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Wizards Watch: D&D Next – Class Balance versus Design of Resentment

Don't resent my awesomeness... you could have rolled a Wizard too!

Don't resent my awesomeness... you could have rolled a Wizard too!

As many of you know from my blogs last week, I spent about 80% of my convention time covering seminars and panel discussions – and nearly all of those centered around the topic of D&D Next!  It was an excellent opportunity to hear all about the thought processes going into the creation of the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the attitudes and demeanors of those associated with the project.  Reading a blog or Legends & Lore article by a game designer is one thing, but hearing and seeing the designer as they make those statements about D&D Next is quite a different – and often revealing – experience entirely.

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!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


10 Responses to “Wizards Watch: D&D Next – Class Balance versus Design of Resentment

  1. Poet22 says:

    Here, here! Great blog! I appreciate your insight as it is based on your experience as a gamer and at GenCon. I have the same concerns as you. I have enjoyed what the designers did with 4e classes. I love what each can do in and out of combat. Clearly, they can create classes that are balanced AND fun to play! I look forward to giving the designers feedback on the play test material, which is what we all should be doing right now! It will pay off later on down the road!

  2. William says:

    I think you are entirely discounting the wide variety of options that Rogues and Fighters have in the current iteration of the playtest. The Fighter (no matter the build) has options every round of combat. And the Rogue has a set of options as well, from hiding to sidling up and risking taking hits. They aren’t as splashy as the Wizard gets to be, but at first level the wizard gets to be Flashy 3 times in a given day before he’s stuck with few options while the Fighter does cool stuff every round.

    Outside of a fight the Rogue shines. Hands down. I playtest at least once a week, sometimes up to three times. Outside of a combat encounter the Rogue is dominant. Again, maybe once a day the Warlock or the Wizard does something that’s unexpected and flashy…but the bread and butter of exploring dungeons and ruins, of being underhanded and getting stuff done, is the rogue. He has lots of useful skills, skill mastery, and is very flavorful.

    Right now we have no idea how this is going to change as we only have up to level 5. But right now I think we don’t have to worry. Things are looking good. The Fighter and the Rogue are always useful, especially useful in certain situations (Combat and Exploration respectively). The Wizard shines a few times in the day. He sits in the background doing some helpful stuff, and then has a crazy spike before fading back into the background. It seems pretty clear from everything we see that classes have different power curves, and different strengths. I’m pretty happy with how it’s looking so far.

  3. Philo Pharynx says:

    @William, That’s part of the issue. At low levels, wizards are pretty measly and rogues rock. High level spellcasters become the rockstars while the other classes are reduced to bodyguards keeping the papparazzi back. D&DNext has flattened out the power curve with bounded accuracy. I’m not sure how that will play out at higher levels with spellcasters.

    Allowing spellcasters to use out-of-combat spells as rituals without taking up thrier slots will help on the low end – to a different degree depending on the generosity of the DM and the players’ willingness to use up resources. Of course this could end up magnifying the problem at the high end, where spellcasters can deal with all of the exploration challenges with rituals while preserving their slots for taking out bad guys.

  4. @William – Actually, I did not discount the in-combat abilities of the Rogue and Fighter, in fact I specifically stated that those were moving in the right direction. My concern was for the out-of-combat abilities of the character classes, and the Rogue and Fighter have none. If you playtested a Rogue and were able to do the “bread and butter exploring of dungeons and ruins”, it’s because your character had the Thief Background to get the Find and Remove Traps, Open Locks, and Stealth skills – the Rogue by himself has none of these abilities. But in fact, a Wizard could get those too by taking the same Background and be just as good, if not better, than a Rogue. Certainly, Knack gives the Rogue a slightly greater chance of success with his skills, but a Wizard with an 18 INT and a 16 Dex is just as reliable at utilizing a Thief background as a Rogue is. Interestingly, there is no restriction on the Thief Background which allows a Wizard to be a Rogue, while the Arcane Dabbler has an INT restriction which would allow a Rogue to be a little like a Wizard.

    As far as the Wizard’s utility and how he “shines only a few times a day”, you seem to have glossed over his cantrips, which are actually quite potent. A Wizard can Detect Magic to find magical traps, create a distracting noise to assist in escape with Ghost Sound, create Light in darkness without a torch, and move small objects like keys to a jail cell with Mage Hand – all of which are great Rogue-like abilities which can be used, oh, say 1,000,000 times each day. Or he can select more combat oriented cantrips, like Magic Missile and Ray of Frost, and solo kite an ogre around a battlefield at 100′ away and kill it by himself. That’s all in addition to any utility spells like Alarm, Charm Person, Comprehend Languages, Feather Fall, Continual Light, Gentle Repose, Rope Trick, Dispel Magic, and Suggestion he chooses to use during an adventure to circumvent obstacles. Of course, there are also all the combat oriented spells which can be used in out-of-combat ways, should a DM allow it, like using Web to stop a runaway horse-and-wagon from killing commoners, or use Sleep to bypass some city watchmen in the dead of night.

