Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Issue of Game Balance

Game balance is the hobgoblin of the D&D designer's mind. It's a shiv to the ego's gut, a reminder that even the best design will spring a hole. While balance has always been an issue, it's really important when you look at D&D post-2e's splats and skills and power. That's when players had enough choices, and enough control over those choices, that they could easily build huge gaps in power between them. You could build broken characters in earlier editions, but the DM (by design, IMO) had a lot more power to reign things in. It's a lot easier for a DM to say "Your wand runs out of charges" than "The wand is out of charges, you can't buy it anymore, and that feat you're using is gone."

A lot of gamers really don't care about game balance, and that's OK. A lot of DMs have learned over the years to fiddle with the game to keep things even, and that's a godsend to many designers. Your audience is trained to forgive mistakes!

There are also plenty of players and DMs who have no use for game balance. If things are out of whack, their playstyle is such that it doesn't matter. Who cares if the berserker can kick anything's ass in melee, if the campaign is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet crossed with The Longest Yard. Fighting isn't the point, so all those unbalanced fighting abilities the berserker uses don't matter.

If you do like combat, though, then game balance is very important. A DM needs the system to provide some framework for building encounters, or at least judging their difficulty. If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn't account for that, the system falls apart and the DM's judgment and experience have to take over. That probably means lots of trial, lots of error, and hopefully a patient enough group that a DM learns to balance the game using his own set of metrics. Of course, if a few PCs die and classes rotate in and out of the group, the balance act starts all over again.

So, some players and DMs don't care for game balance, but others want and need it. In fact, a lot of people want it. And the really nice thing is that a well-balanced game doesn't take anything away from people who don't care about balance, while making people who do care about it happy. The key is making the people who don't care about balance happy, and that's another bundle of trouble.

A well-balanced game means more than simply making all options equal. A well balanced game offers a lot of distinct choices and vivid options, without *needlessly* restricting them. That's really the trick - where does that needless line rest? 4e catches a lot of heat for this. For some people, wizard spells that obviated skills were bad because they replaced rogues in those critical situations where the rogue had a chance to shine. Others didn't care, or rarely had rogues in the party, or had enough chances for the rogue to shine that the wizard didn't steal them all.

It's a tough line to draw, because D&D is really a large number of games placed under one umbrella. Some people like lots of combat in their D&D, others enjoy free-form roleplay with teh occasional die roll. To attempt to distill D&D down into one experience that makes everyone happy is difficult.

In a way, though, game balance has to draw lines and partition things. Game balance exists at least in part within the context of a specific campaign. When you try to balance the game, you have to create a sort of platonic ideal of a campaign and work from there. Do some people think it's cool that wizard spells make skills worthless? Sure, but that might not be the baseline you design to.

Balancing D&D is hard and boring. Few people will thank you for it when, by some miracle, you get it right. Everyone will tell you how you've messed up, either by nerfing things, making things bland by balancing them, or taking away toys they liked playing with. It's precisely the job that designers are paid to do so that individual DMs aren't stuck with it.

At the end of the day, though, if you balance the game just right everyone's happy. The guys who don't care about balance get lots of options and toys to play with, because you picked the right lines and didn't take away stuff they liked. People who like the challenge of breaking the game work harder to bust the game's math. They have a steeper mountain to climb! The players in the middle get to have fun picking options based on what looks fun, interesting, or that fits a character concept. You're not stuck with a lame character because you think it would be fun to play a samurai. DMs get to run engaging campaigns without taking on too much work that the designer left for him.

So, that's why designer should keep tilting at the game balance windmill. It's hard, rarely rewarding work, but that's what we're paid to do. We take on the tough, boring tasks so DMs can spend their time doing the fun work of running a D&D campaign.

46 comments:

Mike said...

Good words, Mike! I myself don't run into too many balance problems except when it comes to monsters and a skilled set of players. I've been houseruling my ass off to keep battles challenging for my players without dragging on for two or three hours. Luckily, a game like this gives me a lot of freedom to do so. My willingness to add a "if stunned this creature instead loses a standard action" to a dragon has grown a lot as my players climb the ranks into the Epic tier.

My combat-heavy party hasn't been too worried about balance. The rogue and ranger dish out a ton of damage, the defenders tie people up and punish them for moving around or hitting the wrong folks, the leaders keep people alive and boost everyone else up. It all seems to work out and the players are all happy.

It's very interesting to see how this is thought about from the inside. Thank you for your candor.

johnarendt said...

Mike, what are your thoughts about 4E and Sandboxing (and balance)?

On the one hand, I feel like Dungeon Delve and the mini-adventures that have shown up in Open Grave, Draconomicon, etc are like a sandboxers wet dream. Heh, even the 'hopelessly-mired-in-level-1' Chaos Scar could help out there, eventually.

On the other hand, there's such a sweet spot between a party's level and the type of monsters they can handle that didn't necessarily appear in previous editions. Your level 1 or 2 party could run into a big bad troll, but at least they could hit the AC. If your 4E party runs into something 8 levels above them, they AC scaling makes it rough. Is this balancing run amok?

We're not sandboxing right now, but the players want to do it in the next campaign (they're trudging through the Trollhaunt these days). Most of the group is optimizer-heavy, so our biggest balance issue has been 'locking Solos' like commenter Mike pointed out.

