Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Riffing on Mike Mearls' post about game balance

Mike Mearls recently posted on his blog about issues of game balance, primarily in relation to 4e but also in relation to post-core 2e D&D. I just want to pull one small piece of that out to comment on here. He said:

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.

There's some part of me that recoils at using the term "paradigm" when it comes to gaming, but in this case I think it fits. In earlier editions of D&D classes do have wildly different combat abilities. The default assumption is that different archtypes are better at different tasks, and it is absolutely assumed that combat will mostly be the job of fighter types and clerics secondarily. One of the things that is interesting about this quote is how the burden of balancing combat is entirely on the DM. There certainly are guidelines in earlier editions for balancing encounters, but this is relatively a loose balancing effort (since it is based mostly on raw HD and encounter numbers without much in the way of considering monster special abilities) and a lot of the time the players have to make the right choices and have a strategy because taking on a combat head-to-head will often result in character deaths. In later editions, or "new-school" D&D it is the burden of the DM to balance an encounter in a way that a party of multiple classes yet of equal fighting ability can attack head-to-head and have a reasonable chance of success.

The old-school approach can weather a fuzzy game balance issue because the duty is nearly as much on the players to decide what they can handle, when to fight, and when to run. Another interesting thing is how "DM judgment" seems to be mentioned as a bad thing to have to employ, as if the DM needs a concise formula for crafting encounters. Again, I think this illustrates a difference between new-school D&D and old-school D&D, but of course in older editions of D&D it is within the context of game balance being present but a fairly loose thing. As far as D&D is concerned it is a relatively new philosophy that "balance" means equal class abilities. In the past, balance was only approximate and across archetypes while acknowledging different class capabilities. This left room for player innovation in play. In the old-school there is a definite feeling that anything around the corner of the next dungeon hallway could spell doom, and thus style of play takes that into account by being cautious, asking lots of questions about the environment and what is seen, etc.

I'm not implying any sort of value judgment to this analysis, and the only reason I found it noteworthy to discuss was because it struck me as to how alien post-2e D&D is to me, especially 4th edition. For example, in old-school D&D if you choose to play a magic-user there are a host of weaknesses you enroll in, that you agree to undertake, which means you will have to adopt a certain play style that is different from fighters in the group. Not everyone liked to play magic-users because of their weaknesses, which is why multiclassing is probably so popular, but nonetheless when you choose to play a class that is not a fighter you find fun in the way that class is played. You may not get to stab at orcs in from of the line but you'll be doing other things to try to help the party when your spells run out. It's just a different mentality about how to "have fun" when playing the game. On some level I can appreciate the desire to have all characters be able to take about the same damage and deal about the same damage, and participate in the game in the same ways, but to me this new-school approach to characters takes a big chunk of the fun out of trying a different class that comes with different strategies to survival. But then old-school D&D is very much a game of adventure and survival, whereas new-school is in some ways superheroic, so there is more than just a paradigm of balance at issue here, there is an entire shift of genre.

22 comments:

FrDave said...

Personally, I've never understood the quixotic quest for balance in D&D either. At its core is an attempt to eliminate the human element from the game — protecting players from the whims of the DM's judgement and experience and from their own stupid decisions that might kill off their characters. The only way to truly eliminate the human element is to replace them with a computer game. Personally, I prefer the judgments, experiences and stupid decisions that come from having people around my table precisely because they are my fellow human being.

James V said...

Hear, hear!

The current mania with balance is based off some assumptions on gameplay that simply bum me out.

- The players and/or DM might cheat or screw up.
- Player choices are strictly governed by what's on the character sheet and explained through comprehensive rules.
- Every encounter should be "winnable".

In my experience, I've always had more fun when the rules and the GM acknowledged the PC as just the staring point for my abilities and limits and let me try what I liked from there.

E.G.Palmer said...

" 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."

Isn't that interesting? That's the first thing that caught my eye as well.
Mike seems to be a nice guy, I've never seen him be rude or argumentative in forums or comments, but his perception of The Game is just alien to me.

There are so many of these assumptions about how The Game is played, what the aims of the players are, what the purpose of playing is, that are in opposition to the original intent, that I just don't see how they originated.

Mike Mearls said...

I think looking at how and why D&D has changed over the years cuts directly to the heart of how and why games have changed over the years.

Look at computer games. In 1981, Wizardry made you roll up random characters, featured a nine level dungeon with an evil wizard at the bottom, made raising the dead expensive, and forced you to abandon characters in the dungeon if you got lost. If you were lucky, you could send a rescue party down to recover them.

In 2009, Dragon Age has a sprawling, interactive story line, tactical combat, fleshed out NPCs, and a save game option that lets you re-do fights over and over again until you win.