    And then there are all the Fighter out-of-combat utilities – oh wait, they don’t have any! In fact the only thing that Fighters do, if one were to follow the suggested Background of Soldier, is have the skills of Intimidate, Spot, and Survival. Sure they are all useful skills, but utilize the WIS and CHA ability scores which mean NOTHING to a Fighter, and are probably some of his lowest he has.

    In fact, if you take away skills, as I suggested in my blog, and looked at the character classes again for out-of-combat utility, you find only the Wizard and Cleric have any at all. And that’s the point of the blog – we need to see better development in the melee classes for utility features to bring them on par with the spellcasters. Again, I’m not talking about power here – the Fighter and Rogue utilities don’t have to be as potent as spells – but they have to exist if there is going to be any fairness in the classes.

    @Philo – Yup… high end play with the Core rules scare me to pieces right now. I see the Wizard power curving up to max, the Cleric a bit behind that, and the melee classes becoming their lackeys and cannonfodder.

  5. Big says:

    The problem with your analysis is that they tried exactly what you advise, and well, nobody bought it. So while you love the idea (and I had a lot of fun playing it as well), I think the broader gaming community did not. Pathfinder is absolutely BOOMING. The OSR is like a rocket ship. 4E was a colossal commercial failure that was abandoned internally less than 18 months after release (when they started designing Essentials). If they follow your advice, they risk repeating that failure. I’m no fan of Pathfinder and I quite like 4E, but we need to be realistic and look at what sells and the design goals of 4E, which is pretty much exactly what you’re holding up as win didn’t pan out in the market sadly. D&DNext is almost forced to retreat from them, lest we lose D&D altogether.

  6. Jack says:

    I think I’ve said some of this here before, but I’m going to generally disagree with you, I think. We don’t need every class to have a variety of choices both in- and out- of combat. What we need is an understanding of where those classes shine, what they’re best at, and the discipline to maintain that. A Fighter should be good at combat. A Rogue should be good at infiltration and deception. A Wizard should be good at solving problems the others can’t. These “shining points” can potentially have some bleed into other realms (such as a Rogue using deception and stealth to get an edge in combat), but to say a Rogue needs to be better at combat because the Fighter overshadows him there is silly. To say a Warrior needs out-of-combat options because the Rogue gets all the fun is equally silly.

    What’s *not* silly is the recognition that a Wizard needs to work within constraints and those constraints need to be meaningful in play or else they can and will overshadow everyone else in the party. I never play high-level games so I can’t really say if there are or are not ways to use the rules we currently have to address the apparent skew of “linear fighters etc.” but I do believe such things are possible. A fighter is constant in battle and needs little beyond his own ability; a Wizard is bursty, needs to be prepared, runs out of power in the long run, and on his own (when his spells are gone) is effectively a wasted turn. (Cantrips make this last bit less true, but if 1d3 damage is meaningful in your high level adventure…) Some of this is game design, some of this is adventure choice/design, and some of this is GM style. If you never put the Wizard in a place where his spells can run out then the fact that they can run out is meaningless.

    The point is that Design of Resentment or whatever) can work if you know what the bounds of your design are. If choosing Fighter or Rogue or Wizard is a meaningful choice then that’s all that matters: given the right circumstance, each will excel over the others, even if one is ALWAYS better than the others in a particular scenario. The only problem is if they design a class that is universally better, or better enough of the time with weak enough constraints that it doesn’t matter.

  7. Mike says:

    I agree with Jack, and while I think Big is overstating 4Es failure, he makes a good point. I’ve played a lot of D&D over the decades including lots of high level play and we never had any shortage of people wanting to play fighters. In fact, we generally had more fighters than we had mages or clerics. Fighters were simpler and because of that, frequently more enjoyable to play. “More stuff” doesn’t equal more fun. More complex, doesn’t mean it’s more fun. What’s fun is the interaction at the table amongst friends or people with similar goals. The point is not to individually shine, at least it never has been to me. The point to me has always been to contribute to the success of the group. And in my experience, every class has always been able to do that. I think a problem started to appear in 3rd edition when they started trying to “fix” the casters. There were frequently complaints about wasted turns. Because they would run out of spells, or because they would have their spells interupted. The problem is that this type of preparation and bursty capability is what made the wizard balanced. It also made it very challenging to be effective, but to us, that was part of the fun. You might spend 3 turns trying to get into position, taking advantage of attacks by your allies to get a spell off uninterrupted. The payoff was the great effect. But at the same time you were a liability over the course of the first 3 turns. This was balanced. It worked. It was fun and the playstyle, like it or not, entrenched D&D forever. Getting away from it has damaged the game IMO. We NEED different class concepts. We need classes that are steady and can be guaranteed of capability. We also need classes that need some setup but with larger payoff. This is called encounter dynamics and its a really fun thing.