Mike Mearls said...

I think 4e is more forgiving in allowing characters to flee from a tough fight, which makes sandboxing a little easier to implement. If 1st level PCs run into a troll, their attacks don't do much against it, but the troll probably needs a couple of attacks to drop a PC.

Were I to create a sandbox, I'd go ahead and put a wide range of levels into it and let the PCs uncover rumors and such to navigate their way through it. If anything, the lack of real combat options against significantly higher level foes places a greater emphasis on good planning, smart retreats, and creative play.

For instance, if you wanted to give your level 1 PCs a chance against the troll, maybe the PCs can try to set a trap for it, such as by collapsing the entrance to its lair or touching off a rock slide to slay it.

Stuart said...

Combat balance and Game balance aren't the same thing unless it's just Combat = Game though.

It's not that the berserker who can kick anything's ass in melee in the R&J campaign is *unbalanced* - he's just specialized in Melee. Character classes with specializations in Diplomacy, Magic Potions, or Sexy Time might all be "balanced" options for the game, just not all balanced for the same activity / niche within the game.

It's only a problem when you want to play Romeo & Juliet as an all-combat game. That's when Tybalt is unbalanced compared to Friar Laurence, the Apothecary, and Romeo.

Mike Mearls said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Mearls said...

D&D does have a strong focus on combat, though. Fighting should be one of its important points of balance in most campaigns.

The thing is, you're correct about the R&J/TLY game. If you run that kind of game, and you have fights play as frequent and pivotal roles in the campaign as sexy time, diplomacy, or anything else, then combat is shelved alongside other specializations.

But I think D&D is very combat driven. That doesn't mean that every group focuses on combat, but enough do that it's important to balance it there.

The important thing to me is this: Does balancing combat mess up the Romeo & Juliet game? I don't think it does. In 4e's case, the characters are free to train in whatever skills they want and pick feats to augment or support those skills.

(Edited and reposted.)

grandexperiment said...

One of the parts I like most about 4e is the way that the the concept of balance changes in the distinct elements of the game. This ties very closely to the preferences ofthe players who prefer those parts.

In Combat, you get detail and balance. In Skills and Rituals, you get more flexible and some balance. Outside of these areas for story and characterisation, you get full freedom and no attempt to balance.

This use of balance was often muddled in 3e and it was dreadful IMO. If you wanted to create a certain PC background, you often needed certain feats (like Leadership) to acheive it.

Randall said...

Mike, from my POV the stress on combat/game balance in 4e makes this edition the first version of D&D where it would be impossible to run a campaign in either of my main homebrew worlds (without changing them so much they I would no longer consider them my worlds). To get the combat balance desired for 4e, the rules nerfed or even eliminated the parts of the game I used and need for these worlds. While D&D started heading down roads I had no interest in with the Skills and Powers books, this is the first version to be unusable for my homebrew worlds and type of games I prefer.

I've always been a proponent of the idea that game rules can't be strongly balanced outside of the world and playstyle of particular campaign world, play group, and gamemaster. So I prefer a toolkit set of rules that the GM can use to build the type of game he or she wants. I'll admit this makes such a game harder to GM, but very well-balanced RPGs like D&D 4e are very hard to use outside the preferred playstyle of the game designers. That type of "balanced game" can make for a fantastic game for those who like that preferred style of play (4e is an excellent example of this), but the further your playstyle is from the style the designers balanced the game for the less fantastic and less fun that well-balanced set of rules is.

Stuart said...

"But I think D&D is very combat driven. That doesn't mean that every group focuses on combat, but enough do that it's important to balance it there."

I think almost every D&D group would include combat - but what % of game time that combat would represent is highly variable. For some it would be the majority of the groups game time and for others it might not come up every game session and when it does be resolved in a few minutes. Even for a single edition (say, B/X D&D) I think there'd be a lot of variability.

"The important thing to me is this: Does balancing combat mess up the Romeo & Juliet game? I don't think it does."

Putting aside D&D and talking about this hypothetical Romeo & Juliet game, I'd say balancing Friar Laurence's combat ability with Tybalt's would be a mistake.

Rob Conley said...

I care about good game design. But mechanical balance is pretty much antithetical to how I run my campaigns.

Instead I prefer to balance things through the design of the setting rather the rules. I find using rules for balance lead to strange results and breaks the minimal suspension of disbelief a longterm campaign requires.

Don't get me wrong a RPG with a good design is easier to modify than one that is broken to begin with.

Using the setting to balance makes easier the players to discover where the challenges are because it has it's own logic.

They may just start out as flunkies of a lord. With a society, culture, and a religion around that lord, designed for the possibility of adventuring, then the players have a path to become heroes without breaking the internal logic of the setting.

If they decide to go off to the lair of the Amazon Queen of the Wild Orcs of the Purple Claw when they hit 2nd level despite the information given. Well.. not everything ends in wine, women, and song.

Dave The Game said...

I've made my own pleas for balance in the game. My big personal issue is that I hate being completely overshadowed by another character. It is one of my least favorite feelings as a player. Yes, the DM can mitigate that, but then it's like the DM has to be more of a game designer. The more the system does, the more time the DM can spend on other things.

B. Austin Price said...

I agree with the need to balance the core game and allow DM's to house-rule it out. That is sooo much easier then trying to house-rule balance into 2e or 3e.

