Now before I continue on with this blog, I want to state a disclaimer. I want to state for the record that what I am about to say is entirely subjective and speculative. It is based solely upon what I heard at the seminars, and upon my observations of facial expression and body language from my position along the aisle in row three. As you read this, you can opt to watch the seminars yourself, as WotC has them all on video on their site, and might draw completely different conclusions – so take from this what you will.
What’s been bothering me about the next edition from the very beginning is the loss of balance between the classes. And after I heard about the design goals of the R&D team two weeks ago, I continue to be very concerned, particularly about the concept of “Design of Resentment” – a refusal to limit a class because it might be resented by other gamers playing other classes. But let’s be honest, if you want to have a great snap-defense your favorite classes design, “Design of Resentment” allows you refute almost any detractor’s protests.
Of course, we heard from the R&D team members was that their goal is to create classes that people who love that particular class will really love to play. To make each class in “a form that is the most exciting form”. The problem is that we really haven’t seen that so far in the playtest of the D&D Next Core rules, and there seems to be only one class so far that is truly exciting to play (hint: rhymes with lizard).
Class Balance or Player-Character Inequality
Historically, D&D has always had balance issues: in character class, character ability scores, and character options.
From a class stand-point, Wizards (and sub-classes) start fairly weak, but eventually become real powerhouses in the game – it’s hard to imagine calling a meteor swarm and wish weak. Clerics and Druids were right up there with having real potency, capable of miraculous affects from the gods and the forces of nature – Destruction and Creeping Doom ring any bells? And don’t even get me started on the old classic AD&D Bard!
On the other hand, melee classes have always had to play catch-up to remain relevant to a party by higher levels. Magic items often helped, and in fact, certain wondrous items made Fighters, Rogues, and their subclasses felt like they could contribute at higher levels. But spells have a way of overcoming even powerful wondrous effects from items, and a spellcaster armed with a set of his or her own wondrous items easily over-shadows melee classes.
There was also a problem of character creation, which in older editions was right from the moment the dice leave your hand and begin the generation of ability scores. All too often we’ve seen a few minutes of poor dice luck utterly doom a player to mediocre gaming experience, while the guy across from him is whooping it up over his second 18 score. I know the argument about being able to play any set of scores, and that if worry about your statistics you’re a “roll-player” and not a “role-player”, but frankly that’s just a load of crap. Everyone secretly hopes for high rolls, like 16 to 18, when they make a character, and no one really wants to be saddled with a two or three single digit ability scores.
Thankfully, one of the reasons D&D went over to a point buy system and a score array system was to mitigate resentment at the table over a bad night of dice rolling. Purist gamers might not like that those systems, but at least it gave every player a chance to make the character they wanted to play.
As an aside, one rolling method we used from the old DMG for many years was to have the DM roll 24d6, drop the lowest 6 dice, and offer the remaining array of d6 results to the players to arrange any way they each wanted to. Typically, this would result in decent scores, but if you wanted that 18, then your other scores would suffer.
But really, I think my concern here is about Character Options, and I’m not talking about skills, feats, and powers here. By Character Options I am referring to things a player can have their character do, both in and out of combat. Just think about how wizards and clerics had all kinds of spells for use in combat, but then they also had spells to use outside of combat for utility during an adventure, including everything from walking or breathing underwater to flying or making magic items or popping open a dimensional portal to the astral plane. The Rogue (or Thief) had a selection of special abilities to use to perform all sorts of non-combat activities, but they were fairly specialized to mainly sneaking around, and committing breaking and entering crimes or pickpocketing. And the Fighter pretty much had nothing at all to do outside of a combat, and even his combat options were limited.
Think about this. In all previous editions of D&D before 3rd Edition, the spellcasting classes have always had massive list of pre-packaged powers and abilities (i.e. spells) which allow them to do all sorts of amazing things, most of which are automatically allowed by the Dungeon Master. Each spell is, in essence, a piece of specialized rules which gives the spellcaster an edge on accomplishing the adventure the DM created. And for most experienced players, spells are used in unique ways beyond their RAW content. On the other hand, the melee classes have a pre-packaged power of “swing weapon at X monster X times” – aside from the Rogue and a couple Fighter subclasses who had a little utility outside of that scope (probably why Paladins and Rangers were always popular). Almost in every circumstance, melee classes have to ask the DM permission to be able to do something unique, and it is usually given a chance for failure.
Ironically, 3rd Edition finally came out with rules for handling other combat options in combat, as well as feats and skills so that melee classes could have dependable “powers” like the spellcasters had. It also is an edition that tons of D&D gamers complained about the game having too many rules. I wonder, has anyone ever considered that each and every D&D spell is, in and of itself, a “rule”?
So there has always been a great divide between the Spell-using Classes and the Melee Classes in this regard, and until D&D 4E, it has always been an issue. In D&D 4E, we finally saw this issue resolved in the AEDU system in combat, and the skill system/skill challenge system outside of combat. And even non-spellcasters could take a single Feat, and utilize Ritual spells outside of combat to give greater utility. But in the next edition of D&D, we see spell-casters once again being handed dozens of options, while the melee classes have little or nothing to do unless they are in a combat environment – and even there, the options they have are far more limited than spellcasters.
What’s Your Point?
The reason I run through all this is to point out a fundamental flaw in D&D Next class design, and suggest we look for a solution. We will never be able to remove the inequalities between characters, as some classes will do more damage, or have better armor class, or be able to take a beating longer than someone else. But what we can do is try and make sure that all classes have something special they can do inside and outside of combat, to allow them to be part of resolving an adventure.
And I am not talking about handing out skills here. The background system of D&D Next is nifty and all, with skills and a back story and a special ability all tied together in a neat bundle. Everyone has skills, and in fact it is possible for a Wizard with a high secondary Dexterity score to take the Thief background and be every bit as good, if not better than the Rogue character! (But that’s another article for another time.)
All character classes need to have several options each round of combat, and utility functions outside of combat which make them a unique member of an adventuring party. Therefore, character classes need to be built with powers which can give those options, even if the player decides not to use them. The D&D Next team is already making some headway in creating combat options for the melee classes – the recent addition of Fighter Combat Maneuvers and Rogue Schemes is a good step in that direction – but there needs to be more. Remember that Wizards and Clerics can do all sorts of amazing things outside of combat, while Fighters and Rogues have very little beyond a trio of skills to make a difference in the game. I feel this gap between the classes needs to be addressed, or inevitably we will end up with the same disgruntled players I saw in the first 20 years I played Dungeons & Dragons.
And I think the R&D team needs to be sure that they are careful not to defend the “Design of Resentment” too stridently. In essence, the phrase feels as though gamers who think a class is too powerful or unbalanced are being labeled as “whiners”, when they might have a legitimate complaint. If you hand one character class too many powers over that of other classes, you are also handing them the spotlight, making the game all about them, and leaving other players feeling left out of the fun. And giving the DM the agency to run the game as they choose is one thing, but making them responsible to fight against the Core rules in order to “shine the spotlight” around the table is a bit of a cop-out.
Balance is not all about power – it’s also about options, and being able to contribute to an adventure, and to feel a part of the gaming experience. I think we need to be careful to give every class a chance to shine, whether fighting or delving or trekking across the wilderness, and not let only a couple class types steal the show.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy gaming!