I think the audience just expects something different from a game. Whether it's because there are a lot more choices in games, or people want more of a power fantasy, or whatever, there's an expectation there. Even boardgames nowadays are designed to avoid knocking out players, to keep everyone involved until the very end.

I also think we're living in a culture that has far less leisure time than it did 35 years ago, and that puts pressure on games to be easier to play, more accessible, and more forgiving.

Now, I don't think that means D&D should mindlessly copy videogames. There are a few things that we can learn, but (to draw an analogy) the West didn't win the Cold War by going communist.

nextautumn said...

I think 4ed's obsession with balance stems from A LOT of players complaining, not that old school editions weren't balanced (as you point out, they weren't but it WORKED that way) but that 3ed wasn't balanced. See, 3rd was the beginning of this whole AoO all the rest of it let's make combat super cool and super complicated thing and make that the focus of the game. OK, whatever, cool if that's what you want -except, from the standpoint of battle, the classes weren't balanced. Players complained about it on the wizards boards ALL THE TIME. So 4ed fixed that. But, as your post points out, the divide between new and old school doesn't come between 3 & 4 - it lies roughly between 2ed core and the splat books that turned into 3. It's a whole different philosophy about how to play the game. 3rd and 4th ed are combat heavy games - that's why combat takes so long; there's lots of rules for nifty maneuvers and "realistic" simulation. Whereas in the LL game I run now I could have 50 good guys fight 50 bad guys in, like, a half hour or an hour, and casual fights are over in minutes.

James V said...

I also think we're living in a culture that has far less leisure time than it did 35 years ago, and that puts pressure on games to be easier to play, more accessible, and more forgiving.

By those lights, it explains well why video games have an advantage as entertainment nowadays. The thing is, do today's RPGs really follow this philosphy?

When I think about it, most RPGs that I can buy from the local B&N are very comprehensive rule-sets that have at least a couple hundred pages of rules, with the option of tacking on hundreds more. Is that really what it takes to make an RPG easy, accessible, and forgiving? What about the social interactive aspect that IMO makes RPGs distinct:

What role does trust have?
Do rules for every situation really trump a dose of sense and a commitment to fairness in benefitting play?

I guess they're questions best left to the philosophers, but I think they're always questions worth asking.

Robert Fisher said...

Balance has always been important. If the mechanics + the play style makes a single option significantly more fun than all others, then the game just isn’t going to work well.

There are three big problems, however. First: What is fun? (rhetorical!) Second: There are so many axes that it is non-trivial to achieve balance on all of them. Third: The “+ play style”.

So, balance was always a rough sort of thing that was mostly abstract. Important, though.

Mike’s comment about D&D being combat-driven struck me. It’s odd to me. We used to complain about how 1e AD&D was too combat-oriented, but in comparison to Wizards’ 3e and 4e, it really isn’t.

Mike and company see the game as combat-focused, and their designs reflect that. (They feel more like successors to TFT than D&D to me.) Earlier editions are exploration-focused. The combat system is (relatively) simple so that combats are over quickly and you get back to the other activities of adventuring. Combat is important and a part of nigh every session, but it isn’t the driver.

I’m not convinced the culture wants 4e more than c. 1981 Expert (or LL). (Not that it really matters. All that matters to me is what my little corner of the world wants. ^_^)

Dan of Earth said...

@FrDave, James V, and EGPalmer: I think your comments connect in some way with what Mike said further down. Gamers of different generations have entirely different ideas about how D&D should go. Note I say D&D specifically because I think other games have always been used to scratch different itches by the same gamers.

@Mike: Hi, thanks for dropping in! What you say makes a lot of sense, especially about how culture is different now, at least as it relates to your target audience. The only thing I question is whether leisure time is much of a component in that, especially if lifestyle gamers are the main focus of 4e. Nonetheless, I think you hit the nail on the head that what we might call "mainstream" or at least majority gamers are looking for a different experience from their games today. Although, just anecdotal, I've had a few conversations with people in game stores who look back on the older editions fondly and would like to play them. So I think that it's possible that gamers may not always want the same thing from their games at the same time. In other words, maybe Friday night is 4e night and Saturday is 1st edition night. Two very different games, different kinds of play, but both have room in gamers' schedules.

@nextautumn: Yeah, I think this concept of "balance" merits additional discussion. It made me realize that if we aren't careful people on one side or the other of the "new-school" or "old-school" fence can be talking right past each other when talking about balance. In the older editions of D&D balance is not only a looser concept but it also spans types of abilities, and spans time or assumed time across levels. What I mean is, we have a sort of balance with low hp magic-users who can make an entire group of monsters just fall asleep, vs. the fighter who can take more damage but hacks a bit slower at his opponents. The magic-user only has so many tricks up his sleep (memorized spells) but as he gains level he also gains ground in power level. So balance is not just considered all at one time, but projected over the course of character development through levels. This is part of why classes have different experience point advancement rates. Newer school D&D tries to keep things balanced all the time, with characters on the same footing from day one and no class having much of a tactical advantage or disadvantage at any one time.