To the earlier poster: what are your preferred campaigns that you can't model with 4e? I'm just curious to what type of game it can't model?

Mike Mearls said...

Randall: You could argue that if 4e doesn't allow you to run the game you want, it isn't well balanced. Part of a well balanced game is giving enough options to run the game in a way it should work. If it doesn't give you those options, then it's an issue with the design.

I'd be curious to hear specifics about the game that give you troubles.

Mike Mearls said...

Stuart: For me, the key is talking about D&D. If I run that game in D&D, then I think balancing with respect to combat works out fine. If that's an issue for the campaign, though, it might be better to use a different system.

It goes back to trying to draw lines that encompass the typical D&D campaign. You have to assume a certain amount of combat, and hope that you capture a big enough chunk of your audience.

Ideally, if you don't run a lot of combat, the game still has stuff to offer. OTOH, if you try to make everything equally detailed, you end up with a bloated mess of a game.

bankuei said...

And... probably the hardest part is that D&D's "game model" is supplemental - which means you get all the same balance problems of a CCG- between having to add new rules on a regular schedule AND the way in which new rules make combos with other rules- you end up with a bunch of things which by themselves are balanced, but put together are unbalanced.

Mike Mearls said...

Rob: I actually think you're approaching balance from a different perspective. I don't consider balance to deal with how a DM puts together encounters. It just deals with allowing the DM to accurately predict an outcome.

For instance, a 1st level party decides to waltz into the lair of Smaug, the 15th level dragon. If Smaug massacres the PCs, I'd see that as a balanced result. The 15th level dragon *should* destroy them!

It isn't an issue of game balance, to me. That's just world design and play skill. I wouldn't consider it unbalanced for a DM or designer to set up his setting that way.

S'mon said...

Personally I have been very happy so far with 4e's focus intra-party, in-combat balance. The 4e rules support my primary homebrew gameworld Ea, an "Earthy high fantasy" setting, much much better than 3e ever did. 3e broke down disastrously after 10th level, I can't see that with 4e until Epic level if ever - and Epic level is a good point to switch to planar gaming.

I love it that min-maxers and 'true roleplayer' types can now function together in the same party, and the latter can still contribute in combat. I love it that world-breakers like fly, teleport, and buff-scry-teleport are now heavily restricted. I love it that PCs can trash a small horde of orcs, but can't fly over the huge army and fireball them in perfect safety, etc.

I agree with Mike Mearls' view on sandboxing - I am running a 4e sandbox and have had no serious issues. The PCs do a lot of scouting and retreating from over-levelled threats. I find 2nd level PCs can fight 9th level Brute monsters quite well, anyway.

S'mon said...

Of course when sandboxing 4e you need to heavily modify the DMG advice on balanced encounters, and allow for a much wider range - from trivial to overwhelming. 4e doesn't include flight/retreat mechanics, and I handle these more or less as skill challenges once the PCs have fled the battleboard; faster PCs can help the slower ones outrun the pursuing monsters.

I find it very valuable that the PCs can have encounters with hostiles they can't destroy; in my Vault of Larin Karr sandbox game the PCs now know about the Roper Beneath the Ruined Village (which nearly killed a PC), the Gargoyles on the Cliffs to the Underdark (which did kill and eat a PC), the Lair of the Crushed Skull Orcs (2nd level PCs killed a few 9th level Orc Warrior minions, then fled in terror), etc. As well as rumours of the Green Dragon of the Eastern Hills, the Goblin Tower on the Western Rim, the Trash Orcs of the Hills, etc etc, this makes for a very rich gaming environment.

And sandboxing in 4e is far more viable than in 3e because as MM says, overlevelled threats rarely kill a PC in one round (though the Roper nearly did, and the Gargoyles caught a lone PC halfway down the 150' cliff... *ouch*). So smart PCs escape, vowing vengeance later - possibly much later.

jasin said...

Considering conscious game balance in combat is such an important design goal for 4E, why are there such atrocious violations of it as Battle Ragers, Bloodclaw weapons, or sorcerers outdamaging warlocks 6d6 to 3d6?

Are the developers under too much pressure to create material and under not enough pressure to stress test it (thanks to after-the-fact corrections being easy to propagate in the digital age)?

Or maybe it just that the really bad examples stand out?

Stuart said...

"For me, the key is talking about D&D. If I run that game in D&D, then I think balancing with respect to combat works out fine. If that's an issue for the campaign, though, it might be better to use a different system."

When you say D&D do you mean 4e?

4e is well designed and succeeds in what it sets out to do... but so does the original D&D as well. And they're balanced differently (OD&D is not unbalanced as you imply). One balances the characters for the Combat Encounter, the other balances characters for the Adventure + Campaign. Both are good games, but they've got different focuses, goals, and the ways of being balanced.

As a game design pattern you can balance something across the entire game rather than on a turn-by-turn basis.

I think some versions of D&D would do a better job for running that Romeo & Juliet campaign. Which is why there's room for both more than one version of D&D on your gaming shelf. ;-)

"if you try to make everything equally detailed, you end up with a bloated mess of a game."

If you're trying to make everything increasingly complex that's true. That's not the only approach you can take though.