    More to the point, we do NOT need every class to be a combat class. I don’t see that as a good idea at all. Instead of making every class a combat class, lets flesh out the game in other areas so people know what to do besides fight. Bring back more puzzles, traps, deceptive NPCs and the like. This makes all classes work together to their strengths, rather than just giving every class the same strengths and exact same power progression. That’s my opinion and to me, it seems the NEXT designers have finally realized this.

  8. @Jack – The Warrior does not need out-of-combat options because the Rogue is having all the fun, the Warrior needs out-of-combat options because the PLAYER running a Warrior needs to have options that are FUN. I’ve watched players sit at my table for years with Fighters, and be bored out of their minds unless a combat is happening, because the class lacked the skills to do investigation, social interaction, and dungeon exploration utility. Under OGL and 4E, Fighters at least had the ability to select a wide range of skills to use outside of combat, so that they could contribute to more to play than standing around waiting for monsters to ambush the party.

    And if you’ve never played high level, then clearly you don’t realize how ridiculous a Wizard can get. Heck, it only took a Wizard to reach Level 10 by 3rd Edition for him to be a nearly unstoppable powerhouse, and 10th level is not exactly “high”. Assuming an 18 INT Wizard with a Specialist School, by 10th Level he can cast 4 cantrips and 25 spells per day before finally running out. Even if a third of them were non-combat utility spells, that leaves 16 of them as combat spells. In my experience in 3rd edition, combats usually lasted 3-4 rounds, meaning that a Wizard was primed to have maximum effect in 4-5 combats before he finally ran out of combat spells. That’s a full day’s work for most adventurers, so really the Wizard never feels limitations for his “limited” list of powers. This is why the melee classes are left behind when Wizards reach high levels, and D&D Next is gearing up to allow Wizards nearly the same number of spells, and made it easy on them by making several utility spells at-will and omni-castable.

  9. Jack says:

    @Editor, having the ability to contribute outside of combat is not the same as equaling another class’s ability out of combat — I never said that Fighters shouldn’t be able to do non-combat things (they should!), but if you’re going to measure the quality of the class by how well it does out-of-class activities — by how well a Fighter can pretend to be a Rogue — then my point is that that’s the wrong way to look at classes. The Fighter should be THE melee class. Combat is where he shines. Don’t take that away from him, but at the same time don’t expect him to be as-good elsewhere compared to other classes.

    And you’re right, I don’t know how ridiculous a Wizard could get, and so I’m not really disputing your claims of the state of the world currently. I’m not even really disputing your concerns about where NEXT might be headed or why that’s concerning. All I’m disputing is that your answer is the correct solution, or that the “design of resentment” concept WotC is working from is necessarily wrong. They could have the right tool/design strategy and mess it up, but that’s different from having a flawed design strategy.

    tl;dr — if WotC does this design of resentment correctly and builds classes so they each have their place in the sun, I think that’s far better than trying to attain some universal notion of “balance.” As long as the Fighter’s the best fighter, the Thief is the best thief, and so on, there is no problem.

  10. Mike says:

    Another great point by Jack. I never felt a fighter couldn’t contribute outside of combat. There is a difference between not being able to contribute and not having as many things written on your character sheet. Fighters have great strength and fortitude. Strength is probably one of the most useful and versatile “areas of expertise” in the game. In our games, the fighters were constantly contributing. They were bashing down doors, holding up portcullis to allow the party to escape trap rooms, intimidating NPCs, overturning wagons to give cover in a roadside ambush, toppling stone columns in ancient crypts to bring down the ceiling on the undead horde, holding a door shut against an onslaught of vicious goblins. If your fighters were not contributing, it was not the fault of the fighter whose great strength and constitution offer a plethora of options to contribute. It was the fault of players whose only ability was to activate abilities written on a character sheet. That’s my opinion. Now, certainly some people are less creative and need more things on their sheet, but that doesn’t mean the fighter can’t contribute.

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