@Robert Fisher: I agree with you. One added component to this iussue of balance, though, is that in the "old-school" it isn't just combat spells and the like that figure into balance. If your character can do other things like move earth creatively, or use any number of other spells in a useful way, that can tie into this issue of balance. Success is not just defined by how many creatures are killed. The earlier games are built even more so on acquiring treasure and surviving, and you still get the XP for that treasure if you manage to get it away from the monster without killing it.

Robert Fisher said...

Yeah. That’s the whole exploration-focus versus combat-focus. If a game is combat-focused with exploration supporting that, then combat-balance reigns. If a game is exploration-focused with combat supporting that, then imbalances in combat ability can be made up for with imbalances in the other supporting activities.

Interestingly, 4e’s silo idea tries to isolate it from this, but it really can’t. Those imbalances that would cross 4e’s silos are exactly the things that many of us like about games without those silos.

JDJarvis said...

The only balance the game needs is for everyone playing at the table to feel like they have the ability to shine and the rules should be written so players can identify where their characters can shine.

JoetheLawyer said...

I just typed a long reply which was cut off by character count and not able to be posted here. So I put it up on my blog....

http://wondrousimaginings.blogspot.com/2010/01/on-mearls-and-balance-game-expectations.html

Eli Arndt said...

Just a brief chime in here. I personally despise artificially enforced balance in RPGs. I am not saying I like a wide open game with few rules, but when the games started becoming more and more balance conscious they seemed to get more andm ore rigid and less creative. That's not to say a balanced game can't be creative but enforced balance is just another hurdle to get over in the same way that a fiddly skill system or cumbersome combat mechanic can be.

I would much rather have my players use their wits and judgement to survive encounters rather than have them know that the encounters they are facing are tooled to within X tolerence or the other.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

@Mike: I would disagree most heartedly that we as a niche culture--game players--have less leisure time for games. The facts maintain in numerous studies that those players taken in by computer/online-games are actually spending MORE time in that activity as added up over a daily to weekly sum than role-players who may meet once a week for 4+ hours.

Games did not change, people who play them changed; and that is spurred on by the commercial environment presented to them, not by some ultimate wish for, or lack of, some other conduit.

Wickedmurph said...

I've been playing rpg's since the red-box days, as well as board games, computer games and collectible card games. Over those years, I've changed a lot as a gamer. I'm more discerning, I have a greater depth of historical and fantasy literature to draw on for inspiration, and I understand the mechanical and mathematical underpinnings of games a lot more.

So yes, I've changed. And I try not to see my gaming experiences through rose-colored glasses, either. Many things about old versions of D&D were not fun. They sucked. Combat has always taken forever, and most parties have always tried to kill damn near anything they could - and rob from everything else.

We argued about rules for hours, and we left with hurt feelings. We lost friends over gaming arguments. Encounters we spend days dreaming up ended in 2 minutes because we didn't really know how easy they were. Or we killed everyone's characters by accident and everyone went and played Nintendo for hours.

I do not miss those days, although it seems that some people do. I'm happy with a robust system that puts most of the rules where I've always - in every rpg system I've ever played - spent the most time - combat resolution.

I don't miss the old days - as Hob Galding says at the Renaissance Fair - "they're missing all the shit - they should just spray you with liquid shit when you come through the door."

But hey, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

Robert Fisher said...

I find this fascinating.

Combat has always taken forever...

This just boggles my mind. Having played both classic D&D and 3e in recent years, I can’t imagine how classic D&D combat could take forever. Or at least I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t have a difference. Perhaps this has do to with the fact that combat is the part of the game you and your friends enjoy most?

...and most parties have always tried to kill damn near anything they could...

What does this have to do with the system?

We argued about rules for hours, and we left with hurt feelings.

Yeah. So did my groups. We were immature. We had the same arguments when we played systems with combat systems just as complex as 3e. When I play classic D&D today, this doesn’t happen.

Encounters we spend days dreaming up ended in 2 minutes because we didn't really know how easy they were. Or we killed everyone's characters by accident...

Same thing happened for me with 3e. My experience is—to the extent that you want to do this stuff—it is more about experience with the system than the system itself. But if the system really makes a difference for you here...OK.

I'm happy with a robust system that puts most of the rules where I've always - in every rpg system I've ever played - spent the most time - combat resolution.

Yeah. If combat is what you want to do the most, then more involved combat rules is probably the game for you.

Personally, when I want robust, complex combat system, I find computer games do that much better than tabletop games. I’m curious about your experience. What is it that attracts you to tabletop games over computer games?

Dan of Earth said...