John Scully described Steve Jobs' design principle as: “Not what you can add, but what you can remove.”

Chgowiz said...

I'm probably speaking way over my head here, but for me, 3e and 4e felt like it was about everyone having the "same" experience, just using different tools.

Someone earlier mentioned being "overshadowed", but I see that as the perception that everyone has to do the "same thing." I wonder if this has forced the game down a road that I don't understand?

When I've looked and played 4e, it seems like so much effort has been made so that nobody can outdo anyone else, that everyone can do the same thing, even within their "roles". I think the charm of the game is lost.

A popular example is to point to the Magic User in 0e/1e and point out how weak that class is at 1st level compared to a fighter. The mechanics have now made it so that they're fairly "balanced", but I wonder if this was a fix that threw out the baby with the bath water.

Sure, a MU was weak at first level, but that means you just played him different. A lot of people don't want to play him different, they want to go in and be Gandalf at 1st level. So the mechanics and balance (to me) have changed to allow this.

I see, though, where the balance in 0e/1e was in patience, wits and good personal play in a weak MU to a very powerful character later on. Yes, a kobold sneeze could kill you at first level, but a 10th level wizard... his sneeze could waste whole dungeons. Whereas the fighter could plow through fights, but at later levels, he was "balanced" by the powerful wizard.

To me, the word "equitable" as opposed to "equal" comes to mind in that previous example and I think there's an interesting story in how that's progressed from "equitable" to "equal/balanced right now."

I think that our games and the way we play them reflect our society and our belief systems. I think the perception that everything has to be "the same RIGHT NOW" reflects in our games and their design. Having an equitable balance of weak MU now/powerful MU later versus strong FM now/relatively weaker FM later (as compared to MU) doesn't jive with what society wants... balance and everything the same and instant gratification NOW.

(and if that paragraph doesn't make sense, sorry! I'm not so good at explaining this.)

(I blame Dan's post at Uhluht'c Awakens for helping me to articulate this thought.)

Rob Conley said...

@Mike, It just deals with allowing the DM to accurately predict an outcome.

My comment then would the use of the word "balance" not an ideal phrase for this concept. I would use a well designed system.

Like D&D's use of level, A 5th level magic-user, fighting on the 3rd dungeons level about to throw a 2nd level spell at the monster. Balance can mean a lot of things to different folks.

Aside from that, I agree that a hallmark of a well designed RPG is that it allows the GM to predict the rough outcome of combats.

Dave The Game said...

There's so much I can say on the subject (and wrote a pretty long article about it on my site a while ago) but this is one of THE big gamer arguments that often gets into circular discussions and differences in playstyle. I think the most important point of the post is: "a well-balanced game doesn't take anything away from people who don't care about balance, while making people who do care about it happy."

Way to open up a can of worms, Mike :)

Stuart said...

@Dave: There's a lot of "Edition Wars" baggage that tends to derail this sort of discussion. That's why I liked the idea of talking about the hypothetical Romeo & Juliet game. Nobody is going to have their feelings hurt about that game. :)

If "a well-balanced game doesn't take anything away from people who don't care about balance, while making people who do care about it happy."

I think making Tybalt and Friar Laurence be equally effective combatants in Romeo & Juliet DOES take something away from people who don't care about having everyone balanced for combat encounters. I'm not sure that makes it a "not well-balanced game" but I do think it makes it a poorer game for trying to balance it too much.

Windjammer said...

Funny to see this roll of comments.

Obviously 4E D&D is balanced outside combat just as well, as long as you agree with its restrictive design idea that ALL those non-combat situations ought to be resolved by the exclusive use of skills and/or rituals - two character resources the game distributes absolutely equally among all PCs.

Where 4E absolutely fails in terms of balance is in the restrictions of abilities it gives to a PARTY of 4E characters. Consider a 15th level party of the 4 archetypes. No one can compare the 4E incarnation of that party to its correlate in previous editions and not just weep over the huge loss of versatility the party has lost as a whole.

4E isn't balanced in terms of PC abilities *compared to each other*. It's balanced against the abilities of inept DMs who can't run a D&D campaign past level 8.

Dave The Game said...

Stuart: It's not just edition wars baggage, I mean, this is an argument that wages over board games and practically any kind of game.

"I think making Tybalt and Friar Laurence be equally effective combatants in Romeo & Juliet DOES take something away from people who don't care about having everyone balanced for combat encounters. "

But if the primary focus of R&J is the romance rules, shouldn't Tybalt and Friar Laurence be able to contribute to romance encounters?
(stretchin' that metaphor)

Chgowiz said...

Why do I keep hearing Lambchop singing "This is the debate that never ends..." :)

But if the primary focus of R&J is the romance rules, shouldn't Tybalt and Friar Laurence be able to contribute to romance encounters?
(stretchin' that metaphor)


Sure, but it's the same discussion.

Do you want a system where the game designs give each participant the same number of words and the same effect, but instead of saying "My beloved," and having some difference in the effect and ability of each, the 'balanced game' says one should say "Beloved of mine" and the other allows you to say "Oh my beloved" and have the same effect.

The end effect, to me, is just window dressing on all of us having the exact same action, with a bit of different words on top. That's the game some people want to play and not others.

I'd have no problem giving one type the ability to experience romance via kissing and words, and the other to experience romance through a different means of seduction.

