A comment in my last post inspired the direction of this post. I had more to say about balance, but the specific points raised by this comment are excellent and worth addressing.
First, the comment postulates on a couple of specific assumptions:
In my experience, it is rarely at the level of “his BAB is higher than mine”; but the complaints that I experience (versus on the internet, where people will whine about anything given a large enough body) is more along the lines of fighter versus mage “I have a higher to hit, more hit points, but in combat my sole choice is “I swing” where as he is amazingly useful and flexible inside and outside of combat, and the rate that the mage goes through spells determines how fast we progress, thus my inherent advantage of low-grade consistent damage never is utilized unless the DM has to make a special case scenario to suit my character.”
There is a lot to unpack in all of that and I’m going to try and tease out a few specific parts…
First, referencing the “I swing” vs. “look at all his options.” This is a critique I hear frequently as well but it overlooks some things. I mean, I’ve played D&D since OD&D, and I’ve played Magic-users in every edition of the game. I’ve also played fighters in every edition of the game. So I certainly understand where this critique arises from, but the underlying assumption is missing a part and I’ll use the evolution into 4E to illustrate.
In 4E, every single power is, “I swing.” I can hear the howling now, but here’s every power in 4E: “I roll a D20 + my modifiers vs. one of four defenses to create a certain # of damage dice and conditions/other modifiers.
A bard can use “The Thousand Sharpest Notes,” a fighter can use “The Thousand Sharpest Cuts,” and a psionicist can use “The Thousand Sharpest Shards” but they are all the same mechanical construct.
The other things a class can do are important to the equation for why I’d want to play one over the other.
But it goes farther. Focusing on the game at this level is only looking at the math/mechanical aspects. As any OSR player would probably proudly tell you, it doesn’t matter if your warrior is swinging a sword every turn, it’s how you describe the action and interact with the game more than just the actual mechanical representation. The game is abstracted in a way where this works.
“But the Wizard gets Spider Climb, and Fly, and Fireball, and… I, uh, have my sword.” Well, that’s certainly true. But does the wizard have those spells memorized when he needs them? Does the Wizard have the expensive material components every time he wants to cast Stoneskin? These questions matter — and if you play the game without concerning yourself with them, you are going to encounter the problems more often than not.
To shed the D&D lens for a moment, since it seems to dominate the conversation sometimes, look at a game like Shadowrun, or Barbarians of Lemuria. In Shadowrun you have a purely point-buy system that rewards “limited specialization.” You need to be good at something and the team aspect does include the assumption that PCs will fill different team roles, but it doesn’t pay to be only one thing, because then you find yourself excluded from certain parts of the action… Of course, I referenced this previously. That really only matters depending on your playstyle. I may love playing my medic character who doesn’t shoot and so I’m not upset when the combat scenes roll around and I don’t get to do as much, mechanically speaking. I can still play my character even if I have a crappy initiative score and no guns, right? So I should play my character as is, not be upset about choices I didn’t make.
I think it’s also telling how often the conversation of balance comes back to combat. It is an important part of RPGs, but it’s not the only part — and for some not the biggest part, certainly.
To turn back to the original quote, if the mage’s spell use is determining the progression of your game, I would question the basic assumptions I was playing with at the table? Why is that happening? What can be done to change that — and I don’t mean writing a “cheat adventure” that stars the other PCs for a change — to make the game work for everyone better?
I’ve never played in a game where the narrative/campaign flow was dictated by the mage’s spell use. And I’m quite pleased to realize this is true.
And I’ve never played in a game where I felt like I was “holding another character’s cloak” and would probably walk away from a group where that was happening — because that has less to do with the mechanical effectiveness of a character and more to do with the attitude at the table.
That said, some games come with that built-in assumption. Look at a game like the Buffy RPG. The game is built around the idea that some characters just have access to abilities that others do not. There will be Xanders and Willows at the table at the same time — Joe Normal and Worldbeater. Why would anyone choose to play Joe Normal in that game? Just something to think about.
Ultimately, balance is a construct that I think is useful, but often overemphasized in our conversations — especially the area of PC v. PC balance. The game is one part math and one part story. Keeping these in balance and not allowing the math to overshadow the story ensures that everyone is an equal contributor despite their mechanical choices.
Can the mechanics interfere with that fun? Yes. I completely agree. But in the majority of games the problems are not serious enough to warrant much concern.
The last part of the comment from my last post — concerning flaws and benefits to PCs, well, I have a huge, angry rant about bribes… so I’ll try to post it next time, without the rant.
Thanks for reading.