who rolled on the extremes – too low or too high.

    I have never played a table top game that leveled up in the way that you described. It does remind me how characters leveled up in the Oblivion video game – which I personally really liked. However, when thinking about it, without the computer to keep track of which skills the player is using, I could see it becoming very bookkeeping intensive. Maybe that’s why it’s not implemented in many games – just giving points to spend is easier than trying to calculate that kind of distribution.

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