Mike Mearls said...

Hey all,

There are a lot more comments here than I anticipated! I'll try and get to them, but work calls right now...

Stuart said...

"But if the primary focus of R&J is the romance rules, shouldn't Tybalt and Friar Laurence be able to contribute to romance encounters?"

Not at all. Friar Laurence is a Monk. He's got no points in Sexy Time. Tybalt probably has points in Sexy Time. Romeo has lots of points in Sexy Time though - that's when he's going to do better than the other characters.

Let's consider two games:

Romeo & Juliet
Characters use various different abilities to try and achieve their goals. Possibilities include: combat, diplomacy, potions or romance.

Civil Blood
Combat in the age of Romeo & Juliet. Characters use different abilities within combat. Possibilities include: Brawling, Intimidating, Pistol and Rapier.

Both games are balance, and both games are set within the world of the Shakespearean play. They're not balanced in the same way though. The first is balanced across the entire story, while the second is balanced across one aspect of the entire story.

Real world examples of board games where you have characters with different abilities and player strategies for success would include things like Twilight Imperium or Arkham Horror.

Dare said...

Mike,

Your posts always make me think very hard about this hobby of ours, and this one is no exception.

I am going to say that I think 4th edition is the most rules-balanced and power-choice-neutral game that I've ever played. That's an accomplishment, but sometimes I wonder if it's changing the way we play D&D too much?

My group is 26th level now, and we are close to finishing our first 4th campaign. The party is pretty untouchable (and these aren't char-op'ers). Somehow, though, the game just feels flat. The game seems to be more about balance, and short rest, and "encounter" powers.. the wizard doesn't even call them spells anymore! He calls them "encounters" or "dailies"!

I don't think there's a question here really, just a frustrated plea out there for an answer:

4th edition is a very good game, so why does it seem like it's not?

Wickedmurph said...

We're treading perilously close to edition wars territory here, but it seems like things are fairly civil so far, so I'm willing to wade in.

I think the word "balance" here is being misunderstood to mean "everyone equal". That's not what it means, in game design terms. It means "opportunity to meaningfully contribute".

Stuart, and to a degree Chgowiz are of the position that a game is "balanced" if characters are able to meaningfully contribute in different phases of the game - rogues in dungeon exploration, clerics in healing/recovery phase, fighters in combat and mages in, well, pretty much everything if they have the spells for it.

So in older editions, you can "balance" a game by putting in lots of different types of activities, thereby giving each character the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the group's success.

The drawback to this, and what Mike and other 4e designers have tried to address, is that each player can only effectively contribute in certain parts of the game - leaving them pretty much high and dry in other parts of the game.

Shadowrun is a pretty good example of how this can be a real problem. The Decker and the Rigger, respectively, will be pretty much the only character actually playing the game during hacking and driving phases, respectively. I'll tell you from experience that this is not much fun for everyone else.

So the design goal of "balance" that 4e is working towards is really more "ensure that all players can meaningfully contribute in all phases of the game". We see that with different combat roles, and with things like assisting other PC's in skill challenges.

However, we see a lot more work being done in 4e on combat balance because of a few things about d&d. First, that combat tends to take up more time than any other phase of the game, at least in all the d&d games I've played in the last 20 years.

And second because combat tends to have the most serious and immediate consequences of any phase of the game. Characters can die in combat, which tends to be pretty serious and immediate. So from a game designers perspective, you have to put more time and effort into that than you do other phases, by virtue of it's overall importance.

What we're looking at here is how Mike and the other 4e designers approached the issue of "how to we ensure that all players can meaningfully contribute to all phases of the game". With the unspoken addendum of "because sitting around doing nothing while somebody else does all the playing sucks donkeys".

You can disagree with the execution of 4e, but by the lights expressed by Stuart, it's perfectly OK if in a 4-hour gaming session, each of the 4 players got to do all the playing for 1 hour, and sat quietly the remaining 3. As long as everyone get's their hour, right?

To extend the idea to our Romeo and Juliet game, how is it a worse game if Tybalt and Friar Lawrence both get to meaningfully participate in combat - albeit possibly by doing slightly different things?

Chgowiz said...

@wickedmurph: "each player can only effectively contribute in certain parts of the game - leaving them pretty much high and dry in other parts of the game."

I think that is less about reality and more about perception OR it's about how players enter into participation.

Maybe I'm just weird in how I approach role playing games that way. I don't allow myself to be limited just because I can't use a certain weapon, or I just have one spell, or because I can't cut monsters in half with a toothpick. I don't expect everything to be handed to me, just as I also expect that the DM is going to allow me the freedom to explore my world and try to do things as I think of them. Sometimes it'll work, sometimes it won't, but I'm participating and that's the thing.

I can contribute to any part of the game in an enjoyable fashion as any class unless it's a situation that is tailored for a specific person. I think the responsibility for that is as much for the player as it is for the GM. I don't think it has to fall upon the mechanics to do that.

Does it? Why?

Stuart said...

You can disagree with the execution of 4e, but by the lights expressed by Stuart, it's perfectly OK if in a 4-hour gaming session, each of the 4 players got to do all the playing for 1 hour, and sat quietly the remaining 3. As long as everyone get's their hour, right?

