Friday, March 23, 2012

Some parting notes (vol. 3)

This is another topic that I touched on back when I was talking about Reed's Law, but I didn't quite drive it home as well as I wanted to. It is the idea that issues of game balance are inextricably linked to access to powers and less by how powerful the powers actually are. If you look at what I did with Runeward's proficiency system, you'll see how this plays out. Hopefully after this parting note you'll understand why it is so important.

Imagine a scenario of a group playing 3.5e D&D when swift actions were part of the game. The group is all 5th level, about to hit 6th, and is made up of a Bard, Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, and Wizard. It is an urban campaign, so almost all of the opponents are classed-NPCs. The GM really enjoys building effective NPCs to challenge the party with. The GM wants to add a new power to the game called Heroic Concentration. It is a feat that lets you spend a swift action to gain +10 attack and defense (AC and all saves) for one round unlimited times per day. He is trying to think about what requirements this feat should have.

Heroic Concentration is obviously insanely powerful. Think about the impact to the game under the following three scenarios:
  1. Heroic Concentration has no requirements. Since everyone is about to hit 6th level, everyone will take it. Likely, every NPC will have it as well, so the feat is really a wash; we just increased all numbers by 10. People are probably going to be mostly annoyed. They wanted to spend their 6th level feat on something neat and now they have to spend it on this dumb power just to keep up with everyone else. If anyone relied on their swift action, they actually lost a little power because they'll always have to spend their swift on Heroic Concentration. The introduction of Heroic Concentration doesn't really imbalance anything, it is mostly annoying.
  2. Heroic Concentration requires 1 level of monk. Now everyone will feel like they need to take monk as their 6th level and spend their feat on Heroic Concentration to keep up. Except the monk, of course. He is happy as can be. The fighter probably doesn't have a big problem with this, but barbarian and bard can't take monk without losing class powers. Wizard also has a tough choice because the potency of the wizard class relies on getting deep into the levels. Having to take a level in monk just delays access to all the spells he was looking forward to. This is a real problem for the game. Sure, everyone can take Heroic Concentration, but the access costs are not equal for all players and since it is so powerful everyone feels like they must take it, this imbalance is a problem.
  3. Heroic Concentration requires 5 levels of monk. The game is broken. Even if everyone starts heading towards Heroic Concentration right now, they have to spend the next 5 levels drastically inferior to the monk and all NPCs they encounter. For the bard and barbarian, they'll spend those 5 levels also without their existing powers. For the wizard, his powers will never scale to keep up. This game is broken and the GM likely just ended his campaign by introducing Heroic Concentration with these requirements.
People might be able to disagree here or there, but the gist of my predictions for each of the three scenarios is probably accurate. Heroic Concentration was identical in all three scenarios, but the impact it had on game balance was entirely correlated to how difficult it was to access. 

Think about that for a second. I mean really think about it. How often have we seen arguments over tweaking some rule because it was too powerful or too weak or too whatever? Absolutely, some things can be too powerful/weak and tweaking them can fix the problem. But more important than any of that is access. We can select different modes of access and that will have a huge impact on our ability to add rules to the game. Since adding rules is pretty important, we should think carefully about what mode of access we select. Now also think about what modes of access 3e and 4e took. Fourth edition took a pretty narrow mode of access with every class being linear and limited multiclassing. Third edition was much broader with more reliance on feats and more flexible multiclassing (albeit still linear within the class). Think which system was more enjoyable to design new stuff for--most people would say 3e and that was because it had a more accessible mode of access.

Runeward sought to address all these issues and smooth out the power curve. Through proficiencies, every class is progressing towards the high level powers of every other class, albeit at a slower pace. If new powers are introduced, they are substantially more accessible to all characters. As a result, the risk of imbalancing the game by introducing a poorly designed power diminishes. That is great design for a living RPG that people are going to fiddle with and it is something that D&D has been moving away from.


  1. There's a very astute point there; the feat breaks the game not because it unbalances the relationships between players but because it twists the game as you try to qualify for it, into something unsatisfying.

    It's like a siren pulling players onto the rocks.

    This puts a whole new spin on what "prestige classes" should be, or how pre-requisites should work. They shouldn't be a boring slog that you pay with in order to play as that class, but they should themselves push you towards fun things.

    This kind of thing makes me glad that I don't have strict pre-requisites in my game, (it's all about specific in-game events opening up appropriate, like secrets, cultural familiarity or mentor relationships etc) but makes me more cautious about the kind of incentives I do have..

    1. Absolutely. I can think of three distinct phases for the PrCs I developed in 3e. First we used feat chain depth and forced people to take subpar, but relevant, feats. We cancelled this for a host of reasons--not fun, punishes people until they get into the class, forces people to take classes (i.e. fighter) they didn't want to.

      Then we went with pure flavor elements like completing quests and training. We ended up cancelling this too because too often we had to hand waive things because the plot didn't allow for a quick sidequest and we couldn't not let someone level up.

      Finally, we just went with really simple requirements and said it had to make sense in game. Much easier and more satisfying. It allowed anyone to become what they wanted and we could tailor it on the fly. That goes to the first example where everyone can take the feat. Pre-reqs were ruining PrCs for us... so we fixed it.