@Wickedmurph: I have to agree with Robert in that most of what you mention sounds like what happens when kids play. I'm curious if you have other things you think are not fun about older editions of D&D. I think that would get to the heart of differing expectations between the old-school and the new-school. One of the selling points of 4e was that it's more fun, which is also related to having more powerful characters, fewer character deaths, healing surges, etc. It's unfortunate in a way that "losing" or suffering setbacks (such as character death) gets associated with "unfun."

Vincent said...

I think the audience just expects something different from a game.

I play computer games with people ranging in age from 6 to 60 and have found that in the 12-24 range there is a feeling that if they can't master the game over a weekend of play, then the game is 'poorly designed'. Obviously starting over doesn't fit into this time frame, so unlimited save points are a must.

Overall it seems like they treat gaming like eating a hamburger.

Steve said...

@Mike
Games have changed over the years because the big company needed change to sell more games. If you don't sell games, then you won't be a gaming company. The reason for new editions is that you have brand recognition. You could create a new fantasy game and call it something else, but that would be a challenge to get people to play.

Computer games have influenced newer board games like 4e, but computer games have evolved by new technology. Board games have evolved by complexity, and the notion of "balance", and their ease to restart.

Your example sites the main reason that roleplaying games are struggling - newer players want to master the game. D&D is not about mastering it, its about experiencing it. Some of those experiences are not fun (TPK) and some near death experiences are the stuff of legends.

At least the old game doesn't encourage people to quit the fight and mark off some elements of attrition that would have occurred if they finished it.

Your new version may appeal to those who want a beatable game that keeps everyone alive until the end. Make it too challenging and they go elsewhere.

My friends and myself with kids have far less time then when we were in high school, but those who don't have leisure time to waste. You're just competing with a bigger competition in PC/console games Facebook, and internet surfing. It was easier when tv, sports and reading were your main competition. If you want to game, you make time for it.

I don't want my RPGs to be videogames or vice versa. That's where I feel 4e fails.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jrl755 said...

If balance and combat are really so important to gamers these days I find it interesting that the Hero System never became more popular. ;-)
Well, back to my White Box.

Reverend Keith said...

@Dan of Earth said, "One of the things that is interesting about this quote is how the burden of balancing combat is entirely on the DM."

Considering that it is the DM that decides whether he is throwing a few 1HD orcs or 6HD basilisks at the PCs, I'd say that the burden of balancing combat is largely the DM's responsibility.

That said, players do share some burden of balancing combats. After all, clerics need to heal the fighters if they want to survive a fight, regardless if we are playing OD&D or 4e.


@Dan of Earth said, "The old-school approach can weather a fuzzy game balance issue because the duty is nearly as much on the players to decide what they can handle, when to fight, and when to run."
How is that any different from now? Players can still decide what their characters can handle, regardless if the GM has a yardstick to determine the challenge rating of each monster. After all, just because a fight can be balanced, doesn't mean it is. If the GM plops a giant castle with demons at the front gate, the players probably aren't going to charge at them while saying "It must be another balanced encounter, so let's fight!" Odds are, they are going to figure out how to scale the walls and avoid the demons.


@Dan of Earth said, "So I think that it's possible that gamers may not always want the same thing from their games at the same time. In other words, maybe Friday night is 4e night and Saturday is 1st edition night. Two very different games, different kinds of play, but both have room in gamers' schedules."

This nails it for me. White Wolf fans get in endless flamewars about oWoD and nWoD, but my personal experience is that my group likes each version for different types of gaming. We are running a crossover-nWoD every Saturday in order to capture a feel of a more introspective horror game, and we are playing an over-the-top supernatural conflict style oWod Kindred of the East game on Sundays.

Ultimately, RPGs are like tools, and you pull out the one that works best for you for the style of entertainment that you want. There are a ton of games out there because our tastes are incredibly different. Personally, I think this is a great thing for the hobby as we can all play anything we want, rather than the old days of groaning about how Star Frontiers or Traveller were our only sci-fi mainstream RPGs on the market. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that jazz.

JoseFreitas said...

One of the primary reasons I prefer 1st edition is that it cuts down on the time I need to prepare the game. This, as a DM, is very important to me, since the 4-6 hours have to be complemented by some time of preparation before, which is harder. If I can write down: "Boris, F3, 16hp, Shield and chain, AC4, Str16, Long sword (+1 dmg)" without having to go after dozens of books to look for feats and whatnot, so much kore the better. But then - from the point of view - it makes combat a lot more abstract than it seems to be today. Many of the people who play with me and had previous experience with 3e sometimes complain about this. They need a mroe visual style of combat, backed up by the full paraphernalia of feats, styles and so on, of game mechanics. Personally, without all that stuff I have more of an intuitive sense of how the fight is going to go: if I had to juggle all those feats and options, it would be harder. So for me, the stripped down character of the AD&D rules insures a lot more balance in combat.