Not sure what you mean here... if you're playing ANY game with 4 players and they each take equal turns, does that mean they're sitting quietly for 3/4 of the time? If that's right... well that's the nature of taking turns I guess. Hopefully you're not literally sitting quietly doing nothing though. :)

If you mean that there's literally an hour of game time that one character does everything and the other people sit and watch, like Decking in Shadowrun, I'd say that's bad game design. That was always a terrible part of that game. Why is it taking an hour? Why not just take 30 seconds and roll a dice and then get back to the game where everyone was having fun?

If it's an hour where one player is more effective and the other 3 are less effective... well that's also like a lot of games. If you broke down Twilight Imperium by phases then you'd find some players are more effective X% of the time compared to others - but it all balances out across the entire game.

To extend the idea to our Romeo and Juliet game, how is it a worse game if Tybalt and Friar Lawrence both get to meaningfully participate in combat - albeit possibly by doing slightly different things?

Meaningfully participate and being equal aren't the same thing.

Wickedmurph said...

@Chgowiz - participation is not the same as meaningfully contributing. Participation is simply paying attention and staying involved, maybe by talking to the other characters or by looking around, or maybe by going off on your own and insisting that the DM give you some one on one time.

It is the opposite of playing Nintendo or reading a book, both of which I have done while playing some games.

Meaningful contribution means being able to increase the chance of success in a particular part of the game, to my mind. That might be combat, exploration, sexy time, whatever. Sometimes, just participation can create meaningful contribution, but it doesn't necessarily do so.

Lack of ability to meaningfully contribute, though - that definitely leads to reduced participation. So in answer to your question - no, it doesn't have to fall on the mechanics to encourage participation, you can do it in other ways.

But lets be honest here - we know that people tend to be more active, engaged and interested when they feel they have some stake in determining an outcome. Building "balance" (the opportunity to meaningfully contribute) into the mechanics is an effective way of building that engagement. It's been done that way for a long time, by games much, much more widely popular and successful than RPG's.

I'm not saying that it's the best way for all games/situations, mind you. Or that it's done perfectly in 4e. But that's what I think the 4e design goal was. Am I on the track here, Mike?

Randall said...

Mike -- I've written (and trashed) several posts attempting to explain why my two main campaign worlds work without major changes to play in 0e through 3.5 but not in 4e. It just takes too long to explain the worlds enough to see the problems, so I'm going to take a published world that I believe would have similar problems without major changes in 4e: Forgotten Realms: Arcane Age. I could run this setting without making any major changes to it in any version of D&D from 0e to 3.5e, but could not run it in 4e in anything like its written form because most the magic system has been changed so much in 4e that much of the magic used in the setting no longer exists in anything like the form it used to. I'd have to either do a major rewrite on the setting or on the 4e gamesystem to make it work if I wanted to run Arcane Age. If I revised the setting to work in 4e, I doubt it would look much like the original.

While I used Arcane Age as an example, it's not just the magic system that is too different to work in my worlds. For example, both worlds are designed around the character class design of 0e to 3.5. The fact all classes are near equal in combat in 4e would severely unbalance either of these worlds as the campaign worlds were designed around the idea that some classes are much better at combat (and other things) than other classes. Even the history of the worlds would need major revision because some major events would be very unlikely if every class were equally competent in combat.

Trying to use 4e to run games in either of my worlds would be like trying to use a jeweler's screwdriver to drive in a 10 penny nail. A jeweler's screwdriver is a great tool, but it is the wrong tool for that job. I might be able to modify either the tool or the job so they would work better together, but it would be easier just to use a hammer. :)

Chgowiz said...

But lets be honest here - we know that people tend to be more active, engaged and interested when they feel they have some stake in determining an outcome. Building "balance" (the opportunity to meaningfully contribute) into the mechanics is an effective way of building that engagement. It's been done that way for a long time, by games much, much more widely popular and successful than RPG's.

We are, though, talking about RPGs, not board games. I think RPGs come with a specific set of responsibilities and types/levels of participation that are different. We are also talking about perception vs. reality. The concept of "meaningfully contribute" I think is going to be inherently in the eyes of the beholder.

At the end of the day, speaking for myself personally, I'd much rather have a toolkit to do that, and not an effort to make all the mechanics enforce it. As a GM, I can provide a game and an environment that rewards their participation, but it's also up to them to put forth the effort to participate and interact. That way, their own personal perception of participation is just as much about what they do and how they do it, beyond what the mechanics may enforce. I think when the mechanics enforce it, at least for me, it doesn't feel right.

Was the effort to enforce this equality or sense of perception through mechanics fixing a problem that didn't have to be fixed - or it was a response to a change in what people really want from RPGs and how they want to participate in it?

S'mon said...

Windjammer:
"4E isn't balanced in terms of PC abilities *compared to each other*. It's balanced against the abilities of inept DMs who can't run a D&D campaign past level 8."

Well, I ran a 1e AD&D campaign up to ca 115th level without problems - it's just GMing 3e where I'm apparently inept. Mind you the 1e game was mostly solo PCs or buddy teams; not parties of 4-6. I'd have had trouble challenging 6 demi-to-lesser god level PCs at once.

Wickedmurph said...

@Stuart - you are being disingenuous here, and I'm exaggerating for effect. You're saying that it doesn't matter how much time each player gets in the spotlight, as long as they each get the same amount of spotlight time. But over what time period? Do I have to wait an hour for my time to contribute? A whole session? A month?


In the type of game-level balancing you're advocating, players are not taking equal turns. In any given situation, one player should be more effective than the others, and will therefore be taking up a larger amount of time than the other players. You take that as a given.

My position is that I don't want things to balance out across the whole game in large granularity. I would like it to balance out more across each task. Everyone doesn't have to be equal - and your saying that makes me think that you're arguing from a position of ignorance about 4e - but everyone should have at least the opportunity to effect the outcome.

As Chgowiz mentions above, participation, attention and thought generally leads to the ability to effect an outcome, but not necessarily. Building a degree of balance into the rule set helps even out player input on a smaller scale than "the whole game". Which I like better.

Wickedmurph said...

Was the effort to enforce this equality or sense of perception through mechanics fixing a problem that didn't have to be fixed - or it was a response to a change in what people really want from RPGs and how they want to participate in it?

Now that is a really good question. That's why I like participating in threads with you, Chgowiz, always with the interesting questions.

I think that it's to make the game more accessible to new players/dm's. I've had a long time to learn how to build that interaction and interest, and to learn to say yes and improvise when players participate and get engaged.

I remember a lot of D&D games when I was younger when I'd wander off, though - cause the rogue went stealing in the city on his own again...

Ultimately, I think that the effort to promote balance through the rules, for RPG's, is sort of a shortcut. And like many shortcuts, it can be overused and abused - witness the "my players only use their powers, and never-ever do anything else" stories. That is classic relying on the shortcut, instead of really engaging.

Dare said...

I suppose my thoughts on the subject are a bit like "Is this an example of the cart leading the horse"

Or in other words, is the emphasis on rules balance and combat-rules the cause or the effect of the "combat glut" of most campaigns?

I have a quote here from OSRIC (it's the 1e re-make):

OSRIC is a game of adventure, and the primary activity in adventures
is exploration. Even though the rules for combat take
up more space in this rulebook, play tends to focus more on
exploration than combat. Whether the party is investigating an old ruined shrine, delving into an abandoned dwarfi sh mine,
traversing an unknown wilderness, sailing uncharted waters, or
venturing beyond the physical world into the planes of existence,
exploration is central to adventure and thus to the game.


Now I didn't grow up playing 1e, I started late into 2nd edition. But I can tell you that my 4th edition games I run (and the games I've played in at Cons and otherwise) are NOT like this. The fact that the char-op forum on wizards.com is about 4-5x the size of the other forums is testament to this. I'm playing through the Adventure path of modules H1-E3; and I'm not exaggerating when I say that some dungeons are big encounter areas linked to one other by a single, un-branching hallway.

Those encounters, btw, are beautifully designed and balanced; and play very well. However, there really isn't much left in the game. The game balance has pushed it all out.

I distinctly remember, as a teen, trying to beat "dungeons" now its about beating "encounters."

In the past the Mines of Moria would have been a huge, 5-level dungeon. It would now be a skill challenge, followed by a fight in the tomb, followed by a skill challenge.

Is this a bad thing? No. But is it different, yes.

Stuart said...

you are being disingenuous here

Let's try not to ascribe motives to each other, and work to keep this a friendly discussion. Does that sound cool?

In the type of game-level balancing you're advocating, players are not taking equal turns.

Correct. Taking equal turns is one way to balance a game. It's not the only one.

My position is that I don't want things to balance out across the whole game in large granularity.

I'm not trying to convince anyone to prefer one approach or the other. The point I want to make is balancing a game at the game level rather than the turn level is a common game design pattern, and many successful games make use of it. Balancing a game at that level does not mean it is "unbalanced".

Really, that's it. :)

Greg Sanders said...

I'm not much of a combat player but I do love DnD 4e's balance orientation, both as a player and a GM. It isn't particularly hard to make a character that can adequately participate in combat and then focus feats and utilities towards skills and cool abilities with secondary combat influences.

I might be happier with a less combat oriented system overall, but it's the balance work that keeps me in the system, as a GM I'm not looking for the aforementioned toolkit because I don't want to focus my GMing hours on the mechanics, I want a sturdy mechanical basis for world building, my NPCs, and opportunities for players to do awesome things. Even though skill challenges don't have the sophistication of the combat system (although I do like various new additions like multi-outcome challenges), that system is still way more balanced than what I get from other games.

In addition to balance, I think what really sells 4e for me is the emphasis on allowing re-skinning of things. My artificer has a clockwork rat, what does that mean in game play terms? No different than a normal rat, but the system actively encouraged me to make that kind of thing up. Obviously people could always flavor things however they wanted, but it's nice to be encouraged. See also: "yes, but."

Anyways balance is a good part of what makes me a happy customer and subscriber. I realize the things that appeal to me aren't the same as what other players want and that's cool, too each their own. But so long as I keep getting sturdy mechanics 4e will keep getting my money.

Wickedmurph said...

You're right Stuart, my comment was uncalled for - this has been a very civil and interesting thread so far. I apologize.

And I definitely take your point - it is possible to balance across an entire game rather than across a turn or task.

I maintain that there is still plenty of game-balance in 4e - characters have differing impacts and roles in combat or skill challenges. More focus has definitely been put on combat, though - in my experience, that's the longest portion of a D&D game anyways, so that's not inappropriate.

I just really like how 4e has allowed each player to generally contribute to each activity in the game. It's gotten rid of some of the things that I found challenging about 3e, and D&D in general.

I also like what Mr. Mearls says about 'balanced' encounter design. Nothing keeps me from designing an unbalanced encounter in 4e - I just know exactly how unbalanced it is - I used to have to do that be feel, but now I know, and it helps.

S'mon said...

Randall:
"While I used Arcane Age as an example, it's not just the magic system that is too different to work in my worlds. For example, both worlds are designed around the character class design of 0e to 3.5. The fact all classes are near equal in combat in 4e would severely unbalance either of these worlds as the campaign worlds were designed around the idea that some classes are much better at combat (and other things) than other classes. Even the history of the worlds would need major revision because some major events would be very unlikely if every class were equally competent in combat."

IME the best way to approach 4e is to accept that the PHB classes only describe player characters. NPCs are 'monsters' and **don't have classes**, though they may display abilities similar to some PC classes. If your Wizard NPCs are weak combatants, you stat them that way. Maybe your campaign's priests are religious casters without any combat ability. I find 4e extremely flexible in terms of world design, because NPCs are whatever you want them to be. It's only PCs who are rigidly defined, for balance reasons - intra-party intra-combat balance.

There are some rules in the DMG for statting NPCs as pseudo-PC-class, but IMO they don't work well and are better ignored. NPCs for combat need a combat block like in the Monster Manual. Others need a skill list, and/or a Ritual Caster level. A 'Wizard' may just be someone with knowledge of Arcane rituals.

Rob Conley said...

The drawback to this, and what Mike and other 4e designers have tried to address, is that each player can only effectively contribute in certain parts of the game - leaving them pretty much high and dry in other parts of the game.

To me the key element is that we are talking about ROLEPLAYING games. There is the game, there is roleplaying with a referee thrown in.

The roleplaying is what causes Dungeons & Dragons (and other RPGS) to transcend the limitation of the mechanics. Why lite systems like Microlite d20 work as well for RPGs as full bore Hero System.

Because there is one referee and a multitude of players the referee need to learn to effectively manage a group of people to make the most out of an RPG. The way to ensure that each character has the spotlight is to make sure they have ample opportunity to roleplay.

No type of game mechanic will fix a referee that is poor at managing the spotlight. The fact that a character is a putz mechanically has little bearing on whether a player is enjoying roleplaying that character. The major exception to this observation is poor game design. Where the player creates a character thinking he will get one thing but because of poor mechanics it turns out to be something else.

I find the Mike's observation on the design of 4e to interesting and enlightening. I feel that 4e is a well designed system comparable in quality to other RPGs noted for their design. The best and more innovative part of the 4e design is that for all it's complexity in combat the prep time the referee has the spend is considerably reduced over 3e, GURPS and other RPGs of similar complexity.

However a fun D&D 4e campaign is still dependent on the ability of the referee to manage his game. When it comes to sitting at the table 4e mechanics does no better (and no worse) then any other well designed RPG.*

*The 4e Dungeon Master Guide is probably the best DMG for D&D since AD&D 1st particularly for referee advice. My comments are related to the mechanics.

Tori Bergquist said...

This has been an interesting read, both Mike's article and the commentary afterwards. My own experience with 4E has been more complimentary to my overall experience with D&D over the years (and I have been a regular since 1980), but obviously this varies quite a bit.

4E has revitalized the game for me, and it has been interesting to see how different players react to it. I have two players who find it very difficult to reconcile "what has come before" with what 4E is now; to them it is a fundamentally different game, and it does not handle issues in a manner consistent with their overall experience. Old dogs, as it were.

I have many players between my two game groups that love 4E. They still delight in making characters and playing earlier editions when the opportunity arises, but the fact that 4E is so organic is appealing to them. They like how it flows, they like that they always have something interesting to do during (and out of) combat, and they like the streamlined mechanics. They also appreciate that generating scenarios is (for me as DM) much easier, insuring that they get more games more often. For me, my main hump with 4E was learning how the beast was different from what came before, and overcoming preconceptions; not too hard, as I defected from 3.5 in 2006, frustrated with the layered difficulty and time-consuming nature of the system, but I still had a lot to learn about how to manipulate 4E to work well within the realm of its balance; once I got the swing of it (and that took months of gaming) it finally "clicked" and the games, encounters and overall results developed an excellent synergy.

Unfortunately, 4E's balancing did remove components of all prior editions that appealed to many people. It is the classic case of you "can't please all of the people all of the time." One of my players absolutely loves the wizard as a class in 4E, for example; he likes the fact that he is more important at lower levels than in prior editions, as his prior experiences in 1st-3rd edition were such that he rarely made it to the higher levels where wizards excelled...so the class was rarely as satisfying for him. For this player, the trade-off of potential dominating power at high levels was perfectly fine; he got to be a more contributory member at the low levels he was used to, and that was enough. Obviously there are other players who miss that; it's a curiousity I feel that many 3.5 advocates talk about how to balance the power problem of wizards in that edition, with wizards being too dominant at later levels; it is ironic that 4E fixed that handily.

Anyway, good column, and I am happy to see a civil discussion on this topic!